Patriots Versus Bengals Week 5 Recap

Patriots versus Bengals week 5 recap
Brady’s jersey sums up the Patriots vs. Bengals in week 5

The New England Patriots took on the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium yesterday and one word can utterly and completely describe the entire affair: bad. The weather was bad, the Patriots offense was bad, the Bengals offense was bad, special teams were bad, even the Ben Gals cheerleading outfits were bad.

Okay, so the defenses were both good, with the Bengals D being just slightly better.

But mostly, everything was bad. Punts were dropped, quarterbacks were routinely sacked, fumbles cropped up at potentially pivotal moments, passes were erratic and errant and adjustments were not made.

The Patriots offense took two or three steps back after a very promising turn in Atlanta last week. The young receivers looked like they were making progress, the O line was opening holes for the running back tandem, and Brady threw the ball like Brady should.

This week, the receivers looked like they’d never run a route before, the running backs couldn’t hit the second level and Tom Brady failed to adjust his throws to accommodate the poor route running. At some point the quarterback, no matter where he thinks the receiver should be, has to actually make a pass that the receiver can catch. It’s called adjusting to the game on the field.

To be fair, the offensive line was, well, offensive. Allowing four sacks and multiple hurries, they were the anti-Denver O line.

Reason to Believe

But, there is hope for New England. Last week, the D was dealt a huge (in every sense) loss with the season-ending injury to Vince Wilfork, and there was concern about stopping the run. Despite allowing nearly 200 rushing yards to former Pat Benjarvis Green-Ellis, Giovanni Bernard and Andy Dalton, the Pat’s D only gave up one monster run of 28 yards to the sneaky fast rookie Bernard. And they almost pulled out four consecutive stops inside their own three yard line even after being on the field most of the day.

I would also be very surprised if the offense played this poorly again. Next week, the Saints head to Foxboro and Rob Ryan has always given Brady fits, but the Pats are at home, so I don’t see a repeat of yesterday’s Tom-foolery. Miami could stymie them, but by then, Gronk should be back to provide some much needed punch.

This game was a trap game. Don’t get me wrong, the Bengals are (or at least can be) a very, very good football team. But sandwiched between a trip to Atlanta and the high flying Saints, it was pretty clear that the coaching staff did not have a good game plan for neutralizing a potent Bengal’s D line.

Plus, Brady was held without a touchdown pass for the first time in 52 games. This will not be taken lightly by a competitor of Brady’s nature. This will definitely throw some fuel on the fire heading into the Saints matchup next week.

I’ve only seen Brady play live twice, and the first time I saw him at his best – beating the Browns in Cleveland 42 – 15 in 2004 – and now I’ve seen him at his worst.

Patriots versus Bengals week 5 recap
My view of the opening kickoff

Ultimately, yesterday’s game will be a forgettable footnote on the 2013 season.

Next week, let’s hope we’re singing, “When the Saints Go Marching [Home]”…with a loss. And let’s hope we see the start of a new touchdown streak by #12.

—Ryan Varney


Dusty Baker and Reds Part Ways

Cincinnati Reds and Dusty Baker part ways
Reds and Dusty Baker part ways after several failed playoffs
Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker
Baker loses NLCS with Cubs
San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker
Dusty loses WS with SF Giants

Dusty Baker and the Reds are parting ways. Reds fans have been calling for Baker’s head since 2010 but have been largely ignored by a Red’s front office that seemed to have Baker’s back 100%. So it is rather surprising that Baker’s out with a year to go on his contract. Whether it was the Red’s decision or Baker’s to part, it was the right move for both.

Sometimes I’m happy to see a manager get fired (yeah, you Bobby Valentine and hopefully you, Joe Girardi), but in this case, as vocal as I’ve been about firing Dusty, I have mixed emotions.

Let’s face it, Baker took a woeful, inept Reds team and, with the help of Walt Jocketty, reversed the current flowing through GABP. He’s gotten them into the playoffs three times in six years and has overseen the transitions of Joey Votto, Aroldis Chapman, Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto into national stars. He’s done a world of good for our Redlegs.

Yet, on the big stage, his teams falter. Where was your World Series triumph in 2002, Dusty, when you had the most dominant hitter on the planet (who didn’t even win the MVP because the second baseman was so good) and a 3-2 edge over the Angels? Where was your NL championship in 2003 when you had the second most prolific homerun hitter of the era and a bevy of young arms? No, you can’t blame Bartman. And what happened to your playoff run in 2012 when you go on the road and win two games only to come home and lose three straight?

As I’ve said before, it’s a case of motivation. Over 162 games, staying level-headed and even-keeled is a good thing – keeps you from burning out. But come October, you need to dial it up, give your players an edge and light a fire in the clubhouse. But it’s not Baker’s style to raise a ruckus. He’d prefer to leave it up to the players.

But who do players take their cue from? The GM? The owners? No. They take it from the captain, the skipper, the guy who’s in the trenches with them.

In 2003 Baker let the Cubs get away with all kinds of blame-shifting. They had a chance to win after the Bartman incident, but like the 2002 Giants, couldn’t close the door. Then a decade later, the 2012 Reds couldn’t close the door on Baker’s former team, needing only to win one of three games at home. Finally, there’s the ignominious honor of bowing out of the playoffs to a team that hasn’t seen (let alone win) a playoff game in over two decades.

What do all these teams have in common? Talent, ability and a complete lack of urgency in the clutch. What can the manager control or influence? The mindset, the heart and the emotional fire that burns inside his players.

Team meetings and motivational speeches don’t win games. But they put the team in a mindset that gives them the best shot of winning. Baker’s track record clearly demonstrates that his players are not in the best mindset come crunch time. (Remember when the Reds hit .272 with a .436 slugging percentage as team in 2010, only to get no-hit and swept out of a Division Series where they scored four total runs in three games?)

And now, Baker leaves the Reds with minimal hardware, unmet potential and worse, a team without clubhouse leadership.

It remains to be seen how Jocketty and the front office will approach hiring a new manager, but for the sake of our storied franchise, let’s hope they hire a motivator, an inspirer, perhaps an orator, but most certainly a leader.

—Ryan Varney

PS – Fire Jacoby next.

2013 Reds Post Season Recap

2013 Reds post season recap
Lights out for the 2013 Reds

This article will be about as long as the Reds post season.

Last night, the Jekyll and Hyde Reds showed up to PNC Park in all their Mr. Hyde ugliness, falling to the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-2. The Reds post season lasted eight and a half innings and just under three hours and fifteen minutes.


Actually, there’s more.

Everyone will want to second guess Dusty Baker for going with Johnny Cueto over Mat Latos, considering Cueto is still getting into pitching shape after missing most of the season. But it’s hard to argue with his logic. Cueto is (well, was) 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA at PNC Park, and Latos hasn’t looked his sharpest lately.

The fact is, Cueto simply didn’t come through. He wasn’t locating his pitches the way Francisco Liriano did. It appeared the constant, droning Cue-to, Cue-to, Cue-to chants definitely rattled him. (Note to Buccos fans: act like you’ve been there before – er, never mind.) Trouble was certainly evident when even Liriano slapped a hit up the middle. He only had three all year – for an impressive .064 BA. Then there was the long ball situation. While Marlon Byrd’s was forgivable, Cueto, along with Logan Ondrusek, also surrendered homeruns to a weak hitting catcher batting seventh in the order.

Russell Martin only batted .226 during the year with 15 jacks. Both his homers were soul crushing. Following up Marlon Byrd’s HR, Martin’s first bomb exploded the fact that Cueto was off his game. And then in the seventh, his second blast of the game pushed the run differential to five, meaning the Reds couldn’t even get back into the game with a four-run homer.

Congrats, fellas. You didn’t let McCutcheon beat you. Sure, he had two hits, two walks and a run, but he wasn’t the difference in the game.

Cueto’s inability to perform doesn’t let Baker off the hook, though. Part of a manager’s responsibilities falls outside the on-field strategies. Managers need to motivate.

Ask yourself, how motivated have the Reds looked in their past three post season appearances?

Not very.

The Reds have a ton of talent, but zero leadership. Not amongst the coaching staff and consequently, not amongst the players. This can be laid squarely on the manager’s shoulders. Pittsburgh clearly has less total talent than the Reds, but Clint Hurdle can light a fire when it’s needed.

So what now?

Moving Forward

Baker has exhausted his run as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. A change is needed and it starts with letting him go. In fact, the whole staff needs to go.

While I don’t have a suggestion for Baker’s replacement – other than “Please God, not Bobby Valentine” – I do have a suggestion for hitting coach: Dwayne Murphy.

To answer your question, Dwayne Murphy is currently the first base coach of the Toronto Blue Jays. And that job is actually a demotion for him. He was formerly the hitting coach for the Jays and is the guy responsible for making Jose Bautista the hitter he is today. Oh, and he turned Edwin Encarnacion into Bautista 2.0, something the Reds couldn’t do in all his time with them.

Imagine Todd Frazier unleashing the power we know he has to the extent that those two have. Devin Mesoraco, too. With Choo most likely gone and the uncertainty of Ludwick’s health, wouldn’t that be something of a nice surprise?

And the aggressive hitting approach Murphy takes could certainly help us remember why we ponied up a cool $225 million for Joey Votto.

Not trying to pour salt in the wound, but former Pirates slugger Ralph Kiner is said to have said, “Homerun hitters drive Cadillacs; singles hitters drive Fords.” Votto must’ve bought stock in Ford this year, because he’s buying up a fleet of them.

The Reds are sitting on a great wealth of talent and ability, from pitching to defense and even to hitting. But it needs to be brought to life, day in and day out – and especially in the clutch.

A change in the coaching staff is the best place to start if the 2014 Reds are to come alive and stay alive, all the way through October.

—Ryan Varney

New England Patriots 1st Quarter Review

The NFL season is officially 25% complete. New England has been 100% successful. With four wins and zero losses, this team has exceeded expectations – well, mine anyway. Games may have been ugly and low-scoring (by recent Patriots offensive standards), but a win is a win.

The team seems to be in a state of continuous transition on both sides of the ball. Players are being rotated in, out and around more than NASCAR tires in a pit stop.

2013 New England Patriots Offensive Carousel
Clockwise from top: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Zach Sudfeld, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan. Center: Tom Brady. Waiting to ride: Rob Gronkowski.

On the offensive side of the ball we’ve seen Welker out, Amendola in. Amendola out, Edelman in. Rookies Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce all in. The tight end position has featured Sudfeld, Hoomanawanui and Mulligan while waiting for the return of Gronk. And then there’s the running back carousel. Ridley, thought to be the feature back, has been supplanted by Vereen (now out for eight games), Blount and Bolden (returned after missing two games).

The defensive side of the ball has seen more consistency, but the Falcons game dealt the Pats a potentially huge blow with the loss of Vince Wilfork to an Achilles tear. Rookie Joe Vellano stepped up admirably, but it remains to be seen what level of play he can sustain.

I’ve been one of the few critical voices regarding Bill Belichick as a head coach due to the Pats lack of hardware, given all the talent he’s had over the past five seasons. Sure, they’ve been a great regular season team, but that has not translated in the big games. However, up to this point in the season, Bill Belichick should be in the running for coach of the year.

Getting back to a strong, consistent run game has given Brady more time to get his rookie receiving core up to speed and NFL standards, and Belichick’s finally found the right defensive personnel to execute pass coverage without having to loosen up on their tight run D. The linebackers have done an excellent job in pass coverage and the D line has been getting to the quarterback without resorting to all out blitzes. Cornerback play has stopped looking like it belongs in high school and safeties continue to play smart.

Perhaps the lack of superstar egos in the clubhouse has contributed to the team chemistry, but whatever’s going on in that locker room is clearly providing a true team atmosphere. Players are picking each other up and seem to be giving just a little more effort when the chips are down.
I’m starting to think Peter King’s Superbowl prediction may not be as ridiculous as I’ve deemed it. If the injury bug can be stilled for a few weeks, this roster has a real chance to gel into an exciting team on both sides of the ball. The receiving core has made vast improvements each week and the defense continues to make plays when they’re needed. Even the 23 points to Falcons wasn’t as bad as it looked. Twenty-three points to a team with a HOF tight end (still playing at an amazingly high level), two all-pro receivers, a sneaky-fast running back and a stud QB playing at their house is nothing to sneeze at. Especially considering the inability to recover a late onside kick and some truly exceptional catches by Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez – where the defense had the play covered perfectly. Plus they stopped the Falcons four consecutive downs twice, including the game-sealing series with a minute to go (something they haven’t been able to do against any team the last five years).

2nd Quarter Preview

The second quarter of the season has the Pats up against the Bengals in Cincinnati, the Saints at home, the Jets in New York and the Dolphins at home. With four wins already in the bag, the Patriots would do good to end the 2nd quarter with a 2 – 2 record. Ideally, the two wins would be against the division rivals, but I definitely see the Saints as being a little more than the Pats can handle at this point with their surprising defensive play so far.

The Bengals game poses a real problem. I will actually be in attendance at the game (strike one for NE), I’ll be wearing my jersey (strike two) and the Bengals are Jekyll and Hyde at the moment. If this game was in New England, I wouldn’t give the Bengals as much of a chance, but it’s in Cincinnati (strike three). My stupid superstitions aside (like I have any real effect on the game), the Patriots have a better than average shot at winning this game, which would go a long way toward easing the pressure of having to beat a surprisingly good Dolphins team.

If the Patriots stick to and execute their season gameplan on both sides of the ball, they could go into halftime with a 7 – 1 record (4 – 0 in the AFC East). This would be a remarkable feat. However, I suspect they’ll be 6 – 2 or even 5 – 3 at the break (3 – 1 in the division). Still, given the personnel carousel, this too would be pretty darn respectable and leaves them in a good position for making a playoff run.

One thing I’ll say for certain: this team is drilling away at my pessimistic foundation. Even I’m starting to believe in what this team can achieve.

—Ryan Varney

Predicting Patriots Versus Jets and Week One Recap

Patriots Week 1 Recap
The grimace is due to the following injuries: back, forearm, wrist, groin…

NFL Opening Day 2013 should give every Patriots fan a reason to be concerned. Barely sneaking past a team you’ve historically owned, with a rookie QB making his NFL debut was a great way to prove all the critics right. Let’s compare some general football wisdom against rabid Pats fans’ logic as we look back on the 23 – 21 NE “victory.”

General Football Wisdom: You can’t replace your four top offensive targets and expect to keep winning. Losing Welker, Hernandez, Gronk and Branch will have an effect.

Rabid Pats Fan Logic: What? Brady makes receivers and we still got Brady. And we replaced the old and tired Welker with the younger, speedier Welker 2.0 (Danny Amendola).

Reality Check: Amendola has played 60% of the games in the last two seasons. He played just over 60% of the week one game. Brady did not make stars out of Thompkins, Boyce or even Sudfeld. In fact, Brady only completed 55% of his passes. Note that the rookie, EJ Manuel, completed 66% of his passes.

The Upshot: When he was on the field, Amendola looked good and came up big when it mattered. But you still can’t count on him to actually be on the field. Edelman looked more like Welker 1.1, but that might be enough, especially with a decent running attack.

Which brings us to the next point.

General Football Wisdom: Stevan Ridley is a good runner, but he has a history of fumbling.

Rabid Pats Fan Logic: Ridley is awesome. It’s his year to blossom. Plus we got Vereen, Blount and Boldin. This backfield will dominate.

Reality Check: Ridley fumbled (he wasn’t even touched by a defensive player) and Vereen is lost indefinitely with a wrist injury that requires surgery.

The Upshot: Big time offensive problems loom for New England. A marginal receiving core, a fumble-prone backfield sans the dual-threat in Shane Vereen, and the possible loss of a great blocking TE in Sudfeld (pulled hammy) should see the boys average under 20 PPG over the next few weeks, which means the D needs to man up.

Ah, the defense.

General Football Wisdom: New England added some pass rushing and finally has quality coverage in the secondary.

Rabid Pats Fan Logic: These guys are seasoned, now. Besides, our turnover ratio is other-worldly. Ain’t nuthin’ to worry ‘bout here.

Reality Check: These guys still can’t stop Old Man Jackson. They gave him 67 rushing yards plus an additional 41 receiving yards. He continues to own the Patriots (remember 80 rushing and 60 receiving yards last year? How about 74 and 87 two years ago?). Plus they completely failed to pressure a rookie QB. Zero sacks. Deflating.

The Upshot: They did create some turnovers and Fred Jackson only plays for the Bills. The secondary did a decent job, but sadly they still can’t find a way to knock around the quarterback. These guys don’t look that seasoned (or talented).

A Quick Anecdote

Settling in to watch the game, I ran into a fellow com-Patriot. I asked, “You worried about this game?”

His response, “Nah, we got this in the bag. It’s Buffalo.”

I noticed he was gone by halftime.

How It’s Gonna Go Down In 2013

Unlike that football sage Peter King, who has the Patriots winning the Super Bowl (the new MMQB project must be monopolizing his brain cells), I predicted the Patriots to reach 10 wins based solely on the fact that they play in the AFC East. After the Week 1 performance, I’m not even sure that’s a benefit. I also have them losing in the first round of the playoffs to whomever they draw.

This week against the Jets—short week, minus two more offensive weapons—the Patriots are in real danger of losing this game. I think they win 17 – 14, but could easily see it going 19 – 17 for the Jets. Ultimately, the Pats have to hold the Jets under 20 points to win this game.

Seriously, unless everyone stays healthy from here on out and Gronk actually plays through the playoffs, this team is one and done.

But, hey, at least we’re not the Steelers.

—Ryan Varney

PNC Park on a Wing and a Prayer

“So let me get this straight. You just woke up and decided to drive to Pittsburgh, from Cincinnati, for a Pirates game?” asked the man sitting next to me at PNC Park Saturday.

“Pretty much,” I said.

To which he just shook his head incredulously.

Looking back, I guess it might seem a little absurd to just get up and go with no planning, at least to any normal person. But it could have been even crazier.

The Recap

When I woke up Saturday morning around 9:30 a.m., my wife, Jenn, looked over and said, “Let’s go to Chicago.” Not wanting to discuss such a ridiculous notion, I called her bluff.

“Why stop there? Let’s just go right up to Milwaukee and catch the Reds game. We can hit Chicago for lunch on the way home Sunday.” Then I got up and took a shower thinking that was the end of it.

I was wrong. Jenn was seriously considering my suggestion. After further consideration, we decided that Milwaukee was just a bit too far for a weekend jaunt. But now my interest was piqued, so I offered up the possibility of going to Pittsburgh or Detroit for a game.

As it turned out, Pittsburgh was at home and the game started at 4:10 p.m. We did some quick calculating and determined that if we left by 10:30 a.m. we might just make it in time. She showered and we left. I was 10:40 a.m.

Using the speed limit as mere suggestion, we blitzed our way through Ohio and into Pennsylvania. Jenn used to book a hotel as we drove and fate rewarded us for our impromptu rendezvous. We got a room at the Westin, one block from two of our favorite places in Pittsburgh, Seviche and The Sharp Edge. By the time we parked, unpacked and left the room it was 3:40 p.m.

We hailed a cab and hit the stadium ten minutes later and immediately sought out the ticket booth. As we were standing in line, a man approached us and asked if we needed tickets.

“How much?” I asked.

“There’s no cost,” he replied.

“What’s the catch?”

“You have to sit next to me,” and he handed us the tickets and walked off toward the stadium gates.

Two tickets for seats in the middle deck, third base side. Free. We need to buy that guy a beer.

But first it was off to the stadium souvenir shop to get my obligatory ball cap, followed by a quest for food and Yuengling. We finally made it to our seats at 4:20 p.m., only three batters into the top of the first. Mission accomplished.

The Twist

As it turns out, the man offering us free tickets was a call-in talk show host for Pittsburgh’s KDKA radio station, Robert Mangino. Since I used to work for the radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, we ended up having a lot to talk about. So if you’re reading this Mr. Mangino, thanks not just for the tickets but the great conversation, too. You helped make our Pittsburgh getaway great.

Just Sayin’

Last year I wrote an article about why major league teams should give me tickets to their stadium, the reason being that every stadium I visited was home to a team that made the playoffs. Maybe you can see where this is going.

Pittsburgh hasn’t made the playoffs in over two decades. Barry Bonds still weighed a buck fifty the last time the Buccos saw October. Don’t look now, but the Pirates are nearly a lock to make the 2013 playoffs. You’re welcome Pittsburgh.

And of course, I’ve been to Great American Ball Park (GABP) to see my hometown Reds and it’s looking good for them in October, too.

PNC Park

PNC Park has the kind of view GABP could have if the stadium was built across the river in Kentucky. Downtown Pittsburgh provides a beautiful, towering backdrop, while the river gives Pedro Alvarez a place to deposit moon shots.

PNC Park in Pittsburgh
PNC Park in Pittsburgh
PNC Park view of downtown Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh city view from PNC Park

Pretty standard food and beverage selections, especially on the 300 level, though the in-stadium Quaker Steak was a bonus – I do enjoy me some Arizona ranch wings. All the specialty vendors were on the 100 level, so it didn’t really make sense to go all the way back down.

Still, my only real complaint is the lack of cup holders in the seats. Clearly a lot of money was spent on PNC Park; why the penny-pinching on seats without cup holders? Did you get lobbied by the beer vendor union? More spills equal more re-fills and more bills in their pockets?

Extra Innings

Despite the colossal butt-whipping Arizona gave the Bucs, the trip was a success, even with our complete disregard for planning ahead. We stumbled into free tickets to a stadium we’ve not visited previously and we met a local celebrity who turned out to be a really nice guy.

We’re coming back, Pittsburgh. No, seriously. We are. See you in November for the Bills/Steelers game.

—Ryan Varney

PS – stay tuned for more on the non-sports side of Pittsburgh: food and other stuff.

Reds Opening Day 2013 Recap

Cincinnati Reds Opening Day 2013 Recap
After one game on the books, the 2013 Cincinnati Reds felt very similar to the 2012 Reds. I’m not the only person to think this, either. In his post-Opening Day blog titled New Season, Same Feeling, ESPN 1530’s Mo Egger writes, “…you know how you felt during those last three games of the NLDS last October? That feeling of just waiting, dying, for something to happen offensively, and consistently being let down? I felt that yesterday.” He went on to point out that the Reds were 0-10 with runners in scoring position. It is tough to win when you have no offense.

However, my take on what feels the same about the 2013 and 2012 Reds is a little different than Egger’s. I’m getting sick and tired of watching Reds pitching give up meaningful and/or difference-making homeruns to weak hitters. It’s one thing to get beat by another team’s stud, but to lose games because you give up three-run bombs to Jaime Garcia (he’s a friggin’ pitcher, btw)…it’s devastating.

Opening Day 2013: Angels over Reds 3 – 1

How did the Angels get three runs? A solo homer by catcher Chris Iannetta and a two-run (game-winning) single by…Iannetta. Batting from the eighth spot, Iannetta managed to basically beat the Reds by himself. In a lineup with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and, oh yeah, Josh Hamilton, the Reds got beat by a guy who batted .240 with nine jacks last year. Truly an 8-hole hitter.

So why does that remind me of last year? In 65 losses, Reds pitching surrendered game-tying or go-ahead homeruns to seventh, eighth and ninth place hitters 11 times last year. Only 2 of the 10 hitters even had double digit HRs (there are only 10 because one guy got ‘em twice). That means in about 20% of the Reds losses last year they got beat by a scrub.

Just for fun, I compiled a list of these Reds-beaters.

Player Order Team Avg./HRs
Omar Infante 7 Marlins .257/4
Xavier Nady 9 (ph) Nationals .184/4
Tyler Greene 8 Cardinals .230/11
Ian Stewart 7 Cubs .201/5
Wilson Ramos 8 Nationals .265/3
Ronny Cedeno 8 Mets .259/4
Cody Ransom 7 Brewers .210/17
Martin Maldonado 7 Brewers .266/8
Erik Kratz 8 Phillies .248/9
Erik Kratz 7 Phillies .248/9
Jaime Garcia 9 Cardinals .250/1

Mental Toughness

This is strictly opinion, but getting beat by bums is a by-product of a mental let-up. Generally speaking, Reds pitchers were able to get 3-4-5-6 hitters out in these 11 losses. But I think the mental effort required to retire the ‘dangerous’ part of the lineup caused Reds pitchers to ease up mentally on the 7-8-9 hitters. Miss a spot here, hang a curve there, and BAM, even Mario Mendoza could go yard.

The Reds pitching staff is relatively young (minus Arroyo), so here’s hoping last year’s foibles built some mental toughness for 2013. After one game, though, I’m not so sure.

—Ryan Varney

2013 NCAA Final Four Predictions

2013 NCAA Final Four PredictionsThe 2013 NCAA Men’s Final Four matchups are now set, so I decided to take a peek at how my brackets were shaping up. This year I entered two brackets in two separate pools. Total cost: $10. Potential winnings: $750. One pool could net me $600, while the other only $150. Clearly, I’m hoping to dominate the $600 pool.

With bated breath, I logged in to check my brackets. My heart rate accelerated when I saw that I was at the top of BOTH pools.

March Madness Pool #1

Ryan's $600 NCAA March Madness pool brackets
At the top of my $600 March Madness Pool

March Madness Pool #2

Ryan's $600 NCAA March Madness pool brackets
At the top of my $150 March Madness Pool

This has never happened to me – I’m usually out by the Sweet Sixteen. Could I actually make some money?! Ultimately, to win the $600 pool I need Syracuse to win the whole thing. If Louisville wins, I should at least get 2nd. However, any further advancement by Michigan, and my brackets are busted like Kevin Ware’s leg.

Go ‘Cuse!

Reflections on the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight Games

Another year leaves me wondering why I keep thinking Ohio State can play basketball. Thad Matta’s gotta go. Allowing your team to rely on poor perimeter shots instead of getting them to drive to the basket cost your Bucks the game, Mr. Matta. As early as late in the first half, it was clear that when the Buckeyes drove to the hoop, the Shockers couldn’t keep from fouling them. Ohio State finally adopted this approach late in the second half, but by then it was way too late.

Bill Self

Billy Donovan

On the flip side, Michigan was awesome. As a Buckeye fan, this should make me want to puke (which, after checking my brackets, it does indeed), but man oh man was it great to see them wipe the smirk off the face of Bill Self coming back on Kansas in OT. That game was absolutely riveting. Coach Self still can’t bear to look (top left).

And what can you say about the Florida game? I believe Billy Donovan’s expression says it all (bottom left). I was pulling for the Wolverines (calm down fellow Buckeyes) as they are all that remain of our lauded Big Ten. Of course, that was before I realized how detrimental Michigan winning could be to my winnings. Sorry Team Go Blue, I’m back to hating you now.

Syracuse didn’t look very crisp against Marquette, but the defense was staunch. They’re going to need a replication of that defensive performance against Michigan – though Nik Stauskas can’t possibly stay that hot from downtown, can he?

And Louisville? My heart goes out to Kevin Ware (and, yeah, I apologize for the tasteless joke earlier). What an unbelievably freak occurrence. I’m with his teammates in wishing him the speediest of recoveries. Despite the loss, Louisville stayed mentally tough and made the phrase “Duke sucks” seem quite legitimate. I don’t care how charming our Cinderella Shockers are, Louisville won’t have any sympathy. I see Wichita State getting pressed into ground wheat.

What’s Next (Here Comes the Pessimism)

I’ll take Louisville over Wichita St. by eight. Michigan will beat Syracuse by one on a last-second, boneheaded turnover (because the college hoops gods hate me). Louisville wins the whole she-bang 78 – 70. I win about $200. Just about enough to cover the bottle of Dom Perignon I bought to celebrate finally winning a March Madness pool.

—Ryan Varney

Wes Welker Signs with Denver

Wes Welker signs with the Denver BroncosDanny Amendola signs with the New England Patriots
L: Wes Welker; R: Danny Amendola

Living in Cincinnati, people just assume I’m a Bengals fan. I’m generally slow to reveal I’m actually a Patriots fan because they’ve apparently become the NY Yankees of football. Usually I get some response about Brady being a prima donna or Belichick being Darth Vader or how sick everyone is of them winning. So it’s been rather fun for me since Wes Welker signed with Denver. Now all I get is, “What are you going to do without Welker?”

I’m going to pray every day for the health and safety of Danny Amendola.

I know that Welker and Amendola are different receivers with different skill sets, but Amendola has the potential to make as many catches and be as productive as Welker (maybe even by stretching the field a little more and leaving the middle for Hernandez and Gronk). But only if he can stay healthy. And that’s a big IF.

What I Like About Welker

Welker has been durable and consistent. Even with his knee injury he barely missed any time. He’s never played less than 14 games in a season with New England and has averaged around 115 catches for 1,250 yards each season. (And many of those catches came on critical third down conversions.)

Plus, he performed well as a punt returner. Though his production waned a bit in the last two seasons, he was a true threat for several years.

I don’t know if the Pats offensive scheme led to Welker’s success, but I do know that the combination of Welker and the offensive game plan created an absolute superstar as far as the numbers are concerned. Welker was never a high profile personality, but his body of work over the last five years is pretty much unparalleled.

What I Don’t Like About Welker

Granted, this was a very difficult catch, but it’s one that needs to be made. This is where the big money is earned. Here’s Welker’s quote regarding the drop, “It comes to the biggest moment of my life, and [I] don’t come up with it.”

This could very well be why the Patriots felt Welker’s market value was a tad too high. Now I know mistakes should be forgiven (even Bill Buckner finally got off the hook in 2004), but then couple that drop with the third quarter drop against Baltimore in the AFC Championship game and I’m starting to wonder if Welker can make the big play when the pressure is on.

I couldn’t find a video of this drop, so here’s a recap from ESPN.

Welker drop a turning point: In terms of a turning point in the game, a Wes Welker dropped pass early in the third quarter was when the Patriots’ fortunes turned in the wrong direction. The Patriots led 13-7 and had advanced to the Ravens’ 34, facing a third-and-8 when Welker couldn’t corral a pass close to the first-down marker. The Ravens scored a touchdown on their next possession and never trailed again.

While this catch didn’t actually cost New England the game (Brady has repeatedly shown he can’t handle the Ravens D), it certainly shifted the momentum of the game. I distinctly remember commenting that “it was all downhill from here” for the Pats after the Welker drop. (I was immediately pooh-poohed, but as more often than not, I was right.) I’d also like to point out that the pass hit him directly in the hands.

So How Do I Feel About Losing Welker?

How many Superbowls has Welker helped the Patriots win?


You can be a regular season stud, but if you’re not going to perform when the pressure is on, maybe it’s time to move on. I know two non-catches shouldn’t offset Welker’s entire body of work, but in the NFL, one play can make a career. Welker could have one SB ring (maybe two) had he come up with the catches, but today he remains ringless.

Look at Joe Flacco. Very, very pedestrian in the regular season. Then one – that’s ONE – brilliant postseason and he signs a $20 million a year deal.

It’s all in when you make the plays.

—Ryan Varney

Are NFL Storylines a Little Too Unreal?

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NFL: National Football League or Nuts For Lewis?

I admit, I’ve really only been a serious fan of football since the start of the new millennium. So what I’m about to ponder will most likely seem ridiculous – something to which my wife would readily agree. Still, I will press forward with my skepticism about some of the things that go on in the NFL. Since I started watching the NFL regularly, there have been some storylines that are just a little bit too good to be true. Not for the fans, but for the media and the league marketing department.

Here are some that come to mind.

  • John Elway, perennially denied a Superbowl victory, finally wins the big game. Twice in two years, including in his final game. Don’t get me wrong, those were some really good Bronco teams, but back-to-back SB wins from a 38 year-old QB seems a bit unlikely.
  • St. Louis Rams, “The Greatest Show on Turf,” lose (on turf) to a rookie QB despite being 14 point favorites. It wasn’t even supposed to be a contest.
  • The proliferation of low-seeded teams or teams with relatively weak records to emerge as Superbowl champs in the past decade (Steelers ’06, Giants ’07, Packers ’11, Giants ‘12). And we could be adding the Ravens to the list this year.
  • HOF running back Jerome Bettis wins the SB in his last game (on a 6 seed team). Michael Strahan wins SB in his last season (on a 5 seed team). I already mentioned Elway, and now Ray Lewis could go out a champion.
  • How about the Giants over the 18-0 Patriots? Looked like Superbowl XXXVI all over again. (BTW – I might’ve been the only person in America who picked the Giants that year.)
  • How about a Giants/Patriots rematch in a year (2012) that should’ve been Niners/Ravens? Not to worry, the Harbaugh Bowl was merely delayed for a year. And now it just got better with the added factor of the Ray Lewis spectacle…

Why I Bring This Up Now

First, the recent “he said, he said” between former wide receiver Tim Brown and former head coach Bill Callahan. The gist is that Brown implied Callahan ‘sabotaged’ Superbowl XXXVII because he hated the Raiders and wanted to see his friend John Gruden win, instead. Brown’s assertion is extreme, but he did at least get confirmation from former teammate Jon Ritchie, who stated that the Raiders spent all week practicing for a game plan which they completely discarded come game time. Callahan immediately denied Brown’s accusations. Regardless of who you believe, it puts even that Superbowl in the shadow of the sportlight.

Then there was this little gem from Peter King’s MMQB column (Tuesday edition).

Jim, a reader from Regina, Saskatchewan, wrote:

Any idea why the Patriots appeared to run exactly the same offensive scheme against the Ravens that the Broncos had failed with the week before? Lots of inside runs, short passes in the flat, short crossing patterns. If they were trying to make Ray Lewis look good, that was the offense to do it with. And then both head coaches choked in key situations – Bill Belichick punting from the 34, John Fox telling Peyton Manning to run on third-and-seven? Did they forget they both have the best quarterbacks of their generation?

You can draw your own conclusions…

No Conspiracy Theories—Just Skepticism

It just seems strange to me that both the AFC and NFC runner up from last year would make the Conference Championship Game the very next year. And, after the hoopla about the possibility of two brothers going against each other in the big game last year, it’s not a stretch to maintain that marketing machines and the media saw a story they could sure sink their teeth into this year. Then add the Ray Lewis farewell tour into the mix and there’s no way the Patriots were going to be allowed back to the Superbowl. What about the Falcons? Sure, Atlanta hasn’t won, but Matt Ryan is young and there’s plenty of time for them to get there. I’m betting they’ll be back.

For the record, I don’t care about the Harbaughs. I think they’re both good coaches. I don’t particularly like Ray Lewis and being married to a Steeler fan while living in Cincinnati, I’m starting to really hate Baltimore. Still, I’ll close with this: Ray Lewis may not have murdered anyone, but the media spectacle that has become his self-proclaimed farewell is killing my appetite for the NFL.

—Ryan Varney