Sunday, January 24, 2016

2016 ATP Tour Season: Big Questions, Storylines, and Bold Predictions

Biggest Questions

The Big Four(?) – Is the “Big Four” really still an applicable term? Nadal seems to be the only one who could conceivably drop out of this elite group – something hard for any tennis fan to think. He has shown flashes of his old self, but his forehands can’t seem to land beyond the service line. Nadal got rocked by Djokovic in Doha, and now just lost first round in the Australian Open. Is he still included amongst Federer, Murray, and Djokovic – all of whom at the least finaled in one major last year?

 Wawrinka? – The question with Stan the Man is not “if” he can beat the best of the best, but for how many consecutive points/matches? (to all those who doubt his best level, see the video below:
On top of that, he’s also a two-time grand slam champion (equal to Andy Murray) and a doubles gold medalist. So, what can we expect from him in 2016? Another major (or multiple)? If Nadal is no longer a part of the “Big Four,” does Stan replace him?

Federer? – Regardless of his #3 ranking, Federer has proven to be the second best player. Late 2015 wins over Wawrinka, Murray, Nadal, and even Djokovic have cemented that fact. With the addition of Ivan Ljubicic a big hitting baseliner, to his coaching corner, can Federer improve his baseline consistency to snatch a major title, likely from Djokovic? Edberg’s aggressive, net oriented game style has worked wonders for the now 34-year-old Federer, but it simply is not enough to overcome Djokovic’s incredibly solid baseline and returning game.

Major Storylines

 Djokovic’s Calendar Year Slam – No one has accomplished this feat since Rod Laver but, with 10 major totals and counting, Djokovic could tie both Nadal and Sampras with a calendar year grand slam – AKA winning all 4 Majors. He proved capable of sustaining an incredibly high level throughout all of the Majors last year and would’ve won the French if not for the ridiculous level of Stan Wawrinka in the Final.
Federer’s Retirement – As a die-hard Federer fan, I struggle to even think about this. And, although he’s planning on playing all three events in the 2016 Río Olympics, it is not inconceivable that he would retire following a Major (most likely Wimbledon) victory.

The Second Tier – This group, comprised of Nishikori, Roanic, Dimitrov, Berdych, Ferrer, and Cilic for the most part, presents quite a few potential interesting storylines. Cilic is the only to have won a major –we could see one of their names in a headline as a Major Champion. Raonic avenged his 2015 Brisbane Final loss to Federer – we could see him or any member of this group present himself as a consistent. On the other side of the coin, we could also see Dimitrov or Ferrer continue to slide.

Bold Predictions

Nadal Doesn’t Reach a Grand Slam Quarterfinal – I’m already right for the first Major of the year (having written this article after the fact). But, with Quarterfinal losses at the French and Australian Opens in 2016 and losses before even the Round of 16 at both Wimbledon and the US Open, it really isn’t that bold to say he continues in the same vein and doesn’t even reach a Quarterfinal.

A U-20 American Wins an ATP Title – With Taylor Fritz, Jared Donaldson, and Frances Tiafoe all inside the Top 100, Tommy Paul surging up the ranks, and Noah Rubin with a Top 20 win already, why not? This would likely come from Taylor Fritz, who just lost in 5 against #22 Jack Sock and last year posted solid results on the ATP level.

 Changes in Nadal’s Coaching Corner – If Nadal can’t recover his form of old after what could be more than 2 years, Toni Nadal might be looking for work.

Federer Regains the Number One Ranking – This would require multiple different elements to go his way, but with a Grand Slam Title, the World Tour Finals, and a few more Masters 1000s, it could be doable.

 Djokovic Doesn’t Lose, EVER – Everyone, rightfully so, is lauding Djokovic for his unbelievable 2015. Seeing as he only lost 5 times last year what’s to say he loses this year?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

2016 NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Predictions

Chiefs at Patriots (Saturday, 4:35 ET): While the Patriots may not have ended the season how they would have liked, the bye week gave players like Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer, Julian Edelman, and Tom Brady additional time to heal from their respective injuries. The Chandler Jones saga that unfolded this past week may have served as a major distraction, but if there's any team capable of winning amidst a controversy, it's the New England Patriots. The Chiefs have to deal with injuries of their own, where Jeremly Maclin, Tamba Hali, and Justin Houston are all questionable and may not be full strength if they end up playing. Under Tom Brady, the Patriots are 14-3 at home in the playoffs, and while the Chiefs have an outstanding pass rush capable of causing trouble for this weak Pats offensive line, I predict the Pats to return to their winning ways.
Patriots over Chiefs 27-17

Packers at Cardinals (Saturday, 8:15 ET): This team played each other in Arizona just three weeks ago, a game where the Cardinals dominated against Rodgers and the Packers in a 38-8 victory. The Cardinals recorded nine total sacks that game, even without their star safety Tyrann Mathieu. Offensively, the Cardinals will rely on Carson Palmer and the passing game, who has a career passer rating of 66.5 in his two playoff games (both losses). This number is very different from Rodgers' career passer rating of 100.3 in his 13 career playoff games, yet this year Packers team is very different from the offensive powerhouses of the past. This game will be much closer than the Week 16 blowout, but Arizona will still find a way to win.
Cardinals over Packers 31-23
Seahawks at Panthers (Sunday, 1:05 ET): The Seahawks honestly have no business playing in this divisional round after Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh missed a chip shot for the win. Yet despite a close game one week earlier in frigid Minnesota weather, I still love the Seahawks to beat the Panthers in Carolina. Marshawn Lynch is "ready" for Carolina tomorrow, which is good for the Seahawks offense since it will be difficult to throw the ball with tomorrow's poor weather conditions. Cam Newton has thrown 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in his three career playoff games, and even though the Panthers beat the Seahawks in Seattle this past October, that was before the Seahawks caught fire later in the season.
Seahawks over Panthers 20-17
Steelers at Broncos (Sunday, 4:40 ET): The chances of the Steelers beating the Broncos in Denver are decreasing by the day, where receiver Antonio Brown and running back DeAngelo Williams have both been ruled out for Sunday's game. Even star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is far from full strength, but if there's any quarterback capable of winning a playoff game with a plethora of injuries, it's Big Ben. Peyton Manning for the Broncos likely won't have to carry his team through the playoffs this year thanks to a decent run game and outstanding defense, especially since he his 0-5 in the playoffs when the temperature dips below 40 degrees. If the Steelers were healthy, Pittsburgh would be the pick to win; however, Pittsburgh has too many injuries on offense to win this game.
Broncos over Steelers 21-10

Sunday, January 3, 2016

NFL Power Rankings: Week 17

1. Arizona Cardinals: Even after losing Tyrann Mathieu for the season, the Arizona Cardinals managed to demolish Rodgers and Packers, recording 9 total sacks. Meanwhile, quarterback Carson Palmer is still making a strong case for the MVP Award.

2. Carolina Panthers: After showing signs of weakness for the past several weeks, Carolina finally lost their first game of the season this past week. Against cornerback Josh Norman,  receiver Julio Jones caught 7 of his 8 targets for 91 yards, meaning the Panthers star cornerback may be starting to show signs of weakness.

3. New England Patriots: The Patriots may have lost to the Jets in overtime this past week, but it is important to mention the large numbers of injuries that this team has sustained, losing players like Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer, Devin McCourty, Jordan Richards, and Rob Ninkovich. Almost all of these players will be back for the first round of the playoffs, so the Patriots should still be the most feared team in the AFC.

4. Kansas City Chiefs: Kansas City's 19-13 win over the Browns may not have been pretty, but the Chiefs have still won 9 straight games, and are likely the hottest team in football. With star defensive players Tamba Hali and Justin Houston both listed as day-to-day, this team will just need to rest their guys in Week 17 now that they've clinched a playoff spot.

5. Denver Broncos: It seems like the Denver Broncos are going to stick with the young Brock Osweiler rather than start veteran Peyton Manning come playoff time. The 2015 Denver Broncos are a more talented version of the 2006 Bears team: an inconsistent offense combined with a dominant defense.

6. New York Jets: Cornerback Darrelle Revis is officially back from the concussion he sustained in November, where he now has an interception in back to back games. Last week, the Jets managed to beat the Patriots to leapfrog the Steelers for a spot in the playoffs, and if quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to play well, New York could make a run in the postseason.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers: Entering Week 16, many viewed Pittsburgh as one of the hottest teams in all of football thanks to their well-balanced offense; however, a devastating loss to the Ravens now has Pittsburgh on the outside looking in. The Steelers could make a serious run in the playoffs, but they obviously need to make the postseason first.

8. Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks are already a lock for the postseason, but a loss to the Rams at home is not a good look for one of the "hottest" teams just two weeks before the playoffs. For the first time in five weeks, Wilson's passer rating dipped below 100 in a game, so maybe the Seahawks offense peaked too soon.
9. Cincinnati Bengals: AJ McCarron's statline against the first-ranked Broncos pass defense was fairly impressive considering it was just his second time starting in the NFL. The Bengals simply need Andy Dalton to be ready to play for the first week of the postseason if they have any shot at winning the AFC Championship.

10. Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have scored 38 points or more in back to back weeks, and they lost by just three points to the Cardinals in Week 14. Adrian Peterson is leading the league in rushing as of Week 17, and Bridgewater's passer rating has crept above 90 for the year. Minnesota now has the opportunity to beat the struggling Packers to win the NFC North for the first time since 2009.