Archive for September, 2009

Not Impressed
September 28, 2009

Three years ago, my wife and I took a driving trip with my parents out east to visit the Sesame Place theme park.

Since my parents are just a tad frugal, we tried to compromise on the luxuriousness of the hotels that we would stay at, which led us to make on-line reservations at some budget-type hotels.

Imagine our surprise when we pulled into one such hotel in Columbus, Ohio, and found out that it was located right next to a strip club.

Not exactly what you’re looking for when traveling with a three-year-old.

But, trying not to be difficult, my wife and I went against our better judgment and spent the night there anyway. But we never would have stayed there if we had been there without my folks.

I bring this up in light of an ongoing controversy that’s happening here in the Madison area concerning a hotel and a nearby nightclub. Turns out the hotel is refunding thousands of dollars to guests who have complained about the noise from said nightclub, which just happens to be Dane County’s largest.

Well, I tended to be a little sympathetic to those disgruntled hotel guests until I just randomly happened to drive by the area earlier today.

The nightclub, which is about the size of the Mall of America, is literally RIGHT ON TOP of this hotel. They are closer than crazies Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie circa 2001.

I say if you pull into this hotel and you don’t cancel your reservation after finding out that it’s six feet from a cavernous edifice that advertises on its marquee “Tonight Only — Tribute To Tool,” then I’m sorry, but I’m not impressed by your lack of prognosticating what the noise level will be like around 1:30 a.m.

Here’s what else I’m not impressed with after week 3 of the NFL season, and most of it hits close to home:

The Detroit Lions. Yay. You won a game. Your second game in the last 21 months. I’m sorry if I don’t join the Motor City conga line over this one, but you didn’t beat the Indianapolis Colts, you beat a team at home that is worse than you.

The Washington Redskins are absolutely awful. How Jim Zorn still has a job is as confusing to me as how people can sit through America’s Got Talent (based on this show, I’d say it doesn’t).

Detroit, you’re going to win again this year. Probably at least twice. Try not to act like you just won the Super Bowl next time.

The Green Bay Packers. Whoopee. You beat up on the St. Louis Rams. The same Rams that last week lost to Washington.

This just in: The Rams stink worse than a highway rest area men’s room.

Here’s what’s troubling about the Packers win at St. Louis: The offense isn’t clicking nearly as well as the preseason hype led us to believe it would. Despite starting early drives at the Rams 10 and the Rams 12, the Packers could only muster field goals, gaining a total of 26 yards on three first-quarter drives.  They could not sustain drives,  ending the day a paltry 2-for-9 on third downs. Sure, they converted on some big plays, but big plays aren’t going to be there against better defenses.

The Packers defense also gave up 17 points and 22 first downs to the team with statistically the worst offense in the league. The Rams had totaled 7 points and 27 first downs in the previous two games combined. 

Seems to me that the Packers’ defense is beginning to look as suspect as new coordinator Dom Capers’s toupee.

The good news: The Packers’ offensive line at least played better, and they held their penalties in check (“only” 6 for 51 yards). And those big plays surely delighted the Packers fans in attendance (there was at least as much green and gold as there was blue and gold at the Edward James Dome on Sunday). But there can be no doubt that this is a flawed team heading to the Metrodome on Monday night.

The Minnesota Vikings. That final play against the 49ers? Impressive, yes. But also very, very lucky. I would say eight times out of ten Favre doesn’t convert on that throw. (And it was a better catch by Lewis than throw by Favre.)

The Vikings certainly have to be favored in Monday’s night “game of the century,” but not all is right with the 3-0 Purple People Eaters. Their defense was pushed to the brink — not early, but in crunch time — by a team that lost its only legitimate offensive threat early in the first quarter. That defense allowed misfits Shaun Hill and Vernon Davis to connect way too many times.

And the Vikings offense? Like Rodgers, Favre is struggling to maintain drives. But after Sunday’s final miracle play, the Vikings have to be confident heading into Monday night.

The Chicago Bears. On Sunday, the Bears barely beat Seattle, a mediocre team that was without its starting quarterback and six other starters. And even then they needed help from some missed field goals to stay close. (Love the rant you spewed against Olindo Mare, Jim Mora. I’m sure that did wonders for your kicker’s confidence.)

And after Pittsburgh lost to Cincinnati on Sunday, suddenly the Bears’ victory against the Steelers last week doesn’t look that awe-inspiring.

My fantasy football team. So glad I drafted LaDainian Tomlinson over Drew Brees. This week my opponent basically doubled my score. It’s enough to make me want to go over to Scatz’s for 2-for-1 rail mixers.

 

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Badgers/Spartans Preview: Passing Game Is Key
September 24, 2009

Who: Michigan State Spartans @ Wisconsin Badgers.

Where: Camp Randall Stadium, ESPN

When: Saturday, September 27, 11 AM CST.

Normally the ladies of ABC’s The View and the (mostly) male anchors and reporters of ESPN (like ABC, owned by Disney) don’t cover too many of the same topics. Oh, if a star athlete is discovered to be dating a woman who has recently placed on a Maxim or FHM “hot” list, then Bob Ley and Whoopi Goldberg might exchange some notes, but such cross-pollination is rare.

The major exception to the rule? Twice a year when TV viewers can find out either through “Hot Topics” or through SportsCenter just who has been selected for the latest incarnation of Dancing with the Stars.

And every time my reaction is the same: Who are these guys?

Many Badger football fans are asking themselves the same thing about their team as Bucky gets set to host Michigan State in the Big Ten opener on Saturday.

Where Bret Bielema once preached running the football and winning the time of possession battle, the Badgers through three non-conference games have proven to be remarkably balanced, piling up 598 yards on the ground and – here’s the surprise – 678 yards through the air.

They’ve also been coming up short in TOP, but as the Miami Dolphins just proved, winning clock doesn’t automatically translate to winning games.

You’d have to go back to 2003 to find a season in which the Badgers did not get off to a 3-0 start, so perfection in the non-conference schedule is nothing new to Wisconsin fans. But what is new is the trepidation many fans feel as the team is just one year removed from a 3-0 start that went south as quickly as the last 30 minutes of Stripes.

So here are the Channel 3000 3 storylines to watch as the Badgers welcome in Michigan State:

1. How good are the Badgers? This is the proverbial elephant in the room. Sure, the Badgers dominated Northern Illinois for three quarters and embarrassed a poorly-undermanned Wofford team, but they also looked awful defensively at times against Fresno State, came frighteningly close to letting the Huskies steal the opener, and were as sloppy as a drunken David Hasselhoff eating a hamburger against the Terriers. If they come out on Saturday like they came out against Wofford, they will lose.

Conversely, Saturday’s game could say a lot about how important it is for teams to test themselves early in the season: Michigan State is 1-2 but is coming off a last-second loss to a highly-touted (well, at least until they lost to Michigan) Notre Dame team. Will they be battle-tested or battle-weary?

2. How good is Scott Tolzien? The Badgers’ quarterback play has been the biggest surprise  — in a good way — of the young 2009 season. Tolzien currently ranks number 2 in the Big Ten in passer rating (161.8) and completion percentage (69.1) and he has quickly established a much better rapport with a group of core receivers (Anderson, Toon, Graham) than  Dustin Sherer ever did (to say nothing of Allan Evridge).

Whereas it may seem that Tolzien should be in for his first real test, he gets to face a team that so far has proven to be horrible at defending the pass.

Michigan State has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete a higher percentage of passes than any team in the Big Ten. They’ve also allowed the most passing touchdowns of any team in the Big Ten and they are second to last in passing yards allowed. The Spartans defense is much stronger against the run, so the game may be put in Tolzien’s hands.

The last two meetings between Michigan State and Wisconsin have been ridiculously close — if Tolzien needs to make a play to win the Badgers the game and he does it, his stock will rise considerably.

3. How good is the Badgers secondary? Remember that statistic about Tolzien being second in the Big Ten in major passing categories? Who’s above him? Michigan State’s sophomore quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The stats indicate that Wisconsin is pretty average defensively. But surely Badger fans recall wanting to claw their eyes out watching how terrible the Wisconsin secondary looked against Fresno State. Fortunately, the Badgers made some halftime adjustments in that game and looked much better in the second half. And against Wofford, their defensive backfield was not even challenged.

Cousins and the Spartans will give the Badger secondary not only its biggest test so far but perhaps its biggest test of the season. How they respond will go a long way in determining whether Wisconsin can go to 4-0.

Huh?
September 21, 2009

One of my daughter’s favorite books is a Sesame Street classic entitled No Cookies?, which is about Cookie Monster’s nephew Max and his refusal to eat cookies.

In the book, Cookie Monster is understandably dumbfounded and despondent over Max’s disinterest in cookies. Cookie Monster’s confusion is shared by his Sesame Street friends, all of whom offer Max cookies (he is Cookie Monster’s nephew, after all) only to be rudely rebuffed by Max intoning the titular phrase “No cookies.”

From Cookie Monster to Big Bird to Bert and Ernie to Baby Bear to Elmo to Zoe, all of the characters’ reactions to Max’s seeming hatred of cookies is a befuddled “Huh?”

That’s how I felt watching football this past weekend.

Let’s start with the Wisconsin game on Saturday. Now I certainly expected the Badgers to prevail against the mighty Terriers of Wofford, but I will admit that after two hardly encouraging non-conference wins, I was a tad nervous that the Terriers of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) would be able to keep things close.

After all, the Badgers didn’t blow away The Citadel in 2007 and they were extremely lucky to escape with a win against Cal Poly last year.

Turns out there was little need for concern as the Badgers whipped Wofford  44-14.

But besides quarterback Scott Tolzien’s continued impressive play — the junior finished 15-for-20 with two touchdowns before being spelled for Curt “what happened to the QB controversy?” Phillips — the game featured tons of head-scratching moments.

Three of the first six plays from scrimmage — and two of Wisconsin’s first five — resulted in lost fumbles. Overall the Badgers fumbled a whopping six times, losing three of them.

Huh?

For a team looking to make some sense of its talented if inconsistent backfield, both John Clay (143 yards in week 2) and Zach Brown (the week one starter) were upstaged in the running game by third-string back Erik Smith, who scored Bucky’s first rushing touchdown and more importantly did not fumble the ball away, and by Phillips, who had the day’s longest runs of 25 and 37 yards.

Huh?

Wofford’s head coach Mike Ayers must know something, as he’s been able to hold on to his job for a a remarkable 22 years, but on Saturday his play-calling was as bizarre as a prairie dog in buttless chaps.

Despite the fact that the Badgers secondary was continually torched by Fresno State’s Ryan Colburn in week two, Ayers kept his team ridiculously one-dimensional on Saturday, allowing his quarterback to attempt only  two passes in the entire first half. As a team, Wofford did not complete a pass until the third quarter and finished with a scant 45 passing yards, the lowest passing total against the Badgers in seven years.

Huh?

While playing conservative the entire first half, Ayers nevertheless elected to go for it on a 4th-and-4 despite being backed up on his own 26. In the second quarter. On the fourth down play, linebacker Mike Taylor sacked QB Mitch Allen and the Badgers needed only three plays to score on a Erik Smith touchdown to take a commanding 24-0 lead. Yes, I know the Badgers had blocked the previous punt, but does that mean, mighty Terriers of Wofford, that you’d never punt again?

Huh?

So Wisconsin is now 3-0 heading into Big Ten play, but two close non-conference wins and a turnover-laden effort against a Wofford-ly (get it? Instead of woefully, I said Wofford-ly. Man, that’s solid gold.) overmatched FCS team do little to clear up any uncertainty about how good the 2009 Badgers really are.

Some  questions should be answered next week as Michigan State comes to Camp Randall. The Spartans were a trendy sleeper pick in the Big Ten by some, but early losses to Notre Dame and Central Michigan (!) have them desperate to start the conference season strong.

One thing is for sure, this year’s Spartans are better than last year’s Wolverines, and we all remember what happened when an overconfident 3-0 Badger team went to Ann Arbor to begin Big Ten play a year ago.

BadgerNation is still muttering “Huh?” to themselves about that 27-25 loss.

If Badger fans were underwhelmed by Saturday’s victory, Packer fans have to be shellshocked with how Green Bay’s 2009 campaign has started. After a dominant preseason that had many pundits picking the Packers to go to the  Super Bowl, the Packers have underachieved mightily so far in 2009.

After leading the offense to 66 points in just 12 preseason possessions, the Aaron Rodgers Experience has come back down to earth as the Packers have scored an unremarkable 38 points in two games. That’s one game in which the Packers’ defense continually put their offense in favorable situations and one game against the Bengals.

Huh?

Of course, the lack of offensive production isn’t all on Aaron Rodgers; Ryan Grant continues to be a shadow of his 2007 self, the offensive line can’t protect Rodgers, who was sacked six times on Sunday, and the Packers’ receivers suddenly look as sure-handed as a drunken boater.

Which brings us to Cedric Benson. For a defense that was lights out in the preseason and in the season opener against Chicago, Sunday’s game was a huge step back, as Cedric Benson —yes, that Cedric Benson! — ran for 141 yards. Not only did the Packers defense make Benson look like the second coming of Walter Payton, they couldn’t get off the field on third down, allowing Cincinnati to convert on 9-of-14 third-downs and ensuring Cincinnati a decisive win in the time of possession battle.

The Bengals? Huh?

As poorly as the Packers’ defense played Sunday overall, two of their plays have to be singled out: One was allowing the Bengals to convert on a 3rd-and-34 in the first half, a play that had Packers fans everywhere flashing back to the 4th-and-26 play from the 2003-2004 divisional playoffs (Sunday’s conversion eventually led to a Chris Henry TD) and the other was allowing Chad Ochocinco to score. After Ochocinco’s trash talk of a Lambeau Leap earlier in the week, a defense with any pride would have done whatever was necessary to keep him out of the end zone.

The Packers getting pushed around by NFL misfits Ochocinco and Cedric Benson? Huh?

But hey, Packers fans can look on the bright side — Green Bay only collected 11 penalties for 76 yards , compared to the Bengals’ 13 flags for 100 yards. (This is why I don’t believe those people that say Cincinnati is for real — good teams simply play more disciplined football than that.)

The other good news — The Packers go to St. Louis next week to take on the horrendous Rams. Unless they look past St. Louis to the following week’s Monday night game against Brett Favre and the Vikings, the Packers should have little trouble in the Show Me State.

But those lofty preseason predictions for the 2009 Packers now look as out of whack to me as Max’s cookie-hating ways looked to Cookie Monster in my daughter’s book.

By the end of No Cookies?, Max sees the light and gorges himself on sweets, ending the confusion his behavior has caused. Time will tell if the Packers and Badgers can play well enough in the next few weeks to end the confusion their inconsistent (Badgers) or just plain bad (Packers) play has caused.

Huh?

Badgers/Bulldogs In Review
September 13, 2009

There are three things I know for certain about my father-in-law: He’s a superb golfer and bowler, he’s very happy that Brett Favre is no longer a Green Bay Packer, and he hates it when a football team runs out the clock to end the first half.

So when Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst dialed up a deep pass from quarterback Scott Tolzein to wide out Isaac Anderson with under a minute left in the first half, I’ll bet my father-in-law was the happiest guy at Camp Randall.

But at the time, even he probably didn’t realize the significance of that play: The throw, which went for 44 yards, led to Philip Welch’s improbable 57-yard field goal (the longest of his career and the second-longest in Badgers history) as the first half ended.

The Badgers, who had been outplayed badly in the first half – their defense was particularly atrocious – never let go of the momentum they gained by Anderson’s catch and Welch’s ensuing kick, and came back to outlast the Fresno State Bulldogs 34-31 in double overtime.

[The worst thing about the victory was that it was won in overtime. College football overtime is the worst thing in sports outside of the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff. For the record, although it’s preferable, I don’t like the NFL’s overtime rules either. Professional and college teams should have to play an entire fifth quarter. If the score remains tied after a fifth period, the game should end, like in the NFL, in a tie. Just my opinion.]

On a so-called judgment day for the Big Ten, it appeared as if the Badgers were going to be the day’s first conference casualty, as its soft, uninspired defense let Fresno State’s quarterback Ryan Colburn pick them apart for what was at one point a 21-7 second-quarter lead. By halftime, the Bulldogs had gained 227 yards, 172 of which were gained in the air. (By comparison, Northern Illinois gained just 274 yards in the entire season opener.)

But even the 172 first-half passing yards don’t speak to just how glaringly awful the Badgers’ pass defense was early on. Defensive back Devin Smith was completely outmatched by Bulldog Devon Wylie, who racked up 111 receiving yards in the first thirty minutes, including a easy 70-yard touchdown bomb that made the score 14-0 in the second quarter. The Badgers’ defense did itself no favors by failing to get off the field on third down, allowing the Bulldogs to covert 6-of-9 third down opportunities despite often being in third-and-long situations.

Colburn’s early play overshadowed the play of Scott Tolzien, who himself showed flashes of brilliance – especially in the face of consistent pressure from the Bulldogs’ aggressive defensive line, which pushed around the Badgers’ offensive line for much of the game. Tolzien finished the day 17-of-28 for 225 yards and one touchdown. In the process, Tolzien showed enough poise in the pocket and playmaking ability for fans to hope that the quarterback rotation with freshman Curt Phillips seen last week was merely a one-time experiment.

But for all of the great quarterback play, the Badgers’ victory will be remembered for other reasons. Here are the Channel 3000 3 reasons the Badgers emerged victorious on Saturday:

1. Second-half defense. As bad as the first-half defense was, the Badgers played aggressive, opportunistic defense in the second half and overtime, allowing just three second-half points before the Bulldogs pulled out an overtime touchdown. (But many first-grade flag football teams could score touchdowns against college competition under this silly formula.)

Besides replacing Devin Smith with Niles Brinkley to cover Devon Wylie (who had only three yards receiving in the second half), the biggest key to the second-half turnaround was turnovers: The Badgers picked off Ryan Colburn on Fresno State’s first two drives of the second thirty minutes, with both interceptions coming in Badger territory.

But of course the biggest interception – as well as the most athletic – was Chris Maragos’s leaping end-zone interception in the game’s second overtime. The turnover allowed the Badgers to be comfortably conservative on the last drive and win it with Philip Welch’s 22-yard field goal.

2. John Clay. The Badgers’ best running back had a tough go of it in the first half, as the Bulldogs’ dominance up front resulted in Clay gaining only 27 yards on eight carries. But Clay rewarded Bielema and Chryst for maintaining offensive balance with a 72-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter that gave Wisconsin its first lead.

Clay was also the go-to guy when the game mattered most, as he had the ball on eight of Wisconsin’s ten overtime offensive plays. A solid performance.

3. Special teams. Credit Philip Welch for overcoming a lousy start to his season (he took an 0-for on his first three field goal attempts, including a 47-yard miss in Saturday’s first quarter) to bounce back not only to nail that 57-yard bomb but also the game winner in overtime. Hey, the OT kick was only 22 yards, but try telling Fresno State kicker Kevin Goessling how easy it is to kick field goals. In the two games that the Bulldogs and the Badgers played in the last two years, Goessling hit just 2 of 6 attempts. In short, Fresno State could have won both games had Goessling been more reliable.

Credit for the victory also should go to Badger punter Brad Nortman and Bucky’s punt coverage team: On consecutive second-half drives, Fresno State had to start from their own 3 and their own 1 after Badger punts. This field position was crucial as the Badgers fought to maintain the game’s momentum. Not surprisingly, the Bulldogs came away from those two possessions with no points.

Next up, Wofford at home. The Terriers should give Bucky less trouble than the Bulldogs, but Wofford did beat up on Charleston Southern on Saturday 42-14. It’s doubtful that the 2009 Badgers will emulate last year’s team by following up a victory over Fresno State with a four-game losing streak. Having Tolzien instead of Allan Evridge alone would seem to guarantee that.

Badgers/Bulldogs Preview: 2009 Edition
September 11, 2009

Who: Fresno State Bulldogs @ Wisconsin Badgers.
Where: Camp Randall Stadium, ESPN
When: Saturday, September 13, 11 AM CST

It appeared at first to be a joke.

When word spread early in the week that a massive flu outbreak that affected as many as 45 players had hit the Wisconsin Badgers football team, the scenario seemed right out of a bad college movie: The underdog school’s football team prevails against a national powerhouse thanks to a timely flu epidemic. (Substitute “venereal disease” for “flu” and I think I’ve seen that movie late at night on Cinemax.)

Fortunately for Badger fans, news later in the week was much more positive, as only a few players missed Wednesday’s practice and a brief ban imposed on players from talking to the media was quickly lifted.

It appears, therefore, that Saturday’s non-conference game at home against Fresno State should be decided by the play on the field and not by who needed to be held out of the game.

If it seems that the Badgers and Bulldogs just met, it’s because they did: On September 13, 2008, Wisconsin beat Fresno State 13-10 in what was a highly-touted non-conference game at Bulldog Stadium. Both teams were ranked, and when Wisconsin prevailed, their ranking jumped from #10 to #5, and there was much premature talk about the Badgers in a BCS game.

The following week, the Badgers embarked on a four-game losing streak, and the talk began to revolve more around Bret Bielema losing his job. That, too, proved to be premature.

This year, the Badger/Bulldog game is no doubt less compelling on a national scale, but it’s no less intriguing of a match up — perhaps more so, considering that last year, neither team was as good as advertised, but this year, both teams might be undervalued.

Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines to watch in this game:

1. Are they who we thought they were? Most preseason pundits figured that with a new starter at quarterback and proven commodities John Clay and Zach Brown running the football, the 2009 Badgers offensive attack would be, in the words of San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary, one that goes out and “hits people in the mouth.”

Instead, the Badgers came out in the opener against Northern Illinois looking like the 1999 St. Louis Rams, as Scott Tolzien and Isaac Anderson hooked up for a 80-yard touchdown catch on Wisconsin’s first offensive play. Tolzien went on to establish a Wisconsin record for passing yards (257) by a first-time starting quarterback.

The downside to this surprising passing proficiency was the fact that Clay and Brown only gained a total of 94 yards on 29 carries for a measly 3.2 yards per carry. But with Northern Illinois stacking the box, Tolzien showed he could take what the opposing defense gave him.

Fresno State, which pitched a 51-0 shutout against UC-Davis in week one, will likely make Tolzien prove that he can do it again. Can he?

2. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Despite Tolzien’s numbers, the Badgers opening win was anything but convincing. What loomed large in the game ultimately coming down to a Badger defensive stop on a fourth-and-three with just over a minute remaining? Turnovers.

Tolzien threw two costly picks in his debut; surely the biggest was the one he tossed in the fourth quarter that led to the second of Northern Illinois’s fourth-quarter touchdowns. But don’t overlook the pick in the second quarter. Already up 14-6, the Badgers had just recovered a Northern Illinois fumble and suddenly had the ball deep in NIU territory. A score in all likelihood would have made it a commanding 21-6 lead at the half. Instead Tolzien gave it right back on the very next play, keeping NIU in the game.

Fresno State has a more opportunistic defense than Northern Illinois, scoring a 94-yard interception return in its blowout win against UC Davis. Bucky had better protect the ball better against the Bulldogs.

3. Defense? Which Badger defense will show up against Fresno State? Will it be the defense that over the first three periods against NIU allowed just six points and one significant drive? Or will it be the defense that (granted with zero help from the offense) allowed 127 yards and two touchdowns in the final period alone?

Fresno State’s offense put up some scary numbers against UC-Davis: 511 total yards, 310 rushing yards, 6.0 yards per carry. Granted, UC-Davis’s defense shouldn’t compare to Wisconsin’s, but it’s clear that Fresno State has some weapons, particularly in the backfield. This will be a challenging early-season test for the Badgers’ defensive unit.

With Tolzien quickly proving to be miles better than Allan Evridge, who started at quarterback for Wisconsin the last time these teams met, and with the Bulldogs’ loaded running back corps, Saturday’s game could be the mirror image of last year’s defensive struggle. But I doubt it.

Predicted final: Wisconsin 27, Fresno State 17.

Fearless 2009 NFL Predictions
September 6, 2009

I hate fall.

Fall means the end of warm weather (and it wasn’t even warm this year in southern Wisconsin; once again, global warming has let me down), the end of swimming (basically the only exercise I enjoy, although I’m not sure if taunting my son with threats of getting dunked really counts as exercise), and the end of Big Brother(it is so depressing that Natalie is not only still there but is the current HOH that it makes me want to tear off my shirt a la Jessie in disgust. But I resist out of fear of pulling my rotator cuff).

Perhaps worst of all, the start of fall brings about my birthday, which grows more and more depressing every year. It’s one thing to get old — after all, it’s sort of inescapable — but it’s another thing to be old and not be able to afford to have a mid-life crisis. I’d like to do the Vegas thing, but on my budget, I’d be lucky to do the Dubuque thing.

[How old am I? Old enough that when it came time for the Red Robin staff to sing to me over the weekend – I hate telling anyone it’s my birthday, but it’s the only way to get that free birthday burger – our waitress first announced to the other, highly disinterested, patrons that “Jeff is turning 21 today!” because ha, ha, I’m obviously so decrepit that just suggesting that I’m merely 21 is a laugh riot. I fumed until they brought me my free birthday sundae, which lightened my mood considerably.]

What saves me from contacting Michael Jackson’s Propofal hookup every autumn is football. God, how I love the football. Not as much as my dog loves to lick himself in the middle of the night, keeping my wife and I awake in the process, but still quite a bit.

So here are my fearless predictions for 2009. I hope to do better than last year, when I predicted New England and Dallas would meet in the Super Bowl. Last I checked, neither team even made the playoffs.

NFC Central: Remember when Saturday Night Live had that all-star season back in 1984-1985 with a cast that included Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Christopher Guest? Remember that the nearly-talentless Gary Kroeger was also in that cast? Well, Kroeger got no respect. Similarly, the NFC North has received little respect in the last few years. Either all of the teams have been bad-to-mediocre or one team has towered over the rest (the 2006 Bears, the 2007 Packers).

This year, I like the Packers, Vikings, and Bears all to finish with very strong records. The Bears and particularly the Packers should have better defenses, and the Bears and Vikings (with some fly-by-night dude whose name eludes me) will have much improved quarterback play. Hey, the Lions might even find a way to win a game.

In the end, I like the Bears to squeak out a division title. They’ve got the easiest schedule of all NFL teams (closely followed by the Vikings and Packers), Jay Cutler has the chance to be the best Bears QB in memory, and Matt Forte is a stud running back.

NFC East: Last year the NFC East was arguably the best division in football, with no team finishing worse than .500. But every team has nagging questions coming into the 2009 campaign, none more so than Philadelphia: How will Michael Vick fit in? How much will the death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson hurt? And can Brian Westbrook stay healthy?

Fortunately for the Eagles, they remain the best team in the division, particularly after the Giants’ Plaxico Burress got sent to jail and the Cowboys sent Terrell Owens to the NFL’s equivalent of Siberia, the Buffalo Bills. Say what you want about both men, but their play made their teams better. With the Redskins about as threatening as the cast of iCarly, look for the Eagles to take the division.

NFC South: This is an interesting division. Again, a year ago, no team finished worse than .500, and that team was the loaded-with-talent New Orleans Saints. Defense was the problem in 2008 with the Saints and will continue to be so in 2009.

Although I like Atlanta’s trio of Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White, not to mention their offseason acquisition of Pro Bowl TE Tony Gonzalez, the team has never posted back-to-back winning seasons, and I’m not looking to bet against a 43-year-old streak. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be the biggest mess in the NFC.

That leaves the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers, who looked so horrible in last year’s playoff loss to the Falcons. The Panthers, led by the always-mediocre Jake Delhomme. The Panthers, who went 0-4 in the 2009 preseason. The Panthers, who have DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith. Yes, the Panthers.

NFC West: Now here’s a bad division. Seattle, if Matt Hasselbeck can stay healthy, should be better. San Francisco could emerge, but just like HD Radio, people have been talking about it for years and it has yet to happen. (The 49ers do have the most entertaining head coach in the league in Mike Singletary, so they’ve got that going for them.) Look for Arizona to repeat. Big if 50-year-old Kurt Warner stays upright.

AFC Central: Back in 1992, I took in my first and only Lollapalooza concert. The main stage featured great acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. The side stage featured acts like The Vulgar Boatmen and Sweaty Nipples.

The AFC Central is like the 1992 Lollapalooza lineup. Baltimore and Pittsburgh represent the main acts, while Cincinnati and Cleveland represent the side stage disasters.

I think Pittsburgh, especially if their offensive line can protect Ben Roethlisberger and if Big Ben can focus on football in the face of off-field distractions, looks like the team to beat in the AFC.

As for Cleveland and Cincinnati? Ohio should be thankful they can lay claim to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, into which I believe Sweaty Nipples are due to be inducted in 2017.

AFC East: Perhaps no division will be more closely watched than the AFC East. Does the return of Tom Brady make the Patriots the best team in the league again? Can Terrell Owens save the Bills from irrelevance? Can the Jets’ Mark Sanchez become this year’s Joe Flacco or Matt Ryan? Can last year’s surprise team, the Miami Dolphins, repeat as AFC East champions?

I said it today when my daughter tried to draw Elmo on the living room wall and I’ll say it in response to those four questions: “No, no, no, no!” But I wouldn’t bet against Tom Brady taking the Patriots on another deep playoff run.

AFC South: The only interest I have in this division is for fantasy purposes: In my fantasy draft, I let elite quarterbacks go (you know you’re in Wisconsin when Aaron Rodgers goes second. Not in the second round or second among quarterbacks, but second overall) and got stuck with Jacksonville’s David Garrard, a scary thought considering he’s throwing to the washed-up Torry Holt and the awful Troy Williamson.

I also took a flyer on Colts rookie running back Donald Brown, whom I like, particularly if Joseph Addai gets injured again, which appears about as likely to happen as Kevin winning Big Brother 11 (by which I mean very likely). And I have the Titans defense, which has been solid, if unspectacular. (I never take a defense until I absolutely have to.)

Oh, in reality? The Titans will repeat as division champs.

AFC West: Last but not least, the AFC West. Oh, wait, I meant “last AND least.” Thanks to Denver’s inevitable collapse, San Diego should finish much stronger than last year’s 8-8 record. Oakland might be an interesting sleeper in much the same way that the CW’s revamped Melrose Place might win a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting. Kansas City could be almost as bad as Denver. Which will be bad.

Wild cards: Minnesota and Indianapolis.

Conference champions: Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Super Bowl XLIV winner: Pittsburgh.