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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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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Figuring out the Final Four

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The Cover 4.com presents you with Figuring out the Final Four! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

Well, it looks like Major League Baseball is in for a treat. For the longest time in a while, baseball has a final four that is box office gold. The Dodgers, Cardinals, Tigers and Red Sox. West Coast to East Coast, we have four storied franchises that are filled with superstars. Maybe MLB thought they would give Bud Selig a nice going away present, since he’s retiring following the 2014 season.  If that’s the case, I am super excited about next season. Let me curb my enthusiasm about the two championship series and take a look at how we got there. The Braves, Pirates, Rays and A’s all fell in the Division Series. Can anybody sense a theme? All squads are small to mid-market teams, lacking big names, with very little postseason experience.

Matt-Kemp-NL-West-ChampsCould this just be a coincidence? It might be. Maybe the other teams were just better. Three out of the four teams with home field advantage won out, with the Tigers being the only team that outlasted this disadvantage. No real shocker there. So maybe we can just chalk it up to the best teams are left, which is the way it should be. Let’s break down the series.

The Dodgers’ return to the postseason matched them up against the Braves and Clayton Kershaw reminded us why he is the best pitcher in baseball. He dealt in Game 1 in Atlanta and the Dodgers got timely hitting from the usual suspects in Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig to cruise to a victory. The Braves responded in Game 2 by getting some clutch two-out hitting from Andrelton Simmons and Chris Johnson to squeak out a 4-3 victory over Zack Greinke. Heading back to Los Angeles, the series still seemed up in the air.

​The Dodgers quickly reminded us that this team can not just pitch, but they are capable of putting on an offensive display. In a matchup of two international rookie starting pitchers, the slugfest finished with a football score as Juan Uribe struck the big two-run homer in the fourth inning. The game was out of reach after that. The Braves scored a late safety to make the final score 13-6. Game 4 was the best game in he series. The Dodgers opted to move Kerhsaw up a day to pitch against Freddy Garcia. Yes I said Sweaty Freddy Garcia. How can the Braves be serious about winning by doing this? I laughed when I saw this matchup. And the Braves almost had the last laugh.

After trailing 2-0, the Braves answered by taking a 3-2 lead going into the bottom of the 8th. Puig led off the inning with a double and shortly thereafter, Uribe did it again. Just like he did for the Giants when he was the unsung hero of the 2010 playoffs, Uribe belted another two-run homer to give the Dodgers the lead and the series. Sorry Braves, another great regular season and division title were all for not. For the Dodgers, there are a lot of things to be excited about moving forward. Hearing Vin Scully announce on the road brought tears to my eyes.

a916f1fa16b6fc213e0f6a706700a437The other matchup in the National League showcased the new NL Central rivals in the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Playing in the playoffs for their first time since 1992, the Buccos definitely held their own. They forced the full five game series. After getting shelled in Game 1, the Bucs returned the favor in Game 2 to winning convincingly behind rookie sensation Gerrit Cole. They split the two close games back in Pittsburgh. In a predictable sudden death Game 5, the Cardinals, behind ace Adam Wainwright, glided to a 6-1 victory over Cole and the proud Pirates.

You have to give the city of Pittsburgh credit; their fans are electric. The crowd reminded me of the 12th man that the Seahawks have in Seattle. Waving those black flags, the Pirates and their fans have a lot to be excited about in the future. Pedro Alvarez set a record by recording an RBI in his first six career playoff games. Andrew McCutchen is a viable MVP candidate every year and a model citizen on and off the field. In the end, they were facing the Cardinals. Enough said. All they do is advance in the playoffs. They moved on to their eighth league championship series in 14 years. Simply remarkable. No Albert Pujols. No Tony La Russa. No problem. The Cards are the best run franchise in baseball, filled with a great blend of young talent and skilled veterans. They will play the Dodgers as truly he best two teams in the National League. I can’t complain.

th (1)In the American League, there were two solid matchups. The Red Sox were back in the postseason and even without Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, they are still a heck of a team to watch. “Fear the beard?” Yes I do.  The Red Sox sported many beards on their squad making them fun and cool to admire this hard-nosed team. The first two games at Fenway Park had two great pitching matchups, on paper. However, this is why games are played not on paper, but on the field. Matt Moore got crushed in Game 1 and David Price was clobbered and the Red Sox won both games easily. The only series that went 2-0, it did not look bright for the Rays.

After a road trip consisting of a playoff clinching series in Toronto, a Wild Card play-in game in Texas, a Wild Card playoff game in Cleveland, and the first two ALDS games in Boston, the Rays finally were back home in their illustrious Tropicana Field. And they actually had some fans attend Game 3 and 4. Trailing 3-0, a sweep seemed inevitable until Evan Longoria tied it up with a three run knock. After wild closer Fernando Rodney blew a save in the ninth, new hero Jose Lobatob cranked a walkoff home run to give the Rays their only win in the series. Game 4 consisted of very few runs. Joe Maddon used every pitcher in his bullpen, but it was not enough as the Red Sox scratched two runs in the 7th and one in the 9th to win 3-1 and the series. The Rays once again fell short in the playoffs, but still did not disappoint since making the playoffs for a team with this payroll is a victory in itself. The Red Sox continue to grow their beards and look as if they are the hottest team going right now.

The Tigers-A’s series closes out our bracket and this one did not disappoint. Games 1 and 2 were both one run games. In Game 1, Max Scherzer was given a 3-0 lead early and made it stand all the way home. Just barely.Yoenis Cespedes rocked a majestic homer in the 7th to make it 3-2, but this ended up being the final score.  Rookie Sonny Gray took on Tigers superstar ace Justin Verlander in a pitchers duel in Game 2.  A walkoff single by Stephen Vogt capped off a very exciting 1-0 win for the Atheletics. Moving to Detroit, the series was also a toss up.

thAnibal Sanchez has quietly been the MVP of the pitching staff for the Tigers this year, but got roughed up as the A’s came out swinging. The A’s came out victorious 6-3, but the highlight of the game took place in the 9th inning when A’s closer Grant Balfour and Tigers slugger Victor Martinez got in a screaming match. Martinez fouled off a Balfour pitch and the two proceeded to stare at each other, use bleeped verbiage, causing both benches to clear. A mere shouting match. Nothing really came out of this except that some athletes take themselves way too seriously. The Tigers rallied in Game 4 behind home runs from Jhonny Peralta and Martinez to win 8-6. Scherzer came in out of the bullpen highlighting one of my favorite elements of postseason baseball in do-or-die situations.

In a rematch of Game 2, Verlander showed everyone he can be the most dominant pitcher in baseball. He had everything working and Miguel Cabrera hit a two-run homer, giving him all the run support he needed. The Tigers advanced to the ALCS against the Red Sox, leaving the A’s and Billy Beane still one win away from their Moneyball dream. It is hard not to be optimistic about the A’s future, but one can not question if this style of baseball will ever carry them over the top. For the Tigers, they are definitely not playing their best, but they still have the best hitter in baseball in Cabrera and a pitching staff full of studs. Just like the NLCS, the Red Sox and Tigers are indeed the best two teams in the American League. The Tigers look to get back to the World Series and they don’t care who stands in their way. The Red Sox will be ready.

mlb-champsOverall, baseball had four competitive and compelling division series. All four series had some great games and great heroics. The best teams won and coincidently, the four teams left have the most superstar power and should draw the best ratings. In a time where sports fans choose football and basketball over baseball, this is just what the doctor ordered. Baseball is now in position to recapture the hearts of its fans. They have the most stars, pitching and hitting, and geographically, the entire country is represented with these four teams. The Dodgers look to establish themselves as the new mainstay in the National League and how fitting to do it against the classic and respected Cardinals. The Red Sox are back and better than ever. They take on the Tigers who are looking for some revenge after getting swept in the World Series last year. This sports fan is very pleased and excited for the rest of these playoffs. Baseball should be too. These next couple of weeks  could be crucial for the revival of baseball and its fandom. Ratings will be up, and hopefully up for a long time to come.

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The State Of the Steelers

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

 

Are the Steelers in trouble?  Some might say they are.  There are a lot of positives going on with the Steelers that many may fail — or frankly just not wish — to see.  As of now, it is hard to look past the -9 turnover ratio.  The almost disgusting offensive line.  The countless sacks and hits Ben Roethlisberger has been taking.  The shear lack of a running game.  All are very big negative points that have been lingering around the league about the Steelers.  All of which are true.  However, is it possible that the Steelers can bounce back from an 0-3 start?  Absolutely!  History has proven that that the odds are slim and they very much are, but don’t count them out just yet.  The defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers is still there.  Turnovers will come.  It’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Veterans like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel will be able to guide the younger guys in the right direction.  The fans have been spoiled in previous years with the way this Dick Lebeau defense created takeaways and stopped every offense it faced.  They will continue to perform despite the lack of offensive success.

Chicago Bears v Pittsburgh SteelersOffensively, everyone always dwells on the sack numbers on Big Ben Roethlisberger.  How many quarterbacks in the league will hold onto the ball for 4, 5, 6 seconds?  Not many.  He never gives up and many times just doesn’t know when to just throw the ball away.  Again, the fans were spoiled with the reciever help he had with Mike Wallace, Nate Washington and Plaxico Burress (in his prime).  All of whom are great backyard receivers.  Now Ben is throwing to a very talented, but young Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders.  All of them do not understand the concept of improvising their routes.  They will pick it up and help Ben out here in upcoming games.

The running game has nearly been a disaster since the retirement of Jerome Bettis.  Look to see Le’Veon Bell get a lot of carries, with Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and Issac Redman supplementing Bell. The running game will bounce back given the patience of Todd Haley.  If Haley can’t stay patient, then you can kiss the season and his job goodbye.  Ben made a name for himself off of a running game opening up a play action.  Without the play action and a successful running game, you will see more multiple interception games by Roethlisberger.

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Many big games are in the near future.  Pittsburgh has received a blessing in disguise with a week 5 bye.  The season is still wide open.  Only one team per conference has showed and proven that they are indeed a very sound football team.  Denver is going to be tough to the end as will Seattle.  The rest of the league is not even close to decided.  A couple other teams in each conference look tough and will be very possible contenders in the end.  Cincinnati looks like it is starting to prove people wrong.  Chicago, despite the firing of Lovie Smith, looks like it will be giving the NFC North a run for its money.  The 0-3 Steelers have now lost to two of the top six teams in the league according to ESPN’s week 4 power rankings.  Is there a chance of revival? Is there a chance to bring back the old smashmouth D?  Can the offense be as explosive as it’s been in the past?  Only the future weeks can answer these questions.  Don’t stop watching and you may be surprised come January.

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NHL Season Preview Part 4:Metro Division

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The Cover 4.com presents you with the NHL Season Preview Part 4:Metro Division! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

In  the final installment of our season preview, we swing back to the Eastern Conference and take a look at the newly formed and named Metropolitan Division. The Metro is a star-studded division featuring the likes Claude Giroux, Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin.  This division figures to be the most intense, keeping great rivalries such as Flyers-Penguins, Flyers-Rangers and Rangers-Islanders together, while adding new, great divisional rivalries like Flyers-Caps and Pens-Caps. Let’s take a look at how the division figures to break down.

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CAROLINA HURRICANES 

The Hurricanes are one of those teams you look at on paper and wonder just why they were so bad last year? The answer is goaltender Cam Ward. He is the key to this Carolina team and when he went down last year, so did the team. Their top=six forwards are strong, and include two Staals, Eric and Jordan, as well as Jeff Skinner and Alexander Semin. The No. 5 overall pick this summer, Elias Lindholm is also supposed to make the team. Offensively this team should be ok. Where it really went wrong last year was trying to stop the puck from going in the net. In the offseason the Hurricanes lost defensemen Jamie McBain and Joe Corvo, not that they were helping out much with the defense last year, and picked up Mike Komisarek and Andrej Sekera. The Hurricanes allowed the second-most goals last season (159), ranking at the near top of list of teams who faced the most shots. It is easy to see why this team was bad. Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, Jay Harrison and Justin Faulk, all return and are not exactly names that make teams think they are going to be running into a lot of problems. The Hurricanes made some improvements to the blue line, but I don’t see enough of an improvement here to be talking playoffs. The potential to be wrong with that prediction is there, but I feel they did not do enough to help themselves.

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COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Columbus is one of my favorite up-and-coming teams in this league and it has finally found themselves in the Eastern Conference where it belongs.  It has what is essentially the same roster back and barely missed the playoffs last year. It is in a much tougher division this year however, and will need to play its best hockey every night to have a chance at making the playoffs. With that said, the Blue Jackets will need to ride Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky throughout the year to succeed. Bobrovsky was practically given away from the Philadelphia Flyers two years ago and last year blossomed into what he was supposed to all along. He was out to prove many wrong, and he did just that. Their biggest off season signing, Nathan Horton, is recovering from shoulder surgery but his offensive production is expected to help when he returns. Marian Gaborik, who is in a contract year, will look to lead the team offensively, but like always with him, he will need to stay healthy.  Artem Anisimov was re-signed and is also expected to score and be a top-six forward while R.J. Umberger, Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky are also secondary scorers. Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski are all veterans who can fill big defensive roles for this club. The No. 2 overall pick in 2012, Ryan Murray hopes an injury from last year is behind him, and he is ready to go for this season. If they can replicate everything that went right for them last year, the Blue Jackets should be in the mix for a playoff spot.

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NEW JERSEY DEVILS 

Who exactly is supposed to score goals on this team? Over the last two years it has lost any resemblance of a team that knows how put pucks in the net. The Devils lost Ilya Kovalchuk to his “retirement” to the KHL, David Clarkson to Toronto and Alexei Ponikarovsky, who was never really that great to start with. They added Jaromir Jagr, Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder doing themselves no favors trying to get younger and still being as equally goal challenged as before. These are hard times for the Devils as they are now owned by the NHL, and Martin Brodeur fades into retirement after this season. Adam Henrique, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac get the call to light the lamp, but don’t expect staggering numbers. If one thing went right this offseason, it was finding an eventual replacement for Brodeur via Vancouver. Cory Schneider will be the backup, but he should also get a bulk of the starts as well. The Devils likely will have their worst season in years and finish last in the division.

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NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Over the last four years, it may not have looked like it at the time, but the Islanders were building a team with a lot of potential. Last year, that team finally came out. A team built from newly-named captain John Tavares  features the young talent of Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner , Kyle Okposo Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic, Ryan Strome and soon-to-be NHLer Griffin Reinhart. The Islanders are one of the fastest teams in the NHL and can hang and wear teams down over the course of a game. See the Pittsburgh series from last year’s playoffs. The Islanders should have beaten the Penguins, but go no help from their goaltending. Okposo had an awful year last year scoring just four goals, and will be needed this year to help contribute. The team lost defenseman Mark Streit, which hurts their power play but Lubomir Visnovsky can fill that role. Among their other defensemen, the Islanders are in trouble. There is not much there in terms of overwhelming talent and will be a weakness for them this year.  Evgeni Nabokov is 38 and played OK in the regular season, but his postseason was one to forget. Backup goalie Kevin Poulin provides no hope. Expect the Islanders to be fast and sexy, but I think this team needs some help on defense and in goal before talking playoffs this year.

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NEW YORK RANGERS

Out is head coach John Tortorella and new bench boss, Alain Vigneault formerly of Vancouver, takes over. Vigneault should be the right coach for this team, finally freeing the players from the defensive-minded vice grip Tortorella had on them. That means Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Derick Brassard have their handcuffs off and should be ready to fire at will at the net.  Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan, two of the best two-way forwards in the NHL, will also have an easier time playing more to their game, although not much is expected to change with how they produce. New addition Benoit Pouliot is also an ideal third-line player and should be interesting to watch on this team as he can score if paired with the right players. On defense, Marc Staal is recovered from a career-threatening eye injury. It will be interesting see how he approaches stepping in front of a puck now. Also in that group is Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto who are all sound NHL defensemen.  Goaltending, we all know what to expect from Henrik Lundqvist, but with a less defensive sound team now, it will interesting to see how he responds. Expect for the Rangers to compete for the top of the division.

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PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

We hear it every year, they have the two best players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The team around them is built to win and score, as the Penguins were NHL’s highest-scoring team at 3.38 goals per game during the regular season. They lost all those shiny new “old” toys in Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray they acquired last year as well as gritty forward and fan favorite Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy to a trade. Instead of going out and signing new players with high upside, they put all of their money into known commodities Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. The top six will look the same, minus a potential rotating door of Beau Bennett  and Jussi Jokinen on the Malkin and James Neal line. Where the Penguins will really be hurting is the lack of size and grit from their bottom six forwards. Brandon Sutter and newcomer Matt D’Agostini will try to help with lower line scoring. On defense, they kept Kris Letang around, which is huge and signed defenseman Rob Scuderi, an old familiar face, back to the team. The Penguins are beyond loaded with organizational depth on defense and once again it should not be much of an issue (although it was during the playoffs). The biggest question mark is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who once again fell apart in the playoffs. He saw a sports psychologist during the offseason to help, but this is a make or break year for his career. Backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun is out indefinitely with a blood clot. Vokoun carried the Penguins through the playoffs last year, so Fleury will really need to be on top of his game. Expect this Penguins team to be at the top or finish second in the Metro.

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PHILADELPHIA FLYERS 

When I look at the Flyers, I see a team who has top tier offensive talent, but lacks the overall fear I would normally have in a Flyers team. There is no question their talent at forward is one of the better looking ones in the division.  Claude Giroux is one of the most talented and gifted players in the NHL and will be the team leader in points. Jakub Voracek had a breakout season recording 46 points in a short year while Scott Hartnell will look to bounce back after breaking his foot and only scored 16 points. Wayne Simmonds and Matt Read had nice years, while Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn need to improve after producing well below what was expected of them last year. Newest addition Vincent Lecavalier, who is replacing the departed Danny Briere, should be the second line center and if healthy, he will have a similar role he shared in Tampa over the past few years. On defense, the Flyers had more injures than they could have imagined and were never able to recover. Kimmo Timonen had 29 points on defense and Luke Schenn was nothing special. Their biggest addition was Mark Streit who will ease the pressure of Timonen and become the quarterback of the power play. Health will be a huge determent again as to how well this team does. It’s never the Flyers unless they are having goaltending issues, and always, they are. Gone is head case Ilya Bryzgalov, and a tandem of sub-par goaltending in Steve Mason and Ray Emery will be called upon to play well beyond their better years.  I expect the Flyers to finish either third or fourth in the division.

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WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The Capitals were the Southeast Division winners last year, but this year they join the Wild West run-and-gun Metropolitan Division  where they will need to learn how to defend.  Adam Oates needs more credit for revitalizing Alex Ovechkin’s career, forcing him to right wing where scored a league-high 32 goals and won his third Hart Trophy. Ovechkin seemed lost and many were starting to wonder if this was beginning of the end to his career as an elite player.  But Oates brought out in Ovi what he had been missing for the last two seasons, and Ovi seems to have responded. Mikhail Grabovski was a big pick up and should be the second line center after losing Mike Ribeiro. He has a scoring reputation that the Capitals love and top to the bottom, the Caps have four sound lines. Brooks Laich and Nicklas Backstrom should have no problem putting up their expected point totals for another strong Washington offense. The Capitals defense is a big question this year. The big names; Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson will be fine, but it is the other three remaining defensemen who bring a lot questions. Green obviously will need to stay healthy, as this has become a re-occurring problem for him. The final three defensemen will be names like John Erskine, Tomas Kundratek and Dmitry Orlov. Erskine is the name that many will recognize and is someone the Capitals will need to perform as bottom type defenseman. The goaltender job is Braden Holtby’s to lose, but seems to have finally answer the call as to who should be starting. He had a strong end to his season, but struggled in the playoffs leading to questions if he was the right goalie. He is, but will need to show it was not a fluke. It can be said the team in front of him did not play well, but this is a team effort and he deserves equal blame.  I predict the Capitals will finish somewhere around third or fourth in the division, competing with Philadelphia for one of those spots.

As you can see, the Metro Division is going to be a tightly contested division, with tons of star power battling for supremacy. The headlines are there, the stars are there, and the excitement will surely be there. For our money, here is who we expect to receive the automatic bids out of the Metro this season:

Pittsburgh

Rangers

Capitals

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Chris Dazen & Patrick Riley
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NHL Season Preview Part 3:Pacific Division

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The Cover 4.com presents you with the NHL Season Preview Part 3:Pacific Division! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

Today, we have our next installment of our division previews, and again we head out west, this time to the Pacific Division. This division should be one of the most competitive divisions, and solid goaltending is a theme for most of the teams in the Pacific. Another common theme of this division is the story of a successful regular season, followed by playoff disappointment. Let’s look at the ins and outs of the Pacific Division.

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ANAHEIM DUCKS

The Ducks, under the tutelage of Bruce Boudreau, had a surprising second-place finish in the Western Conference last year. But there’s a big piece missing from last year’s team. Bobby Ryan was shipped to Ottawa in exchange for Jakob Silfverberg, a very young and talented forward. Returning are veterans Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne. Selanne has already designated this as the last season of his Hall of Fame career. Former Cup champion Dustin Penner is back in town as well, joining old friends Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf both of whom signed long-term deals with the Ducks. Defenseman Cam Fowler will look to rebound after a sophomore slump, and Bryan Allen and Francois Beauchemin will both be rocks on the blueline. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Ducks is the group of five young, extremely talented players. Forwards Matt Beleskey, Nick Bonino, Kyle Palmieri and Emerson Etem all had their coming out parties last season and look to build off of that. Goaltender John Gibson is possibly the best young goaltender in the game, and he may not even start the season in the NHL. Viktor Fasth and Jonas Hiller look to backstop the Ducks out of the gates.

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CALGARY FLAMES

Dark days are here for the Flames. After the very heart and soul of the Flames, Jarome Iginla, was moved to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last year, any hope for the Flames began to fade. Since then, franchise goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has called it a career. Defenseman Mark Giordano was named captain this offseason, and he is deserving of the honor. Veterans Lee Stempniak, Curtis Glencross and Mike Cammeleri will lead the way to a presumably awful season for Calgary. An interesting player to watch is Sven Baertschi, who enjoyed moderate success as a rookie last season, and he comes in with a pedigree. Expectations are high for the kid, but let’s be serious, the Flames top two goaltenders are Joey MacDonald and Karri Ramo. Yikes.

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EDMONTON OILERS

The future is now for this Edmonton Oilers team, and they need to seize it. It seems like over the past few seasons, we have come into the year thinking this is the year the youthful Oilers emerge, and we come out of the season wondering where it went wrong. Injuries to star players like Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall have severely hampered Edmonton over the past few seasons, but inconsistent goaltending has ultimately sunk them. Unfortunately for Oilers fans, the goaltending situation has not been resolved. Devan Dubnyk has shown some flashes of his skill, but has yet to develop into a consistent NHL goaltender. The good news is Dubnyk is another year older, more mature and confident. The same goes for RNH, Eberle and Hall. The Oilers have high top-end talent with those three, supported by Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky and Nail Yakupov. In addition to talent, the Oilers have taken steps to solidify their bottom six as well, bringing in underrated player Boyd Gordon from Phoenix. Gordon is the type of guy that excels defensively at even strength and on the penalty kill. You won’t see him on the power play unit, but he will log of ton of minutes short-handed, and he can pitch in the odd goal on occasion. Ben Eager, Mike Brown and Ryan Smyth provide the grit and toughness that the star players need in order to create space. On the blueline, the Oilers are very underrated. Franchise defenseman Justin Schultz looks to take the next steps in his progression, and free agent signing Andrew Ference will help solidify their top-four that also features hard hitting Ladislav Smid and skilled puck-mover Denis Grebeshkov. The Oilers could sneak into the playoff hunt, but only if they stay healthy and get consistent goaltending.

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LOS ANGELES KINGS

The beat goes on for the Kings as they should be in contention for the Stanley Cup yet again this year. Last year, the Kings lost to the eventual Cup champion Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals, a year after winning the Cup themselves. There are many holdovers from the past two seasons. Captain Dustin Brown is the heartbeat of the team, and he brings it each night. He’s a true warrior of the game.  The forward ranks boast the skill of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams, supported by the grit of Mike Richards and Trevor Lewis, along with the power forwards Dwight King, Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan. The well-rounded group of forwards needs to find more consistent scoring, but the Kings do not need to find too many goals to win every night, as their backend may be the best in hockey. The defensive corps has some tight competition among their ranks as there are eight legitimate top-six NHL defensemen on their roster, led by franchise defenseman Drew Doughty. We know what it comes down to every playoff series, and that is goaltending, and the Kings have the best goalie in the world right now. Jonathan Quick nearly single-handedly won the Stanley Cup for his team two seasons in a row. His performances the last two playoff years have been as good, if not better, than those of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur in the past, and Quick is still considered young. If the Kings can develop a consistent scoring touch, without sacrificing defense for it, they could be a dominant team in the league and should contend for the division title.

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PHOENIX COYOTES

It seems that financial stability has come to Glendale, and that should benefit the on-ice product tremendously. Phoenix hopes to return to the form of two seasons ago, and put a rough year last season in the past. Franchise goaltender Mike Smith has been locked up long-term, and that should make things better for the Yotes, as their success depends squarely on his shoulders. Smith battled injury last season and did not have the year he wanted in a lockout-shortened season, but he should be able to bounce back splendidly this year. Gone is Boyd Gordon, who is a vastly underrated player, but standout center Mike Ribeiro joins the club, and adds some needed skill. Ribiero will join Antoine Vermette, Mikkel Boedker and Radim Vrbata in leading the offense, supported by the likes of Martin Hanzal and captain Shane Doan. The Coyotes play a simple, solid, well-rounded game, and feature an abundance of players that play that style, like forwards David Moss, Lauri Korpikoski, and defensemen Zbynek Michalek, Derek Morris, and Rusty Klesla. Phoenix’s top two defensemen, Oliver Ekman-Larrson and Keith Yandle, rival any team in the NHL’s top pair. Goaltending will tell the tale of their season.

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SAN JOSE SHAKRS

Led by one of the best netminders in the game in Antti Niemi, the Sharks have the potential to contend for the division this season, but it stands to reason that the Sharks are skating on thin ice. For the better half of the last decade, the Sharks have put together great regular seasons, only to be ousted in the playoffs, without even reaching a Stanley Cup Final. Granted, it seems like every year they are eliminated by the eventual Cup champs, but no matter, they still lose. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are nearing the points in their careers where it’s time to you-know-what or get off the pot. The money the two command is extensive, but as long as they produce, that is no problem, but both tend to be streaky. Thornton is a power play wizard, dishing the puck all over, but is marginal at even strength. Young stars Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns are the future of this team, and have showed that they can carry the offensive load. The Sharks brought in a clutch playoff player in Tyler Kennedy from the Penguins (Kennedy has more career playoff winning goals for Pittsburgh than Sidney Crosby does) to help address their playoff struggles. The defensive platoon includes Cup-winning veterans Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart, and is supplemented by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Jason Demers. The story has been the same for the Sharks, regular season success, followed by post-season disappointment, and I see no reason to believe that regular season success won’t be the story again this season. The trick will be changing their playoff fortunes.

John Tortorella

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

The 2013-14 Vancouver Canucks will be a vastly different team from last season. Gone is goaltender of the future Cory Schneider, who was shipped to the Devils at the draft, leaving embattled Roberto Luongo to carry the load between the pipes. Bobby Lu’s struggles are well documented by the intense Vancouver media. Speaking of which, that media has their wet dream of a coach in John Tortorella, who swaps cities with former Canucks coach Alain Vingeault, who heads to the Rangers. Torts is a task master on the players, and often a little too candid during his media time. Torts will do what he does, and that is take the public pressure off of his players and place it on himself, while in turn upping his pressure on the players behind closed doors. It will be a big change, but after playoff disappointment after playoff disappointment, it may be a good change for the organization. One key for the Canucks will be keeping Ryan Kesler healthy. Kesler is a world-class player at his best, but has not come close to being healthy the past three seasons, spending an enormous amount of time injured. The Sedin twins will put up their points, and Alex Burrows will too. A lot of pressure will rest on David Booth, Zack Kassian and Chris Higgins, who will have to supply the crucial secondary scoring. I believe free-agent pick-up Mike Santorelli could wind up playing an important role for them by the end of the season, but he first needs to develop consistency. Kevin Bieksa anchors a solid defensive corps with the likes of Jason Garrison and Dan Hamhuis behind him. The Canucks, more specifically Tortorella, will probably still look to upgrade the defensive corps, but Torts has a way of getting a lot out of his young players.

We will see if the teams of the Pacific will be able to shake their ever-growing history of playoff failure, and match LA is the Cup win column. Thanks for reading, and please stop back tomorrow as we finish our season preview with the newly formed Metropolitan Division. For now, we leave you with our picks for the three automatic division playoff bids:

Anaheim Ducks

Los Angeles Kings

San Jose Sharks

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22: The New Face of Baseball – Andrew McCutchen

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In an era in where steroids and PEDs have tarnished the image of baseball and its players, there are very few pure American stars — yet alone any stars — left.

Ryan Braun has suffered a disgraceful fall. Alex Rodriguez is an afterthought. Barry Bonds was forced out of baseball six years ago. If you ask the uninformed fan who the next face of baseball is, I’m sure that there would be a lot of pauses before he answers. Well, I have a simple suggestion for you. You take the best player on one of the the best teams in baseball. How about the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Yes, those Pirates. For Pittsburgh sports fans, many are used to boasting about Ben Roethlisberger or Sidney Crosby, but they have a new superstar to talk about, Andrew McCutchen.

”Cutch” has steadily progressed since making his debut in June 2009. The right-handed hitting center fielder is the total package. He has speed like a gazelle. He shows his power by hitting it to all over the field, including over the fence. He covers ground like a sumo wrestler. Most importantly, he plays the game the right way, free from off-the-field temptations and PED use.

In January, McCutchen was announced as the cover athlete of the baseball video game MLB 2013: The Show, where he beat out CC Sabathia in fan voting. After making the All-Star team for three consecutive years, Cutch is slowly starting to be the face that baseball desperately needs to carry its torch. Just like the Pirates, he is walking the walk with style and class. They don’t the need the media attention that the other teams get to prove their greatness.

Social media is a new tool that players like Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth never experienced. Typically, the media helps create these superstars who play in big markets such as New York or Los Angeles. And given the fact that the Pirates have played in a playoff game since two days before Bryce Harper was born, they have not received much attention from the fans, and especially the people who just tune in to watch during the playoffs. McCutchen is putting Pittsburgh on the map. This Wednesday, ESPN televised the Pirates playing on the road against St. Louis, a game in which the Pirates won easily. It was very symbolic for Cutch and his Buccos.

Given the state of the game rife with scandal and steroids, baseball must utilize their superstars to get fans interested again in watching the game. It starts with finding the right players who epitomize the perfect balance of excellence on and off the field. And Cutch hits a home run in regards to those statistics. He is very proud of who he is, where he came from, and what he is on his way to doing. Young kids learning the game need a role model like this to learn how to play the game the right way, with hard work and dedication. He was drafted out of high school, worked his way up, paid his dues and is now thriving as the cornerstone of the Pirates organization.

Meanwhile, he is leading his team to their best season in ages, and given a terrible collapse, we will be seeing the Pirates playing ball in October for the first time in a long time. Cutch has been there through thick and thin, and did not choose to abandon ship to cash in on a bigger paycheck. He signed a 6-year, $51.5 million extension with the Bucs, showing that he plans to play in Pittsburgh for a very long time. His loyalty to his team and city is commendable and another positive character trait that kids growing up can follow. Very few superstars in any sport these days play with one team their entire career.

McCutchen is a rising star for a rising franchise. He has made Pittsburgh a baseball city again and has the rest of Major League Baseball buzzing as well. Steroids and PED use has given the sport a major black eye, especially with the Braun scandal. Now, Cutch emerges as the new face of a sport that needs a face lift. His skills are elite, his team is playing like it belongs in the World Series and he does this with class personified. He never promotes himself as a superstar, and these days, he does not have to. The Pittsburgh Pirates are back and Cutch is here to stay. Baseball has a new golden boy, and they look to Buc the trend of scandal and negativity into a new era of excellence done in the right way, on and off the diamond.

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Paul Culley
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Buc’n the Trend: A Pirates Fan’s View

Andrew McCutchen

It was just over a year ago when I was coaxed by one of my best friends to fork over a couple hundred dollars and purchase season tickets for the remaining two months of Pittsburgh Pirate games. At the time, it seemed like a good investment. The team was 10-plus games over .500 and had a favorable position in the NL Wild Card race. My buddy and I wanted to guarantee we’d be able to buy playoff tickets.  But as everyone knows, the Pirates imploded. A team that was 63-47 on August 8 spectacularly collapsed, winning just 16 of its last 52 games. Despite having tickets to every game in September, I did not attend PNC Park at all that month.

So when it came time to renew my season ticket package in early 2013, I wanted no part. I dodged phone calls from any number that began with 412-325. This team had way too many question marks. Would A.J. Burnett regress from his 2012 form? How would Jason Grilli handle the closer role (even though I tend to believe the closer role to be overrated)? Hell, Jonathan Sanchez made the starting rotation. There wasn’t much belief that this team would be anything more than a 75 to 78-win team. Four months later, and the Pirates have captivated Pittsburgh. The Pirates are tied for the most wins in baseball and lead their division by four games. Various websites list their odds to make playoffs as 99 percent.

For the long-suffering Pirates fans, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the reality that not only will the Pirates break their 21-year-old streak of losing seasons, but that this Pirates team is, by winning percentage, the best team in baseball. We knew the Pirates would likely become contenders at some point this decade. One would think 21 consecutive years of losing seasons would produce talent from the resulting high draft picks, but when you give a pea-brained moron like former GM Dave Littlefield six years at the helm, you end up with nothing more some 100-loss teams and an empty PNC Park. It wasn’t until Littlefield was fired and replaced by Neal Huntington in 2007 that the franchise’s fortunes turned around. Sure, Huntington presided over five losing seasons, but under his leadership the Pirates have been drafting players like Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole and Justin Wilson instead of Pacific Rim all-stars Danny Moskos, Bryan Bullington and Clint Johnston.

You could have made a case for Huntington to be fired after last season’s collapse. But he took a gamble this offseason on several players who have become key contributors. The demand for Francisco Liriano was so little that Liriano signed a contract that guarantees him just $1 million this season (to be fair, this came after it was discovered Liriano broke his non-throwing arm). Vin Mazzaro was acquired in a minor-league trade and then designated for assignment during spring training. Jeanmar Gomez was a head-scratching acquisition at the time. Now, Mazzaro and Gomez have provided front-end stability to the bullpen with an ability to eat innings. Mark Melancon spent much of last season in AAA but now sports a sub-1.00 ERA.

None of those moves were considered high-profile transactions. What they have done though is contribute to a team that has revived baseball in Pittsburgh. And after spending money to see such greats as Chris Stynes, Bobby Hill, Daryle Ward, Tony Armas, Mike Williams, Jose Castillo, John VanBenschoten and Tike Redman, winning baseball is way better than I thought. Oh, and I regret not renewing my tickets.
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Buc’n the Trend: A Pirates Fan’s View

Andrew McCutchenIt was just over a year ago when I was coaxed by one of my best friends to fork over a couple hundred dollars and purchase season tickets for the remaining two months of Pittsburgh Pirate games. At the time, it seemed like a good investment. The team was 10-plus games over .500 and had a favorable position in the NL Wild Card race. My buddy and I wanted to guarantee we’d be able to buy playoff tickets.  But as everyone knows, the Pirates imploded. A team that was 63-47 on August 8 spectacularly collapsed, winning just 16 of its last 52 games. Despite having tickets to every game in September, I did not attend PNC Park at all that month.

So when it came time to renew my season ticket package in early 2013, I wanted no part. I dodged phone calls from any number that began with 412-325. This team had way too many question marks. Would A.J. Burnett regress from his 2012 form? How would Jason Grilli handle the closer role (even though I tend to believe the closer role to be overrated)? Hell, Jonathan Sanchez made the starting rotation. There wasn’t much belief that this team would be anything more than a 75 to 78-win team. Four months later, and the Pirates have captivated Pittsburgh. The Pirates are tied for the most wins in baseball and lead their division by four games. Various websites list their odds to make playoffs as 99 percent.

For the long-suffering Pirates fans, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the reality that not only will the Pirates break their 21-year-old streak of losing seasons, but that this Pirates team is, by winning percentage, the best team in baseball. We knew the Pirates would likely become contenders at some point this decade. One would think 21 consecutive years of losing seasons would produce talent from the resulting high draft picks, but when you give a pea-brained moron like former GM Dave Littlefield six years at the helm, you end up with nothing more some 100-loss teams and an empty PNC Park. It wasn’t until Littlefield was fired and replaced by Neal Huntington in 2007 that the franchise’s fortunes turned around. Sure, Huntington presided over five losing seasons, but under his leadership the Pirates have been drafting players like Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole and Justin Wilson instead of Pacific Rim all-stars Danny Moskos, Bryan Bullington and Clint Johnston.

You could have made a case for Huntington to be fired after last season’s collapse. But he took a gamble this offseason on several players who have become key contributors. The demand for Francisco Liriano was so little that Liriano signed a contract that guarantees him just $1 million this season (to be fair, this came after it was discovered Liriano broke his non-throwing arm). Vin Mazzaro was acquired in a minor-league trade and then designated for assignment during spring training. Jeanmar Gomez was a head-scratching acquisition at the time. Now, Mazzaro and Gomez have provided front-end stability to the bullpen with an ability to eat innings. Mark Melancon spent much of last season in AAA but now sports a sub-1.00 ERA.

None of those moves were considered high-profile transactions. What they have done though is contribute to a team that has revived baseball in Pittsburgh. And after spending money to see such greats as Chris Stynes, Bobby Hill, Daryle Ward, Tony Armas, Mike Williams, Jose Castillo, John VanBenschoten and Tike Redman, winning baseball is way better than I thought. Oh, and I regret not renewing my tickets.

Stanley Cup Final Preview – Boston Bruins vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Stanley Cup Final 2013 Boston Bruins vs. Chicago Blackhawksbruins-vs-blackhawks

  • Game 1-Wed June 12 Boston @ Chicago 8 p.m. (EST) NBC
  • Game 2-Sat June 15 Boston @ Chicago 8 p.m. (EST) NBCSN
  • Game 3-Mon June 17 Chicago @ Boston 8 p.m. (EST) NBCSN
  • Game 4-Wed June 19 Chicago @ Boston 8 p.m. (EST) NBC
  • Game 5-Sat June 22 Boston @ Chicago 8 p.m. (EST) NBC
  • Game 6-Mon June 24 Chicago @ Boston 8 p.m. (EST) NBC
  • Game 7-Wed June 26 Boston @ Chicago 8 p.m. (EST) NBC

Here we are hockey fans; the Series is upon us. Today, the Stanley Cup Final gets started in Chicago and, as hockey fans, we should be in for a treat. Both teams enter the series on incredible tears with Chicago going 7-1 in its last 8 games, and Boston boasting a 9-1 record in its last 10 contests. Both teams were top choices from the outset of the season to make it this far, but the paths have been very unique. Chicago is fresh off of a President’s Trophy-winning regular season, and is primed to cause damage to the scoreboard in the Final. Boston will have an idea of its own, fresh off its shockingly dominant sweep of the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins. Let’s take a look at some keys to this series and what to anticipate.

1. These Teams Are Good

Obviously at this point of the season it goes without saying that the two best teams are left standing. Both teams have been nearly unstoppable in the playoffs, and for good reason. They are both built to win now. Both teams feature great coaching in Claude Julien for Boston and Joel Quenneville for Chicago. Both coaches were the coaches for these teams the last time each won the Stanley Cup, so they are battle tested. Although neither team’s goaltender has won the Cup as a starter, both have been fantastic this year, and both will look to continue to excel in the Final. Also, both teams will roll four lines throughout the series, and rely on depth scoring to lift the silver challis at the end of the series.

2. The Bad Boys

Boston did a great job last series of using physical play, and the mental challenges that accompany it, to its advantage last round against Pittsburgh. Entering the series, one of the questions was how Pittsburgh’s stars would respond to the in-your-face physical style that the Bruins play, and the answer was loud and clear: two goals in four games for the mighty Penguins. Players like Shawn Thorton, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and Brad Marchand goaded the Pens into bad penalties and loss of focus at times, and you can believe they will look to do the same to Chicago’s stars. That is why the aforementioned players for the Bruins, and their counterparts in Chicago will be huge factors in the outcome of this series. Guys like Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw will have to walk that thin line that, as agitators, they always walk. The Penguins did not have an answer for the Bruins, but Chicago might. Shaw and Bickell will have to keep their cool and try and get under the big boys for Boston’s skin, without taking bad penalties. It should be one of the more interesting “game within the games” of this series.

3. Star Power vs. Team Power

Like the Penguins, Chicago boasts elite high end talent with the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp in the lineup, and like with the Penguins, Boston will have to have a direct gameplan to shut these guys down. The first key is to not put the star power on the power play, and when they do, if Boston can blank the Hawks on the PP as they did with Pittsburgh. That will go a long way to helping the B’s win. Boston may not lean on one particular player, but they certainly rely on a team and getting contributions from up and down the lineup. The Penguins and Rangers had no answer for the Lucic-David Krejci-Horton line, but the Bruins still relied on the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid to advance. Look for Boston to implement a similar game plan against Chicago to neutralize its stars.

4. Goaltending, Goaltending

At this point, I am not sure why we even talk about it, but it is too crucial to not mention. Both goalies have their name on the Stanley Cup already, but neither was the starting goalie when their respective teams won. Tuukka Rask would love to take over this series as some feel he did against Pittsburgh last round, but I feel that Boston’s defensive gameplan and execution were a bigger factor than Rask’s goaltending last series. There is no doubt he will have to be as good as he has been, if not better, to stop Chicago. Corey Crawford played behind Antti Niemi when Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010, and has had a sensational season this year, but many are claiming it is because of the team in front of him. This will be his moment to prove that he is The Man, especially with making a dominant Jonathan Quick look fairly pedestrian last series versus Los Angeles a not so distant memory. It will presumably be a close, tight checking series in which the first goal will be HUGE in every game. There will be no room for error for either netminder and this will nearly certainly be the difference maker in this series.

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Prediction:

Chicago is not the Pittsburgh Penguins, and are the President’s Trophy winners for a reason. Its speed, skill, and grit will be too much for the Bruins to handle. Chicago in six.

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