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Watching the first round of the NCAA tournament…

High seeds, low seeds, upsets, cinderellas and erasers are spinning sports fans’ heads this week, but everyone’s bracket will have to be in ink by Thursday morning when the madness begins in earnest. 

Looking at this year’s field, I am widely uninspired by most of the high seeds beyond those on the top line, making it an interesting year to pick a posh team lower down on the list of seedings.  The first round is rife with high seeds that have  tough matchups, top teams limping into the tourney, low seeds on fire and underdogs that could sneak into round two or beyond.

Here are the games I’m watching closely this Thursday and Friday:

MIDWEST REGION

The Midwest has largely been analyzed as the region loaded with strong teams on the top five lines, with critics saying #1 seed Kansas got jobbed when they were named the tournament’s number one overall but were placed in the toughest region.  The next three seeds after KU are killers with Ohio State, Georgetown and Maryland waiting in the wings.  Each of those schools are popular sleeper picks to make a deep run.  But what I like in this region are some of the middle seeds and how they match up.

#5 Michigan State versus #12 New Mexico State seems like a cut-and-dry matchup with Tom Izzo and his tournament success, but MSU has not looked right all year and I get the feeling that they are ripe for an early exit.   The Spartans better not sleep on the Aggies’ guard combination of Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson as both can fill it up, averaging nearly 40 combined points a game.  MSU seems like they aren’t on the ball and haven’t really dominated any team in the second half of the season.  I see NMSU as a nice 12 vs. 5 upset pick with low risk as I feel Maryland and Greivis Vasquez take out the Spartans if they sneak by the Aggies.

#6 Tennessee against #11 San Diego State is deceiving if one looks just at the seeding of these two squads.  After starting 16-1, the Vols finished 10-6 including some blowout losses that weren’t even close.  In contrast, the Aztecs come in on fire, winning the Mountain West Conference and nine of ten games going into the dance.  The Vols will have trouble with Kawhi Mitchell, the MWC’s freshman of the year, who will give Wayne Chism all he can handle. Additionally, D.J. Gay and Billy White will be formidable matchups defensively for UT.  I like SDSU in this game and to make it to the Sweet Sixteen.

#7 Oklahoma State and #10 Georgia Tech present maybe the best matchup of any first round game in the field of 64.  If you haven’t seen OSU’s James Anderson yet, he is a scoring machine and the kind of player who can lead a team deep into the tourney on his own.  Anderson averages over 22 points a game and nearly six boards a contest.  He’s been on a tear down the stretch, scoring 25 or more in six of the Cowboys’ last eight games.  GT is one of the more disappointing teams in the country, sneaking into the tourney on the heels of an ACC championship appearance.  But Tech is one of the most talented teams in the field and it wouldn’t be a shocker if they put it together and made a deep run behind coach Paul Hewitt and studs like Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal.  No matter who wins this game, Ohio State is going to have its hands full in the second round and may not make it to the second weekend.

WEST REGION

This region is the one with the most question marks.  Many are hesitant to move Syracuse all the way to the Final Four until the team shows they can play at full strength with the return of Arinze Onuaku.  The rest of the region is tenuous at best.  Kansas State (#2) is a nice pick to go far, but aren’t overwhelmingly impressive as a two-seed.  Pittsburgh has gotten by on great coaching from Jamie Dixon and overachievement up and down their roster, but how will they fair in the dance?  Fourth-ranked Vanderbilt stumbled down the stretch and isn’t steeped with tourney history.  The fifth (Butler), sixth (Xavier) and seventh (BYU) seeded teams are all from mid-majors, though the Musketeers from Xavier and BYU’s Cougars are nice picks to make deep runs…

#5 Butler takes on #12 UTEP in an intriguing 5-12 matchup from mid-major conferences.  I see Butler as a Gonzaga-type program that is now a perennial participant but the mystique of cinderella has faded away.  UTEP is a tough squad that earned their at-large bid and I think they will keep this game very close.  The Miners’ loss to Houston ended a 16-game winning streak and I see them as looking to prove their worth in this matchup.  UTEP’s Derrick Caracter is going to give Butler all it can handle and the Bulldogs may not have an answer for the Miners’ Randy Culpepper.  This will be a tough game for Butler and I see them getting knocked off in this first round.

#7 Brigham Young faces #10 Florida, who has a twelve-game tournament winning streak dating back to their consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007.  Florida was awarded a controversial at-large bid and draws a team in BYU who is under-seeded. The committee seems to seed the Cougars a couple of slots lower every year because they have to play in a bracket that competes on Thursday and Saturday, since the religious school will not play on Sundays.  This is bad news for Florida as BYU is my favorite pick for a team seeded below a four to get to their regional final and I would not be surprised to see them in the Final Four, especially since the West plays their games next weekend in Salt Lake City, Utah, an hour’s drive from Provo.  BYU’s Jimmer Fredette is similar to OSU’s Anderson as a player who can carry his team through a tournament.  Fredette shoots lights out and needs to be guarded once he crosses the half court line.  The Cougars don’t make mistakes, run up-and-down the court and play incredibly cerebral basketball.  I’ve watched them all year as they are in the Mountain West Conference and I see them taking out the Gators, moving past K-State and into the Sweet Sixteen.

EAST REGION

This region sets up to have the best potential showdown between one and two seeds, as Kentucky and West Virginia may be on a collision course.  Those two may be playing the best ball of anyone in the country right now and if they were in different regions they may have been a popular pick to meet in the Final Four or the national championship game.  The rest of the region bores me for the most part with some struggling teams (Missouri, Wake Forest, Texas) and some “blah” teams from the middle pack of their conferences (Marquette, Wisconsin, Clemson).  There are two games, however, that I really look forward to watching.

#5 Temple faces #12 Cornell in a matchup of coaches that have more history than any other two in the first round.  Temple coach Fran Dunphy was head coach at the Ivy League’s Pennsylvania University from 1989-2006 before moving to another Philly college, Temple.  Cornell’s coach, Steve Donahue, was an assistant for Dunphy for over a decade at Penn.  Needless to say, the two know each other well.  Dunphy has never lost to a team coached by a protegé.  The unfortunate thing for both of these teams is that they are both under-seeded.  Temple could easily have earned a spot as a three or four seed and Cornell, who was ranked in the top 25 at one point this year and gave overall number one Kansas a run for their money, would have made sense as a nine or ten seed.  In a perfect world, these teams would meet in the second round instead of the first.  Because of their history, I see the Owls running over Cornell’s Big Red.  Temple has won ten in a row and 12 of 13.  They won a tough Atlantic-10 conference this year and I believe the backcourt of Juan Fernandez and Ryan Brooks will be too much for Cornell and whomever the Owls play in round two.

#6 Marquette and #11 Washington play in San Jose, California this week and at a glance, the Golden Eagles are the clear favorite after navigating through a wicked hard Big East conference.  But which team will show up?  The Marquette that beat Villanova in the Big East quarterfinals or the team that got boat-raced by Georgetown in the conference’s semis?  The Eagles are a tough team with a great lead player in Lazar Haywood, but beyond him there isn’t much left in the cupboard.  I see UW keying on him, especially with the time they’ve had this week to break down film.  The Huskies won the Pac-10 tournament after getting hot down the stretch.  They haven’t lost in a month, riding a seven-game winning streak to the dance.  Quincy Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas are the real deal and may be one of the best one-two punch combinations in all of college basketball.  But the real question is this: despite the noted struggles by the Pac-10 this year (see HERE), is their tournament champion and second best regular season team really that much worse than the Big East’s fifth or sixth best team?  They are still a major conference and I’ll take the hotter team with the better stars in this one.  Give me the Huskies.

SOUTH REGION

Every time I fill out a bracket, this region looks different  for me.  Duke appears to be the weakest one seed, but something tells me that Coach K has a fighting chance with Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith who are all averaging over 17 points a game.  #2 Villanova seems like they just aren’t right, but a senior point guard like Scottie Reynolds can change anything.  Baylor is an intriguing three seed, but something tells me the Bears won’t be in the Final Four.  Perhaps my favorite story is that of #16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff (see HERE), winners of the play-in game last night over Winthrop, who will surely exit the tourney when Duke takes care of them later this week.  Beyond that, here’s what I’ll be watching in the South Region on Thursday and Friday:

#4 Purdue faces #13 Siena in a matchup focused on the Boilermakers’ loss of Robbie Hummel late in the season.  Siena has won their first round game in two consecutive NCAA tournaments, beating Vanderbilt by 21 as a #13 seed in 2008 and taking down Ohio State as a nine seed in 2009.  The Saints have tournament experience and will not be surprised by the atmosphere against Purdue.  The Boilermakers haven’t been the same without Hummel and seem ripe for an upset in this game.  Take Siena.

#5 Texas A&M is a popular pick to be upset against #12 Utah State as everyone tries to find the magical 12 seed that will ride their way into the Sweet Sixteen.  However, I don’t see it that way.  A&M is better than their seeding indicates and even though they’ve had stumbles in past tourneys, I see them handling USU.  Donald Sloan is one of the best point guards in the country, B.J. Holmes is a sharpshooter and Dash Harris (who should be back from injury for the first game) is a shutdown defender.  Utah State didn’t look like anything special against New Mexico State in the WAC final and I think they will be over-matched in this one.  I see A&M moving on, then defeating Siena or Purdue on their way to a Sweet Sixteen game in Houston, just under 100 miles away from A&M’s campus.

Enjoy the first round games.  May all your 12 seeds win and may your Final Four be intact come Saturday.

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Filed under Basketball, College Basketball, NCAA Tournament

Watching what could have been with Drew Brees…

As the Saints and Colts prepare to have all eyes on them Sunday night in Miami, Drew Brees prepares to share the biggest spotlight with the best quarterback in the world, Peyton Manning.  Miami Dolphins fans have the unfortunate privilege of watching Brees play in the stadium he nearly called home.

This reality may torment Dolphin fans day in and day out, but in the Super Bowl, in their city, it has to sting more than usual.  Let’s revisit Brees’ decision and explore what might have happened had it been different.

It was March of 2006 when Brees made the decision to sign with New Orleans and rookie head coach Sean Payton.  The Saints were coming off a dismal season, going 3-13 and playing no games in the city of New Orleans after the devastation from Hurricane Katrina.  Brees’ decision was partly swayed by the role the Saints -and eventually Brees- played in the rebuilding of New Orleans’ city and its spirit.

There was one other team who showed interest in Brees, who was coming off a devastating shoulder injury from his last game as a San Diego Charger.  Dr. James Andrews performed the reconstruction and 30 other NFL teams were scared off.  The Miami Dolphins were the one team that showed interest in the quarterback, but were unwilling to guarantee the kind of money that Brees was seeking.  ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown is set to air a feature on Brees’ surgery including interviews with Andrews that will show just how badly the injured shoulder was and why every NFL team was correct in steering clear and why the Dolphins had ample reason to hesitate.

Nick Saban was the Dolphins coach that season.  The Fins had just finished a 9-7 and seemed to be moving in the right direction.  They were in the market for a proven quarterback and Brees was on their radar.  After negotiations that were described as business-like and always had the dark cloud of Brees’ shoulder and the franchise’s injury concerns hovering, the Dolphins decided to break talks and instead traded a second-round draft pick for another quarterback coming off an injury, Daunte Culpepper.  That trade was made the same day Brees signed a 6-year, $60 million contract with New Orleans.

The rest is history.  Brees has been throwing touchdown passes since he signed with the Saints, has been an integral part of the rebuilding process of New Orleans and will play on sports’ biggest stage on Sunday.  Culpepper lasted four games as Miami’s starter before being benched and was eventually put on injured reserve.  Saban bolted for Alabama after two seasons in Miami and is now on the top of the college football heap once again with the Crimson Tide’s national championship.

But what if Brees came to South Florida?  What if the Fins rolled the dice on his injured shoulder instead of Culpeper’s mangled knee?  Brees had the opportunity to sign a contract with Miami for less money.  Though he says that the rebuilding process after Katrina was a part of his decision-making process, would more money have tipped the tables?  Let’s make like we’re all four-year-olds and play “pretend” for a few minutes. . .

The most devastating effect in this whole alternate scenario is on the city of New Orleans.  In 2005, the Saints played two preseason games in the Superdome before Katrina forced them into vagabonds for the rest of the year.  Training in San José and playing home games in New York, San Antonio and Baton Rouge, the team’s future was up in the air when the curtain closed on Jim Haslett and the Saints’ season.

Had Brees donned the bright orange jersey of Miami, the Saints would have had limited options at quarterback.  Culpepper may have found himself in black and gold and we all know how ready he was to play.  Currently on the roster at the end of ’05 were longtime starter Aaron Brooks and backup Todd Bouman, who supplanted Brooks as the starter for the final three games of ’05.  Brooks had started 82 consecutive games, but clearly his time as New Orleans’s starter was over.  He was released at the end of the season.

With those options moving forward, the fortune of the Saints without Brees would have been tenuous at best.  Owner Tom Benson remained committed to keep the team in New Orleans after Katrina and that effort was certainly solidified by Brees’ arrival, the team’s subsequent rousing homecoming and the events of 2006: a 10-6 season, a divisional title, a playoff win over Philadelphia and a conference championship appearance.

The magic of the 2006 return to New Orleans may have energized the team through two mediocre seasons (7-9 and 8-8) and zero playoff appearances in 2007 and 2008.  Beginning the 2009 season, the team was a posh playoff pick, but many critics also thought that Sean Payton may have been on the hot seat if the magical 2006 season was followed up by a third sub-par effort.

Say the Saints plodded through 2006 with Brooks, Bouman or Culpepper at quarterback and ended up with the same record as the Dolphins (6-10) or worse.  Money says that fans might turn away from the team as a beacon for hope and reality would set in pretty quickly on Benson and the ownership group.  Three consecutive seasons of “Ain’ts” football might have Benson ready to sell or move the franchise to cozier surroundings like San Antonio or Los Angeles.  The Saints had been playing with house money since 2006 and Payton and Brees kept the energy up by immersing themselves in New Orleans’ recovery efforts.  The same may not have happened if 2006 wasn’t so sterling.

And what of the Dolphins if Brees came to Joe Robbie/Dolphins/Pro Player/Land Shark/Sun Life Stadium?  This is where things get really crazy in bizarro world.  Brees would undoubtedly have taken the reigns of a club on the rise, coming off a 9-7 season in Saban’s first as an NFL coach.  The addition of Brees of could have been league-altering.  This was a team with a stellar defense left for Saban after Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wannstedt built it to dominance.  The offense featured 1,000-yard rusher Ronnie Brown in his second season and four receiving options that caught over 50 passes each with quarterbacks like Culpepper and Joey Harrington under center.  Wes Welker was one of those targets, leading the Dolphins in receptions.

Clearly, Brees would have nurtured this group and turned them into instant contenders the way he did with the Saints.  Some may even argue that Miami had more pieces in place to become a power faster. 

What would the ramifications hold for this change of fortune?  Let’s explore a few:

Would Saban have bolted?  In the final weeks and after the 2006 season in which the Dolphins went 6-10, the rumor mill swirled around Saban’s departure for Alabama.  We have all heard the controversies and seen the name calling about his claim that he would never leave and then his exodus to Tuscaloosa.  But what if Brees brought him another winning season?  A division title?  A playoff win?  An AFC Conference Championship appearance?  These are all things Brees did in his first year with the Saints, and we already established that Miami’s supporting cast may have been more ready to take a longer leap.

That 2006 season ended up being the first losing season of Saban’s head coaching career.  He hadn’t even gone .500 since he went 6-6 twice in three years (1996 and 1998) while coaching at Michigan State University.  Odds are, Saban would have wanted to see this through and with Brees in place, there would be no reason to ditch the Dolphins.

So what of Alabama?  Clearly, the team would be on the lookout for another high-profile coach after dismissing Mike Shula after four seasons, the last of which being 6-6 campaign.  Would the Crimson Tide’s win in the BCS Championship game last month still happen?  Doubtful, seeing as no one but Saban could have done what happened in the turn-around of that program.  Saban went 6-6 (2007) in his first season at Alabama before going 12-0 in 2008’s regular season, ending that year with losses to Florida in the SEC Championship and Utah in the Sugar Bowl.  In 2009, the Tide became BCS Champions.  None of this would have happen if Saban stayed and he very well may have if Brees roamed South Beach.

What of Wes Welker?  Would he have been traded after Brees developed a connection with him in 2006?  Like Tom Brady, Brees may have been able to bring out the best in the receiver Miami branded as a borderline slot guy with great return skills.  The next season, Welker got a lowball offer from the Fins and the Patriot swooped in and traded Miami a two draft picks (rounds 2 and 7) for the Texas Tech graduate.  This would surely impact the Patriots’ dynasty moving forward and have some effect on Moss and Brady’s production without their slot weapon.  Furthermore, with Saban still in control and the Dolphins making more sound decisions without being in front office limbo, the chances they recognized the talent and locked him are more likely.

Alas, for Dolphins fans this reality never materialized.  The Saints got Brees and now here we are.  I do believe the signing of Brees in New Orleans was meant to be.  He was the perfect fit of great player, amazing human being for that city at the right time.  The way he dove right into New Orleans has been inspiring and he has become a major part of that city’s rebirth.  He truly embraced the Crescent City from the word go.  Brees and his wife, Brittany, chose to restore a 100-year-old New Orleans mansion and have become true New Orleanians.   His charitable contributions and activity in the Katrina recovery have been immeasurable.

Now it’s time to see if Brees can do something that would be a first and not a restoration…winning the Super Bowl for the city he now calls home in the city he almost did.

Here is my pick for the Super Bowl.  Odds are from Danny Sheridan as of Friday Night.

NEW ORLEANS (+5) 34, Indianapolis 31

I think the magic continues and the Saints take the whole enchilada.  The game should be very exciting and I see lots of scoring.  I think the difference will be turnovers caused by the Saints defense and the mojo that comes with having most of the nation rooting for you and the good karma that comes with overcoming a natural disaster like Katrina.  A new America’s Team will be crowned Sunday night.  Who dat?

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Filed under Betting, Drew Brees, Football, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, NFL, Playoffs

Watching an owner with heart in the AFC Championship…

Typically, owners of major sports franchises are not lauded for much of anything.  Either they are loudmouths like Mark Cuban, meddlers like Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones, divorcés like the McCourts, or incompetent like Donald Sterling and Al Davis.

Owners who are well-respected like Dan Rooney, Tom Hicks and John Henry don’t usually make headlines because they generally refrain from doing idiotic things.

Rarely is there a story about an owner which does not involve his or her wasting money on a star, berating referees to earn a hefty fine or firing a coach after seven games.  Rarely do we think of owners as anything but rich, well-to-do employers of rich, well-to-do athletes.  We do not typically picture these elite individuals as regular human beings and the thought of a tragedy striking them is almost unfathomable.

Enter Robert Wood Johnson IV, or Woody as he is affectionately known.  Johnson, 62, is the heir to the Johnson & Johnson corporation as the great-grandson of the original Robert Wood Johnson, who co-founded the company.  Woody Johnson has dedicated most of his life to philanthropy and purchased the New York Jets from Leon Hess in 2000.  The Jets return to the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1998 on Sunday when they take on the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy.

Johnson is father to five children, three daughters and two sons, and his philanthropy is closely tied to the love he has for his kids.  Doctors diagnosed daughter Casey with diabetes, prompting Johnson to donate heavily to causes related to the disease with which his first-born was afflicted.  Johnson also serves as chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.  His second daughter, Jaime, contracted lupus, inspiring her father to found the Alliance for Lupus Research.

Earlier this month on January 4th, Casey Johnson died at the age of 30.  The cause of death has yet to be determined.

She died the day after the Jets clinched a playoff spot by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals, setting up a rematch with them in the wild card round.  The Jets won the second matchup and then upset the San Diego Chargers to get to the AFC Championship.  Needless to say, this return to the postseason for New York’s owner has not been all that he anticipated, as the Johnson family put Casey to rest during the playoffs.  The ceremony was private and quiet, bittersweet for Woody Johnson and his beloved football team.

Casey was in the spotlight in her own right in recent years.  She grew up on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and was known to pal around with fellow heiresses Paris and Nicky Hilton.  The three were featured together in the 2002 documentary, “The It Girls”.

Ms. Johnson was also common tabloid fodder in the last six months, drawing headlines for questionable relationships and strange behavior.  Just last month, Casey announced her engagement to Tila Tequila of reality show fame in an online video, earning raised eyebrows and even more questions.

But Casey Johnson’s life did have a deeper side.  In 1994 she wrote a book with her parents entitled Managing Your Child’s Diabetes.  Clearly, Casey’s battle with diabetes has fueled Woody’s passion for helping treat the disease.

Casey was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of eight in 1988.  In addition to the book the Johnsons published, the family donated $10 million to a diabetes campaign in 1994 and had given at least $5 million more before Woody Johnson and his wife, Nancy, divorced in 2001.

In 2007, Casey Johnson adopted a child from Kazakhstan, whom she named Ava-Monroe.  Today, she is survived by that daughter in addition to her parents and siblings.

The attention Casey received from the media didn’t always sit well with her and she struggled with it most of her life.  Her love/hate relationship with her family’s history may have been best characterized in a 2007 interview with Life/Style Television.  She said then:

“You really have to know why someone wants to be your friend.  I’ve learned that the hard way.  I’m Casey Johnson.  I’m not The Johnson & Johnson Girl.”

In 2004, Casey’s cousin, Jaime produced “Born Rich,” a documentary on heirs to ridiculous fortunes.  The piece explored the effect inheritances have on children and how they fare later in their lives.  11 other heirs to similar fortunes were also interviewed for the production.

Since the cause of death is not yet known, speculation on what Casey was involved in is inevitable.  The torment that Woody Johnson must be feeling is incomprehensible for a man who has dedicated his life to serving others, many of whom shared the same misfortunes his daughters had, leading to his involvement in organizations that help research and treat lupus and diabetes.

Additionally, Johnson’s legacy of charitable acts includes being a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and being a successful lobbyist.  In 2002, Johnson was effective in lobbying Congress for a five-year, $750 million package for funding diabetes research.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invited Woody Johnson to join the board of the charity set up through his grandfather’s estate.  He was the only member of the Johnson family asked to be a part of the foundation.  The charitable organization has nearly $8 billion in assets and gives $1 billion annually, making it the United States’ largest foundation of its kind dedicated solely to health care.

Johnson had a sit-down with several reporters for 20 minutes on Thursday, acknowledging how difficult it is for him but that he is still behind his team and excited for what is to come.  It was uncertain whether Johnson would attend the Jets’ game at Cincinnati, but he was there and in the end…when Head Coach Rex Ryan awarded him the game ball.

There can be no doubt that winning has been the best medicine for Woody Johnson, the man who gave so much only to lose something so dear just weeks ago.  Ryan and his players have done a lot to ease the pain for Johnson and the owner reciprocates the same kind of care.  Earlier in the year, he comforted long snapper James Dearth, who lost his mother.

Woody Johnson is not your typical owner.  He cares deeply about people and helping those who are in need.  While his fortune was inherited, what he has given back is immeasurable.  The loss of his daughter is truly tragic, but perhaps these upstart Jets have just the medicine to cure Johnson’s gloom: a Super Bowl berth.

Here are my picks for the AFC and NFC Conference Championships.  Lines are from Danny Sheridan as of Friday evening.  Picks against the spread are in caps.

Indianapolis 27, NEW YORK JETS (+7 ½) 24

I don’t know if New York pulls this game out, but I think it will be very close.  I will certainly be rooting for them as they are the underdog and I think it would be a great karma game for Indy to lose to the team they could have put their foot down on in Week 16 when they were 14-0 and let up.  I see this game coming down to how well the Jets can control the ball with their running game and how many times they can force Peyton Manning and the Colts offense into field goals instead of touchdowns.  I see it coming down to one possession and think that taking the points is the safest wager.

NEW ORLEANS (-3 ½) 38, Minnesota 24

I think the Superdome will be too much for Minnesota.  Their defense can be beaten and Drew Brees certainly has the weapons to put up points.  I also see Brett Favre rediscovering how to throw bad passes in big spots this game.  The Viking running attack really has not been effective for some time and Favre has been asked to throw more.  I see the Saint secondary coming up with big plays and think Darren Sharper will make his presence known to the team that let him walk.  Add all that to the crazy crowd and the Saints being legit at home and I see New Orleans travelling to Miami for the Super Bowl.

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Filed under Betting, Football, NFL, Playoffs, Uncategorized

Watching the NFL Divisional Playoffs

One of the more intriguing storylines leading up to this weekend’s divisional playoffs is the re-signing of Deuce McCallister to the New Orleans Saints.

This old friend came back to a team that drafted him in 2001 out of Mississippi and a squad he led into their last playoff appearance three years ago when he rushed for over 1500 yards in 2006.  In that playoff, McAllister led the Saints in rushing and scored a touchdown to help the team defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round.

Upon signing the oft-injured running back, the Saints immediately declared that he would lead the team onto the field and  be an honorary captain against the Arizona Cardinals later today when the teams play in the NFC Divisional Round at the Superdome in New Orleans.

It appears that will be all McAllister will do, barring some horrific injuries to the Saints running back corps, which consists of leading rusher and newly healthy Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell.  All three have seen significant playing time this season.  Even the fourth running back on the roster, Lynell Hamilton, has looked impressive in limited time when injuries hampered the options Head Coach Sean Payton had in the backfield.

So why make the move?  Some point to a sentimental effort to have McAllister be a part of the playoff roster, reminiscent of a team who hadn’t been there in a while and wanted to honor the beat-up veteran with a spot on the active roster.  However, this is not that kind of team.  They were in the playoffs just three seasons ago, with McAllister, and they made it to the NFC Championship game, where the Saints fell to the Chicago Bears, the eventual runner-up to Super Bowl champion Indianapolis.

Clearly, the Saints don’t believe McAllister has the ability to contribute in the playoffs.  The man he replaced on the roster, Rodney Leslie, is a reserve defensive tackle, who did not practice this week due to a knee injury.

Additionally, this isn’t exactly a situation where a team like Kansas City were to resign Trent Green because he never really had a shot in the playoffs during his six years on the team.  Or if the Dolphins were to bring back Zach Thomas as an honorary captain right before the playoffs were to kick off.

So why then?  The sentimental value of having him on the squad as a captain is apparent, but my general view on this New Orleans team is that they are driven from within by several players with something to prove (i.e. Drew Brees, Jeremy Shockey and a host of others) and a coach who is fiery and motivated to have success.  However, there may be more to the drive behind this Bourbon Street squad.

McAllister’s signing may be evidence that Payton doesn’t feel his team is motivated enough coming into the playoffs.  They did, after all, tumble into their number one seed after three consecutive losses to Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina.  This after the outspoken effort to have a perfect season. 

Perhaps Payton felt they poured all of their emotion into the perfect season, only to fall short and be running on fumes going into “The Tournament.”  Maybe Payton realized that defenses had figured out how to slow down Brees and the Saints’ prolific passing attack and that offenses had worked through a tough defense to control the ball and score points on an always game Saints defense.  The Saints have not had a dominating performance since their big Monday night win against the New England Patriots on November 30th and have not scored more than twenty points in over a month, since they put up 26 in a 3-point victory at Atlanta.

An injection of emotion from the returning McAllister may have been just the right prescription for this stumbling team.

Regardless, it is curious, has been interesting to watch and is a story that has flown under the radar as more “feel good” than anything.

I still like the Saints this weekend mostly because I think the Superdome is a huge advantage and that their team does show the makings of one that wants to prove everyone wrong, make a name for themselves and are ready for the big time.  Not to mention the fact that Brees must have needed a drool cup as he watched Aaron Rodgers and the Packers take apart the Cardinal defensive secondary.

I think Brees and Warner give us an aerial show but that eventually the Saints pull ahead and move into the NFC Championship.

Here are my official picks (in caps).  Lines are from Danny Sheridan as of Saturday morning.

SAINTS (-7) 34, Cardinals 24

I think Brees and New Orleans have a feeding frenzy on Arizona’s defense and the Saints’ defense does just enough to slow down Kurt Warner in what may be his last game.

INDIANAPOLIS (-6) 27, Baltimore 16

The layoff will get Indy off to a slow start, but I think Peyton and company play a smart game and handle the Ravens.  I also have a hunch that something really is wrong with Joe Flacco.

Minnesota 17, DALLAS (+3) 16

A defensive battle here will be characterized by Dallas’ inability to stop the run late.  I also see Favre making enough big plays on third downs to limit Romo’s possessions in the second half.

San Diego 24, NEW YORK (+7) 21

Darelle Revis can’t cover everyone and Rivers finds enough opportunities around the field to withstand the Jets defense.  However, I think the show will be stolen by Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene in a coming out party of sorts.

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