Saturday, December 29, 2012

NFL Pricks Week Seventeen: So it's come down to this

Ok, before we get into the ins and outs of all of this, let's get one thing straight. In all likelihood, the New York Giants will not be making the playoffs this season. Considering this team was in first place as recently as three weeks ago, started the season 6-2, has absolutely beaten the tar out of San Francisco and Green Bay, put up 52 points on New Orleans earlier this month and won some big game this past February, this is all kind of a surprise for me. In fact, in the history of my teams blowing big division leads and surefire playoff berths, which is, uh, prodigious, this has quietly become one of the more unexpected ones. After dominating the Niners earlier this season and overcoming a mid-season swoon to completely rock the Packers last month, most, myself included, seemed to think the Giants were set to coast to another division title.

Apparently, so did the Giants. And they played like it.

New York has taken a total nosedive in losing five of its last seven games and as a result, what once seemed assured is now astonishingly unlikely. Lucky me, I got to be on hand for two of those brutal debacles. Perhaps the most stunning thing about this whole debacle is not that the Giants are being usurped by a talented-underachieving Dallas team or a Philadelphia outfit that generally is long on expectations if not short on results. It's that the Redskins, heretofore weak link of the NFC East that appeared firmly in a rebuilding year when 2012 started with not one, but two rookie quarterbacks running the offense, are the team poised to take the division title after an unexpected six-game winning streak.

Tomorrow afternoon and night as the NFL sorts out the final spot in the NFC playoffs, a series of tiebreakers and one particularly unlikely upset are going to be required if the Giants are going to somehow land a place in the postseason field. For one, the Giants need to actually win their 1 o'clock game against the Philadelphia Eagles. That in and of itself could be a stiffer challenge than one might think given how mediocre the Giants have been the last two months and Philadelphia, regardless of how miserable its season has been, will salivate at the opportunity to close the door on New York's unsuccessful title defense.

But if only it was so easy for the Giants to win and be in. All their opportunities to control their own destiny went out the window in Baltimore last weekend, and now to get a Wild Card berth -- the division is officially out of the question -- New York will also need Chicago to lose to Detroit at 1, Green Bay to defeat Minnesota in the late afternoon and Washington to oust the Cowboys by clinching its first division title since last century (seriously, look it up) in the final game of the 2012 NFL regular season Sunday night.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

NFL Picks Week Sixteen: On the road again for Team No. 50

After last week's totally superb performance against the Atlanta Falcons, the Giants are somehow still in position to make the playoffs if they simply run the table. Given some of the flops they've had this year I'm probably about as shocked as you are that that's still the case, but I'm not complaining either. This week the epic journey that is the 2012 New York Giants season takes them to Baltimore and, lucky me, after four years of anticipation and not nearly enough planning that was warranted by said anticipation, I will be in the stands tomorrow afternoon.

Assuming I get tickets. That's a complicated ordeal in itself, but we won't get into that.

The Baltimore Ravens will be the 50th different team I'll have seen in person at their home stadium, and while I still hold a grudge against them for some game almost 12 years ago, I'm still excited, if for no other reason than that this is a rematch of the first NFL game I ever attended back in 1997. I do, of course, hope the outcome is different this time.

Unfortunately, though, as I am on the road and bogarting my friend Lindsay's computer, I'm going to have to make this a quick update, ostensibly to let you all know that I'm going to be at M&T Bank Stadium tomorrow and so I can post my NFL picks for the weekend which, I'm sure, you've all been waiting on. At some point next week I will try to pull together a more comprehensive recap of what has happened at the game or why I've had such a doozy of a time getting tickets. I just hope that the recap ends the way I want it to.

And that I end up getting tickets. That part's pretty key.

Last Week: 6-10-0
Season: 107-111-7

Atlanta (-4) over DETROIT
New Orleans (+1) over DALLAS
GREEN BAY (-13) over Tennessee
Indianapolis (-7) over KANSAS CITY
Buffalo (+5) over MIAMI
San Diego (+1) over NY JETS
PHILADELPHIA (+7) over Washington
PITTSBURGH (-3) over Cincinnati
TAMPA BAY (-3) over St. Louis
CAROLINA (-10) over Oakland
New England (-15) over JACKSONVILLE
HOUSTON (-9) over Minnesota
DENVER (-13) over Cleveland
ARIZONA (+6) over Chicago
NY Giants (-1) over BALTIMORE
San Francisco (-1) over SEATTLE

Thursday, December 20, 2012

An overdue ode to R.A. Dickey

This June, my sister and I went to Citi Field for one of the games I foolishly bought in my five-game season package and saw the greatest pitching performance I had ever seen in person by a Met. It was a one-hit shutout against the Baltimore Orioles, a team that was 11 games over .500 at the time and would eventually get within one win of the 2012 ALCS. It was a quick, dominant and masterful display of fooling one hitter after the next. The man on the mound was R.A. Dickey.

By the time this game happened, R.A.'s competency wasn't a shock. After years of mediocrity and minor league demotions, Dickey had proven himself to be an able pitcher after coming to the Mets and renewing himself as a knuckleballer. But by June of this season it was starting to become apparent that Dickey had gained full control of his knuckleball and could contol it in a way no one really had before. This particular outing was his second one-hitter in a row (this first one was one bad hop at third base away from being a no-no) and it lifted Dickey to a stunning 11-1 record. It was exactly two months since his last losing decision, and one could have made the argument that for this two-month stretch, Dickey was the most dominant pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball.

For this and so many more reasons it is with wistfulness and complicated emotions that most Mets fans said goodbye to Dickey this week, the centerpiece of a seven-player trade with the Toronto Blue Jays. Dickey's time with the Mets was short -- just three seasons -- and the first two were unspectacular though decent. For many fans it seemed we had gotten a capable Major League starter on the cheap, one likeable due to his comeback story as he worked his way out of exile in the minors, but not much more than a 14 or 15 game winner at the high end.

In the last calendar year, though, something strange happened. First Dickey raised money for the victims of child sex trafficking while climbing Kilimanjaro. Then he released a book about his experiences that revealed not only his own literary genius and appreciation, to say nothing of his gift of prose and self-introspection, but  his own difficult experiences with baseball struggles and being sexual abused by a babysitter as a child. The book became a best seller. Both of these things continued to make Dickey an even more likeable and appreciated player, whose obvious gratitude for the chance to stay in the Majors and ultimately succeed had made him a fan favorite; he was a player you wanted to root for.

Then the 2012 season started. And he pitched.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

NFL Picks Week Fifteen: Yeah, I didn't see that coming either

Some time after David Wilson's final touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave the Giants a 52-27 lead, I thought to myself, "Wow, I can't remember the last time I saw the Giants score 50 points." There was good reason for not remembering, and that was because, well, I had never seen the Giants score 50 points before in a lifetime of watching them. That isn't to say it hadn't happened in my lifetime; it had. But I was a wee 17 months old when Big Blue closed out the 1986 regular season with a 55-24 trouncing of Green Bay. The Giants won their first Super Bowl a month later and I, much to young to be cognizant of any of it, missed out on one of the greatest offensive performances in team history.

Sunday's raucous victory over the Saints is right up there in the greatest offensive performances New York has had in franchise history, and while I thought the Giants would get caught up in a shootout with New Orleans given their superb offense and mediocre defense, I never could have foreseen anything like this kind of resounding statement win. Even after the first quarter, which featured a mundane 14-7 score, just about the most bizarre opening seven minutes of a game I've ever seen, and a decision to punt on the opening drive that drove me utterly, utterly bonkers (we can get into why punting is often the wrong decision some other time) it never would have occured to me that we might be in for the offensive show from the Giants we ultimately got.

Much of that, of course, can be put on the shoulders of Wilson, who has shown flashes throughout the season of his speed when he gets limited touches in the return game, but Sunday put on a clinic for how to move the ball on the ground, resulting in three touchdowns and a franchise-record 327 all-purpose yards. He became the first player in NFL history to record 200 return yards and 100 rushing yards in the same game. It was an absolutely mind-boggling performance that will be talked about for years by Giants fans.

But does it mean anything?

This was an all-too-necessary victory for the Giants, who could have feasible ended Sunday in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East with a loss. At one point Sunday it looked as if a two-game lead would be possible with Washington and Dallas both losing late to Baltimore and Cincinnati respectively. But after each of them completed an unlikely comeback on the final play of the game (as did the Eagles, all of this happening within a 10-minute span in a nightmare scenario for Giants fans) the pressure was suddenly on New York to win a game that, from the outset, appeared an enormous challenge.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

NFL Picks Week Fourteen: Is this the best franchise name change ever?

Some of you may or may not remember back in the ancient year of 1994 when the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets toyed with idea of changing its name to something a little more New Jerseyan. Sure, there was nothing really wrong with the name "Nets." It was succinct, simple, catchy and related to the game of basketball sicne the hoop has, you know, a net on it. But no, this wasn't good enough. And so it was that the Nets came very close to changing their identity to something a little more appropriate for the Garden State. That identity was, of course, that of the Swamp Dragon. Now, don't bat an eye at that. You all associate New Jersey with the great, mythical swamp dragon, right? No? There's no such thing as a swamp dragon?


So when it became clear to the Nets organization that this would have been a terrible, terrible idea the fever passed. It would have been a curious notion. It is very unusual that teams change their nicknames in the modern era and they almost never do so unless the franchise has moved within the past season or two. Generally that's only the case if a team moved on such short notice that it couldn't establish a new brand identity in time for the next season. The best example of that is probably the Tennessee Titans, who played two nomadic seasons in Memphis under the name Tennessee Oilers in between their move from Houston to Nashville. Those types of slow transitions are almost always a thing of the past now, as one could see from the Atlanta Thrashers' transition to the Winnipeg Jets in a matter of weeks.

It's this type of quick transition that makes the news coming out of New Orleans this week so interesting and exciting. Now, I know the Hornets did not begin in New Orleans, but after 10 years in the bayou they're more or less entrenched in their current locale. As a result, I'm not entirely sure what would have been the impetus for the name change, though I imagine Tom Benson's ownership had something to do with it, but this is a rare bird, no pun intended. And not only is it rare, but it is awesome.

Now, just why, exactly, do I think "Pelicans" is such an awesome name? I know it's not exactly an animal that strikes fear into the hearts of men, but something expansion franchises haven't quite realized in the past 20-30 years is that your team name doesn't have to strike fear. That's what your players are supposed to do. For too long new team names have either been ferocious animals with no connection to the local area (are there Jaguars in metropolitan Jacksonville?), abstract concepts (yeah, we get it, Minnesota has wilderness) or weather patterns (is Oklahoma City particularly known for its thunder?).

Pelicans is a nickname that not only represents something related to its home city (the pelican is ubiquitous in the gulf region and the state bird of Louisiana), but it is a name that has a far-reaching tradition in New Orleans sports. My favorite thing about it, however, is that something about the name "Pelicans" harkens back to a day when sports team names had an air of traditionalism less concerned with inspiring awe and more concerned with forming an identity, oftentimes one connected to the local area. While this is somewhat in line with a trend we've started to see develop of teams naming themselves for local connections or history (Houston Texans, Columbus Blue Jackets or Washington Nationals for example), it still seems unlikely that in the modern day we'd have any Gophers or Sooners. We certainly wouldn't have 76ers or 49ers.