This Week In: English Football – City Thrash United but North London Leads the Way

Aguero celebrates his second and City's third goal against United
Aguero celebrates his second and City’s third goal against United

In the Manchester derby last weekend, City beat their cross-town rivals by four goals to one, but the result did not even tell the whole story of their dominance, as the visitors only got into the game after Manuel Pelligrini’s men had built an unassailable lead five minutes into the second half and then took their foot off the gas.  Sergio Aguero gave the home crowd their first reason to cheer after sixteen minutes, when the he provided a clever finish to Alexsander Kolarov’s cross; then YaYa Toure doubled City’s advantage before the break by diverting a ball into the net that Alvaro Negredo had flicked on from a Samir Nasri corner.  After the interval, United were unable to deal with two more balls swung into the box from the wing and Aguero and Nasri were both left with simple chances to extend City’s lead to 4-0 and leave David Moyes without an away derby victory in the Premiership, as he had failed to win at Liverpool during his 11 year tenure at Everton.  With the result beyond doubt, the home side sat back and it was only then that the Red Devils – who were without the injured Robin Van Persie – showed even a glimmer of the football that saw them win the title last May.  Nevertheless, by the final whistle the only thing they had to show for their effort was a Wayne Rooney free-kick that added only a consolation for the visitors and spoiled Joe Hart’s clean sheet.  So far, United have beaten only Crystal Palace and Swansea, while they were held to a draw by Chelsea at Old Trafford and have suffered defeats at Anfield and the Etihad Stadium, an inauspicious start for Moyes in his unenviable task of attempting to replace Sir Alex Ferguson.  However, a nice run of fixtures between now and mid-November gives him the chance to right the ship for the red half of Manchester – his team does not face any of the sides who finished in the top seven in the Premiership last season until the visit of Arsenal on November 10th.  If United have not picked up close to maximum points from their fixtures between now and then, Moyes could find himself in a scrap to finish in the top four, rather than having any chance of retaining the league title for his new club.

Life is a lot happier in North London than at Old Trafford at the moment, as the top two spaces in the early league table are filled by the clubs from N5 and N17, with Arsenal and Tottenham both on 12 points from their opening 5 fixtures.  The Gunners sit in first place on goal difference, after they defeated Mark Hughes’s Stoke side 3-1 at the Emirates last Sunday lunchtime, with the goals coming from Aaron Ramsey – who has already found the net seven times this season – and headers from set-pieces by the defenders, Per Metersacker and Baçary Sagna.  Spurs had to work hard for their three points away at Cardiff the same day, as it was not until their 29th attempt of the match, which came inside injury time after the 90 minutes were up, that they finally broke through.  When it did come, the goal was a thing of beauty, as Lewis Holtby found his fellow substitute, Erik Lamela free on the right wing and the Argentinian’s cross was met by Paulinho’s back-heel into the net – a late strike that may have seen harsh on the home side, who had been kept in the game by their goalkeeper, David Marshell’s excellent string of saves, but it was no more than the visitors deserved from their dominating display.  It was particularly impressive to see how much energy the Tottenham players had going into the final stages of the match, willing themselves to victory despite having played on the previous Thursday night against Tromsø in the Europa League.

Aston VIlla were exposed in both defence and attack by Tottenham Hotspur
Aston VIlla were exposed in both defence and attack by Tottenham Hotspur

Indeed there was more to come from Spurs – and I know I have been waxing lyrical about them a lot lately – but they concluded a run of three games inside five days on Tuesday night when they took on Aston Villa in the Capital One Cup.  Although only three of the starting line-up had also began the match at Cardiff – Jan Vertonghen, Paulinho and Kyle Walker – the strength of the squad was proven when Tottenham once again put in a commanding performance and progressed to the next round with a 4-0 victory.  Jermain Defoe had opened the scoring with his head just before half-time, when he met a clever scooped pass by Holtby, who provided assists for three of the four goals, but there was a moment of worry for Spurs shortly after the interval.  Vertonghen was caught out by a through ball and found himself trying to chase down Nicklas Helenius in the penalty area, but the Belgian lost his footing and – either deliberately or accidentally, I still am not 100% sure of which – pulled the Villa striker’s shorts down to around his knees, which should have led to a spot-kick but instead went unpunished and just impeded Helenius’s shot.  Nevertheless, even without that incident the cracks in the Aston Villa team were very much on display and Tottenham fully deserved their victory, with the goals being rounded out by a second for Paulinho inside three days, another for Defoe, and Nacer Chadli’s first for the club.  So far this campaign, the Waffles have played nine games in all competitions, won eight, lost just once (but crucially, that was away at Arsenal), scored twenty goals and conceded only one.  They have been impressive, relentless, worked together as a team fantastically well and looked brilliant at times  – yes you heard it, even this disenchanted, cynical Spurs fan is optimistic about his side’s chances for once – that just better not all come back to haunt me this Saturday when Chelsea pay a visit to White Hart Lane. Continue reading

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This Week In: The NFL, Week 4 2013

Sending the Vikings and Steelers to Wembley feels like US revenge for NBC showing Crystal Palace vs Sunderland
Sending the Vikings and Steelers to Wembley feels like America’s revenge for NBC showing Crystal Palace vs Sunderland

Just three weeks into the NFL season, it is already time for a few firsts of the year: first byes, with the Packers and Panthers inactive for week 4; thefirst trip to London for a game at Wembley – which hosts two fixtures in 2013 – with the 0-3 Vikings and Steelers meeting at the home of the “other” football this Sunday; and the first time I am going to re-evaluate the teams to determine who look like contenders and who appear to be a shadow of their former selves (cough, Pittsburgh, cough).

Better Luck in 2014 Guys!

NFC: Minnesota (0-3); Tampa Bay (0-3); Carolina (1-2).  AFC: Jacksonville (0-3); Oakland (1-2); Pittsburgh (0-3); Cleveland (1-2); Buffalo (1-2); San Diego (1-2); NY Jets (2-1).

The Panthers may have looked good in a 38-0 victory in week 3, but they were playing the woeful Giants and I do not see them getting past New Orleans and Atlanta to top the NFC South, nor with their tough schedule do I think they will rack up enough wins to be in contention for a wild card spot.  It might seem harsh to write off the chances of the Jets, who have a winning record, but they beat Tampa Bay in week 1 thanks to a stupid penalty on the penultimate play that put them into field goal position, and last Sunday topped the Bills – who do not look like they are playoff-bound themselves – 27-20.  San Diego could have been 3-0 if they had not thrown away a big lead against the Texans in their opening game, then lost a close one to the Titans 20-17 at the weekend, but despite being better than expected, they still sit two games behind both the Chiefs and Broncos in the AFC West, both of whom they have to play twice this season.  Cleveland had a good 31-27 home win in week 3, but everyone is beating Minnesota these days and the Browns made their intentions clear last Wednesday when they traded running back Trent Richardson – who was the third overall pick in the 2012 draft – to the Colts for a first round selection in 2014.  They need a better quarterback and they are stacking the deck to get it, that does not equal a post-season appearance in 2013.

AFC Playoff Places – 9 into 6

It might seem a little reckless to cross off 7 of the 16 AFC teams as potential playoff candidates (at least it might if there was anything riding on this) but the conference is already taking shape and the contenders seem obvious even at this early stage.  The top two seeds will probably be Denver (3-0) and New England (3-0), with the meeting between the two teams in Massachusetts on November 24th a potential home-field advantage decider.  Monday’s 37-21 victory over the Raiders means the Broncos have scored 127 points in their first three games, with Peyton Manning having thrown 12 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions thus far – on pace to break Tom Brady’s single season record of 50 TDs he set in 2007.  Also at 3-0, and in the same two divisions as those teams. are the Dolphins and Chiefs, who have both improved greatly on last year and, if they can continue like this, should be contenders for a wild card spot.  In the North, Baltimore and Cincinnati sit on 2-1 and look like having a season long battle for the division: last week the Ravens set a marker down with a 30-9 home win over the Texans; while the Bengals came out on top in a bizarre game against the Packers in which they led 14-0, then trailed 30-14, before claiming a 34-30 victory.

The AFC South might be the most interesting division in the league, with Houston, Tennessee and Indianapolis all having 2-1 records after three weeks.  The Texans have been underwhelming thus far – they had to come from behind to beat San Diego in their first game, trailed by 8 in the final five minutes against the Titans, then won in overtime the following Sunday; before that loss in Baltimore.  Defeat in Houston is the only blemish thus far for Tennessee, after winning in Pittsburgh and home against the Chargers; while everybody was ready to write off the Colts when they lost at home to the Dolphins in week 2, but then they went into San Francisco last Sunday and beat the 49ers, 27-7.

Before the season began, my AFC Predictions looked like this: Seeds 1. Broncos; 2. Texans; 3. Patriots; 4. Bengals; 5. Chiefs; 6. Steelers – at this point I only want to take back my Pittsburgh pick and I will replace them with the Ravens, as I expect Miami to regress slightly from their strong start. Continue reading

This Week In: English Football – Spurs, Arsenal Win and The Manchester Derby

Eriksen could be the most stylish Christian in the Spurs midfield since Glenn Hoddle
Eriksen could be the most stylish Christian in the Spurs midfield since Glenn Hoddle

On transfer deadline day, a North London club, whose fans were reeling from previous activity, signed a creative midfielder from one of the traditionally great clubs of European football and on his debut, he appeared to be the key to them progressing to the next level.  No, not Mesut Özil’s impressive first start for Arsenal – I will get onto that in a moment – but Christian Eriksen’s arrival at White Hart Lane.  The Danish 21-year-old – who was brought in from Ajax for £11.8m the day after Tottenham had lost to the Gunners and then sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid – had almost been an afterthought for me among the other new arrivals, with the impressive stature of Étienne Capoue and Paulinho in the centre of midfield; the reputation of Erik Lamela; and the goal scoring record of Roberto Soldado being far more eye-catching.  Also, the few times I had seen Eriksen play before – for Denmark in Euro 2012 and for Ajax in a couple of Champions League matches – I had been unimpressed; he clearly had talent but seemed unable to translate that into game performance.

However, my opinion was quickly changed when, ten minutes into his first appearance in a Spurs shirt, Eriksen picked up the ball on the edge of Norwich’s penalty area, ran towards goal, cut back to nutmeg a defender and again to give himself some space for a shot.  Although that effort ended up being towards the keeper, the ball spilled out and gave an opportunity to Soldado, who should great improvisation to attempt a backheel that hit the post and the whole move showed great promise from Tottenham’s new look squad.  In the 28th minute, the Spanish striker laid off a pass from Danny Rose – who has been impressive in the left-back role following a season on loan at Sunderland – to Eriksen, who played a perfectly measured through ball, without even needing to look, into the path of the Gylfi Sigurdsson inside the area and he found the net for Spurs’ first league goal of the season from open play.  In the second half, the Dane once again was the conductor for Tottenham’s second, picking up the ball on the edge of the box and finding Paulinho in space on the right, giving the Brazilian the time and space to cross the ball in to Sigurdsson at the far post to double the lead.  Withdrawn after 70 minutes, Eriksen had a very impressive debut that suggest that he might be the missing link between controlling the game and creating great goal scoring chances – an important trait given that Tottenham no longer have Bale in the team to single-handedly win matches with impressive shots from distance.  The other thing of note for the Waffles in their win over Norwich – which gives them three wins and a defeat from their first four games – was the relentlessness the players showed – Andre Villas-Boas appears to have formed the team into a close group who want victory over all else and the effort displayed from all of the players, but particularly new arrivals Eriksen, Paulinho and Soldado, suggests that if their style clicks alongside the work rate, this will be a very enjoyable Tottenham team to be supporting. Continue reading

This Week In: The NFL – Week 3, 2013

It's certainly hard to hear over people talking about how loud the Seahawks fans are
It’s certainly hard to hear over people talking about how loud the Seahawks fans are

One week after they had been anointed as the presumptive NFC representatives in next February’s Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers came crashing back to earth in a deafening manner, as they lost 29-3 in Seattle, whose home fans set a new record for decibel level made by a crowd, beating the record that had previously been held by Turkish football club, Galatasary (and they did not come close to regaining during their 6-1 thrashing by Real Madrid on Tuesday).  It was not so much the 12th man of the supporters that propelled the Seahawks to their ninth consecutive regular season home victory – although they undoubtedly contributed to the 12 penalties San Francisco committed – rather it was the defense, which was only outscored 3-2 by the 49ers and gave up just a field goal, while also forcing a safety in the second quarter.  Seattle’s offense added 27 points to ensure they laid down a marker in the NFC West and gained an early edge over San Francisco in the playoff race and also rattled their quarterback, Colin Kaerpernick, who looked nothing like the same player who racked up 412 passing yards and 3 touchdowns against Green Bay in Week 1, as he threw for only 127 yards, no touchdowns, and three interceptions.

Another team who were widely lauded after their opening game, the Philadelphia Eagles were also defeated in their second contest, losing at home to the unfancied Chargers, 33-30.  Both QBs – Michael Vick and Phil Rivers, racked up more than 400 passing yards, but the much vaunted speed of Chip Kelly’s offense had the reverse effect of keeping the Philly defense on the field for more than 40 minutes of playing time.  That workload could prove particularly problematic this week, as they have a shortened period between games as they take on their former coach, Andy Reid and his Kansas City team on Thursday night.  The Chiefs are 2-0 so far, after a narrow 17-16 victory over the Cowboys last Sunday and that win total matches the number they achieved for the entire 2012 season.  The losses for Dallas and Philadelphia were matched by the other NFC East teams, as the Giants were defeated 41-23 by Denver in the matchup of the Manning brothers; and the Washington Mohawks were outclassed by the Green Bay Packers 38-20, with Aaron Rodgers racking up 480 passing yards and four touchdowns. Continue reading

This Week In: TV – Derek and Breaking Bad

Derekmidres.jpgTo say that I was expecting to enjoy Derek, the latest series to become available all at once to stream on Netflix in the US – though not an original series for the company, as it first aired on Channel 4 in the UK – would be something of an understatement.  From his earliest work, I have been a big fan of Ricky Gervais; even before The Office debuted on the BBC, which brought him critical acclaim and propelled his career upwards, I enjoyed his appearances as a fake reporter on The 11 O’Clock Show – a program that was not completely dissimilar to the structure of The Daily Show (but a lot cruder – this piece is not for the easily offended, actually its not for the “quite difficult to offend either”).  When The Office came along in 2001, not only did it instantly rank as one of my favorite shows of all time (and still does, in third place behind only The Wire and Breaking Bad), it also changed the way I viewed comedy, as well as being a “gateway show” for me discovering other series, most notably Curb Your Enthusiasm.  My enjoyment of Gervais’s brand of humor continued with Extras; I listened to all of The Ricky Gervais Show podcasts and audiobooks (including highlights from the radio show that he did with Stephen Merchant), which introduced Karl Pilkington to the world and, despite my efforts to avoid it, made me crack up laughing on the subway; I found his hosting of Golden Globes hilarious; went to see him do stand up live twice; and liked his movies – in particular Cemetery Junction.  Appearances from Ricky Gervais helped me discover Louie (and his scene from season 1 makes me laugh every time I watch it) and Seinfeld’s web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee; while his cameo in an episode of Sesame Street my daughter was watching was also great.

What I am getting at is that I expected to like Derek from the start, though from Ricky Gervais’ tweets about the show, which aired in the UK at the beginning of the year, I realized that his usual brand of cynicism had been toned down – the main character’s defining trait was apparently kindness.  I tried to avoid reading anything else about Derek as I wanted to come to it without much anticipation of what was going to happen and when I did watch it, very quickly after the episodes were all available, it completely blew me away.  There were points when it was laugh-out-loud funny, in particular the character of Dougie, who is played by Karl Pilkington.  Given that he is not an actor, his performance was perhaps the biggest surprise of the show, though Gervais wrote Dougie perfectly for his friend, making use of his ability to moan and his love of telling someone in no uncertain terms what he thinks of them (in particular, when he tells an interfering person from the council to “f*ck off”) to great comic effect.  One of my favorite scenes from Derek was a talking head – it is filmed in a documentary style similar to The Office – was when Dougie was in the library complaining about everything, all the while a  “Positive Psychology” is sitting in front of him.   Continue reading

Britain’s Great Sporting Summer

Rose's US Open win started a summer of sporting success for Great Britain
Rose’s US Open win started a summer of sporting success for Great Britain

In the summer of 2012, London hosted the Olympic Games for the third time and the home nation rose to the occasion, winning 29 gold medals, 17 silver, and 19 bronze.  There was one particular day – in fact a single hour – on the evening of August 4th in the Olympic Stadium that stood out: Jessica Ennis completed the 800m in the seventh and last stage of the heptathlon and claimed gold; then Mo Farah began the 10,000m final and, while that race was going on, Greg Rutherford secured first place in the long jump.  With the partisan crowd buzzing, Farah put in an incredible kick finish to claim Britain’s first ever gold in the men’s 10,000m (he would go on to complete the long distance double when he won the 5,000m on the same track seven days later).  For someone who grew up in Britain at a time when the best sporting achievements were a good spirited performance that ultimately ended in heroic defeat (Henman falling in the semi-finals of Wimbledon every year; England losing on penalties to Germany in 1990, 1996; Argentina in 1998) and the gold medal tallies in summer Olympics were anemic (the first three I remember: 1988, 5; 1992, 5; 1996, 1), it was surreal to see widespread victories for the nation’s athletes.  This summer may not have quite matched the amazing Olympic experience, but there were still many highlights and successes across several sports.

June 17th, 2013: Justin Rose Wins the US Open (Golf)

Back in 1998, at the age of 17 Justin Rose chipped in from off the green on the 18th hole of Royal Birkdale to claim a share of fourth in The Open, an incredible achievement considering he was still an amateur at the time.  Although he struggled early on in his career after that – missing his first 21 cuts after turning professional – Rose developed into a solid golfer who had claimed 11 tour titles and was inside the world’s top five.  However, he had rarely troubled the top of the leaderboards at Majors, missing the cut twice as many times as he had finished in the top ten, but that all changed at Merion in the US Open in June.  In tough conditions at the course in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Rose put together a solid four round set and ended the tournament one over par, two shots better than Phil Mickelson, who in the final round – played on his birthday – had a chip of his own on the 18th that would have forced a playoff, but he could not hole it.  Not only did the win for Rose end a 17 year drought of English* golfers winning a major – the last being the incredible comeback/collapse that saw Nick Faldo overtake Greg Norman on the final 18 of the Masters in 1996 – it was also the first time an Englishman had won the US Open since 1970, when Tony Jacklin triumphed in Minnesota.

*There have been three other British winners of golf majors in that time, all hailing from Northern Ireland: Graeme McDowell (US Open, 2010); Rory McIlroy (US Open 2011); and Darren Clarke (The Open, 2011). Continue reading

This Week In: English Football – Arsenal Retain North London Dominance

Giroud gets the ball past Lloris and Dawson for the only goal of the North London derby
Giroud gets the ball past Lloris and Dawson for the only goal of the North London derby

Prior to the North London derby two weeks ago, there was a general consensus in the media that the game would represent a shift in power in the rivalry between Tottenham and Arsenal.  Spurs had spent around £110m over the summer on new recruits to strengthen their squad, while the Gunners had only made two free signings and were looking depleted in terms of depth.  Arsene Wenger was supposedly facing a crisis, after watching his team lose their first game of the season against Aston Villa (ignoring the fact they then beat Fulham and comfortably secured their passage to the group stages of the Champions League) and his unwillingness to spend was causing frustration to fans at the Emirates.  A defeat against Tottenham would have been seen as evidence that Wenger was losing his touch and some people actually seemed to believe it might happen.  But of course it did not; an early strike from Olivier Giroud – who converted a Theo Walcott pass after the England winger was afforded far too much space on the right, just like he was in the previous two seasons at the Emirates when Arsenal prevailed 5-2 twice – was enough for the home side to claim all three points and saw them leapfrog their rivals in the early Premiership table.  This really should not have been a surprise to Tottenham supporters – it certainly was not to me – as thus far, the Waffles have failed to score from open play in the league; Spurs have won only once in their last 22 away trips to Arsenal in all competitions; and while we did have expensive new signings in the lineup, we were without Gareth Bale, who was our best player last season.  The fact is that Tottenham have had more false dawns than Truman Burbank and until we actually finish above Arsenal in the league – which I hate to labor the point, but that has not happened since 1994/5 – I refuse to be drawn into claims that this will be the season.

A couple of hours after the loss to their rivals, Tottenham announced that they had concluded the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid – something that I covered more extensively here – while Arsenal made the biggest move on the final day of the transfer window, as they brought in the excellent German creative midfielder, Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for £42.5m.  With the Bale sale and the other business they did in the summer, Tottenham’s net spend was just £3m, the fourth lowest in the division behind only Newcastle, whose only recruit was Loic Remy on loan, despite big boasts of his own brilliance from their new sporting director, Joe Kinnear; Everton, who sold Marouane Fellaini to Manchester United for £27.5m; and Sunderland, who sent out £2m more than they got back in across 28 deals.  Although Arsenal may lack some depth – they have named a senior squad of just 21 players out of a possible 25, with only five being home-grown, the joint fewest in the Premiership along with Chelsea – the signing of Özil, who is a world-class midfielder, gives them a first XI that are potential contenders for not just the league, but also the Champions League.  Further north in London, Tottenham will be spending the year trying to get their new recruits to play well together and, much as I think when they click this will be a good side, I think expecting to usurp any of the top four will have to wait for at least one more year.  Again. Continue reading

This Week In: The NFL – Week 2 2013

Manning tied the NFL record with 7 TD passes in a single game
Manning tied the NFL record with 7 TD passes in a single game

In the first match of the this year’s NFL season, the Baltimore Ravens lost to the Denver Broncos 49-27, marking the first time that the reigning Super Bowl champions had lost a Thursday night opener since the tradition started in 2004.  Unlike the previous title-winning teams, the Ravens were on the road due to a clash with a pre-arranged Orioles fixture, with whom they share a car park, but the biggest problem for Baltimore was trying to contain opposing quarterback, Peyton Manning, who equalled the NFL record by throwing seven touchdown passes in a single game.  Two of those scores were caught by Denver debutant Wes Welker, while Demaryius Thomas also racked up a brace of touchdowns combined with 161 receiving yards.  Baltimore, who had won in Colorado in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last January, had gone into half-time with a 17-14 lead, but TDs on each of their first three possessions of the third quarter – the second of which started from the Ravens 10 yard line, thanks to a blocked punt – allowed the Broncos to pull away and get a small measure of revenge for their 2012 postseason exit.

On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers started their 2013 season in the exact same way they ended their 2012 campaign, by being unable to contain Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers, resulting in a loss in San Francisco.  While in January, the Packers could not stop Kaepernick on the ground – allowing him to rack up the most ever rushing yards (181) by a quarterback in a single game, last Sunday it was the aerial threat that defeated Green Bay.  Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns – two of which went to tight end Vernon Davis and the other to Anquan Boldin, who moved from the champion Baltimore Ravens in the offseason and racked up 208 receiving yards in his 49ers debut.  For the Packers, linebacker Clay Matthews had promised that they were going to go in hard against the opposing quarterback, a prophecy that was self-fulfilling as he took out Kaepernick with a high, late tackle out of bounds that gave San Francisco a second attempt at third down, (incorrectly, as there were offsetting penalties due to retaliation from 49ers players, so it should have gone to fourth down), that resulted in a touchdown rather than a field goal attempt.  Despite the loss, there were signs of improvement for Green Bay in comparison to their playoff defeat – the six point deficit could have been the other way had Jermichael Finley not dropped a pass from Aaron Rodgers that was then caught by 49ers safety, Eric Reid, for the only interception of the game.  What San Francisco did show is that they are more than just a novelty act with the read-option offense and when he is given the time, Colin Kaepernick is able to throw to his receivers with great accuracy.  If the two teams do meet again in the playoffs, Green Bay will have to ensure they do not turn the ball over at all – rookie running back Eddie Lacy also fumbled in the first-half, giving San Francisco great field position that they converted into a touchdown – and play an almost perfect game, if they are to have any chance of beating this 49ers side. Continue reading

NFL 2013 Season Predictions Part 2 – AFC, Super Bowl Winner and Week 1 Picks

Click here for Part 1, featuring my predictions for the NFC

Ray Rice's rushing helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl last February
Ray Rice’s rushing helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl last February

AFC

North

Seven months after winning the Super Bowl, there are plenty of signs that 2013 could be a down year for the Baltimore Ravens, who have been revamping their roster during the offseason.  One of the biggest moves they made was giving a big contract to their quarterback, Joe Flacco, whose performance in Denver and then New Orleans may have paid off the new deal in advance, but may not repeat that performance now that he has guaranteed money and is not playing for his future.  There is a big question over who Flacco will be able to rely on to throw to, as he has lost one veteran target in the form of Anquan Boldin, who is now with the 49ers, and the receiving corps is made up of unproven youngsters.  In Ray Rice, the Ravens have one of the best running backs in the league, but they have lost tight end Dennis Pitta for most of the season (at best) after he needed hip surgery.  On the defensive side, Baltimore will no longer have Ray Lewis leading the line following his retirement, but his skill and influence over games was deteriorating in recent years anyway, while safety Ed Reed also left in free agency.  Lewis will be replaced by the former Jaguars outside linebacker, Daryl Smith and the Ravens will also have Terrell Suggs back, who missed most of last season through injury.  While a return to the playoffs is not beyond Baltimore, it would be a big surprise if they were able to be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots did it eight years ago.

The Ravens face a tough division, as both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals will be challenging them for the AFC North title.  While the Steelers have lost veteran linebacker James Harrison – who moved to the Bengals in free agency, and safety Troy Polamalu is showing the effects of age, they have drafted well and their offensive line should provide good protection to Ben Roethlisberger.  Pittsburgh will also be without their best wide receiver from recent years, as Mike Wallace moved to the Miami Dolphins in free agency, but the young rookie running back, Le’Veon Bell has good potential upside, though he will miss the start of the season with a foot injury.  The Steelers secondary may appear to be somewhat suspect, but their defensive line is still among the best in football and they allowed the fewest opposition yards in the league last year.  While Pittsburgh has been coping with an aging roster, Cincinnati’s is looking like they are starting to come of age and have one of the best squads in the league.  The big question is not whether they will make the postseason, but whether quarterback Andy Dalton has the ability to take them on a long playoff run.  His main target for the last couple of seasons has been AJ Green and the wide receiver will again be the main threat for the Bengals, but draft pick Giovani Bernard should improve their rushing game and keep their opponents guessing.  Cincinnati’s defense is projected to be one of the best in the NFL in 2013, so even if the offense does struggle to rack up points, they will still win many games just from keeping their opponents to low scores.

During the offseason, the Cleveland Browns underwent several personnel changes and have brought in Mike Lombardi as their new general manager, Rob Chudzinski as head coach and Norv Turner – who had spent six seasons as the main man in San Diego – as their offensive coordinator.  While there is a hope for Cleveland fans that their team will be heading in a new, positive direction, they are unlikely to see a dramatic improvement this year; especially in a tough division and while Brandon Weeden is still their starting quarterback.

Predicted Standings: 1. Cincinnati Bengals 10-6; 2. Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7; 3. Baltimore Ravens 8-8; 4. Cleveland Browns 7-9 Continue reading

NFL 2013 Season Predictions Part 1 – NFC

Joe Flacco led the Baltimore Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XLVI
Joe Flacco led the Baltimore Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XLVI

On Thursday night, the 2013 NFL season kicks off with the champion Baltimore Ravens traveling to the Denver Broncos, in a rematch of the AFC Divisional round game from last January.  In recent years, the first game of the season has seen the  Super Bowl winners from the previous February play at home, but this time they have been forced to open on the road because of a clash with the Baltimore Orioles, with whom they share a parking lot and who have a meeting with the Chicago White Sox that night, which could not be moved to accommodate the Ravens.  While last year’s championship game was played in the indoor comfort of the New Orleans Superdome – albeit a venue which lost power for half an hour during the third quarter – this year the 32 teams are aiming to make the Super Bowl next February that will be played in the potentially snowy and cold conditions of East Rutherford, New Jersey, as MetLife Stadium – home of the New York Jets and Giants – plays host to the NFL’s showpiece for the first time.  The question is, which teams will be sitting in the dressing room, waiting for the way too long half time show to finish?  (Although it is yet to be confirmed who will be performing, I’m guessing that a Jersey Bowl will almost definitely feature Bruce Springsteen, maybe with a cameo from Jay Z to sell the New York angle.)

NFC 

North

As I did last year, I will start my preview for the season with the team I am a fan of, the Green Bay Packers.  In January, the Packers were dismantled by Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers, as they were completely unable to contain the young quarterback either on the ground or in the air, giving up 579 yards and 45 points, which saw them crash out of the playoffs in the Divisional Round for the second consecutive year.  Their main asset is Aaron Rodgers, who is one of the best QBs in the league and makes them contenders in any given season but also, through the draft, they have upgraded in areas they were particularly weak last season: pass rush, by adding Datone Jones in the first round; and at running back, by selecting Eddy Lacy (2nd round) and Jonathan Franklin (4th round), both of whom should get plenty of carries.  If the Packers can open up other teams on the ground, then it should increase the time Rodgers has to pick teams off with his superb passing game.  Nevertheless, regardless of how good the offense is, it is the defense that must improve to give Green Bay a chance of making it to the Super Bowl in New Jersey next February.  In order to improve their closing down of opponents who use the read option offense (which the Packers will face in both of the first two weeks, against San Francisco and Washington), head coach Mike McCarthy sent his staff to Texas A&M to learn how to defend this tactic, which is more prevalent at college level than in the NFL.  In a tough division, Green Bay should still have enough to come out on top, but they will need to improve dramatically against the best teams – like the 49ers – if they are going to make it back to the Super Bowl after being absent the last two seasons.

Can Peterson repeat his excellent form of 2012?
Can Peterson repeat his excellent form of 2012?

Also in the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears both ended last season with 10-6 records, but the latter missed out on a playoff place due to the Vikings’ superior win percentage in divisional matchups.  Chicago had started the campaign by winning seven of their first eight games and the manner in which they collapsed led to the firing of Head Coach, Lovie Smith, who has been replaced by Marcus Trestman, formerly of the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL.  The big question for the Bears will be whether or not the defense can remain one of the best in the league following the retirement of their star linebacker, Brian Urlacher, and if QB Jay Cutler can adapt to the new West Coast style offense that Trestman has instituted.  Cutler is in a contract year and so there will be a big incentive for him to succeed but should things not go well in the early part of the season, he might find himself benched and looking for a new team come next January.  For the Vikings, they will again be dependent on their premium running back, Adrian Peterson, who ran for the second most rushing yards in NFL history last season, despite having had ACL surgery the previous winter.  At quarterback, Christian Ponder will now have former Green Bay wide receiver, Greg Jennings to aim for, alongside his former backup, Joe Webb, who has been converted to a WR during the offseason and who represents a wildcard option for Minnesota.  If Ponder fails to improve on his performance in recent years, he may find himself replaced by Matt Cassel, who performed well with the New England Patriots in 2008, when he got his chance due to an injury to Tom Brady, but never achieved similar success with the Kansas City Chiefs over the next four years.  Whoever is starting under center, if Peterson has only an average year compared to his outstanding one in 2012, the Vikings are unlikely to be returning to the playoffs.

The other team in the division are the Detroit Lions, who ended 2012 with a disappointing 4-12 record despite having shown signs of improvements over the last few years since ending their 2008 campaign winless.  There are still reasons for hope for a team from the largest city in the United States to have declared bankruptcy: in 2011, they made the playoffs with a 10-6 record; of their 12 defeats last year, 7 were by 8 points or fewer; Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver in the league; and QB Matthew Stafford has thrown for 10,005 passing yards over the last two seasons.  With the forced retirement due to concussions of their running back, Jahvid Best, the Lions have turned to former Saints and Dolphins player, Reggie Bush to be their main rusher.  Detriot’s defensive line will continue to be strong, with first round draft pick, Ziggy Ansah joining Jason Jones, Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh in the front four, but they will need to maintain their discipline and not give up too many free yards to opponents – last term they reduced their average penalties per game to 6.4, down from 7.9 in 2011 and 8.5 in 2010.

Predicted Standings: 1. Green Bay Packers 11-5; 2. Chicago Bears 8-8; 3. Detroit Lions 7-9; 4. Minnesota Vikings 6-10 Continue reading