Thursday, September 4, 2014

Are you ready for some football?: my 2014 NFL Preview

Well, well, well; it’s that time of the year again when pigskins go zinging through the air, its every movement followed by 22 superhuman beings and packed stadiums all across ‘Merica. Last year, the Seahawks annihilated the statistically greatest offense of all time (though it clearly wasn’t in actuality; give me the 1994 San Francisco 49ers any day over a Peyton Manning regular season juggernaut) to bring the Lombardi Trophy to the Emerald City for the first time. Can they repeat again? Can the Seahawks cash in on the final season of Russell Wilson’s rookie contract before that loaded roster is imploded due to budget constraints?

Like everyone and their football-watching mother, I couldn’t stop myself from making predictions about how this season will shake out. How piss-poor will my predictions be this season? And could I luck out and correctly pick this year’s Super Bowl champion?

So, without further ado, I humbly offer my predictions for this year’s division champions and Wild Cards.

AFC East:
New England
Judging from ESPN’s listing of NFL predictions for this year , I don’t think any sports writer is picking anyone other than the Patriots to win this division. Even if Brady were injured and lost for the season, they would probably still squeak out a division title. That said, I think one of the Wild Cards will go to either the Dolphins or Jets.

AFC North:
As far as I’m concerned, this is the most intriguing division in the AFC. Although I don’t think the Browns have a legitimate chance of winning the division, I think all four teams can contend for it. At home, none of these teams will be a pushover. In terms of organizational pedigree both Baltimore and Pittsburgh have what it takes to win the division; Cincinnati certainly has the talent—except they have an average quarterback getting paid like a franchise QB.

So why do I think Baltimore is going to win it? In terms of offseason moves I think the Bengals are in for a moderate to serious let down; I think losing both of their coordinators—especially Zimmer on the defensive end—is going to hurt them. Plus, I have a feeling the offensive line isn’t going to be as strong as they have been in recent years, which means good defenses are going to expose Dalton for the poor pocket passer he is when under pressure. (Read Bill Barnwell’s excellent article about The Red Rifle .) By the end of this year, a more appropriate nickname for Dalton will be The Red BB Gun. (I predict that after this season the Bengals are going to pursue another franchise quarterback through the draft.) In fact, I predict that the Bengals are going to implode; this might be Marvin Lewis’ last season at the coaching helm if they fall to a 6-10 record, which I think is plausible.

Pittsburgh still looks so-so; you can’t count them out with a mostly healthy Roethlisberger, the best quarterback in the division. However, I think Baltimore is going to improve on both sides of the ball; best case scenario, their defense can resemble the mighty Ravens defenses of the recent past, and I think their running game is going to be significantly improved with Gary Kubiak as their offensive coordinator, which means Flacco is due for a comeback year.

In sum, I think Baltimore has the best mixture of talent and good coaching to win this division, which is why I’m picking them.

AFC South:
This division resembles the AFC North in that I don’t think any team—including Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville Jaguars—will be an easy team to defeat. Like the Browns, I don’t think the Jaguars are quite ready to contend for the division title, but they’re not too far off.

I think this will be the most mediocre division in the AFC. A 9-7 record could be enough to win it. Indianapolis, Houston, and Tennessee figure to be around .500 teams, but I’m going to go out on a teeny limb and predict two things: 1) the Colts magical run of winning close games in the Andrew Luck era is coming to a screeching end this year; they’ll break even—or worse—in tight games, and that will be enough to knock them off the top, and 2) Houston is going to make a significant bounce-back this year. From a talent standpoint last year’s Houston Texans were not your typical 2-14 team. They weren’t the 2011 Indianapolis Colts who went 2-14 with the likes of Curtis Painter behind center; the Texans lost a lot of close games last year and essentially gave up on their coach midway through the season. With JJ Watts and Clowney lining up in their front four, they’re going to be a nightmare for many teams. Their defensive line has two of the biggest freak athletes in this league, perhaps this planet.

I think they’ll finish 9-7 and squeak out a division title over the Colts, who can’t overachieve for three years straight. There has to be some sort of law of nature against that.

AFC West:
Not much to say here: the Broncos will win this division easily. Their defense should be improved; their offense will probably have a slight drop-off, but not much. The Chiefs will come crashing back down to mediocrity and I think the Chargers will easily be the second best team in this division. Losing Whisenhunt as their offensive coordinator will hurt but I think their defense is going to continue to improve. At the end of the 2013-2014 season they found their identity as a defense, and I think Pagano is going to build his defense from that experience. With a few more playmakers, I think they’ll be a middle-of-the-pack defense with a potential top-10 offense. Since the Chiefs and Raiders are going to suck, I think the Bolts will be back in the playoffs as a Wild Card.

And since the Raiders are my team, here’s a few predictions for my beloved Silver & Black: for the second straight season—and it pains me to type this—I think we’re going to finish 4-12; the team is improved but we have one of the toughest schedules this year. McKenzie’s going to keep his job thanks to what looks like will be a solid to good to possibly really good 2014 draft class (so far no cuts! No Tyler Wilsons! And I agree with columnist Tim Kawakami: Derek Carr is the best quarterback prospect the Raiders have had since Rich Gannon’s glory years.) but Dennis Allen will have to go. And thank god because I have never had any reason to believe that he could be a good coach.

AFC Wild Cards: Dolphins, Chargers

NFC East:
Aww, yeah; Motownphilly's back again! If he stays healthy again, I think LeSean McCoy may lead the league in touchdowns this year. The Philly offense should be outstanding, and that defense has to get better at some point, right? In time, I think Jay Gruden will bring the best out of The Self-Absorbed One, RGIII, but I don’t have much reason to think he’s going to make a big comeback-splash this year when their preseason brought up the question: Has Kirk Cousins outplayed RGIII? Not a good sign. Having DeShit Jackson on their roster should be good for one victory but it won’t be enough to lift them over the Eagles. Eli should have a better season with a new West Coast offense but their defense is not like the one that recently won them two Super Bowls over the Patriots. And the Cowboys? Ha, they’re a joke, like their owner (though I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a top-5 scoring offense—but, they’re going to have one of the worst defenses in the league.)

NFC North:
Green Bay
I’m on the Cheesehead bandwagon, man; I have been for a few years since I predicted their Super Bowl winning run back in 2011. Last year I said I’d take Aaron Rodgers over Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and I’d still take him over those two this year. Despite playing half of their games in Lambeau Field, Green Bay could have the top scoring offense in the league. The question with them has always been: but what about their defense? Is it time for Dom Capers to go, or can he lead a top defense again? I have my doubts, but I think they’ll have a statistically average defense, which, coupled with a Rodgers/Eddie Lacy-led offense is going to be more than enough to top the Bears, Lions, and Vikings.

NFC South:
New Orleans
This is an interesting division. Will Mike Smith’s Falcons bounce back into the playoffs? Will Lovie Smith pull a Jon Gruden and maximize Tampa Bay’s talented roster enough to win the division? Or will Drew Brees and Sean Payton continue to do their thing and win this division?

I’m betting on the latter. The Saints defense should continue to improve, which is scary. And have you seen how accurate Drew Brees is?

NFC West:
Arguably the toughest division in football. Despite a few defections, I think Seattle has too much young talent on both sides of the ball to stumble off their perch as the kings of this division. On the other hand, I think San Francisco could decline on both sides of the ball, especially their defense. With Aldon Smith suspended for the first nine games of the season and Navarro "Bad Motherfucker" Bowman already out for a chunk of time, the Niners are a Patrick Willis or Justin Smith injury away from possibly being a mediocre defense. And then the offense: are they really going to be a vastly improved unit if they switch to being a more pass-happy-oriented offense? Barring how the new defensive holding rules pan out, will this offensive transition really help them beat their West Coast nemesis whose strength is their pass defense (especially when Seattle has lost some of their DL depth, which I think may make them more vulnerable to a good rushing attack than last year’s defense)? I think too many things have to break for the 49ers to win this division, especially when St. Louis’ defense is continuing to improve to Tennesse-Titan-Jeff-Fisher-led heights. (The Rams might be improved with former Niner, Shaun Hill as their starting quarterback.)

NFC Wild Cards: San Francisco, Tampa Bay (I could easily put Atlanta here instead.)

As of right now, I think there are four legitimate Super Bowl contenders: Seattle, Green Bay, Denver, and New England. On the cusp (and in order): New Orleans, San Francisco, and Baltimore.

Super Bowl: Green Bay over Denver (Rodgers 2-0, Peyton 1-3 in the Big Game)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Clown Without Pity's 2014 World Cup Predictions

Well, well, well, even though I hardly watch The Fútbol, only tuning in for the World Cup and World-Cup-qualifying matches every four revolutions around the sun, I’ve decided to give this whole predicting-a-winner a whirl. To give you a glimpse of my epic prowess for predicting outcomes in this World Cup, I will confess that I correctly picked a whopping 9 out of the 16 teams that advanced out of the group stage. (I knew I should’ve picked the United States over perennial underachiever, Portugal! And what the fuck was I smoking when I picked Russia and Honduras to advance out of their respective groups?) Someone get me a plane to Vegas!

Okay, without further ado, here’s my ill-informed picks for the quarterfinal matches:

France vs. Germany

After they clocked Portugal in their opening match, a lot of people—including moi—anointed Deutschland as the favorite to win it all—aaaaaaannnd, then they tied 2-2 against Ghana. Against The Stars & Stripes they seemed to play at around 70% of their capacity; they kind of seemed to toy with the U.S.—content to play hard in spurts but almost unwilling to really, really push themselves. Going to extra periods with Algeria was one of the big surprises of the tournament for me. By the end of regulation time an upset seemed plausible, which was astonishing, but then Germany scored two minutes into the first extra period.

So will The Real Deutschland please stand up? Is it the squad that blitzkrieged the overrated Portugal squad 4-0, or the one with two not-so-impressive victories in their past two games?

And lest I piss off my French homies, let us not forget that we do have a game here, which means that an oppositional force must be pitted against Germany in order to create this thing we call a match. So what can be said about the 2014 French national team? They have scored ten goals in four matches while allowing only two goals—both to Switzerland. They scored five goals against a Swiss team that shut out Argentina through 90 minutes in their final match. I don’t think much was expected of them in this World Cup after their star winger with jacked-up teeth, Franck Ribery, went down with a back injury.

I think this is as far as France goes. The U.S. won’t be able to bail them out this time. (I promise you, this is my one bad historical joke I will allow myself.) Germany’s going to the semi-finals.

Colombia vs. Brazil

Oh sweet Jesus, this is going to be the game! I can’t wait until 1 p.m. PST on the 4th of July: the two best teams in South America (sorry, Argentina) will face off. Being an unapologetic supporter of New World teams in the World Cup, a big part of me pities that this match is happening before the semi-final round. But what a game.

So Brazil barely advanced to this stage. It would have been a disaster and monumental shame if this country that has gone to such pains to host these games would not even make it to the quarterfinal round, but the unforgiving goal post spared them twice in their last game against the scrappy Chilean squad. Though I was relieved they won, I don’t think any Brazilian could’ve left that game feeling chipper about their team’s chances in advancing in the tournament with a performance like that.

Brazil clearly lacks offensive chemistry. They lack a playmaker or two in the midfield who can make goal-scoring easy for Neymar or Porn-stache Fred. There’s no fluidity, beauty, or sabor to their offensive game. They hardly resemble recent Brazilian squads with stars like Ronaldo, Kaka, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Romario (to kick it a little more old school), or my boy, Roberto Carlos (check out the .54 second mark of this clip:)

Colombia, on the other hand, has the leading goal scorer in the cup, James “Bad Motherfucker” Rodríguez (check this goal out); their defense has been stout, and they’ve played a sexy game. In terms of cohesion and precision they’ve been superior to their South American veciños. From what we’ve seen in the past three weeks, Colombia is South America’s best hope to hoist the Cup, and I think they’ll continue to prove it by advancing past Brazil on their soil.

Belgium vs. Argentina

Like most folks I’m fairly certain of the outcome of three of the quarterfinal games, but this is the one I’m struggling with the most.

Let’s start with Argentina. Only one word is needed to sum up their hopes of advancing or winning this World Cup: Messi. La Pulga has finally had the strong World Cup performance we predicted in 2010. He notched four goals in the three group games and assisted on the goal that finally broke Switzerland’s defense in their first knockout game. Their opposition has been loading up in the backfield in hopes of countering Argentina’s attack. Messi regularly sees two midfield defenders rush at him whenever he gets the ball. For the most part, this strategy has worked to stifle their offense because La Pulga lacks play-making teammates on the wings who can make teams pay for doubling him. No Carlos Tevez (that dude could kick), and the 35-year-old Maxi Rodríguez isn’t an offensive threat. Of the eight remaining teams, no team is more dependent on one player to carry them than Argentina. Though it’s not the best analogy, ask the Cleveland Cavalier version of LeBron James how that turned out for him when his team advanced to the championship level.

As for Belgium, they have a stout defense; they’ve allowed two goals through four games. And here’s an impressive stat: their six goals have come from six different players.

With Mertens, Hazard, and the 21-year-old Lukaku—the difference maker in their match against the U.S.—Belgium has a couple of offensive threats. Unlike Switzerland, I think Belgium has the offensive depth and talent that can score on Argentina in a counter-attack. I think one of them will penetrate Argentina’s defense. Against Switzerland, Argentina kept up their attack throughout the game while maintaining their composure. In their four matches they have yet to trail an opponent and I question if they can keep the same composure against a strong defensive team like Belgium if they are not the first to score. I think Belgium will pull this one off.

Netherlands vs. Costa Rica

What an interesting match: the aggressive, foul-happy Orange floppers (I’m looking at you, Arjen Robben) against the Ticos from Costa Rica. Like Germany, the Netherlands announced themselves as favorites with a devastation of defending World Cup champion, Spain in their opening World Cup match. And like Germany, their play has been not-so-astounding since. It’s been kind of downward slope, methinks. During their last match, Mexico dominated the Netherlands in the first half, took the lead with a goal a few minutes after halftime, but then the Orange Crush dominated the ball and ultimately scored two late goals to snatch victory from a timid Mexican squad that stopped playing like they had when they took the lead. Van Gogh’s brethren exalted while the world was robbed of any more material from Mexico’s Miguel Herrera.

Like Mexico, Costa Rica has been one of the big surprises of the tournament—arguably the biggest surprise. Down a man, they hung against Greece and won in shootouts to advance to the quarterfinals.

Can they pull off another surprise? Maybe. Do I think they will? No. I think their surprising run ends here though god knows I’m fucking rooting hard for them because I don’t want Robben and his flair for dramatic flopping to advance.

Typically I resist making far-reaching (and ridiculous) bracket predictions, but what the hell; I don’t want to write a separate post for the semi-finals. For what it’s worth, here’s this fool’s predictions for the rest of the Cup. It has a healthy dose of wishful thinking but I do think this outcome lies in the realm of feasibility; after all, history often teaches us the most likely outcome and a European team has never won a World Cup hosted in South America; I don't think that will be broken in this Copa Mundial:

• Colombia over Deutschland
• Netherlands over Belgium
• Colombia over the Netherlands

Is it Friday already?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Today’s Depressing Thought

Back in February when we had summery weather in the Bay Area, I was walking home with my trusty bicycle. It was a sunshiny afternoon. Temperatures were in the low 70s in Oakland. I was wearing shorts and a light sweater. As I approached a cross street, a honeybee hovered past my head about a foot from me. It floated in front of me as I pushed my bicycle up the hill. With the sun out, a cheery tune playing through my headphones, a bee chillingly cruising past me, unafraid of my presence, I couldn’t help but smile. Maybe this unseasonable warmth wasn’t so bad? (While a few of my Bay Area Facebook peeps embraced the summer-like weather in February, I found it troubling. Droughts aren’t something to celebrate.)

And then, as I was about to step off the curb, I saw the bee descend lower and lower until it fell to the crosswalk. I stopped to stand over it. Its wings lay on the concrete, its legs wiggling in the air. Oh no I thought, that smile wiped off my face. I hesitated, ready to put out my bike’s kickstand to step over to a nearby patch of shrubs to try to find a fallen leaf so I could scoop the little guy off the street and rest him on the grass where he could hopefully recuperate instead of get run over or stepped on. (I guess it’s worthwhile to mention that by default, although I catch myself now, I automatically think of most bugs and critters as dudes.) But then I thought: what’s the point? You can try to save one but there are so many others you can’t save. Just weeks before I had seen four dead honeybees lying on the sidewalk of one residential block in Fremont, something I had never witnessed in my childhood. Mass bee die-off, a.k.a. Colony Collapse Disorder, is in our modern lexicon. I kept walking up the hill, leaving the bee to die though it didn’t feel right. (It’s worthwhile to mention that the one time I have been stung by a bee is when I was a boy, swimming in a pool. I noticed a bee floating atop the chlorinated water so I cupped my hands beneath it to lift it out of the pool when the bee stung me.)

As I cycled home, I had a fleeting thought: what if our newest generation of parents—several of whom are my friends or colleagues—will become the last generation of grandparents on Planet Earth?

The future is far from bright and promising. Personally, I think you either have to be in complete denial or utterly foolish to hedge your bet on humanity surviving and thriving past this century with our 21st Century way of living. I think you have to be an idiot to believe that humanity can concoct and manufacture high technology solutions to solve the predicaments we face. That form of thinking—that we can somehow outsmart Mother Nature—is one of the principle reasons why our species has arrived to the dire state we find ourselves in.

Our planet is an organism that will continue on long after we peace out and join the extinction list (which we’ve done a bang-up job of populating in our cameo on this planet). Western Civilization has expanded and lasted too long with a core belief that nature is supposed to be this entity we are in opposition with instead of truly understanding that we’re merely a part of it.

There’s too many of us. Too many of us sucking up and depleting the world’s resources, which is basically what humans do. (I’ve been reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and it’s been sobering to read that this has been characteristic of our species for thousands of years at practically every corner of the world we’ve inhabited.) At our current global growth rate, how can we possibly attain enough freshwater to sustain all 7 billion-plus-of-us-and counting especially when corporations, mining companies, and nuclear power plants continue to pollute our freshwater sources with their money-grubbing endeavors? We can't even do that now; according to UNICEF, over 768 million people lack access to clean water. And sure, the United States can keep its gas prices down by waging illegal wars with petroleum-rich countries, 1 but who will we bomb for water? Warfare over the attainment of power and influence in petroleum-rich regions has been rather serious, but can you imagine what it’s going to be like when humans are fighting over a natural resource we actually need to subsist? That’s gonna be ugly.

From Colony Collapse Syndrome to receding glaciers 2 to higher mean temperatures at the global level to a dearth of originality in the arts (from music to visual art, it seems like humans are stuck in a constant feedback loop where what we’re mostly producing is recycled art or creating shit that has no heart because we’re afraid of being emotionally vulnerable at the most vulnerable juncture in our collective history), Mother Nature is providing us with signs that there is something terribly awry with our way of living. Our bodies do the same, providing us with signals of pain and discomfort to warn us that something is wrong.

Too many of us still aren’t paying attention, lost in the fog of the interwebs and our modern technologies, and it’s probably too late now.

1 Back in 1850, there were an estimated 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park in Montana. Today, there are only 25 glaciers in the park according to this U.S. Geological Research Survey webpage.

2 In May 2014, according to , Americans pay .97 cents per liter. In Australia the price is $1.41 per liter, $1.62 in Chile. The European country with the cheapest fuel prices is Poland which pays $1.78 per liter.