Posted on: November 2, 2012 12:20 am
 

NFL '12 Cherry Picks Wk-9

Last-Chance Grill & Gas

It’s the half-way marker on our long & winding road to Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans, so make a pit-stop, get your goodies, hop back in and “fasten your seat-belts (‘cause) it’s going to be a bumpy (ride) (B. Davis)” the rest of NFL 2012.

Eight weeks back the road was dark, sights unseen and too early to know what lay ahead along interstate NFL. Now we’ve seen the line-ups, gandered at the game-plans and have a pretty fair idea which teams got ‘zots under the hood’ and which are, how should I put it, in need of some serious lift-time.

National Cherry Coupés

1) New York Giants
1) Green Bay Packers
3) San Francisco 49ers

Where are the Falcons and Bears? When it comes to rules of the real roadway, I always use my turn-signal (me and about eight other people on the North American continent), but in sport analysis, rules be damned.

There seems an un-written rule that W-L records rule the ranking. But would you really pick Atlanta or Chicago to topple any of the three listed above? That’s right. At home, maybe the Birds & Bruins prevail, but on the road, not bloody likely.

Dates to circle on the calendar: Falcons, 11-11 & 11-29 (Saints), the Bears, 12-16 (Pack). These are the ‘mettle-games’ for both squads. Until they can knock-off their long-time nemeses, Atlanta & Chicago are just post-season pretenders. But if they do, watch out.

American Cherry Coupés

1) New England Patriots
2) Pittsburgh Steelers
3) Denver Broncos

Texans proved playoff-worthy last January but play in mediocre South, took a drubbing from GB (24-42), get back up at home vs. leaderless Ravens, beat an out-of-sync Denver WK3 and, like Baltimore (Lewis), will need more time to fill big shoes (Cushing).

College Notes

State of flux: that’s college football in the new millennium. But traditionalism still runs deep. As long as there’s a human element in the ranking, a program like Chip Kelly’s (Oregon) with its run-up-the-score 80s mentality (70-14 v. CO) and total deference to marketers (Nike), will always get passed-over by some voters when they're given any viable choice. 

Cherry Picks Week 9

Miami Dolphins (4-3) @ Indianapolis Colts (4-3) (11-4 / 1:00 CBS)

Land of Opportunity Bowl. Lesson #1: Wk-1 results (MIA 10-30 HOU / IND 21-41 CHI) mean about as much as a Fox News political panel. No mucho. Makes you wanta’ duct-tape alarmists in Lakers-land. But here they be, ‘Phins & Colts, lookin’ like players. October: Colts 3-1 (GB); Miami 3-0 (NYJ). Kind of an ‘immovable object vs irresistible force’ thing, in reverse, or something: Colts pass (9), stop pass (7), Dolphins can’t (27); Miami runs (11), stops runs (3), Indy can’t (27). QBs even-Steven. Colts win at Lucas Oil.

Chicago Bears (6-1) @ Tennessee Titans (3-5) (1:00 Fox)

It’s the Halas way: stout D, ground-grind. But ‘85 Bears don’t shine w/out McMahon. As ’12 defense is older than Ryan’s and run-game (Forte-Bush) not quite Payton-Suehy, Jay needs better distribution (BM (40%)), TD-ratio and line help (25-S). Veteran Hasselbeck spreads the ball while Johnson’s hitting stride at right time. Playing well of late (2-1), top tackle-corps of Ayers, Griffin & Babineaux keep it close. Home Titans take upset win.

Minnesota Vikings (5-3) @ Seattle Seahawks (4-4) (4:05 Fox)

No “Clash of the Titans” (2010 movie: I vote ‘81 Burgess-Bubo ticket), both teams are year off, built on defense (M-11 / S-5), serious run-game (7 (AD) / 8 (Lynch)), manager QBs and look for bounce after stumble of late (1-2). Young QBs Ponder & Wilson impress with suitable-stats, pocket progress and press-room maturity usually found in vets. Home turf helps Hawks after 2 tough road losses, while Vikes’ engine knocks (TB). Seahawks win.

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) @ New York Giants (6-2) (4:25 CBS)

Certified C.O.T, 4 of last 7 Super Bowl winners. No-Respect Bowl: Ben & Eli keep hoisting the hardware and all talk is about Tom, Tim, Peyton & RG3. Cliff-Notes: Steelers got balance (10-O / 2-D), G-men keep finding a way (4-O / 24-D). Quality wins, NYG (2): @ DAL and SF; Pitt (1) vs. NYJ (.5) and PHI (.5). Pitt’s well of RBs running dry (Dwyer / quad) but Giant Bradshaw hobbled too. Pass-proficiency will dictate as both QBs distribute like venders. Ben’s groovin’ (67 Comp% / 14-3 ratio) while Eli’s protected (6-S / 2300 yds). Pass Ds: Pitt’s stingy (1) but key cog Clark Q’able and Giants soft (26). Steelers win.

Dallas Cowboys (3-4) @ Atlanta Falcons (7-0) (8:20 NBC)

Falcons are funny. Away they win convincingly (4), at home they eke out Ws vs. early-Broncos, Carolina & Oakland. Too good to lay an egg Sunday, Birds face Dallas team that’s talented and angry (BAL / NYG). Cowboy D works (4 / 3P), 1st-down ratio nice and pass-game clicks under Tony (3) who’s pressing (9-13 ratio). Bank on injury-news (Bryant-Murray-Jones) and you’ll suffer, so I won’t. Like NYG tussle, should be aerial-act as Falcons’ run-show (24) no bigger hit than Boys. Atlanta falls, Cowboys lasso a W.

Steven Keys
NFL Hunch Line
Posted on: October 29, 2012 1:30 am
 

One Giant Leap for San Fran-kind

California and baseball, they were made for each other. They go together like hot dogs & mustard, guacamole & chips, politics & debate. Kismet.

Long before Walter O’Malley (Dodgers) and Horace Stoneham (Giants) moved their New York business interests cross-country to the Golden State (‘58), the game of baseball was already well-situated on the Pacific Coast, producing such gems as Joe DiMaggio (SF / Martinez) and Ted Williams (San Diego).

But a major league presence? That’s a whole ‘nother ball-game. Big doings.

And when the franchise moves were being planned in 1957, there was no question the Los Angeles team would have the bigger impact on the State and baseball. LA was three-times the size of San Francisco and since WW2 had been fast displacing the Bay area as the undeniable epicenter for the State’s burgeoning commerce and entertainment industry.

While the Giants fielded an impressive roster at their new digs with names like Mays, Cepeda, Perry, McCovey & Marichal, they would reach but one World Series before 1989, losing the memorable 1962 fall classic to long-time rival the Yankees, 4-3.

Down South the Dodgers hit the ground running. In only their second season in Chavez Ravine, the boys in blue hosted a World Series (‘59) and broke with tradition by taking it. Then they did it again in ‘63 and ‘65. Transplanted Brooklynites Walter Alston, Duke Snider, Koufax, Drysdale and LA original Maury Wills all became the talk of the nation.

Soon thereafter, three more teams would call California home: the Angels in 1961 (Anaheim ‘66); Charlie Finley’s Kansas City Athletics (Oakland ’68) and the fledgling San Diego Padres (‘69), owned today by Peter O‘Malley, son of Walter.

Though fan support has fluctuated, the As have been a stalwart organization, hoisting six pennants in Oakland, three times that of its NL rival across the Bay. The Padres have made two Series (‘84 / ‘98) and the Angels took their lone title in 2002.

It’s always been the Dodgers who’ve held a special place in the hearts of most Californians. A second wave of success in the 70s & 80s secured this spot as they appeared in five more Series, capturing crowns in ‘81 & ‘88.

But since those halcyon days of Garvey, Valenzuela, Hershiser, Gibson & Lasorda, there have been no more pennants unfurled over Dodger Stadium. Only broadcast legend Vin Scully, planning on a return in 2013, gives the grounds its championship feel.

You can‘t live off the past forever.

Even with some plucky mid-season moves in 2012 (Ramirez / Boston cast-offs) and new investor Earvin “Magic” Johnson joining the ownership group, the Dodgers again missed the post-season, forcing their fandom to watch arch-rival San Francisco bask in the glow of a playoffs spotlight to which they’re growing quite accustomed.

With the San Francisco Giants winning their second championship in three seasons (2010) by besting the heavily-favored Detroit Tigers 4-0 in World Series 2012, baseball aficionados are left scratching their heads in befuddlement.

Explanations for the surprising result range from the sensible (Giants’ pitching), to the whiney (DH fans), to my own guess (homer-happy AL can‘t adjust) and finally the strange (“funky spin” on the ball / ESPN’s Aaron Boone). That last one sounds like a “Dirk Diggler” dance move (Boogie Nights / ‘97).

To say the Giants’ victory is an upset rings as trite as saying ‘Have a nice day.’ I don’t know what an upset is anymore. Basketball excepted, the watch-words in today’s sporting world are ‘expect the unexpected.’ Exactly when & where the upset occurs, that’s the conundrum for prognosticators, week in, week out.

Can’t say the same for politics, unless you go back to 1948 and Harry “The buck stops here” Truman. That’s bad news for Mr. Romney, though he does have Diebold on his side (vote machines). And then there’s his ace in the hole, that GOP stand-by (10x) and vestige of our powder-wigged forefathers, the one, the only, tah-dah: Electoral College.

Tonight I'm sensing seismic waves emanating from the West Coast. But don’t be alarmed, California folk. I don’t mean the plate tectonic variety. What I sense is a major shifting in the balance of baseball power in your grand State.

The Giants 2012 World Series title moves the center of California’s baseball universe upstate to San Francisco, leaving the Dodgers, Angels, Padres and neighboring Athletics as mere satellites orbiting the bright star that has become the Giants.

And yes, stars can fade, just like the Dodgers did by way of a lackadaisical ownership that dates back to the early 90s. But this a big leap for the Bay area G-Men. Multiple titles will start the dynasty discussion and can be the first serious step towards becoming a standard-bearer organization, i.e., the Yankees, Red Wings, Lakers, Packers, Patriots.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) took one doozey of a step back in 1969 when he left the safety of Apollo 11 and became the first Earthling to venture forth onto the meteor maligned surface of the Moon. The San Francisco Giants’ hope the historical step they took in Detroit this October 28, 2012 proves to be just as memorable to baseball fans as Mr. Armstrong’s famous step has been to the world.

Steven Keys
Can o' Corn
Posted on: October 25, 2012 1:22 am
 

NFL '12 Cherry Picks Wk-8

A Thing of Beauty

One is a seasoned pro who collects hardware in the Lombardi line, forgoing the glitzy MVP variety. He is a standard by which others are measured and to which young players should aspire; the other is a rookie and budding star, athletic & energized, he still operates by the collegian concept that football is a one-man show and has the bruises to show it.

On Sunday both men took part in what may be the best short-sequence so far this NFL 2012 season, offensively speaking. The golden-age of the defensive-back, this is not.

With under two minutes in the game, Redskins’ rookie QB Rob Griffin lofted a perfect 30-yard rainbow to receiver Santana Moss who did his best imitation of a Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder-catch and hauled it in for what looked to be the game-winning TD vs NYG.

Never one to back down from a challenge (it's in the genes), on the Giants’ next series, the reigning Super Bowl champion QB Eli Manning responded quicker than you can say Jack Robinson by connecting with speedy Victor Cruz on a 20 yard strike turned nicely into a 77 yard TD scamper in what Vic described post-game as a play they both “practice.” Practice makes perfect and this was pretty near perfection.

Both hook-ups were a thing of beauty, Eli & Vic’s a bit more voluptuous than the Skins‘ version which was quite fetching, just the same. Kudos.

Greased Pig-skin

A football is a football is a football, right? Not when it’s the official NFL ball it ain’t. Next time you turn on the game, take a gander at the pigskin in play. That shiny spheroid, made by Wilson, a subsidiary of Amer-Sports (Finland), in Ada, Ohio, is slicker than a greased pig. But if you’re looking for a justification for the sissy-fication of football by way of “sticky-gloves,” there you have it. Cha-ching!

Health(ier) Choice

Enjoy watching the game but suffer through a plethora of TV commercials & announcers that bore you silly? Here’s a solution. When it gets unbearable, flip-over to the League‘s “NFL Game Center” (NFLN / 1:00-4 EST). The colorful, game-board display shows every on-going contest with up-to-the-minute scores, audible announcing and is chock-full of the numbers you crave. If you‘re a scoreboard watcher, this is the place to be.

Cherry Picks Wk-8

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4) @ Minnesota Vikings (5-2) (10-25 / NFLN / 8:20 EST)

If he doesn’t soon turn it down a notch or two, Tampa Coach Gregg Schiano is in danger of becoming Les Steckel II, ex-marine who steered Vikes to 3-13 record in ‘84 (and OC of ‘00 Bucs top offense). Tough talk won’t cut it if nobody’s listening. Upside, Bucs battle in every loss, QB Freeman’s rebounding while getting time (9-S) and specialist Barth can go long if close (57). But RB Blount is a rarity, top WR Jackson is ankled and run-stuff D (3d / 76 / David / Foster) will be tested by peaking Peterson (4.8). Vikings balanced defense (11R / 11P) tips the scale North in this slugfest of former division rivals.

Atlanta Falcons (6-0) @ Philadelphia Eagles (3-3) (10-28 / Fox / 1:00)

Count me among those feeling Falcons slightly more lucky than good. Atypical lack-luster defense supports the view. But Ryan’s distribution is impressive (3-30+ WR), TD / INT ratio solid and Turner’s run-game compliments. Home Eagles have better rank (7-O / 12-D) and with Vick looking threadbare I like him coming off the bye. Eagles win.

Washington Redskins (3-4) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) (Fox / 1:00)

ATL, MIN, NYG and now PIT: baptism by fire. Though I’m no fan of Mike’s run-QB attack-plan, I give Rob credit for battling big boys with gusto. Hope DC isn’t looking ahead to CAR / bye. Griffin's COMP % (70) and TD ratio (7-3) are good, while W-L (3-4) not bad for 1st-year. But when the QB is a top RB (7.3 / 468 / 6), trouble awaits in downfield pops and time lost in pocket-classroom. Skins can tackle (Fletcher / Riley / Wms / Hall) but deflect few passes (32). Troy is missed (calf) but Pitt still defends (2) while RB Dwyer has earned a start (if it works, don't fix). Ben’s like Brett, under-appreciated, takes a licking & keeps on ticking, a flair for dramatic and a nose for the end-zone. Steelers win.

New York Giants (5-2) @ Dallas Cowboys (3-3) (Fox / 4:25)

Raiders / Chiefs rivalry is regal (CBS / 4:05) but this is big bout in Wk-8. Cowboys made nice opening statement Wk-1 vs NYG (24-17) but very garbled since (SEA / CHI). Boys slip-by gloomy Cats while Giants ‘pull fat outta the fire’ vs DC. Where is the greatness? That would be the NBA (Heat / Lakers). Dallas run-attack doesn’t scare but Romo can still matriculate with cool WR corps and Giants’ D won’t say boo (24). Jerry wants this one bad, Garrett knows it and the Dallas defense should do its part (4). Cowboys win.

New Orleans Saints (2-4) @ Denver Broncos (3-3) (NBC / 8:20)

Resurrection Bowl. Saints have a ways to go (D-30/30; O-run (31)) but got their bounce back. Brees is breezy and tide may’ve turned vs TB. Gotta' like Manning’s progress (ratio (14-4) & distribution) while reliable RB McGahee (4.3) could use a backfield bud. Denver D (11) should hamper Drew enough (10-P) while protected Peyton (10-S) lights-up the night. Broncos win.

San Francisco 49ers (5-2) @ Arizona Cardinals (4-3) (ESPN / 8:30)

Giants loss lingers for 49ers but Seattle win cauterizes the wound. Notable road victories (GB / Jets) and top-flight D (1) make San Fran a player but AZ win bolster’s case. Smith is sound and run-game serious (177) but mounting sacks (20) a concern. Cards quandary: quality wins (SEA / NE / PHI), troubling losses (BUF / STL) with biggest being Kolb who was fitting-in. QB Skelton needs size (6-6 / 244) as Arizona O-line is sieve (35-S) which doesn’t help the run-game (26). But John likes home crowd (6-0) and solid Cards’ D keeps it close (Daryl Washington: 62 / 6-S). May come down to kickers who’ve been shaky as of late but can be rangy: (AZ) Feely 61 / (SF) Ackers 63. 49ers are good.

Steven Keys
NFL Hunch Line
Posted on: October 18, 2012 7:01 pm
 

NFL '12 Cherry Picks Wk-7

Welcome to the Surge

A pendulum swinging back n’ forth. One team starts out like gang-busters, jumping to a huge, seemingly insurmountable lead, then, just when you’re about to stick a fork in ‘em the other guys start surging back and there's still half a‘ quarter left on the clock! Amazing…or maybe not.

What happened in last Monday night’s Broncos / Chargers game would’ve been a story for the ages ten years ago, but today, it’s just another wild weekend in the NFL. I’m not keeping records but the power-surge (front & back) seems as commonplace in the National as a failed PED test and a Drew Brees rant. And I’ll be damned if I can explain why.

Some clues: 1) turnovers will often trigger the rise & fall; 2) sticky-gloves and the unbelievable grabs they enable can feed the rush, and 3) as the rally builds, the team-in-disarray loses all its scoring punch until the final minutes when they sometimes tie it up and then win in OT.

Chargers, don't despair, you‘re in good company and it's growing.

‘Strange But True’ Department

He’s been one of the most fined defensive players in the NFL during his 10-year tenure, most levied for dangerous helmet hits. And when penalties are announced, rather than show the slightest concern for long-term, player-safety he’s used the occasion to rag on the League in a dismissive joviality.

The man’s name is James Harrison (Steelers) and he’s now joined the ranks of safety advocates, his own safety, to be exact. James spoke to the issues of concussions & helmets Tuesday (“After double-digit” / CBS / 10-16), sounding more like a spokesman for Unequal Technologies, developer of a new pad product line (CRT) Harrison is using and which UT hopes the NFL will soon incorporate into all its helmets. My comment: You’ve got a lot of nerve, James, a lot of nerve.

Cherry Picks Wk-7

Seattle Seahawks (4-2) @ San Francisco 49ers (4-2) (10-18 / NFLN / 8:20)

If I gambled and owned a farm I'd bet the homestead on this one. Your typical ‘exposed pretender’ (Seattle) and ‘rebound’ (49ers) game. Seahawks’ strengths: 1) when rookie QB Wilson hangs tight and fights urge to rabbit (5 / NE), he distributes well and the offense is capable; 2) Carroll built a defense along 49ers’ lines with maybe best inside tackle-corps in NFC (Chancellor / Wright / Wagner). But 49ers are no fluke, their top D will pressure the kid and profit in the secondary. 49ers bounce back and win.

Dallas Cowboys (2-3) @ Carolina Panthers (1-4) (10-20 / Fox / 1:00)

As usual in the Romo era, Boys are best losing team in football (6-O / 2-D). As both are eager for victory (rough stretch awaits Dallas (NYG / ATL / PHI) and frustrated Cats losing close contests), this is sleeper GOTW. A Dallas loss and Jerry starts ‘wheels in motion’ while Camster & Co. coming up short puts Rivera on warm-seat. Cowboys win.

Baltimore Ravens (5-1) @ Houston Texans (5-1) (CBS / 1:00)

Test game for both, coping without centerpiece players: Ravens’ Ray Lewis and Texans’ Brian Cushing. Near carbon-copies, both squads are balanced on both sides of ball, no flash and should adjust well enough. Besides WK1 (CIN), Ravens squeak by, but too much squeak and wheels fall off. Like Niners (NYG), Texans got shamed last week (GB) and are rip-roaring for bounce-back. Texans win.

New York Jets (3-3) @ New England Patriots (3-3) (CBS / 4:25)

It’s nice work if you can get it, playing in the AFC East. And for a team coming off the Super Bowl, Patriots' schedule looks a little tame (Jets too). They’ll take it. If Dallas is best losing-team, Pats are best .500-team with all three Ls coming as nail-bitters. Jets should feel good about trouncing a team they’re suppose to trounce (IND), that doesn’t mean they are good, yet. Patriots win.

Detroit Lions (2-3) @ Chicago Bears (4-1) (10-21 / ESPN / 8:30)

Black & Blue bout. Lions 2nd-best struggler (2-O / 9-D), all loses coming in close ones. Bit more balance in Detroit than Chicago (20-O / 3-D), both have run games as QBs work to find rhythm with as many picks as TD tosses (tipped-pass INTs gotta go, NFL statisticians). Road-wins are sweet (CHI 2-1), but Bears’ one loss was against the one team they must dominate to show growth and hoist the hardware: GB. Lions ride Philly high (26-23) with heavy hearts (Alex Karras) and pull off upset in Windy City.

Steven Keys
NFL Hunch Line
Posted on: October 16, 2012 3:22 pm
 

Lakers / Heat Stoke NBA '12-13

Consider this the year of LeBron.

Not because he and his Heat team are a lock to repeat as champs in 2013. Au contraire, the new & improved Lakers will have a thing or two to say about who dons that crown come next June.

Rather, it’s because this’ll be the first time in his 10-year NBA tenure that Mr. James can actually enjoy himself on a basketball court.

Having garnered that elusive championship-ring by confounding the over-matched Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals of a strike-shortened ‘11-12 NBA season, LJ effectively bumped that proverbial primate off his back, placed there by fans, media, owners and himself.

Now he can relax, a little.

That could be a good thing. It could free-up LeBron to attain new heights of excellence, or, it could be impetus to trouble, inviting the 2012 MVP to revert to old form, thinking himself like Dirk Nowitzki and capable of draining jumpers from anywhere & everywhere on the court.

If he chooses the later he’ll be applying for membership in that exclusive club of great under-achievers, a/k/a, under-achievers that were great. That’s popular perception, anyway. Men and women who, though talented and holders of a victor’s laurel or two (Wilt Chamberlain / Mary (Decker) Slaney), never met the great expectations their special abilities created in the minds of fans & scribes.

Over his career James has taken more than his share of flak for being hesitant & detached in crunch time, but no one has ever accused him of being short on brains. He is certainly one of the most articulate men in the NBA and should know full well what made the difference this time around. Like Nowitzki in the ‘11 Finals, LJ ditched the tres as a child out-grows a toy, played to his strength and embraced the inside game. He and his team controlled the tempo by dominating under the boards and won’t soon forget it.

Neither will Eric Spoelstra, Heat guru who could‘ve used a flak-jacket himself these past two long & trying years.

And the Heat team? Choosing them as anything less than ‘favorites to repeat’ would be...“uncivilized?” I think Mr. Right Guard Sir Charles (Barkley) might agree.

Both have a tendency to drift to the perimeter but when James and Chris Bosh work in the paint there is no better tandem in the game today, even with the Lakers dreamy up-grade. Though often excluded from the Wade-James cliché, on the court, Bosh made himself a leader, the glue holding this team together in good times & bad.

Dwyane Wade has been a rare talent in the Ass’n with two rings to prove it, but he’s oft-injured, past prime and has a propensity towards juvenileness (‘11 Finals). Finding his eventual replacement(s) is key for Miami maintaining its top-perch.

Los Angeles Lakers

Commissioner Stern must be on cloud nine: an East Coast champ (a bit lower on the map than most prefer) with a West Coast contender in LA who’s loaded-for-bear.

My only complaint Mr. Buss: What took you so long? Sure, the Dwight Howard thing had to play out in Orlando, but Steve Nash? The 2-time MVP might’ve been coaxed out of Phoenix years ago, given that his talents were being under-appreciated by an inactive ownership. Lakers believe Stevo still has some gas in the tank. I think they’re right.

And the retention of F/C Pau Gasol (Lakers’ Mr. Dangerfield) through all the deal-making was the cherry on top. This future Hall of Famer is a key component in keeping continuity with what worked in the past, while helping Coach Mike Brown and Kobe Bryant facilitate a transition with the Lakers’ new-look roster.

A pro since ‘04, Dwight Howard is still part-unknown. Terrifically talented in the vital rebound department, Dwight‘s been afforded consideration for playing most of his career on a non-contender. Like Kobe, this Atlanta native has the mind (NBA’s Age of Enlightenment?) and thick-skinned, resilient persona to handle the babies & brutes under the boards. But can he handle the pressure that will build on an expectant winner throughout the ebb & flow of a long NBA season? More importantly, can he find comfort on a team of stars as a not-quite-as-large-a-fish in a bigger pond?  Sure, why not.

Challengers

San Antonio Spurs

I fell for it last season. I’m not doing that again. The fade-away San Antonio pulled in the Western final last June against up-start OKC (2-4), a squad clearly not-ready-for-prime-time (Heat / 1-4), was the biggest story of the PS and nothing short of pitiful. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich forged one of basketball’s great dynasties. Thanks for the memories, fellas.

Oklahoma City Thunder

“Surprise, surprise, surprise!” It’s like Gomer Pyle was running the 2012 post-season. The way OKC breezed through the West, tossing aside powers LA Lakers (4-1) & San Antonio, it looked like nothing would stop Kevin Durant & Co. from grabbing the first in a long line of titles. Unbeknownst to America the Miami Heat had other plans. Kevin proved to be, if not a paper tiger, certainly not as advertised. He seems destined to hoist the hardware one day but OKC’s failure to acquire a proven, dominant force down-low, along with KD’s insistence in making the talented but high-maintenance Russ Westbrook his cause-celebre, puts that day off for a spell.

Boston Celtics

The surprise here was that green gang got one win away from the promised land in PS ‘12, then failed to close the deal in G6 vs the Heat (98-79) in of all places, the Garden. Because these guys play with passion they just might get close again, but it’s doubtful. Like the Spurs, key Celtics Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are long in the tooth (Terry / 13-yr) while gifted Rajon Rondo seems determined, but ill-advised, to keep trying to carry this club.  See; Westbrook.

Chicago Bulls

Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer comprise a nice one-two punch inside but it’s former MVP Derrick Rose who makes the Bulls a contender. Chicago hopes to stay classy until that time Rose can return from a knee injury (ACL / Rubio) suffered in last season’s 1st-round playoffs (76ers). This explains the Bulls (other teams) dipping deep into the foreign b-ball market hoping to find the next Gasol, Nowitzki, Kukoc or Drazen Petrovic, evidence it’s not just soccer / futbol covering the globe in athletic glory.

New York Knicks

Had Knicks’ ownership seriously pursued coaching great and former NYC player Phil Jackson to work his Magic on this talented but underachieving roster, I’d have this team near the top in Eastern Conference potentiality. But as game as stars Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler can be, and laudable their efforts versus the Heat last spring (1-4), reaching the next level to ‘challenger’ should be the realistic goal here.

Playoff Aspirants

The Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz will give their fans hope in NBA '12-13.

Steven Keys
Posted on: October 12, 2012 10:01 pm
 

NFL '12 Cherry Picks Wk-6

Stock Slide in Packerland

Life can turn on a dime. One day you’re on top a’ the world, feeling “eight-feet tall (J. Garfield)” the next day you’re flat on your back, staring-up & hoping someone got the license of the truck that just ran you over.

That’s how the Green Bay Packers must be feeling about now. This time last year they’re reigning champs, working on perfection and making mince-meat out of opponents. The dynasty word is being bantered about, their nemesis to the West is a mess and Favre’s ghost seems pretty well exercised. Then along come the Chiefs.

KC looked harmless enough on the schedule but when it was over, the stunned & beaten Packers were…different. First came the early playoff exit (Giants), then the stumble to start 2012 (49ers) and shockers in both Seattle & Indy. This isn’t just personnel & play-calling, though, another ball-carrier, pair of hands and some O-line help couldn’t hurt.

Packers lost something at Arrowhead that afternoon and haven’t gotten it back. They still own the Bears but, c‘mon. If you know what it is, give Mike a call. It’ll mean season-tickets for life. They’ll have to ‘remove’ somebody to get ‘em, but hey, gotta’ take one for the team, right? I jest, but maybe a good chuckle is just what these guys need.

Everyone gripes now & then but elite teams don’t whine (“I think the refs are out to get us this year” / anonymous Packer / MJSO / “Flags” / Nickel / 10-9). GB won’t get swagger back pouting on the referees. But not to worry Packer-backers, remember, this is the NFC North. Vikes are a year off, Bears tooth-long and the Lions are Mr. Suh’s team. Ouch. So buy Green Bay stock now as that next Packers’ win puts their ship back on course for a division they still own.

Luck Looking Pro, RG3 Not So

It’s been a wild & crazy NFL 2012 so far, with the referee thing, game-outcomes you might just as well use a dart-board to predict and no clear front-runner for MVP. As such, these two cats are still plenty topical.

If you took a poll today Rob would win going away. But polls are popularity contests. Casual fans, marketers & media just adore the ‘athletic’ or run-QB. He’s in vogue and RG3 rules the runway with run mechanics (42 / 241 yd / 4 RTD) and fine QB rating (101). Yawn. Like Andy, the Skins’ QB was thrown into the fire and gets big points for composure. Road wins (NO / TB) are no small matter, even in today’s wacky NFL.

But Luck’s clearly adapting quicker to his new surroundings, exhibiting more the mind-set needed to develop a comfort-level and management skills within the pocket (v GB), where the NFL QB directs the action. And now is exactly the time to take those on-field gambles and throw some caution to the wind in the maturation process, making Luck’s Comp % (54) and INTs (5) of low relevancy at this early stage in his NFL career.

Nothing I’ve seen so far indicates mentor Mike Shanahan has taken an active hand in molding RG3’s development and progression towards the changeover from college runner to pocket professional. Too bad for Rob, too bad for Mike and too bad for the Redskins.

Cherry Picks Wk-6

Dallas Cowboys (2-2) @ Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (10-14 / Fox 1:00)

Cowboys are rested and will get their 9-10 wins this season but none will come in Maryland. Ravens’ Joe Flacco & Ray Lewis were feeling superior until they watched the Browns' game film.  Gulp.  But they're not about to let Tony Romo rebound in crab-cake country. Baltimore wins.

Indianapolis Colts (2-2) @ New York Jets (2-3) ( CBS / 1:00)

“Surf’s Up.” Pacific players meet on the big stage, one feeling the heat with not much wiggle room, the other feeling love (this week) with room to spare. Jets nearly pull off the Wk-5 upset against everybody’s darling Houston, so they can‘t be that far off, right? Right. Ryan gets his boys up, Sanchez matriculates like a USC QB should and Tebow’s talent agencies (WME / CAA) keep turning the screws. Jets win.

Buffalo Bills (2-3) @ Arizona Cardinals (4-1) (CBS / 4:05)

Sleeper GOTW. Everyone’s bailing on AZ, having already bailed on Bills, but both have potential and a win here is big boost. Cards’ D still stout (11) but low O-production (31). Big mysteries: how Arizona managed this long with no run game as Kolb is more a manager than matriculator, and why Bills’ Spiller is ball-poor. Both QBs played it safe in Wk 5 (0 / 1 INT) and got a FG, so expect more risk-taking. Team who establishes run-game wins the day. That's the Bills.

New York Giants (3-2) @ San Francisco 49ers (4-1) (Fox / 4:25)

Juggernaut Central. Forget prior loses & better records (ATL), whoever comes out on top in this one is NFC’s top-dog. 49ers should be defending NFC Champs but you’ve gotta’ give the G-Men their props as they did their Conference proud. Both franchises operate on similar principle: measured & balanced attack with respect for the art of tackling, most DBs excepted. Who wins? It’s a coin-flipper. Wife’s hunch (and mine) is Giants. Guess it‘s NYG.

Green Bay Packers (2-3) @ Houston Texans (5-0) (8:20 / NBC)

The book likes Houston. Me too, before they nearly lost it to an off-kilter Jets team. GB is better than their record but needs a complimentary run game, less reliance on big-play D and better protection (OL) for Rodgers. Most data says pick Texans but I don’t see Green Bay going 2-4. Packers find a way to win, keeping things topsy AND turvy in NFL 2012.

Steven Keys
NFL Hunch Line
Posted on: October 8, 2012 5:07 pm
 

MLB '12: Year of the Skipper

Whine-fest ‘12

Baseball’s celebratory red, white & blue banners still had creases in ‘em Friday night when one of it’s post-season entrants was quickly bounced from the festivities amid another firestorm of controversy surrounding game-officiating.

This time it was MLB umpires, not referees, in the media cross-hairs getting lambasted after the Cardinals - Braves one & done, wild-card match-up (6-3 STL).  The men in black were under-fire for having the audacity to continue enforcing a canon that's only been on the books since sometime after the Korean War peace accord was signed: the ‘in-field fly rule.’

Sadly for the umpires & TV audience the fans that were handed “the fuzzy end of the lollypop (Monroe)” this time happened to be the home-crowd, unlike the visiting Packers in the now infamous Hail-Mary game (Seattle) a few weeks back. Turner Field fans took cue from hot-heads at Miller Park (All Star ’02) and in protest tossed everything but the kitchen-sink onto their own Braves’ playing field (in what amounted to Chipper Jones’ final game) along with what little dignity each chucker may’ve possessed.

A pattern is now emerging of what’s really behind all the commotion of late surrounding officiating in America’s two most popular spectator sports.

Here’s a hint: the problem ain’t with the officials. It’s not the umpires, it’s not the referees, regular or replacement and it’s not faulty league oversight in either MLB or the NFL that’s to blame.

Here’s another: Chiefs’ Eric Winston and Matt Cassel can clue you in on the real source of trouble, after their disturbing experience in Sunday's game against the Ravens.

Answer: It‘s that face you see in the mirror each AM, at least, that might be one of the culprits. It’s you, it’s me, it's the grousing players and gurus too, Chip Jones excepted: “I think that when we look back on this loss (Cards) we need to look at ourselves in the mirror. I’m not willing to say that particular call (IFR) cost us the ballgame. Ultimately, three errors cost us…mine probably being biggest.” That’s class.

Much blame goes to the press for bailing-out bad behavior and feeding the flames with feigned outrage. Fans can get passionate (some just weak), but media’s situated different. Even a beat-writer should have a degree of detachment in their craft. Too often they feed the anger that follows a dicey call (Rosenthal @ Fox: “wrong decision at the wrong time”; Corcoran @ SI: “it was an awful call”), appeasing hissy-fits and painting a bulls-eye on easy-target, under-fire officials (S. Holbrook) in their verbiage or next day's column.

The ‘cry-baby bandwagon’ made stops in Green Bay and Atlanta this fall. Maybe it’ll visit your town next. Keep in mind, it’s free to board and always crowded but you can wave it on by, if ya' got the guts.

Year of the Manager

With exception of Jim Tracy and Bob Valentine (top-candidates for Boston will rightly think twice now), MLB ‘12 should be remembered as year of the manager. Never before have so many Davids defied Goliaths: Davey Johnson’s Nationals, Melvin’s Athletics, Baker’s Reds, Gonzalez’ Braves, Showalter’s Orioles, Matheny’s Cardinals and again, Joe Maddon’s Rays. Parity schmarity, this is patriotism. Making-do on a tight-budget. It’s what 75% of America’s been doing since corporate out-sourcing (lost jobs) went vogue in the 80s.

It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over

The PED monster still haunts baseball (Mel Cabrera (SF) / Bart Colon (OAK)) but there's one up-side to the bad news. This should put kibosh on any remaining resistance from MLBPA to instituting a mid-season blood-draw for ‘13.

Re-constructing Ryan

With Miguel & Mike dominating the MVP topic, most took scant notice of another triple-crown threat in person of Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun. With Brewers’ ownership reverting to form and passing on title-contention (Greinke / Fielder), Braun kept his team in the race late (.319 / 112 / 41 / 108R). But Ryan still carries baggage from 2011’s positive testing, heavy luggage he could’ve unloaded in Arizona after the ban was lifted.  He might give Mark McGwire a jingle.

Memorables & Forgettables

Decorated stars Tim Lincecum and Albert Pujols just assume forget 2012. The Giants two-time CY winner made his starts (33) but seemed to get baseball’s version of the yips or Steve Blass malady, posting a rough W-L record (10-15) and atypical ERA (5.18).  At this writing San Fran is on PS life-support (0-2 Reds) and looking for any kind of hope.

Arriving in Anaheim with suitcase full of cash & awards, Al started slow but finished nicely (.285 / 105 RBI / 30 HR / 85R). He doesn’t get a king’s ransom to be nice, though. Like fellow NL’er Adam Dunn in 2011, Pujols came to the AL with nose in the air, thinking he wrote the book. Both played like couch-potatoes who couldn’t find a book, let alone write one on baseball. Dunn found his power-stroke in ‘12 (41 HR / 96), Angels hope Albert heals-up & bones-up before spring ‘13.

Topping the hit parade of RS memorables, many of whom are home polishing golf clubs and stocking their mini-yachts this 2nd week of October, were back-stops Buster Posey (SF) and A.J. Pierzynski (CWS), AL newbie Prince Fielder (DET), Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre of Texas, resurgents Aramis Ramirez (MIL) and Alfonso Soriano (CHC), Ed Encarnacion (TOR) and Yankees' Rob Cano, Curt Granderson and, still playing like a star in his 18th season, Derek Jeter.

Meritorious moundsmen included David Price (TB), Jered Weaver (LAA), Gio Gonzalez (WAS), reliever Jim Johnson (BAL) and, in only his second full season, dark horse CY candidate Atlanta’s fireman Craig Kimbrel (1.01 ERA).

But three names ruled the roost in 2012: Detroit’s triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera, rookie run sensation Mike Trout (LAA / 129R) and renaissance knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (NYM). At 37 (R.A.), 29 (Miguel) and 21 (Mike), these guys prove that while age can be a factor, it doesn’t have to be.

Steven Keys
Can o' Corn 
Posted on: October 4, 2012 12:57 am
 

NFL '12 Cherry Picks Wk-5

Now that the black hole that was ‘Replacement-Ref 2012’ has imploded and stopped devouring every sport-headline within its gravitational pull, we're back to the real business of the NFL: the hits, the blocks, the kicks, the passes and the runs.  Oh yeah, some flags too.

How ‘bout some cheese with that whine?

The referee roundabout had little effect on the good folk up in beer-land, or as it’s better know this season, whine & cheese country. The regulars returned to the not-yet-frozen tundra of Lambeau Field for Sunday night’s Saints v Packers contest and, if the crowd reaction is any indication, the financially-fixed referees better “fasten (their) seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy-ride (B. Davis)” for the zebras this NFL 2012 season.

Patience is a Virtue

Football fans wonder if the JetsTim Tebow was swallowed-up by a black hole as he’s barely registered a blip on the NFL radar after turning the League on its head in 2011.

With Camp Romney trying to keep it close in Election 2012, Mitt’s fraternity of friends is doing its part. Jets’ owner Woody Johnson (“very important…Romney (become) President” / B-TV / 10-1), like John Elway (Romney “proven leader” / Huff-Post / 10-2), has no qualms about airing his political laundry. Maybe related, maybe not, but now the Tebow devotees (WJ) are growing more vocal in their push for Tim’s ascension to the Jets starting-QB job.

At just four games into the season (2-2) and with Sanchez’ experience, Jets’ coach Rex Ryan knows it’s premature to bail on Plan A. But it’s a QB-league and there may come a time soon enough when Mark pays a price, not only for his own debits, but for that of his teammates as well, specifically an erratic run-game, fumbleitis and porous run-defense.

Topsy-turvy NFC

While the AFC standings are no big surprise at Wk-5, the NFC has everyone crystal-ball gazing for answers. At this juncture, phrases like “this team is for real” and “their season is on the line” are about as meaningful as a NASA mission to Mars. Not very.

Cherry Picks Wk-5

Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) (10-7 / 1:00 / Fox)

The Keystone contest. Eagles are flying, but like Pack, Pats, Jets, Giants, etc., they’re “a box of chocolates: (so far) you never know what you’re gonna’ get (Forrest Gump).” You always know what you’ll get from Big Ben Roethlisberger, the Timex® QB: “takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” Steelers are home, healthier, ready to play and win.

Atlanta Falcons (4-0) @ Washington Redskins (2-2) (1:00 / Fox)

Last week’s squeaker at home against a groping Carolina team makes me nervous about these perfect birds, but Mike Turner’s turned-it-on (103 / CAR) and Ryan’s been terrific. If Griffin can learn to take sacks, limit his runs (7 / TB) and get comfy in the pocket, he might turn into a title-taking pro-QB. Should be a shootout but Falcons stay unbeaten.

Denver Broncos (2-2) @ New England Patriots (2-2) (4:25 / CBS)

AFC game of the week. As both Brady & Manning are finding their footing, expect the Ds to be busy. Patriots double-fisted run-attack (Ridley / Bolden) evokes memories of old (Csonka & Morris / Taylor & Hornung) and spells trouble for foes, if it lasts, though Broncos have ground-game in McGahee (112 / Oak). Another shootout. Continentals win.

Buffalo Bills (2-2) @ San Francisco 49ers (3-1) (4:25 / CBS)

Candlestick is not where Buffalo wants to be this weekend. Oh well, what are ya’ gonna’ do? Limit turnovers, that’s what (6/ NE). Fitzpatrick (4 Int / NE) takes page outta’ Alex Smith’s playbook, playing it safe & smart. Bills RB Spiller needs the ball more while LB Nick Barnett will roam far & wide (38T). San Fran loves the breeze by the Bay and is feeling their oats after dismantling the Jets, though I’m puzzled as to why rare-target Randy Moss is still rostered (4-1-3-0 Rec). Niners hit pay-dirt.

Houston Texans (4-0) @ New York Jets (2-2) (10-8 / 8:30 / ESPN)

ESPN-Disney likes the Nielsens. Typically a ‘Snoozer-of-the-Week,’ MNF is on a roll lately with Wk-3’s surreal affair (Packers / Seahawks) and what should be a ratings-hog this Monday night. Unless Sanchez matriculates with regularity, the camera-men and sideline-gals will be obsessing with Tebow. Had Jets battled SF, or not needed OT to best Miami, I’d pick a Jersey upset. Texans need a bigger test before elite status. This NY drama club ain’t it, but expect a contest as Jets can surprise. Houston’s top D along with a ‘measured & balanced’ offense (SF) will rule the day. Texans triumph.

Dedication

This post remembers two artists who died recently and who had tremendous impact on America’s TV sport-scene during its greatest period of change. With an encyclopedic knowledge of everything racing and a grabbing voice, Chris Economaki (9/28) defined motoring for millions of viewers since the 1960s, while Steve Sabol (9/18) took father Ed’s visionary work in NFL filming and, with the cool sounds of Sam Spence, made it all masterful. Time passed them both by in this attention-deficit age of social-network media, but for those of us who reveled in their realms, they will be missed.

Steven Keys
NFL Hunch Line
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com