Russell Wilson

NFL Week 3 picks against the spread

Last week was a little better, but not much. Despite correctly calling the Broncos upset of the Cowboys, I posted a record of just 5-11 last week and sit at 8-20-2 through two weeks. My picks are bolded, outright upsets have an asterisk and all lines are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing. The quest for improvement continues.

Thursday Night:

Rams (-2) at 49ers- Taking a road team on Thursday night is always dangerous, but Jared Goff looks like a legitimate NFL quarterback two weeks in to his sophomore season. Despite being an offensive guru, Kyle Shanahan’s new 49ers offense has not really gotten off the ground yet. The Rams’ defense is among the last a struggling offense would like to face. Lar 20 SF 10

Sunday:

Ravens (-3.5) at Jaguars (London) – The number here is shockingly low. It makes me wonder if Vegas knows something the rest of the world does not. Baltimore is far from an offensive juggernaut, but they have not needed to be one thus far. The defense has carried them to an undefeated start by dominating bad teams. Jacksonville is most certainly a bad team. If they wait three quarters to show up like they did last week, Baltimore will eat them alive. Bal 27 Jac 15

Falcons (-3) at Lions- This has a chance to be really good. Two hot quarterbacks with lots of weapons. Atlanta passed its first true post Super Bowl meltdown test by throttling Green Bay last week. Detroit is white hot in the early going as well and showing more offensive balance than we are used to. It seems like every time the Lions have a chance for a big statement win, they come up short. Thus, Atlanta wins a shootout. Atl 35 Det 31   

Matt Ryan

Photo: nydailynews.com

Browns (-1) at Colts- Andrew Luck still is not walking through the door anytime soon to save the Colts. The good news is they occasionally looked like a real NFL team at times with Jacoby Brissett at the helm last week. Even so, the Browns are favorite to win a game for the first time since 2015.

With the youngest roster in the league, Cleveland is still overmatched most weeks. However, their talent on both sides of the ball is intriguing and they play hard. The Browns have been in both of their games so far before miscues turned the tide. Deshone Kizer should be able to limit those against a dreadful Colts defense. Cle 20 Ind 17

Broncos (-3) at Bills- This line is brilliant. The Broncos are the talk of the league after their performance last week and most folks have declared Buffalo terrible after struggling with the Jets for three quarters and putting up just three points in defeat last week.

I would have expected Denver to at least be a touchdown favorite, in which case Buffalo would have been my favorite pick of the week.  This just screams trap game. The Broncos are making a rare trip to the East Coast. Any team is susceptible to reading their own press clippings a little too much after a big win.

Lastly, Buffalo offensive coordinator Rick Dennison was in Denver last year. He knows Trevor Siemian’s strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone. You can bet he has been dropping in on defensive meetings this week.

Despite all that, the talent gap between the two rosters is too great on paper not to swallow a measly field goal. I am taking the sucker bet. Den 27 Buf 21

Texans at Patriots (-13) – A win is a win in the NFL. Despite playing pretty poorly in Cincinnati last week, the way Deshaun Watson competed and made a few big plays to help his team get the job done was impressive. However, the Texans are nowhere near ready to really compete with a Patriots team that seemed to get back on track last week. NE 31 Hou 13

Dolphins (-6) at Jets- As a general rule, always take home underdogs in a rivalry game. The Jets are not as bad as most thought they were going to be. Gang Green hung right with the Raiders until a muffed punt opened the floodgates late in the first half. Miami needed a lot of help to get by the Chargers last week. An outright upset would no doubt create some fantastic new Jay Cutler memes, but I will stop just short of calling it. Mia 24 Nyj 20

Saints at Panthers (-6) – Something has to give here. Carolina is really struggling on offense, but very good on defense. New Orleans is the polar opposite. Carolina’s offense should finally be able get their multilayered ground game going. The defense should be able to slow down Drew Brees just enough, but a touchdown is too much too give up. Car 34 NO 30

*Giants at Eagles (-6) – I am a fool for giving the Giants another week before I bury them. However, it is inconceivable to me how a team with so much talent on both sides of the ball can be as bad as they have been. The Giants are another team on the wrong side of the league wide shortage of decent offensive line play.

New York has been a strange team over the years. They play better when they are on the road and nothing is expected of them, both apply here. Odell Beckham Jr. will be a week healthier and we do not really know what the Eagles are yet. Betting on the Giants this week will be slightly more entertaining than setting your money on fire folks. NYG 24 Phi 20

Steelers (-7) at Bears- The Steelers have already shown us that they will ride that high-powered offense to the playoffs yet again this year. With Mike Glennon at quarterback, the Bears are much closer to the team that got picked apart in Tampa last week than the one that played the Falcons to the wire opening weekend. Pit 28 Chi 17

Bucs (-2.5) at Vikings- This line has been taken off most sites. It will continue to move dramatically until Sam Bradford’s playing status gets clearer. This was the only one I could find. If Bradford gets healthy, this line could very well flip. For now though, if Bradford does not answer the bell, the Bucs are a solid bet. Case Keenum certainly did not do much to inspire confidence last week. TB 20 Min 13

*Seahawks at Titans (-3) – It amazes me how people sometimes panic about a team, even after a win. Yes, Seattle struggled with San Francisco and their offensive line is atrocious. However, ever since Russell Wilson came to town, this franchise has had a knack for finding ways to win. They rarely look impressive, but usually get the job done.

Even though it was against an inferior opponent, sometimes pulling out a gutty win like that is all a team needs to get on track. The Seahawks defense always travels well and Tennessee may struggle with playing another team that plays the physical brand of football. It will be interesting to see how they react, but Seattle has earned the benefit of the doubt. Sea 17 Ten 14

Bengals at Packers (-8.5) – The whole world has been beating up on the Bengals this week, and rightly so. Scoring a grand total of nine points in two games will get you exactly where they are.

The good news is the defense is playing well and the Packers are banged up on both sides of the ball. Additionally, this is easily the worst defense Cincinnati has faced during the young season. The touchdown drought finally ends, but Aaron Rodgers pulls away late. GB 31 Cin 20

Aaron Rodgers

Photo: businessimsider.com

 

Chiefs (-3) at Chargers- New year, new city, same story for the Chargers. Again, they find themselves 0-2 by literally a few inches. The Chiefs offense is not going to look like the 99 Rams all year long and the Chargers are too good to get blown out by anyone. At the end of the day though, these teams will do what they have done for the better part of the last two years. The Chiefs will find a way to win, and the Chargers will find a way to lose. KC 21 Lac 17

Raiders (-3) at Redskins – The Redskins can move the ball on just about anyone, but Derek Carr makes the Raiders offense just a little better in this matchup. Washington has also struggled with turnovers early in the year. That is never a good thing when facing an offense that can make you pay for a short field. Oak 30 Was 20

Monday Night:

Cowboys (-3) at Cardinals- Dallas was humbled last week in Denver. Arizona continued to struggle in scrapping by Indianapolis. Arizona’s main cogs are aging very quickly, particularly quarterback Carson Palmer. Despite that, this team may still be capable of a great performance on occasion. That is what they will need Monday night, we have not seen it yet though. Dallas is not nearly as off track as many experts have suggested. Regardless, this is a good matchup for them to get their mojo back. Dal 27 Ari 17

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Cincinnati Bengals

Toothless Tiger: Perspective on the state of the Bengals

As we prepare for the second full Sunday of NFL action, everyone is definitely hoping there are lots of highlights to help erase Thursday night’s eyesore of a game from our collective memory. The position the Bengals now find themselves in is also worth a closer look.

It is no secret that their start has been comically bad. It also must be incredibly frustrating for everyone involved not just because they have lost consecutive home games to start the year, but also because they have scored a grand total of nine points.

One of the better kept secrets of the young NFL season is how well the Bengals defense has played. They have only allowed 33 total points in two games. Also, a decent chunk of those points have been given up due to short fields after turnovers by the offense. Translation: any sort of production from the offense would have meant a 2-0 start as opposed to 0-2. More than anything, that has to be what is keeping the players, coaches and fans up at night.

The familiar and often accurate narrative in regards to the Bengals lack of success is that the ownership of Mike Brown is the problem. Brown is not going to fire himself. Thus, the head coach and quarterback are once again taking most of the heat.

Marvin Lewis

As a native of Cincinnati, the opinion that Marvin Lewis has done a great job during his 15-year tenure as Bengals head coach is not a popular one right now, but it is the truth.

Atrocious does not even begin to accurately describe this franchise prior to his 2003 arrival. From 1991-2002, the Bengals had a .500 record just once and eight seasons of double-digit losses. Fan morale was lower than low and many kids from my generation became fans of other teams, myself included.

Cincinnati Bengals

Photo: cincyjungle.com

With Lewis at the helm, the Bengals have notched four division titles, seven playoff berths and just four losing seasons. The revitalization of football in Cincinnati during the early years of the Lewis era was incredible to see. Games were suddenly fun to go to because of the Bengals rather than the opponent, and gear was being sold on street corners during the week.

Starting with Cincinnati’s return to the playoffs after the 2005 season, the city was caught up in “Bengalmania.” It had not started to slow down until very recently. Lewis’ 0-7 playoff record is well documented. Has he been employed in one spot too long for a guy who has never won a playoff game? Probably. Is it time to move on? Probably.

Even so, if this season turns out to be his last in Cincy, it is shaping up to be a cruel ending for the man who played a key role in bringing this franchise back from the dead. The fact is the ending for most NFL coaches is cruel. The goal of any NFL head coach should be to leave the franchise in better shape than when he was hired. Lewis has done that in Cincinnati.

Andy Dalton

The same winless playoff record that follows Lewis around also follows Andy Dalton around, even though he has only been around for just over half of the losses.

After guiding his team to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons, Dalton appeared to reach the next level in 2015. He was a legitimate MVP candidate until a season ending thumb injury. Since then, his decline has been swift and dramatic. He is 6-11-1 as a starter and responsible for just one more touchdown pass than turnover.

Backup AJ McCarron has been adequate in spot duty throughout his career. Every time Dalton struggles, calls for the former Alabama standout and soon to be free agent only get louder. While this is understandable, Dalton’s career is still filled with much more good than bad. Fixing him is top priority for this franchise right now.

Looking ahead

Cincinnati Bengals

Photo: upi.com

Dalton’s struggles correlate with the promotion of Ken Zampese to offensive coordinator in 2016. Zampese was let go Friday. While it is virtually impossible that Zampese was the entire problem, it is a logical place to start.

However, the reality is the Bengals already have two losses on the board. The upcoming schedule includes Green Bay, two games with the Steelers, another date with Baltimore and Tennessee. This season is probably going to get a whole lot worse. Thus, there is almost no conceivable way this organization does not look a whole lot different come 2018.

 

Featured image from cincyjungle.com

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NFL

NFL Week 2 Picks against the spread

Last week, I got off to a dismal 3-10-2 record against the spread, but that leaves almost the entire season to improve. My picks are bolded, outright upsets have an asterisk, and all lines are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing. Let’s go.

Thursday Night:

Texans at Bengals (-6.5) – Well, you certainly won’t find two teams who looked worse in their openers. Despite that, this is a pretty simple game to size up. The Texans are banged up and traveling on a short week. Additionally, Andy Dalton is still Cincinnati’s quarterback for better or worse. He has proven he is capable of at least moderate success in this league. The same level of certainty cannot be applied to Houston’s quarterback situation. Cin 24 Hou 13

Sunday:

Cardinals (-7) at Colts- After last week’s embarrassment, there are not many reasons for Colts fans to be optimistic. The return of Andrew Luck is nowhere in sight. Whether it is Scott Tolzien or Jacoby Brissett who faces Arizona, it will be an uphill battle.

The Cardinals are not exactly a well-oiled machine at the moment, especially without David Johnson. Even so, Los Angeles hung 46 on Indy last week. The Jared Goff led Rams struggled to score 46 points in a month last year. Arizona should have enough firepower to get the job done. This strikes me as a game where professional pride may kick in for the Colts. After last week though, it is hard to see them keeping it close with any average team. Ari 31 Ind 17

Bills at Panthers (-7)- Christian McCaffery has certainly added something to a Panthers offense that already did a lot of exotic things with its running backs. Cam Newton missed some easy throws last week and appears to still be struggling with a bad shoulder, but he did not need to do much last week and won’t need to here either.

Yes, it was just the 49ers last week. Even so, the Panthers defense showed flashes of its great play from two years ago that helped the team reached the Super Bowl. The Bills struggled to put away the Jets last week. It is hard to imagine that going on the road against a much better opponent will help them. Car 27 Buf 17

Bears at Bucs (-7) – This game is tough to get a read on since Tampa Bay did not play last week. The theory of playing for an entire city after a hurricane certainly did not work when it came to Houston last week. However, the Bears are not very good and the Bucs have one of the better collections of offensive talent in the league. Thus, I will use the Houston theory again here. TB 31 Chi 21

Browns at Ravens (-8) – The Browns were one of the few things I had right last week. If there ever was a moral victory, that was it. The Ravens are benefiting too much from Cincinnati not showing up at all last week with this line. The offense didn’t look sharp. Granted, it didn’t need to. An outright upset would not shock me here. Bal 21 Cle 20

Vikings at Steelers (-5.5) – The Steelers are fantastic at home. Any team with their offensive weapons is a tall order for any opponent.  Before the Vikings can be taken seriously as a real contender, their offense has to show it can be productive against more than just the Saints defense. Pit 27 Min 19

Patriots (-6.5) at Saints- This will be a fun watch featuring two of the best quarterbacks of this era desperate to avoid 0-2 starts for their teams. If Kansas City can put up 40+ on the Pats in New England, the Saints will surely be able to score in the Superdome. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and company won’t start 0-2, but they will be made to sweat. NE 34 NO 31

Eagles at Chiefs (-5.5)- Philadelphia did a nice job of going out and backing up the preseason hype that surrounded them last week, but this is a tough task. While the Kansas City hype train needs to slow down a bit, beating the Patriots in their building may be the most challenging thing to do in the NFL. Andy Reid coached teams almost never lose when given extra time to prepare. For young football team like the Eagles, Arrowhead Stadium combined with a physical Chiefs defense is more than likely going to be a case of too much, too soon. KC 28 Phi 21.

Titans (-2.5) at Jaguars- This is your classic Week 1 overreaction line. Yes, the Titans were soundly beaten by the Raiders, but the Jags are getting way too much credit for manhandling in the opener. While early returns on Leonard Fournette are good, the Texans helped Jacksonville out a lot. The Titans won’t be nearly as generous. Blake Bortles is not going to beat many teams completing 11 passes and barely breaking 100 yards. Ten 21 Jac 13

Leonard Fournette

Photo bigcatcountry.com

Dolphins at Chargers (-4.5) – After a one week hurricane delay, we finally get our first look at the Jay Cutler led Dolphins. The move did not make sense to me then and won’t until I see differently. Despite good individual members from time to time, having Cutler on your team has never meant winning football games on a consistent basis. In fact, it has usually meant just the opposite.

The Chargers finished last week’s loss against Denver really well. Their pass rushers will cause problems for every team they face this year. Also, the Bolts should be eager to open their time in LA with a win. Lac 30 Mia 21

Jets at Raiders (-14) – As bad as the Jets are, they hung around in Buffalo last week. The game would have been even closer had they not bungled an interception return. 14 points is just too many to swallow in the NFL unless the team that is favorite is angry or desperate. After last week’s win Oakland has no reason to be either. Oak 28 NYJ 17

Cowboys (-2) at *Broncos- Another week, another stiff test for Dak Prescott in his second year. He passed the first one with flying colors, but this one comes on the road at one of the toughest places to play in all of football.

This game is really a coin flip. Other than a rough few minutes in the fourth quarter, Denver dominated the Chargers last week. The balance they showed last week, a great defense that is already playing really well and playing at home will be enough for a minor upset. Den 21 Dal 17

49ers at Seahawks (-13.5) – Here, we have the same basic logic as the Jets/Raiders matchup. Unfortunately for the 49ers, Seattle has all the incentive in the world to be angry and desperate after being smothered by the Packers last week. Sea 24 SF 6

Redskins at Rams (-2.5)- Fortunately for Rams fans, the team that destroyed Indianapolis last week looked nothing like the disorganized mess that we saw last year. It is too early to say whether or not they are legitimate contenders, but this is a good matchup for them. Kirk Cousins was very pedestrian in the opener and committed a few big turnovers. The Rams defense will probably force him to do the same this week. Lar 23 Was 17

Kirk Cousins

Photo: bleacherreport.com

*Packers at Falcons (-2.5) – After barely escaping Chicago with a win last week, the Falcons seem to be missing something after the offensive coordinator change. Seattle may be the toughest defense Green Bay faces all year long. They scraped by them last week. I expect that confidence to help the Packers get on a nice early season roll. GB 31 Atl 24

Monday Night:

Lions at Giants (-3.5) – Desperation is a big theme this week. Teams that start 0-2 make the playoffs less than 15% of the time. The Giants were my preseason NFC Super Bowl representative. That looks shaky at best after last week, but the defense still did a solid job against Dallas.

Whether Odell Beckham Jr plays or not, the offense cannot be any worse. The Lions kept up with their 2016 theme of fourth quarter comeback wins last week against Arizona. They are loaded with talent, particularly on offense. However, their lack of a run game combined with their tendency to fall behind early make them tough to trust. NYG 27 Det 21

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Sloane Stwphens

2017 U.S. Open Grades: The women

 

The women’s singles event at the 2017 U.S. Open has come to an end. America has a new Grand Slam champion. Here are grades for the key players at the year’s final major.

Madison Keys– With four American women reaching the semifinals of a Grand Slam for the first time since 1985, it is only fair that the first part of this article is devoted to them.

Despite a disastrous outing in the final, Keys got healthy and got it together in New York. Like her compatriots and fellow semifinalists, she grinded through some tough matches. Everything about her game is big and powerful. This translates very well to the era in which she plays. There is not a shot she cannot hit and hit hard. It often takes players like that longer to develop, but you can see the light bulb coming on for Keys. She has arrived. As long as she stays healthy, this was her first of many Grand Slam finals. Grade: A

Madison Keys

Photo: sbnation.com

Sloane Stephens– I am far less convinced that Sloane Stephens has more majors in her future. Her serve is average and she plays defense better than offense. That does not usually equate to multiple major wins.

Despite all that, these two weeks belonged to her. A little over a month ago, Stephens began her comeback from a foot injury that saw the former World No. 11 miss almost a year and drop out of the top 900 in the rankings. After reaching consecutive semifinals in Canada and Cincinnati, Stephens certainly had the “dangerous floater” label leading into the U.S. Open, but even the most optimistic of optimists could not have foreseen this.

Stephens found the right mix of offense and defense and caught a few breaks with the draw. That was all she needed. It truly was the perfect storm. Stephens really struggled to back up her first major breakthrough when she beat Serena Williams to reach the semis of the 2013 Australian Open. Thus, it remains to be seen how she will back up catching lightning in a bottle in New York. However, that is another discussion for another time. Grade: A+

Venus Williams– She came up just short against Stephens in the semis, but she reached the second week of all four majors for the first time since 2003, is back in the top five, and became an aunt this week. Life is pretty good for the 37 year old at the moment. Grade: A

CoCo Vandeweghe– For the second time this year, the 25 year old native New Yorker found herself in the semis of a major. Unlike in Australia, she never really played her best here. In a way, that almost makes it more impressive. I am more than a little skeptical as to whether or not she can ever harness her wildly powerful game well enough to actually win a major.  The occasion of a semifinal in New York ate her alive, but a run to the last four is certainly nothing to scoff at. Grade: A-

Maria Sharapova– Under normal circumstances, a fourth round showing for a player of Sharapova’s caliber would be disastrous. However, these circumstances were anything but normal.

The 30-year-old Russian scraped through to the second week in her first Grand Slam tournament in almost 2 years due to a drug suspension and injuries. Her opening round victory over World No. 2 Simona Halep was the best women’s match of the tournament in terms of both quality and drama.

For obvious reasons, there will always be debate surrounding Sharapova. Even so, she proved she is still very worthy of competing on the big stage, got her ranking back inside the top 100, and is apparently healthy enough to play a few tournaments in Asia this fall. Grade: B+

Caroline Wozniacki– Not only did the Dane flop out in the second round of what is usually her best major, but she did it to an opponent she had never lost to. Then, she picked the press conference after her loss to put event organizers on blast for putting Sharapova on the main court while the former World No. 1 was on a smaller court. Whatever court you are on, you have to take care of business, Wozniacki didn’t. Sour grapes. Grade: D-

Caroline Wozniacki

Photo: tennislife.com

Petra Kvitova– The big hitting lefty had a difficult summer. She won a title in just her second event back from stab wounds suffered in a home invasion. Since that win right before Wimbledon, she had not won back to back matches.

Something clicked in New York though. The Czech matched her best U.S. Open result by reaching the quarterfinals. This was highlighted by a breathtaking display of power that took out tournament favorite Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round. For someone that still does not have complete sensation in the hand that she plays with, her run was absolutely remarkable and heartwarming.  Grade: A

Angelique Kerber– Seeing the defending champion get blasted off the court by Naomi Osaka in the first round was almost tough to watch. The player who won two majors and finished last year at World No. 1 has not picked up a single tournament victory this year, her ranking will now tumble outside the top ten. It cannot get much worse for her… Can it? Grade: F

Simona Halep– Was Sharapova a ridiculously tough first round draw? Of course. However, if she cannot beat a rusty Sharapova who was clearly not 100%, it is very difficult to see her fortunes changing against big hitters in big matches anytime soon. Grade: D+  

Karolína Plíšková– The tour leader in aces never looked comfortable in her first major as top seed and World No. 1. However, the way she grinded through some tough matches to reach the quarterfinals was impressive and a sign of maturity. She needs more of a “B Game” to go to when her power is not working. That is not an easy thing to acquire. Still, Plíšková made a good account of herself here and did a nice job trying to back up last year’s surprise run to the final. Grade: C+

Garbiñe Muguruza– Despite losing in the round of 16, the Wimbledon champion will debut at World No.1 on Monday. Her U.S. Open followed the model her career always has, when no one expects her to do well at a big event, she tends to make a deep run. When playing with the weight of expectation, she tends to lose relatively early.  Muguruza certainly has the skills to win any tournament she enters, but the mental game needs some work if she wants to be a threat on a more consistent basis. Grade: C

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NFL

Week 1 NFL picks against the spread

It is the most wonderful time of the year. While Hurricane Irma is putting a damper on things and reminding us all that football is secondary, the NFL season kicks off for real tonight. That means another year of picking games against the spread.

My picks are bolded, outright upsets have an asterisk and all lines are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing. Here goes nothing.

Thursday Night

Chiefs at Patriots (-9) – Kansas City is extremely well coached. Andy Reid never allows his teams to beat themselves. This is a huge number to swallow in a matchup of two very good teams.

However, no matter the team, the defending champions always play inspired on opening night.  Alex Smith and company just do not have the firepower to keep up with a New England offense that somehow got even better by adding Brandin Cooks. No matter how stout the opposing defense is, the Patriots will score lots of points all year long. NE 31 KC 20

Sunday

Week 1 NFL picks

Photo: inquisitr.com

Cardinals (-2) at *Lions – Here, we have two teams that must drive their fan bases insane. If last year is any indication, they both have high ceilings, low floors and no one knows what to expect from them week to week. Given that backdrop, I will take the home team with the better quarterback. Det 30 Ari 27

Falcons (-7) at Bears – It remains to be seen how the Falcons franchise will rebound from last year’s Super Bowl collapse. We won’t learn much here. The Bears organization is lost at sea right now and does not have talent on any level that is equal to the Falcons, at least on paper. Paper is really the only thing we have to go on for opening week. Atl 31 Chi 17

Ravens at Bengals (-3) – This game is pretty much a coin flip. If the game were in Baltimore, the line would probably be flipped. With home-field advantage and an offense that should be just a touch more balanced than that of the Ravens, the Bengals are the smart bet. Cin 28 Bal 24

Jags at Texans (-5.5) – This is my favorite pick of the week. Blake Bortles has yet another crack at being the quarterback of the future in Jacksonville. His numbers are always decent thanks to garbage time, but the franchise has won 11 total regular season games since Bortles was drafted. What more needs to be seen?

Houston’s quarterback situation is not much better, but they are playing to lift the spirits of an entire city and have most of last year’s playoff roster intact. Hou 24 Jac 13

Jets at Bills (-9.5) – The Jets are going to stink, Buffalo is probably going to stink a little less. Outside of the defensive line, everything on the Jets’ roster is well below average. Buffalo has made some head scratching roster moves in recent weeks and is clearly hesitant to commit to quarterback Tyrod Taylor long term. This is a value pick more than anything else. Buffalo is not 9.5 points better than anyone in this league. Buf 27 NYJ 20

Raiders at Titans (-2) – These teams handle their business differently, but are pretty evenly matched. The team that does not lead the world in penalties every year and has the better defense is a good bet. Ten 24 Oak 20

Eagles (-1) at *Redskins– Here is another game that could go either way. Carson Wentz exceeded expectations last year and the Eagles have made a lot of new acquisitions that have people excited. But the Redskins are the known commodity here.

Even with the drama that seems to constantly surround the organization, the Redskins offense put up a ton of first downs and yards last year. If they can turn some more of those numbers into points this year, they will be back in the playoffs for the first time in a handful of years. This is a rivalry game, Washington is at home and I know what I am getting with them. That is good enough for me. Was 24 Phi 21

Steelers (-9) at Browns – The Browns will not be a punchline this year. From Jabrill Peppers to Kenny Britt, they have done a fantastic job of adding talent on both sides of the ball. The raw athleticism of DeShone Kizer with Hue Jackson coaching him is intriguing. Keeping up with a Pittsburgh offense that has all of its key contributors on the field at the same time is probably too much to ask, but they can make a statement here, even in defeat. Pit 28 Cle 20

*Colts at Rams (-3.5) – Watch this one at your own risk. The Colts will be led by Scott Tolzien, not Andrew Luck. For the Rams, Jared Goff showed improvement in the preseason, but that only means so much. Even without Luck, Indy’s offensive personnel may still be better. They won’t score much as the Rams front seven is really good, but they won’t need to. Ind 13 LAR 10

Panthers (-5.5) at 49ers- The number here is surprisingly low. Apparently, I am not the only one who likes what the 49ers are doing. Given the vast differences between their last two seasons, Carolina is one of the toughest teams to predict this year, but Christian McCaffrey might be exactly what this offense needs to get back on track. The Panthers should get through this one on talent alone. Car 28 SF 21

Week 1 NFL picks

Photo: Panthers.com

*Seahawks at Packers (-3) – Like always, this matchup is about Seattle’s great defense and Green Bay’s great offense. These two teams could very well see each other again in the playoffs. We all have certain theories when we look at these games. One of mine is that great defense usually trumps great offense.

If there were any full proof theories about predicting NFL games, Vegas would be broke and us common folk would be rich. Obviously, it does not work that way. However, I will almost always ride the better defense in a matchup like this. Sea 21 GB 20

*Giants at Cowboys (-4) – Apparently, Ezekiel Elliott will play in this game. However, that did not matter much when these teams got together twice last year. With additions like Brandon Marshall, the Giants only got better in the offseason. Even if Odell Beckham Jr. does not suit up because of his knee injury, New York is well-equipped for that circumstance.

Meanwhile, the rest of the league has now had enough time to figure out how to stop a Cowboys offense that was a young juggernaut last year. Things will not be nearly as easy for Dallas this year. NYG 23 Dal 20

Monday Night

*Saints at Vikings (-3.5) – New Orleans is primed for a big year. The one-two punch of Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson will finally give that offense the balance it so desperately needs. Drew Brees still has a couple years to be his Hall-of-Fame-caliber self. All the defense needs to do is go from atrocious to just plain bad. This is not a very difficult leap to make.

Week 1 NFL picks

Photo: espn.com

As good as Minnesota’s defense is, their offense simply lacks playmakers. It will not take nearly as long for that to catch up with them this year. Too much is being expected by rookie running back Delvin Cook, Sam Bradford has never led a team to a winning record as a starting quarterback and their receivers max out at about 80 catches.

The Vikings have not managed to put together an offense that has ranked in the top 20 since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach. Unless the defense turns out to be the 1985 bears or 2015 Broncos, this team is going nowhere. NO 24 Min 17

Chargers at Broncos (-3.5) – The Chargers were in almost every game last year, but lost most of them.

The relocated Chargers will win a few more games this year, but this one will follow that familiar script. Philip Rivers is still being asked to do way too much. If the quarterbacks changed teams in this matchup, Denver would make this look like a homecoming game. The Broncos were smart enough to realize that Trevor Siemian was not the problem last year. Denver’s front lines were pushed around on both sides of the ball.

Thus, this year they come back with revamped offensive and defensive lines, as well as a monster of at least three heads in the backfield. The defense remains one of the best on the planet. The Broncos are attempting to take the physical approach to winning football games this year. If done well, it is a tough approach for any opponent to deal with. Den 20 LAC 14

 

Featured image from sportlogos.com

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

U.S. Open Tennis

2017 U.S. Open: A closer look at the Sharapova revival

“Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses this girl has a lot of grit, and she’s not going anywhere.” Has there ever been a better quote from athlete that sums up their own approach to competing? I doubt it.

Maria Sharapova spoke these words after defeating World No. 2 Simona Halep in her first Grand Slam match in almost two years Monday night. Given that a drug suspension caused the Russian’s lengthy absence, this story has an element of darkness that is different from previous U.S. Open runs such as the legendary Jimmy Connors reaching the semis in 1991 as a 39-year-old wildcard or the farewell runs of Andre Agassi in 2005 and 2006.

However, like Connors and Agassi, Sharapova has taken over this U.S. Open. Like any other sport, tennis has a loyal and devoted fan base. Even so, it struggles to crossover into mainstream media. Sharapova’s New York rebirth has done that. Her first round victory in a blockbuster matchup made both CNN and The Today Show the following morning. The U.S. Open drew a record crowd for opening match on Monday.

All of this reinforces the fact that the U.S. Open made the right call by giving the 2006 champion a wildcard. You can talk all you want about the morals and ethics of giving a player with a drug suspension a free pass into the main draw. However, tennis tournaments are a business. The numbers and crowds say Sharapova is fantastic for business.

There are so many elements that have added to the intrigue of this story. First, is Sharapova herself. Since returning from suspension in April, her body has not cooperated with her at all. She suffered a small tear in her hip in just her third tournament back and was out until late August. She returned the tour in Stanford where she withdrew with an arm injury after just one match and did not play again until Monday night’s thrilling opener.

Maria Sharapova

Photo: businessinsider.com

Even if you are one of those people that tuned in in hopes of seeing Sharapova fail, her reaction after her first victory had to soften you a little bit. The five time Grand Slam champion fell to her knees in tears. This came from someone who is notorious for the lack of emotion she shows on the court. You could tell that she was not sure if she was ever going to have a moment like that again. Thus, seeing how much just one victory back on the big stage meant to her was powerful to say the least.

That brings us to the New York crowds. At minimum, a mixed reaction would have been understandable. Human beings are funny things though. They have greeted Sharapova with nothing but long standing ovations and autograph lines on the practice court. If anything, Sharapova is more popular now than before she was suspended.

For what it is worth, Sharapova took responsibility for failing the drug test from the very beginning and was exonerated of any intentional wrongdoing by the court that reduced her suspension. I can only speculate that this combined with Sharapova’s obvious desire and gratitude to be back on the big stage again has won a lot of people over.

Caroline Wozniacki

Photo: lastwordontennis.com

Sharapova’s fellow competitors have not been nearly as forgiving. With a few exceptions, they continue to be her most vocal critics. This is been going on since April. At this event specifically, Caroline Wozniacki took issue with Sharapova being placed on the 23000 seat Arthur Ashe Stadium while the Danish former World No. 1 was shuffled to an outside court thanks to a backloaded schedule caused by rain delays. Wozniacki lost her match. Rising American player CoCo Vandeweghe became the latest to join the chorus of players that believe Sharapova should not be playing at all.

Back to Sharapova herself. Is she rusty? Yes. Is she 100% healthy? It does not look like it. Yet, with all the drama surrounding her, she continues to roll up her sleeves and simply compete like the quote in the opening paragraph would suggest. That has allowed her to join Vandeweghe and 14 other players in the second week of the U.S. Open. Several of her critics have already taken flights home. She may never directly state it publicly, but that has to be pretty vindicating for Sharapova.

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San Francisco 49ers

Bay Area hope: The Rebuilding San Francisco 49ers

The preseason is not a reliable indicator of regular season success in the NFL. The 2008 Lions went undefeated in the preseason, then went on to be the first team to go winless in a 16 game regular season.

However, sometimes little snippets of games can give viewers both good and bad indicators about a team. This preseason, there is a team whose rebuilding process may not take as long as some people think.

Ever since Richard Sherman tipped away San Francisco’s Super Bowl hopes a few years ago, the 49ers franchise has cratered. They are coming off a pair seasons with just seven combined wins.

Richard Sherman

Photo:: sbnation.com

Rookie head coach Kyle Shanahan and new general manager John Lynch certainly have their work cut out for them, but they have made tremendous strides.

The third preseason game is the so-called “dress rehearsal.” San Francisco traveled to Minnesota last week. The 49ers starters ran the Vikings out of the building for a half.

Brian Hoyer was brought in to stabilize the quarterback situation while the 49ers look for the next young guy. Only time will tell if rookie C. J. Beathard can be that guy. For now though, Hoyer has a chance to guide this team to being very competitive very quickly.

Hoyer is not the kind of guy that a fan base is going to rally behind and buy his jersey, but he can get the job done under the right circumstances. He has been around for almost a decade, has a winning record as a starter and 18 more career touchdown passes than interceptions. There is zero pressure on Beathard to go out and resurrect this franchise right now. That is a beautiful thing.

Also, the 49ers have done a better job putting talent around Hoyer than people realize. Running back Carlos Hyde seems healthy and rejuvenated after getting lost in the shuffle last year. He has managed to put up almost 1800 total rushing yards in his first three seasons despite injuries and organizational dysfunction.

Wide receiver Pierre Garçon was also brought in via free agency and had his best statistical season in 2013 in a Redskins offense that was coordinated by Kyle Shanahan. Garçon also has not missed a game since 2012. Staying healthy and being productive is a rare but great combination to have for any wide receiver.

Honestly, it does not take much to turn an offense from laughable to decent in the NFL. At minimum, you need a serviceable quarterback, a running game that can take some pressure off the quarterback, and a reliable pass catcher or two. For the first time in a handful of years, the 49ers have all of those things in place.

Brian Hoyer

Photo: nfl.com

On defense, the 49ers lack big names outside of linebacker Navarro Bowman, but that unit punctuated the relevant part of its preseason by shutting out Minnesota in the first half. Thanks to the ineffectiveness of Chip Kelly’s offense, they spent more time on the field than any other defense last year. That will not happen again this year. That alone should make for a significant improvement.

The brilliance of Kyle Shanahan cannot be overlooked, he has elevated every healthy quarterback he has ever worked with. He is a big reason for Matt Ryan’s MVP campaign last year and the rookie of the year campaign of Robert Griffin III in 2012. Much like his father who is a Super Bowl winning head coach, he knows how to put his players in the best position possible to succeed.

The playoffs might be a stretch for San Francisco this year, but they could flirt with .500. That would be quite an accomplishment considering where they were just a few months ago. The 49ers fan base has two things it has not had for a while, hope and optimism.

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US Open Tennis

Familiarity and opportunity: 2017 U.S. Open men’s preview

Defending champion Stan Wawrinka is out with a season ending knee injury, Novak Djokovic’s elbow has him eyeing 2018 and Andy Murray pulled out Saturday with a bad hip. Thus, the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal domination of 2017 appears poised to continue at the U.S. Open. Before we get there, here are a few openers worth watching.

(15) Tomáš Berdych vs. Ryan Harrison- Harrison has had a really nice year highlighted by winning his first title and reaching career-high ranking. The once highly touted American has also become notorious for tough first-round draws at majors over the years. This is tough, but winnable. Berdych is on the downside of a really solid career. The former top ten mainstay still has his good days, but is now scrapping to stay in the top 20.

Taylor Fritz vs. Marcos Baghdatis- Baghdatis was a surprise finalist at the Australian Open way back in 2006. He has always been quite the showman and is still capable of producing some very good tennis every now and then.

His much younger American opponent has shown flashes of brilliance in his young career, but has struggled to stay healthy. The 13 year age gap alone will make this fun.

(17) Sam Querrey vs. Gilles Simon- A tough draw for the seeded American who is coming off his first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon. Even after a small post Wimbledon lull, he has the weaponry to do well here.

Simon is a former top ten player. In an era dominated by pace, he gives his opponents absolutely none. He is always a tricky and uncomfortable matchup for anyone,

Predictions:

Top Half: It feels like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have played at every big event for every big title for the better part of the last 15 years. The one major exception is this event. The two legendary rivals have never faced off in any round in Flushing Meadows.

Federer Nadal

Photo: tennisnow.com

They cannot meet in the final this year, but the semis. That is really the big storyline for the entire event. Quite frankly, everyone involved in the sport will be at least a little disappointed if it does not happen.

This half does feature two players who are very capable of upsetting everyone’s projection. 14th seed Nick Kyrgios and 24th seed Juan Martin del Potro both could cause problems for Federer in the fourth round and quarterfinals respectively.

Kyrgios appears to be turning the corner after blowing Rafael Nadal off the court on his run to the finals of Cincinnati. There is not a shot that the temperamental Aussie can’t hit and hit well. He even invents shots sometimes with mixed results, if his head is screwed on straight, he can beat anyone.

Minus the head case gene, del Potro is very similar to Kyrgios. Injuries have prevented the Argentine from recapturing Grand Slam glory like he did here in 2009, but his forehand is still one of the best shots in the sport. It allows him the ability to catch lightning in a bottle on any given day.

At the end of the day though, beating the best three out of five sets at a Grand Slam is a different ballgame than the regular tour events. Federer and Nadal are who they are for a reason. After all these years, they are still head and shoulders above 99.9% of their peers.

Semifinal prediction: Federer d. Nadal     

 

Bottom Half: No Federer, no Nadal, no Djokovic, no Murray, and no Wawrinka. There is a massive opportunity here for someone to reach a Grand Slam final.

If there is a favorite to step up, it is German fourth seed Alexander Zverev. It is a matter of when, not if for the 20 year old. He announced his arrival by winning two Masters Series titles this year, including Canada over Roger Federer just a few weeks ago.

Alexander Zverev

Photo; firstpost.com

Again, this part of the draw is really anyone’s for the taking after Murray’s late withdraw.  Many of the seeds in this half are dealing with injuries of their own including former champion Marin Čilić.

Many will try and make a case for American veterans John Isner and Sam Querrey. However, they each have a bad habit of getting into long matches early in the Grand Slams. This is not a recipe for making a deep run.

That leaves one of the most respected players around. 35 year old David Ferrer has made a career out of grinding matches out and wearing opponents down. The former top ten fixture appeared to be done after dropping out of the top 30 early in the year.

However, the Spaniard enjoyed a nice little rebirth over the summer. This included picking up a small title in Sweden and a run the semis in Cincinnati. He is playing as well as anyone in this half. Also, he has to be aware that this might be his last real shot to go deep into the second week of a major.

David Ferrer

photo: livetennisguide.com

Semifinal prediction: Zverev d. Ferrer

Championship: Federer d. Zverev

            The U.S. Open begins Monday at 11 AM ET on Tennis Channel with ESPN taking over coverage two hours later. I will tweet out my full brackets for each singles draw before the start of play. You can follow me on Twitter below.

You can ‘Like’ The Game Haus on Facebook and ‘Follow’ us on Twitter for more sports and eSports articles from other great TGH writers along with Dylan!

 

Angelique Kerber

Endless Intrigue: 2017 U.S. Open Women’s Preview

The U.S. Open draws are out. An astonishing eight women could leave New York as World No.1. Throw in the return of Maria Sharapova, to Grand Slam play after nearly two years and this is one of the most intriguing events in recent memory. Here are some opening round matches to watch.

(2) Simona Halep vs. Maria Sharapova- Holy smokes folks. Everyone in tennis had to hit the floor when they saw this first round pairing. The Romanian second seed has had a very good year and Sharapova’s much publicized comeback has yet to really get out of the blocks.

On that alone, this should be fairly routine for Halep, but dig deeper. All six of their previous meetings have gone the embattled Russian’s way, including a classic in the 2014 French Open final. Sharapova has always managed to eventually overpower Halep.

Simona Halep

photo: onetennis.com

There are many questions about Sharapova right now. However, her mental toughness is never in doubt. She has had loads of adversity over the years, some of it self-inflicted. She easily could have called it a career during her recent doping suspension, but she keeps coming back.

These moments are what get Sharapova out of bed in the morning. Even though this is just an opening rounder, winning matches like this are what has made her a five-time Grand Slam champion. The same cannot be said of Halep who has had plenty of heartbreak this year. She blew a huge lead in the French Open final and has failed to take over the top ranking despite having three separate opportunities.

Something tells me Sharapova will find a way if she can stay close early, but it is a coin flip. Whoever wins this one has a very manageable path to the final weekend of the tournament. Regardless, the world cannot wait to watch this one.

(31) Magdaléna Rybáriková vs. Camila Giorgi- The Slovakian used her surprise run to the semifinals of Wimbledon to snag a seed here. Her streaky Italian opponent is on a good stretch this summer. Giorgi has also developed a reputation for knocking off seeded players over the years. Her power will be an interesting test for the finesse of Rybáriková.

(21) Ana Konjuh vs. Ashleigh Barty- Konjuh made a name for herself by reaching the last eight at this event last year. She is one of a precious few teenagers inside the world’s top 100.

Barty possesses a funky but good all-around game, she is not afraid to come into the net and is very capable of pulling a minor upset here. 2017 has been a year of comeback for the Aussie who returned to the tour this year after taking a hiatus to pursue professional cricket. She scored her biggest win yet by beating Venus Williams in Cincinnati.

Roberta Vinci vs. Sloane Stephens- The veteran Italian is still plugging away during her final year on tour after her Cinderella run to the finals at this event two years ago. She will have to deal with playing an American on home soil.

Stephens is really starting to build momentum again after missing nearly a year with a foot injury. She reached consecutive semifinals in Canada and Cincinnati this summer. Her forehand will be the biggest shot on the court, but Vinci’s slices are capable of irritating any opponent.

Predictions:

Top Half: World No. 1 and top seed Karolína Plíšková leads off the draw. The big serving Czech has been playing just okay this summer. Fortunately for her, she landed in the weaker half of the draw.

Defending champion Angelique Kerber, French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, tenth seed Agnieszka Radwańska, and two time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova have all struggled to win matches this summer.

The biggest threats to Plíšková in this half are (4) Elina Svitolina and (15) Madison Keys. Keys hits the ball harder than many of the men. However, the most promising prospect in all of American tennis has yet to figure out how to win matches when she’s not playing her absolute best. Her time will come at a Grand Slam, but not here. Her form probably hit its peak a little too early when she won the title in Stanford and played a couple really tough matches in Cincinnati.

Unseeded American teenager CiCi Bellis may not be a legitimate threat to reach the semis, but this youngster is already well-known inside tennis circles and has a draw that could allow her to reach the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time

Svitolina is a very complete player. Nothing in her game stands out, but she does everything well. She leads the tour tournament victories this year, including her biggest title yet a few weeks ago in Canada. The only thing missing is a deep run at a Grand Slam. She has done a lot of winning this year and it feels like she is primed for it.

Elina Svitolina

Photo: eurosport.com

Semifinal prediction: Svitolina d. Plíšková

Bottom Half: The winner of Sharapova/Halep is almost certain to make a deep run. They too are surrounded by struggling seeds and not as many dangerous floaters.

Wimbledon and Cincinnati champion Garbiñe Muguruza is a popular pick to win the title.  For me though, six weeks of brilliance is not enough to erase a career of erratic play. Danish human backboard Caroline Wozniacki is surprisingly under the radar. The veteran came in to this event last year ranked outside the top 70 and reached the semifinals.

This year, she comes in leading the tour match wins, despite losing all six finals she has played. Always the bridesmaid never the bride could be Wonzniacki’s career slogan. If she is ever going to breakthrough at a major, it is now or never. Both of her Grand Slam finals came at this venue and she has had a handful of other deep runs. She has so much more experience than many of the other top contenders. It has to pay off at some point.

It would be foolish to completely discount ninth seed Venus Williams. 18th  seed Caroline Garcia is a young player who has been living off the unlimited potential label for a while. She is well-positioned to put it all together here.

Semifinal prediction: Wozniacki d. Sharapova

Championship: Wozniacki d. Svitolina

Caroline Wozniacki

Photo: nydailynews.com

The U.S. Open begins Monday at 11 AM ET on Tennis Channel with ESPN taking over coverage two hours later. I will tweet out my full brackets for each singles draw before the start of play. You can follow me on Twitter below.

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NFL

Wishful thinking: Ways to improve the NFL preseason

Every year around this time, fans and media start calling for the reduction or elimination of the NFL preseason. We all know the product is not great. However, coaches need the preseason to properly evaluate the back end of their roster and make tough decisions. Even so, the league makes money from the games and they often draw bigger television ratings than playoff baseball games.

As long as that remains the case, significant changes to the preseason will not happen. Injuries are also a big gripe this time of year. There is nothing that can be done to truly get rid of this issue. This is football, not ballet. Anytime it is played at a high level, someone is likely to get hurt.

Odell Beckham Jr.

Photo: Sporting News

At my core, I am an NFL fan first, and a writer second. Money talks. Thus, these changes will likely never occur. Nevertheless, here are a couple tweaks that would make the preseason more fan friendly.

Play starters later in games, not early

Yes, preseason games are “meaningless”, but winning is always more fun than losing. The big names usually play a quarter or so in the preseason. They may play a bit longer in the third exhibition game.

Every minute of an NFL game is important, but the fourth quarter is most important. Thus, I have never understood why the third and fourth stringers are the ones that play late in preseason games.

Barring a rash of injuries, those are not the guys that are going to be playing late in games that really count. How cool would it be to have Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford enter for the fourth quarter of Friday night’s Patriots/Lions game with the score tied or close and play for nothing but pride? It may give the game more of a Pro Bowl type feel. The Pro Bowl has also come under fire from fans in recent years, but it too usually gets a decent television rating.

There is some precedent for this. Legendary Bengals head coach Sam Wyche would negotiate with his opponents in the preseason to do this very thing in the 80s.

Stop charging regular season ticket prices

NFL fans

Photo: thelisttv.com

By no means is this a new theory, but the fact that fans must pay the same amount to watch Aaron Rodgers play a full game as they do to watch guys like Taysom Hill for three quarters is ridiculous beyond words.

The preseason is never going to make for great football, but going to an NFL game of any kind is a really cool thing. It is something every fan should have the chance to experience, but not everyone does.

Major League Baseball offers several discount ticket packages to groups that help underprivileged youth throughout the season. The NFL should do the same for its preseason games.

Again, as long as preseason games make the league money, there is no urgency to change it among the people who can do so. That does not mean that these two relatively small changes would not take something that is usually pretty blend and make it feel just a little bit special.

 

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