The Carolina Panthers Are Now Legit Super Bowl Contenders

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The Cover 4.com presents you with The Carolina Panthers Are Now Legit Super Bowl Contenders! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

Before their momentous victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10, the Carolina Panthers put together a four-game winning streak in which they beat their opponents by 30 points or more. That put them in rare company, as Bill Barnwell pointed out:

Year Team Point Differential Final Record Playoff Result
2013 Panthers 82 ??? ???
2013 Broncos 88 ??? ???
2009 Saints 81 13-3 Won Super Bowl
2009 Colts 96 13-3 Lost Super Bowl
2007 Patriots 104 16-0 Lost Super Bowl
2007 Colts 83 13-3 Lost in AFC playoffs
2005 Colts 81 14-2 Lost in AFC playoffs
2004 Eagles 101 13-3 Lost Super Bowl
2004 Colts 125 12-4 Lost in AFC playoffs
2000 Rams 80 10-6 Lost in NFC playoffs
1999 Rams 106 13-3 Won Super Bowl
1998 Broncos 83 14-2 Won Super Bowl
1994 49ers 103 13-3 Won Super Bowl
1993 49ers 107 10-6 Lost in NFC playoffs
1990 Bills 104 13-3 Lost Super Bowl

 

Those are some juicy outcomes for a team that finished 7-9 last year and had calls for their quarterback’s and head coach’s heads on a stake. There were plenty of reasons for me not to like them in my preseason preview, including their patchwork secondary and lack of receiving options for Cam Newton. And with their back to the wall for cap space with an incompetent GM, the long-term outlook did not look too bright. I wasn’t too high on them in the beginning of the season either, when they started 1-3 and started their winning streak by beating up on lowly Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay. But that chart above deserves some attention, and now that they have a signature win they can hang their hat on against the San Francisco 49ers, I think it’s finally time to respect the Panthers as legit Super Bowl contenders in such a muddled NFL season where it seems like anyone can win it this year.

Although there are other factors responsible for this turnaround, the best visual representation of the Panthers’ newfound success is their franchise quarterback Newton. After all, who scored all those points for them? (Insert your Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams jokes here.) Through the four-game stretch, Newton averaged 229 yards passing, completed 72.3 percent of his passes and threw seven touchdowns against two interceptions. If you prorate those over a full season, the completion percentage, touchdowns and interceptions all put Newton in the top quarter of the league at his position.

23497707_BG1Newton surely deserves credit for the Panthers’  turnaround, but he has always been an above-average quarterback and his No. 1 overall pick aura eliminates any surprise that he is playing at a Pro Bowl-level right now. What really deserves attention is Carolina’s fearsome front seven, and how it is propping up its lackluster and injured secondary. Led by Charles Johnson’s “breakout” season (in terms of mainstream popularity) and the best young linebacker in the NFL, Luke Kuechly; the defensive linemen and linebackers as a group are arguably the best in the league. Johnson has already matched three quarters of his sack total last year and needs only 11 more total tackles to duplicate the previous year’s production. Leading the charge for the linebackers is Kuechly, last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. Even though he is only in his second year, it’s already established that he is one of a handful of the best defensive players in football. He led the league in tackles last year, and is poised to get back to that same number this year, while already getting one more interception than he had his rookie season. Before the Panthers played the 49ers, they were ranked fourth in defensive DVOA. After? Carolina jumped to first overall, an incredible turnaround that really puts a spotlight on the two young game changers for the Panthers.

The last piece of the Panthers’ success that warrants mention is Ron Rivera, or “Riverboat Ron” as he has become affectionately known. In my season preview, Rivera was one of the reasons holding the Panthers back. A good coach often knows when to be aggressive and when to be conservative. When it comes to fourth down, Rivera shouldn’t think twice about going for it if the yards in question are four yards or less. Carolina has the best goal-line back in Newton, and not to mention $35 million invested in running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Well Rivera has taken a turn for the better as a coach in general and especially on fourth down decisions, and there is no coincidence his increased game-managing ability has merged with the Panthers getting hot.

Panthers Chargers Football

So, the inevitable question is where is the correct place to gauge the Panthers’ new found success? On one hand, the chart above is pretty indicative of the success such a powerful four-game winning streak brings. You might say Carolina had a pretty easy schedule, but if you look at all the opponents those other teams faced, they weren’t necessarily world beaters either. I think the balance lands on the other side, in that the Panthers have a pretty good shot at a deep playoff run. I think their defensive DVOA will get worse a tad – their front 7 can only make the depleted secondary look so good for so long – and Rivera is always a candidate for a boneheaded decision at a critical time. Newton will return to Earth due to lack of real receiving options and that I think his high numbers are somewhat unsustainable, but with the stingy defense the pressure wasn’t on him like it was before to perform and win games for them, which the game in San Francisco proved. Their Monday Night Football game against the New England Patriots will be their best test so far, and if they manage to beat them and the 49ers in consecutive weeks, I think its time to throw the Panthers in one of the three or four teams to make it out of the NFC and into the Super Bowl.

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Mike Devarenne
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NBA First Week Insights & Surprises

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The Cover 4.com presents you with NBA First Week Insights & Surprises! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

Aaaannnndddd they’re off! The 2013-14 NBA season has officially tipped off, which means it’s time to see which teams actually took advantage of its resources and built a team worthy of the right to hoist that beautiful championship banner on opening day next year. And my, oh my has this been a start few saw coming.

  1. Michael Carter-Williams is out here letting people know that he’s not to be taken lightly. I loved this kid’s game at Syracuse last year, but was afraid that his tall, lanky frame would not be properly utilized and possibly start warming the bench like Shaun Livingston. However, MCW has shown that his skills are transferable by nearly posting a remarkable quadruple-double against the defending champs (22 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds, 9 steals, 1 turnover). Do not let the baby face fool you; this guy is the real deal like Holyfield. MCW is only the second rookie in NBA history to be awarded conference Player of the Week honors in the first week of the season (Shaq is the other). The only question is, will MCW have a Jeremy Lin effect and plateau before his prime? Or will he become a first-ballot Hall of Famer? Hmmmm…
  2. Russell Westbrook has found his way back into the lineup a month after surgery. Personally, as a man who has been through MANY knee surgeries in my playing career, I don’t think it’s a good look for Westbrook to return so soon. I love Westbrook, and I want to see him play at his highest level. But I know that his body and trainers unfortunately have a more impactful influence over him than I do. But for the sake of my 2k team, I pray that he doesn’t make it any worse.
  3. While we’re talking about injuries, D errick Rose is starting off slow. I guess it is to be expected after being MIA for an entire season, but the optimism still has the best of many of us and just know that his 10-game winning streak isn’t too far away.
  4. The Brooklyn Nets…well, I’m not going to say much on them because I didn’t really expect much out of them to start with. They have some of my favorite players from back in the day, however, their prime was also back in the day. I just don’t see it happening for this squad. They offered a lot of hope for the BX, but I guess we’ll just have to see how this pans out.
  5. The Suns have new jerseys! And that may be the reason why even though they are placed in last in the NBA 2k14 power rankings, they are starting off with a splash of hope. Gerald Green has finally found a system that loves him running alongside Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Miles Plumlee has been posting double-double averages. I’m not going to lie, I never really thought too highly of biggest brother Plumlee from the jump, but man is he giving me something to watch.
  6. Not a surprise, but the Wizards are poopsauce.
  7. Eg-Zah-Vi-Air Henry is putting on a little coming out show of his own in LA. It’s almost making me think that the Lakers have a shot at making the playoffs. Hahahaha, MAYBE! But one thing I will say, it’s time for the great Steve Nash to join the coaching staff. His game has noticeably slowed down, and he know where near as witty with the ball as he used to be. I don’t know, Tony, this one isn’t looking too good though.
  8. Toronto’s Very Own, Anthony Bennett has still yet to make a basket through four games. I thought No. 1 draft picks are supposed to show up and show out? Cleveland can’t take any more disappointments. Get it together, man!

Yes, I know it’s still early in the game, and there’s a whole lot of season left, but I am anticipating this being a GREAT year for the NBA, pending all these injuries slowing down. So, CHEERS to Mr. Carter-Williams on an amazing start to your NBA career, you have a bright future my friend. And the rest of you guys…get your shit together! PEACE!

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Malcolm Branch
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Boston Strong

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The Cover 4.com presents you with Boston Strong! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

The last time the Boston Red Sox won the World Series at home was in 1918. Babe Ruth was pitching on that team. He was later traded, and created the Curse of the Bambino. This all changed after the 2013 World Series. Boston had many things to be happy about. When the World Series began, I believed that the Red Sox had the better players and the Cardinals had the better team. I was wrong. It wasn’t the prettiest World Series or the most exciting, but the storyline was poignant and fitting. After April’s Boston Marathon bombing, the Red Sox devoted the rest of the season to overcoming this disaster.  And the Red Sox overcame adversity in this World Series as well to come back and win three consecutive games to bring a championship title back to Boston.

Going into this matchup, the Red Sox were slight favorites to win it all, but everyone knew how capable the Cardinals team was. Both teams boasted clutch hitting and solid pitching all year, and this set up to be a pretty even and contested series. The pitchers were lined up, hitters rested and coaches prepared. The Cardinals and Red Sox had each won two World Series in the past  Decade. But Tony La Russa was not coaching against Terry Francona. A new generational rivalry was born with Mike Matheny and John Farrell as managers.

Game 1 ended shortly after it started. Adam Wainwright faced off against Jon Lester, a battle of aces.. This was supposed to be the tasty appetizer for an amazing entrée. However, the Cardinals came out flat and seemed scared. They committed two errors in the first two innings, including  botching a potential double play. This allowed the Red Sox to take a 5-0 lead after two innings and they cruised to a 8-1 victory. Mike Napoli had the big three-run double in the first and the tasty appetizer did not even make it around the table to serve everyone. It was a disappointing start from a competitive standpoint but a good omen for Boston supporters.

Game 2 featured Michael Wacha, Big Papi and some unusual plays. These three things would end up playing a huge role for the rest of the series.  Wacha was dealing like a used car salesman. Up 1-0 in the sixth, Big Papi David Ortiz belted a two-run homer to give the Sox the lead. However, the lead would evaporate in the next inning on a sacrifice fly. This bases loaded, one out sacrifice fly had the ball flying from right field, to the catcher and then into the stands past third base. Two runs scored on the play and one more came across when clutch Carlos Beltran singled in the next at-bat to make it 4-2 Cardinals. This was the final score.  An ugly series of events to give the Cardinals the game, but as they say, a win is a win is a win. The series all tied up like boy scout knot. Heading back to St. Louis for three games, the Cardinals seemed to have momentum.

The unusual plays did not stop there. In Game 3, the Cardinals jumped to a 2-0 lead against Jake Peavy in the first. The game was on cruise control until the fifth. The Red Sox tied the game with one run in the fifth and sixth. The see-saw battle continued when the Cardinals took a 4-2 lead on Matt Holliday’s double in the seventh..  However, the Red Sox quickly answered with clutch hitting by Xander Bogaerts to tie it at 4 in the eighth. Whew! I just felt my heart palpitate thinking about that game again. And I have not even got to the climax yet. Or the anticlimax.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Cardinals had runners on second and third with one out. Jon Jay hit a sharp grounder to second, but Dustin Pedroia alertly threw out Yadier Molina at home for the second out of the inning. This is where normal leaves the ballpark and drama dons a whole new wardrobe, or more appropriate, uniform. After Molina made the out, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia tried to throw out Allen Craig who went from second to third on the play. And similar to Game 2, the throw went wide and into the outfield. Craig broke for home like Forrest Gump in Vietnam while Daniel Nava fielded the ball in the outfield. Nava threw a bullet and Craig was tagged out at home. Extra innings, right? Wrong. Umpire Jim Joyce ruled obstruction on third baseman Will Middlebrooks and Craig was awarded home and the game ended in one of the most bizarre endings in World Series history. Both teams stormed home plate. The Red Sox were yelling at the umpire crew. The Cardinals were reluctant to embrace victory. The crowd was confused. The television audience waited for an explanation. Utter chaos. All in all, the correct call was made by the letter of the law, and the Cardinals had a 2-1 edge in the Series.

After an unusual ending to Game 3, the Red Sox found themselves with their backs against the wall in a pretty much must-win situation. The Red Sox had grown out their beards the entire season and a bearded man came to the rescue for Game 4. Jonny Gomes blasted a three-run homer to break a 1-1 tie in the sixth and that was all she wrote. The Red Sox won 4-2 and another abnormal play occurred to end the game. Kolten Wong was pinch-running in the bottom of the ninth and Beltran was up representing the tying run with two outs. However before he could get a crack at a good pitch, Koji Uehara picked off Wong at first to end the game. Wong made his appearance one to forget, and the theme of errors, great pitching and bizarre plays continued.  World Series tied 2-2. The plot was thickening. Announcers John Buck and Tim McCarver had clever stories to tell.

Game 5 was the most crucial game in the Series. Typically, the winner of this game takes it all and this trend did not disappoint. The aces were back on the mound and Lester continued where he left off. After Big Papi doubled in Pedroia in the first, Lester dominated on the mound. His only mistake was a mammoth of a home run surrendered to Matt Holliday in the fourth. He hit it so far that Bud Selig was able to grow a full beard before the ball landed. Knotted at one, the Sox had something brewing in the seventh. With Saltalamacchia’s throwing woes, veteran David Ross had gotten the nod as catcher in games four, five and six. And he and his beard delivered a game-winning double in the top of the seventh. The Sox tacked on one more on Jacoby Ellsbury’s single. With Lester and Uehara baffling the Cardinals’ bats, the Red Sox won 3-1 and the usually energetic St. Louis fans were dead silent. Those fans are baseball smart, and they knew that their Cardinal team had blown two huge opportunities to take control in the series.

Heading back to Boston, Wacha was due to take the mound in Game 6. Despite Wainwright being the team’s ace, it was Wacha who had been the Cardinals’ best pitcher in the playoffs. John Lackey was the starter for the Sox, the same Lackey that started and won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Angels. The weather was cold and the Bostonians were anxious to win. The game creeped into the bottom of the third scoreless with 2 outs, when Shane Victorino came to bat with the bases loaded. The “Flying Hawaiian” proved Wacha’s mortality by lacing a double off the Green Monster in left to clear the bases. The Red Sox took a 3-0 lead and never looked back. They never had to. Stephen Drew smacked a home run and the Cardinals for the third consecutive game could not deliver the clutch hits. They continually set the table, but nobody wanted to eat. Lackey gave up only run and Uehara fittingly recorded the final out as the Red Sox won 6-1 and became the 2013 World Series champions. Babe Ruth somewhere smoked a cigar in tribute. Boston won in more ways than one.

The St. Louis Cardinals led the major leagues with a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position during the year but batted just a puny .214 during the World Series. Some would say it was because of great Boston pitching. Some would say the Cardinals bats picked a bad time to go into hibernation. Who knows  the real reason. Ortiz won the World Series MVP boasting a videogame-like .688 batting average. Given the events of the bombing during the Boston Marathon, this World Series had much more meaning than baseball for the city of Boston. Especially the way the Red Sox overcame a deficit, unprecedented events and an intimidating opposing ballpark. Just like their city during the crisis, the Red Sox were resilient, galvanized and determined.

This World Series might not be as celebrated as the one that broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, but its importance to the city is invaluable. The St. Louis Cardinals are young and will be back for many years to come. They ran into the beards of the Sox. Was it inopportune hitting? Great pitching? Or could it be fate?  Maybe it just was not in the Cards. I do know that this World Series was an amazing one to cap off one of the best baseball playoffs I can remember. The better teams won. In the end, the best team won. Congratulations Red Sox. Boston has a lot to be proud of.

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Paul Culley
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The Week 8 NFL Power Rankings

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The Cover 4.com presents you with The Week 8 NFL Power Rankings! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

Well, we are already halfway through the 2013 NFL season. Just like any season in football, it has been filled with pleasant surprises and surprising disappointments. If your favorite team is not playing its best, do not fret because a lot can happen the next eight weeks.

Depending on what you think of commissioner Roger Goodell (probably nothing good), you have to give him credit for keeping this league fair and full of parity through various means. You can basically separate the league into three different tiers based on winning percentage, but even then different teams from different tiers blend together due to strength of schedule and/or good and bad breaks in games (Tampa Bay, as bad it is, should have at least one win).  You’d be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t for parity in professional sports, unless you are me and how it is my job to attempt to rank these teams effectively. Four weeks in, the Denver Broncos seemed to be the clear cut No. 1 team. After the last two weeks, perhaps the gap isn’t as quite as large as we thought. Either way, after I name the team and its rank, in parenthesis will be the amount of spots they climbed or fell from my preseason rankings. This part will be especially funny when we get to TampaBay or the New York Giants. After that, I’ll give a brief explanation on why I put them there, and either me defending why I thought they would be good or me making fun of myself as I pull quotes from my late August column. Let’s get to it.

1. Denver Broncos (+2)

Through four weeks, Peyton Manning and the Broncos were the talk of the town with the most prolific offensive start in the history of the NFL. Armed with so many weapons, Manning looked unstoppable as he was dinking and dunking his way to the record books. The Broncos looked solid on defense even if they were doing it without the second-best defensive player in football, Von Miller, and their best cornerback, Champ Bailey. Well, a loss to the Indianapolis Colts and slow starts against the Washington Racial Slurs (in the first half) and Dallas Cowboys stopped their incredible progress and may have shown a blueprint on how to beat them, by targeting their weak offensive line and playing physical, hard-nosed defense. Using that strategy come December and January, and add in Peyton’s terrible cold temperature record in the playoffs (0-4 in games under 40 degrees), this team will roll through the regular season but might be more exposed than people expect come playoff time.

2. Seattle Seahawks (-1)

This team is probably best fit to beat the Broncos in the postseason (or Super Bowl, considering conference), and not just because it’s ranked second. The Seahawks have the punishing defense whose best asset is their secondary and a coolheaded quarterback who knows the best way to beat Denver is to not let them on the field. This team will always be in the top three, just because they are amazingly well balanced. Great defense, and good distribution of when to throw and when to hand it off to feature back Marshawn Lynch.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (+13)

We have our first double-digit jump! The Chiefs were the sexy pick in preseason to bounce back from a morbid 2-14 season last year, but no one could have predicted an 8-0 start. This team is your best bet to beat Denver in the AFC playoffs, only because it’s a slightly lesser version of the Seahawks. Kansas City’s defense is playing just as well as Seattle’s if not better, but the fall off is on the offensive side of the ball. Say what you want about Andy Reid’s game management (if you give me some time, I can say a lot) but this season he has remained relatively mistake free. Whether that is a fluke, it is nonetheless encouraging. Alex Smith is another great game manager, but just a step below Russell Wilson. He has conference championship experience, and can utilize weapons to overcome his shortcomings. The Chiefs defense, combined with the slow and plodding offense but sudden playmaking ability of Jamaal Charles, presents an underrated challenge to the Broncos.

4. Indianapolis Colts (+14)

The Colts made an even bigger jump than the Chiefs. I wrote about them last week, and how Andrew Luck is a one man regression fighter. In my preseason preview, I said the numbers pointed to the Colts overachieving last season and were bound to come down to earth, but this team is still very good because of who is under center. Well, I was half right. Surely, I didn’t expect them to beat the San Francisco 49ers, Broncos and Seahawks, all of which are incredible wins. One win is a fluke, two you might get lucky, but three wins against three teams in the (spoiler alert) top seven? That demands attention, and respect.

5. New Orleans Saints (+8)

With my initial ranks, the knock against the Saints was never against Drew Brees and his jolly band of bit piece scorers (besides Jimmy Graham) because Marques Colston is taking a fall vacation. I didn’t underestimate the return of Sean Payton either, who now has cemented himself as a top-three coach in the NFL with the dramatic turnaround from last season. Nope, I was dubious of how improved this defense could be under an obese homeless man Rob Ryan. Ryan, compensating for a (still) subpar defense by relentlessly blitzing (without “additional” instructions) has turned the Saints into an overall respectable force for which to be reckoned.

6. San Francisco 49ers (-4)

Through eight weeks, yes, the Saints are better than the 49ers. Colin Kaepernick looks lost without his wingman Michael Crabtree, and Anquan Boldin has not only come back to Earth, but may have tunneled half a mile underground after his hot start in the beginning of the season. Kaepernick is still a good quarterback, although he has been getting a lot of flak for his play, some of it undeserving. The defense has absorbed its fair share of losses, but nothing more significant than any other team. This team can still and will do damage come playoff time, and probably from the wild card spot which presents an interesting dynamic in the NFC playoff picture.

7. Green Bay Packers (-2)

This team moved back two spots just by the detriment of the Chiefs and Colts surprising me. Textbook Aaron Rodgers being Aaron Rodgers, lose your primary tight end (Jermichael Finley) and your main offensive weapon (Randall Cobb), your go to man in offseason (Greg Jennings) and your offense doesn’t miss a beat. The Packers will keep finding random wide receivers to fill in for them until they call me to suit up and I put up a 1,000 yard season. Their defense is average at best, but only needs to do enough to keep it close for Rodgers.

8. Detroit Lions (+14)

Another double-digit jump and we are still in the top 10. I said before the season this team doesn’t jump in my rankings “unless they smarten up on defense” and last time I checked Ndamukong Suh did not try to stomp on anyone’s private parts this season and their head coach hasn’t tried to fight another head coach yet in 2013. Their wins aren’t terribly impressive, but their defense does enough for them to win, which was my primary concern with them (Suh jokes aside).

9. Cincinnati Bengals (+1)

I was particularly high on the Bengals coming in. I still like them, but not as much as I did. They probably would’ve been bumped out of my top 10 (for whatever that’s worth) before Week 8, but then Andy Dalton threw five TD passes and I noticed he has actually strung together a nice set of games recently. If he can sustain his success and build on it, this is probably the fourth-best team coming out of the AFC if you factor in their stingy defense (although losing cornerback Leon Hall hurts).

10. New England Patriots (-4)

The Patriots fall from grace could be easy to blame on the injuries they’ve suffered; namely Jerrod Mayo, Aqib Talib (game to game), Vince Wilfork, Sebastian Vollmer, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski. But it started earlier than that, when New England’s calculated risk of letting Wes Welker go ultimately backfired when they surrounded the visibly aging Tom Brady with subpar weapons to work with on offense. Even through eight weeks, this could already be chalked up to a lost season considering their significant losses and Brady’s surprising impotency under center.

11. Baltimore Ravens (-4)

Is it just me, or is this the first Super Bowl champion in the new era of technology to fly under the radar? I feel like I still can’t get a read on this team, nor do I care. Ray Rice got hit with the Shaun Alexander bug, rendering him pretty unthreatening and looking older than his age. His and Flacco’s contracts have hamstrung this team’s cap space, even if they have solid defensive players sprouting up like weeds to plug holes in their defense.

12. Dallas Cowboys (+6)

How ‘bout them Cowboys? I am at the point of feeling bad for them, and in particular Tony Romo. I will not defend Romo here, but the man just can not win. The Cowboys will always be a dangerous team, but I’ve been saying their poor mismanagement of their roster will always drag them down. Luckily, a recent article by Bill Barnwell can explain that much better than I can if you want the real breakdown.

13. Carolina Panthers (+9)

Last year, the Panthers probably lost two or three games due to their incompetent head coach Ron Rivera. Terrible in-game management and failure to pounce on calculated but aggressive decisions, it seemed like this team was already doomed from the start for its 2013 campaign. But Rivera opened his eyes and realized he had the best short yardage back (Cam Newton), despite their very pricey backfield. If the Panthers can add a legit receiving threat and get a worthy starter for their defense, this team has the potential to be dangerous next year.

14. San Diego Chargers (+14)

Boy, what a difference an offensive line does for a quarterback. Philip Rivers is looking good, Ryan Mathews hasn’t exploded into a million little glass pieces and the Chargers might look better than their 4-3 record suggests. They fell apart against Houston, lost to Oakland with that funky 11:30 p.m. Sunday night start time and lost another close game to Tennessee. They are a dark horse to grab a wild card spot.

15. Miami Dolphins (+6)

In the preview, I said both the offense and defense didn’t really improve, but moved more sideways despite them bringing in some well-known names. Although Mike Wallace has yet to answer the call, the Dolphins have been plodding along due to their stingy defense. They have lost four in a row, but wins and losses do not tell the whole story.

16. Tennessee Titans (+10)

I was surprised by the Titans success so far this season. Their last three games before their bye were especially tough; they faced KC, Seattle and San Francisco and managed to keep the first two close contests. That’s pretty much all you can hope for from a middling team.

17. Chicago Bears (-8)

Much like New England, this drop is due more to injuries than anything else. Losing Jay Cutler is obviously huge, but losses to the defensive line and Lance Briggs can not be overlooked, either. If Cutler can return in a timely fashion, this team is poised to make a late season run if the NFC North is still available for the taking, or at worst a wild card spot.

18. Philadelphia Eagles (+6)

I think we know by now that Chip Kelly’s offense is legit. I wrote earlier in the season that the key to their offense is Mike Vick’s health, and right now that situation looks pretty grim. This team is bound to drop in the rankings by the end of the season, just because they are forced to put Matt Barkley and Nick Foles under center. But if Kelly gets a quarterback he wants in this year’s draft that can effectively run his offense, watch out for the Eagles next year.

19. Washington Racial Slurs (-8)

I think it is safe to say that Robert Griffin came back too early. He looks uncomfortable in the pocket, and continually overthrows his receivers. His porous defense lends him no favors, either. Still, we were saying the same thing about the Slurs last season, before they put together a great second-half run to make the playoffs. I am not saying it is out of the realm of possibility, but their remaining games alternate from easy opponents to hard/division opponents. However the NFC East is still somehow open to anyone who wants to take it.

20. New York Jets (+10)

How about Jekyll & Hyde Geno Smith, eh? Some weeks he looks like their new franchise quarterback, and other weeks he looks like a stopgap between trying to find the new franchise quarterback. For the short term however, the Jets are riding or dying with Smith. Luckily, the pressure on him isn’t too intense, Rex Ryan has yet again worked his magic to make the defense a top-five unit in the league. Now only if they can get offensive weapons with which to surround their quarterback.

21. Atlanta Falcons (-17)

Ouch, I definitely did not see this drop coming. Do not let the Julio Jones injury fool you, this team was in rough shape before the devastating injury. Granted, Roddy White and Steven Jackson were hobbled, but given Matt Ryan’s new contract and all the zeroes next to it; you kind of expect him to overcome those types of things. But when Jones went down, their defense giving up 26.3 points per game was just too much for Ryan to overcome. This team is in trouble for years to come.

22. Buffalo (+7)

This team is my darkhorse poised to make a second season run. They have an underrated front seven, and if they don’t end up trading Jarius Byrd, combined with Stephon Gilmore they could possibly make this unit top-five in the league. When EJ Manuel comes back, he will be in the same boat as the aforementioned Geno Smith. He will not be called upon to do much, and even less than Smith because of the weapons around him. Combined with a somewhat soft remaining schedule, consider me in on the Bills to climb to a 7-9 or 8-8 record.

23. Pittsburgh Steelers (-4)

Although injuries are nothing to make light of, I remarked after the Steelers lost Maurkice Pouncey that Pittsburgh was ahead of schedule on losing one critical offensive lineman in the beginning of the season. That being said, this line continually lets Ben Roethlisberger get pummeled. Their defense is rapidly aging at all the wrong places, and it looks like the Steel Curtain is starting to draw to a close on an era.

24. Arizona Cardinals (+1)

The Cardinals continue to frustrate me as they fail to get a quarterback to get Larry Fitzgerald the ball in his prime. No, Carson Palmer does not count. However, even if this team had a competent quarterback, two things would stand in their way of success: their miserable offensive line (half by design, half by injuries) and their tough division. Regardless, they have an opportunity to make a significant move in this year’s draft to snag a good quarterback because their defense is top notch and can pay a lot of attention to the other side of the ball.

25. Cleveland Browns (+2)

Oh, Brandon Weeden. Oh, Cleveland. If Cleveland is fully committed to this draft (the trade of Trent Richardson seems to indicate so) then they should us all a favor and just tank in front of our eyes by putting in Weeden. The Browns, like the Cardinals, can focus on their problems under center because of their solid defense and effective offensive weapons (Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon).

26. Houston Texans (-18)

Oh sweet Lord. Matt Schaub is not having a good year, to say the least. Although I stand by this assessment pre-meltdown, this still looks pretty bad: “Matt Schaub is an above average QB. I’m not sure he can win you a Super Bowl, but he can certainly lead this team to 11-12 wins in a weak AFC South.” Well then. I don’t think the worst case for the Texans could have envisioned Schaub combusting this badly, but that is what happened and now the Texans are an astounding 18 points back from where they started in the beginning of the season of my rankings.

27. New York Giants (-13)

I love to pile on Eli Manning as much as the next guy, but his offensive line has resembled turnstiles, and some of his interceptions have been passes that went through his receivers’ hands. Nevertheless, this team is in a bad place on top of the bad quarterback play. David Wilson has taken a, um, step back and their defense is still pretty bad. Luckily, they play in the NFC East and are still in the playoff race.

28. St. Louis Cardinals (-8)

Admittedly hung with the Seahawks in the past iteration of Monday Night Football, but the long term injury impact of Sam Bradford hurts, even if he has supplanted himself in the “disappointment” category of first-round picks. Their defense isn’t half bad, but the lack of impact from Tavon Austin and their trio of wholly ineffective running backs does not bode well for the future.

29. Oakland Raiders (+3)

Hey how about Terrelle Pryor? He and Geno Smith are the new poor versions of Mike Vick. You ride with the highs and deal with the lows. If Darren McFadden can keep producing and their defense plays at a league-average level, if Pryor is on his game this team can sneak games out against lesser opponents. Still showing some spunk this season while GM Reggie McKenzie plans and builds towards the future is always encouraging.

30. Minnesota Vikings (-13)

Christian Ponder? Nah. Matt Cassell? Nope. Josh Freeman? Not a chance. Poor Adrian Peterson. Much like the situation our friend Larry Fitzgerald, AD is wasting away his prime against nine and sometimes 10 in the box but the Vikes still somehow find a way to eke out victories. The signing of Greg Jennings and drafting of Cordarrelle Patterson were nice, but how good do you expect them to be if no one can get them the ball?

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

“I love this team. Couple reasons: Josh Freeman is in a contract year, and I think he has some serious potential.” I am here for your entertainment, people. This description should stop and end at “Greg Schiano” but I will just add in that their MRSA outbreak, the fact you have the best cover corner in the league in zone coverage and Doug Martin’s disappointing season before it got cut short by his injury don’t help.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars

This team is No. 32 by default, even though it doesn’t even deserve to be ranked. I will spare you all the hilarious stats, like the Denver Broncos two highest scoring games this season have more points than the Jaguars have all season. At this point of the dreadful Blaine Gabbert experiment, even if Jadaveon Clowney is a once in a decade talent, do the Jaguars take Teddy Bridgewater (or ‘best quarterback X’)? Believe it or not, I think they should.

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NBA 2013-2014 Season Preview

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The Cover 4.com presents you with NBA 2013-2014 Season Preview! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

THE DAY IS FINALLY NEAR! Second only to my birthday, and slightly more exciting than Christmas; the Rose is finally surfacing out the concrete, and boy isn’t it a beautiful sight? Of course, it’s only right that I start the first topic of discussion for the season with Chicago’s hometown hero, Mr. MVP himself, Derrick Rose. Not only am I excited about his return, but every NBA advocate is eager to see what a season-and-a-half long rehab session can do to a player. So far in the preseason, Rose has not lost a step, in fact, he’s taken control of the floor as if he never left. And I’m going to go ahead and throw this out there. Michael Jordan missed an entire season as well; granted he wasn’t injured, but a season-long absence by a superstar is nothing foreign to the Bulls. What impresses me most is how Rose has gone as far as to share advice with the second best point guard in the league in suggesting that Thunder guard Russell Westbrook not rush to get back on the floor and to properly rehabilitate his injury.

Season Superlatives:

Most Valuable Player LeBron James (MIA)

  • Only reason why I say this is because LBJ is feeling himself, and rightfully so. Don’t expect to see him post 34 points per game (even though he is capable of doing so), but do expect him to fully utilize the new talents of Michael Beasley in his effort at his third title. But I’m letting you know right now, my mans D-Rose will NOT be “giving” anything to him. October 29 will be a dogfight. Rose is showing the league that he’s back and LBJ is growing hungrier to surpass Jordan.

Rookie of the Year – Victor Oladipo (ORL)

  • Let me tell you something about this 21-year-old stand-out stunner. After coming off a PHENOMENAL summer league season he continues to make sure his name Oladipo is no longer considered foreign with his preseason play. This kid is explosive when driving to the paint, as well as a real threat from the arc. How many rookies can you consider to be multidimensional? Even LeBron had to work on his shot when he entered the league. He’s already averaging six, four and two. No, not six points, six BOARDS, four assists and two steals each game. This guy’s hustle is exactly the spark that will make an immediate impact on any team.

Most likely to NOT Succeed – Utah Jazz

  • Plain and simple: I just don’t see it happening there. They’re too unstable at this point. They couldn’t do it with Deron Williams, so naturally, I don’t see Trey Burke staying much longer than three or four years.

Most likely to Lose Your Money in a Bet – OKC Thunder

  • I’m a believer that Kevin Durant is the most lethal threat in the league, and with Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson as their x-factors, the Thunder WILL be a contender…however, what’s a contender without the their oxygen tank? After last year’s playoff performance, it has been proven that Westbrook is the fuel that keeps this car going. KD just isn’t the same flamethrower without his igniter. Now, for the love of all NBA 2K14 games and tournaments that I will be participating in this season, I REALLY hope that I am wrong. But Westbrook has proven to be such an intricate piece to this puzzle that it will be nearly impossible to replace him.

The Zero to Hero Award – GoldenState Warriors

  • With the most impressive addition of Andre Igoudala in their front court and Andrew Bogut in the back, I see these guys being not-so-silent killers of the NBA. This summer, Poppa Thompson was very active in the mentoring and developing of his young offspring, Klay. With Igoudala in the lineup, the Warriors now have four potential/future all-stars in Iggy, Thompson, Steph Curry and Harrison Barnes bringing some serious energy off the bench, the Warriors will rise this year and present themselves as one of the top contenders if all goes right.

The Sixth-Man – Harrison Barnes (GS)

  • It is almost a sure thing that with Iggy moving into the lineup, Barnes will move into the sixth-man spot, and I believe it for the best. Barnes’ explosiveness and energy will allow the Warriors to compete the entire 48 minutes. Watch him work!

Most Likely to Be Named Top Dawg – The Heat versus The Field

  • As much as I hate to admit it, there aren’t many teams capable of doing what the Heat have the potential of doing. Making the finals three times in a row is a pretty remarkable feat, especially when your star player is at the pique of his prime. Don’t discount the improvements that Chicago, Indiana and Brooklyn have made, but the Heat have something that other teams are still building on: CHEMISTRY! This bulls eye that is on the backs of the Heat organization is going to cause what I believe to be a chemical combustion that will lead to a phenomenal season, and likely a third consecutive ring for LBJ and his troops.

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Week 8 Start’em Or Sit’em

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The Cover 4.com presents you with Week 8 Start’em Or Sit’em! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

MUST- START

1136729700-e13800534082201. Pittsburgh Steelers RB: Le’Veon Bell

-Le’Veon Bell first burst on to the scene in week 3 versus the Minnesota Vikings when he had 16 carries for 57 yards and two touchdowns. Since then he hasn’t had a game quite like that but still has had solid production with 35 carries for 127 yards rushing and 4 receptions for 28 yards. Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley continues to give the load to Bell and has proven to be the guy for that team as the Steelers cut back up running back Isaac Redman this week. This past Sunday, Bell pounded the football for 93 yards on 19 carries in a 19-16 wing against the Baltimore Ravens who have one of the better defensive  fronts in the league with likes of Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs. Now the Steeler’s face a top run defense that has allows an average of only 99 yards a game and is ranked 9th in the NFL but has a mediocre pass defense consisting  that is ranked the 17th worst in the NFL. Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller will be able to open up the passing game which will free up running lanes for Bell and he will receive goal line touches. He might not be in your starting lineup this week but he is continuing to heat up and become that premier back that the Steelers have been looking for. Bell is a MUST-START this week!

Terrance-Williams_0754572.  Dallas Cowboys WR: Terrance Williams

-Williams has emerged as one of Tony Romo’s top targets and has even replaced WR Miles Austin for the #2 WR position. He has had a touchdown reception in the last 3 games with 249 receiving yards on 12 receptions. Williams has proven himself to be a reliable fantasy option in weeks to come. With an away game against the Detroit Lions who have a league 5th worst pass defense and will put all of their focus on covering WR Dez Bryant, Williams will have yet another great game against a defense that has allowed 282 passing yards on average to opposing teams this season. Running Back Demarco Murray is coming back from injury this week so expect Head Coach Jason Garrett to take the load off him by going airborne with his passing attack. Williams is a must-start against another league worst defense and is looking to be a solid fantasy option.

brent-celek3. Philadelphia Eagles TE: Brent Celek

-After two weeks only registering two receptions, Brent Celek should be getting back on track this week against the New York Giants team that he scored on two weeks ago in New York. In that game he was able to catch 3 passes for 47 yards from QB Nick Foles. QB Michael Vick looks to be suiting up for this division rival matchup against a struggling New York Giants secondary that let up 70 yards and 2 touchdowns to Cowboys’ TE Jason Witten, 47 yards and a touchdown to Broncos’ TE Julius Thomas, 64 yards to Chiefs’ TE Sean McGrath, 54 yards to Panthers’ TE Greg Olsen and 68 yards to Bears’ TE Martellus Bennett. The New York Giants cannot seem to fix the issues in their secondary and Head Coach Chip Kelly will look to exploit that. Now that Vick is healthy, Celek has a better opportunity to make plays this week and score big for your fantasy team.

 

 

MUST-BENCH

Harry+Douglas1. Atlanta Falcons WR: Harry Douglas

– Harry Douglas faces a stout Cardinals Defense this Sunday that features cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Last week Douglas was able to make an impact against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but there are a lot of coaching issues and the defense had a hard time getting on the same page. Cardinals’ Head Coach Bruce Arians won’t let that happen to his defense. Roddy White is ruled out of Sunday’s game again and the Cardinals will look to key in on Harry Douglas on the outside routes. Steven Jackson is said to be set to play and will take the load from the passing attack.

NFL: Preseason-Baltimore Ravens at St. Louis Rams2. St. Louis Rams RB: Zac Stacy

-Zac Stacy has been heating up lately but now with the loss of QB Sam Bradford he is the only source of offense. With a banged up offensive line that is facing the 4th ranked run defense and the “Legion of Boom” Monday night the St. Louis Rams will be shut down. Although it is at home, it won’t be enough to spark an offense led by QB Kellen Clemens or possibly even Brady Quinn. The Seahawks are looking to add another divisional win to their belt and stay on top of the NFC West. They’ve held opposing running backs to 58 total yards and 1 touchdown in two weeks and they will continue to shut them down.

11469891_03. Jacksonville Jaguars WR: Justin Blackmon

-Blackmon has done well coming back from his suspension versus the St. Louis Rams and the Denver Broncos but will now be facing one of the hardest-nosed defenses in the league in London.  The 49ers have the 4th ranked secondary that will look to dominate the Jaguars’ receivers right off the ball. Chad Henne is getting the start this Sunday and will try to get the ball to his star receiver but there won’t be time.  He’s a must bench.

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Pitching Reigns in October

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The Cover 4.com presents you with Pitching Reigns in October! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

The World Series matchup is set. The Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. Two storied franchises competing against each other. The ratings will be high, well higher than usual.  It’s a rematch of the 2004 World Series where the Red Sox swept and broke the Curse of the Bambino. Truth be told, this World Series is a real treat, and on paper one of the best ones in recent memory. Both teams have big-time hitters, but it was the pitchers that dominated the League Championship Series. The adage, “good pitching beats good hitting,” came to fruition and showed who reigns supreme on a baseball diamond.

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We had two phenomenal matchups in the League Championship Series with the Dodgers-Cardinals and Red Sox-Tigers. At a glance, many experts agreed that the Dodgers had a better pitching staff than the Cards with Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke against Adam Wainwright and a bevy of young pitchers. Many experts picked the Tigers to win it all with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez over veterans Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy. Well the experts were right that the better pitching staff won, but it just was not the ones they thought were better.

Game 1 in the Cardinals-Dodgers series shaped the tone for the entire series. Greinke faced rookie Joe Kelly in one of many pitchers duels in the LCS. The Dodgers and Cardinals each scored twice in the third inning. Zeroes hung on the scoreboard the rest of the way like Christmas tree ornaments. The Dodgers did what they did for many parts of the season. They got runners on, they got them over, but could not get them in. They even had a runner thrown out at home in the top of the 10th by Carlos Beltran, whose big two-run double tied the game at 2. And to seal the deal, Beltran roped a double down the line for the game-winning hit to win 3-2 and commence a great set of LCS games. The lead in the series was up for grabs and the Cardinals took it and never looked back.

In Game 2, the Dodgers put out their best pitcher, maybe the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, but it was another pitcher who made a name for himself. Michael Wacha, another rookie for the Cardinals, outpitched Kershaw in a 1-0 ballgame. This was not a soccer game, but it felt like it when the Cardinals scored their only goal, I mean run. The Cardinals had all the momentum heading to Los Angeles, but they got blanked by the rookie this time for Game 3. Hyun-Jin Ryu pitched beautifully and beat the Cardinals 3-0. Are you sensing a theme with these recaps yet?

Michael-Wacha

A big hit actually took place in Game 4 when Matt Holliday hit a mammoth two-run homer to help the Cardinals beat the Dodgers 4-2. A two-run lead felt like a blowout given the circumstances. The Cardinals’ World Series berth was put on hold when Greinke dealt and the Dodgers finally got some big hits, taking Game 5, 6-4. Going back to St. Louis with the Cardinals up 3-2, everyone felt Game 7 was inevitable with Kershaw on the mound again. However, people forgot about the real ace of this series, Wacha.

Yes, his last name sounds like a Russian’s favorite liquor, but the only thing strong about Wacha is his arm and his pitches. He continued to dominate the Dodger lineup while Kershaw had an inning to forget. The Cardinals batted around in the fourth, tallying four runs, and in essence, punching their ticket to the 2013 World Series. They won 9-0. In six games, the Dodgers scored 13 runs and pretty much half of them came in Game 5. Not even the antics and over-the-top emotions of Yasiel Puig could carry the Dodgers. His flaws were exposed by a gritty Cardinals team, and so were the rest of the Dodgers. Wacha, a pitcher, was named NLCS MVP, and we might just be seeing the tip of the iceberg with this young stud.

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The Dodgers made one of the most amazing turnarounds during the regular season and brought baseball excitement back to L.A. However, in the end, the Cardinals reminded us that baseball is a team sport and the team that spends the most money is not usually the one who wins. The Cardinals proved to have the best pitching, and consequently, they are now in great position to win the 2013 World Series.

In the ALCS, The Tigers and Red Sox boasted two of the most potent offenses in baseball. What a joke! The only crooked numbers seen in this series were strikeouts and number of beards, and there were many of them on both sides. There were two 1-0 games. This is mind boggling to a guy who has watched the Tigers and Red Sox score at will like an Oregon football team playing Arkansas State all year. But it still happened.  Good pitching happened. The Red Sox lost Game 1 1-0. Enough said. Those are the highlights. In all seriousness,  Sanchez pitched effectively wild and did not allow a hit in six innings pitched. In fact, the Red Sox got their first hit in the bottom of the 9th to break up the no hitter.

Game 2 will go down as one of the gems of this postseason. Down 5-0 in the bottom of the 6th, the Red Sox again got their first hit late in the ballgame  when Shane Victorino broke up Scherzer’s no hit bid. This led to their first run of the series. Trailing 5-1 in the bottom of the 8th, the Red Sox loaded the bases for David Ortiz. And the Red Sox version of Beltran did it again. On the first pitch, he cracked a line drive over the right field wall to dramatically tie the game with a grand slam. Torii Hunter missed the catch and flipped over the short wall like a gymnast. It was electric. Even Stephen King got scared in attendance with the eeriness in the air. Jarrod Saltalamacchia had the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 9th to win 6-5 and in hindsight, win the series for the Red Sox.

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Returning to Detroit, momentum was up in the air, but the Tigers felt confident throwing their ace Verlander out on the bump. The Red Sox countered with Lackey. Verlander was dominant, surrendering only one mistake to Mike Napoli in the 7th. a home run that barely cleared the fence in left. And that led to another 1-0 game. Lackey ousted the ace, like Wacha did. The Tigers could not deliver the clutch hits, like the Dodgers. The Tigers did tie up the series by roughing up Peavy in Game 4. They won 7-3, the only non-competitive game in the series, and it led to a pivotal Game 5. The Red Sox jumped to an early 4-0 lead and grinded out a 4-3 win. Closer Koji Uehara got five outs for the save and halted any chances of a Tiger comeback.

Down 3-2 in the series heading back to Boston, the Tigers still felt optimistic with Scherzer and Verlander lined up to pitch. Game 6 featured another grand performance from an unlikely hero. Pitching dominated again.  Through six innings, the Tigers led 2-1. In the bottom of the 7th, the Red Sox fans found the bases juiced with Victorino up to bat and then the unthinkable happened.  No he did not shave his beard before his at bat, but he smacked another Red Sox grand slam, this time over the Green Monster in left. Uehara closed the deal again for his third save in the series. Not to mention, he won the other game when the Red Sox walked off in Game 2. The Red Sox won in 6 games advancing to the World Series and Uehara, a closer, yet alone a pitcher, was named MVP of the ALCS.

Jon Lester

The Red Sox and the Cardinals batted poorly throughout the LCS, but they got the hits when they counted. It was their pitching that carried them to the World Series. Each team featured emerging stars winning MVPs. Wacha on the front end. He beat Kershaw and shutout the Dodgers twice.  Those two feats alone in one series are reason enough to retire. And Uehara impacted every single game the Red Sox won against the Tigers, winning one and saving three games. The entire country of Japan has new requested membership to Red Sox Nation.

It is usually the hitters that get the awards. Hitters get the highlights. The home runs and game-winning hits. Hitters are the ones that play every game and provide the most impact. However, the only thing the bats have been touching these playoffs are the racks after recording outs, and lots of them. The final four teams had the best pitchers in baseball. The Cardinals and Red Sox might not have better pitchers than the Tigers or Dodgers, but they pitched better in the LCS, when it mattered most. Their bullpens were better. Their closers were better. And now we, as fans, are better off with this fantastic matchup for this year’s World Series. Two respected and admirable teams facing off in late October.  What could be better than this? Seven games would be a nice early Christmas gift. Will the pitching dominance continue to trend or will the hitters get the last laugh? This baseball fan is eager to watch and see. Stay tuned.

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THE “NEW” QB CONTROVERSY (PART 1, ALEX)

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The Cover 4.com presents you with THE “NEW” QB CONTROVERSY (PART 1, ALEX)! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

An uneducated 49ers fan thinks that the team should have kept Alex Smith because they believe he’s a better quarterback and one that wins games. This same fan has the idea that Colin Kaepernick sucks and his success last year was a fluke.

An unrealistic 49ers fan thinks the opposite ─ although Kaepernick hasn’t looked all that great this year, Smith contributed nothing to the 49ers.

These two schools of though sum up what some 49ers fans believe about the current quarterback situation.  Both of these statements couldn’t be further from reality.

The 

Slow (and painful) Rise

Smith had not lived up to the expectations of being a No. 1 overall draft pick, at least not up until a couple years ago.  In 2011, he began to play more like a first-round pick.  He took the Niners to the 2011 NFC Championship. While San Francisco eventually lost to the Giants in the NFC Championship, the 49ers got to that game after a last-minute scoring drive against the Saints in the week before. That drive, and the ones before it in that crazy fourth quarter, was orchestrated by none other than Smith.  He did his best ‘Joe Cool” impression in that game and in many other games that season.  He was 50 percent  of the way to bound-to-be historic “The Catch 3.″

Jim Harbaugh turned Smith into the quarterback he is today, but Smith still had to become conformable in his role.  There is no arguing that he is a game manager.  This particular game manager led his team to multiple victories in the Harbaugh era.  He won a number of games for the Red and Gold.  He never gave up on the organization or the fanbase that gave him so much hatred at times.

To the Bench He Goes

In 2012, Smith looked primed to manage his team all the way to the Super Bowl.  The team started out great with him at the helm.  They were winning games and Smith was doing what he had to do to win.  Then injury struck Smith in the middle of the season and then Kaepernick made his mark.  The infamous “hot-hand” Harbaugh debacle began.

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Though Smith was healthy after a couple weeks, Kaepnerick obviously had the “hot-hand”.  Whether this was simply an opportunity for Harbaugh to make Kaepnerick the new starter or Harbaugh truly believed he was going to go back to Smith eventually, Kaepernick took over the starting spot.

Some fans that already disliked Smith, and many did, including me, (though I did start to like him a lot more during the 2011 season) were pumped that Kaepnerick was the new starter.  He possessed so much of the big play ability that the Niners have lacked in a quarterback since Jeff Garcia (Wow, did I just credit Garcia?)  Kaepnerick was more exciting than Smith, he seemed to have a better upside, and hell, he was a fresh face.

Because of the unwritten rule that no one should lose a starting position due to injury, you would think

that Smith would be extremely bitter and unresponsive to the coaches and players.  That was not the case at all.

Smith was one of the most helpful coaches that Kaepnerick had during his run to the Super Bowl.  If you look at old game film from last year, Smith was constantly talking with Kaepnerick.  He was pointing out coverages and shifts, helping him with plays and getting him to properly read the defense.  Smith was the reason Kaepnerick grew into the quarterback that he became.  Harbaugh knew it and acknowledged it, and so has Kaepnerick.

Many players would have turned a cold shoulder.  Smith kept preaching that winning is what matters, and Kaepnerick has the tools to add to the win column.

For this reason alone, I have to say that Smith showed so much class.  He helped the 49ers and Kaepernick get to the Super Bowl.  He showed a ton of respect for the organization and Harbaugh’s decision to place him on the bench.  We all know the rest of the story.  Smith is a Chief now, and Kaepnerick isn’t looking like a top-five quarterback this year.

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Final Note

Smith gave it 100 percent in his time with the 49ers.  He never gave up and he always tried to make the team better.  He took all the flak from the fans and still remained positive.  Then when his time was up, he respectfully and enthusiastically helped Kaepernick in his transition to become a starting NFL quarterback.

Now that he is gone, 49ers fans should have no true reason to hate Smith.  He always tried to make his team and himself better, even when he had no support.  He helped the 49ers win the games they won, period.

For that reason, the hate toward Smith is completely unwarranted now that he is the quarterback of the past for the Niners. I wish him good luck with the Chiefs, unless of course they make it to the Super Bowl against the Niners.

p.s. If the Chiefs win eight or more games, the Niners get a second round pick, so it is a good thing they are winning.

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October 23, 2013

The Cover 4.com presents you with The Sound Off by Long Island Sound! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

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USA Soccer: Reaction to final WCQs and Updated Roster Projection

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The Cover 4.com presents you with USA Soccer: Reaction to final WCQs and Updated Roster Projection! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

The CONCACAF Hexagonal World Cup Qualifier has wrapped up, and wow did it go out with a bang. The United States won both of their games and several players saw action with an opportunity to help, hurt, or cement their place in the squad preparing for the World Cup.

If you’re late to the party that is the Hex, here’s how it went down: The US beat Jamaica to wrap up the top spot in the Hex going into their final game at Panama, and Mexico beat Panama to control their own destiny heading into their final game at second-place Costa Rica, where a win or draw would at least clinch a home-and-home playoff with New Zealand for a place at the World Cup. In other words, the US had nothing to play for and Mexico had everything to play for.

You wouldn’t have known it watching the US, who put on an incredible display of resilience that exemplified sportsmanship and fair play. Panama has never been to a World Cup, so even a shot at a playoff was huge and their stadium was ready to come unglued. With nothing to play for, it would have been easy for a group of fringe players from the US to mail in the game and let Panama have their party, but that’s not what they chose to do.

Jürgen Klinsmann has instilled in this squad that they are out to win every game, and that’s exactly what happened. With the traditional “never say die” attitude that has been a trademark of American soccer, the US scored twice in stoppage time to completely crush Panama’s dreams and keep Mexico’s hope alive. After the game several US players including Terrence Boyd and Aron Jóhannsson stayed on the field to console some of Panama’s players who were visibly emotional after they failed to hold the lead (more on that later).

Though it is true that the US had nothing to play for in the standings, many of the players who took the field had a spot on the roster to Brazil to play for. Several are considered to be fringe players heading into next summer, and they needed to prove to Klinsmann that they blend well with the team and are capable of making an impact if given the chance on the World’s biggest stage. Midfielder Kyle Beckerman stated after the game that he was going to play hard the whole game regardless of what was on the line for Panama, an attitude that was prevalent throughout the squad that night as well in a hard fought 2-0 victory against Jamaica.

Before analyzing individual performances from the final two games, here is the updated squad projection for next summer’s World Cup:

 

Goalkeepers (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake/MLS)

Outside Defenders (4): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla/Mexico), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96/Germany), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC/MLS)

Center Defenders (5): Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City/MLS), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin/Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/England), Omar González (Los Angeles Galaxy/MLS), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes/MLS)

Outside Midfielders (3): Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes/France), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim/Germany), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City/MLS)

Center Midfielders (4): Michael Bradley (AS Roma/Italy), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg/Norway), Jermaine Jones (Schalke/Germany), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht/Belgium)

Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore (Sunderland/England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC/MLS), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy/MLS), Aron Jóhannsson (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands)

The only change in the squad from the last projection is Mix Diskerud taking Beckerman’s place as a center midfielder. This was a tough decision, especially since Beckerman played well in his start against Panama. However, Diskerud started both games and played a variety of roles, some he thrived in and some he did not, but the fact Klinsmann started him in both shows confidence in what Diskerud brings in his ball-handling skills and playmaking.

The decision ultimately came down to Beckerman or Sacha Kljestan. Though Kljestan was less than impressive as a starter for most of the Panama game, he was very solid as a substitute against Jamaica when he nearly scored right after he was brought on. The deciding factor was that Kljestan plays for a better club team, Anderlecht, which is playing in the Champions League, allowing Kljestan an opportunity to be tested and grow since he is a regular starter. In addition to this, he has been scoring goals and consistently turning in good performances. His experience will be valuable in the World Cup as the speed of play increases against the top teams, something I feel Beckerman might struggle with.

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Player Evaluations

Goalkeeper: Tim Howard started against Jamaica and Brad Guzan started against Panama. Both played well individually, taking goals allowed out of the equation since Guzan had an entirely different center-back pairing and a road environment to deal with, though he should have done better with the rebound he spilled leading to Panama’s second goal. Guzan is certainly the keeper of the future and the US has a lot to be excited about with him, but it is Howard’s net for now.

Outside Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley put in a solid stint against Jamaica which included a great run forward and a shot that barely missed the target in the first half before being subbed out in the second half. He’s not as fast as he used to be, but he still picks his spots well and is a threat in attack on overlapping runs. Edgar Castillo came on for him against Jamaica and went the distance against Panama. Castillo adds more speed and playmaking down the wing, but he leaves A LOT to be desired on the defensive side. I am ignoring Alejandro Bedoya’s cameo at right back in the Panama game, all I will say is don’t expect to see him there again. Brad Evans got exposed in these qualifiers on the right. He was repeatedly beaten by quicker wings for the opponent. Though he recovered well and bailed himself out a few times, he is not what is needed from a starting right back at the World Cup. If Panama made him look that vulnerable, imagine how much Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribery, or even Theo Walcott would feast on him. Steve Cherundolo began his rehab last week, and the job is definitely his when he is healthy.

Center Defenders: Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron both played great in the clean sheet against Jamaica. Cameron can and probably will overtake Omar Gonzalez as the regular starter there at some point. He was very steady, consistent, and worked well with Besler, who was his usual calm and collected self, playing in front of his hometown fans in Kansas City. Clarence Goodson against Panama was the fixture he usually is; nothing flashy but no glaring mistakes either. Michael Orozco is another story. Yes, he scored the first goal of the night to tie it at 1 off of a corner kick, but he was often caught out of position and is just too inconsistent to be considered for the final 23 at this point.

Outside Midfielders: Landon Donovan was clearly not 100% when he took the field against Jamaica. He had a quiet first half by his standards and was subbed out at the break. He has been battling an injury, and his performance should not hurt his place in the starting lineup long-term given his track record. With Fabian Johnson injured and remaining in Germany, the aforementioned Bedoya started both games on the right flank and had his ups and downs. He created space well but failed to provide quality service on his short passes and crosses. His place in the squad is safe but don’t expect him to start with the full team healthy. Graham Zusi cemented his place in the squad going forward, scoring as a substitute against Jamaica and the late equalizer against Panama. Houston Dynamo veteran Brad Davis showed well as a sub against Panama providing stellar crosses, including the assist to Zusi’s header. But at a position of depth for the US he is a long-shot at best to go to Brazil.

Center Midfield: Center midfield had the most action in these two games. Jermaine Jones started against Jamaica and went the full 90, doing his duty as a part-time bruiser in front of the back 4 and part-time distributor bridging the gap from defense to attack. He remains the easy choice to partner with Michael Bradley when he comes back from injury. As mentioned before, Diskerud made a decent showing for himself, more so as he was freed to push forward and play underneath a forward. His pairing with Jones was not the best and he lends better to the role Clint Dempsey usually occupies, which he played against Panama. Beckerman did nothing to hurt his chances, with some decent passes from his holding role. Kljestan was an interesting case. He showed very well in his time against Jamaica pushing forward and holding up play, which created more offensive chances. Against Panama as a starter, it took him a while to get going. He worked much better with Jones than with Beckerman for some reason and looked much more comfortable perhaps because he knew Jones wanted to sit back so he was free to push forward, whereas Beckerman tends to do both. Once Diskerud was subbed out, he pushed up field more and looked much better in the final half hour of that game. I expect Klinsmann to call him in for the November friendlies for another look.

Forwards: Jozy Altidore played well both matches, captaining the Panama game, and scoring an easy tap-in near the end of the Jamaica match. He continues to distribute well with his back to the goal, though he tends to get passive when he isn’t getting consistent service or support. In the Jamaica game he tended to drift back into the midfield and allowed Jóhannsson to stay up top, which does not suit his game well. All things considered, he remains the top choice for the Americans as he is a menace for opposing defenses to deal with. Jóhannsson got his first start for the US against Jamaica in a 4-4-2 formation. He created, and subsequently wasted, many chances in that game while paired with Altidore, but he did show flashes of what he is capable of. When he came on as a substitute for Diskerud against Panama, he dropped behind Altidore and showed the two should have switched roles against Jamaica as he is more than capable of being a supporting forward. His best role for this team may be as offensive spark off the bench giving the US a two-striker attack with the ability to still keep possession of the ball and dictate the pace of play. Not to mention, he is a poacher from outside the box as he demonstrated on the winning goal (follow the link to see it, courtesy US Soccer/beIn Sport) to completely crush Panama’s spirits.

Finally, Terrence Boyd came on for Altidore for the final 15 minutes against Panama and provided the assist on Jóhannsson’s goal. Though he has been in good form for Rapid Vienna, this position is just too crowded right now to see him breaking through for a World Cup spot barring an injury or severe drop in form from someone ahead of him. He has a bright future for the National team and it was good to see him get some productive time on the field paired with Jóhannsson. His greatest moment from the match, without a doubt, was after the final whistle where he was photographed consoling a Panama player (follow hyperlink for photo) who was overcome with emotion, what many are calling a true demonstration of sportsmanship. In a moment where it would be easy to just walk away and go celebrate, Boyd and Jóhannsson represented the United States with class and honor by doing the right thing and acknowledging that in their victory there was a dream crushed on the other side. That moment combined with their on-field play should have all American soccer fans excited about what the future holds for these two.

Check back soon as the United States prepares for November friendlies on the road against Scotland and Austria, theCover4 will have full analysis of the squad leading up to those matches and all things US Men’s National Team as the 2014 World Cup inches closer.

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