Sunday, September 30, 2007

NFL Week 4 Picks


New rules I'm adapting after a mediocre 10-6 week that puts me at 32-16 on the young season:

Never pick the St. Louis Rams...

Never pick the St. Louis Rams...

Never pick the St. Louis Rams...

OK, enough. Thankfully, it's easy to pick against the 0-3 Rams this week. They play the NFC's best team — yes, the Cowboys.

With Steven Jackson out and Marc Bulger's ribs messed up, things could get ugly in Dallas. At least I think...

My picks:

Green Bay (3-0) 24, at Minnesota (1-2) 16: As hard as it is to imagine the Packers 4-0, Minnesota's offense is BAD. Meaning the Pack will stay close with Brett Favre leading them...

At Indianapolis (3-0) 34, Denver (2-1) 14: Broncos fans should turn their attention to baseball's Rockies this afternoon. This will be over quickly.

At San Diego (1-2) 28, Kansas City (1-2) 10: The Chargers would have to really tank to mess up this must-win.

Pittsburgh (3-0) 27, at Arizona (1-2) 18: Nobody's talking about them. But, man, the Steelers are good.

Philadelphia (1-2) 31, at NY Giants 28 (1-2): This will be a shootout. With McNabb throwing accurately, Eagles have last laugh.

At Dallas (3-0) 41, St. Louis (0-3) 17: See above.

At Buffalo (0-3) 20, NY Jets (1-2) 16: Perfect time for Bills to pick up first victory.

At San Francisco (2-1) 24, Seattle (2-1) 21: Home team always rules in the NFC West.

Houston (2-1) 28, at Atlanta (0-3) 21: This could be a trap, but I don't think the Texans have let their early-season success get to them yet. They'll be ready.

Tampa Bay (2-1) 31, at Carolina (2-1) 21: Hard to figure the Panthers. So far they're 2-0 on the road and 0-1 at home. Hmmmm...

At Miami (0-3) 16, Oakland (1-2) 14: This is a week for the bottom feeders to get that elusive first win.

At Cincinnati (1-2) 34, New England (3-0) 28: A much bigger game for the Bengals. Carson Palmer will throw for 400 yards.

Chicago (1-2) 16, at Detroit (2-1) 14: Statement game for a Bears defense that was just as bad as Rex Grossman last week.

I'm out. Enjoy Atlanta's (few remaining) fans greeting Matt Schaub.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ecstasy and agony


Entering Friday night's slate of games, the National League playoff picture was about as clear as the view from Mt. Everest's peak.

Seven teams were still alive. Not one playoff spot had been clinched. There was the possibility of five teams finishing with identical records. There were approximately 4,319 scenarios for how the weekend could turn out. Baseball fans were prepared for multiple one-game playoffs beginning Monday, with a chance of continuing through Wednesday.

Then the sky cleared. By about midnight, two playoff spots had been clinched — with the Diamondbacks earning a birth with their 4-2 win over the red-hot Rockies, and the Cubs clinching the Central Division due to their 6-0 win over Cincinnati's minor league lineup combined with Milwaukee's 6-3 loss to the Padres.

Also by midnight, two teams had been sent to the very edge of a steep cliff — with the Mets losing again, this time 7-4 to the lowly Marlins, which, combined with the Phillies' 6-0 dispatching of the Nationals, put the men in white and red a game up in the division with a game to play. And the Rockies, who had won 11 straight entering Friday, fell two games behind the Padres in the wild card due to their loss. Any Padres' win or Rockies' loss seals their fate.

Whew! What a crazy night it was.

So what does this all mean, besides the fact that we'll likely not have to face the decision of watching Monday Night Football versus a one-game playoff Monday night?

It means that the Mets are on the verge of completing the greatest late-season collapse since the 1964 Phillies — a bit ironic, considering who just took over the division lead.

It means that Philly sports fans might finally have something to cheer for — just watching them waving those white towels deliriously Friday night, you could tell they've been waiting for this.

And, believe me, if the Phillies hold on, no one will want to play them in the postseason. That lineup is scarier than a Wes Craven flick — keeping them in almost every game — and if the pitching staff gets its act together like Cole Hamels did Friday, in striking out 13 in eight shutout innings, I don't see why the Fighting Phils can't win the pennant.

But, wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. It's easy to discount the Mets, but it's not wise. All you have to do is look back a year to realize that the one thing that matters is getting in.

If — and, yes, I know the size of this "if" rather large — New York can win its final two games, force a playoff with the Phillies, who would have to lose one, and make the playoffs, it couldn't be counted out in the playoffs. Last season the Cardinals and Tigers limped to the regular season's finish line (with St. Louis finishing 3-9 and Detroit giving up the AL Central by losing five straight).

Nobody gave either team a fighting chance in the playoffs. Yankees' fans, I'm sure, were already thinking about the ALCS before their divisional series against the Tigers.

You know what ended up happening. Perhaps aided by the two-day hiatus from baseball, the Cardinals and Tigers got hot when it mattered and ended up in the World Series.

So, yes, it's possible, Mets fans. I know right now you're drowning in despair — and, honestly, it's probably the right recourse; your team likely is done. But, and this is a "but" the size of the Nutty Professor's, if a Philadelphia team lets its devoted fans down (um, has that ever happened??), and your Mets decide to extricate themselves from their grave...

OK, let's move on.

Most of the time baseball analysts are spot on when they say managers aren't as important to a team's success as coaches in other sports. But no baseball guru can play down the genius decision of Arizona skipper Bob Melvin Thursday afternoon.

With showers expected in Pittsburgh, Melvin decided to rest his ace, Brandon Webb, for Friday's huge game against division foe Colorado. Instead, he started super pitcher-hitter Micah Owings, who not only shut out the dismal Pirates, but also went 4-for-4 (on a side note, why don't more pitchers try to hit like Owings: .339 BA, four HRs, 15 RBIs).

Then Webb (18-10) cooled down the Rockies' bats at Coors Field — no small feat — leading Arizona straight into the playoffs.

Not very many people will expect the no-name, no-hitting D'Backs, who at 90-70 have been outscored by several runs, to make any noise in the playoffs. That, of course, makes them all the scarier. With Melvin pulling the strings and a bunch of young, hungry players with a nothing-to-lose attitude, Arizona could shock a lot of people this October.

Just like it did throughout the season.

Standing in the way of the D'Backs is America's team, the Cubs, Cubbies, Northsiders. Whether you are a Cubs fan or not, you can't deny that having them in the playoffs is good for baseball (not to mention TV ratings). With the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and probably Phillies in the playoffs, this October could turn out to be one of the most remembered in baseball's long, storied history.

All season long, I didn't expect the Cubs to make the playoffs. Even after they overtook the collapsing Brewers for first place, I thought the surging Cardinals would stampede the Cubs. It just seemed like destiny.

A Cubs team with a huge payroll close to $100 million and all the parts... shouldn't make the playoffs. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? And until Friday night, there was still that possibility.

Chicago had lost three straight to those same Mets-killing Marlins. I could sense the tension in the Windy City from nearly 300 miles away. Mercurial Carlos Zambrano was scheduled to pitch Friday night. A flameout was in the cards, wasn't it?

Not this time. The Cubs didn't waste any time in clinching the division. They didn't mess around with a Reds' lineup that was missing several key players. They kept building the lead until it was a safe 6-0. And then they waited to celebrate...

Until the final score came in from Milwaukee. The Brewers had lost. The Cubs were going back to the playoffs.

There was the traditional sipping and squirting of champagne. Relieved smiles all around. And, I'm sure, plenty of partying on the North Side.

But by the night's wee hours, the talk had turned to the playoffs. And a mission not yet accomplished.

These Cubs, despite featuring just three players from the 2003 team that came so close to the World Series (if you don't know the story, you're not reading this), know the pain that was caused four autumns ago. They're determined to bring the franchise its first World Series championship since 1908.

Their new mission begins next week. As does the Diamondbacks' mission.

By Saturday night, the other half of the National League picture might be cleared up. Or, it's possible, we'll have to wait until Sunday or Monday.

Whatever the case, the National League playoff outlook became much more lucid Friday night, turning uncertainty into ecstasy for a pair of teams while others took a step closer to October baseball and others a step toward October golf.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A bittersweet ending for Tigers


This wasn't how it was supposed to end, I thought...

I stood in the front row of the right field bleachers, my sky blue sweatshirt drenched, my scorecard tucked inside my undershirt so as to stay dry.

The stands surrounding me were empty. So was the field, except for the ominous white tarp covering the infield.

It was only the top of the sixth inning, but yet I had the feeling that it was the bottom of the ninth. A dose of reality, really.

And then the home plate umpire waved his arms, signaling "Game Over." I glanced at the scoreboard and, sure enough, it was over.

The Yankees, 1,199 miles away in St. Petersburg, Fla., had defeated Tampa Bay 12-4, officially eliminating the Tigers from the playoffs. Even though the rain had subsided once again, game officials no longer saw a reason to continue Detroit's final home game. Five innings were in the books. It was official — a shortened 9-4 Tigers victory over Minnesota.

Good night, folks.

At 10:40 p.m. EST many things came to an abrupt halt:
— The Tigers' home schedule.
— The Tigers' playoff chances.
— The rain showers that had engulfed the city for much of the night.

Comerica Park would not see baseball again until the absurdly early March 31, 2008, opener against the Blue Jays (good luck getting that game in).

In a way, the final home game of the season was emblematic of the Tigers season. There were many thrills — highlighted by a six-run fourth inning after the first rain delay. But, ultimately, it ended too early.

Many die-hard fans stuck around until the bitter end, wet and cold, yet itching for a few more innings of Tigers baseball. After all, this season felt incomplete.

Of course, perspective is needed when critiquing the 2007 Tigers. Close to nobody, I'm sure, would have said four years ago that this kind of season — being in contention for a playoff spot until the final week — would be disappointing four years down the line.

But, alas, those in and around the metropolitan area were spoiled by 2006. A season that was too perfect to be true. All the players coming together to accomplish the improbable. Just about everyone staying healthy. And so the story goes...

Repeating the improbable — even if it is no longer improbable — is the challenge. Living up to the all-of-a-sudden huge expectations is a burden that can take its toll.

These Tigers felt it. Pitchers couldn't stay healthy or hid their injury (Jeremy Bonderman). The key newcomer to the lineup (Gary Sheffield) felt the aches and pains of age and struggled, with a bad shoulder, down the all-important stretch run.

The amazing pitching the Tigers got last season didn't repeat itself. Every starter was inconsistent, going through stretches where they simply could not locate their pitches. The bullpen was solid for the most part, yet it still allowed the Tigers to blow several games which looked like sure victories. Turn those "Ls" into "Ws" and the Yanks aren't celebrating yet.

The bottom of the lineup didn't have the punch of a year ago. Craig Monroe wasn't the same player, and ended up being dealt away. Questions, no doubt, will surround Brandon Inge this off-season. He didn't perform well at the plate at any point in '07.

But the most notable thing this team lacked was the ability to pull off the remarkable when it was unexpected — the theme of a year ago. Sure, there were still a few comebacks (with the 5-4 win over the Blue Jays topping the list). But for the most part, when the opposition built a lead late in a game, the Tigers weren't coming back.

There was a lack of walk-offs. Too many strikeouts, popouts and double plays. And even when the Tigers grabbed a late-inning lead, too often — it seemed — the bullpen couldn't hold it.

The magic was gone... sent southeast, one would have to hypothesize, to Cleveland, where the Indians had it all season long. The first sign came in May, when Tigers closer Todd Jones blew an 11-7 ninth-inning lead in a 12-11 loss. The final indication came in last week's three-game sweep for Cleveland, which came back in every game to stun the Tigers.

Yet Detroit, contrary to the opinion of most of the media, wasn't out of the wild card race after the sweep. If not for an uninspiring loss to Kansas City last Saturday, a 2-0 loss to Minnesota Monday night — which was hard to believe, considering Detroit had it best lineup against the mediocre Carlos Silva — and a pair of Yankees' victories over Toronto this past weekend due to the Blue Jays' poor fielding and Yankees' late-inning heroics, the Tigers would still be very much alive heading into their final series in Chicago.

Instead they're done — with many questions lingering heading into the off-season, such as whether Sheffield will return, or Kenny Rogers will be back, or whether Detroit will pick up Ivan Rodriguez's $13-million option.

These are important questions, yet compared to the Qs of four years ago — "What can we do to win 80 games?" — they are minuscule.

As hard as it was for Tigers fans to see their favorite players for the final time in 2007 Wednesday night — especially for a mere five and a third innings — as one postgame show caller educated the listeners on, there are only 142 days (now 141) until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

I'm sure that as was the case last spring, optimism will be in the air come that calender-marked day.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Taking coach Gundy's side


I'll never forget the time as a sports writer for my college newspaper when I was berated by football players for an article.

As the Sports Editor of The Pleiad, Albion College's weekly, I wrote an article about how many Albion students would rather watch Michigan or Michigan State football games on TV than attend Albion games. It was a poorly written article — with not enough sources or a wide diversity of sources — and it didn't take long for a pair of e-mails from Albion football players to appear in my inbox.

Both e-mailers were big, tough players for the Britons, but they were also — as I learned — very sensitive. They couldn't believes that I wrote an article basically saying that their fellow students didn't care for them. They swore at me and said I'd never make it in the world.

My words had obviously gotten to them.

And I was just a college paper writer in the middle of nowhere.

I wonder how Bobby Reid felt after "Oklahoman" writer Jenni Carlson ripped the Oklahoma State quarterback in a column last Saturday?

Regardless of the 21-year-old's initial reaction to the column, I'm sure he felt better after his coach, Mike Gundy, absolutely erupted at Carlson in this postgame tirade by now widely popular all over the country.

My first reaction to the video was disgust. Who does this coach think he is to spend the entire press conference after a victory — 49-45 over Texas Tech — belittling a reporter who, to her credit, sat through the entire outburst? At first, Gundy appeared an out-of-control coach of a struggling team (2-2), who likely will not hold onto his job for long. A madman taking out his anger on a media member.

(And he sure did a great job of taking the attention away from his team with the rant).

But after a day to think about it, I can see where Gundy was coming from. While I don't agree with the childish way in which he attacked Carlson (be the adult; talk to her civilly, whether in public or private), he was right to protect his player. Carlson shouldn't have criticized Reid the way she did, using vague references to his behavior on and off the field, not to mention quoting other writers.

College athletes, as I learned first-hand while at Albion, are still really just kids. It's OK to say they performed poorly on the field or to ridicule them for off-the-field incidents that are transparently bad (i.e. getting arrested or busted for underage drinking).

But when it comes to issues such as eating chicken from their mother, not playing due to nicks and bruises, or laughing on the sideline with an assistant coach (all claims Carlson made about Reid), lay off them.

As a recent college graduate, I can tell you that despite the tough-guy countenance many college kids put on, they're still kids growing into their bodies. Many of them, especially Division 1 athletes, are coddled. They don't pay rent bills. They certainly don't work jobs. They're not — despite all the coverage we, the media, grant them — adults.

Proponents of criticizing Division 1 athletes for everything from performing poorly, to sulking on the bench, to making too many visits home to mommy, point to the benefits these athletes receive compared to their fellow college students.

The free tuition, room and board. The athletic tutors. The professors who relax on their grades. The TV exposure. The excessive praise heaped on them by the media and during recruiting. The gifts we know many of them illegally accept to attend their universities.

What they fail to point out, however, is that the athletes don't ask for any of this. They're simply products of the environment in which they become stars. It's the schools and media that plop these athletes on a throne, that place them on the covers of national magazines.

While some athletes bask in the spotlight of big-time college athletics, I'm sure the majority of them wouldn't mind if all the attention was focused elsewhere. Sure, the large crowds pump them up for the big game, but all the outside smoke is unnecessary.

And let us not forget that as much as we glorify Division 1 football and basketball players, the majority of them are not going to play professionally. For every five Michigan football players who are drafted each spring, 20 go on to work in some other field. While football is a huge part of their lives while in Ann Arbor, the majority of them leave the game after four or five years.

The everyday criticism should be reserved for the pros. They know it's coming. They get used to it. Regardless of their age, they become adults on draft day. They're no longer kids once they sign on the bottom line.

I know that must be difficult in Oklahoma, where college sports rule since there are no pro teams (that I know of). The college athletes there probably receive the attention that the Yankees and Mets garner in New York.

But that's no excuse to rip a kid to shreds for such minuscule actions as accepting chicken from his mother.

After all, I, for one — even as a 40-year-old — will always let my mom feed me. It's cheaper than eating out.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Those were the Lions we know


Anyone familiar with the Detroit Lions franchise and objective enough to curtail the celebrating after two ho-hum victories, knew what was coming Sunday.

Sure, a pair of ESPN analysts — who know football, but haven't been around Detroit for losing season after losing season — picked Detroit to beat Philadelphia Sunday and improve to 3-0. Sure, there were questions about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb's focus heading into the game due to controversial comments he made about black quarterbacks receiving unfair criticism on HBO.

It's called false hope, people. Anyone who looks themselves in the mirror, knew what was coming Sunday.

A reality check.

Are the Lions better than the 3-13 team of a year ago? Yeah, I think so.

Will they score a lot of points this season? Yeah, probably more than half the teams in the league.

But is their defense the worst in the league? Well, no other team came close to giving up 56 points Sunday (Buffalo was closest, surrendering 38 to a pretty good New England team).

Fifty-six points, people. I don't care if your offense features the nine best receivers in the league paired with Peyton Manning. You're not going to score 40-plus points often, let alone 56 points.

Only the Lions can turn critical Philly fans into soft-bellied lovers of their home team — a feat accomplished for at least one day. Only the Lions can make Kevin Curtis into Marvin Harrison for a day (11 catches for 221 yards and three first-half touchdowns will do that).

Sunday was the start of the downward spiral for Detroit. While every win is "key" in the National Football League, beating Oakland and Minnesota (two of the league's worst) doesn't prove a thing. Now Detroit gets the angry Bears at home (loss) and an improved Washington team on the road (loss) before its bye week.

It's funny how 2-0 can — and will — become 2-3 in the wink of an eye.

The highlight of Detroit's dismal afternoon may have come when first-round draft pick Calvin Johnson made a leaping catch between two defenders with the Lions down 35-7. It was beautiful — except that Johnson had to leave the game with a lower back bruise (if he's out against the Bears, forget about it).

But to make my point, Detroit — with its pretty pass offense run by Jon Kitna, Roy Williams, Johnson & Co. — will reel off some "I can't believe he did that!" plays this year, but there's no substance to the team.

No running game (to the tune of 39 yards Sunday). Poor pass protection (to the tune of nine sacks for 53 yards).

And no pass defense (to the tune of 363 passing yards and four touchdowns by McNabb). Oh, and Detroit's run "D" didn't exactly play well either, giving up 173 yards on 34 carries.

The optimists will say Sunday was only one game that misrepresented what this team's "all about." Coaches might throw out the "we weren't prepared" excuse.

They're both wrong. What do you think the Lions coaches did all week leading up to the game, watched re-runs of "Law & Order?" No, they were preparing for the game. As were the players. These guys are professionals.

Sunday was a dose of reality for die-hard Lions fans (probably the most faithful followers in all of sports). The Eagles exposed the Lions for what they are:
— An exciting (yet predictable) offensive team, which throws long touchdowns (91 yards to Williams) and refuses to run the football (a measly 12 carries).
— A terrible defensive team when the front four is unable to get to opposing quarterbacks.

Sounds like a 5-11, 6-10 team.

Sorry, folks. I'd rather be truthful than mislead.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

NFL Week 3 Picks


Will somebody please help me figure out the Cleveland Browns. I picked — again — 11 of 16 games correctly in Week 2 (yes, 69 percent). And, again, I was very, very wrong about the Browns.

I predicted Cincinnati would destroy Cleveland. Instead, the Browns decided to score 51 points and win.


So who really knows what will happen to Cleveland against 0-2 Oakland today. As Chris Berman says, "That's why they play the game."

Yeah, yeah.

Anyway, I've been wrong on the Browns and Rams both weeks. Take away those mishaps, and I'm averaging 13-for-16.

My Week 3 picks:

At New England 24, Buffalo 13: Will be closer than people think.
At NY Jets 13, Miami 10: Somebody's gotta win this one.
At Philly 34, Detroit 24: Sorry, Lions, the party stops in Philly.
At Pittsburgh 23, San Francisco 20: Battle of 2-0 teams goes to the guys at home.
At Green Bay 21, San Diego 17: Everyone expects San Diego to "respond." But what about the other team?
At Kansas City 17, Minnesota 14: Please refrain from watching.
St. Louis 24, at Tampa Bay 17: I just can't help it. The Rams have to win at some point.
At Baltimore 23, Arizona 10: Matt Leinart gets tortured by Ravens' D.
Indianapolis 28, Houston 16: No Andre Johnson, no chance for Texans.
At Oakland 16, Cleveland 13: I flipped a coin.
Cincinnati 24, at Seattle 20: Big road win — and bounce-back — for Bengals.
At Denver 16, Jacksonville 13: Can you believe it? Another game-winning field goal.
Carolina 21, at Atlanta 10: For some strange reason, I think I may be wrong.
At Washington 21, NY Giants 20: Close NFC East battle. Redskins stay perfect.
At Chicago 23, Dallas 17: Finally Cowboys' offense gets slowed down.
At New Orleans 28, Tennessee 20: Must-win game for Saints at home.

I'm out. Enjoy the Lions finding a way to lose in Philly.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

With a few jacks, Indians dispose of Tigers


It didn't dawn on me until Tuesday night just how frustrating watching baseball on television is. Especially when you can't watch with sound.

I was sitting in the office, watching the Tigers-Indians game, a contest Detroit absolutely needed to have any hope of stealing the Central Division.

And the teams looked very evenly matched. Both lineups appeared to be taking healthy swings at the baseball. The bat would meet the ball, sending it — on the TV screen — in the air toward left field.

But here's where the whole not-so-fun-to-watch-baseball-on-TV opinion grows its roots. While the camera caught every batter's swing, where the ball ended up was a guessing game. That is, until a theme became apparent:

— All the fly balls by Cleveland Indians found the stands (four home runs Tuesday; eight during the three-game sweep).

— All the fly balls by Detroit Tigers found the glove of whoever was playing left field for Cleveland (the Tigers hit one lousy home run the whole series).

Therein lies the difference between the soon-to-be division champs (seven and a half games up with 10 to play) and the soon-to-be-fishing/playing golf Tigers (nine games left; need food poisoning to invade Cleveland's locker room).

Cleveland's sweep of the Tigers — by scores of 6-5, 7-4 and 4-2 — was far from dominant. The Tigers led in the latter innings of every game. Cleveland's pitchers were far from unhittable.

But, honestly, Detroit's hitters compared to Cleveland's looked like high schoolers. The Indians were the big, muscular power hitters. The Tigers splayed high flies all over Jacobs Field's grass outfield (and made sure to direct them toward the men in the other team's uniforms).

After watching the Indians' three comeback wins, I'd like to add to the list of reasons for Detroit's demise this year after 2006's amazing World Series run: Injuries, starting pitching, injuries, bottom of the lineup...


Yeah, I realize I just made up a word. Webster's can decide if it wants it, but it sure is applicable when talking Tigers (and I'm not talking about the incredible 5-4 comeback win over Toronto a couple weeks back... seems so long ago now).

Detroit, simply, did not get hits when it needed them. Did not get outs when it was so close to victory.

And now it will not — barring a tsunami engulfing New York — reach the playoffs (hey, at least the Cardinals won't make it back either).

Marcus Thames had one final chance to salvage the season Wednesday afternoon. With the bases loaded and the Tigers down 4-2 in the eighth inning, he stepped to the plate. A single would have tied it. A double or better likely would have won it and postponed — at least until Friday night — the champagne orders in Cleveland.

Watching the game out of the corner of my eye on mute, I saw him connect on a fly ball to left field. For that split second, I turned my full attention to the 30-inch screen in front of me. But then I saw the left fielder camping out to make a routine play.

And I got back to my work.

It was clear the Tigers lacked the one attribute that the Indians displayed all series.


Yeah, that's another new one for Webster's.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

It's almost October


October — while still 13 days away — is most definitely in the air.

Just reference the past few days.

The intensity of the games.

The crowd noise.

The comebacks.

The long games (due to multiple pitching changes).

The brisk temperatures.

Yes, it's almost time for playoff baseball, for the second best month on the American sports calender (behind March).

The Yankees and Red Sox spoiled us with a sneak preview this past weekend. Believe me when I say there's a reason this rivalry gets double the attention of any other baseball matchup. It's that much better, that much more exciting.

On Friday night I thought the Red Sox — with a 7-2 lead — were well on their way to a pivotal victory, a win that would place the Yanks in a deep, deep hole in the American League East and — combined with the Tigers' victory — cut their wild card lead to two and a half games.

But I looked up an hour later, and the Yanks were ahead 8-7 (which turned out to be the final score). As the absurd highlights demonstrated, New York had scored six runs in the eighth inning before the Red Sox could record a single out.

Red Sox' Southpaw reliever Hideki Okajima, who hadn't allowed a home run by a left-handed hitter all season, gave up back-to-back jacks.

Despite the voluble Yankees' offense, the comeback — which also came against indomitable Sox' closer Jonathan Papelbon — was shocking... and disturbing (if you're a part of Red Sox Nation or a Tigers fan).

While the Yankees, obviously a bit worn out from Friday's showing, didn't give much in a 10-1 loss Saturday, Sunday night's ESPN game — even more than Friday's comeback — came across as October baseball, and I was simply watching on TV.

In the eighth inning, with the score 1-1, Curt Schilling and catcher Jason Varitek met at the mound before every pitch of a crucial at bat for Derek Jeter, with runners on second and third and two out. Obviously, the final discussion proved ineffective, as the always-clutch Jeter ripped a fastball over the Green Monster.

Despite Jeter's blast, you didn't see any Red Sox fans heading for the exits. They all knew a comeback was in the making. And they guessed right. Against arguably the best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, in the ninth, the Sox made the score 4-3 and loaded the bases for their clutch mastermind, David "Big Papi" Ortiz.

My friend sitting next to me guaranteed a hit and a Red Sox win. I'm sure many inside Fenway were thinking the same thing. But Rivera jammed Ortiz with a high fastball, which the slugger popped to Jeter.

And the game was over. But it was just the beginning of this fall's drama.

Entering Monday, the Tigers trailed the Yankees by a mere two and a half games in the wild card and were four and a half games back of Cleveland heading into a three-game set at Jacobs Field. While Tigers-Indians doesn't receive close to the attention of Red Sox-Yankees, it didn't fail to deliver the same kind of drama witnessed over the weekend.

In front of a packed crowd which stood for most of the final few innings, Cleveland erased a four-run deficit and won 6-5 in 11 innings on Casey Blake's second walk-off homer in a matter of four days.

The Jake went bonkers. Just like in "Major League," Cleveland can smell the playoffs. The Indians now own a commanding five and a half game advantage over the Tigers. Another win in the next two games, and you can almost pencil it in.

It's beginning to look like the spring, when the Cavaliers beat the favored Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. A little deja vu.

But don't count out the Tigers just yet — not from the wild card or division race.

If these last few days have taught us anything, it's that during this time of year, anything can happen in baseball.

Sounds like October, doesn't it?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

10 reasons why Michigan can win 10


It's hard to tell how good the Michigan football team was against the Fighting (scratch that, Moldy) Irish Saturday afternoon.

The score — 38-0 — looked good.

So did the defense (which held Notre Dame to minus 6 rushing yards and compiled 12 tackles for loss).

A guy named Mike Hart wasn't bad either, backing up his "we gonna win" guarantee with 187 yards and the first two Michigan touchdowns, which basically sealed the 0-3 Irish's fate.

Not bad for the first win of the season.

But it's impossible to gauge just how good the Wolverines were because of how bad — and they were really bad — the Irish were. Notre Dame's first offensive play resulted in a large loss after the ball was snapped over Jimmy Clausen's head.

Things didn't get better.

The majority of Division 1-A teams — and, I'm sure, a few 1-AA teams, such as Appalachian State — could have whipped the gold helmets on Saturday. And with their upcoming schedule, 0-3 could become 0-8 before you can say, "Unbelievable."

But enough about them. Let's talk about Michigan. These Wolverines still have a lot to prove if they want to shrug off their worst start in 10 years and make this a semi-successful season — something I believe they're capable of.

Here are the 10 reasons why Michigan could win out through Nov. 17 (Ohio State), stealing the Big Ten title and returning to the Rose Bowl with 10 victories:

1. Mike Hart — Notre Dame knew what Michigan's offensive game plan was Saturday, but it couldn't do a thing about it. When Hart gets going, he's hard to stop. Lloyd Carr needs to give him 35 carries (like he did Saturday) or more a game. Especially with starting QB Chad Henne out. Hart could will this team to a couple wins.

2. The schedule — No Big Ten game is ever easy, but if Michigan can beat Penn State next Saturday at the Big House, the road becomes much smoother until the final three games (at Michigan State, at Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State). This is especially important, because Henne should be back for the November stretch (and probably sooner). If Ryan Mallett plays mistake-free, Michigan should win at Northwestern (which, somehow, lost to Duke at home Saturday), vs. Eastern Michigan, vs, Purdue, at Illinois and vs. Minnesota.

3. Big Ten is down — Michigan isn't the only Big Ten team that appears vulnerable this season. Wisconsin was tied with I-AA The Citadel Saturday at halftime before pulling away. Penn State has beaten nobody (including Notre Dame 31-10, not as convincingly as Michigan's win). Michigan State has had to hold on for home wins over Bowling Green and injury-depleted Pittsburgh. Ohio State's offense has had one good showing and two mediocre ones. Purdue could be dangerous, but it hasn't beaten anyone. Iowa lost to Iowa State. The bottom of the conference appears terrible, considering Northwestern's loss and Minnesota falling to Florida Atlantic.

4. An improving defense —
Sure, it was Notre Dame, but Michigan's defense showed life Saturday. Most importantly, the guys in that unit have confidence now. They believe in each other. And they tackled well against the Irish. I only expect this group to get better and more cohesive. A big win against Penn State would do wonders for it.

5. Henne's return — Can you imagine what Chad Henne is thinking right now? Here, he came back for his senior season expecting to contend for a national title. Instead, he was in the press box Saturday, watching his 0-2 team led by a freshman quarterback. I can guarantee that when he returns from his leg injury, Henne will be rearing to go. He'll cut down on mistakes. He — along with Hart — will lead this offense to several big games.

6. Big Ten offenses — I can't be positive, but I'm pretty sure that the majority of teams Michigan faces from here on out do not boast the spread offenses that demoralized the Wolverines in their first two games. And as Notre Dame proved, you can't simply implement the spread for a single game, especially if you don't start a mobile quarterback. Additionally, most of the top teams in the conference lack an experienced signal-caller, a Troy Smith or Dennis Dixon. Michigan's defense tends to fare better against premier running backs than top-notch QBs.

7. Playing for Lloyd —
I know this sounds a bit cheesy, but the players are going to dedicate this season to Lloyd Carr. I get the sense that they get the sense that Carr has the sense he'll step down after the season. And nobody wants to see Carr leave after a disappointing season. So as hokey as it sounds, the Wolverines are going to do everything they can to send Carr out on a positive note. A Big Ten championship — after everyone doubted him — wouldn't be bad.

8. Jake Long What a behemoth left tackle. The Wolverines don't have to mix up their running plays much. Just run behind this guy. He absolutely bulldozed the Notre Dame defenders Saturday, clearing gaping holes for the quick, shifty Hart. This combination will be crucial in the final minutes of close games, when Michigan is trying to run the clock out. Believe me, there will be a few Big Ten games like this.

9. History — It's hard to imagine sitting on the couch in late October, thinking Michigan has no shot to win the Big Ten. I don't see it happening. There are a few things you can expect each autumn in Michigan: leaves will fall; it will get cold; and Michigan will compete for the Big Ten title. Don't mess with tradition.

10. A new season, new life — I was just thinking Saturday night that if I were a highly touted recruit, I wouldn't even consider Notre Dame. Why, you ask? Because the Irish — after three losses — have close to nothing to play for except that "P" word, pride. Because Notre Dame remains an independent, there is no conference to win. The Irish are out of the national title picture and will not — with three or more losses — play in a BCS bowl. So all they can hope for is a Gator Bowel birth. Who gives a hoot? Michigan, on the other hand, still has plenty to play for. It is tied for first in the Big Ten at 0-0. A Big Ten championship means a BCS bowl birth. The Wolverines clearly have the talented athletes to get the job done. With so much still at stake, it's hard to believe they won't make a serious run at all that remains at stake.

No, Michigan's isn't a Top 5 team or even a Top 10 team (who, at this point, even knows if they're a Top 25 team, although I believe they are).

But there remain endless possibilities for the rest of the season. Just ask any player or coach. While the sting of those pair of home losses hasn't completely subsided, with one blowout win, things are looking up — at least for a week — in Ann Arbor.

NFL Week 2 Picks

I'll admit, I was a bit rusty Week 1, picking just 11 of 16 games correctly (that's 69 percent, folks). So I've done my research, read 57 descriptions of Eli's shoulder injury, and I'm prepared for battle.

My Week 2 picks:

Cincinnati 35 at Cleveland 13: Poor Browns' fans. They watch a loss and don't even get to see Brady Quinn.

Indianapolis 28 at Tennessee 24: Valiant effort by Titans, but Colts aren't the Super Bowl champs for nothing.

At St. Louis 24, San Francisco 14: Rams get first win on their friendly turf.

Green Bay 28 at NY Giants 21: All of a sudden, the NFC North isn't looking too bad.

At Pittsburgh 28, Buffalo 13: News is that the sale of Roethlisbergers is back up.

New Orleans 20 at Tampa Bay 13: Gritty win gets Saints in the win column.

At Carolina 31, Houston 17: Panthers' offense is back.

At Jacksonville 13, Atlanta 3: That Falcons' offense is anemic.

At Detroit 27, Minnesota 21: Yes, the Lions will be 2-0. But, believe me, it won't last.

Dallas 20 at Miami 14: Boys' offense does just enough.

At Arizona 28, Seattle 25: Big win for Cardinals in tight NFC West.

At Chicago 23, Kansas City 7: Bears are hungry for that first win... Chiefs are badd.

At Denver 31, Oakland 14: Raiders are even worse than the Chiefs. Ouch.

At Baltimore 23, NY Jets 9: Playing against that Baltimore defense can't be fun.

At New England 24, San Diego 23: Hard game to pick, but I can tell you Pats won't be affected by off-the-field distractions.

At Philly 20, Washington 13: Always a tough divisional matchup, but Eagles are solid on both sides of the ball.

All right, time to get the chips n' salsa.

I'm out.

Friday, September 14, 2007

College football Week 3 preview: Stop the booing


I didn't see it live, but I sure heard about it later. And, sadly, it's not that surprising.

Not only did Michigan fans boo the Wolverines on a handful of occasions during last Saturday's 39-7 thumping at the hands of Oregon. Certain "fans" shouted obscenities at players as the student-athletes hurried into the tunnel after the game.

I don't care how badly Michigan got beat. Cursing the 18- and 19-year-olds who played their hearts out in front of 110,000 spectators is ludicrous, ridiculous... sad.

As a lifelong Ann Arbor resident and Michigan supporter, I was just as disappointed as everyone else by the duck-thrashing. Michigan's 0-2 start has been stunning, shocking, bitterly disappointing. But as I've come to grasp over the years — and, believe me, it hasn't been easy — especially at the college level, it's just a game.

I find it downright hypocritical how people can lambaste these athletes for struggling with their schoolwork (and occasionally getting into trouble off the field) and then place tremendous pressure on them before games only to rip them to shreds after a bad football game. As someone who recently graduated from college, I can't imagine trying to focus on a test or paper while being ridiculed daily by my own fans — not to mention avoiding ESPN cameras invading campus.

Of course there's the other side. Any realist knows many of these kids, who major in "General Studies," aren't exactly normal students. Any realist must admit that college football is a business, what with the shoe deals and TV contracts. All this does is put more pressure on young men at universities such as Michigan to succeed on the football field at all costs.

It's hard enough for them to try to focus on schoolwork (or, heck, enjoy their college experience) when they're thinking about their nationally televised game upcoming. And, yes, I know, that's why many of the players choose Michigan — for the bright lights, for the exposure.

But the fans — of all people — should know. The 110,000 people who pack the Big House on autumn Saturdays, many of whom (like myself) have never stepped foot on a football field, should be able to keep things in perspective.

Boo Lloyd Carr and his fellow coaches, the guys making hundreds of thousands of dollars to coach football. But don't criticize the players, and especially lay off them after a difficult afternoon on the field.

As long as they're trying their hardest — as hokey as it sounds — that's all that should matter in a fan's eye.

Michigan 24, Notre Dame 14: Not time to start thinking bowel game, but it's a start.
No. 7 Wisconsin 38, Citadel 10: Badgers take a breath after scare last week.
Indians 27, Akron 21: Close call, but Hoosiers prevail.
Michigan State 31, Pittsburgh 13: Coming-out party for the Spartans.
Syracuse 21, Illinois 20: Sorry, Ron Zook, you haven't convinced me otherwise.
Purdue 28, Central Michigan 17: Closer than people expect.
No. 12 Penn State 49, Buffalo 3: Still waiting for the Nittany Lions to play somebody.
Minnesota 24, Florida Atlantic 10: Enjoy the winning record while it lasts, Gophers.
Iowa 27, Iowa State 14: Under-the-radar Hawkeyes make it 3-0.
No. 10 Ohio State 14, Washington 13: This will be a test for Buckeyes.
Northwest 31, Duke 13: A Duke win would be worse than Appalachian State beating Michigan.

No. 1 USC 31, No. 14 Nebraska 21: Trojans too much for upstart Huskers.
No. 2 LSU 51, Middle Tennessee 3: Ouch!
No. 3 Oklahoma 49, Utah State 6: Sooners now get to coast until Texas.
No. 5 Florida 21, No. 22 Tennessee 17: One-loss Vols will be desperate, but Gators are a solid bunch.
No. 6 Texas 55, Central Florida 7: Horns no longer messing around with teams.
No. 8 Cal 31, Louisiana Tech 10: Not as lopsided as it should be.
No. 9 Louisville 38, Kentucky 29: This should be very entertaining (and high-scoring).
No. 11 UCLA 24, Utah 17: Bruins survive in Provo.
No. 13 Rutgers 42, Norfolk State 7: Ray Rice runs wild
No. 21 Boston College 30, No. 15 Georgia Tech 17: No one's talking about the Eagles, but they're for real.
No. 16 Arkansas 13, Alabama 10: Um, this will be a hard-hitting SEC battle.
No. 17 South Carolina 34, South Carolina State 3: The Gamecocks, riding high, keep their momentum.
No. 18 Virginia Tech 24, Ohio 3: Back on the winning track, but offense continues to struggle.
No. 19 Oregon 37, Fresno State 20: Believe it — that Ducks' offense is scary.
No. 20 Clemson 45, Furman 7: Who really cares?
No. 23 Georgia 45, Western Carolina 7: See above.
No. 24 Hawaii 45, UNLV 21: Watching Colt Brennan is always fun.
No. 25 Texas A&M 32, Louisiana-Monroe 10: Blah, blah, blah.

Enjoy the games, but cut the damn booing. Reserve that for Sunday.

I'm out. Feedback on my picks is always welcome.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Federer is still the man, but for how long?


The result was inevitable. But it was still good television.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic pushed Roger Federer to the limit Sunday evening, succumbing to the world's undisputed No. 1 in three highly contested sets — the first two were decided in tiebreaks.

After two-plus hours, the sight was very familiar. Roger Federer celebrating a Grand Slam victory, No. 12 on his way to breaking Pete Sampras' record of 14. But Federer had to survive this championship match. There was no relaxing for him until it became lucid in the final set that no upset was in the cards.

In the first set, Djokovic had five set points on serve, but Federer fought them off to get the break. Two double faults by Djokovic in the tiebreaker combined with a couple huge Federer serves gave the Swiss the set.

Djokovic came right back in the second set, breaking Federer and taking a 4-1 lead. However, he couldn't close out the set once again, first giving up a break to make it 4-3 and then losing two set points — one on a 126 mph Federer serve and the other on a poor forehand that should have been a winner.

Djokovic's window of opportunity closed, Federer — with a rare fist pump — dominated the tiebreak, 7-2.

Game, set, match.

No surprise, but it was far from easy.

A closing gap
It could be said that Federer was outplayed for two sets Sunday. He clearly was the better player in the third and final set (6-4), but Djokovic appeared to have the upper hand during the opening two sets (not that anyone believed he'd win them).

You have to consider, though, that the kid is just 20. For him to have beaten Federer would have been downright precocious. He had to be nervous — especially when he had those set points. He had to consider the stage he was on (U.S. Open final in front of a sellout crowd in New York City).

Federer was far from his best Sunday, and we all know that when he's on his A Game, you, your cousin, nor your cousin's best friend has a chance against him. As good as Federer was when the points mattered most, he didn't win his 12th Grand Slam so much as Djokovic lost it.

The underdog simply committed too many unforced errors in crucial situations. Too many backhands into the net. Not good enough net play (the one part of his game he really needs to hone).

Again, Federer probably had his B+ game, but this seemed to be the case — a bit uncharacteristically — throughout the Open. He lost two sets prior to the final, something that hadn't happened since the 2006 French Open. Andy Roddick took Federer to two tiebreaks only to lose them both, just like Djokovic.

Is the winner of five straight Wimbledons, four straight U.S. Opens and two consecutive Australian Opens slipping?

Nah, I won't go that far — winning a tournament made up of 128 players is never easy — but it's plausible that the field of young guns chasing him is catching up. First, Rafael Nadal — not your typical only-good-on-clay-courts Spaniard — took him to a breathtaking five sets in the Wimbledon final, Federer's first (and only) five-set encounter in a Grand Slam finale.

And now Djokovic, a year younger than the 21-year-old Nadal, showed that on a given day he can compete and even threaten the best in the world. What has to (maybe) scare Federer just a tad is that the aforementioned players should only get better and become mentally tougher in the years to come.

Federer, on the other hand, is at his apex. He's in great shape. His backhand's as pure as ever. Although not known for his serve, when he gets on a roll (like he did toward the end of the second set Sunday, when he won eight straight first serves), it can be deadly.

But I don't see much room for improvement. Although maybe we'll see some variety in his victories. Some comeback wins would create even more drama.

Federer breaking Sampras' record is almost a near certainty. As long as he doesn't step in front of a trolley or contract a rare disease, he should break the record in the next two years (if not in 2008). Just consider that he's won an incredible 12 of the past 18 Grand Slams (four of which have been the French Open, which he's never won). He has needed just 34 Grand Slam tournaments to reach a dozen victories compared to 40 for Sampras.

What Roger Federer is doing is unprecedented. Unbelievable. Unfettering.

But how long it lasts is a whole other question. After 22-year-old American John Isner took the first set from Federer before dropping three straight in the third round, it was clear the 6-foot-9 University of Georgia graduate is an up-and-coming player.

Like Djokovic. Like Nadal has been for sometime now.

Federer will probably keep winning for a couple more years. But domination? There's a good chance that'll become a word of the past.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

No quick fixes for Wolverines


This loss was much more disturbing. Much more revealing. Again... much more disturbing.

A week ago, when Michigan lost 34-32 to Appalachian State, the Wolverines could chalk it up as, yes, an upset. They could regress that they weren't prepared, that they were caught by surprise, that they made too many of those all-too-familiar first-game mistakes.

And as lame as those excuses were, many Michigan fans bought them. Yes, of course, everyone realized that is was absolutely ludicrous for a team to not be prepared to play after eight months to get ready. But this gave us an opportunity to think Michigan is a good team that played one horrible game.

Can't say that anymore. No way, no how.

The Michigan team we saw on Saturday was flat out bad. The worst team on the field by far. Forget the pregame line or the location of the contest. Oregon's 39-7 spanking of the Wolverines — which could have, should have been a lot worse — was no upset, folks.

Call it a good (likely to be) Top 25 team beating up on a (maybe) top 50 team. Emphasis on "maybe."

The Ducks' dismantling of the Wolverines exposed several flaws with this group of Wolverines. Let's perform a physical:

The defense
Forget learning how to combat the vaunted spread offense. This group of Wolverines needs to go back to first grade.

Yes, the basics.

Tackling. Tackling. Tackling.

I didn't see all of the first two games — just ugly bits and pieces — so I wasn't able to tally all the missed tackles, but let me humor you with a guess.

Um, 139?

Seriously. There have been several plays on which Michigan has missed five or sick tackles. That's not good when you have a good defense (last year). That's asking for trouble when you have a mediocre defense (which is being kind to this season's unit).

I'm sure you've heard about/seen the numbers. But in case you haven't, here's a refresher:

624 — yards piled up by Oregon, the second-most against Michigan (lowly Northwestern gained 654 yards in a 54-51 win in 2000).

390 — yards the Ducks gained during the first half (gasp... game) Saturday, when Oregon put together a comfortable 32-7 cushion.

46, 61, 85 — yards of the three Oregon touchdown passes. 'Nuff said.

Which brings me to my next point: Big Plays. This isn't a new symptom, either. Whenever the Wolverines are beat — which, I must admit, happens as often birds fly these days — they give up large scoring plays. Just look at their last four losses (you don't have to go back very far).

Especially when you have a defense not big on talented playmakers, you've got to make the offense earn its points. Leave the door open for a player to fumble, a QB to toss an interception. Michigan hasn't done that the first two weeks.

But, you see, here's the problem with that. Michigan's defenders — especially up front — are not in great shape. They fatigue quickly (and the offense doesn't help when it goes three-and-out).

It was inevitable that the Ducks would score Saturday after a very, very quick Michigan offensive series late in the second quarter. Sure enough, on the next play Ducks' QB Dennis Dixon threw that 61-yard touchdown score, giving Oregon that 32-7 lead that basically sealed Michigan's 0-2 package.

After the game, there was no talk about the Wolverines not understanding the spread offense. Cornerback Donovan Warren said, in the Ann Arbor News, "I feel they just executed better than our defense."

Yeah, much better. Blame Michigan's defensive struggles on Lloyd Carr and Ron English's inability if you want to. But right now the unit's biggest problem is a lack of execution and conditioning.

All Michigan fans can hope for is that the Wolverines go back to the basics this week in practice. And that starts with, tackling, tackling, tackling.

The offense
As disappointing as the defense was against the Ducks, I honestly thought the game would be decided in the 30s. In other words, I didn't think 39 points by Oregon would necessarily mean a blowout win.

I also didn't think Michigan's offense would be as sloppy as it was. And again, the main problem was a lack of execution.

Dropped balls. Turnovers. Penalties.

It wasn't like Michigan couldn't move the ball in the first half Saturday (we're not counting the sans-Chad Henne second half). The Wolverines suffered just one three-and-out with Henne at the helm. Otherwise they moved the ball. But consider how they finished drives:

Interception. Fumble. Missed field goal. Turnover on downs. Punt from the Oregon 39-yard line.

Five different Michigan treks into Oregon territory ended in the results above. Michigan fell apart when it could smell the end zone, or at least three points and momentum. It stopped executing for a play — or two, or three — which is inexcusable for one of the nation's top programs.

Michigan suffered from obvious lapses in concentration. Mario Manningham caught eight passes for 117 yards, but he should have had another four or five catches. He gave backup quarterback Ryan Mallett the freshman's first career INT when a ball glanced off his hands. That's unacceptable for purportedly one of the country's best WRs.

The only consistents in Michigan's supposed explosive offense are the blocking of Jake Long and the running/blocking/whatever else he does of running back Mike Hart. Both players are great. Both are leaders. In fact, Hart stepped up, guaranteeing a win against Notre Dame on Saturday.

But they are only two players. An offense can't be effective if Hart steps out for one play only to stay on the sidelines because of a Carlos Brown fumble.

Yes, the Wolverines need to ride the strong shoulders of Hart more in the weeks to come — I'm talking 30 carries a game — especially with Henne, according to Carr, out against the Fighting Irish. But there will be passing downs and there will be downs on which the indomitable Hart needs a breather.

Michigan has to be productive on those plays as well.

Execution. Execution. Execution.

So what now?
Ain't this something? After Penn State pulled away from Notre Dame for a 31-10 win in Happy Valley, Saturday evening marked the first time both Michigan and the Fighting Irish have been 0-2.

Thankfully for them, they'll meet Saturday in the Big House on ABC. And one team will exit with a victory... I think.

Don't expect a quick turnaround by Michigan in this one (just as, in retrospect, it was foolish to think the Wolverines would pull a 360 against the Ducks). With Henne out, the offense is going to rest on the little big man, the man named Hart. If Carr is smart, he'll give the ball to Hart until the running back's legs stop churning.

He's the one sure thing right now for Michigan. It's too bad he's likely out of the Heisman Trophy race because of Michigan's inability to play football.

A magic trick won't turn these Wolverines around. Neither will a coaching change (at least for now; maybe after the season, Carr will realize that retirement doesn't appear to be a bad option). The one thing the Wolverines can do to appease their fans in the coming weeks is play hard-nosed, fundamentally strong football.

Wrap up when tackling. Hold on when catching. Hold on when running.

Let's be honest. Ranking Michigan No. 5 in the preseason was a mistake. Minus last year's big-name defenders, this squad was at best No. 15 in the country. No better. They're just another example of why the preseason rankings should be scrapped (start them after the first week).

But that won't make any Michigan fan/critic any less peeved. What it comes down to is execution on the field.

And that's a category in which you can positively give Michigan an "F" after two morbid weeks.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

NFL Week 1 picks

This is the other me. Not the guy who termed himself "uneducated" in making his 2007 predictions for the NFL. Call me Schwab Jr., baby! I'm ready to predict every NFL game correctly. I'm ready to steal the real Schwab's throne. With that said and the clock ticking on opening night, here are my Week 1 gems:

Colts 31, Saints 27: What a game to begin the season.
Eagles 28, Packers 21: McNabb is back, my friends.
Texans 17, Chiefs 13: Super Bowl, huh, L.J.?
Broncos 24, Bills 17: It's not cold yet in Buffalo.
Browns 20, Steelers 12: Don't get the Dog Pound started...
Rams 34, Panthers 21: One of league's best offenses takes off.
Vikings 17, Falcons 9: Can you say, "UGLY?"
Patriots 24, Jets 21: One of Sunday's best games.
Redskins 20, Dolphins 9: Don't waste your afternoon watching this one.
Titans 21, Jaguars 14: Don't doubt Vince Young's ability (or heart).
Chargers 21, Bears 17: Possible Super Bowl preview lives up to hype.
Seahawks 23, Bucs 10: Not a pleasant start for Jeff Garcia.
Lions 26, Raiders 21: Enjoy the Ws while you can get 'em, Lions.
Cowboys 34, Giants 14: An absolute romp.
Ravens 16, Bengals 14: Last-second FG wins it for Baltimore.
Cardinals 28, 49ers 21: Upset special by Leinart n' Company.

Forget the "rust factor." I'm hoping for 14 out of 16. Check back with me Tuesday morning, folks.

My NFL Preview


To avoid ridicule (at least for now; wait until my picks prove to be painfully wrong), I have decided to patch together a shaky NFL preview (one of just 21,493 on the Internet) here at the last minute.

I won't bother you with analysis, either. No injury prospectus. No "surprise performer" harbingers.

Nope, what follows are the predictions — and only the predictions. Maybe a crass comment thrown in here or there.

Give me some feedback. Let me know how wrong I am. I won't take offense.


NFC North
1, Chicago 12-4
2, Green Bay 8-8
3, Detroit 6-10
4, Minnesota 5-11
Crass comment: What an awful division. The Bears could take a month off and still win.

NFC East
1, Philly 10-6
2, Dallas 10-6*
3, N.Y. Giants 6-10
4, Washington 6-10
Crass comment: Here's to hoping Donovan McNabb stays healthy, T.O. keeps his mouth shut and Tiki stops ripping on his old team (they've got it bad enough, Tiki!).

NFC South
1, New Orleans 11-5
2, Carolina 9-7*
3, Tampa Bay 6-10
4, Atlanta 4-12
Crass comment: Hey, now that Sports Illustrated has finally not picked the Panthers to win the Super Bowl, maybe they'll make the playoffs.

NFC West
1, St. Louis 10-6
2, Seattle 9-7
3, San Francisco 8-8
4, Arizona 7-9
Crass comment: I'll be honest. I flipped coins to pick this winner. Who really knows? Whichever team's top running back stays healthy will win.

*=wild card team


AFC East
1, New England 12-4
2, N.Y. Jets 10-6
3, Buffalo 7-9
4, Miami 5-11
Crass comment: I'll run around the neighborhood naked if Trent Green plays more than half the season for the Dolphins.

AFC North
1, Baltimore 11-5
2, Cincinnati 10-6*
3, Pittsburgh 8-8
4, Cleveland 5-11
Crass comment: Poor Brady Quinn. He'll probably get thrown into the game against Baltimore and receive a friendly greeting from Ray Lewis. Ouch!

AFC South
1, Indianapolis 12-4
2, Tennessee 9-7
3, Jacksonville 7-9
4, Houston 5-11
Crass comment: I love how people keep doubting Vince Young. Keep it up, guys. He'll just continue to prove you all wrong.

AFC West
1, San Diego 11-5
2, Denver 10-6*
3, Kansas City 6-10
4, Oakland 4-12
Crass comment: Can you believe Larry Johnson mentioned the words "Super Bowl" after signing that new contract? Um, it's a team game, L.J.

*=wild card teams



Wild Card Round
Philly def. Carolina
St. Louis def. Dallas
Divisional Round
Chicago def. St. Louis
Philly def. New Orleans
NFC Championship
Chicago def. Philly


Wild Card Round
Baltimore def. Denver
San Diego def. Cincinnati
Divisional Round
New England def. Baltimore
Indianapolis def. San Diego
AFC Championship
New England def. Indianapolis

New England 24, Chicago 16: Poor Bears. With Rex at the helm, they're becoming the second coming of the 1990s Bills.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

He's no Federer, but "Ferrer" is (kinda) close


Anyone who says tennis is not an athletic sport, did not stay up past their bedtime Tuesday night to watch the fourth round U.S. Open match between No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal and fellow Spaniard David Ferrer.

The two battled back and forth, neither giving an inch. I watched the first set at work, drove an hour home, fixed myself a late chicken-and-corn hot plate, and the third set was just beginning. It would be another two hours before the four-set match ended at 2 a.m. EST.

In all, the match took three and a half hours. And, remember, the commercial breaks in tennis are harmlessly short (not always to the players' liking). Nadal and Ferrer were on the court for a good three hours.

Finally, with both players' shirts and shorts soaked through with sweat, Ferrer finished off the upset — 6-7(3), 6-4, 7-6(4), 6-2 — when Nadal's lob sailed long. There would be no Federer-Nadal Part III in Flushing Meadows. Rather, the always-on-his-tiptoes Ferrer advanced to the quarterfinals, where he'll face Juan Ignacio Chela, who was a five-set winner Tuesday.

Somehow, I surmise, both players will summon up enough energy to put on a show when they meet Thursday. Which ain't a bad feat, considering the energy used Tuesday/early Wednesday.

With the remaining fans beginning to yawn and the announcers — I'm sure — dreading the beginning of Wednesday's long day of coverage less than 10 hours away, Ferrer unseated Nadal as one of the ATP Tour's most energetic, peripatetic players.

Ferrer showed absolutely no signs of fatiguing as the new day dawned and his opponent — the usually invincible Nadal — called for a trainer to massage a finger and indicated with body language that his hamstrings weren't right.

Ferrer bounced around while awaiting each serve from Nadal, then outhustled his fellow countryman from side to side, reaching balls that normally we only expect the quick-as-lightning Nadal to get to.

At the completion of the marathon, there was nothing to say except that Ferrer had been the better, quicker player and deserved to be moving on. And if he plays like he did Tuesday night in the quarterfinals and semifinals, could it be?

Federer vs. Ferrer in the final Sunday afternoon?

How cool would that be?

I'm sure Ferrer would muster up plenty of energy for that matchup.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's in impeccable shape.

Monday, September 3, 2007

U.S. Open lives up to the hype


There were plenty of ways I could have spent my Labor Day. You know, the traditional barbecue. Or maybe a canoe trip down the Huron River.

I could have watched some dramatic golf (wayta go, Lefty!). Or enjoyed a Cubs' loss (don't all of us outside of Cubs Nation revel in their defeats?).

But, alas, I was transfixed by tennis all day. No barbecuing. No canoing. No watching golf or baseball.

Thesis statement: Tennis rules the sports-watching section of my life right now.

Why? Because it is simply the best sport being played at the moment. Jabber all you want about the drama of college football (yes, the end of the Michigan-Appalachian State game was exciting). Dissect the upcoming NFL season all you want (no, the Lions aren't going to be good). Predict the result of baseball's pennant races (yes, the Tigers are probably done).

A lot is going on. But for the next six days, the only must on my sports-watching calender is the U.S. Open.

You want drama? You saw it Monday afternoon when fiery American James Blake and German Tommy Haas engaged in a five-set battle full of spirited volleys and back-and-forth action. I sat on the edge of my futon as Haas fought off three match points — showing absolutely no nervousness with each crisp forehand or backhand — before finally dispelling Blake in a tiebreaker (think overtime is nerveracking? A play-to-seven, win-by-two ain't bad, either).

You want impeccable play? That was reserved for Monday night, when Roger Federer, the most dominant athlete I know about (yes, he's better than Tiger), took on Feliciano Lopez. I wanted to see perfection so badly that when the digital cable refused to cooperate and let CNBC work, I decided to watch the webcast on my tiny Apple laptop.

When the streaming began, Federer — miraculously — was down a set to Lopez, whom, the announcers made sure to mention, was playing the absolute best tennis of his life. But it didn't last long. After surviving a difficult second set — showing his resolve in holding off the feisty Spaniard — Federer blew him away in the third set (6-1) and won 6-4 in a never-in-doubt final set.

Federer was so good, he won 35 consecutive points on serve after falling behind 0-40 in the first game of the third set. Yes, clap your hands in applause. If it were anybody else, it would be a mind boggling feat. But it was Federer. And it was amazing (but not that surprising).

Time after time, Federer hit "how'd he do that?" backhands either up the line or cross court, stunning a net-charging Lopez. All Lopez could do each time was shake his head in disbelief. If it weren't pitch black outside, I would have scampered outside after the match to try to emulate The Man — in vain, of course.

Maybe the most overlooked great part of tennis right now is that it's the lone sport in which the outcome is based almost entirely on the participants' actions. With the replay system in place at Flushing Meadows, players — with their keen eyes — can review calls they disagree with. And usually they're right about the challenges they make. But judges get 97 percent of the calls right, and you rarely see arguments between players and judges.

Additionally, reviews take a mere 10 seconds compared to the 3 to 5 minutes a football review takes. And even many football reviews seem flawed, as I witnessed late Labor Day night after the tennis was complete.

Florida State was trailing Clemson by six points in the final seconds when the Seminoles appeared to complete a pass down the sideline with 1 or 2 seconds remaining. However, the pass was ruled incomplete and the slooooooow Clemson timekeepers let the clock expire. A 4-minute delay, which forced the overly excited Clemson students to back off the field, didn't change the mind of the officials (who must have had a late dinner date scheduled, or something).

You just don't see that kind of stuff in tennis. Especially Grand Slam tennis.

It's the best sports spectacle on TV right now. Don't even talk to me about golf (where you can see a guy hit a shot... and then see where it lands) on TV. Only bass fishing is worse, and the spelling bee is better.

Watching football on the tube is great, but it still doesn't compare to being in attendance at a game, where you can see the entire field. And commercial length during football games is inane (the Michigan fans were ready to sling-shot rocks at the man in the red hat who stood on the field during commercials the other day).

Watching baseball on TV is great... if you have something else to do simultaneously (open mail, cuddle with your honey, pet the dog). Otherwise, you come to despise the announcers, who have to come up with mundane anecdotes to fill the between-pitches time — especially if old, deliberate pitchers are on the mound.

But tennis? Well, I have zero complaints. You can see the entire court. There are only brief breaks between points. Commercial breaks aren't long enough to make some toast. And the suspense — especially during night matches, when the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd gets into it — make you feel like you're on top of the action (especially, I would surmise, if you've got one of those flat-panel TVs or whatever they're called).

Perhaps most importantly, Grand Slam tennis' appeal is its purity. There are no dark clouds surrounding the sport or its players. Just the matches. Just the sweat. Just the competition.

No steroids. No taking advantage of amateurs by universities and television networks. No dogfighting. No crooked judges. You know the stories.

In the next five days, I will watch Serena vs. Justine Part IV. I'll find out if Nadal can overcome his knee injury to set up Federer vs. Nadal Part III. Or, maybe, Roddick vs. Federer will provide for some drama before we get to that final Sunday.

Sure, there's a 99 percent chance Federer will make the final, but for some reason, that predictable outcome can't inhibit me from watching each match, each game, each point. From watching a match like Haas-Blake on Monday, because even though Blake lost, he should excite American tennis fans (he's got a lot of potential; not to mention grit).

A week from now, I'll be talking football. Lots of football. Baseball, too, will be a hot topic of conversation.

But right now, it's all about the Grand Slam tennis. I've got to enjoy it while it lasts.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Appalachian State Miracle

I was a witness.

Witnissing history at the Big House


As I stood in row 39 of section 15, I couldn't believe the view below me. The large throng of Maize n' Blue helmets were headed toward the tunnel on the east side of the stadium as if they were being chased by rabid boars. Meanwhile, across the field turf, players in white jerseys celebrated in many different fashions.

Some lay down. Some danced with the cheerleaders (seriously). Some pointed to people in the close-to-empty stands.

And then, in a quick minute, they all gravitated to the big, block "M" at the 50-yard to consider their feat together.

They had just knocked off the No. 5 team in the country. They had just become the first Subdivision college football team (I know, the NCAA is beyond inane with its titles) to beat a Division 1 squad ranked in the Top 25.

Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32.

A tough ticket
Now I understand why. Now I know why it took my boy, Tyler, and I an entire half of football to find two cheap tickets to a game against a supposed inferior opponent.

In past years, I've never had a problem finding a pair of $10 tickets to Michigan games. Among my best buys — two second-row seats to the first ever overtime game at the Big House against Penn State in 2002 (great game).

Additionally, there have been just two games which I've failed to scalp tickets for. The 1997 Ohio State game (Woodson, national championship, etc.). And a Michigan State game about five years ago (and that was only because my friend busted his ankle running to catch a scalper and couldn't walk for weeks afterward).

So I was shocked when Ty and I couldn't find two tickets for $20. And, boy, did we have an adventure going after tickets.

We must have walked about five miles within the two hours we spent trying to locate a pair. We even strolled all the way to Washtenaw Dairy to buy some of Ann Arbor's finest ice cream late in the first quarter (while Ann Arbor's finest football team was starting to travel down a rocky road).

At one point we had three tickets, but it turned out that two of them had already been used (scammers!) and the other one was a student ticket, which wouldn't get either of us inside the stadium no matter how long we begged the stiff U-M ushers.

At one point, Ty had a ticket and was heading inside — to later meet up with me. But when he tried to enter, he was turned away again. It was yet another used ticket.

At 1:30 p.m. EST, an hour and a half after the game began, we found ourselves back at square one (minus $4.50 for the ice cream).

Meanwhile, what was transpiring inside the stadium had grabbed our attention. A disgusted pair of Michigan fans exited the Big House cursing to themselves. "What's the score," I asked? They admitted that it was 28-14... Appalachian State.

Woe, I thought. I knew it was just the second quarter. That within 15 minutes (or another mile of walking for Ty and I), the Wolverines could be back on top. But still. Something crazy was going down. This only further dedicated me to finding us those hard-to-come-by tickets. I had an inkling that we weren't just going to witness another Michigan massacre.

The final minutes
And, sure enough, what we bore witness to will never be forgotten in Boone, N.C. — or anywhere, for that matter.

We finally coerced a man on a bike — wearing a yellow shirt and sporting some dirty teeth — to sell us two $10 tickets, and as hundreds of Michigan fans exited the stadium at halftime (no joke), we entered.

We made it to our seats — located behind the south end zone — about 50 seconds into the third quarter and proceeded to stand for much of the final 29 minutes, 10 seconds of history.

What's funny is that I never actually believed the Mountaineers were going to pull off the monumental upset until they kicked the winning field goal with 26 seconds remaining. For some reason (which didn't include the product Michigan was putting forth on the field), I never felt the upset would be completed.

Especially not after Mike Hart zig-zagged his way across the field for a 54-yard score (he actually ran about 101 yards) followed by a Michigan interception. Folks around us left their seats and headed up the aisles, figuring an ugly, but season-saving win was guaranteed. Or maybe they could sense the impending collapse and didn't want to bear witness to it.

I, for one, was a Michigan fan who welcomed the final-minute drama. I figured Ty and I deserved a dramatic ending for the two hours spent walking around the Big House with two fingers pointed to the sky (indicating the number of tickets we needed). Even in my yellow Michigan No. 2 jersey, part of me wanted the Mountaineers to pull off the impossible. Part of me wanted to witness history.

As the Mountaineers drove the ball down the field in the waning seconds, my heart beat faster and faster. Ty, an Illinois fan, was pulling for the upset, and I found myself tacitly wishing the same outcome (although I continued to cheer for Michigan; I know, it doesn't make much sense).

As I stood on the balls of my feet, anticipating but not knowing the end result, I remembered something my father had told me several years ago after Michigan had been upset by Northwest. He had said, "Think of how happy the Northwestern fans must be." Now, I was considering how great an Appalachian State victory would be for its fans and the small town of Boone (which I actually lived in with my parents for a few months as a young kid).

They would never forget an Appalachian State win over Michigan. No matter the losses and struggles in the years to come, a "W" over the mighty Wolverines would stay with them for eternity. That sounded more appealing to me than another lackluster Michigan victory. Plus, it would give writers a topic to scribe about for days to come.

Yet, when Mario Manningham made a great catch to put the Wolverines within field goal range in the final seconds, I pumped my fist in the air. I am, after all, a lifelong Michigan fan. A loss to a FCS school would be embarrassing.

And that's how I arrived at the moment of fate. Both teams' destinies riding on the leg of a college kid. Except that they didn't. U-M place-kicker Jason Gingell never had a chance at converting the 37-yard field goal attempt because Corey Lynch invaded Michigan's backfield, practically swallowing up the ball before running it almost back to our end zone.

He proceeded to collapse in exhaustion and exultation. The clock read 0:00. The scoreboard read, Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32.

All around me, people sat stunned, heads in hands, many cursing, some on the brink of tears, others looking stoically toward the blue sky as if to ask, "What just happened on a day as picture-perfect beautiful as today?"

Ty and I were fully aware of what had just occurred beneath us. Which is why we stayed inside the stadium for a good 15 minutes afterward, soaking up the stunned atmosphere (and I thought the Big House was quiet after wins).

As we exited, I picked up a game program and handed it to Ty. "This is a game you'll never forget," I told him. "You need a souvenir."

I wasn't saying that because it was Ty's first visit to the Big House. No, a much bigger first had taken place before our bewildered eyes.

Something worth much more than the $10 price of admission.