NFL Week 9 – The Sunday Recap

Offence was at the forefront in Week 9 as both the Patriots and Eagles made statements – a rejuvenated Tom Brady and Co. dropped 55 points on the Steelers (the most allowed in franchise history) while Nick Foles tied an NFL record after throwing seven touchdowns against the Raiders. Running backs were running wild (Chris Johnson, Mike James, Zac Stacy, Adrian Peterson) but it was the defence that helped the Chiefs remain undefeated scoring twice on the Bills. Yet Kansas City wasn’t the only team to complete a comeback on Sunday.

In the thick of the Super Bowl preseason conversation, the Texans instead got off to a disappointing 2-5 start as injuries and uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position derailed the group. Yet all that seemed like a distant memory when Houston jumped out to a 21-3 lead on Indianapolis as Case Keenum threw three touchdowns and the defence kept Andrew Luck on his toes (J.J. Watt also blocked a field goal). Everything was going their way until halftime when head coach Gary Kubiak collapsed on the field and with few answers, the Texans unravelled as Luck and the Colts went to work. After scoring three times and recording 190 yards in the opening 30 minutes, Andre Johnson had just 39 the rest of the way while Randy Bullock missed three field goals including a 55-yarder which would have forced overtime. Indianapolis took advantage of Houston’s lack of focus and Luck did what he does best engineering yet another fourth quarter game-winning drive (10 and counting now for the sophomore QB). The Colts have an uncanny ability to fight back when the odds are at their longest and Sunday was no exception. It was another feather in the cap for a team that’s becoming more and more dangerous with each passing signature win. Yet unfortunately this one came at the expense of someone’s health and you can hardly blame the Texans for being distracted.

While Indianapolis rallied from an 18-point second half deficit, Seattle was just as impressive. Coming off a lacklustre performance a week ago, the Seahawks once again found themselves in trouble against a team with a losing record. This time the situation was even more troubling considering the opponent (the Bucs have yet to win a game) and the environment (the loud confines of CenturyLink Field). Led by rookie Mike Glennon, Tampa scored on three of its first four possessions gaining 350 total yards on one of the top defences in the league. The Bucs dominated the line of scrimmage, their running game was clicking (Mike James ran for a career-high 158 yards) plus the defence was applying all kinds of pressure on Russell Wilson. But like many times before, the Seahawks came to life after halftime erasing a 21-0 Bucs lead and winning the game in overtime to complete the largest comeback in franchise history. Wilson was able to shake off a rough first half (and a couple of interceptions) to improve to 12-0 at home as a starter, but with two sub-par efforts in a row, there is some concern in Seattle. Yes the defence held Tampa to only 76 yards over its final five drives, but the group allowed another 200 rushing yards, the first time it’s done that in back-to-back games in 11 years. Wins like Sunday’s however go a long way and the Seahawks are learning valuable lessons that will only strengthen the team moving forward.

Unfortunately, not everyone was as lucky in Week 9. In the battle of the Ryan Brothers, it was Rex who once again got the better of Rob as the Jets continued their string of alternating wins and losses. But this one came as a surprise considering how well the Saints had been playing on both sides of the ball. Is it time to start paying closer attention to New York? Even though New Orleans was missing a couple of key contributors (Marques Colston was out with a knee injury while Darren Sproles left with concussion-like symptoms), the team still had Drew Brees and the impossible to defend Jimmy Graham (who has an NFL-best 10 touchdowns). But the Saints quickly became one-dimensional because of their inability to run the football (41 yards) making life easier for the Jets. The defence intercepted Brees twice and limited New Orleans to just six points after halftime. With the high-flying Saints neutralized, the Jets offence sprung to life using a motivated Chris Ivory (139 yards against his former team) and an arsenal of big plays (seven went for 19 yards or more) to pull off the upset. Rex Ryan proved the old theory true once again – that defence and a solid rushing attack wins games.

Don’t look now, but things are starting to get interesting in the NFC South. Flying under the radar is Carolina who has won four in a row and now sits just a game back of the division lead. The Panthers may be known for their prolific offence fronted by Cam Newton (which has scored at least 30 points in every game during the winning streak), but it’s their defence that continues to impress. Carolina held Atlanta to 289 yards on Sunday forcing four turnovers (including three Matt Ryan interceptions) as the unit has allowed 13.2 points per contest, tops in the NFC. The Saints knew another South division title wouldn’t come easy, but they probably thought the Falcons would be their biggest threat, not the Panthers. Carolina sure has everyone’s attention now.

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NFL Week 9 – Who Is The Team To Beat In the NFC?

Week 9 presents another relatively weak schedule as only one game features teams with winning records (Bears/Packers). The Bills get the next crack at trying to dethrone the still undefeated Chiefs while the Bengals suffered a major setback in more ways than one on Halloween night. Not only did Cincinnati see its four game winning streak end thanks to a rare safety in overtime, but Andy Dalton reverted back to his bad form and the defence also lost a key playmaker (Geno Atkins reportedly tore his ACL). Yet with the season at the halfway mark, it’s time to pose the question – who is the best team in the NFC? The Niners, on a bye, have quietly entered the conversation (riding a five game winning streak) but the other three contenders will be front and centre in Week 9.

Despite missing receivers Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jermichael Finley, the Green Bay offence hasn’t skipped a beat scoring a combined 75 points over the last two weeks. Aaron Rodgers remains one of the NFL’s most effective quarterbacks (five touchdowns and no interceptions over that span), but it’s the Packers running game that has been instrumental to their recent success. After rushing for 106 yards per contest a year ago, Green Bay has upped that average significantly to 141 yards putting them among the league leaders. The Packers will look to keep the good times rolling against a Bears squad that has had its own share of injuries. Prior to the bye, Chicago lost its starting quarterback (Jay Cutler) as well as one of its top defenders (Lance Briggs) in Week 7. The Bears once feared but now injury-riddled D ranks 27th in the league while the offence must move forward with Josh McCown, who will be making his first start since Christmas Day 2011. Green Bay has had Chicago’s number winning six in a row over the division rivals and short-handed or not, the Packers and their multi-dimensional offence should extend that streak.

The addition of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has Saints fans dreaming of their 2009 Super Bowl win. Led by Drew Brees (tops in the NFC in passer rating and touchdowns), the offence continues to produce at a high level (28 points per contest), but it’s the improvements on defence that have been the most startling. With Ryan’s system paying special attention to pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers, the Saints are among the conference leaders in both sacks (24) and turnover differential (+8) while allowing just over 17 points per game. Those stats do not bode well for the Jets who have been inconsistent to say the least alternating wins and losses this season. New York is coming off an embarrassing performance after allowing 49 points to Cincinnati last weekend and is hoping Geno Smith “The Good” comes out to play Sunday. The rookie has been okay in the wins (seven touchdowns to four interceptions) but has been downright dreadful in the losses (one touchdown to nine interceptions). On top of that, Smith has been sacked a whopping 28 times – numbers that have the Saints D salivating. New Orleans can put up a lot of points in a hurry and as opposing teams try to keep pace, mistakes are made. Rob is still looking for his first win against brother Rex (0-4), yet with the way the Saints have been clicking lately, he won’t have to wait much longer.

For most of this short season, the Seahawks have been the best team in the NFC. But after a slight hiccup in Week 8, is that statement still true? Seattle faced a stiff challenge from St. Louis needing a defensive stand on the game’s final play to secure the victory.  Apart from the W, there were few positives to take away as the offence was held to 135 yards (its lowest total in four years) and just seven first downs (the fewest ever for the franchise in a win). On top of that, Russell Wilson was sacked a career-high seven times while receiver Sidney Rice (torn ACL) was lost for the year. A match-up with the Bucs though could do wonders for the Seahawks. Tampa (one of two winless teams remaining) has been flat out awful in 2013 as the offence ranks last in the NFC in both points scored (14.3) and yards per game (297.7). With running back Doug Martin out, the Bucs have had to rely on the arm of rookie Mike Glennon more than ever, which hasn’t led to much success. The Seahawks are a much more intimidating group at home than on the road (11 points allowed in Seattle as opposed to 18.4 away) and they should have little trouble regaining their mojo in this lopsided match-up.

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NFL Week 8 – The Sunday Recap

For the most part, things went according to plan on Sunday. Some teams got off to slow starts and were able to recover (the Patriots and Saints) while some deficits were just too hard to overcome (buoyed by four Marvin Jones touchdowns, the Bengals put up a whopping 49 points and the trip to London wasn’t a good one for the Jaguars who dropped to 0-8). Week 8 may not have had the prettiest schedule, but there were plenty of fireworks in the Motor City to make up for it.

Another Cowboys/Lions game ended in dramatic fashion. When the teams last met two years ago, Detroit rallied from a 24-point second half deficit and this time was eerily similar. Matthew Stafford’s touchdown with 12 seconds left capped a 10-point fourth quarter comeback for the Lions who despite turning the ball over four times (and not forcing a single turnover themselves), walked away with the big victory. At the centre of it all was Calvin Johnson who finished with a ridiculous 329 receiving yards, the second highest total ever. The Cowboys dared Megatron to beat them by himself and his final 22-yards of the day set up Stafford’s go-ahead score. Once again faced with an opportunity to take a stranglehold in a division nobody seems to want, Dallas flopped. There was questionable play-calling and a key penalty that stopped the clock in the final moments, but you have to wonder how far the Cowboys will get if the defence continues to play the way it has. On Sunday, Detroit amassed 623 total yards as Stafford became the fourth quarterback to rack up over 400 passing yards against the Dallas secondary this season. Now this is nothing new for the Cowboys who have already suffered their fair share of heartbreaking losses and it’s only Week 8. Will Dallas ever be able to make it over the hump?

The Cowboys have the most talented roster of the weak NFC East which makes their 4-4 record all the more frustrating. Yet it’s not like any other team has asserted itself in the division. The Giants beat the Eagles to win for the second time in six days on Sunday but their performance wasn’t anything to crow about. Eli Manning has limited his mistakes (no interceptions during the winning streak after throwing 15 in the previous six weeks) while the defence has also tightened up (14 points allowed over that stretch). This latest win however was due to the leg of Josh Brown and his career-high five field goals as New York was held out of the endzone entirely. Yes the Giants are showing major improvements, but they still have a long way to go. The situation is even worse for the Eagles who have come unglued with the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position. Michael Vick returned after missing 2½ games with a hamstring injury, but was forced to leave in the first half and the offence never really got going from there. After putting up at least 425 total yards in each of its first six contests, Philly has been held in check by a pair of division rivals totalling just 478 in the last two. With the offence sputtering (LeSean McCoy rushed for only 48 yards) and the defence struggling (ranked 31st overall), the Eagles aren’t much of a threat right now either.

Much like the Cowboys, the Redskins had a golden opportunity to win in Week 8 but couldn’t finish the job. DeAngelo Hall’s interception return for a touchdown put Washington up by 14 in the third quarter as the defence was able to get to Peyton Manning (he was picked off three times and a lost fumble). But then the Broncos offence caught fire scoring the game’s final 38 points (including a franchise-best 31 in the fourth) leaving the Redskins stunned. The Washington defence wilted late plus the offence had its own issues holding onto the football (five turnovers). Robert Griffin III took another step back in his up-and-down comeback season (132 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions before leaving in the fourth quarter) and things are in flux for the reigning division champs as well. The Cowboys will have some regrets this season to be sure, but until another team steps up, the NFC East is theirs to lose.

As for the Broncos, gaudy numbers aside (354 yards and four touchdowns), Manning hasn’t looked like himself the last two games. The bye week couldn’t come at a better time for Denver what with its 37-year old quarterback fighting through ankle injuries and a tough schedule on the horizon. Along with dates against the Chargers and Patriots, the Broncos will face the still perfect Chiefs twice in the next month and those match-ups could ultimately decide the AFC West. Everyone wants to be the team to hand the last undefeated club its first loss and Cleveland put up a surprisingly hard fight with Jason Campbell at the helm on Sunday. Both the Kansas City defence and offence played well (although not spectacularl) as the group continues to take care of business, especially at home where it improved to 5-0. Yet with the Broncos offence producing at such a high level and its defence getting better with each game, over the next few weeks we’ll really find out what the Chiefs are made of.

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NFL Week 8 Preview – Offence, Offence And More Offence

After losing some key players to serious injuries, the Bucs (Doug Martin), Rams (Sam Bradford) and Packers (Jermichael Finley) will be looking to move forward in Week 8 (the Texans, Colts and Bears suffered similar fates but are all on a bye). There’s only one undefeated team left (the Chiefs will face the Browns and their new starting quarterback Jason Campbell) while two winless teams still remain (the Jaguars are in London to take on the surging Niners while the Bucs were manhandled by the Panthers on Thursday night). This week’s schedule may be low on competitive games (six of the 12 have point spreads of a touchdown or more), but it should be all about offence come Sunday.

For a second straight week, the Broncos are involved in another homecoming. Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis was a definite flop as Denver’s 17-game regular-season winning streak came to an end. But what was most concerning was the relative ease with which the Colts got to the 37-year old – prior to Week 7, the Broncos had allowed just five sacks but Manning was brought down four times in Indy alone. Protecting the quarterback will be of utmost importance Sunday against a Washington team looking to give head coach Mike Shanahan a win in his old stomping grounds. Shanahan spent 14 seasons in the Mile High City guiding the Broncos to a 138-86 regular season record and the franchise’s only two Super Bowl championships. The Redskins are coming off an impressive performance against the Bears scoring their most points in almost eight years (45) and rushing for over 200 yards for a second straight game. This offence – and Robert Griffin III – may finally be rounding into form and could do some damage against the league’s worst pass defence (the Broncos are allowing almost 320 yards per contest). RG3 has looked good since coming off the bye (he ran for a season-high 84 yards and finished with a QB rating of 105.2 versus Chicago) but it might be too soon to say he’s “back”. The Redskins will have some extra motivation this week and will need their quarterback to be firing on all cylinders to keep up with Denver’s explosive offence.

Expect a lot of points to be scored in the Motor City as well. Statistically speaking, Sunday’s match-up between the Cowboys and Lions features the top two scoring quarterbacks in the NFC (Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford have each thrown 15 touchdowns) and the top two scoring wide receivers (Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson each have eight touchdown receptions). The last time these teams met back in 2011, they combined for 64 points and don’t be surprised if that number is even higher this week. Despite missing DeMarcus Ware (who will likely sit out again Sunday), the Dallas defence was effective against Philadelphia holding the Eagles to three points and 278 yards while forcing three turnovers. The group will need a similar effort against this Detroit offence averaging almost 27 points per contest. Megatron will undoubtedly get his yards, but if the Lions can get their running game going (Detroit has no rushing touchdowns the last three weeks), the Cowboys will have their hands full.

Thanks to three straight victories, the Packers are atop the NFC North but how long can they keep winning with all these injuries? Already without receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones (along with linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry), Green Bay lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a spinal contusion last week. Aaron Rodgers continues to play at a high level and the offence has been aided by a rejuvenated rushing attack (averaging 141 yards during the winning streak), but eventually injuries start to catch up with you. The Packers sure could use Greg Jennings these days (he spent the past seven seasons with the club) and the feeling might be mutual considering all the upheaval with the Vikings. For a third straight week, Minnesota is changing quarterbacks after Josh Freeman suffered a concussion Monday (Freeman was dreadful in his debut completing just 20 of his 53 passes for 190 yards). Getting the call instead will be Christian Ponder who has hardly lit up the scoreboard in 2013 (691 passing yards with five interceptions and just two touchdowns). The Vikings will need Adrian Peterson to get back on track (playing through a hamstring injury he had a season-low 13 carries for only 28 yards in Week 7) and produce like he did a year ago against the Packers (409 yards in two games). But Green Bay’s rush D has improved since then ranking third in the NFL with 79 yards allowed per contest. With both teams banged up, the onus will be on the playmakers (like Rodgers and Peterson) to pick up the slack.

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MLB Playoffs – The 109th World Series

For the first time since 1999, the top team in the American League will face the top team in the National League in the Fall Classic as both the Red Sox and Cardinals finished the regular season with identical 97-65 records. This World Series is a rematch from 2004 when Boston swept St. Louis to capture its first title in 86 years, but a sweep is unlikely this time around.

Looking at the playoff numbers, it’s hard to believe these teams had some of the most productive offences during the regular season. Outside of a couple of key grand slams (David Ortiz in Game 2 and Shane Victorino in Game 6), the Red Sox bats were held in check in the ALCS. Boston hit just .202 in the series (compared to .277 in the regular season) while averaging just over three runs per game against Detroit. The Cardinals offence has also had major problems scoring runs batting just .210 overall in October. One constant though has been the play of Carlos Beltran, who after a 16-year career is finally making his first World Series appearance. He may only be hitting .256, but Beltran continues to be one of the most consistent postseason hitters ever having accounted for a playoff-best 12 RBIs, six extra-base hits and eight walks in 11 games this year. Much like Ortiz for Boston, when St. Louis is in need of a big hit it doesn’t have to look much further than Beltran.

The Red Sox though will have a tough decision to make once the series shifts to Busch Stadium and the designated hitter spot is eliminated – will Ortiz or Mike Napoli end up on the bench? Year in and year out, Big Papi has been Boston’s offensive backbone but besides the grand slam, Ortiz had just one other hit in the ALCS (2-for-22). On the flip side, Napoli has not only come through with his bat (.300 average with two home runs versus Detroit), but he is also the superior defender of the two. This is by no means an easy choice for manager John Farrell, yet it seems impossible to think of the Red Sox in a World Series with Ortiz riding the pine.

The designated hitter is front and centre for the Cardinals as well but for a totally different reason. After being sidelined since September 4th with a left foot injury, Allen Craig is expected to make his 2013 postseason debut Wednesday. And while there are questions regarding his ability to play in the field (rookie Matt Adams has filled in admirably), St. Louis will just be glad to have Craig’s bat back in the line-up (he had 97 RBIs in the regular season while hitting .454 with runners in scoring position). At Fenway Park Craig can DH while at Busch Stadium he will be available to pinch hit, giving the bench a much needed boost. Having Craig at designated hitter is obviously a much better option than say Shane Robinson, Adron Chambers or Daniel Descalso.

While the offence hasn’t exactly been the Cardinals strength this postseason, the starting pitching has more than made up for it. Adam Wainwright is the team’s undisputed ace, but he’s been getting some serious competition from Michael Wacha lately. The NLCS MVP has gone 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA allowing just one run with 22 strikeouts in these playoffs. The 22-year old is the first rookie to make two scoreless starts in one postseason series (beating out NL Cy Young frontrunner Clayton Kershaw both times) and has become a perfect compliment to the veteran Wainwright. Sure there are concerns surrounding the St. Louis rotation yet those pale in comparison to Boston’s and the foursome of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy. The Red Sox were able to advance to the World Series because they took advantage of the Tigers poor bullpen, not because of their lights out rotation. But it won’t be that easy this time around.

The Cardinals bullpen may be young (led by Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez and John Axford), but the group has impressed in October accumulating a 1.80 ERA and holding opponents to just a .177 batting average. Great numbers to be sure, but the Red Sox’s are even better. There isn’t much more to say about closer Koji Uehara who has been seemingly unhittable since allowing Jose Lobaton’s walk-off home run in Game 3 of the ALDS. Boston boasts an extremely deep bullpen with the likes of Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman and Ryan Dempster setting the table for the ALCS MVP (Uehara recorded six scoreless innings and nine strikeouts while allowing four hits against Detroit). With the game on the line late, the Red Sox are one of the last bullpens opponents want to face.

To say these teams are evenly matched would be an understatement. St. Louis has the superior starting pitching, Boston the slight edge with the bullpen while both offences are more than capable of putting runs on the board. The Red Sox do all the little things well whether it’s solid defence, stealing bases or timely hitting. Yet the Cardinals have that team chemistry and experience others would kill for. Boston’s 2013 Cinderella story has been one to remember, but when all is said and done it’ll be St. Louis capturing its second World Series title in the last three years. CARDINALS IN 6

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NFL Week 7 – The Sunday Recap

At that start of the season, who would have thought the Chiefs would be the last undefeated team standing (although Case Keenum and the Texans did make things interesting)? Depending on the outcome of tonight’s game, three winless teams could remain as well. Unfortunately Sunday might best be remembered for all the carnage as some big names fell in Week 7 such as Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford, Nick Foles, Doug Martin, Arian Foster, Reggie Wayne, Brian Cushing, Leon Hall and Jermichael Finley.

Despite the pomp and circumstance, Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis hardly went according to plan. The numbers looked good (386 passing yards, three touchdowns and one interception) yet told only part of the story (four sacks and a lost fumble that led to a safety). Manning insisted this week was just another week but the 37-year old never really looked like his tight spiralled, accurate self under the bright lights of Lucas Oil Stadium. Instead it was his successor who stole the spotlight. Andrew Luck may have been the afterthought entering Sunday’s match-up, but the sophomore quarterback continues to improve (228 yards, four total touchdowns) leading his team to yet another impressive win (the Colts have now beat the Niners, Seahawks and Broncos this season). We weren’t really sure what to expect from Indy after its lacklustre performance in San Diego, but Luck and Co. proved that was just a hiccup, the victim of looking ahead to this weekend. The Colts defence was equally effective forcing three Broncos turnovers and harassing Manning all night. Along with some questionable play calling at times and way too many penalties (12), Denver saw its 17-game regular-season winning streak come to an end.

While the Colts continue to make noise in the AFC, teams won’t be able to ignore the Bengals for much longer. In a battle of unlikely division leaders, it was Cincinnati who came out on top in what was a fairly evenly matched game in Detroit. Providing the ooh and aah moments were Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green, two of the best receivers in the league, and they put on quite a show with 155 yards each. And for a second straight week, Andy Dalton was solid under centre finishing with 372 yards, three touchdowns and more importantly no interceptions. Has he finally turned the corner? Dalton had complete control of the Bengals offence, which committed zero turnovers against the takeaway happy Lions, as the team secured yet another gritty road victory. But what cost Detroit this time was a rookie mistake by punter Sam Martin which gave Cincinnati prime field position in the game’s final seconds. If it wasn’t for that miscue, we could easily be talking instead about how big a character win Sunday was for Lions.

Detroit blew a golden opportunity to gain ground in the NFC North what with Chicago also losing in Week 7. But it wasn’t just the game the Bears lost. Jay Cutler suffered what is believed to be a serious groin injury, which would be crippling for the team moving forward. Josh McCown played admirably in what was his first regular season action in 21 months (204 yards and a touchdown), but is he the answer the rest of the way? Because of yet more injuries (Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman were also forced from the game), Chicago’s D has taken a major step back ranking 25th in total defence after allowing 45 points and 499 yards to Washington (Robert Griffin III on the other hand looked like his old self with 298 passing yards and a season-best 84 rushing). With the inconsistency of the Lions and the Packers suffering their own slew of injuries, the Bears are by no means out of the division race, but things just got a whole lot more difficult.

Rob Gronkowski’s return was supposed to magically cure all of New England’s ails, and yes the tight end put up impressive numbers in Week 7 (eight catches for 114 yards to lead all receivers) but still lost. For the second time in three weeks not only was Tom Brady unable to find the endzone, he also completed less than 50% of his passes. And with the game on the line at the two minute warning, there were no late heroics this time around as Brady had to settle for a field goal, and not the winning touchdown. Yet unlike previous years, the Patriots have some competition in the AFC East. This Jets victory wasn’t a fluke, even if the team was aided by a rule that had never been called before. While rookie Geno Smith and the offence deserve credit for the comeback (the group had 52 rush attempts), it’s the defence that continues to be the difference maker as the league’s fourth ranked unit sacked Brady four times holding New England under 300 total yards. The Jets had a significant time of possession advantage as well (46:13 to 23:40) and simply beat the Patriots at their own game.

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NFL Week 7 Preview – The Return Of The Manning

The undefeated watch continues in Week 7 – so which AFC West team will fall first? The Chiefs have the easier match-up as they play host to the bumbling Texans, especially with undrafted quarterback Case Keenum getting the start for Houston. On the flip side, can another winless team finally pick up a W (the Bucs, Jaguars and Giants remain)? New starting QB Josh Freeman and the Vikings will try to prevent that from happening (Minnesota plays New York Monday) plus the Patriots will get a boost as Rob Gronkowski is finally set to make his season debut. In the Thursday nighter, the Seahawks continue to look like one of the best teams in the NFC after easily dispatching the Cardinals. Week 7 is off to the races.

Peyton Manning will be back where it all began Sunday as undefeated Denver visits “The House that Peyton Built” (the 37-year old went 82-23 at home in his tenure with Indianapolis). Both teams are coming off down weeks however, but for totally different reasons. The Broncos did win their 17th straight regular-season game, yet against the Jaguars they recorded their lowest point total (35) while Manning finished with less than 300 yards and a passer rating below 100 for the first time this year. Let’s not kid ourselves though – many other teams would kill for that type of production, especially the Colts who scored just nine points in a disappointing loss to the Chargers. There isn’t much more you can say about Denver’s explosive offence, but Indianapolis has a solid defence that will challenge Manning. The Colts are not only giving up almost 206 passing yards per game (fifth best in the NFL), but they are also allowing just 16.3 points per contest. This defence has already shown in wins over the Niners and Seahawks that it’s not afraid to get physical, something the Broncos haven’t really faced this season. Indianapolis has a pretty good quarterback of its own in Andrew Luck (a 6-0 record following a loss), who is more than capable of taking advantage of a Denver secondary ranked last in the league. The Broncos D will be happy to welcome back their sack-leader from a year ago (Von Miller returns after serving his suspension), but this game will be a lot closer than many think.

First place in the NFC East is up for grabs in Week 7 yet both the Cowboys and Eagles enter Sunday’s match-up a little short-handed. For Dallas, running back DeMarco Murray (who has accounted for 428 of the team’s 509 rushing yards) is a long shot to play while defensive end Demarcus Ware has declared himself a game-time decision. As for Philly, Michael Vick has already been ruled out which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering back-up Nick Foles is the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week. There’s no question a lot of points will be scored in this game – the teams not only have excellent offences (the Eagles put up almost 450 yards per game, the Cowboys are averaging over 30 points) but also mediocre defences (Philly allows almost 315 passing yards per game while Dallas is at 308). From an offensive perspective, the Eagles hold an advantage thanks to their league-leading rushing attack led by LeSean McCoy. But speaking from the defensive side, the Cowboys were impressive last week despite missing some big names as a handful of unheralded players stepped up against the Redskins (like Kyle Wilber). As for the intangibles, it’s surprising how poorly Philly has played at home – the team has lost eight straight at the Linc tying the franchise record set back in 1936-37. Whichever defence can make the most plays will ultimately go home victorious.

As far as under the radar teams go, you may not find two better examples than the Bengals and Lions. Both clubs are surprising division leaders as Cincinnati sits alone atop the AFC North for the first time in almost four years while Detroit shares the NFC North with Chicago. The Bengals are a very balanced group ranking in the top 10 in total defence (eighth) and just outside the top 10 in total offence (12th). But some consider third-year quarterback Andy Dalton to be the weak link. Dalton kept the critics at bay last Sunday however throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns to garner AFC Offensive Player of the Week honours. With A.J. Green (coming off his best performance since Week 1) and a resurgent rushing attack led by rookie Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati has some explosive playmakers but so does Detroit. Even though Calvin Johnson has been slowed by a knee injury (seven catches for 69 yards over his last two games), he’s always a threat. And like Bernard, the arrival of Reggie Bush has rejuvenated the Lions ground game giving them a well-balanced offence. But surprisingly, Detroit’s defence has emerged as a difference maker for the club. The Lions have 13 takeaways this season (and have scored 34 points off those turnovers) after totalling just 17 all of last year. Detroit is an opportunistic team that makes opponents pay for their mistakes and if Dalton reverts back to old form (has an interception in five of Cincinnati’s six games), the Lions could get another statement win Sunday.

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NFL Week 6 – The Sunday Recap

And then there were two. The Chiefs (10 sacks and three interceptions) and the Broncos (a record 256 points scored through the first six games) took care of business in Week 6 keeping their perfect records intact. As for the winless clubs, only the Steelers got a victory Sunday (the franchise’s 600th, no less) as the Bucs and Jaguars (at least they covered the spread) joined the Giants in the NFL’s basement. Some wins came at a cost however (the Packers lost James Jones and Randall Cobb, the Cowboys DeMarco Murray and DeMarcus Ware to injury) while Adrian Peterson took the field with a heavy heart (62 rush yards). Week 6 was one of the weirdest yet.

It’s always nice when the most anticipated game actually lives up to expectations. After posting a 52.2 passer rating a week ago, Tom Brady added another chapter to his legacy Sunday completing a 70-yard touchdown drive with no timeouts and just five seconds left on the clock. This wasn’t your typical Brady blowout performance however – once again the QB struggled to get on the same page with his makeshift batch of receivers. One minute Brady was in danger of going a second game in a row without throwing a touchdown (his streak of 52 straight ended last week) and the next he’s leading the Patriots to another victory when trailing (or tied) in the fourth quarter, the 38th time he’s done that in his career. Should we be surprised? New England has hardly resembled the offensive juggernaut we’ve grown accustomed to and with the way the rejuvenated New Orleans defence had been playing, points were going to be hard to come by. The Patriots had only one scoring drive of 35 or more yards last week in Cincinnati, but on Sunday they had ones of 80, 66 and 60 before Kenbrell Thompkins’ touchdown in the final moments. The New England defence has also undergone a renaissance of sorts holding Drew Brees and Co. to 361 total yards while denying tight end Jimmy Graham a catch for the first time since the middle of his 2010 rookie campaign. While the Broncos and Chiefs are garnering most of the attention in the AFC, Brady proved it would be foolish to discount the Patriots.

New England has been full of surprises in 2013 but so has Houston, just for a totally different reason. The season started out with such promise for the Texans who rallied from a 21-point deficit against the Chargers back in Week 1. But after Sunday’s demoralizing loss to St. Louis at home, Houston has now lost four in a row having been outscored 89-16 over its last ten quarters. The struggles begin at quarterback where Matt Schaub has been in a tailspin throwing a pick-six in four straight games entering Sunday. Schaub however was turnover free when he left with a right ankle injury in the third quarter, yet T.J. Yates didn’t miss a beat throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown on his first possession. Overall the Texans had two interceptions, lost two fumbles (one was also brought back for a touchdown) and committed 95 yards in penalties. The only bright spot was the play of Arian Foster whose 198 all-purpose yards came in the losing effort. It won’t be any easy fix in Houston but the club does have the personnel to turn things around. A change at quarterback though is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Lions figured to be in for a long afternoon in Cleveland what with the Browns looking to win their fourth in a row and receiver Calvin Johnson not at 100%. Predictably, Detroit started slow out of the gate but flipped the switch at halftime. The Lions outscored the Browns 24-0 with Matthew Stafford throwing three of his four touchdowns in the second half (rookie tight end Joseph Fauria had three in all) while Reggie Bush racked up 121 of his 135 total yards in the final 30 minutes (this after just seven touches in the first 30). And they did all that with Megatron playing more of a decoy than contributor (three catches for 25 yards). As for the defence, the group allowed 115 rushing yards in the first half but limited Cleveland to six total yards and no first downs in the third quarter. It was an impressive performance all-around for Detroit, but can it go toe-to-tie with the heavyweights of the division? The offence has flourished with the acquisition of Bush, another playmaker defenses must always account for, creating a more balanced and multi-dimensional attack. Stafford has put up good numbers (1,772 yards and 12 touchdowns) while the defence has shown a marked improvement from week to week as well. The Lions have the blueprint for success yet perhaps all the team needs now is a little confidence.

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NFL Week 6 Preview – The Head-Scratcher

Who would have thought entering Week 6 the Browns (yes, those Browns) would be one of the hottest teams in the NFL (going for their fourth straight win). The Chiefs, Broncos and Saints are looking to keep their undefeated streaks intact while the Bills are switching things up at quarterback (Thad Lewis takes over for the ineffective Jeff Tuel) and Matt Schaub is hoping this is the week he finally doesn’t throw a pick-six (four and counting). Interceptions were the name of the game once again for Eli Manning (after three more Thursday, he now has a league-high 15 on the season) as the Giants fell to 0-6 after their loss to the Bears.

The Giants couldn’t get the job done but maybe the other winless teams will have better luck in Week 6. It probably won’t be the Jaguars however who enter Sunday’s match-up against the Broncos as one of the biggest underdogs in NFL history (the spread sits at 27 points). Denver has won 16 straight regular-season games and boasts the league’s top offence which is coming off a 51-point output (Jacksonville has scored 51 points all season). The Jaguars are in tough, what about the Steelers? Pittsburgh (0-4) is off to its worst start since 1968 and are the only team that has yet to force a turnover. The offence may have issues scoring against a Jets defence that is allowing the second fewest yards per game (299) and is riding high after a stunning road win over the Falcons. Can Geno Smith put together another strong performance? But the team perhaps with the greatest chance of finally getting into the win column is Tampa (that too is pretty thin). The Bucs, like the Steelers, are coming off a bye and can only hope the week off has given rookie quarterback Mike Glennon more time to get used to the starting gig (193 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions and a fumble in his debut). Tampa has a horrible offence (averaging just 11 points per game) but could find success against a Philadelphia defence allowing over 31 points per contest. If Glennon can limit his mistakes and the rushing attack can get going with Doug Martin, the Bucs can be competitive. But don’t be surprised if at the end of Week 6, four o-fer teams still remain.

In a schedule short on intriguing match-ups, the Saints/Patriots showdown definitely takes the cake. It continues to be business as usual for Drew Brees and the New Orleans offence (Jimmy Graham leads the NFL in receiving) yet the same can’t be said for New England. After topping the league a year ago in scoring and yards, those numbers have dropped dramatically this season (rank 24th with 19 points per game) thanks to all the roster turnover the Patriots have experienced (Rob Gronkowski is a long shot to play again this weekend). Tom Brady has posted his lowest passer rating (80.6) and completion percentage (56.6) since becoming a starter back in 2001 and for the first time in 52 games, he failed to throw a touchdown last week. No this match-up will – surprisingly – come down to the defences who have both been playing lights out. New England is giving up just 14 points per game while New Orleans isn’t too far behind at 14.6. But you have to think the Patriots unit faces the tougher challenge this week – Brees has a wealth of offensive weapons at his disposal making the Saints a threat to score every time they touch the ball. You can’t really say the same about New England any more. If this turns into a shootout, the Patriots just might not have enough firepower to keep up.

Speaking of fire power, how much do the Cowboys have left in the tank after last week’s offensive explosion? Tony Romo set a franchise record with 506 passing yards as Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and rookie Terrance Williams combined for 413 yards and four touchdowns. Dallas’ offence was impressive to be sure, but the game was lost because of the defence (along with Romo’s untimely interception). Recently, the D has been absent in Big D as the club has given up 500 yards in back-to-back losses (the Chargers put up 506, the Broncos 517). The Cowboys rank 28th in total defence as the unit has had issues adjusting to Monte Kiffin’s new system. And while the Redskins have gotten off to a slow start, they could very well have a breakout game in Week 6. Robert Griffin III is still trying to regain his old form (just 18 rushes this season for 72 yards) but maybe a week off has cured all ails. Washington has the confidence it can beat Dallas (the NFC East champs went 2-0 and scored 66 points against their division rivals last year) and has the offensive means to get into the endzone with regularity (RG3 had 496 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns in those meetings). Division match-ups are always unpredictable so don’t be surprised if the Dallas D has another long night.

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MLB Playoffs – The AL and NL Championship Series

ALCS

DETROIT TIGERS (93-69) vs BOSTON RED SOX (97-65) 
After 2,019 games dating back to 1901 (the Red Sox hold the edge 1,062-957), this is the first time these original AL charter teams will meet in the postseason. Boston is the more rested of the two however after bouncing Tampa in four games while Detroit went the distance with Oakland. Because of that, the starting rotations will be adjusted accordingly but it will be the offences taking centre stage in this year’s ALCS.

During the regular season, the Red Sox were the only team to pass the 800 run plateau (853) and that power was on display right out of the gate in the playoffs as they put up 12 runs in Game 1. This is a relentless, patient and dangerous offence from top to bottom (scored 26 runs total against Tampa) and the big names came up big once again. Whether it was David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia or Shane Victorino, every bat contributed in the ALDS. One of the major questions for Boston entering the postseason was the health of Jacoby Ellsbury but he put those concerns to rest after batting .500 with nine hits and four stolen bases. With Ellsbury seemingly back to his old self, there are no holes in this line-up.

The Red Sox finished first in runs but the Tigers weren’t too far behind scoring 796 themselves. Unlike Boston however, Detroit suffered a power outage in its ALDS hitting only .235 as a team. Was that just a consequence of going up against one of the league’s best pitching staffs or is it a growing concern? Yes some players underperformed (Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter) but others picked up the slack (Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta). What continues to be the biggest concern for the Tigers is the health of Miguel Cabrera. Despite his best efforts, Miggy has been slowed by various injuries yet that doesn’t mean the Red Sox should sleep on Mr. Triple Crown. Cabrera may have gone just 5-for-20 in the series, but when his team needed a hit the most he came through (his two-run home run in Game 5 was his first in over three weeks).

Cabrera’s health is still a work in progress, but you can’t say the same about Justin Verlander. After a see-saw of a regular season, the Detroit ace silenced the critics and was absolutely dominant in his two starts versus Oakland especially in the deciding Game 5 (two hits in eight innings). Yet because the series needed the full five games, the Tigers starting rotation doesn’t set up as well as they would have liked (Verlander won’t get the nod again until Game 3). Anibal Sanchez may have been the AL’s ERA leader, but he looked very shaky in his playoff start (six runs in 4.1 IP) while the likely AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer was solid – most notably coming out of the bullpen in Game 4. Detroit’s pitchers will need to be at their best however against one of the most potent offences in baseball.

When it comes to pitching, the Boston starters are flying under the radar, surprising considering each of the four is a former All-Star. Thanks to the extra rest, the Red Sox can trot out their ideal rotation led by Jon Lester who will be going on seven days’ rest. Boston held Tampa to only 12 runs in the four games, the lowest mark of the eight playoff teams. The group simply got the job done – there were no blowouts, no big innings, just business as usual. Closer Koji Uehara was a stabilizing force picking up two saves and allowing one hit in the series, although that was Jose Lobaton’s walk-off home run in Game 3. The Red Sox pitching staff wasn’t exactly tested by the Rays, but that’s about to change with the Tigers on deck.

Even though Detroit has the two best pitchers and the best hitter in this series, it doesn’t mean the team is a lock to reach the World Series for a second straight year. Besides their tremendous depth, the Red Sox do all the little things required to win championships (for example they hold a sizeable stolen bases advantage 123 to 35). No one has had much luck slowing down Boston’s explosive line-up, but no one has a collection of arms quite like Detroit’s. TIGERS IN 7

NLDS

LOS ANGELES DODGERS (92-70) vs ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (97-65) 
This year’s NLCS features two classic franchises – the Cardinals and Dodgers – who have combined to win 38 pennants and 17 World Series. What makes this match-up so intriguing is how complete both teams are with their deep starting pitching, serviceable bullpens and potent offences.

The Dodgers though enter this series with a slight advantage after eliminating the Braves in four games allowing their rotation to line up perfectly. Manager Don Mattingly’s gamble to start Clayton Kershaw on three-days’ rest (and for the first time in his career) paid huge dividends – his ace will now be available to pitch in Games 2 and 6 if necessarily. Leading LA out of the gate will be the well-rested Zack Greinke who despite being the tough luck loser in Game 2, had solid numbers in his lone 2013 postseason start (two earned runs in 6 IP). Too bad LA can’t say the same about Hyun-jin Ryu. The rookie looked somewhat overwhelmed by the big stage surrendering four runs in just three innings of work in Game 3. Notwithstanding a couple of hiccups, the Dodgers starting rotation boasts two shutdown pitchers who could make four starts between them in this best-of-seven series.

If it wasn’t for some solid pitching performances of their own, the Cardinals may not have advanced to the NLCS in the first place. Down 2-1 to Pittsburgh, St. Louis starters Michael Wacha (a no-hitter entering the eighth) and Adam Wainwright (a complete game in the deciding Game 5) buckled down and dominated. Wainwright is one of the most dependable starters in the league, but if Wacha can continue to perform as he has his last two starts (two hits and one earned run in 16 IP), the Cardinals have quite the one-two punch of their own. Yet because the NLDS needed the full five games, the St. Louis rotation is more in flux than LA’s – Joe Kelly will start Game 1 while Wainwright will likely go Games 3 and 7.

But with the way the Dodgers offence performed against the Braves, the Cardinals pitching staff will have their work cut out. Led perhaps by the hottest hitter this October in Hanley Ramirez (1.618 OPS), LA batted .333 in the NLDS with Yasiel Puig (eight hits), Juan Uribe (the clinching home run in Game 4) and Carl Crawford (after hitting only two home runs after April 28, he connected three times versus Pittsburgh) all contributing. The offence was so productive, it made you forget about the absence of Matt Kemp. Almost. The Dodgers scored 26 runs in the series resembling the club who went 42-8 at one point this season, not the one that stumbled down the stretch. That slump has not carried over into the playoffs however and if LA can get more out of Andre Ethier than just pinch-hitting duties, the offence becomes even more dangerous.

The Dodgers may boast the hottest hitter in the game right now, but the Cardinals have one of the best postseason players period. Despite batting just .222, Carlos Beltran drove in six runs against the Pirates while also connecting for his 16th playoff home run (eighth on the all-time list). When push came to shove, the St. Louis veterans stepped up like David Freese who hit the game winning two-run home run in Game 5. Even though Yadier Molina (5-for-17) and Matt Carpenter (1-for-19) didn’t have good series, the potential is there for those bats to break out. And all that worry about whether Matt Adams could fill the shoes of the injured Allen Craig turned out to be unfounded (the rookie also hit a 2-run home run in Game 5). The Cardinals are at their best with runners in scoring position hitting .330 during the regular season. Only problem? Both Kershaw (.180 average in those situations) and Greinke (.202) are more than capable of stopping big innings before they happen.

St. Louis has done some pretty unbelievable things in postseasons past – the group defines team cohesion and has a definite experience advantage over LA. Yet the way the Dodgers played in the NLDS was something to behold as every single facet of their game was rolling on all cylinders. The Cardinals will put up a fight but this remarkable Dodgers turnaround wouldn’t be complete without their first trip to the World Series since 1988. DODGERS IN 6

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