Before we look ahead, let’s stop and review both the “Fall Classic” (for Phils fans at least), and the NFL at the halfway mark. We’ll look at my preseason predictions and have a few laughs (yes, I picked the Lions to be decent).
In my World Series preview, I had a few keys to success for each team. For Philly, their pitchers had to prevent home runs, other starters besides Hamels had to step up, and Ryan Howard had to get hot. Looks like the Phils went three for three – Philly gave up only four home runs in five games; Moyer and Blanton gave the Phils great starts in games 3 and 4; and Ryan Howard hit three home runs, one of which was the turning point in the series, in my opinion. I should also point out that the Phillies got big contributions from players perceived to be the weakest in their lineup – Carlos Ruiz continued to channel his inner Yogi Berra, hitting .375 in the Series, and Pedro Feliz added six singles, the last of which drove in the Series-winning run. One last time: ANYTHING can happen in a short series.
For Tampa Bay, the keys to success were their bullpen (particularly Price), hitting for power, and beating Cole Hamels. Looks like an 0-for-3 performance – while Price was dominant in Game 2, he didn’t pitch again until Game 5, and many other members of the bullpen got knocked around. We already covered the power outage, but consider the depth of the Rays’ offensive woes: they hit .212 as a team with an awful .576 OPS, they scored only 15 runs in 5 games and their 3-4-5 hitters (Upton, Pena, and Longoria) were a combined 8-for-57 with 1 double and 19 strikeouts. They scored two runs off of Hamels in each game, and in Game 5 one of those runs was weather-assisted – suffice it to say they never figured him out.
Despite the loss, the future looks extremely bright for the Rays. None of their starting pitchers is over 26 years old; young Price is slated to start for them next year; and Longoria, Upton, and Crawford should all be expected to rebound offensively in 2009. The Rays have a TON of talent still in the minors, and I expect them to deal some of that talent to upgrade in right field and the bullpen. They may regress some – Pirate fans know all too well how fragile young pitching can be – but this team should contend for years to come.
I don’t see a repeat in the cards for the Phillies – they will probably lose Pat Burrell to free agency, and I expect the Mets to spend a lot of money to overtake the Phils. But today who cares, congrats to Philadelphia, your team is a worthy champion.
On to the NFL review. At the halfway mark there are some pretty big surprises, and many of my picks are looking pretty dumb. We’ll cover the ones I have right so far, since it’s a short list. I picked Carolina to rebound, go 11-5 and make the Super Bowl. At 6-2 they are well on their way to a playoff berth, and if the NFC East teams all beat each other up, Carolina could well end up as the #1 seed. I had Dallas at 12-4 and the Romo injury has them pretty messed up right now, we’ll revisit that pick after the season. Thus far I think I have the AFC North pretty well nailed, I still believe Pittsburgh is the only team in the division that will end up over .500 (more on Pittsburgh below). Finally, this quote about the Colts was on-target: “I’m going with 10 wins because if Manning’s healthy, he seems to will this team into the playoffs – but 12-4 would shock me a lot more than 7-9 would.” At 3-4 and with injuries all over the roster, the playoffs are an extreme longshot for the Colts.
Now, the picks I missed – gee, where to begin. I called Detroit my ‘sleeper NFC team’, and picked them to go 9-7. It’s still possible, folks, they’re only 0-7 so far! That was probably my worst miss, but there are others: Atlanta (4-12 picked): at 4-3, probably the surprise of the league, and NOBODY saw this coming. It seems Matt Ryan is the rare rookie QB who can already play at the NFL level, and their offensive line has come together in a hurry. Seattle (10-6): Injuries, injuries, injuries. At one point their top FIVE wideouts were out hurt, and QB Matt Hasselbeck has missed time as well. Still, I probably overrated their talent. NY Giants(7-9): Just a flat-out miss, this is a good team. They’ll lose a few divisional games, but the Giants are a legitimate threat to repeat. Those were just my NFC misses!
In the AFC, San Diego(14-2): Their defense is a MESS (they lead the league in points scored yet have a losing record), and at 3-5 they are in serious trouble. New England(14-2): Yes, Tom Brady’s injury hurts, but the defense has been mediocre to downright BAD, and their running game has been hit-and-miss. Even with Brady, they probably lose 4 games this season, and with him out for the season 10-6 looks about right.
Last but certainly not least, Tennessee (5-11): now 7-0, I still am not sure how they are doing it. One thing I AM sure of is that the Vince Young injury/fiasco helped this team; Kerry Collins isn’t great but he knows his limitations and hasn’t made any big mistakes. The Titans can rush and defend their way to 11 or 12 wins with Collins, and CLEARLY I underestimated this team’s formidable defense, but I am still not willing to concede this is an elite team. Again, we’ll check back once the playoffs start.
A quick look at the Steelers: they have had a fair number of injuries, but in most instances their depth has proven up to the challenge. Last week’s benching of Santonio Holmes has probably been the most damaging absence; without Holmes’ deep threat, the Steeler passing attack was largely neutralized in the second half. The offensive line has been every bit the pass-protection liability I feared, and frankly offensive coordinator Bruce Arians shares some of the blame: there need to be more quick slant routes, more screens and draws, and more max-protect packages to give Ben time to throw. On defense the Steelers have been excellent all season, particularly along the line and linebacking corps.
The second half schedule is brutal, but many of the games are at home, and many traditional powerhouses such as Indy and San Diego are down this season. There are likely at least 2 or 3 more losses on the slate, but I expect this team to be a threat in January if they can find a way to protect Ben.
With that many misses, best to take a mulligan and re-tee this shot. As of this week, I project the top four NFC teams to be the Giants, Carolina, Philly, and Arizona. In the AFC, it looks like Tennessee (7-0 counts for SOMETHING), followed by Pittsburgh, New England, and Buffalo.