The NFL season starts tomorrow night when Green Bay hosts New Orleans (8:30 ET, NBC), a battle of the last two Super Bowl champions. And the Notebook will close out the preseason by going on record with final picks. Throughout the blog there are 32 individual team previews and predicted records for all eight divisions. In this wrap-up post, playoff and Super Bowl picks are made. A link to each divisional prediction is included, and within those are links to each team's complete review.
That said, here's the summation…
That sets up first-round playoff matchups of NY Jets-Indianapolis and Pittsburgh-San Diego in the AFC, where I see both wild-cards advancing. This in turn creates rematches of the great divisional rivalries that was last year's AFC Divisional Round. It's the Jets again going to Foxboro to play the top-seeded Patriots, and this time a Ravens-Steelers battle takes place in Baltimore. The home teams sweep both games, with New England and Baltimore getting their revenge and matchup for the AFC Championship.
New England is the most consistent team in football, but as I noted in their team preview, I have deep concerns about their lack of playmaking talent beyond Tom Brady. Granted, that's a big exception they have there behind center, but until a defensive standout emerges, I don't think the Patriots can make it back to a Super Bowl. With Baltimore my concerns are whether they get another big year out of defensive veterans Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed, and whether they keep the offensive focus on running the ball with Ray Rice. I'm giving Baltimore the benefit of the doubt and for the second straight year they're my pick to win the AFC title.
In the NFC, my scenario gives first-round games of Atlanta at Philadelphia and New Orleans going to St. Louis. The Saints don't make the same mistake twice–this time they're ready to play against an inferior NFC West foe on the road and take care of business. I look for Atlanta to show they can win in the postseason with a big road win in Philly, due to Falcon superiority on the defensive front. That turns the NFC's second round into Green Bay vs. The NFC South. The Packers oust for the Falcons with a Divisional Round rout for the second straight year, while Tampa Bay holds off New Orleans in a thriller. The young Buccaneer defensive line and the clutch ability of Josh Freeman is the talk of the NFL as they play to reach the Super Bowl, but in the end, having to win in Green Bay in January is a bit too much. The Packers return to the Super Bowl.
That makes it two years in a row the Notebook has picked a Green Bay-Baltimore showdown. And I really swear it has nothing to do with the fact I was raised in Wisconsin and currently live in Baltimore. The Ravens were only a play or two away from joining the Packers in Dallas last year, and this year the two teams get together in Indy. On that first Sunday in February, Green Bay has too much talent up and down the board to be stopped, especially with Aaron Rodgers in a climate-controlled environment. The Pack rolls to a second straight Super Bowl title and fifth overall.
REVISITING THE AL'S BIG FOUR 1ST BASEMEN
With the season into the homestretch, it’s time to revisit some of the debates leading up to the All-Star break about who was best at each position. It’s always mystified me that baseball keeps its most passionate arguments about individual achievement restricted to several weeks between mid-May and mid-July. The Notebook will look to rectify that the rest of September with a series of All-Star posts that will lead to the selection of a season-ending All-Star team at the end of the regular season.
First base in the American League was a heated battle in the summer, and the Big Four contestants all still have their cases. You can make an argument on behalf of Adrian Gonzalez (Boston), Mark Teixeria (NY Yanks), Miguel Cabrera (Detroit) or Paul Konerko (ChiSox). All are having tremendous years.
Teixeira’s 36 home runs are easily the best of the four and he’s challenging for the AL home run title overall. But his complete offensive package is also the worst of this group, mainly because of a .249 batting average. Teixeira is still a very patient hitter and with a .345 OBP he doesn’t bog down the offense when he’s not hitting, but measured against the standard it takes to be the best in the league at his position, it’s enough to eliminate him.
Konerko won’t meet the media’s definition of most valuable, because barring a miracle, his team won’t make the playoffs. But he has been the lone bright spot in a Chicago offense that was let down by the total failure of Adam Dunn to produce. Konerko is a .300 hitter who draws walks, has hit 28 HRs—more than Cabrera or Gonzalez—and though he’s last among the foursome in RBIs, the fact he has 92 puts him in the same ballpark with his brethren and is amazing given how little offensive help is around him.
Adrian Gonzalez had a little power outage after a runner-up showing in the Home Run Derby and his 23 HRs are the lowest in this group. But he’s leading the entire American League in hitting at .342 and his OBP is up over .400. With 105 RBIs and 98 runs scored, he’s easily involved in more scoring than his rivals.
On the basis of pure numbers it’s hard to argue against Cabrera. His on-base percentage is a dazzling .434, easily the best in this group. His slugging percentage is .562, also the best. He’s hitting .332, has bashed 26 home runs and has a combined 191 RBIs/Runs, not far off of Gonzalez’s 203 and ahead of Teixeira’s 185 (Konerko is killed by his lineup in this stat, scoring only 62 runs).
If we can’t argue against Cabrera on the basis of stats, what can we argue against. That he plays in a congenial hitter’s environment. Well, no—Comerica Park is one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in the American League. Is that he’s not on a contender. No, the Tigers are running away with the AL Central. Is he less valuable to his lineup than his four rivals—Detroit does have a good collection of hitters right now, but certainly Cabrera has no more support than Gonzalez or Teixeria do. So what’s the problem?
I’m not sure why Cabrera can’t get recognition as the top first baseman in the American League and to be a vital part of the MVP discussion. He’s had some personal issues off the field that have hurt his image, but that hasn’t stopped Alex Rodriguez from winning MVP trophies, nor did it prevent Manny Ramirez from getting league-wide recognition for his accomplishments. The Detroit first baseman is the best at his position and at the very least, he’ll get a little love in the pages of the Notebook.
MISSISSIPPI STATE & NORTHWESTERN COME OUT FIRING
Two teams the Notebook was high on were Mississippi State and Northwestern, picking the Bulldogs to finish ahead of LSU and Auburn in the SEC West and reach a BCS bowl game and the Wildcats to push past Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State and claim the Big Ten’s first-ever Legends Division title. Both dark-horse picks got off to solid starts in last weekend’s openers.
Mississippi State didn’t have the toughest of tests, as they played Memphis, perhaps the worst college football team outside the state of New Mexico. But it does say something about where MSU has come as a program that they hung a beatdown similar to what an Alabama or Florida in its heyday might have done. The Bulldogs rolled up a 59-14 win, while running back Vick Ballard needed only 10 carries to get 166 yards. Chris Relf threw the ball efficiently, going 13/21 for 202 yards, with his favorite target being Jameon Lewis. If nothing else, Mississippi State has shown it can hammer bad teams, and that’s the first step on to joining the national elite. The second step? That would be how well you play against teams like Auburn and LSU…and they happen to be on the MSU schedule for Saturday and the following Thursday. It will only take five days to find out if Dan Mullen’s program is at where the Notebook thinks they’re at.
Northwestern had a tough game at Boston College, and it got tougher when they found out Dan Persa, the best quarterback in the Big Ten, wouldn’t be able to play. NU showed how far they’ve come as a program by getting down and getting physical with an opponent who’s shown the ability to do the same in recent years. The Wildcats won the battle for rushing yardage, 227-104. Pass defense was a concern as BC’s talented sophomore quarterback Chase Rettig threw for 375 yards, but when you take about the Eagle running game they are a different team. And Northwestern made it stand up in a 24-17 win. Pat Fitzgerald has clearly instilled a new toughness into a team that’s generally had to win by finesse, and that will bear them well in the battles ahead. Fitzgerald’s team doesn’t have the immediate tests like Mississippi State does, but after this week, back-to-back road games give them a chance to show they’ve established consistency.
*It's Closing Weekend at Saratoga as the track runs through Labor Day, while Del Mar out west is set to wrap it up September 7. Visit Bloodhorse.com for updates on the doings here and at major tracks around the country.
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