October 5, 2016

2016 Houston Astros: It Was a Rough One

Coming off the franchise's first postseason since the 2005 World Series, the Astros looked like an up-and-coming team in 2016.  Over such a long season, there were a number of things that conspired to eliminate them from the playoffs (on an off day, no less).

I'd like to start with the team's performance in April...but there were a couple of moves that occurred prior to the season that had a significant impact.  Most notable of these were re-signing Colby Rasmus, trading Jonathan Villar, non-tendering Chris Carter....

Oh, who am I kidding?  We all know what the most impactful move of the offseason was; it was the trade that "landed" the team Ken Giles.  Or as I like to call it, the worst trade since Jason Jennings came to Houston.

I'm not entirely sure what happened with Rasmus.  In April, he looked like a surefire MVP candidate.  The only problem was, that was the only month in which he actually hit worth a damn.  His season was cut short by a DL stint and then...well, he missed a good part of September for some reason that we are as yet not privy to know.  The signing looks like a waste of money but there are some clear extenuating circumstances that would have to be explained away in order to truly evaluate it.  So we'll leave that aside.

Much like J.D. Martinez, Villar and Carter left the Astros and flourished elsewhere.  Truly, it is frustrating to see.  And much like with Rasmus' situation, there isn't a whole hell of a lot to go on; some guys who perform poorly here go elsewhere and suddenly look like world-beaters.

Back to Giles, though.  To put it mildly, the trade was stupid.  What I find hilarious about the perception surrounding the team is that the brain trust is considered to be "smart".  Certainly among the smarter groups in MLB, despite the relative lack of production.  And yet, the Giles trade is another one that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow very clearly lost.  He gave up way too much for a guy who didn't fill a position of need.  There were holes in the lineup in the outfield, first base, and DH.  Those holes got filled, technically speaking, but not by guys who hit above average.  Instead the team got a guy who wasn't even the closer for the first month of the season because he couldn't stop giving up home runs. And then when he did become the closer, he still had a tendency to pitch poorly and give up long balls.  Now, the perception of Giles pitching poorly is wholly reliant on the "eye test", as it were.  The guy put some ugly outings out there even while being successful.  That is to say, he got saves while not pitching his best at all times.

Still, I doubt that trade will ever be favorably received.

In part because of Giles, in part because of general malaise, the team stumbled to a 7-17 start in the month of April.  That start essentially doomed the team, despite the fact that they were in playoff contention (mathematically, at best) until September 30th.

Another major problem was the team's performance against their in-state "rival", the Rangers.  It's not much of a rivalry given how both teams have looked in 2015 and 2016.  The Astros were 4-15 against the Rangers and really seemed lucky to get those four wins.  Had they gone at worst 9-10 against the Rangers, things would look a hell of a lot different.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The Rangers have the Astros' number at present and I saw nothing to make me think that the situation will change in 2017.

Carlos Gomez started the season with the Astros and ended up with the Rangers after his release.  Unsurprisingly, like the players I mentioned above who played better with other teams, Gomez had a nice little sample size of AB's with the Rangers wherein he hit better than he did in either 2015 or 2016 with the Astros.  I'm not sure how that happened, as I did not see many of his AB's with the Rangers.  Suffice it to say that he performed a lot better, to the tune of having an OPS over 300 points higher with the Rangers this season.  It's not a tiny difference by any means; he was much better with the Rangers and I suspect that something happened in the interim between his last game with the Astros and his first game with the Rangers.  What that is, I can't say for certain.

The rest of the story is mostly under-performance by key figures in the lineup and rotation.  Even the supposed positive of giving Gomez his release turned negative, as offensive liability (what an understatement) Jake Marisnick started practically every remaining game in center field.  Since I have nothing positive to say about him, I'll leave it at that.

What went right in 2016 for the Astros?  Well, not a whole lot.

Jose Altuve is the team's best player.  He may have been overshadowed somewhat last season with Keuchel and Correa collecting hardware (AL Cy Young and AL RoY, respectively), but this season proved that Altuve is the only hitter in the lineup that can be counted on to produce consistently.  And that includes the last month and a half when he was "slumping".

Alex Bregman was the only prospect to come up and hit above average.  His skills at shortstop translated beautifully to playing third base also.

Chris Devenski, in a just world, would be a full-time starter in 2017.  His numbers were phenomenal across the board, despite being kept out of the rotation in favor of ...Mike Fiers?  I can't say that Devenski was "more valuable" than Altuve, but he was damn near as valuable.

As far as 2017 goes...there are still holes to be filled in the outfield, first base, and DH.  I imagine that Gurriel will be playing somewhere every day.  Gattis will probably cede the DH position to another player most days if he takes over as everyday catcher.  And Bregman should sow up third base with no problem. That leaves left field and center field (and DH, but that seems like it'll be by committee).  My pick for left or center would be Teoscar Hernandez.  The only problem he's got is accuracy with his arm.  If he can shore up his throwing, while hitting slightly better (he was only slightly below average as opposed to every other newbie not named Bregman, who were all stunningly below average), he should be an asset.

My main problem in 2017 is that Marisnick will likely be handed center field because he plays "great" defense.  I have my doubts about that, but defensive stats as kept currently don't really give me enough to debunk Marisnick's supposed "value" in the outfield.  The eye test tells me that he's probably better than average, but in order to make up for his utterly anemic bat tool, he'd have to be Ken Griffey Jr. out in center.  Obviously, he's not that good.  So to me it's a mistake to give Marisnick center field unless he makes noticeable strides with the bat.  I don't see it happening, but I would be totally unsurprised if Marisnick is the starting center fielder in 2017.

As for how the team will do in 2017, that's anyone's guess.  They were supposed to build on the success of 2015 and contend for the AL West.  That didn't happen and they were five wins short of the 89 needed to win a Wild Card as well.  If it shakes out that 89 wins gets a Wild Card next year as well, I think the Astros will probably be left out in the cold again, barring significant improvement from their current non-Altuve players or a huge impact signing in free agency.

That's that for 2016.  Enjoy the playoffs.

May 16, 2016

Off-Day Scuttlebutt (5-16-2016)

The Astros have made a couple of moves, so I thought I would take a little time on this off day to look at them.

Tucker and Kratz are moving down while Gattis and new call-up Tony Kemp are moving up.

I'm a bit torn on Tucker moving down; while he has potential to be a good hitter and showed it last season, something is not right this season and lately (that is, the month of May) he has not hit much at all.  Still, Tucker has been more or less a part-time player, with a mere 89 PA's as of today.  Was it a numbers game in terms of options and resources invested?  Of course.

I'm not sure why Tucker and not Marisnick, though, or why Marisnick wasn't sent down in another move.  A part-time player with even fewer appearances (and a trip to Fresno already taken), Marisnick is a very bad hitter whose defense doesn't make up the difference.  If he were merely below average, I'd have no problem; after all, this team has plenty of below average hitters who haven't pulled their weight so far.  Marisnick is so poor that his OPS+ is below zero, which is just unacceptable.  For the team to not deal with this is short-sighted and makes it look like Tucker's demotion was scapegoating.

So while neither Tucker nor Marisnick have gotten enough PA's to be considered full-time, they have woefully underachieved when given playing time.

Evan Gattis returns from Corpus, newly invested in his role as backup catcher. When he was up with the Astros previously, he was similar to Tucker in terms of output.  As DH or backup catcher, I would not expect great numbers from him because he will not likely get enough PA's to establish a steady groove.

Tony Kemp comes up from Fresno with an ability to get on base.  For this team, that just might be enough to get him playing time, especially if he can bolster the bottom of the lineup.  The 7-8-9 hitters have been notoriously bad not only in terms of hitting with RISP, but in getting on base to start rallies in the first place.  While I don't expect Kemp to duplicate his gaudy OBP from Fresno in Houston, pretty much anything will help.

Of course, the elephant in the room and the reason for Kemp's promotion is Carlos Gomez.  Were Gomez playing well, comparable with even White or Rasmus (who have both fallen off in recent weeks), there wouldn't be much of a problem.  I don't expect Gomez to hit like Altuve, Springer, or Correa.  I don't really expect a Gold Glove caliber effort in CF, either, though it'd be nice.  What I do expect is for him to be competent offensively and defensively.  So far, he's been competent in neither area, grounds into too many double plays and strikes out far too frequently.  Much like other hitters on the team who have been scuffling, his approach is ass-backward, swinging as hard as he can more often than not and usually not making contact.  It seems easy to say that he should shorten his swing and attempt to hit more pitches to the opposite field, but much more difficult for it to bear fruit.

Gomez has 132 PA's through 34 games so far.  For his effort he has produced a .486 OPS, not only one of the worst on the team, but magnified greatly by the fact that he is regularly penciled into the lineup yet rarely does anything while in it.

If Kemp were coming up to solve the problem in CF, the Astros would still have an issue at 3B.  The general platoon at 1B of White and Marwin Gonzalez is okay for now, tolerable because both guys are hitting above average (again, as of today).  All that says is that 1B is not as big a problem as 3B or CF, but the team could certainly be getting more production out of the position, especially given the expectations.

Also, it's worth noting that neither of the moves affect the rotation or bullpen. In the case of the starting rotation, the solution might just be to wait it out and see if they can give up fewer runs as a whole.  The bullpen has been solid overall, despite having a rough go of it in Boston.  I don't expect that kind of struggle, because few teams are as offensively gifted as Boston appears to be.

Still, the rotation and bullpen aren't so good that each and every guy can be thrown out there and expected to perform well.  It has to be managed carefully. So far, I'm not sure that Hinch is the right guy to do that.  There have been a lot of questionable decisions in terms of managing the bullpen and making out the lineup every day.  While I tend to think that it's up to the players to get out of the extended slump most of them find themselves in, it would be beneficial if Hinch could put them in better positions to win.

May 13, 2016

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Round 2

I guess Game 7 isn't automatically the most exciting thing in sports.  Or maybe the two iterations in the 2nd Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs just stunk.

Also, I picked the Stars to win, so I look like a boob again.  I did better on the whole, getting 3-of-4 teams right.

As expected, Dallas' goaltending "tandem" failed them miserably.  Neither of them showed up in Game 7 and the Stars got thumped as a result.  I'm surprised they actually made it to Game 7 given how weak the goaltending was, especially relative to the other teams.  So now St. Louis is moving on to the Western Conference finals.  Not exactly the development I was looking for; after they got out of the 1st round, I was hoping they'd be on the outs, given that Dallas was the #1 seed going in.

The other finalist out west is San Jose.  I'm not sure how this team is so much different from other Sharks teams of years past (much like with St. Louis). It would appear, though, that elevating Joe Pavelski to captain had tangible results.  It also didn't hurt that Nashville G Pekka Rinne fell apart in Game 7 (though he was definitely aided and abetted by the Predators' top defensive pairing).  Martin Jones, on the other hand, has looked very good through two series.  He doesn't seem prone to the meltdowns that the Dallas goalies suffer on a regular basis, for example.

In the east, we have what should have been the expected conference finals all along.  Before the playoffs started, everyone was on the Capitals' bandwagon. I thought that was stupid and short-sighted.  After all, just last year they got knocked out in the 2nd round by the Rangers in memorable fashion (well, memorable for the Rangers' part in it).  Yet thanks to winning the Presidents' Trophy, the Capitals were the chic pick to make the Stanley Cup Final.

So when Nick Bonino scored in OT in Game 6 to eliminate the Capitals, I was pretty pleased.  While I'm not crazy about the Penguins moving on, I figure anything is better than seeing the Capitals move on and have to deal with all the people kissing up to them.

Unsurprisingly, the Lightning are in the conference finals again.  Even though they are missing two key players, they still have Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman.  Hedman is getting most of the pub as he's a defenseman with a notable offensive skill set.  But to me, it's Kucherov that is the team's best player at present.  He's pretty much unstoppable and has shone brightest when it counts the most.  There seems to be a lot of gum-flapping about players being shut down as though it happens to pretty much everybody.  Kucherov, like Tyler Johnson last season, has shown up in the playoffs and done significant damage. So while some players do get shut down by the opposition in the playoffs, I don't think it's a matter of some esoteric "goal-scoring climate"; it's just that some guys show up when the moment is huge, like Kucherov and Johnson, and others don't...like, say, Ovechkin.

The 3rd round should be entertaining.  I'm picking the Sharks and Lightning, personally, but any match-up in the Stanley Cup Final would be an interesting one.

April 28, 2016

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Round 1

The first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs is over, with Game 7 of the last series occurring on the same night as Game 1 of the 2nd Round.  Odd, that.

Anyway, here were my first round picks:

Stars in 5, Blackhawks in 6, Ducks in 5, Kings in 6
Panthers in 6, Lightning in 7, Capitals in 5, Rangers in 6 

Here's what actually happened:

Stars in 6, Blues in 7, Predators in 7, Sharks in 5
Islanders in 6, Lightning in 5, Capitals in 6, Penguins in 5

That didn't go as expected.  With 3-of-8 matchups picked correctly, I was way off from what happened, and I stunk compared to last season.  What can I say, I was a year early on the Blues and Islanders.

We learned quite a bit from the 1st round.  In the West, there is complete and total anarchy, as the defending champions are out, as are the Kings.  It's hard to pick a favorite, because these teams all have glaring issues and share a sense of playoff futility as none of them have had sustained success in the playoffs in years.  For example, the Stars have no #1 goaltender.  Lehtonen and Niemi are both inconsistent.  The Stars can score a ton, which is helpful because they'll have to keep scoring when their goaltenders are as bad as they are. The Blues are in strange new territory, while the Predators have inexperience and a somewhat shaky goaltender in Rinne.  The Sharks have an excellent top line and a solid goaltender in Martin Jones, though their depth showed up in the 1st round it could be considered questionable as the other three forward lines got out-shot and outscored routinely in the regular season.

In the East, we have more familiar faces.  Though the Islanders made the 2nd round for the first time since 1993, the other three teams are more experienced.  The Lightning are down a couple of key players, yet thanks to Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Jonathan Drouin, aren't really missing the injured guys.  The Capitals took six games to beat the Flyers and thus look overrated, as if they weren't massively overrated coming in.  Washington is known for choking hard in the playoffs and I expect them to lose to Pittsburgh. Speaking of the Penguins, they looked a lot better against the Rangers this year than they did last year.  I guess having a full complement of defensemen is important.

How will the 2nd Round go?  Well, based on the 1st Round, I have no clue.  That said, here are my picks:

Stars in 6, Sharks in 6
Lightning in 6, Penguins in 5

No matter who wins, though, I expect a compelling 2nd Round.  So far, the Islanders put up four goals on Ben Bishop and won Game 1 5-3.  Given that Bishop is a finalist for the Vezina trophy, he'll play better.  Though, really, he can't get much worse.

Enjoy the 2nd Round, everyone!

2015-2016 Houston Rockets: They Stunk, The End

TL; DR: this team stunk.

The season began on 10-28-2015 in Houston against the Denver Nuggets.  An improved team, but not one expected to contend as the Rockets were. The previous season's playoff success was much-referenced and was probably an albatross hanging from the team's necks.

That first loss was a bit of a surprise.  Along with it came what Rockets fans would come to rue as the recurring theme that will define this era of basketball for the team: a lack of effort, especially defensively.

Perhaps I and others overrated the ability or potential of the team to play defense at a high level.  After all, with Dwight Howard injured for various parts of the 2014-2015 season, the team won with defense, transition offense, and the general brilliance of James Harden.  With Howard and Harden healthy in 2015-2016, the results and the effort were not there.

Looking back at this season, there were very few games where the Rockets flat-out dominated the other team.  The big one that sticks out is when they played an undermatched Memphis team late.  Other than that, the Rockets rarely hit that gear where they played excellent team basketball.  They usually looked like they were a couple baskets away from getting blown out on many nights and took horrible losses to moribund teams like Brooklyn on multiple occasions.

And then we come to the main difficulty the Rockets had, which was sticking with the teams at the top of the conference.  Though they split with the Thunder, they went 1-3 against the Spurs (bad) and 0-4 against the Warriors (worse).  The Warriors really are a special case for the Rockets.  Much like previous incarnations of the Rockets had trouble beating certain Western Conference opponents (e.g. Seattle during the 90's, Phoenix in the mid-00's, the Lakers and Spurs in general) this team just seems to be snakebit against the Warriors and have yet to be constructed in a way to give them a challenge.

In the last two seasons combined (including playoffs), the Rockets are 2-15 against the Warriors.  Both wins occurred in the playoffs and were basically flukes.  The Rockets don't belong on the same court with the Warriors, a fact that is particularly frustrating because their styles of play aren't all that dissimilar.  The Warriors just do it a lot better.

Stylistically, the Rockets seem to be ill-matched when it comes to personnel and philosophy.  They want to restrict shots taken to 3-pointers and anything in the paint.  It doesn't work, because the team shoots inefficiently.  It doesn't matter if the shot itself is "more efficient" than a midrange jumper (which the team, ironically, shoots better than the long-distance shots) if the chance of it going in the basket are so low.  The Rockets have lacked consistent 3-point shooting and are generally reduced to gunning three-point shots by opposing teams who realize that if the inside game is cut off, that's all the Rockets can do.  The Rockets limit themselves on offense and usually don't move the ball or themselves in order to get better shots.

The selfishness of the team is concentrated in its two "stars", Harden and Howard.  While Harden is a legitimate NBA player and probably top 10 in terms of offense, he leaves a lot to be desired on defense.  I wonder whether the Rockets can build around him and be successful.  This season really leaves me thinking that it is not possible.

Howard, on the other hand, despite everyone in the media and on the team saying he needed the ball more, was basically an afterthought.  His personal success often had little or nothing to do with the team's success.  Sure, he could put up double-doubles (10 or more points and rebounds in one game) with just about anybody, but the stats were ultimately meaningless in the face of the teams winning percentage.  Since he is a free agent to-be, it seems likely that he'll be on the move again, in search of that elusive team that fits him to his lofty specifications.  To the team that signs him, all I can say is good luck.

The rest of the team left a lot to be desired too, for the most part.  I will single out Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley as guys who got minutes and did valuable things with them.  They were a couple of guys who played hard and put in the requisite effort pretty much every night.  I'm not sure what the team has in recent draft pick Sam Dekker, but if he can shoot and put in a solid effort on defense, he should be an important piece of next year's team.  The same goes for Montrezl Harrell; though I don't expect any heroics from long-range, I think his constant effort will be something the team should utilize more often than it did this season.  For whatever reason, Harrell didn't get on the floor a whole lot in situations that actually mattered, and the team suffered for it because he was one of a precious few that seemed to give a damn.  I hope Jason Terry comes back, but he deserves better, really.

The great hope I have for next year is Clint Capela.  Actually, you could add Donatas Motiejunas to that as well.  Assuming that both are healthy, I think both should develop into good NBA players.

While this season was disappointing, the team is not without talent.  Whoever coaches the team next season, I hope they better utilize Harrell and keep Capela and Motiejunas in the rotation.  With any luck, Dekker will be healthy and able to contribute on a nightly basis.  And maybe Harden will be better on defense while he torches other teams on the offensive end.

There's still hope to be had, but any success in 2016-2017 will be dependent on consistent effort on both ends.  If that doesn't happen, another season like this one will be on offer, and I'm not particularly interested in reruns.

March 31, 2016

Bleach 667 & 668 - Bigger, Louder, Stronger & Bigger, Faster, Stronger

A new chapter of Bleach is out, so let's talk about it.

And since we didn't talk about last week's chapter, let's do that as well.

Spoilers and the usual revelations after the cut.

March 17, 2016

Bleach 666 - Empty Hall of the Puppet Temple

A new chapter of Bleach is out, so let's talk about it.

Spoilers and devils in the details after the cut.

March 10, 2016

Bleach 665 - The Princess Dissection

A new chapter of Bleach is out, so let's talk about it.

Spoilers and unnecessary surgery after the cut.

February 25, 2016

Bleach 664 - The Gift

A new chapter of Bleach is out, so let's talk about it.

Spoilers and hastily wrapped presents after the cut.

February 18, 2016

Bleach 663 - God of Thunder 4

A new chapter of Bleach is out, so let's talk about it.

Spoilers and ever-changing attributes after the cut.

February 10, 2016

Bleach 662 - God of Thunder 3

A new Bleach chapter is out, so let's talk about it.

Spoilers and scary cats after the cut.

February 8, 2016

Super Bowl 50

Super Bowl 50 has come and gone, so let's take a quick look at what happened and what it might mean in the big picture.

The game itself was uninteresting.  It's unfortunate that the last and most meaningful football game of the 2015 season turned out the way it did.  For my part, I thought that Carolina's offense would be able to do something against Denver, and that the Panthers were basically a shoe-in.  I really couldn't have been more wrong there.

Late in the regular season, a lot of people seemed to bristle at anyone who criticized Carolina, often brashly proclaiming them "the best" in the NFL.  The problem with that proclamation lay in their schedule; they had few games of consequence as a result of playing in the NFC South and lost one of them to a mediocre Atlanta team.  They coasted through their two previous playoff games and looked unstoppable, to boot.  But they didn't look ready for prime time in the biggest game of the season and I tend to think their easy schedule has a little to do with that.

Given how "dominant" (I dislike using that word, because it implies things that aren't necessarily accurate) Denver's defense was, I also have to question the notion that the NFL is a "passing league".  The defenses for both teams controlled the pace of play and the result of the game.  I mean, I have my doubts as to how much Denver really wanted to do; they seemed content to let their defense do the bulk of the work while not trying anything that would be considered "risky".  If the NFL is indeed a passing league, last night's game was a huge exception...or it proves that running the ball and playing defense is the way to win championships as we're always told it has been since the advent of the league.

My problem with the whole "run the ball/play defense" style of play is that it's usually bland and uninteresting.  Both teams exemplify that style to a great degree.

To that end, it was obvious that someone on Denver's defense was going to win SB MVP.  Von Miller ended up being the guy, though it was a team effort by all indications.  One interesting thing to note, though, is the effort by Carolina DE Kony Ealy.  He was just as effective as Von Miller, but gets less credit due to the fact that his team didn't win.  Fair enough, but worth pointing out and giving credit nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the MVP of the regular season came up small.  No play showed this more than the 4th quarter strip & sack that Miller had.  Cam Newton basically jogged toward the ball on the ground and then backed away slightly rather than dive onto the ball.  As I recall, the score was 16-10 in favor of Denver; a recovery could have led to a game-winning TD (but more likely another Panthers error).  At any rate, the game was there for the taking for most of the night, but Newton's play was not even close to what they needed.  I thought his performance in Week 16 was his nadir; wrong again, chum.

While the fumble by Newton in the 4th quarter closed out the game, it was the fumble in the 1st quarter that may be more noteworthy.  The 1st quarter fumble (and resulting TD for Denver) not only set the pace for the game but is probably what won the game for the Broncos.

Newton had just thrown a pass to Jerricho Cotchery which was called incomplete and then challenged by Panthers HC Ron Rivera.  The call was upheld.  The problem with that call, however, is that Cotchery had actually caught the ball. So the failed challenge directly led to the fumble that gave Denver their only TD for the majority of the game.  Was it a game-changing play?  To me, there's no doubt.

I thought the officiating was spotty in general.  But when calls weren't going the Panthers way, they did themselves no favors with their play on offense.  Too many turnovers, bad passes, ineffective runs.

And in the end, Peyton Manning gets his second ring, in a game where he did virtually nothing.

Given all the hype for Super Bowl 50, it was underwhelming at best.

Also of note, since Von Miller won MVP, that means that two of the last three Super Bowl MVP's have been defensive players.  And let's not forget that Super Bowl 49 was basically determined by a defensive player.

Has defense been taken out of the league?  Hardly.  Not when it reigns supreme at the highest level.

See you next season.

February 4, 2016

Bleach 661 - My Last Words

Another chapter of Bleach is out, so let's talk about it.

Spoilers and running away after the cut.

January 29, 2016

Bleach 660 - The Visible Answer

A new chapter of Bleach is out, so let's talk about it.

Spoilers and unbelievably stupid choices after the cut.

January 25, 2016

Championship Round

We know who'll be in Super Bowl 50 and have two weeks to stew over who will win.  In the meantime, let's take a quick look at the Championship games.

2 New England @ 1 Denver:

Why was Denver #1 in the AFC?  The Patriots went to Miami in Week 17 and lost.  Were it not for that result, the AFC Championship would have been played in Foxboro and probably would have turned out differently.

Brady and co. play poorly in Denver; that's been established and there was little to no deviation from it on Sunday.  It was an effort much like the one that was on display in Week 17.

Because of that and a few calls that went against the Patriots, the Broncos are an improbable Super Bowl entrant.

I don't think the Broncos deserve to be in the Super Bowl.  Yes, their defense is good.  The QB play leaves a lot to be desired and the offense in general is lackluster.  I don't care for Kubiak's head coaching style and I think he was lucky that his right tackle didn't get worked over like he had in a couple previous games.

I also think that the Patriots weren't really prepared for this eventuality.  When the draw came out, I think they expected that they would be in Foxboro hosting Pittsburgh for the Championship.

Denver was lucky to get past Pittsburgh and weren't a whole lot better than the Pats on a day where Brady was knocked around regularly.  In order to win Super Bowl 50 (a likelihood I don't see, even after the previous two weeks), they'll have to be a lot better than they've showed to even be slightly better than the team they'll be up against.

2 Arizona @ 1 Carolina:

Over in the NFC, we had an old fashioned beatdown.

Carolina put it to Arizona pretty much from beginning to end, dominating on both sides of the ball as they put up 49 points.  Cam Newton in particular was excellent, putting up two passing TD's and two rushing TD's.

The Panthers also made Palmer look completely foolish, which was a nice bonus. While some are already circling the wagons around their so-called MVP candidate, this was his third terrible game in a row and he really let it all hang out.  He threw four INT's, most of which were inexcusably bad, one of which was a pick-six and fumbled twice to boot.  His O-line wasn't great, to be sure, but the mistakes were generally on Palmer alone.

Newton made one mistake, an INT by Patrick Peterson that almost (but not quite) made up for his odd gaffe in special teams.  However, Cam was helped out by Ted Ginn, Jr., who tackled Peterson before he reached the end zone, and safety Kurt Coleman, who picked off Palmer in the end zone on a nice play.

While I wouldn't call it a fait accompli, necessarily, I will say that the NFC Championship was basically the game that decided who gets the Lombardi Trophy.  Carolina was the better team and I expect that to be the case in two weeks.

Given that the Panthers are coached by Ron Rivera, who played on the 1985 Bears and won Super Bowl 20, I thought it might be interesting to see which team the '85 Bears and 2015 Panthers lost to.  Each of these teams lost once, the '85 Bears to Miami, the 2015 Panthers to Atlanta.

The '85 Dolphins went 12-4 and lost in the AFC Championship to New England.

The 2015 Falcons went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

I'm not sure that means anything either way, but I found it to be an interesting tidbit.

As far as the picks went, I split.  I took New England and Carolina and was quite close to being rewarded with a perfect Championship Round.  Alas.

I'm going to take a week off, as I have no interest in Super Bowl 50 hype (which is sure to be even more outlandish than usual).  See you in two weeks.

January 21, 2016

Bleach 659 - There Will Be Frost

A new chapter of Bleach is out, so let's talk about it.

Spoilers and chilly relations after the cut.

January 19, 2016

Divisional Round

The second weekend of the 2016 NFL Playoffs is done, so let's take a quick look at what happened.

5 Kansas City @ 2 New England:

Brady-to-Gronk is pretty much unbeatable.

People have focused on the clock management on KC's side, and I agree that it was problematic.  But really, were they going to win?  Were they expected to win?

I think not.  What we did see, on the other hand, is Alex Smith's ceiling, especially when the coaching is not perfect at all times in all situations.

It may have helped to have a couple of the guys healthy.

Even still, Brady-to-Gronk (and Edelman) won the day.

5 Green Bay @ 2 Arizona:

The most exciting and ridiculous game of the weekend.

Carson Palmer was terrible; his performance (or lack thereof) allowed the Packers to stay in the game for as long as they did.

And much like the clock in the previous game, the coin toss and overtime rules have been scrutinized.  However, I find that there is little merit in criticizing how overtime is carried out.  Changing the rules would be overly reactionary.

Rodgers didn't get the ball?  Oh, well.  Arizona did what they had to do: they got the ball to Fitzgerald and he put in supreme effort to win the game.

That's right, people.  Herm Edwards' admonition that "you play to win the game" is still accurate and relevant even in 2016.

6 Seattle @ 1 Carolina:

Going up 31-0 was a big deal.  That's five scores and a guaranteed win.

Seattle then went out and proved it by coming up short.

It's not that they didn't play well in the 2nd half.  They just dug themselves a hole so big that they had no chance to recover.  Russell Wilson was primarily responsible by throwing a terrible pick-six that essentially sealed it.

He has a lot of fans who want to defend everything he does and claim that his late-season run of 19 TD's and 0 INT's somehow meant that he had "turned the corner" or whatever.  I didn't buy it then, I don't buy it now.

What Wilson has done is benefit from a great defense and strong running game.

And in going down 31-0, you could safely argue that the defense let him down. But he was definitely an accessory.

Also, Cam Newton played excellently (befitting an MVP, I'd say) in the first half and rightly threw some blame on the coaches for their pathetic second half game plan.  You have to score to win in the NFL, even when you're up 31-0, because we all knew the comeback was coming.

Of course, we all knew it'd come up short, but it still doesn't hurt to put more points on the board.

6 Pittsburgh @ 1 Denver:

Was it the wind that made this such a mediocre game?

Either way, it was mostly even until a late turnover by Pittsburgh's third-string running back.

Peyton Manning was again nothing special, but they won the game, so in a way it doesn't matter as much.  Playoff wins don't come around every day, after all.

Really, the only interesting thing to look at is how Peyton and Denver will play against New England.  The obvious conceit is that if he plays like he did against Pittsburgh, Denver will go down in flames and it will be ugly.

That's all for the Divisional Round.

I went 3-1 straight up in my picks (again).  For whatever reason, I had Pittsburgh winning and was damn close...until late in the 4th.  Oh, well.

January 14, 2016

Bleach 658 - Fatal Matters Are Cold

A new chapter of Bleach is out, so let's talk about it.

Spoilers and unwelcome comebacks after the cut.

January 11, 2016

Wild Card Weekend

What the first weekend of the 2016 NFL Playoffs lacked in scoring and general offensive production, it made up by being dramatic and producing memorable games.

Let's go through them one-by-one.

5 Kansas City @ 4 Houston:

Was it over after Knile Davis' 100+ yards kickoff return for a touchdown?

The rest of the game sure seemed like a formality.  Kansas City had little trouble dispatching the Texans, winning 30-0 and getting that rarest of prizes, a playoff shutout.

The Texans' offense didn't gain traction at any point and the one time they were in the red zone, they ran an incredibly stupid play that had J.J. Watt running the ball behind Vince Wilfork...and losing a yard or two.  Much of the futility rests on the shoulders of QB Brian Hoyer, who threw four INT's and lost a fumble.  Each interception was indefensible.

Kansas City looked as they usually do.  QB Alex Smith ran around a little and threw the ball to TE Travis Kelce and WR Jeremy Maclin, just as expected. Unfortunately, Maclin went out with an injury.  That didn't slow KC in the 2nd half, but it may be problematic in the next round.

6 Pittsburgh @ 3 Cincinnati:

Probably the wildest game of the weekend.  Pittsburgh took a 15-0 lead and then watched in horror as Vontaze Burfict took QB Ben Roethlisberger to the ground and injured his shoulder.  It looked like that injury to Roethlisberger would end up defining the game.  And it would have, as Landry Jones' late INT to Burfict sealed it for Cincy.

And then something funny happened: RB Jeremy Hill fumbled.

It wasn't something I expected, to be sure.  With the lead and game secure, all Cincy had to do was run out the clock.  Mistakes in that part of the game usually don't happen.  And yet, the fumble happened and Roethlisberger gamely made an effort to return to the field.

It was obvious that he was hampered, yet he took the Steelers into opposing territory.

And then another funny thing happened: Burfict tried to level Steelers' WR Antonio Brown.

On replay, it's a lot less vicious than it appeared in real-time.  Though I'll grant that Brown's fall (with his neck snapping back and forth in what appears to be painful fashion) still made the hit look bad enough to be flagged.  The flag was thrown and the Steelers got a well-earned 15 yards, enough to make a field goal try a possibility.

And then Adam Jones got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, perhaps egged on by one of the Steelers' coaches, former LB Joey Porter.  The Steelers suddenly had a make-able field goal of a mere 35 yards, made it, and won the game.  They went from coasting, to losing, to scraping by with a win as the 4th quarter progressed.

While most will point to the penalties and the stupidity behind them as the reason that Cincinnati lost, I have another take on it.  Down 15-7, Cincinnati had the ball and was driving.  They were stopped in Steelers' territory and inexplicably chose to go for a field goal that made it 15-10.  Had they gone for the TD and the two-point conversion (which they did later and missed, granted), they would have been tied.  And had events played out, WR A.J. Green's TD would have given the Bengals a seven point lead, thus forcing the Steelers to go for a TD just to tie.

Now imagine that the Steelers are in Bengals territory with :18 on the clock and less than 20 yards to go to get in the end zone.  Can you see them scoring a TD with all that had happened?

Honestly, I can't.  But because Marvin Lewis played it conservatively (as usual), we'll never know.

6 Seattle @ 3 Minnesota:

Winter in my neck of the woods is hardly a scary proposition.  It wouldn't stop anybody from playing football.

Minneapolis is a lot different.  Did the -9 degree temperature at kickoff, not to mention the well below zero wind chill, affect the game negatively?

Absolutely, though there were a couple of plays where the guys on the field transcended the conditions.

Seattle ended up winning on a missed field goal by Minnesota's Blair Walsh. Minnesota's offense was nothing but field goals and even in sub-zero temps, if you settle for field goals, you lose.  Minnesota found that out the hard way.

And while Seattle didn't do a whole lot to win the game, they get to move on to the next round.  How they'll do there is anyone's guess, though I personally doubt that they are suddenly "a contender".

5 Green Bay @ 4 Washington:

As it turned out, the Packers were the better team.  Either that, or Washington just choked the game away.

The game turned when the Packers scored 17 unanswered points.  Washington did score another TD to make it 18-17, but by failing to put the Packers away early when they had a great opportunity to do so, Washington practically guaranteed a win for the opposing team.

All the things that we had seen the Packers flub over the past few weeks suddenly worked and did so beautifully.  The O-line had no problem with Washington's front seven; Lacy and Starks ran it well; the receivers got open and didn't drop the ball.

So the Packers move on to face Arizona, a team that drubbed them as recently as Week 16.  Yet, despite Green Bay's performance this past weekend, I see nothing to convince me that anything will be different next week.

That's it for Wild Card Weekend.

As usual, I made picks for all the games; I went 3-1 straight up.  My one loss was the foolish consideration of going with Washington against Green Bay. Still, given that four road teams won this past weekend, I think it would have been rather interesting had I gotten them all.  Interesting, and impossible.

January 5, 2016

2015 NFL Power Rankings, Week 17

2015 bled into 2016 just a bit.  But now the season is over and we know where everyone stands.

Not all of the playoff teams are looking strong.  Injuries have prevented some from being at their best, while others dropped off performance-wise.

In the final week of picks for the regular season, I had another lackluster effort. 9-7 straight up, for a season total 153-103.  If that sounds bad, yes, it is quite bad.

Still, it's been a great season, even if there are fewer great teams at the top than we're used to.

Here are the Rankings for Week 17: