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Monday, September 21, 2015

Until Further Notice, The AFC East Continues to Run Through Foxborough, MA

If the Bills are the biggest threat in the AFC East to the Patriots in 2015, it should be another cakewalk to a meaningless division title. Poor Buffalo (1-1 overall, 1-1 home) was all geared up for the annual Rex Ryan (who is now 4-10 against the Patriots in his career as a head coach) Week 2 Super Bowl vs. New England (2-0 overall, 1-0 away). In fact, the Bills looked the part of a true contender for the opening drive of the game and then in the fourth quarter which was mostly garbage time until they made it interesting in an eventual 40-32 loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Tom Brady (38 of 59, 466 yards, 3 TDs), Julian Edelman (11 catches, 97 yards, 2 TDs), Rob Gronkowski (7 catches, 113 yards, 1 TD) and Dion Lewis (98 yards receiving, 40 yards rushing, 1 TD) shredded what is supposedly one of the top defenses in the NFL. Other than Rex Ryan's crazy lack of discipline (14 penalties, 140 yards) and attention to detail, the biggest tangible question surrounding the Bills is whether Tyrod Taylor (23 of 30, 242 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs; 43 yards rushing) can be a starting quarterback on a playoff contender. Throwing mostly short yardage passes might work in the regular season against garbage defenses (hi Indy) but that's not how you get to the postseason.

Buffalo received the opening drive and went 80 yards in 10 plays: rookie Karlos Williams capped off the 5-minute drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. New England bounced back with an 8-yard touchdown catch by Edelman. The Pats then took advantage of two very short fields to go ahead 21-7 on Lewis' 6-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter and Gronk's 2-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter. Former Dolphin Charles Clay's 9-yard touchdown catch cut it to 21-13 but Dan Carpenter missed the extra point. Those were Buffalo's last points until the fourth quarter when the Patriots had expanded their lead to 37-13.

New England's defense combined for eight sacks (their most since 2003) and three interceptions (by Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler). The Bills have much higher paid defensive players like Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams but there was no question that Chandler Jones (6 tackles, 3 sacks) and Jamie Collins (11 tackles, 2.5 sacks) were the most dangerous guys on that side of the ball at least on Sunday. Stephen Gostkowski's 46-yard field goal made it 24-13 heading into halftime for the visitors. LeSean McCoy (89 yards rushing, 27 yards receiving) doesn't seem to be Rex's favored type of physical running back despite his superior talent.

Gostkowski opened the scoring in the third quarter with a 21-yard field goal followed by a 22-yard touchdown catch by Edelman and a 50-yard field goal. After getting blanked in the third, the Bills showed some fight in the fourth on Robert Woods' 32-yard touchdown catch (that went right over Butler's hands). New England outsmarted themselves trying to run up the score when they just could have burned the clock and gotten out of Buffalo smoothly. Instead, they turned it over on downs and the Bills inched closer on Taylor's 7-yard touchdown run then truly made things interesting on a 24-yard touchdown catch by Sammy Watkins (who had burned Bradley Fletcher) following a fumble by Brady.

New England drove 72 yards in seven plays (3:01) and made it 40-32 on Gostkowski's 25-yard field goal with 1:15 remaining. Ryan iced it with his game-ending interception on an overthrow by Taylor. In the first two games this season, Lewis has been a revelation that looks like he'll be a very useful weapon if he can just hang onto the ball (he fumbled for the second week in a row). Today, the pleasant surprise was provided by Aaron Dobson (7 catches, 87 yards) who actually looked like an NFL player. New England only dressed three wide receivers and while Edelman can come close (tying his career-high with 19 targets), they need other guys to turn to once in a while. Danny Amendola had his customary one catch but at least it was a great one: a sweet diving 29-yard grab on the final drive.

So much changes from week to week in the NFL that is really silly to draw any type of conclusions from results between other teams, particularly this early in the season. With that said, the fact that Miami struggled so much in their Week 1 victory at Washington then followed that up with a 23-20 loss at Jacksonville (1-1) this afternoon shows that they seem to be their usual mediocre selves. How is Joe Philbin still employed there? If the Jets (1-0) lose tomorrow night in Indy (0-1) as expected, the Patriots will be up one game already on the rest of the soft AFC East.

New England's Week 3 meeting with the Jaguars next Sunday (1, CBS) has all the makings of a trap game: they are going into a bye week after that and they know that they can sleepwalk and still beat lowly (but improving!) Jacksonville. That's why I can picture the Pats looking terrible but still beating the Jags by a few scores. They always have a game like this, especially early in the regular season when they are getting the kinks out and some useless team (think Oakland last season) comes to Gillette for their beating. Prepare to be frustrated since I know that the Patriots will be double-digit favorites at home.

Friday, September 11, 2015

It's a New Season (2015) but The Patriots Still Own the Steelers

Our long national nightmare is over: that debacle which shall not be named has passed and the 2015 NFL regular season finally began tonight at Gillette Stadium as the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots beat the Steelers 28-21. Typical of an opener, there were plenty of highlights for both teams but also a boatload of mistakes and things to correct in the weeks to come. New England (1-0) used a near flawless performance by Tom Brady (25 of 32 for 288 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs) to propel them past Ben Roethlisberger (26 of 38 for 351 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) and Pittsburgh (0-1).

Brady passed Brett Favre for the most wins as the QB of one team (161). Rob Gronkowski tied his career-high with three touchdown catches as he picked up where he left off: he's scored in seven straight games (including playoffs) dating back to last season. For whatever reason, New England typically shreds Pittsburgh's defense and this was no different despite the fact that Dick LeBeau left and former assistant Keith Butler took over as the defensive coordinator. Cheech (LeVeon Bell) & Chong (LeGarrette Blount) each missed the game for their weed infraction last season while Martavis Bryant sat for the first of his four-game suspension for a similar sticky icky icky offense. DeAngelo Williams surprisingly was very effective, gaining 127 yards on 21 carries for Pittsburgh. Each club was also shorthanded on the offensive line since centers Maurkice Pouncey and Bryan Stork were out with injuries.

One of the newest Patriots Dion Lewis (15 carries, 69 yards; 4 catches, 51 yards) took advantage of his temporarily expanded role with Blount out. James White never saw the field and Brandon Bolden (5 carries, 1 yard; 1 catch, 12 yards) might as well have stayed home too because this game belonged to Lewis when it came to the patchwork running backs for the Pats. He is listed at 5-foot-8 but he's probably closer to 5-foot-6, regardless he looks shifty and hard to take down despite his small size. He won't get nearly the same touches with Blount back next week at Buffalo but he could become Shane Vereen's replacement at least when it comes to the short passing game that Brady loves to utilize. Lewis even fumbled in the fourth quarter near the goal-line after making a 19-yard catch but head coach Bill Belichick didn't put him in the doghouse like you'd expect (his hand might have been forced by the lack of depth).

The biggest weakness of New England this season figures to be their secondary. Malcolm Butler theoretically looks ready to be a No. 1 corner but it is scary with no real dependable guy beside him (veteran castoffs Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher could have sizable roles). Antonio Brown is perhaps the toughest wide receiver to cover in the NFL so Butler had a real test right out of the gate. Brown had nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown but those numbers are slightly misleading since he caught an 11-yard touchdown with two seconds left in the contest. You know that the Patriots offense will put points on the board so all they need from the defense is the occasional stop and timely turnovers. Tonight they had three sacks and an interception by Duron Harmon after Roethlisberger threw into double coverage in the fourth quarter when the Steelers trailed by 14 points.

After a scoreless first quarter, New England went up 14-0 in the second quarter on a pair of touchdown catches by Gronk (16 yards and 6 yards respectively). Josh Scobee had a rough first half in his Pittsburgh debut: he missed two field goals before hitting a 44-yard kick with three seconds left in the second quarter. Scott Chandler's first catch as a Patriot was a 1-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter making it 21-3. Pittsburgh cut it to a two-score game with a 1-yard run by something named Will Johnson while Markus Wheaton caught the two-point conversion. The Steelers got stuffed in the red zone early in the fourth quarter and settled for a 24-yard field goal which cut it to 21-14. Gronk's hat trick was completed with a one-yard touchdown catch on the ensuing drive.

The Patriots get a few extra days to rest and prepare for the Bills next Sunday (1, CBS) in Orchard Park, NY. Buffalo hosts Indianapolis this Sunday in what should be an interesting matchup. Say what you will about Rex Ryan but he always seemed to get the most out of the Jets and they usually gave the Patriots tough games. On the other side, the Steelers will host the 49ers next Sunday in their home opener. Unless their defense improves drastically (which I can't see happening), I don't think that the Pats will see Pittsburgh again this season. Actually, I hope that they meet in the playoffs since I think I know how that will turn out (in New England's favor of course).

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Maybe There Is a Method to Don Sweeney's Madness After All

This is such a wasteland on the American sports calendar every year and it certainly doesn't help when the Red Sox are so unwatchable and irrelevant by the middle of May. I'm trying to (partially) rationalize why we tend to overreact to any significant trades involving our local teams that come at this extremely dull point of the summer. Case in point, the Bruins last week looked like a drunken mess as they traded Carl Soderberg to Colorado for a sixth-round pick, Dougie Hamilton to Calgary for three picks and Milan Lucic to Los Angeles for Martin Jones, a minor league defenseman and a pick. We wondered, "what the hell is Don Sweeney doing?" He doubled up on the crazy by rewarding mediocre defenseman Adam McQuaid with a four-year contract.

For a change from last week's constant drama and unending questions, today brought some sense of clarity for the Black and Gold. First, they signed coveted free agent left wing Matt Beleskey to a five-year deal worth $19 million. He's the exact same age-down to the day-as Lucic (27) but unlike the former Bruin, his career trajectory seems to be trending upwards. Last season, he put up a career-best 22 goals in the regular season (65 games) followed by eight goals in the postseason for Anaheim. Granted playing with Cory Perry and Ryan Getzlaf would turn almost anyone into a 20-goal scorer but Beleskey similarly should bring size (206 pounds), toughness and the left-handed shot that they were looking for. Put him with David Krejci and David Pastrnak or Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand then we might have something.

Sweeney won more support by trading away oft-criticized forward Reilly Smith and Marc Savard's $4 million cap hit to Florida for former BC star and Dorchester native Jimmy Hayes. Smith scored 20 goals two seasons ago but that went down to only 13 this past campaign. That coupled with the fact that he does literally nothing else made him easily expendable. I would normally bitch about the Bruins giving him that silly extension last year but I'm tired so oh well. Hayes' numbers were pretty similar to Smith's last season (19 goals, 16 assists) and his huge frame (6-foot-6, 221 pounds) should help the Bruins crash the net better (something that nobody consistently does for them).

Now it's time to sign some NHL-caliber top-six defensemen since at the moment, Boston has like four that they can reasonably count on: Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Torey Krug and McQuaid (kind of). Matt Bartkowski signed a one-year deal with Vancouver and Gregory Campbell agreed to a two-year deal with Columbus; needless to say after their rough performances last season, most Bruins fans aren't sad to see those two leave town.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sadly, The Celtics Still Remain Stuck In NBA Purgatory

The unfortunate reality of today's NBA is that your favorite team is going nowhere unless they have multiple All-Stars and/or reside in a sunny location like LA or Miami. Even worse, places which should be attractive to free agents like Boston or New York are not at all, meaning that one of the league's marquee franchises-the Celtics-will be nothing more than a slightly above average team until they can hoodwink a former player to trade another franchise guy (thanks again Kevin McHale for Kevin Garnett).

Armed with four draft picks last week (2 in each round), we hoped that Boston would move up to get an impact player. Instead, GM Danny Ainge stuck with all four to get a mostly uninspiring group: Louisville guard Terry Rozier, Georgia State guard R.J. Hunter, LSU power forward Jordan Mickey and William and Mary (yes they play basketball there) Marcus Thornton (the other one). Free agency began last night at midnight and as expected, the Green and White have been pretty quiet thus far. There has been whispers about free agent power forward Greg Monroe (who would be perfect for the C's) but that died down rather fast as he got wooed by more likely suitors.

All Boston has done so far is sign former Raptors power forward Amir Johnson (2 years, $24 million) and re-sign power forward Jonas Jerebko (2 years, $10 million) and swingman Jae Crowder (5 years, $35 million). Don't get me wrong, these are all decent players that will help but truthfully, they don't bring the Celtics any closer to that elusive Banner 19. They are all role players and that'll probably never change.

Johnson is quite a success story since he skipped college and was drafted late in the second round (56th overall by the Pistons) in 2005. He's 28 and he's coming off of a six-year run North of the border. Last season, he averaged 9.3 points per game, 6.1 rebounds and he shot 57% from the floor and 41% on 3-pointers. He's 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds but not the most physical guy so you won't see him battling too much down low (a big issue for the undersized Celtics last season). He is a good shooter with decent range for a big guy.

Jerebko was a complete unknown when he was traded here last season for Detroit. At 28, he is a perfect bench player as he showed in 29 games with the Celts (7.1 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game, 41% on 3-pointers). Likewise, Crowder seemed like a throw-in from the Mavericks to complete the Rajon Rondo deal (remember him?) but he can really play. A versatile and tough defender, he brought an edge to the C's as they made that surprising run to the playoffs before they were swept by the Cavaliers in the first round. After not getting much of a chance to show what he can do in Dallas, Crowder made the most of his opportunity last season: averaging a career-best 9.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and one steal per game for Boston in 57 games. He turns 25 on Monday so a longer contract makes sense since he is currently one of the Celtics' best players (really).

Where else does Boston go from here? Your guess is as good as mine; just don't count on them bringing in any big names. With head coach Brad Stevens and a bunch of coachable, hard-working, team-first players, the C's are destined for another playoff spot and a quick exit once again when they go up against one of the East's best teams like Cleveland, Chicago or Atlanta. Are you having fun yet?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

In Their First Rematch Since Last Year's Crushing MLS Cup Loss, Revolution Tie Galaxy 2-2

It is still May (for a less than an hour) but the 2015 Red Sox' (22-29) season already looks hopeless. That means once again we need something to distract us in the sports wasteland known as summer with Patriots training camp and preseason games still over two months away. I'm not trying to convert anyone (that's not my style) but only noting that the Revolution (5-3-6) appear to be a title contender in MLS for those that care. New England lost in heartbreaking fashion-2-1 in overtime-in the 2014 MLS Cup vs. Los Angeles (5-4-6) and on Sunday, those budding rivals met at Gillette Stadium in basically a monsoon.

They tied 2-2 in a up-and-down match that featured about as exciting a first half as you'll ever see (in MLS at least) before a dull second half that had no goals and few chances for either side. New England has tied its last three matches and they are winless in their last five (0-1-4) so they really could have used three points despite the fact that they are in second-place in the East (four points behind D.C.). Nothing was officially announced tonight but midfielder Jermaine Jones left in the first half with a groin injury and it sounds pretty serious. You feel terrible for him because he had just been called up earlier in the day for the US National team's exhibitions at Holland and Germany later this week. At 33 you never know, that might have been his last shot to represent the U.S. Ugh, hopefully that is not the case though.

The Revs grabbed a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute thanks to their quickest goal of the season. Midfielder Scott Caldwell served a perfect cross to the far post where midfielder Teal Bunbury ran onto it and one-touched the ball into LA's net. That was Bunbury's third goal of the season and Caldwell's fourth assist of the season as he becomes one of the team's rising stars.

The Galaxy responded soon after that as they scored a pretty goal in the 18th minute. Rookie midfielder Ignacio Maganto volleyed in a blast from outside the box that Revolution goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth had no chance to stop. Would you believe that was his first career goal? It had been the seventh straight match that New England had scored the first goal, which shows their need to tighten things up once they get a lead. Granted, they were missing defender Chris Tierney and star midfielder Lee Nguyen vs. LA because both had accumulated too many yellow cards in previous matches.

LA made it 2-1 in the 27th minute on a beautiful back heel by Maganto that was finished by standout forward Gyasi Zardes (another USMNT member). Perhaps the most notable development of the game, well besides Jones' injury, was the final goal. Revs midfielder Diego Fagundez has showed plenty of promise the last few years but head coach Jay Heaps doesn't seem to have much confidence in the youngster. Fagundez got the start tonight and he came through with a gorgeous free kick goal in the 37th minute. He bent the direct kick around LA's wall and past a diving Penedo. It was his first goal of the season and it couldn't come at a better time for his confidence.

Not including their Open Cup match vs. Charlotte on June 17 at Harvard, three of New England's next four matches are on the road. That tough June starts with a meeting with the Timbers (5-5-4) on Saturday (10:30, CSN) in Portland. The Revolution never seem to play well on the West Coast and the Timbers have one of the better home field advantages in Major League Soccer at Providence Park so getting a positive result there will be a chore.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Finally, A Reason To Watch the Red Sox This Season (Well At Least Every 5th Game)

Hey gang, remember the Red Sox? They had a nice run for a while, huh? What ever happened to them? Oh that's right, they are headed on a course straight for their third last-place finish in the last four seasons. That is until tonight when rookie lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez proved to be something of a revelation in his MLB debut. The former Oriole (obtained in the Andrew Miller trade last season) and highly touted prospect went 7.2 scoreless innings, allowing only three hits with seven strikeouts and two walks as Boston (22-26 overall, 12-14 away) won the series opener 5-1 over Texas (23-25 overall, 6-14 home) at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

Obviously one starting pitcher in baseball can't make that much of a difference on a bad team but at least this gives us a reason to watch again (when he's on the hill). The reason I hadn't written about the Red Sox in weeks is that just like last year, not only are they terrible but they are also boring which is a deadly combination for an MLB team. I don't know about you but I'd like to have something to watch this summer when there is literally nothing else going on in the sports universe. That's where you come in, Red Sox.

Maybe this will be the high point of Rodriguez's career; at least we saw that he has this type of ability against a quality lineup. The same can't be said for the rest of Boston's sorry rotation. The plan before his gem was to send him back to Pawtucket but there is no chance that will happen. The immortal Nick Martinez (4-1) held the Red Sox in check until the fifth when Mookie Betts (3 for 5, triple) drove in Blake Swihart (2 for 4, run) with an RBI single.

Hanley Ramirez hit his first home run of May (his first in 85 at bats), a solo shot to left center in the sixth for a 2-0 Red Sox advantage. Martinez (7 innings, 2 earned runs, 9 hits, 5 strikeouts, 2 walks) would fit in well on the Red Sox since he pitched really well but his offense let him down to say the least. Boston got three more insurance runs in the eighth on a gift two-run single for Swihart that was misplayed by Texas second baseman Adam Rosales. Boston's final run came from an infield single by Rusney Castillo that scored the newest member of the team-outfielder Carlos Peguero.

The Rangers' lone run came in the ninth on an RBI single by Josh Hamilton (2 for 4, double) who was playing his first game back in Texas after being reacquired from the Angels. It'll be interesting to see how Rodriguez fares in his second start and so on. Now MLB teams will have more tape on him so he won't be such a mystery. Dustin Pedroia has been batting leadoff lately for Boston and it seems to be working, he was 3 for 5 this evening. Xander Bogaerts got hit on the left forearm with a pitch in the fourth inning and had to leave but his injury was termed a "forearm contusion" which doesn't sound too serious.

Steven Wright (2-1) faces Yovani Gallardo (4-6) tomorrow night (8:05, NESN) in the second game of a four-game set.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Red Sox Avoid The Sweep in Toronto, Thanks to Napoli and Sandoval's Blasts

With their pathetic downward spiral to last-place in the AL East over these last few weeks, the Red Sox had basically become unwatchable. I only saw bits and pieces of the carnage, because who could devote three plus hours to that trainwreck every day/night in early May? At least Boston (14-17 overall, 7-8 away) salvaged something from the trip to Canada with a 6-3 win this afternoon on Mother's Day at Rogers Centre vs. Blue Jays (16-16 overall, 9-7 home).

Clay Buchholz (2-4) actually pitched pretty decently by his very low standards (6.1 innings, 3 earned runs, 7 hits, 3 strikeouts, 3 walks) while Mike Napoli hit a three-run bomb and Pablo Sandoval (double, 2 runs) added a two-run shot of his own. Koji Uehara pitched a scoreless ninth with one strikeout for his sixth save of the season and 100th of his career (combined between MLB and Japan).

It sounds pretty simple but the Red Sox have excelled when they have scored first this season (they are now 9-2). That's why today's start was basically perfect: Mookie Betts tripled to lead off the game and Dustin Pedroia knocked him in with a groundout. Later that inning, Napoli launched his third homer of the season to center. Haha if only Boston could play R.A. Dickey (6 innings, 6 earned runs, 7 hits, 0 strikeouts, 3 walks) more often, then they would be getting somewhere.

Sporting a new gross haircut (hard to believe, I know), Buchholz actually held that four-run lead for over three innings which was a cause for celebration. Framingham native Chris Colabello (3 for 4) continued his hot streak with an RBI single in the fourth which cut it to 4-1. Sandoval's two-run home run to right center in the fifth was also his third of the season.

The Blue Jays got a run in the fifth on Josh Donaldson's RBI double and their final run came in the seventh on a groundout. After getting outscored 7-0 on Friday night and 7-1 on Saturday afternoon, it was nice to see the Red Sox show a slight pulse. Buchholz pitched long enough that new pitching coach Carl Willis (in his first day on the job) only had to see Junichi Tazawa (1.2 scoreless innings) bridge the gap to Uehara. No need to use any of their far less reliable relievers.

In their first West Coast action of the season, Boston headed for Oakland (12-21 overall, 5th in AL West) where they will play three games against the reeling A's. Then it's off to Seattle (14-17 overall, 3rd in AL West) for four games. They don't return to Fenway Park until a week from Tuesday against Texas. Haha who knows what kind of shape the hometown team will be in by then?

In the series opener tomorrow night (10:05) it is Rick Porcello (3-2) vs. former Rays great Scott Kazmir (2-1). Justin Masterson (2-1) faces Drew Pomeranz (1-3) on Tuesday night (10:05. NESN) before things wrap up on Wednesday afternoon (3:35, NESN) with Wade Miley (1-3) taking on Sonny Gray (4-0). If the Red Sox have any hope of becoming a good team in 2015, they need to take at least two out of three vs. the awful A's.