MLB: State of the Race

3 weeks left for 3 key races

Cleveland’s 20*-game win streak is one of the more impressive feats in recent sports history–if not all time. They have dominated their September slate, while charging past the Astros for the best record in the American League. Some will argue it won’t matter if they flop in October, but this has been an enduring run regardless (Heck, they made a Brad Pitt movie about the last 20-game win streak).

While the Indians have stolen the show the last couple of weeks, there are still interesting races throughout the standings. Specifically, three races will define the closing stretch of 2017: home-field in the AL, the NL Central and the AL Wildcard. The NL wildcard is close, but the Brewers and Cardinals should be more focused on catching the Cubs (just 2 games ahead) than the Rockies (3 games ahead).

AL Home-field:
Houston has been the best team in the AL since April, but the Indians streak has given them a one-game lead in the loss column with less than 20 games left. The top spot in the league is crucial not just for the home-field advantage in a potential ALCS, but the top seed will face a wildcard team, while the second spot must play Boston and Chris Sale. So the Indians have every incentive to keep winning, while Houston will need to pick up the pace and hope Cleveland cools down a little bit.

Both teams face other playoff contenders down the stretch. Cleveland must face Kansas City, Minnesota and the Angels, while Houston has a daunting  10-game run against the Angels, Rangers and Red Sox to close the year. In fact, there’s a chance their four game closing series at Fenway will roll right into an ALDS showdown.

Prediction: Indians streak to a comfortable top spot.

Weekend series to watch: Royals @ Indians. Cleveland could be going for MLB record win-streak against a wildcard-contending division rival.

NL Central
The Cubs were swept by the Brewers over the weekend allowing their division lead over Milwaukee and St. Louis to slip to just 2 games. The Cubs have 11 games combined against the Cardinals and Brewers remaining, while St. Louis and Milwaukee close the season with a 3 game series in Busch Stadium. This race will be decided in the eight-consecutive road games the Cubs have from September 21-28. If they can split road series with the Brewers and Cardinals in that stretch, they should hold on to their post season spot.

Prediction: Cubs, but its very close.

Weekend series to watch: Cardinals @ Cubs. If St. Louis wins this series in Wrigley it will get very scary in Chicago.

AL Wildcard
The Yankees are all but in, with a 5 game cushion between them and the third place team. Minnesota has carved out a two-game lead for the second spot, but six teams are still within five games. Yet, if any teams  catch the Twins, it likely would be the Angels, Royals or Rangers.

Angels: They just started a 13-game run where they face either the Astros, Rangers or Indians–that’s a tough draw right now. All but three of those games are at home, but it will still be a tough ask to get through that stretch with more than six wins. Just playing .500 baseball probably won’t get the job done.

Royals: After their upcoming series with Cleveland, they won’t play another team above .500 until their closing series against a Diamondbacks team that should have its playoff standing sewn up. They lost the season series 11-8 against the Twins, which may end up costing them.

Rangers: Texas has Oakland on its schedule for seven games (including the final four), which should help them close the gap. If they can go above .500 in their upcoming nine-game West coast trip, I like their chances.

Twins: The team they are all chasing is looking to stretch its surprising run into October. They have three games each with the Yankees and Indians, but if they can take care of business in their seven remaining games against Detroit they will be hard to catch.

Prediction: This one might take 163 games, but the Royals steal the final playoff spot from the Twins.

Weekend series to watch: Rangers @ Angels. This series will be a major factor in which AL West team can catch the Twins.

 

*All stats and records correct as of 11a.m. 9/13

 

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NFL Week 1: Good, Bad and Ugly

Examining a rough first week of pro football

The story of NFL week 1 was about rust. Teams looked sluggish, fantasy scores were low and several teams were left looking for answers. I was struck by the fact that nearly every game probably had more bad than good. There were bright spots, but there were a lot of nasty moments. In looking at the good, bad and ugly of each game, I hope to highlight the highs and lows for different teams. Here’s hoping it gets prettier from here.

Chiefs @ Patriots
Good: Kareem Hunt. 148 yards on the ground, 98 receiving and 3 total touchdowns. All that and a win over the reigning champions. Hard to beat that debut.

Bad: Tom Brady. 16-36 with no touchdowns. It was a rough night for the GOAT. IF he doesn’t turn it around the murmurs about his age will pick up steam. But, betting against Brady is not usually the way to go.

Ugly: Patriots Defense. Outscored 21-0  in the 4th quarter, they were blown away by the Chiefs speed. They gave up over 500 yards of offense, 42 points and looked overmatched, particularly at the linebacker position. If Dont’a Hightower’s injury lingers, there might not be a quick fix.

Steelers @ Browns
Good: Antonio Brown. The best receiver over the last three seasons kept it rolling. He didn’t get in the end zone, but caught 11 balls for nearly 200 yards and repeatedly bailed out Roethlisberger with his ability to scramble open and create yards after the catch.

Bad: DeShone Kizer. This ‘bad’ is actually a positive for the Browns. Yes, Kizer was raw–going 20/30 with a TD and an interception–but even his rookie play was a step forward for the Browns. If his development continues he will be an unquestioned ‘good’ very soon.

Ugly: The Browns opening series. Run for 1 yard, run for -9 yards, false start, run for 4 yards. Blocked punt. Steelers recover for touchdown. Not great.

Jets @ Bills
Good: Bills’ offense. Tyrod Taylor was fine, throwing for 2 touchdowns, but the ground game was the real plus. LeSean Mccoy ran for over 100 yards and Mike Tolbert got in the end zone. We’ll learn more against a better opponent, but for week 1, the offense was a bright spot.

Bad: Josh McCown. To roughly zero people’s surprise, Josh McCown struggled to do anything positive for the Jets offense. 187 yards and 2 picks, while leading the offense to just 10 first downs.

Ugly: Jets rushing. Unlike quarterback, the backfield was supposed to be a minor strength for the Jets. 38 rushing yards was nothing near a strength. This offense may be unable to generate anything positive all season, but any hope starts with the running game.

Falcons @ Bears
Good: Tyrik Cohen. The ‘human joystick’ was a breath of fresh air for the Chicago offense. Supplementing Jordan Howard in the backfield, he ran for 66 yards on 5 carries– including an exhilarating 46 yard run down the RIGHT sideline on a toss play to the LEFT. Eight catches for 47 yards and a score was icing on the cake.

Bad: Kevin White’s injury. The fractured scalpula is the latest injury for the talented wideout and is another blow to an already depleted receiving corps.

Ugly: Austin Hooper’s stiff arm.  Hooper made the Bears defensive back (name redacted) look like a bug on his windshield on the way to the game’s biggest play.

Ravens @ Bengals
Good: Ravens defense. 4 interceptions and a fumble recovery, while holding Cincinnati to 221 total yards. The defense overwhelmed the Bengals and is set up for a dominant season.

Bad: Joe Flacco. Good thing the defense looked strong because Flacco was 9 for 17, mustering just 121 yards with one touchdown and an interception. The running game was excellent, but Flacco will have to step it up to make this team a contender.

Ugly: Andy Dalton. 4 picks and a fumble. You don’t need to see his 0.7 QBR to know it was an all-time brutal game.

Cardinals @ Lions
Good: Matthew Stafford. It started ugly, as the first pass under his new mega-contract was a pick-six. He turned it around though and finished with 285 yards and 4 touchdowns, while not throwing another interception. He spread the ball around and had the Lions looking good in week 1.

Bad: Carson Palmer. The opposite is true for Palmer. He also spread the ball around, but failed to limit his turnovers and finished with three interceptions and just one score. Palmer will have to turn it around for the Cardinals to capitalize on their team’s talent.

Ugly: David Johnson’s injury. From bad to worse for the Cardinals. Johnson’s dislocated wrist will keep him out for 2-3 months and that will ruin fantasy seasons everywhere. More importantly, it’s a tough blow for a great young player and a promising team.

Jaguars @ Texans
Good: Leonard Fournette. 26 carries for 100 yards and 1 touchdown against a tough defense. It’s clear the Jaguars plan to build their offense around him and he seemed up to the task for the first week.

Bad: Blake Bortles. The reason the offense runs through Fournette is Bortles inability to move the offense. The one positive is that he avoided turnovers. If he can continue to do that, the Jags may have a chance.

Ugly: Tom Savage. The upside of his lousy performance is that the DeShaun Watson era should be underway. His first start is Thursday in Cincy.

Raiders @ Titans
Good: The Carr-Lynch relationship. Both players played well for Oakland and the post-game pressers made it clear this team has a good thing going

Bad: Marcus Mariota. He didn’t do anything terribly, but he also didn’t do anything great. For this team to live up to the hype, he’ll need to show his star potential going forward.

Ugly: Titans’ rushing game. If this team can’t get more than 95 yards on the ground, it will be a rough season. Murray looked a step slow for them, but the whole ground game was controlled to an alarming degree.

Eagles @ Redskins
Good: Carson Wentz. 26 for 39 for 307 yards and 2 scores was what the Eagles needed from their young signal-caller. Next week’s test for the Chiefs will be an important one for him and the team.

Bad: The second half. No offensive touchdowns made the latter 30 minutes a bit of a slog. The only touchdown was an Eagles scoop and score.

Ugly: Redskins rushing game. Washington is built around their passing game, but if Kirk Cousins is their leading rusher in more games, they will struggle to put points on the board.

Colts @ Rams
Good: Jared Goff. An efficient 300 yards with no turnovers and a score gave the Rams some hope for last year’s first overall pick. Some of that may be how putrid the Colts are, but you can only beat who you play.

Bad: Chuck Pagano. He rushed a play that cost the Colts a chance to review a play and get a touchdown. He apparently was preparing for the 49ers. His team seems headed for a dismal year. Not a good time to be Chuck Pagano.

Ugly: Scott Tolzien. He is winless in all his career starts and threw two pick-sixes on Sunday. Jacoby Brissett may get the start this week and honestly, it couldn’t get worse.

Panthers @ 49ers
Good: Panthers defense. It was great to see Luke Keuchly back on the field and he led his unit to four sacks and one interception while stifling Kyle Shanahan’s team in his debut.

Bad: Cam Newton. HE did throw two touchdown passes, but he stills struggled to move the ball and the competition will get tougher. He must progress to get he and his team anywhere near their 2015 heights.

Ugly: 49ers offense. Kyle Shanahan likely hoped for a more sparkling debut than 217 total yards, three points and two turnovers. This team is extremely short on weapons, but 49ers fans will want to see some better signs as the season wears on.

Seahawks @ Packers
Good: Packers defense. They stymied Russell Wislon and the Seahawks, keeping them out of the end zone and under 100 yards rushing, while limiting them to 11 first downs. If this unit is legitimately improved, Green Bay will be set up well to make their Super Bowl run.

Bad: The officiating. The Seahawks got a pick-six called back, which was a legitimate clipping call. Yet, on the same play Seattle defensive back was ejected for a non-existent punch during a skirmish initiated by a Packers wideout. Seahawks fans will also feel like there should have been pass interference called for the Packers mauling Jimmy Graham in the end zone. The referees played a bit too much of a role in this one.

Ugly: Seahawks offense. All credit to the Packers defense, but this was a rough outing for Russell Wilson and co. The offensive line will need to play a lot better to give this team a chance to be a Super Bowl threat.

Giants @ Cowboys
Good: Cowboys defense. Yet another defense that jumped off the page in week 1. If they remain strong against the run and keep teams out of the end zone it will be a good year in Dallas

Bad: Ezekiel Elliott. The second year back had a good game, rushing for 104 yards. Still, his off-the-field issues will be a shadow on the season for the Cowboys. For one week, it was fine, but now we know he will be on the field all season and it will be interesting to see the impact his distractions will have–both on and off the field.

Ugly: Giants without OBJ. 3 points is really the only number you need to know here. The Giants were supposed to be better equipped to deal with Beckham Jr.’s absence, but through one game they look like they need the star wide receiver on the field.

Saints @ Vikings
Good: Dalvin Cook. Another stud rookie running back with a tremendous performance. 22 carries for 127 yards, while looking very explosive will have Vikings fans dreaming big.

Bad: Sam Bradford. Hard to play any better. 27 for 32 with most of those incompletions being drops, while throwing for three touchdowns was one of the best performances of the week. The ‘bad’ here is that Bradford has been an eternal tease for his entire career. He’s always accurate and he always seems like performances like this can be the norm, but that Bradford has never consistently showed up. Perhaps he can run this offense with a coordinator (Pat Shurmur) that he is very comfortable with and take the Vikings on a playoff run. BUT, I worry he is setting up fans for disappointment.

Ugly: Saints offense, especially Adrian Peterson. The Vikings stymied the Saints as a whole, but especially their old running back. He only got the ball six times for 18 yards and the post-game story was all about him yelling at his new coach. That coach–Sean Payton–will need to figure out the right formula for his offense and running back as the season goes along, but it doesn’t seem like there’s an easy solution.

Chargers @ Broncos
Good: Trevor Siemian. I know I expected him to struggle and it seemed like many people did. He spent three quarters shutting up the critics. He was responsible for 3 touchdowns, including one on the ground where he made Joey Bosa look silly. His only interception was a fluke deflection and he gave Broncos fans reason to believe in him.

Bad: Broncos collapse. Despite Siemian’s good showing, the Broncos did all they could to let the Chargers back in the game. A fluke interception, a Jamaal Charles fumble and a poor final possession gave the Chargers a chance to win. Vance Joseph failed to call a timeout to allow time for the booth to review a Chargers fumble, but he salvaged the game with his timeout to ice the kicker.

Ugly: Chargers in close games. This.

Week 2: Playoff and Hesiman race

Big games are helping paint the early season picture

Week 2 came through in its big games for the most part. Oklahoma controlling Ohio State in Columbus was the only major surprise, but it helps crystallize the early season pecking order. Nothing is decided in the first couple of weeks, but teams have made their statements, while others (Notre Dame) have missed out on early opportunities to vault up the rankings. Unpredictability defines college football and the things we don’t see coming will be the things we love. Yet, there is a definite hierarchy emerging for the top award available to a team and an individual in college football. I want to look at the top of the playoff race going conference by conference before diving into the Heisman contenders, both QBs and non-QBs.

Playoff Race:
1. Alabama (SEC)
2. Clemson (ACC)
3. USC (PAC-12)
4. Oklahoma (Big 12)
5. Penn State (Big Ten)

That is a pretty easy top-5 to make. You can quibble with the order–the AP poll would–but nearly everyone would have these 5 teams. Clemson is the defending champion. Oklahoma and USC had two great wins on Saturday. Penn State has looked like their form from last season was no fluke and Alabama is Nick Saban’s Alabama. This race will come down to which team can tackle their conference’s challenges, so let’s look at what each faces. Continue reading “Week 2: Playoff and Hesiman race”

College Football Week 2 Picks

Huge Games and best bets

Week 1 was great and all, but week 2 should be even better. There are four top-25 tilts and playoff implications all over the place. The four game between ranked teams jump off the page and Nebraska @ Oregon and Pitt @ Penn State headline the next tier of quality matchups. My thoughts on the five biggest games are below, but I’m staying away from gambling on the biggest games. Not only do these games not need the extra adrenaline, but I just like other bets more than any of these spotlight games. I’ll post my bet slip here and be following the results all weekend on Twitter @ScoringPlays. Enjoy the big games this weekend and best of luck!

Pitt @ Penn State (-21):

Penn state fell 42-39 last year and it ended up costing the the playoff. This was before Trace McSorley had grown into his home-run swing ways and James Franlkin’s team found their groove. The Nittany Lions and Saquon Barkley looked  in Heisman form against Akron, which is relevant because Pitt might not be THAT much better than Akron. They had to go to Overtime to beat Youngstown State, which is a good FCS team, but still an FCS team. It’s hard to lay 21 points in a rivalry game, but I think this is a revenge game for Penn State and they have a huge talent edge. They blow this one open. Penn State 45-13.

Auburn @ Clemson (-5.5)
Kelly Bryant looked amazing against Kent State, but we’ll know a lot more about him in 2 weeks after the Tigers face Auburn and Louisville. Even with DeShaun Watson, the Tigers struggled to score against Auburn last year (admittedly, it was the first week of the season) and Auburn’s offense should be better this year with Jarrett Stidham at the helm. If Auburn can go into the reigning champions’ house and get a win, they’ll have an inside track to 6-0 before they face a brutal back half of their schedule. The winner of this game will get a lot of playoff buzz. I want to take Auburn here, but just struggle to see Clemson losing at home. I think Clemson will get a lead and hang on, but Auburn will cover the 5.5. Clemson 34-31.

Oklahoma @ Ohio State (-7.5)
This is another game where I like the underdog (the Sooners are getting 7.5), but struggle to see the Buckeyes losing at home. Ohio State dominated Baker Mayfield and Co. last year in Norman and looked like they shook off their early-season rust late in the game at Indiana. Oklahoma won’t get embarrassed again, but Ohio State will cover the spread late and keep the Big Ten’s momentum rolling. Ohio State 38-28.

Georgia @ Notre Dame (-4)

Is Notre Dame back (to being decent)? Can Georgia win in South Bend with a backup quarterback (Jake Fromm making his first start)? There’s a lot of unknowns with these two teams who look like they’ll be contenders this season, but have struggled to turn top talent into top results recently. I don’t think the QB switch  is a huge loss for Georgia, but a night game in South Bend is a tough ask for anyone. I’ll be in the stands for this one and I think Notre Dame will be ready to have a big game. Georgia will be able to run on Notre Dame, but if the Irish can win the turnover battle this one won’t be that close. Notre Dame 34-24.

Stanford @ USC (-6)

The Cardinal took care of business against Rice and USC faltered a bit against Western Michigan before pulling away late.  I imagine the Cardinal will be a popular underdog pick this week, but I think USC lives up to the hype this week. Darnold gets his Heisman train rolling and Stanford won’t be able to keep up. USC 34-17.

My bet slip this weekend:

Nebraska +13.5 vs. Oregon

Iowa State +120 ML vs. Iowa

West Virginia -24 vs. E. Carolina (they lost to James Madison)

USF -17 vs. UConn (They almost lost to Holy Cross)

Minnesota +2 vs. Oregon State