The Rex Ryan Era Begins in Buffalo

“Is this thing on?  Because it’s getting ready to be on.”

And just like that, the old Rex Ryan was back.

Rex was introduced yesterday as the new coach of the Buffalo Bills, and right off the bat he came out guns blazing.  He had a number of print worthy lines at the introductory press conference, and between his energy and overall swagger, it was clear that the man that created such a buzz during his first few years with the Jets had returned in full force.

There were a few guarantees made, a couple of shots fired at a former coach of the Bills (‘Saint Doug’), and some references to building a team that will play the part of the “bully”.  It was vintage Rex, who over the course of a few of days seemingly managed to fully incorporate himself into the fabric of the Buffalo community.

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been missing this version of Rexy the past few years.  Whether you find him entertaining or consider him an obnoxious blowhard, the ‘Hard Knocks’ version of the coach is his real persona.  For whatever reason, the Jets decided to put a muzzle on him around the time Woody Johnson hired the great John Idzik to be general manager.  In public Rex did his best to tone down the bombastic rhetoric and walk the company line, but beneath the surface you just knew his true personality was just waiting to pop out.

I realize they are still in the honeymoon phase in Buffalo, but at the moment it seems that Rex is surrounded by people who share his vision and want to build a team in the same manner.  There is definitely some roster talent there, especially on the defensive line and in the receiving corps.  As was the case with the Jets, if the front office can bring in a quarterback (or unearth something out of EJ Manuel) that can provide at least adequate play from the position, Rex will be able to win a lot of games.  Win or lose though, we are can at least be guaranteed that Rex will be Rex for the foreseeable future.

National Championship Pick: Oregon vs. Ohio State

In a contest that will be played under the big screen inside of “JerryWorld”, the highly anticipated inaugural Championship Game of the College Football Playoffs commences tonight with Ohio State taking on Oregon.

After thumping Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, the Buckeyes will bring a cast of explosive playmakers to the field led by their 3rd-string quarterback Cardale Jones.  Conversely, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota directs the Ducks absurdly fast up-tempo offense, an attack that must be seen in real time in order to full appreciate.

Current line:  Oregon -7, over/under 74

Speed city:  Mariota navigates a relentless attack that averages a little over 47 points scored per game.  Though they are occasionally thought of as a passing team, Oregon’s first order of business is to establish the run and get the rest of their offensive playbook firing off of that. Once they get a few first downs and create the pace they want to play at, the Ducks are practically impossible to slow down.  Behind Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett, the Buckeyes must be able to hold their own in the trenches and get off of the field on at least a couple of third downs throughout the game.

Depth concerns:  As interchangeable as some of Oregon’s parts are, they will be playing without two of their best receivers tonight.  Darren Carrington (2nd on the team with 704 receiving yards) is out due to a failed NCCA drug test, while Devon Allen (led the Ducks with 7 touchdown receptions this year) injured his knee on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl and won’t be suiting up. Mariota is used to playing pitch and catch to wide open receivers, and it will be interesting to see if the backups Oregon rolls out will be able to generate the same level of separation.

Quick study:  Jones has quickly settled into the role of QB 1, displaying decent scrambling ability to go with a big time arm. He is extremely large for the position (think Cam Newton size), and I can easily see him picking up short yardage first downs by putting his down and bullying his way through Oregon’s defensive line.  Jones will also test the Ducks secondary by throwing it deep to Devin Smith, a speedster outside who leads the FBS with an average of 27.7 yards per catch. Oregon has a fast moving defense, but after seeing the Buckeyes manhandle Alabama’s defensive front, they might be susceptible to a pounding on the interior.

The Urban Factor:  Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Urban Meyer is one heck of a college football coach. Ohio State has won 37 of 40 games with Meyer at the helm – his most recent game action represented a complete undressing of Alabama’s Saban, a victory that his stellar record in bowl games to 8-2.  Defeating Oregon with a third-string (albeit talented) quarterback will only cement his reputation as one of the best ever at steering a program. It will also bring him into the elite company of becoming just the eighth coach ever to win three or more national titles.

Trends:  Oregon has been paying off in a big way, winning and covering in nine straight games.  They have also been money in bowl games, winning/covering in their last four. If Ohio State is involved look for a high scoring affair, as the total has gone ‘over’ in 12 of their last 13 games.

Prediction:  Even without Carrington and Allen the Ducks are still going to score a lot of points – Mariota has shown that he can be missing a variety of weapons and still be deadly.  Can Ohio State win a track meet?  They have certainly shown the capability in both games Jones has lined up under center, scoring a combined 101 points against Wisconsin and Alabama.

In what should be a close game, if I were betting straight up I would give Oregon the edge since they have the more experienced, superior QB (Mariota) running Mark Helfrich’s fast-break offense.  However, given Meyer’s track record and the fact that the roster matchups appear closer on paper than the line designates, the play here is the Buckeyes plus the points.

CM Punk Joins the UFC

This past Saturday night at UFC 181, Phi Brooks, aka CM Punk, made an announcement that managed to reverberate through the inner sanctums of both the worlds of mixed martial arts and sports entertainment.  By signing a multi-fight contract with the UFC, Punk will be pursuing his new career for an indefinite amount of time while temporarily putting the kibosh on the hopes of his fans who want to see him perform in a wrestling ring again.

It was an interesting signing by Dana White for a number of reasons.  At 36 with no prior fighting/MMA experience and a checkered injury history, Punk is virtually being allowed six months or so to find a camp, decide on a discipline, train, and see what he can do. His lacks of cage skills are a deal breaker for some who view the transaction as a slap in the face to the legit fighters of the world. People are throwing out comparisons to Brock Lesnar, and though Lesnar was also a lightning rod when he joined the company, the guy was a physical freak with a top-flight amateur wrestling background.  Comparing the pedigrees of the two men is like comparing apples to oranges.

While Punk’s legitimacy as a fighter will remain a question until his first fight, what this has done immediately for White and the UFC is garner interest and get people talking. If there is this much uproar and discussion based upon this initial news, I can only imagine the coverage that will ensue once we get into the New Year and closer to fight time. White acknowledged that Punk can definitely sell some pay-per-views, and though curiosity alone with bring some new eyes to the product, the ability of Punk to promote events will only enhance buy rates.

For those who have followed his career in the WWE, the one thing that Punk could always do as good as anyone was talk on the mic, work up a hearty disdain for his opponents, and make his matches feel ‘big’. These are qualities that will come in handy when has to produce sound bites for his adversaries in the UFC and get in the type of back-and-forths that people love. Lesnar quickly became one of the biggest draws in the UFC, with the buy rates from some of his fights ranking as the most profitable in the entire history of the company.  While Punk might not be on the same fighting level as Lesnar, there is a cross-over interest appeal in him that will lead to successful PPV’s…that combined with the fact that many people want to see him how he handles him in this environment or get the beating that some feel is coming to him.  It could be a win-win for the UFC – either Punk proves himself to be a credible fighter and one of their top draws, or after a few fights it’s apparent that he is out of his element and they cut bait with a few big money making events he appeared lining their pockets.

Though he has his share of detractors, you have to give Punk credit for creating such a loyal following and branding himself in such a way that he has remained relevant despite the fact that he hasn’t been seen in a WWE ring since January of this year.  The timing of everything couldn’t have worked out better for Punk – from his departure from the WWE, using the time away to rest and get healthy, his appearance on Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast a few weeks ago (an appearance that shook the wrestling world, cast his WWE bosses in an extremely negative light, and put his name back in the headlines) to his arrival in the UFC.

Personally, I am anxious to see how Punk stacks up in the brutal world of MMA. There are known tough guys, or ‘shooters’, the world of fake wrestling, and while he was never going to be confused with the likes of Kurt Angle, Tonga Fifita (Haku), or Chris Jericho, Punk always wanted to be seen as a legit fighter. He has routinely portrayed himself as a tough guy (noticeable even recently in his podcast with Cabana), and when it becomes fighting for real he will have the opportunity to showcase his abilities and prove he belongs with those he gets in the cage with. It is unknown at this point whether he will fight in the middleweight or welterweight division.  Either way, there will be no shortage of fighters looking to get their hands on Punk and enjoy the coverage and payday it will bring. Whether he makes it in the UFC or embarrasses himself and the company will be one of the more interesting storylines to keep an eye on in 2015.

Mark Sanchez Comes Back to Earth

It’s not Mark Sanchez’s fault really.

The overriding narrative that people seem to enjoy (other than a good tear down story of course) is one of redemption, and the triumphant return of the ‘Sanchize’ last week seemed to fit the bill perfectly.  He was a player seemingly on his way to superstardom before ultimately flaming out in New York, and due to a stroke of injury related luck was suddenly presented with a fresh opportunity in Philadelphia.

He was successful in his initial outing versus the Carolina Panthers – made a few plays downfield, threw a few touchdown passes, and generally avoided mistakes .  All in all a solid performance against a marginal opponent, enough to keep you interested but not enough to erase four years of Mark Sanchez mediocrity from the old memory bank.  Still, that didn’t stop a number of people from pumping up this revitalized version of their guy and alter history to fit their respective agendas.

Over the course of the next few days you heard of a lot of:

“This is how Sanchez can perform when he actually has offensive weapons around him”

“Sanchez will flourish in Chip Kelly’s offense”

“Nick Foles won’t have a job when he returns, Sanchez is more talented”

Some even tried to spin his time in New York.  Though he was the QB of a team that went to back-to-back AFC Championship games, even a casual observer could identify that those Jet squads were built on a superior running game and Rex Ryan’s attacking defense.  Sanchez had a few moments, but mostly he was asked not to lose games.

His third and fourth seasons saw him progress into the turnover creating machine we all came to know, and I sadly can’t think of a single offensive player whose star was elevated by playing with Sanchez.  Certain quarterbacks “make” the players around them better and turn average receivers into great ones, but the Sanchize was never one to do so.  He was a game manager who, at the end of his tenure, couldn’t even do that effectively.

It was this latter version of Sanchez that was back on display this past Sunday at Lambeau  Field.  While Aaron Rogers was busy carving up Philly’s defense and giving Chip Kelly some free lessons on offensive efficiency, Sanchez endured an early beating that left his skittish for the remainder of the game.  He threw a pick-six reminiscent of countless INT’s he threw while he was in New York, and later was unable to corral a high snap that resulted in another easy score for the Packers.  The final score was 53-20, putting Sanchez and his feel good story back on the mat.

Depending on the opponent, there will likely be similar highs and lows for Sanchez and the Eagles in the weeks ahead.  There a couple of layups in there, but stiff divisional contests await them as does a visit from Seattle.  Turnovers have been a serious problem for Sanchez for most of his career, and he must utilize the easy reads of Kelly’s offense to minimize his mistakes going forward.

While it would be a great story to see Sanchez lead his new team to the Super Bowl and author a redemption story, at this point in his career this might just be who he is – good enough to win some games, not good enough to be the franchise guy.

2014-2015 NBA Season Preview

With the NBA’s regular season kicking off next Tuesday, let’s take a quick look at some of the more intriguing storylines that will be settled in the weeks and months ahead.

Eastern Conference

Are the Cavs the team to beat in the East? 

Though LeBron James has been preaching patience and telling those in the media that the Chicago Bulls are the more complete team at the moment, those who set the NBA Champions Odds believe that Cleveland (5/2) has the best shot at getting out of the East and winning the title this year.  Anytime your roster contains the best player in the world, one of the best point guards in the league (Kyrie Irving), and arguable the best power forward in the league (Kevin Love) you have a chance to do something special.

In relatively short order, the Cavs have put together a fairly complete team containing a solid mix of young players on the rise and veterans who have been through the wars.  I expect Cleveland to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but if Derek Rose is healthy I would give the Bulls the edge due to their considerable size advantage inside.  With Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson serving as the Cavs primary bigs/rim protectors, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them make a move to bolster their frontline sometime this year.

Can Chicago generate enough offense to win it all? 

The Bulls (11/2) under Tom Thibodeau have been the epitome of a grind-it-out team.  Last year they held opponents to the second lowest effective field percentage in the league, but come playoff time they were once again bounced early due to a combination of injuries and not having enough players who could consistently put the ball in the basket.

Entering this season, there is plenty of optimism in Chicago due to the return of Rose and the offseason acquisitions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott.  D-Rose will solve a lot of the offensive woes strictly by being on the court, and having a skilled big like Gasol should enable the Bulls to be able to occasionally dump the ball inside and get a few easy looks each game.  On paper this is a more talented group than the Bulls teams of 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, and a key for Thibs will be to monitor minutes and not put his team in the ground before the playoffs begin.

How will the ‘Triangle’ work in New York?

Under new coach Derek Fisher, the Knicks (60/1) want to employ a more cohesive brand of basketball and get away from the isolation attack that has been their calling card in recent seasons.  The Triangle Offense will limit the workload of Carmelo Anthony (in theory at least) and allow him to have more energy to close out games in the fourth quarter.  This team will be limited defensively however and it’s not encouraging that they are counting on two injury ravaged forwards in Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire to contribute meaningful minutes.

The Knicks should make the playoffs, and there should be better spacing, more ball movement, and more evenly distributed shots on offense.  At the end of the day though, the Triangle can only do so much for a roster that is devoid of talent in key areas.

More upside:  The Wizards or Hornets?

I love what the Hornets (66/1) have been doing lately, and adding Lance Stephenson to the mix is definitely a win.  Head case or not, Lance and his 7.4 win shares from last season are now in Charlotte and he should form a formidable trio with Big Al and Kemba Walker.

While the Hornets give maximum effort and their energy alone will get them a lot of wins, at the moment the Wizards (33/1) are the more ready-made team to do damage in the postseason.  The experiences from last year should help John Wall and Bradley Beal, and bringing in Paul Pierce to play on the frontline with Nene and Marcin Gortat gives them a physical and experienced group down low.  The only thing that could derail this group is injuries, as the Wizards definitely have some age on their roster.

Will the Heat remain competitive sans LeBron?

I might be in the minority here, but I still believe that the Heat (50/1) can be one of the top four teams in the East.  Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts will be counted on to make up for some of the production now missing with LeBron in Cleveland, while Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade seem extremely motivated to prove that they can still be top players in this this league.  Miami also has one of the best coaches in the NBA manning the sidelines, and much like Coach Pop does out West, I think Coach Spo will do a good job of managing the season and getting enough wins out of his team for them to remain in the conversation.

Western Conference

Can the Spurs stay healthy enough to repeat?

This always seems to be the question for the San Antonio (7/2).  Everything broke exactly right for the Spurs last year on the injury front (i.e. no serious setbacks in the playoffs), and with them bringing back the entire band this year they are once again title favorites.

Coach Pop is the master at keeping minutes down and resting his players when he has too, as getting this team to April in one piece is always on the forefront of his mind.  Barring a freak injury, this blueprint should enable the Spurs to have a representative chance at repeating as champs.

Will Golden State regret not trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love?

The Warriors (25/1) effectively passed on acquiring Kevin Love in order to keep the Splash Brothers together.  Klay Thompson and Steph Curry are the best back court tandem in the league, and last year netted 10.7 more points and 4.8 more assists per 100 possessions than the opposition when they shared the court together.  Golden State likes the defensive ability of Thompson, as they often put him the other team’s premier perimeter player in order to shield Curry.

Passing on a player of Love’s caliber is certainly a gamble, one that could come back to bite them if and when Andrew Bogut breaks down again.  While Thompson is one of the better two guards in the NBA, I believe they would’ve been better off obtaining Love and giving Klay’s minutes to some combination of Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, and Harrison Barnes.

Can the Clippers or Thunder finally get over the hump?

Perennial contenders, both the Clippers (8/1) and OKC (7/1) have fallen short of the ultimate prize in recent years.

The Clippers have tons of depth, but I think they will only take the next step if Blake Griffin continues to improve and start to routinely dominate and take over series’ in the postseason.  He is young and powerful enough to have that kind of impact, and with Chris Paul consistently breaking down at the end of each season the Clippers need Blake to be the best player on the floor at all times.

OKC will always be dangerous as long as they have Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka.  Despite the explosive talent of this three, the Spurs proved last year that they could outlast the Thunder with their superior depth and by having five guys on the court capable of hitting shots.  It often felt like OKC was playing only three viable offensive players at a time in that series, and it might be more of the same this season unless someone like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, or Sebastian Telfair starts contributing on a regular basis.

Who will have the better season:  Mavs or Rockets?

Led by Mark Cuban and Darly Morey, the swiping between these two teams this offseason has been very entertaining.  The Rockets missed out on their free agent targets this past offseason, failing to land Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Kyle Lowery.  On top of that, one of their own in Chandler Parsons elected to sign a lucrative contract with the Mavs.

While the Rockets (20/1) have the younger star tandem in James Harden and Dwight Howard, I like the composition of the roster in Dallas (20/1).  They have surrounded Dirk Nowitzki with enough playmakers to keep defenses honest, and I expect Tyson Chandler to have a bounce back year after flaming out in New York.  Plus, anytime you have to choose between Rick Carlisle and Kevin McHale, always go with Carlisle.

Finals Prediction

With their ability to control the paint and the returning Derek Rose, I think this is the year the Bulls finally get past a LeBron James led team and make the Finals.  Out West, the Thunder have been besieged by untimely injuries the last two postseasons – Westbrook in 2013 and Ibaka in 2014.  Hopefully they are getting their bad luck out of the way early this year with Durant on the shelf to start the season and, and come playoff time a healthy OKC squad will athletically overwhelm the opposition and navigate their way through what is a brutally tough Western Conference.

In the Finals, I believe the triumvirate of Noah, Gibson, and Gasol will be too much for Ibaka to handle on his own.  Chicago’s defense will do just enough to slow down Durant and Westbrook, and the Bulls will capture their first title since 1998.

2014 Ryder Cup Preview

Like other fans who take certain events a little too personally, I am still somewhat bitter that the United States dropped the ball at the 2012 Ryder Cup. It was a perfect storm of great play by the Europeans and low energy out the Americans, and the resulting final day comeback enabled the Euros to wipe away the stench of the 1999 Ryder Cup for good.

Two years later, the European team is expected by most to retain the Ryder Cup, continuing a stretch of dominance that has seen them win five out of the last six renditions of this event. The matches are being held at the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire, Scotland, and, with any luck, we will see another dramatic finish on Sunday.

The European squad boasts a deep and talented squad of players who, on paper at least, should hold a decided advantage playing on their home turf. Rory McIlroy is the best player in the world, and he is surrounded by players known for taking their games to a different level every two years. Between Sergio Garcia (overall career record of 16-8-4), Ian Poulter (12-3), Justin Rose (6-3), and Lee Westwood (18-13-6), the Euros have guys who have been through the wars and routinely made clutch putt after clutch putt when necessary.

Conversely, the United States enters the event with an infusion of young players eager to make their mark. Though lamenting the absences of Jason Dufner, Tiger Woods, and Dustin Johnson, I still think the U.S. has enough there to make this thing interesting. In the team events, Tom Watson will likely try and ride a couple of duos that had great success back at Medinah in 2012, namely Bubba Watson/Webb Simpson and Phil Mickelson/Keegan Bradley.

Rickie Fowler played the best golf of his career the last few months and could’ve very easily won the first major of his career if not for the exploits of Rory. The United States desperately needs someone to step up and put together a 5-0 Poulter-type of performance in order to win the Cup, and Fowler might just the guy with the game to do it.

A few other items of note:

The Euros field the No. 1 (Rors), No. 3 (Sergio), No 4. (Stenson), and No. 6 (Rose) ranked players in the world. To say they are formidable at the top would be an understatement.

Tom Watson might regret (if he isn’t already) not selecting Billy Horschel as one of his Captain’s Picks. It’s easy to second guess after what Horschel did the last few weeks, but even before that he seemed like a player tailor made for the Ryder Cup – fearless, full of swagger, and judging by his play at the BMW Championship and at The Tour Championship, more than willing to go toe-to-toe with Rory McIlroy.

Despite being played on foreign soil, the course in some respects will favor the Americans. It is a long, generous, risk-reward course, similar to the one at Medinah that the U.S. had great success on until the third day.

This has to the year that both Classic Phil (career Ryder Cup record of 14-18-6) and Jim Furyk (9-17-4) boast winning records. Phil held up his end in 2008 and 2012, while Furyk has largely disappointed in this event – very surprising considering what a steady player and accurate driver of the golf ball he is.

The premier match of tomorrow’s opening morning sessions feature the Phil/Keegan pairing versus Rory and Sergio. The tenor of this fourball gathering should be interesting to watch given the intensity of Keegan, the annoying Ryder Cup antics of Sergio, and the recent verbal jabs by Rory (Tiger & Phil = old) and Phil (Rory and Graeme McDowell = friends suing each other).

Few sporting events can match the passion and excitement of the Ryder Cup, and I personally can’t wait to rise early and watch this thing get started.

Jets Missing out on Turnovers

Though we are only a few games into the season, the New York Jets already find themselves in the red in terms of turnover differential at -2. Facing an onslaught of top tier quarterbacks in the weeks ahead, this is a trend that Rex Ryan’s squad needs to flip in the opposite direction if they want to keep their season from going south in a hurry.

Following Sunday’s loss to the Packers in Lambeau this past Sunday, it is evident that the Jets are fully capable of giving the upper echelon teams in this league all they can handle. It is well documented that it is extremely difficult to run the ball against the front seven Rexy rolls out each week, and thus far the offense has provided a glimmer of hope that they will be an improved version of what we saw out of them a year ago.

However, due to the massive holes in the secondary and the up and down play of Geno Smith, it is also evident that the Jets’ margin of error is much smaller than teams such as the Patriots and Broncos. The difference between winning and losing games in the NFL is razor thin, and New York consistently tests these limits by coughing up the ball more than the opposition.

Unfortunately for the Jets, they have been losing the turnover battle for a number of years now. During Rex’s five-year tenure with the team, they have only had more takeaways than giveaways in two seasons, 2009 and 2010. Not surprisingly, these were the years New York made deep playoff runs. The Jets haven’t had a winning season since 2010, as this metric has gone the opposite way for them in each of the last three seasons:

2009: +1
2010: +9
2011: -3
2012: -14
2013: -14

The uptick is giveaways by the Jets during this period is mostly due to the unexpected regression of Mark Sanchez in 2011/2012 and the growing pains endured by Geno a year ago. Though I am in agreement with the perception that New York’s QB’s have had to play with marginal supporting casts the last few years, the sheer amount of  inopportune interceptions and fumbles is quite staggering. I am sure the concept of ball security and limiting mistakes in the red zone was being shoved down the throats of the players throughout the preseason, but against Oakland and Green Bay we saw the same old mistakes occurring.

On the defensive side of the ball, New York boasts a unit that takes great pride in being one of the more physical gangs in all of football. For a defense that enjoys taking the fight to their opponents, they must make a concerted effort to try and generate more turnovers. Last year, the Jets jarred quite a few balls loose; however, in an interesting stat, they were actually historically inept/unlucky when it came to recovering fumbles.

As noted by footballperspective.com, the Jets defense (and special teams) forced 18 fumbles and recovered only two of them. The team now owns the unfortunate distinction of being in the first team in NFL history to recover fewer than three opponent fumbles in a season. In light of this anomaly, in retrospect it is somewhat shocking that the team finished with an 8-8 record in 2013. In theory, this statistic should revert back to the “mean” this season, with New York recovering its fair share of fumbles and creating a few extra possessions each game for an offense that could use all the help it can get.

The Bears will come into town on Monday night equipped with an abundance of skilled wideouts and a quarterback in Jay Cutler that is quite capable of tearing apart a defense when given a clean pocket to work from. The Jets are more than due for a period of time in which the turnover differential tilts in their direction, and receiving a clean game from Geno Smith while forcing the Bears into a couple of mistakes would go along way towards a bounce back win.

Packers vs. Seahawks Preview

 

The NFL season starts with a bang tonight, as two teams that could eventually face off other in the NFC Championship game will get to work in the season opener at CenturyLink Field.  Aaron Rogers and the revamped Green Bay Packers are tasked with dethroning the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, and here are a few of the storylines to be aware of:

Current Line:  Seattle -6, over/under 46.5

Green Bay’s D:  The Packers defense ranked 25th in the NFL last year, routinely getting pushed off the ball in the run game and dealing with injuries and inconsistency in its secondary.  Primarily due to their recent ineptitude on defense, Green Bay is 0-5 since the start of the 2012 season against the big boys of the NFC West, Seattle and San Francisco.  They are hoping to buck this trend by the installation of younger bodies up front to increase depth and with the signing of Julius Peppers to serve as a legitimate pass-rusher to complement Clay Matthews.  Trying to contain Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch in the opener should be a good test right of the rip.

No place like home:  Seattle is difficult to play against regardless of the venue, but they are an entirely different animal in front of their raucous fans.  Case in point, the Seahawks have won 17 of their last 18 home games and will be looking to win its fifth straight Week 1 home opener.  The noise and atmosphere of CenturyLink seems to give the formidable defense of Seattle even more of an edge, an edge that Richard Sherman and his defensive teammates exploited in route to allowing the lowest total years per game in the NFL last season.

Healthy Harvin:  With a Percy Harvin starting the season in one piece, Seattle will have at its disposal one of the more dynamic talents in the league.  Wilson will be able to throw it to Harvin deep, over the middle, or even out of the backfield, options that weren’t readily available to him a year ago.  Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers will surely have to have some of his defenders tilted to Harvin’s whereabouts at all times.

Strength against strength:  Rogers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, utilizing his powerful right arm to dissect his opponents.  Green Bay relies heavily on Rogers and the passing game, which unfortunately plays right into the hands of the Seahawks defense.  Seattle had the best passing defense in the league in 2013, allowing a paltry 172 passing yards per game.  Something has to give here, and it will be interesting to see if Rogers can pick his spots, avoid turnovers, and find a few openings against an extremely fast and physical secondary.

Trends:  Green Bay has struggled in the role of road underdog lately, going 1-5 SU and ATS in its last six games when facing this scenario.  Also, since 2012 they are 2-4-1 ATS against NFC West squads.  Seattle is a beast at home, tallying impressive records of 17-1 SU and 13-5 ATS over their last 18 games.

Prediction:  As noted above, Seattle is virtually impossible to beat SU at home these days.  However, I think Aaron Rogers is good enough to at least keep this game competitive.  Green Bay’s roster typically gets beat up as the season progresses, but outside of losing JC Tretter and B.J. Raji, they are in good health to start the year.  And in Eddie Lacy, the Packers seem to finally have a suitable running back capable of keeping Seattle’s aggressive pass-rushers a little honest.  Seattle wins 28-24, but Green Bay covers.

2014 SummerSlam Preview: Panel Discussion

With injuries and defections altering long-term plans on seemingly weekly basis, this has been an interesting summer in WWE land.  The biggest losses continue to be felt at the top, as Daniel Bryan’s meteoric rise has been temporarily derailed due to various ailments and CM Punk remains content on the sidelines in Chicago.  The collective interest level of the panel is somewhat subdued heading into this PPV, but nonetheless we elected to provide our thoughts:

Thoughts/comments on the Hogan Birthday celebration last night on RAW?

JD:  It was ok, thought it could have been better.  I would have actually had Lesnar hit Hogan then have Cena make the save. I kind of like what they are doing with Cena here.

Waymire:  The tribute video was awesome, and the old school wrestlers seemed to really be enjoying themselves.  Scott Hall was perfect in the NWO survey.  Having Brock come out made sense, especially with his promise to return earlier in the night.  It was also logical to hold off on any brawling, since it gets people excited to see Lesnar and Cena clash at SummerSlam that much more. I do think it could’ve lasted a little longer before Brock came out because it seemed to fly by.  Maybe have people like Flair and Piper speak as well.  But overall, it was a really good end to Raw.

WC:  I enjoyed it right until Lesnar came out to ruin it with his shoddy mike work.  Always good to see Flair, Hall & Nash were great (especially Hall taking the poll) and Orndorff’s mustache was fantastic.  The only thing missing was Mr. T.

PAC:  I think it could’ve gone a little longer, but overall not bad.  Few entities do tribute videos like the WWE, and once again they delivered with the Hogan one.  I wish Naitch got to speak instead of some of the others, and I really thought Lesnar was going to plant one of the legends and get even more heat on himself.  The man who stole the show though was Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff, amazing 70’s stach.

John Cena (c) vs. Brock Lesnar: Singles match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship

JD:  I think despite liking what they are doing with Cena, WWE has to continue to build Lesnar into a monster and have him destroy Cena and take the belts. This needs to end with Lesnar dropping the belts at Mania to Reigns.

Waymire:  A lot has been made about Brock not being around much if he wins, but I’ll still go with him. I don’t think a loss by Cena means much only because you know he’ll be back on top at some point. Having Brock appear every now and then with the belt will make it feel like a big event anyway. I’ll be honest, while I think Lesnar will win, I’m just praying Cena won’t. Not again!

WC:  Ugh.  Zero interest in this.  Although I can say how many big-time matches over the past few years have featured Cena as the better wrestler?  That in itself is a rarity.  I’m tired of Lesnar – it was garbage when they put him over Taker at Mania and its garbage now that he is clearly going to win the belt and not wrestle again until the Rumble.  Why do they keep bending over backwards for this guy?  He sucks on the mike, is stiff in the ring and legitimately hurts people when he’s in there.  I just don’t get it.

PAC:  They will make Cena look like Rocky Balboa as usual, but in the end Lesnar has to get the win.  Vince backed himself into a corner with the horrendous decision to have Brock end the streak at Mania, and now he has to keep building him up as a monster or else that defeat of Taker will look even more absurd (if that’s even possible) in hindsight.

Chris Jericho vs. Bray Wyatt Singles match:

JD:  Obviously Bray is going to go over here. It would make zero sense have Jericho go over again.

Waymire:  I’ll go with the upset of Jericho winning again here, as Wyatt will finally get his big win at Night of Champions before Y2J leaves again. WWE doesn’t seem to mind building Wyatt up just to have him lose, so why not one more loss?

WC:  I’m still not a Wyatt fan (don’t enjoy the promos or the gimmick which I know puts me in the minority) but Jericho is one of my all-time favorites.  Even though I don’t like Wyatt, he puts on good matches and working with Jericho will only make him better.  Since Jericho won the last one, I’ll take Wyatt in this one.

PAC:  The prevailing thought seems to be Jericho won their first encounter, Bray will win this one.  I think this will be the case, and it is well documented that Y2J has no problem elevating other workers.  With Jericho being one of my all-time favorite wrestlers and Bray emerging as one of the best of the next generation, I am looking forward to this match above all the others.

Roman Reigns vs. Randy Orton Singles match:

JD:  The build of Reigns has to continue and he needs to go over. Let’s face it we don’t really know when Bryan will be back so they have to go with Reigns as the next top face.

Waymire:  Roman Reigns will start his big push with a win. I just hope he can put on a good match if he really is being groomed as a top star.

WC:  Another crummy match.  Reigns is better than the normal giants Vince runs out there, but not by much.  Orton still sucks.  I’ll go with Reigns since it seems like they want him to be the #2 babyface behind Cena.

PAC:  Orton doesn’t seem like the type who wants to put over the next guy being pushed to the moon by Vince, but he might not have a choice.  He was in this same position as Reigns at one time (has it already been over ten years?!?), and now must be the one to lie down while the young guy continues his rapid ascent.

Any interest at all in the Brie Bella vs. Stephanie McMahon feud/match? 

JD:  Not a huge one, but I think this is actually going to be better than people think. Stephanie is legit when it comes to fitness and fighting.

Waymire:  The arrest angle fell flat on Raw this week. It was so red hot when Steph got arrested, but it looks like WWE went to the well a bit too much here. I didn’t mind the affair accusation only because it’s natural for Steph to appear desperate and do anything to get under Brie’s skin. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this revealed as a big ruse in no time. I think Steph wins thanks to some sort of interference

WC:  Slight.  I expect a heel turn from Nikki Bella here setting up some sort of program for Rumble/Mania (also to help push their TV show).  The only other interest is a possible wardrobe malfunction.  Steph wins, with an assist from Nikki.

PAC:  In the words of Chris Olames, “Absolutely Not”.  Barring some unforeseen outside interference from Daniel Bryan, Stephanie will skate by due to some shady dealings.

More excited about the Miz’s new gimmick or Dolph actually receiving somewhat of a push?        

JD:  Both really, I actually love Miz and feel like he got knocked off the map just like Dolph. Both of them have a bright future, especially Dolph. I feel like Dolph is/was the next HBK and really hope they let him rise again.

Waymire:   A little bit of both, actually. I’ll give Miz credit for doing something new. The crowd still seems like they don’t care much, but I think he can be pretty funny in how over the top he is. The only problem with Dolph’s “push” is that if he does win the IC title, I’m not sure that bumps him up another level. It certainly didn’t for Curtis Axel and Big E. Wade Barrett was on his way to elevating the title before he got hurt again. I hope Dolph wins and is one of those “fighting champions,” but I think Miz retains.

 WC:  Ziggler’s push by a mile.  This guy has been on the shelf forever for whatever reason (the prevailing theory is he is injury-prone).  Whether that’s true or not, they need to let this guy run with what he’s got.  Great on the mike, great in the ring.  Miz’s new gimmick just plays on what he’s good at (overbearing douche).  I expect Miz to retain, but it won’t be long before Dolph (hopefully) gets a belt back.

PAC:  Excited for both, but more excited that Dolph is getting some run again.  It’s been said many times on this panel; he definitely has some HBK in him and should be one of the top guys in the company.  Hopefully a win over Miz in what should be an entertaining match will trigger the start of Ziggler’s rise back up the card.

WC’s bonus pick:  Rollins vs. Ambrose  

WC:  Looking forward to this match most of all.  I love both of these guys and am excited to see how they progress over the next year.  Rollins is fantastic in the ring, but his promos are a little weak (which I assume is why they put him with the Authority).  Ambrose is phenomenal on the mike and has proven he can do just about anything in the ring (technical, hardcore, etc.).  Since Rollins has the MITB briefcase, I expect Ambrose to get the win, but expect this feud to continue for a while.

NBA 2015 Title Odds: Cavs emerge as favorites

A few weeks removed from the entertaining chaos that was the initial wave of the NBA’s free agency period, it’s an ideal time to look at the odds for the 2015 championship and dissect them for value.

If you were sage enough to jump on the Cleveland Cavaliers before LeBron James decided to return back to the team he spurned in 2010, you very easily could be sitting with them at 50-1.  For everyone else though the Cavs are now sitting around 7-2, the favorites to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy next season.  I realize Cleveland plays in the East and that LeBron easily makes them a 50 win squad, but it still seems like a bit of stretch considering what the Spurs did to the Heat last month.  Vegas might be banking on Kevin Love arriving to the team via trade.

San Antonio (9-2) retained all of their players, essentially running back the team that just won the title.  Getting out of the brutal Western Conference for a third consecutive year will be quite a challenge, especially with another year on the books for Duncan/Parker/Manu.  Coach Pop remains the best in the business however, and no team will be as deep as the Spurs.

I think the Bulls (13-2) will challenge the Cavs for supremacy in the Eastern Conference, but it once again depends on the health of D-Rose.  Rose has been snake bitten of late, and I truly hope he can remain healthy and get back to being the player he was just a few short years ago.  The addition of Pau Gasol to the frontline of Noah and Gibson provides the Bulls with arguably the deepest trio of “bigs” in the entire NBA.  If Coach Thibs can get this crew to the playoffs in once piece, they should be able to power their way to at least the Eastern Conference Finals.

Despite losing Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons, and failing to land Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony, the Rockets (10-1) are still being considered one of the favorites.  Howard and Harden are great players, but overall this team might take a step back this season.  They seem primed for another first round exit unless they are able to make a move during the season to upgrade their roster.  Stay away.

The LeBron-less Heat might be a sneaky pickup at 25-1.  They brought back Bosh and Wade and have added Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts to a squad that will be motivated to prove they can win without LBJ.  I know everyone points to Wade and his health, but seeing if Bosh can perform as a max level player this year will be interesting to watch.  Can they get 20/10 out of him?  If so, I wouldn’t count Miami out in what is being called a wide open Eastern Conference.

My prime pick at the moment is the Thunder (13-2).  Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are gradually approaching the prime of their respective careers, and I have to believe that one of these years they will all be healthy in June and take that much anticipated next step.  Two years ago it was Westbrook going down, and this year Ibaka wasn’t 100%.  If players such as Jeremy Lamb and Percy Jones can continue develop into serviceable role players, I don’t see even the Spurs stopping OKC this year.