Monday, January 31, 2011

Random thoughts after a nearly sportsless weekend

  • If the regular season is any indication, March Madness should be quite mad indeed. Eleven ranked teams lost on Saturday, and the #1 and #2 teams narrowly escaped unranked foes by one and three points, respectively. Then on Sunday, #3 Duke--a team that might have been unstoppable this year if freshman phenom Kyrie Irving hadn't gotten injured--suffered a sadistic beating at the hands of St. John's. At last report the Blue Devils were listed in critical condition. Only one Division I team--Ohio State--has beaten all comers to this point.
  • According to the Tribune, there are two finalists to take over the seat formerly filled by Ron Santo: Dave Otto and Keith Moreland. No Doug Glanville? Really?
  • Here's how you know the NHL All-Star Game and NFL Pro Bowl both suck: they don't even bother to hold them on separate days. While MLB's All-Star Game has lost a little something over the years, can you imagine another All-Star Game taking place on the same day?
  • Every year, this past weekend is one of the worst weekends on the sports calendar. The only football is a fake game played in Hawaii by the back-ups replacing the actual Pro Bowlers who, it turns out, want no part of the charade. And it's not quite February yet, so we can't even think about talking baseball. Same goes for March Madness--you can't pretend it's right around the corner given that when you flip your monthly calendar in a few days, it still won't say "March" at the top. I just feel so lost, and ... empty inside. Fortunately, my parents, sister and niece Brooklyn were here to save the weekend. Let's look at a picture of Brooklyn to cheer ourselves up:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Eight things I'll be doing now that the Bears' season is over (in no particular order)

8. Rooting for a potential rapist/definite scumbag to beat the daylight out of the stupid Packers next Sunday. Need more reasons to root against the Pack, other than the fact that they're the Packers? (Of course you don't.) Here are two: Troy Polamalu is awesome and Rashard Mendenhall went to U of I. But those are reasons 99 and 100. Reasons 1-98: F--k the Packers.

7. Rooting on the Titan basketball teams. Though the women aren't immune to losing like they were the last couple seasons, they're 15-3 overall and have yet to lose in their six conference games. The men have been up and down and continue to deal with injuries, but they remain a top 25 team.

6. Watching the Bulls. At 31-14, the Bulls have practically locked up the division (seriously, they have a 13 game lead) and are a legitimate contender in the East. They're 21-4 at home and would be the 3 seed if the season ended today.

5. Watching Derrick Rose specifically. While he's not quite on the level of that other famous Chicago Bull who is now retired and gives mean speeches, he has reached the level of "Worth watching a game just to see the two or three ludicrous plays he's going to make." He'll cut through three defenders, switch hands and lay it in, or make a dizzying spin move and get an "and one." He's filthy.

4. Following Illinois' Big Ten season. A home loss to Ohio State virtually eliminated them from contention for the regular season title, but they're still ranked in the top 20 and have the potential for a deep tournament run.

3. Following the NFL's labor negotiations. If I find out there's no NFL next year, I expect to react something like this (just replace Clark's boss with the NFL owners and players):

2. Following all the top college bball teams in preparation for March Madness. Did you know the Big East has four teams in the top 10, the Big Ten has six ranked teams and there are two Mountain West teams in the top 10 (San Diego State and BYU)?

1. Counting down the days until baseball season. Pitchers and catchers report February 14, which is less than three weeks away.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cubs sign, um, Todd Wellemeyer?

Seriously, the Cubs signed Todd Wellemeyer. The Cubs drafted him in 2000 and even though he didn't make it to the majors until 2003, he has already managed to pitch poorly for five different MLB teams. Even Dave Duncan could only get him to be good for one out of three seasons in St. Louis.

No worries, though: it's actually just a minor league deal. Besides, he won the World Series with the Giants last year! (I mean he didn't literally win it. He didn't actually pitch in the playoffs, but he was totally in the dugout!)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bears down ... and out

NFC Championship: Packers 21, Bears 14

I'm not gonna lie t'ya: This one hurt, and it's gonna hurt for a while. The entire game was like being stabbed in various body parts with a fork. A fork covered in cheese. And what body part was that being stabbed when Sam Shields's interception ended the game? THAT WAS YOUR SOUL. Your soul was being stabbed. And what's that feeling you had the rest of Sunday afternoon and night? That was a feeling they call "being dead inside."

It was awful. Just awful. You got that bad feeling in your stomach right off the bat when the Packers drove for a touchdown in about eight seconds. And while the defense ultimately did all they could to make a game of it and Caleb Hanie fell just short in his search for a miracle, it was mostly just one big kick to the kidney. So close, yet so incredibly, hellishly painful.

Shouldn't he have at least had a headset on rather than headphones?

Oh, Jay. I'm not mad at you for coming out of the game--especially after it was revealed you have a Grade II MCL tear--I'm just mad at you for sucking. You completed six passes. Six. For 80 yards. No touchdowns, one pick. Not good. Not good at all. Bad Cutler!

Do you know how many touchdowns Cutler threw this year? Twenty-three. Do you know how many Rex Grossman threw in the '06-'07 season? Twenty-three. I'll spare you the misery and stop the comparison there, except to say that both Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler suffer from a disease in which an evil alter ego periodically takes over and destroys everything, making all that is good in the world ugly and bad. Cutler's QB rating of 31.8 was lower than the rating he posted in that massacre against the Giants when he played the entire first half from his back. Cutler SUCKED. Hell, it was for the best that he came out. He missed a wide open Devin Hester at least twice and missed several other open receivers, plus he fumbled. Once the Bears got around to remembering that Todd Collins is bad at football, Chad Hanie at least turned it into a photo finish, gave the Bears a chance--Cutler didn't give them any chance at all.

Can Cutler ever take the Bears to the promised land, or will he always have several games each season in which he decides to hibernate? Only time will tell. But it's not a good sign that Rodgers--who's in just his third full year--is lighting up the NFL and headed to Dallas, while Cutler--who's four years into his career--bombed his "Is He an Elite QB?" audition on Sunday. Rodgers was waiting in the wings when Favre left, whereas the Bears had to trade a pile of picks just to get Cutler, the man with the 16th-best QB rating in the NFL this season. The Bears made the trade with the hopes of obtaining an elite QB. Here's why:

Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks since 2004

Drew Brees
Ben Roethlisberger
Eli Manning
Peyton Manning
Tom Brady

Other than perhaps Eli, will Cutler ever come close to being the QB those other guys are? Will he ever be Aaron Rodgers? How about Philip Rivers? Or even Matt Schaub? Matt Ryan?

While it may be too early to say for sure that he won't, I know the answer I'd put my money on. He's got a hell of a lot to prove. Footwork to work on. Traffic to stop throwing into. He's got a great arm and ... that's about it. In yards/game this season, he ranked 20th in the NFL. Behind rookie Sam Bradford. Behind Ryan Fitzpatrick. Behind Shaun Hill. Granted, the Bears tended to play things closer to the vest because of their great defense and because their running game came on strong in the second half of the season, but still ... 20th. And granted, they need an offensive line and a #1 receiver, but so do the Bills and Rams. For all those questioning Cutler's toughness--why bother when there are so many legitimate questions about his talent? It's not a good sign that the Bears seemed to have a better chance with Hanie on the field than Cutler.

From the Others Deserve Blame category, the special teams provided nothing, the timeout the Bears called late in the game was terrible in that it gave a winded Packers defense time to breathe, and the play call out of the timeout--a reverse you could see coming from a mile away--was atrocious.

But on the other side of the ball, the defense played a phenomenal game, breathing life into the team several times when the Packers were on the verge of putting the game away. Despite having their backs against the goal line the entire game, they held the Packers to two touchdowns (obviously the Packers' pick six can't be counted against the D). But no surprise there--this unit was fantastic all season long and deserves all the praise they get.

It pains me to say it, but the Packers earned their trip to the Super Bowl--they overcame season-ending injuries to their starting running back, tight end and a linebacker, along with two other starters. They won three road games in the playoffs against the top three seeds in the conference. I hate the Packers so much that I'm considering never eating cheese again, but you have to admit they're good.

There's no doubt about this: It was still a heck of a season. Unless you're the Patriots or Steelers, it's quite an accomplishment to be on the field two weeks before the Super Bowl. Congrats to Lovie and all the Bears on a very memorable ride through the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011.

In addition to being memorable, losing in the NFC Championship is admirable. Unfortunately, when that loss is at the hands of the Packers, it's also brutal. What I wouldn't have given to see a different outcome. What I wouldn't have sacrificed. Sadly, it didn't work out.

'Til next year.

P.S. I gotta give credit to Sports Illustrated's Peter King, who predicted a Packers-Steelers Super Bowl before the season started.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bill Belichick's headset actually just headphones for his iPod

From the Wait 'til this Year Humor Vault

Belichick, shown here during a moment of frustration because Elton John's "Rocketman" keeps skipping.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.--While fans have naturally assumed that Patriots coach Bill Belichick's headset is a device that enables him to communicate with quarterback Tom Brady during games, sources indicated today that it's actually just a way for him to "listen to some tunes" on game days.

"A little Bon Jovi, a little Kenny Chesney," said Belichick when asked what he listens to during games. "Sometimes I go classical when we're losing late in the game and I want to make sure I remain chill."

But why the mic?

"Sometimes I like to talk back to the musicians," Belichick said. "Like if Kenny [Chesney] is feeling bad about something, I'll tell him to keep his head up, just focus on the next lyric. Or when Bryan [Adams] really nails a verse, I'll tell him, 'Way to go! All that practice really paid off.' You know, stuff like that."

When asked for his thoughts on the Patriots' playoff loss to the Jets, Belichick asked if anyone owns the iPhone 4 or has heard anything about its iPod function.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Reinforce the bunker. Stock up on non-perishables. The time draws near. It was prophesied:
There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
Luke 21: 25-26

The Bears' last (and only) playoff game against the Packers was in 1941. So that means it's been, um, A LONG F--KING TIME since this happened, which is because THIS ONLY HAPPENS IN A CRAZY WORLD WITH NO RULES. Never before have two division rivals met in the NFC Championship, and when it happens on Sunday it will be a battle of the two oldest rivals in football. The Bears and the Packers. Good versus evil. One will go home, one will go to the Super Bowl. It's the end of the f--king world.

It's so right. Or maybe it's wrong, I don't know; the whole thing's just so nonsensical. How can the Bears be one win away from their second Super Bowl in five years, and how can it be the Green Bay Packers who stand in their way? It's awesome. It's scary. It's beautiful and daunting. Try to enjoy it. No matter what happens on Sunday, this has turned into one of the most exciting Bears seasons in history.

In my book, this will be the third-most important game the Bears have played in my lifetime, behind only their two Super Bowl appearances. And it might go down in history as the biggest game the Bears and Packers will ever play against one another. It's kind of a big deal.

They've played twice this year already, though both teams were rather different versions of themselves in the first meeting--back in September--when the Bears won 20-17 at home. The Bears' leading rusher was ... Jay Cutler, who, you might recall, is a quarterback. The Packers' leading receiver was ... Jermichael Finley, who is out for the year. And the Packers racked up 18 penalties in the loss.

Their second match-up, of course, was in Week 17. The Bears had nothing to play for but tried real hard, whereas the Packers had everything to play for. The Bears' D held the Pack in check but a strangely pass-heavy Bears offense mustered just three points. A 10-3 Packers victory launched them into the playoffs as the six seed and ultimately led to this Sunday's apocalyptic contest.

Green Bay has put up 69 points in two playoff victories, and have suddenly found a respectable rushing attack with James Starks. Aaron Rodgers absolutely shredded the Falcons defense, but I think the going will get a lot tougher at Soldier Field against the Bears' quality defense. This is not a great match-up for the Bears, though. While they can take away any team's running game, the Packers don't really care--they're a pass-first team anyways. The members of the Bears' secondary better eat their Wheaties.

On the offensive side of the ball (stop me if I've said this before), the Bears will need to be balanced. Their successful running game has enabled them to go 8-2 overall since their bye, and they racked up 176 rushing yards against Seattle. Cutler will need to watch out for fourth-year cornerback Tramon Williams: he had six picks this year and has three more in the playoffs.

The game could hinge on the third phase--special teams. In kickoff return average the Bears are second compared to the Packers' 26th. And whereas Devin Hester set an NFL record for average punt return, the Packers rank just 22nd in the NFL in that category. Hester's first of three punt return TDs this season came against Green Bay.

I haven't really celebrated Christmas the last few years, nor have I made any New Year's resolutions. Can I cash all those in for one wish? Can I just wish for the Bears to rape and pillage the Green Bay Packers and earn a trip to Dallas on February 6th? Just for the Packers to die a football death worthy of a Quentin Tarantino movie? Y'know, just to hear the words "slaughter," "destruction" and "massacre" applied to the Bears' beat down of the Packers. I just want to cheer on Lovie and the Bears and then laugh as they manhandle Mike McCarthy and his merry band of asshats. HAHAHAHAHA, I will say. Ha.

Prediction: Locusts and hail ravage the Chicago area, the Earth bursts into flames, and the galaxy implodes. Also: Bears 23, Packers 21

The 1941 Bears, who defeated the Packers 33-14 in the playoffs in route to an NFL Championship.

As my mom said, I guess there's no spell check in Cheeseland. Also, people who live in Green Bay are stupid.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

AFC Championship Preview

Prediction remix:
"Patriots in a game that's close but not really all that close."

Um, no. In fact, it was just the opposite--while the Jets won by just a touchdown, it never felt that close.

"This one comes down to the last play. ... Steelers by three."

Actually, seven. But I'll take it.

#6 Jets @ #2 Steelers
Sunday, 5:30 CST

-Amazingly, Mark Sanchez has led the Jets to the AFC Championship in each of his first two seasons; the franchise had only been to two prior to last year. The Jets haven't reached the Super Bowl since 1969.

-Sanchez has also already tied the record for road playoff wins by a QB with four.

-The Steelers won the AFC Championship in '06 and '09, winning the Super Bowl in those years as well.

-These two teams faced off in Pittsburgh in Week 15, with the Jets managing a 22-17 win.

-The Steelers traded receiver Santonio Holmes to the Jets this previous offseason after one too many off-the-field incidents. He had over 700 yards and six TDs this season, and had a beautiful touchdown grab against the Patriots last week.

What to watch for: The Steelers allowed an absurd 62 rushing yards/game this season; next-best in the NFL were the Bears at 90. In third? The Jets, at 91. I expect both teams to utilize short passes and screen passes so as to avoid third-and-long situations.

X factor: I have two:

1) Holmes. He's a big-play receiver (see: game-winning catch in Super Bowl XLIII) and would undoubtedly love nothing more than to burn his former team.

2) Brad Smith of the Jets. The receivers/running back/return man averaged eight yards per carry this year and had two kickoff return TDs, one against the Steelers.

(and Troy Polamalu too)

Prediction: The Jets have proved vulnerable to good defenses this season: they lost to the Ravens and Packers, and while they scored 22 against Pittsburgh earlier this year, nine of those points came on the aforementioned kickoff return TD and a safety. I've already picked against the Jets wrongly twice--why stop now? Steelers 21, Jets 13.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cubs trade Gorzelanny to Nats for three prospects

Using their newfound pitching surplus to help replenish their farm system, the Cubs traded Tom Gorzelanny to Washington on Monday for three minor leaguers: lefty Graham Hicks, righty A.J. Morris, and outfielder Michael Burgess. None of the three are among the Nationals' top ten prospects. Gorzelanny gave the Cubs great bang for their buck last year, going 7-9 with a 4.09 ERA while making just $800,000. He was acquired along with John Grabow at the 2009 trade deadline.

The trade leaves the Cubs with a right-handed rotation of Dempster, Zambrano, Garza, Wells and Silva, along with potential starters Marshall, Samardzija, James Russell and Andrew Cashner.

While Gorzelanny will not be sorely missed, the fact that he was a lefty and provided solid innings at a cheap price could cost the Cubs from a depth standpoint. On the other hand, the trade adds a bit of depth back into the farm system after the Garza trade.

By the way, the Cubs avoided arbitration with all of their arb-eligible players except Carlos Marmol, though they were said to be working on a long-term deal. Last year Ryan Theriot became the first Cub to go to arbitration since Mark Grace in 1993.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

There's no place like home

NFC Divisional Playoff: Bears 35, Seahawks 24

Though Forte fell just short of the goal line here, he led a potent Bears rushing attack that racked up 176 yards.

I tapped my heels three times, but it turns out this is no dream--the Bears really are going to be in the NFC Championship this Sunday, and they really will be playing the game at Soldier Field. It's sort of hard to wrap your mind around. But suddenly it all feels so ... real. One win from reaching the Super Bowl. Two wins away from being Super Bowl champions. So it's official, then: this is an Awesome Fucking Season.

The Bears got to this point by introducing Seattle to the back of their hand on Sunday. I started letting my brain think of little other than the game at about, say, 10 o'clock Saturday night. I was awoken by an uncontrollable sense of anticipation around 8 a.m. Sunday morning. I was boiling over with excitement at noon. ... And the game was basically over at about 1:30. A laugher. The Bears put it in drive and pressed the cruise control button, covering the big 10-point spread despite not really so much caring about the fourth quarter.

In his first playoff game since, like, elementary school, Jay Cutler avoided mistakes and helped the Bears with both his arm and his feet. He wasn't superbly accurate (15-for-28), but he amassed 274 yards, found two different tight ends for passing touchdowns and ran two in himself. It was nice to see that the Bears still had some tricks up their sleeve even in their 17th game of the season: since when do they call a QB draw from six yards out? Since when do they stretch the field using Greg Olsen, who had a beautiful 58-yard touchdown grab on the Bears' third offensive play en route to a career-high 113-yard day? The whole Forte Throwing the Ball to the Other Team Experiment was not good, though. Not good at all. No more of that, please.

The real story was the defense, though. Sure, they gave up some junk points late in the game, but they maintained a shutout till late in the third quarter and looked very much like a championship defense. Not until the game was out of hand did the Seahawks do anything noteworthy on offense. I said the game was basically over at 1:30--in reality, it was over when it started because Peppers, Urlacher and Co. had no intention of doing anything other than metaphorically throwing the Seahawks to the ground and stomping on their chests repeatedly. Quite effective, that metaphorical chest-stomping.

So while the Bears sent the Seahawks packing, the Bears themselves will go Packing. An epic match-up with their biggest rival will determine the NFC's Super Bowl nominee, and the Bears get the advantage of playing on home soil. When I bet on the Bears to exceed Vegas's posted total of eight regular season wins earlier this year, I must admit that I didn't exactly think they'd be playing in their third NFC Championship of my lifetime come late January*. But here we are. Bears vs. Packers. It doesn't get any better than this. Unless ...

Enjoy the week, and see you on Sunday.

*My sister Mandy did, though. She had me put money on the Bears to win it all, and I talked her down from a $20 wager to $10. Sorry about that, Mandy. I hope to feel really guilty in three weeks.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The name game, vol 11.1

Shabazz Napier, UCONN
I assume Shabazz is so-named because his parents are fans of the Nation of Islam? But even so ... Shabazz. Even Malcolm X eventually realized it was best to go a different direction, and Shabazz wasn't even his first name.

D.J. Gay, San Diego State
"Join us at Manville's as D.J. Gay mixes it up on the ones and twos
from midnight to three a.m.! Lots of Elton John and Ricky Martin! Come for the tunes, stay for the Cosmos!"

D.J. Boney, Delaware
He must have the 3 - 5 a.m. time slot. He doesn't even need to use his hands to operate the turntables.

Wquinton Smith, Wisconsin
No. Just no.

The same name game--players who share a name with a famous person

Reggie Jackson, Boston College
Mike Singletary, Texas Tech
Billy Kidd, Delaware (middle name "The")

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bears' 2010 luck stretches into 2011

Tyler Thigpen. Drew Stanton. Joe Webb. A schedule that looked difficult prior to the season but turned out to be softer than Puffs Plus when patsies like Carolina and Buffalo helped the Bears crank up the Win Machine 11 times in the regular season.

And now this. An 8-9 team coming to Soldier Field with a trip to the NFC Championship on the line. Really? Is this really happening? Why do I feel like any moment now I'm going to be telling my friends about this dream I had in which the Bears were playing the Seahawks in the second round of the playoffs? ("The Seahawks? And you believed that? Even for a dream, that's weird, dude ...")

Who is the Greek god of football anyway, whom we must thank? Wait, there IS no Greek god of football? That's ridiculous. There's a goddess of water-meadows. There's a god of forethought, for god's sake. There MUST be a god of football. After all, how could it be possible for the Bears to face a team that still hasn't won as many games as it's lost this season without the benevolent assistance of a merciful god of football?

But just to be clear, this isn't to say the Bears aren't a good team. Luck and talent aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, when it comes to sports, talent is best served with a nice hearty side of luck. The Bears have had their share this year, but they've also taken advantage of it.

In honor of the aforementioned god of forethought, let's think a bit more about this upcoming game. We'd be wise to remember that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL playoffs, as the Saints could attest. In fact, the Bears already lost to the Seahawks earlier this season, 23-20, in what turned out to be one of just two road wins for Seattle all year. Plus, if you weren't aware, this will also be Cutler's playoff debut. But there's good news. Here are a few of the very fixable things that went wrong on October 17:
  • Cutler got sacked six times. While the offensive line still has its share of problems (the Packers got him six times in Week 17 as well), it has definitely improved since then. Cutler was sacked five times combined against New England, Minnesota and the Jets.
  • As was common early in the season, the play calling was extremely unbalanced: 45 passes and 14 runs. Seattle's run defense is below average and the Bears committed to the run game in the second half of the season. Expect a very different offensive approach Sunday compared to what we saw in Week 6.
  • The Bears were a horrific, pathetic 0-for-12 on third down and still lost by just three. Such an extreme lack of success on third down would be hard to replicate even if the Bears tried.
  • Lance Briggs missed the game, but he'll be on the field Sunday.
While we certainly can't take anything for granted, the Bears will have the clear talent advantage this weekend and face a team that was 2-6 on the road this season. In their last three road games, the Seahawks lost by 15, 19 and 23. So while the Falcons worked hard to secure the #1 seed, they now face the red-hot Packers while the Bears get quite possibly the worst team ever to have made the playoffs.

Lastly, I am required by law to provide a prediction remix, wherein we find that I may or may not have analogized the Seahawks to an unhygienic, rather freakish girl who embarrasses herself in a beauty pageant by injuring herself after falling off the stage. I was just kidding, Seahawks! You took that seriously? Noooo, I was totally kidding. Toooootally kidding.

Prediction: The Seahawks are forced to rely on the pass while the Bears' balanced attack enables them to pull away. Bears by 13.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Divisional Round Preview: NFC (the not-Bears game)

Prediction remix:
"I'll go with the Packers. If it comes down to the end of the game and one defense has to step up and make a play, I like the Packers' D to make that play."

Nailed it!

#6 Packers (11-6) @ #1 Falcons (13-3)
Saturday, 7:00 CST
-These two met in Atlanta in Week 12. Green Bay tied it with under a minute to go but Atlanta returned the kick to the 49 and ultimately kicked a field goal to win it.

-Matt Ryan is 20-2 at the Georgia Dome in his career.

-The Falcons last reached the NFC Championship in the '04-'05 season, the Packers in the '07-'08 season.

What to watch for: Can the Packers remain balanced on offense? James Starks had 101 yards rushing all season but had 123 against the Eagles last week. While the Falcons have been balanced all year, it will be interesting to see if the Packers can have success on the ground once again.

X factor: Falcons defensive end John Abraham. He was fifth in the NFL this season with 13 sacks and got Rodgers once back in Week 12. You have to get pressure on Rodgers if you wanna beat the Packers, and Abraham is the key to the Falcons' pass rush.

Prediction: This should be a great game. But while the Packers did win on the road last week, they were just 3-5 away from Lambeau in the regular season. Combine that with Ryan's amazing home record ... I'm going with the trends in this one. Falcons in a nail-biter.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Divisional Round Preview: AFC

One thing I hate is when radio and TV personalities make predictions and then don't own up to them after the games take place. So here you go:

Prediction remix:
"The Ravens can stop the run just about as well as anyone ... Ravens by seven."

The Ravens actually won by 23. I'll take it.

"I'm not ready to pick against Peyton Manning ... I don't trust Mark Sanchez ... Jets kicker Nick Folk has one of the lowest field goal percentages in the league ... Colts in a close one."

Sanchez led the Jets down the field with under a minute to go and Folk hit the game-winner. I suck.

THEME SONG FOR THIS WEEKEND'S AFC MATCH-UPS (fast-forward to 1:00 mark):

Turns out that video's kind of weirdly inappropriate. But what I'm trying to say is: I'm so excited. And I just can't hide it. I'm about to lose control and I think I like it. I mean, a classic Ravens/Steelers match-up AND another Jets/Patriots game? That's fantastic!

#5 Ravens (13-4) @ #2 Steelers (12-4)
Saturday, 3:30 CST

-They've split 2-2 over the last two seasons, every game has been decided by three points and each team has scored 67 points total.

-In the 2008-09 AFC Championship, Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore 23-14 en route to a Super Bowl victory.

What to watch for: Both teams rank in the top five in rush defense. Will Ray Rice or Rashard Mendenhall be able to carve out any success, or will the game's outcome rely on the arms of the QBs?

X factor: Troy Polamalu. In my view, he's the most important defensive player in the NFL. He's a forced turnover waiting to happen.

Prediction: This one comes down to the last play. When in doubt, take the home team: Steelers by three.

#6 Jets (12-5) @ #1 Patriots (14-2)
Sunday, 3:30 CST

-I wanted a third Jets/Patriots game. I needed a third Jets/Patriots game. These coaches hate each other like Brett Favre hates retirement.

-They split their regular season match-ups, but the Patriots won 45-3 in New England in Week 13.

-The Jets are trying to make it two straight years in the AFC Championship; the Patriots last made it in '08.

What to watch for: When the two coaches shake hands after the game, will Rex Ryan make any attempt to eat Bill Belichick? Will Belichick use his secret knowledge of the rare form of martial arts known as aikido to kill Ryan in 1.2 seconds?

X factor: The tight ends. The middle of the field is often the easiest place to attack the Jets given their strength at cornerback. That works just fine for the Pats as Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowki combined for 16 TDs this year. On the other side, Dustin Keller had five TDs of his own this year including one against New England in Week 2.

Prediction: Belichick is a Master Technician (seriously, that's the name for those who are Level 6 aikido), and now he has a chance to game plan against a team he's already seen twice this year. Plus, he's got some dude named Brady on his sideline. Patriots in a game that's kind of close but not really all that close.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hopefully the last we'll be seeing of this ...

I just had to post this. This is my favorite play in the NFL this year, and I can't believe it came from the Seahawks. Marshawn Lynch's 3.6 yards per carry this season ranked him 41st in the NFL, just ahead of Cadillac Williams. The Seahawks are the first sub-.500 team EVER to make the playoffs. And yet ...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Patiently rebuilding? Jim Hendry changes course

We interrupt this Bears playoff run to bring you some significant Cubs news. Jim Hendry claimed last fall that the Cubs were just 3-4 moves away from becoming a legitimate contender again in 2011. I don't think anyone this side of Ronnie Woo-Woo believed him, but Hendry has put his money (or rather, Ricketts's money) where his mouth is, adding Carlos Pena, Kerry Wood, and now completing a trade for Matt Garza.

Garza, 27, will be under team control for three years, and will be arbitration-eligible in all three of them (he's likely to make about $25-30 million during that time). He was a top prospect for the Twins before they shipped him to Tampa Bay in 2008, and he had his best season in 2010: 15-10, 3.91 ERA. In four full seasons, he's never had an ERA over four. He was also the 2008 ALCS MVP. Clearly the Cubs view him as a #1 or #2 starter.

So that's what the Cubs got, but what did they give up to get it? A lot, frankly:

Chris Archer--The Cubs' #1 prospect, acquired in the DeRosa trade, he was the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2010 with a 2.34 ERA and 9.4 K/9

Hak-Ju Lee--#4 prospect, though he's a shortstop at low-level Single-A (and the Cubs have some guy named Castro at SS)

Brandon Guyer--#10 prospect, hit a very impressive .344/.398/.588 at Double-A last year to earn the Cubs' minor league player of the year honors

Robinson Chirinos--A 26-year-old catcher, he's stuck behind Soto. Had a .416 OBP and 18 HR last year, mostly at Triple-A

Sam Fuld

To recap, that's three top-10 prospects. As far as trade bait goes, Garza is clearly more of a Lexus than a Kia--he didn't come cheap. (The Cubs also picked up two minor league prospects from the Rays.)

I must say: As a Cubs fan, I was ready for a rebuilding year. The freakin' Reds won 91 games last year, the Cardinals figure to be just as strong this year, and the Brewers added some dude named Zack Greinke. The Cubs could have a lot of money coming off the books after 2011, including the contracts of guys like Ramirez, Silva and Fukudome. I was settled in for a year of low expectations, but apparently Hendry has different ideas.

The question is, does he truly believe they were one good starter away from competing? Or does he feel that, selfishly, he has no choice but to field a quality team this year just to save his own job? Is this about trying to vault the Cubs to the top of the standings, or about his own standing as GM when the dust clears in 2011?

I've said it here before and I'll say it again: it's impossible to analyze a trade involving minor leaguers at the time it happens. Even Bill James can't say for sure whether Chris Archer will one day be a top-flight closer, or if Lee would have eventually filled out a phenomenal middle infield for the Cubs. But Hendry better hope Garza turns into an ace, because a solid Cubs farm system just lost a lot of its luster. And in fairness to Hendry, this trade could turn into a good one even if Garza doesn't become what you'd call an "ace" until 2013. Mark Prior had an ace-like 2003, going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, and Zambrano has approached ace status, but for the most part the Cubs have lacked that anchor in their rotation for years.

Garza has been amazingly consistent with the Rays. His WHIP has "ranged" from 1.24 to 1.26 over the last three seasons, his ERA from 3.70 to 3.95, his games started from 30-33. He's that old CD you've listened to a million times, or that comfy hoodie you love to wear in the winter--you know exactly what you're getting.

EXCEPT that Garza was doing that in the AL East against teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. There is a fair amount of precedent revealing that pitchers can improve their performance by sliding over to the NL: guys like Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee and Javier Vazquez have become "better" simply by switching leagues.

Garza can be overly emotional at times (fitting that he has a "Z" in his name), but perhaps that will fade as he's moving toward the age of 30. Of course, that hasn't been the case with the Cubs' other guy with a "Z" in his name.

Garza's a good pitcher, but it's hard to believe that acquiring him makes the Cubs a World Series contender in '11; does it even make them a playoff team? You should probably only ship off three top-10 prospects when you're getting the real deal in return or making that one final move that puts your team over the top. I don't think that's the case here, which concerns me. It seemed like Ricketts and the Cubs had a long-term plan: stock the farm system, let the huge contracts expire, compete in 2012 or 2013. But all of a sudden Hendry pulled the trigger on a trade that shifts the focus to the present at the potential expense of the future. But again, at least Garza will be around for three years and not just one. If it's a win-now trade, I don't like it. As a win-soon trade? We'll have to wait and see.

Don't be surprised to see a couple Cubs starters show up on the hot stove given that the roster now includes Garza, Dempster, Zambrano, Wells, Gorzelanny and Silva. Perhaps Hendry will try to restock the farm system (at least partially; it's kind of like restocking the bar with one bottle of Jack after a full night of open bar) by trading away extra pieces with Garza now in the fold.

Hat tip: MLB Trade Rumors

Friday, January 7, 2011

Wild Card Weekend Preview: AFC

#6 Jets (11-5) @ #3 Colts (10-6)
Saturday, 7:00 CST

-The two faced off in last year's AFC Championship game with the Colts winning 30-17 on the strength of a 17-0 second half. Rex Ryan, whose defenses are 1-5 against Peyton Manning (and in the one win, Manning didn't even play the second half), says it's personal against the QB, that he has "waited a full year for this" and wants to "put the shoe on the other foot" by knocking him out of the playoffs. Bad wording there, Rex. No mention of shoes or feet for you for at least, like, six months.

-The Colts are the go-about-your-business bunch with the low-key coach; the Jets are an in-your-face team with a coach who predicted his team would win the Super Bowl before the season. Makes me want the Colts.

-Peyton Manning returns to the playoffs for the 800th year in a row, while Mark Sanchez is now two-for-two in his short career. This game has something of an old guard vs. new guard theme goin' on, or something like that. Sanchez going to the playoffs his first two years but getting knocked out by the always-in-the-playoffs Manning? Makes me want the Jets.

What to watch for: Prior to the game, will Rex Ryan use Lucas Oil Stadium as a refreshing new setting for a foot fetish video? And if so, will the NFL allow him to use their cameras so it will be in hi-def?

X factor: The kickers. While the Jets' Nick Folk has one of the lowest field goal percentages in the league, the Colts' Adam Vinatieri has missed just two all season.

Prediction: These ain't your older brother's Colts. Injuries to receivers, a tight end and safety Bob Sanders have transformed the Colts from the near-infallible squad we've become used to into a 10-6 team that didn't put the Jaguars away until last Sunday. But they were 6-2 at home this year and I'm not ready to pick against Peyton Manning. After all, it is a night game. On top of that, I don't trust Mark Sanchez. Colts in a close one.

#5 Ravens (12-4) @ #4 Chiefs (10-6)
Sunday, 12:00 CST

-The Ravens won two more games than the Chiefs this year but are forced to go on the road because they're in a division with the Steelers while the Chiefs ... well, aren't.

-The Chiefs bring their league-best running game against the Ravens' top-five rush defense.

What to watch for: Are the Chiefs ready for playoff football? They haven't been to the postseason since 2006, haven't hosted a playoff game since 2003, and haven't won a playoff game since 1993. The Ravens, on the other hand, have been invited to the playoff party four of the last five years.

X factor: Ravens safety Ed Reed. Matt Cassel has been very protective of the ball this year--just seven interceptions--but Reed had an insane eight interceptions in just 10 games this year.

Prediction: The Chiefs didn't lose at home until Sunday against the Raiders, and their league-best running game is nothing to sneeze at. But the Ravens can stop the run just about as well as anyone, and besides, this is a passing league. Ravens by seven.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wild Card Weekend Preview: NFC

#5 Saints (11-5) @ #4 Seahawks (7-9)
Saturday, 3:30 CST

-So we do in fact have to let the Seahawks play in the playoffs just because they won their division? That's official? Okay, fine, just checking.

-The Seahawks as a playoff team are like the smelly girl from down the street whom we have to let participate in the town beauty pageant because, well, I mean she got all her paperwork in on time, so what can we really do? Yes, I know the neighbors say she doesn't brush her teeth because she says "toothbrushes feel prickly" and yes, I know her talent portion is likely to be that weird, disturbing dance she can sometimes be seen practicing on her front lawn with her pet mouse, but dammit I'm not gonna be the one to tell her parents she can't participate.

What to watch for: Will it be Charlie Whitehurst or Matt Hasselbeck behind center? In a 34-19 loss earlier this season, Hasselbeck had a very good game but a balanced Saints team still beat the Seahawks easily. With that in mind, does it really f--king matter who starts at quarterback? Unless Pete Carroll decides to start himself, no, no it does not.

X Factor: Turnovers. I can't see how it's possible for the Seahawks to win this game unless they somehow dominate the turnover battle.

Prediction: The girl from down the street falls off the stage and sustains life-threatening injuries. (i.e. Saints win easy.)

#6 Packers (10-6) @ #3 Eagles (10-6)
Sunday, 3:30 CST

-These two met up in Philly way back in Week 1, back during the Kevin Kolb Experiment. Vick came in after Kolb got hurt and made it close, but the Packers won 27-20.

-Both teams lost in the first round last season. The last time they faced each other in the playoffs was the '03-'04 season when Donovan McNabb led the Eagles to victory after converting a late 4th-and-26 to send it into overtime. (Yes, I had to look that up.)

What to watch for: Both Mike McCarthy and Andy Reid suck at time management, but which will make the terrible decision that cripples his team at a critical time? Will McCarthy go for two after a game-tying touchdown? Will Reid call a timeout before the game starts? Will either of them, late in the game, opt to punt from the red zone?

X factor: Special teams. The Packers' kickoff and punt return averages suck, whereas the Eagles of course have DeSean Jackson. Jackson only has the one touchdown against the Giants, but he has a solid return average and could help the Eagles win the field position battle.

Prediction: I don't know, I don't know ... I DON'T KNOW, OK?? I guess I'll go with the Packers. If it comes down to the end of the game and one defense has to step up and make a play, I like the Packers' D to make that play. The Eagles' offensive line scares me. Rooting for the Eagles, picking the Packers. Now lay off.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

NFC West drunkenly resolves to be better in 2011

From the Wait 'til this Year Humor Vault

It was a long, depressing season for the NFL's NFC West division: all four of its teams were outscored on the season and the Seahawks won the division despite a sub-par 7-9 record. The year of struggles apparently led the division to hit the sauce pretty hard on New Year's Eve, and sources report that a highly intoxicated NFC West acted quite foolishly on December 31 and made just one drunken resolution: to be much better in 2011.

"I'm gonna ... lisssen to me ... I'm gonna be better," he whispered to the AFC North while standing much closer than necessary. "You watch. You watch."

The NFC West was reportedly badgering the NFC East all night, trying to negotiate a trade of teams so that the Eagles--a perennially strong team--could join the West.

"Hey you. Hey you!" he said, wobbly, but somehow still on his feet. "Kin we have th' Eagles? Heydidyouhearme can we have the Eagles?? That would be sooo awesome. Man I love the Eagles."

The NFC East sought refuge in the family room, but the NFC West found him again later in the night.

"I'll give you the Cardinals, man," he whispered, his eyes barely open. "They gotta go, man. They suck. F--k them, man."

NFC West's friends say that it wasn't just New Year's Eve--that he's been drinking a lot for the past year or so. They say they'd love to help him but feel he's beyond help at this point, plus he lives way out on the West Coast which is just so far away.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ten things to remember about a great '10 season

I hope we'll have 10 more memories to discuss about the Bears' postseason, but no matter what happens in the playoffs, I'll always have fond memories of the 2010 season. Here's my Top 10 list:

10. Forte's big year

His 4.5 yards per carry easily eclipsed the 3.9 of his rookie season, and while he fumbled twice as a receiver, he never lost a fumble when handling the ball as a running back. On top of that, his receiving average rivaled that of guys like Devin Hester and Lance Moore. He is the only Bear other than Walter Payton to rack up 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in a season.

9. The Bears were 6-2 on the road, their best mark away from home since 2006

Bodes well should they have to head to Atlanta for the NFC Championship game. Only the Steelers had a better road record.

8. Forte's big day against Detroit ... as a receiver

In Mike Martz's first game as offensive coordinator, Matt Forte caught seven passes out of the backfield for a team-high 151 yards and two touchdowns; he had no receiving touchdowns in 2009. It was clear right from the start that we'd be seeing a different Bears offense in 2010.

7. D.J. Moore's pick six against Washington

Israel Idonije batted it in the air, Moore snatched it and took it to the house. We'll choose to ignore the fact that DeAngelo Hall had a pick six of his own and three more interceptions in the Redskins win.

6. The defense posts a rare shutout ... on the road

Sure, it was Tyler Thigpen, and yes, Brandon Marshall didn't play the second half. But holding any NFL team scoreless for 60 minutes is quite an accomplishment; there were only five shutouts in the NFL this season.

5. The Calvin Johnson Call

It's scary to think about how different the Bears season might have been without the benefit of the crazy call that gave the Bears their first win. It was a gut-wrenching feeling when Johnson went up and hauled in a pass to give the Lions the lead with under a minute to play, which made it all the more glorious when referee Gene Steratore overturned the call--and potentially turned around the Bears' season.

4. Cutler's three pass TDs and 117 yards ... in the third quarter

In Week 16 against the Jets, Jay Cutler was 6-for-7 for 117 yards and three TDs in the third quarter alone; there were ten games this season in which Cutler didn't throw for three touchdowns. Knox grabbed two of 'em and Hester another, and the amazing quarter helped lead the Bears to a huge 38-34 victory.

3. Bears beat Detroit a second time, netting me a Vegas victory

As you know, I won $22 from Vegas after betting that the Bears would win nine or more games this season. It was a not-as-comfortable-as-it-should-have-been 24-20 victory in Detroit that officially turned my betting slip into a winner.

2. Hester's record-breaking punt return at TCF Bank Stadium

You've seen it before, but you know you want to watch it again:

1. Favre meets his end

In a season in which the Bears earned a playoff bye, they also forced Brett Favre to wave bye-bye to football for good. It was not only the best Bears moment of the year, but quite possibly their best moment since they earned a trip to the Super Bowl four years ago. Hopefully we can replace that moment with some even better ones these next few weeks.