NFL Conference Championship Picks Against the Spread

The NFL’s version of the Final Four is here. We have two solid matchups featuring incredibly hot and gifted quarterbacks. This will be my last week of picks against the spread. Expect something different for the Super Bowl. I was 2-2 straight up last week and just 1-3 against the spread. Given the year I have had, fans should be begging me not to pick their team, but here it goes anyway.

Atlanta (-5) at Green Bay- Aaron Rodgers is incredible. Up until his current hot streak, I always thought he was a lot closer to Joe Flacco than Joe Montana. Him carrying a below average defense and an offense with injuries everywhere except for the offensive line to this point is the football equivalent of what LeBron did with some of his Cavs teams.

Photo Courtesy of bloggingdirty.com

Regardless of what wide receivers Rodgers ends up having to throw to, he will keep his team in the game. The dilemma for Rodgers is a familiar one. Matt Ryan and the opposing offense will have no problem scoring on the Packers defense. At the end of the day, Atlanta is just a more complete football team. Their late-season defensive emergence is what made them a legitimate Super Bowl contender. NFL sack leader Vic Beasley has slowly developed into a monster and even seldom used elder statesman Dwight Freeney was making plays last week. As good as Rodgers and his offensive line are, I trust Atlanta’s defense to get a late stop more than Green Bay’s.

 

The Packers cover, but the Falcons send the Georgia Dome out in style with a trip to the Super Bowl. Atl 34 GB 31

Pittsburgh at New England (-6) – Let’s review a few of the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not give Bill Belichick and the Patriots bulletin-board material the week before a big game. No matter his intentions, that is exactly what Antonio Brown did. Anyone who thinks New England is not using Brown’s Facebook live gaffe as a little extra motivational fuel is kidding themselves.

Photo Courtesy of pittsburghpostgazette.com

As talented as the Steelers are on offense, Belichick and his staff will make Pittsburgh beat them without Le’Veon Bell running wild. Also, do not be fooled by the Steelers success. Mike Tomlin is a few steps behind coaches like Belichick when it comes to X’s and O’s. He is mostly successful because he handles the emotional and motivational aspects of the game so well. Never forget that Tim Tebow lit up a Tomlin coached team in the playoffs. Even at 39 and coming off a clunker, I will take my chances with Tom Brady.

The Steelers were probably going to lose this game no matter what, but the Brown situation ensures a bloodbath. NE 34 Pit 20.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Underwhelming Crop of New NFL Head Coaches

With it all but confirmed that Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will be taking over as head coach of the 49ers when Atlanta’s season ends, all six of the NFL’s head-coaching vacancies are now filled. Some are stepping into better situation than others, but I find all but one of the head-coaching hires underwhelming. Quite frankly, that is putting it mildly. Here is a look at each:

Doug Marrone (Jacksonville Jaguars)

Of all the hires, this is the one that has a chance to work long-term. Marrone is an experienced coach at both the college and pro levels. He did a very respectable job for two seasons as the head coach of the Bills in 2013 and 2014 before a mutual parting of ways. In 2014, he guided the Bills to just their second winning season since 1999. EJ Manuel was his quarterback for most of his time in Buffalo. Not many coaches could get nine wins with EJ Manuel as their quarterback. He has barely seen the field since Marrone left. Marrone also turned Syracuse football into a competitive program during his time there ending a bowl game victory drought of nearly a decade

Photo courtesy of Jacksonville.com

The hiring of two-time Super Bowl winning head coach Tom Coughlin as an executive to oversee all aspects of the Jaguars organization is the biggest thing working in Marrone’s favor. Coughlin knows what it takes to win and will bring instant credibility and discipline to Jacksonville. These have been lacking ever since Coughlin left as head coach following the 2002 season. The Jaguars roster is not terrible at the moment and will have chances to improve through the draft and free agency. Whatever they have to work with, Coughlin and Marrone will get the most out of it. They both have done that for their entire careers in football.

 

Sean McDermott (Buffalo Bills)

While McDermott’s stints as defensive coordinator in Carolina and Philadelphia were largely positive, his Panthers defense took a major step backward last year. They fell out of the top 20 in almost every statistical category after being one of the most dominant units in the league for the better part of two years. Some will point to the loss of Josh Norman. While it certainly did not help, I do not think it explains the entirety of Carolina defensive decline. No one player should mean that much to defense. If he does, there is something wrong with the system.

 

Combine this with the traditionally dysfunctional Bills front office and fairly new ownership that seems to think the roster is better than it actually is, and I see no way for McDermott to lead this team beyond .500, which is almost exactly the same record Rex Ryan had during his just under two years in Buffalo.

 

Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams)

 

 

Here is your classic case of too much too soon. Unlike most of the new hires, the unit McVay coordinated last year was quite good. The Redskins offense had the fewest three and outs in football last year. Even so, he is the youngest coach in league history. Moreover, he is inheriting a mess. Other than the defensive line, there is almost nothing here to work with. Additionally, this is another franchise struggling to find its relocation groove. That only makes McVay’s job more difficult. There are a lot of 60-year-old coaches who could not handle this job.

Photo Courtesy of nbclosangeles.com

 

While the Rams have done a great job surrounding McVay with quality assistant coaches, unless he can walk on water, it will be an extremely difficult task for him to get this franchise turned around. The one thing working in his favor is that the Rams gave Jeff Fisher plenty of time to get things going in the right direction. It did not work out, but McVay will need that same luxury to build a winner.

 

Anthony Lynn (Los Angeles Chargers)

This is the real stunner to me. Lynn spent most of last year as the offensive coordinator in Buffalo. While the Bills were the top rushing team in the league, it is impossible to be a legitimate contender in the modern NFL averaging under 200 yards passing a game like Buffalo did. Regardless of who is playing quarterback, you have to find a way to get more from your passing game than that. It certainly does not merit being hired as head coach.

 

Buffalo wanted to get an early look at Lynn. Thus, he was named interim head coach replacing Rex Ryan for the season finale. Not only were the bills routed by the Jets, but they were on the wrong end of a football folly for the ages. Watch it below thanks to the NFL’s YouTube channel. I have no words just watch.

 

After allowing a play like that to happen on his watch, under no circumstances would I hire Lynn as the head coach anywhere. Much less head coach of are relocating franchise trying (and mostly failing) to ingratiate itself to a new city. For those that will say a career of a coach should not be defined by a single play, fans and media do it with players all the time. Why should coaches not be held to the same standard? There is no way Lynn’s time in LA the lasts long or ends well.

 

 

Vance Joseph (Denver Broncos)

 

Strangely Joseph is the least qualified candidate of the new head coaches. Yet, he landed the best job with one of the NFL’s most consistent franchises over the last half decade or so. Following the sudden resignation of Gary Kubiak, Joseph has been handed the keys to a franchise that won a Super Bowl less than a year ago.

The Broncos roster is loaded with talent and ready to win now. The objective is to win Super Bowls. In theory, this is the objective for all NFL teams every year, but for most teams it simply is not realistic. It certainly is for the Broncos. They missed the playoffs this year for the first time in five years and still managed to post a winning record.

Given that standard of success, I just do not see how hiring a guy who spent one year as an NFL defensive coordinator and oversaw the 29th-ranked defense last year is going to accomplish that goal. I have no clue why multiple teams were interested in this guy as a head coach. He is clearly well thought of around the league. However, there is a difference between that and being a good head coach.

Joseph will likely be the most successful of the new head coaches early on based solely on the strength of his assistant coaches and general roster talent. Eventually, he will likely follow the same path as former Broncos and current Bears head coach Jon Fox who won a lot of games in Denver but was let go for not being able to get over the hump.

 

 

Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers)

 

Of the five hires who will be first-time head coaches, Shanahan was most deserving of a job. The work he has done with Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense this year is amazing. Unfortunately for him, he got the one job that nobody short of Vince Lombardi or Bill Belichick could make work right now. Shanahan will be San Francisco’s fourth coach in as many seasons. There was never any talent on the roster for Chip Kelly and Jim Tomsula to begin with. Shanahan is the same boat. Kelly and Tomsula were given just a single season.

How any candidate could trust ownership with a track record like that is beyond me, but there are only 32 head coaching jobs to go around. So, I do not blame Shanahan for taking the gig. Ultimately though, his success or failure hinges on the 49ers finding a general manager who knows what he is doing and Shanahan being given enough time to figure out the quarterback position and the rest of the roster. I do not trust ownership to do either.

Every year when new head coaches are hired, I find myself asking the same question. Are these the best guys the NFL can come up with? Even the less glamorous franchises like the Jaguars are worth over $1 billion according to Forbes. Why a team does not offer someone like Nick Saban enough money to make him the highest-paid coach in the league is baffling to me.

 

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Thunder Down Under: 2017 Australian Open Men’s Preview

Now, it is time for the men to take center stage in my Australian Open previews. Playing a best-of-five sets format makes the top guys less vulnerable to big upsets at the four majors. Fortunately, the top men have been so good for so long that a Grand Slam draw never lacks intrigue. Here are some interesting first round matches, sleepers and predictions to watch for in Melbourne.

 

First round matches to watch:

Tommy Haas vs Benoit Paire- The fact that Haas is still playing at age 38 after numerous injuries is nothing short of incredible. In days long gone by, he reached number two in the world. It will be interesting to see if he can turn back the clock against the streaky Frenchman.

Photo Courtesy of theroot.com

(3) Milos Raonic vs Dustin Brown- If you are looking for someone to break the stranglehold Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have on this event, Raonic may be the way to go. However, the big serving Canadian will not be happy to have drawn the dreadlocked Jamaican turned German in the first round. Brown’s high risk style is uncomfortable for anyone to play against. These may not be very competitive, but will certainly be entertaining.

(2) Novak Djokovic vs. Fernando Verdasco- Djokovic owns Australia and has six titles here to prove it, but the veteran Spanish lefty help five match points on Djokovic in Doha earlier this year before collapsing. Djokovic went on to win the event. Verdasco is a former top 10 player in the twilight of his career. He would love to give a big dog like Djokovic one last run for his money on a big stage.

(8) Gael Monfils vs Jiri Vesely- I had a couple options for my last first round match of note. I went with this one because the Monfils is a human highlight reel who was finally starting to figure out how to balance showmanship with winning tennis and Vesely is a talented youngster who have gotten some big wins in the past.

Photo courtesy of nctennischicks.com

 

Sleepers:

(14) Nick Kyrgios-The Aussie is an undeniable once in a generation kind of talent. Unfortunately, it is his repeated fines and suspensions for lousy on court behavior that steals most of the headlines. If the so-called “light bulb moment” ever does happen, look out. He can play with anyone and home soil may do him some good. His first really tough match should come against fourth seed and three-time major winner Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round.

(18) John Isner-Anyone who possesses the biggest serving in history of the sport is always dangerous. Yes, he always finds himself in long matches because he cannot break serve, but I still think he can put it all together and make a deep run at major. No one wants to play someone who takes the racquet out of your hands as much Inner does. A fourth round encounter top seed Andy Murray would be a tall task, but certainly not impossible for the nearly 7 foot tall American.

(24) Alexander Zverev- Of all the young guns coming up, I am highest on the 19-year-old German. There is no glaring weakness in his game, a rarity for such a young player. I watched him play the qualifying rounds in Cincinnati two years ago and was quite impressed. He just keeps getting better, a third-round match with 14 time major winner Rafael Nadal would be most interesting.

(23) Jack Sock- Six years younger than Isner, Sock is the future of American tennis and is coming off his second career title in Auckland last week. With a complete and powerful game, his first major quarterfinal is not out of the question. His draw is pretty kind as well.

Predictions:

Top half- For the first time in his stellar career, Andy Murray is the top seed at a major. No doubt the five time Aussie Open runner up is a prime contender to finally hold the big trophy. He finds himself in a delicate spot though.

All of the intrigue in this half lies with the 17th seed who just happens to be the greatest player who ever lived. A healthy Roger Federer returns to the Grand Slam stage after missing the entire post Wimbledon 2016 season with a knee injury. All indications are he is 100% and striking the ball cleanly. Familiar foes Murray and Federer could meet in the last eight. Guys like Isner, (10) Tomas Berdych and (5) Kei Nishikori will not make it easy, but I think we do get Federer vs. Murray in the quarters. Federer has won their last three meetings.

Photo courtesy of sportsnewsonline.com

The race to oppose the winner of that projected match in the semis is led by Wawrinka who is not playing very well, but that has not stopped him from winning majors before. He has a knack for rising to the occasion.

The other high seeds in this half are (12) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and former surprise U.S. winner Marin Cilic. Neither is in good form right now. While Aussies like Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic cannot be discounted, a Sock/Wawrinka quarterfinal is my pick. Look for young Russian Karen Khachanov as a deep sleeper who could make noise. Semifinal prediction: Murray d. Wawrinka

 

Bottom half: Djokovic’s Australian dominance is well documented. Again, he will have to be on guard for his opener. Other than that, and a possible round of 16 with a rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov, there is little that will trouble the Serb until the business end of the event.

It is great to see Nadal heathy again, but it is hard to see him contending for majors outside of the French. Generally speaking, the draw is extremely lopsided, which happens sometimes in Grand Slams. Austrian eight seed Dominic Thiem, Zverev, and American qualifier Reilly Opelka are all stories worth watching, but this half is Djokovic’s to lose. The hard part is picking someone to oppose him in the semis. It will be someone from the group I have mentioned, I will take a flyer on the flashy Frenchman. Semifinal prediction: Djokovic d. Monfils.

Championship match: Djokovic d. Murray for the third year in a row

Photo courtesy of India.com

The Australian Open begins Sunday night a 7 PM ET across the ESPN family of networks and Tennis Channel. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws on Sunday before play starts. You can follow me on Twitter below!

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NFL Divisional Playoff Picks Against the Spread

Wild Card Weekend rung in the NFL playoffs with a whimper rather than a bang. However, the divisional round has arrived and the general consensus is at least three of the four games should be highly contested. I was 2-2 against the spread last week and 3-1 straight up. My system remains the same with my picks being in bold and outright upsets having an asterisk. Hut hut, hike!

*Seahawks at Falcons (-5) – This is your classic defense versus offense matchup. Games like this are a yearly occurrence for the Seahawks. The same cannot be said for the Falcons. Thus, I just trust Seattle more here. Playing Detroit last week was a good way to prepare for Atlanta. The Seahawks defense finally seemed to figure out how to play without Earl Thomas. If Thomas Rawls can run the ball anywhere close to the way he did last week, Seattle becomes even more difficult to deal with.

The Falcons have had a fantastic season. However, I am just not sure how they will handle this occasion. They are about as anonymous a playoff team as you will ever come across. Their only primetime appearances this year were a Thursday night game and a Monday night game that went opposite a presidential debate. Even though the Falcons defense has vastly improved from a year ago, Matt Ryan and company are still having to put up 28-30 points to feel comfortable. Seattle will not allow that to happen. Sea 24 Atl 20

Texans at Patriots (-15) – 15 points in a playoff game? No one disputes that New England is a much better team, but I will take 15 points every day of the week and twice on Sundays. It becomes all the more enticing when one considers that the Texans have the NFL’s top defense. The Patriots could very easily go out and win this game by a ridiculous margin. However, Houston’s defense and coaching staff are good enough to make anyone sweat. Jadeveon Clowney is finally staying healthy and being the game wrecker everyone knew he was capable of being. Brady and Belichick will find a way like they always seem to do this time of year, but it will not be the bloodbath that most people are anticipating. NE 27 Hou 17

Photo courtesy of espn.com

Steelers at Chiefs (-1.5) – I genuinely believe Kansas City is the more balanced and complete football team. The early-season 43-14 Steelers blowout in this matchup is hard to ignore though. Teams do change a lot throughout the season. The emergence of Tyreek Hill, Kansas City’s now healthy pass rushers, and a dinged up Ben Roethlisberger are enough to nudge me toward the home team in my least favorite pick of the week. KC 23 Pit 20

*Packers at Cowboys (-4.5) – I would have picked the Giants had they reached this spot as well. Dallas has not played a truly meaningful game in roughly a month. That worries me. As good as Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have been, this is still uncharted territory for them as well as most of the Cowboys roster.

Photo courtesy of sportdfw.com

On the other side, the universe is running out of words to describe how hot Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense are. I am not sure if the health of Jordy Nelson even matters in terms of who wins this game. Rodgers is playing well enough to carry whoever is out there with him to win right now. Also, the Packers have been in “do or die” situations since about week 11. Let another offseason full of drama begin in Dallas. GB 34 Dal 30

 

 

 

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Unpredictable in Aussie Land: 2017 Australian Open Ladies Preview

Draws are out and the first tennis major of the year is within touching distance. As always, Melbourne, Australia will serve as the beautiful backdrop. Play gets going Sunday night here in America (Monday morning in Australia). This is my breakdown of the ladies event. I will cover all first-round matches to watch, sleepers, and predictions.

First round matches to watch:

(15) Roberta Vinci vs. Coco Vandeweghe- Vinci, an Italian stalwart, is still plugging away at age 33. Vandeweghe’s raw power will provide a sharp contrast to Vinci’s variety and counterpunching skills. This could go either way.

(12) Timea Bacsinszky vs. Camila Giorgi- Bacsinszky has yet to play a match this year. Giorgi hits the ball as hard as anyone, but she does not always know where it is going. If she is on, a rusty Bacsinszky will have her hands full.

Photo Courtesy of skysports.com

Lucie Safarova vs Yanina Wickmayer- Two injury-prone veterans who have each been to the business end of majors before. This should be fun. The winner will likely get Serena in the second round. Speaking of Serena…

(2) Serena Williams vs Belinda Bencic- This is as tough an opener as Serena has ever had. The talented Swiss teen has struggled with injuries, but was a top 10 player a year ago. Bencic announced her arrival by beating Serena in Toronto in 2015. Just to be safe, the American better knock the rust off early.

Sleepers:

Photo from abc.net.au.

(22) Daria Gavrilova- The diminutive Aussie has notched some big wins in the past and is the kind of player who will relish the crowd support of playing at home. A run to the final eight is realistic.

(23) Daria Kasatkina- Russia continues to produce outstanding young female tennis talent. Kasatkina leads the latest crop. Her form in Australia may have peaked in Sydney last week, but a player of her talent cannot be overlooked.

(17)- Caroline Wozniacki- Admittedly, a multi-year former world number one is not much of a sleeper. However, the defensive minded Dane is flying under the radar and in decent form with a favorable draw. Like Gavrilova, the last eight is a real possibility.

Eugenie Bouchard- The WTA’s Canadian poster girl continues her slow climb back towards the top after a massive rankings drop in 2015. In 2016, she won enough matches to be taken seriously again. After a solid start in 2017, she is positioned reasonably well here. The winner of her projected second rounder with Kasatkina should oppose Kerber in the round of 16

Predictions:

Top half- To call this part of the draw wide open is a gross understatement. Top seed and world number one Angelique Kerber leads the pack, but her slow start to the year and general lack of power makes her very beatable. There is no obvious candidate to do it in the early rounds.

Some are touting Kasatkina. The young Russian knocked off Kerber just last week. However, beating a world number one, who also happens to be the defending champion at a major, is a much tougher task. Hot and cold French Open champ Garbine Muguruza has the weapons to win any event she plays in, but the seven seed is in a cold stretch right now. Steady Romanian fourth seed Simona Halep has a punchers chance. For me though, it is veterans and former major champs like (9) Svetlana Kuznetsova and (13) Venus Williams that are always most dangerous in a draw like this. Expect some upsets that will assist Kerber as she grinds her way back to the final. Semifinal prediction: Kerber d. Kuznetsova.

Bottom half- This is the half with the big hitters. Serena Williams is hunting for her 23rd Grand Slam Title to break Steffi Graf’s modern era record. However, Williams was clearly rusty in her second round loss to fellow American Madison Brengle at the season opening event in Auckland. Even so, we all know that Williams is capable of flipping the so-called switch at the Grand Slams.

Photo courtesy of tennisguru.net

As detailed earlier, her early draw is tricky, but it is almost impossible to pick her to lose in the first two rounds of a major. Fifth seed Karolina Pliskova is my co-favorite to reach the final from this half. The Brisbane champ and reigning U.S. Open finalist is still fairly new to the biggest stages of the sport, but she has the “it” factor. With a massive serve and powerful groundstrokes, she epitomizes the modern player. She has no fear of Serena. She beat both Serena and Venus last summer. While a possible second rounder with unorthodox Romanian Monica Niculescu may be uncomfortable, the Czech is in a zone right now. While names like (3) Agnieszka Radwanska, (9) Johanna Konta, and Wozniacki will provide stern tests, this entire half is set to build towards a Pliskova/Serena semi. Semifinal prediction: Pliskova d. S. Williams

Championship match: Pliskova d. Kerber

The Australian Open begins Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. ET across the ESPN family of networks and Tennis Channel. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws on Sunday before play starts. You can follow me on Twitter below!

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Keys to the NFL Divisional Playoffs

NFL fans and media rarely agree on much. However, I think we can all agree that Wild Card weekend did not produce much excitement or competitive football. While it is a little early in the week to pick the divisional playoff matchups, here is a key to each.

 

Seahawks at Falcons- Are the Falcons ready for the big time?

Seattle should have zero concerns about being ready for a game like this. They have played in dozens of them over the last handful of years. Like always, the defense will limit scoring opportunities and the Seahawks will ask Russell Wilson to make a few key throws to get the win.

Atlanta is a different story. Despite Matt Ryan having an MVP worthy season, the Falcons have flown mostly under the radar and have not been placed in the glamorous national TV windows very often. A scenario where Atlanta’s offense simply scores too much for Seattle to keep up is conceivable. However, a scenario where Atlanta folds under newfound spotlight is just as conceivable. With Earl Thomas out, Seattle’s defense is a tad more vulnerable. Given what the Falcons are capable of on offense and their much improved defense, it is now or never for Atlanta.

Texans at Patriots – Houston needs some kind of early break

The Texans are 15.5 point underdogs for a reason. New England shut them out early in the year with a third-string quarterback. Fast forward a few months and now Tom Brady is back in the fold for New England. As ominous as that may sound for Houston, anything is possible. If that was not the case, games like this would never be played.

There are a few things that work in Houston’s favor. First, the coaching staff has numerous ties to New England. There isn’t much the Patriots can do that would surprise the AFC South champs. Also, much-maligned quarterback Brock Osweiler had the best game of his young career last year in Denver against the Patriots defense.

The Texans are here because of its defense. As atrocious as the quarterback play has been, the top-ranked defense has been that good. It will be up to that unit to force a turnover that leads to easy points early in the game and give the massive underdogs some belief. A big play on special teams would also serve the same purpose. Houston cannot fall in a big hole early if they want any chance at all.

Steelers at Chiefs – Steelers pass protection

No matter how good he is at sandbagging his injuries, there is no way Ben Roethlisberger goes from a walking boot to fully healthy in a week. Thus, those trademark Roethlisberger scrambles under pressure to extend plays are likely off the table. It is up to Pittsburgh’s offensive line to keep Kansas City’s pass rushers away from their franchise quarterback.

Photo Courtesy of steelersdepot.com

This will not be an easy task. The Chiefs have three or four guys that are capable of chasing down any quarterback in this league. Their defense is led by a healthy Justin Houston. Le’Veon Bell will not run wild against the Chiefs like he did against Miami last week, but he will need to run well enough to take some heat off of the offensive line as well. Looking back on it, Pittsburgh’s 43-14 early-season blowout of Kansas City is one of the true oddities of the NFL season. This game will be a lot closer one way or the other.

 

 

Packers at Cowboys – Green Bay’s third-down defense

This may be the toughest game of the weekend to call, but it is the easiest to size up. The only way anyone is going to stop Aaron Rodgers and the Packers right now is by keeping their offense on the sideline. Dallas has been near the top of the league in time of possession and third-down conversions all year long.

Photo Courtesy of thelandryhat.com

The Packers defense has struggled to get off the field on third down, raking just 22nd in that category. Dallas will dance with what brought them here. They need to stay in manageable down and distance scenarios with a heavy dose of Ezekiel Elliott. It is up to Clay Matthews and company to ensure that Rodgers gets enough opportunities to work his magic. Here is to hoping at least one of these games is half as good as Monday’s national championship game I fell asleep during.

 

 

 

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First Week Tennis Tidbits

It is difficult to take much that is meaningful out of one week in any sport. With a season that spans almost the entire calendar year, tennis is no exception. However, here are three season long trends I am comfortable predicting after just a single week of play.

 

The “Big Four” is now the “Big Two”

After years of sharing the spotlight with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the pecking order on the ATP Tour is officially Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and everybody else. In addition to winning three of four majors, the pair dominated the back half of 2016 deciding the year end number one in the last match of the season. To start off this year, they reached the final in Doha, Qatar. Neither man play their best, but each found ways to win. We could go a long ways into the season before we get a final that matches the season opener between the freakishly talented Serb and newly knighted Brit. It had its fair share of drama and quality with Djokovic coming out on top. You can check out brief highlights below thanks to the Dafo sport YouTube channel.

 

While Stan Wawrinka can always get hot at the right time and Federer and Nadal will always have a punchers chance on grass and clay respectively, Djokovic and Murray are now the alpha males.

Karolina Pliskova Means Business

 

photo from mezo.me

Most fans first become familiar with Pliskova last summer. She upset Angelique Kerber to win Cincinnati and reached the finals at U.S. Open, beating both Venus and Serena Williams in the process. Nothing seems to rattle her. She backed up her break out year with a title in Brisbane to get things started this week. What separates her from the vast majority of her peers is the ability to hold her serve easily. That alone could make her a fixture in the top five and the second week of majors. She led the tour in aces last year. Even though she has yet to win a major, Australia in just one week may be as good a time as any.

 

 

The Women’s Tour Remains Unpredictable

Stories like that of Garbine Muguruza were the norm on the WTA Tour in 2016. The big hitting Spaniard rose from relative obscurity to win the French Open, only to go under .500 for the rest of the year. In the first week of 2017, the WTA held three events. Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber and Agnieszka Radwanska were the number one seeds at their respective events. None won more than two matches before being sent packing.

Whether this is good or bad is debatable. What is not debatable is that if this continues, there is lots of room for Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka to make swift and successful comebacks in the spring. In the meantime, here is to all the players staying healthy ahead of the year’s first major.

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NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks Against the Spread

The playoffs are here. 12 teams still have dreams of a trip to Houston for Super Bowl LI. Now the phrase “win or go home” becomes real. I will continue picking games against the spread throughout the playoffs. I simply find it more fun and challenging than picking games straight up. As usual, my picks are bolded with an asterisk denoting an outright upset. I finished the regular season with a less than stellar 124-135-7 record. However, my record starts all over again at 0-0 for the playoffs as well. Here it goes.

Saturday:

Raiders at Texans (-3.5) – Somehow, the record will show that Brock Osweiler started a playoff game in Houston this year, while the Broncos did not qualify. While I have great respect for Connor Cook’s college track record and his ability to win a lot of games at Michigan State, this is not college. Houston’s defense is one of the best in the playoffs and Oakland is also banged up on the offensive line. What a tall task for Cook in his first career start. It is truly a shame that we will never know what this year’s Raiders could have achieved with a healthy Derek Carr. Houston has its own issues on offense, but will do enough to win an eyesore of a football game. Hou 17 Oak 6

Lions at Seahawks (-8) – The Lions have played in really close games almost every week this season. That is all this pick is based on. Many of Matthew Stafford’s passes have been sailing high on him since he injured his finger. He had been playing at an MVP level. Without Earl Thomas, the Seahawks defense is not the buzzsaw we are used to seeing. The offense continues to be consistently inconsistent. Despite all this, the Seahawks have been here before and know how to win games like this. Expect them to find a way to win. There is still time for Seattle to put it all together as well. Sea 27 Det 21

Sunday:

Dolphins at Steelers (-10) – Swallowing ten points in a playoff game is foolish, but I am going to do it. The Steelers finally have their entire “big three” healthy for a playoff game. Meanwhile, Miami is on the road, in the cold, and starting a backup quarterback with a beat up offensive line. Also, the Steelers defense has really stepped it up since Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins ran wild on them in October. Adam Gase gets my surprise vote for Coach of the Year for getting a Miami team with middle of the road talent this far. However, this is the wrong matchup at the wrong time. Pit 34 Mia 17

Photo courtesy of upi.com

*Giants at Packers (-4.5)- This Sunday afternoon tilt is no doubt the crown jewel of the weekend on paper. I have gone back and forth about four times this week. The Packers have played as well as anyone since most folks (including me) buried them. It has been a long time since any quarterback has been as hot as Aaron Rodgers is right now. However, I generally believe the better defense wins cold weather playoff games. That belongs to New York by a long ways. Combine that with Eli Manning’s tendency to get hot on the road in the playoffs and the Giants will do just enough for the upset. NYG 24 GB 21

Photo courtesy of newsday.com

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The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the Early Tennis Season

Unfortunately, football season is starting to wind down here in America, but there is always a silver lining for me. My other favorite sport is just starting to ramp up: pro tennis. I am drawn to the sport for a variety of reasons that will become more apparent as I continue to write about it. In the meantime, I am honored to write what is to my knowledge the first tennis piece in the history of The Game Haus.

From a match fixing scandal, to almost every big-time star missing significant time, 2016 was a rough year for tennis. However, the 2017 season is underway and we are less than two weeks away from the year’s first major: the Australian Open. Here is a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly as the tennis roadmap winds its way through early 2017.

The Good- Stars are coming back

With the two sizable exceptions of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, every major star in the sport missed a significant chunk of time in 2016. Roger Federer did not play after Wimbledon in July due to a knee injury. Serena Williams took the entire fall off due to nagging injuries after losing in the semis of the U.S. Open. Rafael Nadal was not 100% at the French Open and missed Wimbledon. Former world number ones and major champions Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova missed the vast majority of the season. This was due to an unplanned pregnancy and controversial drug suspension, respectively. While Azarenka and Sharapova are planning returns in the spring, the others are already hard at work.

Despite an early upset loss in New Zealand this week, Serena appears to be healthy. Federer has been particularly jolly during his return to the sport at the Hopman Cup exhibition event this week.

Photo courtesy of YouTube.com

Azarenka and Sharapova have their fair share of detractors out there, but their star power is undeniable. It is always great to have the sport’s biggest stars playing on the biggest stages. While names like current ladies number one Angelique Kerber and powerful Canadian Milos Raonic admirably picked up the slack on both the men’s and women’s tours, 2016 never felt quite right.

Photo courtesy of cnn.com

The Bad- The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) really screwed up

This might be the understatement of the century. It sounded like great news when the WTA announced an online streaming service for the 2017 season. However, there are a few major problems with it. First, the streaming service is not ready yet. Even worse, the WTA terminated its TV deals in the US and numerous other countries for all events taking place outside of America. They are clearly all in on the streaming service.

For now though, fans like me are relying on sketchy streaming sites and snippets from social media to keep up with the sport. It is inconceivable to me how the people who run a sport could let something like this happen. Thankfully, the Australian Open and the other three majors are not affected. Despite the lack of WTA coverage, Tennis Channel remains the best place for most folks to follow the sport at the moment.

The Ugly- Ivanovic and Kvitova

Tennis is no different than any other sport. Fans have their favorites and players they despise. Sadly, major off-court difficulties have befallen two of the sport’s most universally liked Grand Slam champions: Ana Ivanovic and Petra Kvitova. Ivanovic announced her retirement from the sport last week at the age of just 29. The 2008 French Open winner cited nagging injuries as the main reason for her sudden decision. Fortunately, she is recently married and seems to be content. Even so, it is always sad when an athlete is unable to leave the game on their own terms.

Photo courtesy of zambio.com

The Kvitova situation is much darker. The powerful lefty and two-time Wimbledon champion was stabbed several times in her playing hand by an intruder at her home in the Czech Republic just before Christmas. She will be out six months, possibly longer. Kvitova is a multiple time winner of the WTA’s award for sportsmanship. The entire tennis world hopes she is back on the court soon. Enjoy the new season everyone!

Photo courtesy of Yahoo Sports

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Forget the Players, The NFL Needs to Start Protecting Its Coaches

While focus will soon shift to the playoffs, much of this week’s NFL news always centers around NFL coaches. The league has gone to great lengths in recent years to better protect its players. In many ways, that crusade has gone too far. However, when discussing the resignation of Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak with friends this week, an alarming statistic was brought to my attention and inspired this article.

Four of the 32 NFL head coaches who started the season were hospitalized at some point during the season. Think about that for a second. If any other job had 1/8 of its employees hospitalized within a four-month span, it would be all over the news as one of the most dangerous jobs in America. However, because America loves the NFL and there are only 32 head coaching jobs to go around, few people think of it in that way.

The specifics of each health situation are no one else’s business, but it is worrisome if you dig a bit deeper. The average age of the four coaches hospitalized this year is just 58. In Kubiak’s case, it was his second health scare earlier this year that served as the catalyst for his retirement from coaching at just 55. I think we would all like to have a relatively clean bill of health and lots of life left to live in our 50s and early 60s.

Sadly, this is becoming less and less the case when it comes to NFL head coaches. Along with the health scares of Kubiak, Mike Zimmer, Bruce Arians, and Todd Bowles, Bears coach Jon Fox has also missed time over the years because of health.

2016 also saw the sudden loss of former longtime Vikings and Cardinals coach Dennis Green. Green died of a heart attack at just 67. The numbers do not lie. The health of current and former NFL coaches is slowly becoming a real problem.

NFL coaches

Photo courtesy of fox9.com

While the high-pressure job of being an NFL head coach certainly is not the sole cause of any health issue, you do not need to be a doctor to arrive at the conclusion that it is very likely a contributing factor.

I am by no means an NFL insider, but I follow the league as closely as anyone. The pressure these coaches are under is gigantic. All 32 teams have rabid fan bases and snarky media that call for a coaching change, sometimes after almost every loss.

The job becomes even more challenging when one considers things like endless travel, occasionally unrealistic expectations of ownership, trying to maintain a family life, the amount of money involved in the modern NFL, and 31 other teams that want to win it all just as badly. While no one’s life is on the line, it has to be a real pressure cooker to say the least.

Some casual fans out there might wonder why a coach does not simply just leave the office or “take a break” when it all becomes too much. The answer is simple. First, that is simply not the way NFL head coaches are wired. Second, I assure you that for every minute a coach does not spend in his office, there’s another one that is in his hopped up on coffee at 3 AM preparing for battle. That is simply the nature of the beast.

I am not sure what can be done to combat this issue, but I certainly hope that Roger Goodell and his staff start looking into it. I came up with two suggestions. The current collective bargaining agreement severely limits the amount of live practices a team can have over the course of a season. This is certainly well-intentioned, but it has hurt the quality of the on-field NFL product in a big way.

NFL coaches

Photo courtesy of dynastyfootballwarehouse.com

It is reasonable to speculate that it also may be hurting the coaches. Less live practice means more time spent in a classroom style setting looking at film, teaching, and instructing. Any current or former student of anything can attest to just how sedentary this lifestyle can be. It certainly is not a healthy one. While it will never happen because the league is terrified of more serious injuries and lawsuits, a return to more live practices would actually be beneficial for all parties. Meaning, the fans, players, and coaches.

Another possible remedy could be to have an unaffiliated medical professional travel with each team solely for the purpose of checking on the welfare and health of the coaching staff. The rationale behind this is similar to that of the unaffiliated neurologist that assesses players for concussions and is the sole judge as to whether a player can return to a game.

The reality is the coaches grind and compete just as hard as the players. They need to be saved from themselves too. Again, I am not on the inside. For all I know, something like this may already exist, but I doubt it.

We all love football and the teams we support. Sometimes, it is easy to forget there is more to life. Thus, the next time you call for your team to fire its head coach, realize how hard their job is. The coaches are working as hard as we fans are rooting. A coach may lose games and get fired, but the issue is never a lack of effort.

 

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