Archive for November, 2010

The “Friendship Blog”
November 12, 2010

In between her frequent demands for more Backyardigans videos and her alarming tendency to use me as a punching bag, my three-year-old daughter will often ask her mother or me to make her a “friendship snack.”

Now, for those of you reading this column who do not presently attend preschool (and my editor does say that most of my page views come from daycares and prisons), a “friendship snack” is a concoction that is produced when several kids combine their individual favorite munchies into a huge, group-sized treat.

(For the Record, the snack usually ends up being pretty similar to Chex Mix or Crispix Mix, though most preschools frown on the inclusion of nuts due to allergies. In addition, there is usually one kid who brings in something a little more bizarre, like Twizzlers or gummy bears.)

I started thinking about this method of producing something unique out of a collection of unrelated items when it came time to post this week’s column. I was dragging my feet a little bit because I couldn’t decide exactly what I wanted to write about, when of course it dawned on me to, like the kids in my daughter’s preschool, combine a bunch of individual-sized munchies into one big treat.

So, to my loved ones and enemies alike, I present to you my first “Friendship Blog”:

1. Hoosiers at Wisconsin. After two exhilarating victories, it looked last week like Wisconsin (despite coming off a bye) was finally going to fall prey to one of the most feared occurrences in sports. Worse than a groin pull or a visit on the mound from Morganna, The Kissing Bandit, I’m talking about the dreaded letdown.

The Badgers were sluggish in the first half against a Purdue team that had been outscored 93-10 over their last two games. But as good teams do, Wisconsin — particularly its defense, which tallied three second-half interceptions — eventually wore down their overmatched opponent, ending Purdue’s upset hopes by outscoring them 28-3 in the final 30 minutes of play.

Playing at home Saturday against an Indiana team that has yet to win a Big Ten game, it’s doubtful that Wisconsin will give Hoosier fans the glimmer of hope it afforded Boilermaker nation. However, those fearing an upset may point to Wisconsin’s injuries, especially at running back, where both John Clay and James White are dealing with nagging knee injuries.

While the Badgers clearly will miss having Clay and White at full strength (Bret Bielema has said that all three will play somewhat), anybody paying attention over the last couple of weeks knows that Montee Ball isn’t exactly an embarrassment.
Although Indiana’s defense has played better lately, I like Ball to get it done (even with center Peter Konz likely out with an ankle injury).

I also like the Badgers’ defense to take advantage of Indiana’s one-dimensional offense, although QB Ben Chappell will undoubtedly prove a worthy start for those playing fantasy college football. Hey, I know that there’s such a thing as fantasy NASCAR, so don’t scoff.

Final score prediction: Wisconsin 30, Indiana 17.

2. Badgers Hoops Back Again. Every year, largely due to the dominance of football, basketball season sneaks up on me. But here we are again, and here Bo Ryan’s team is again with somewhat limited expectations.

People who claim to know a lot more than I do simply aren’t mentioning the Badgers as a possible Big Ten champion. This despite the fact that their annual presence at the NCAA tournament is as consistent as my wife’s annual presence at Kohl’s on Black Friday. And this despite the fact that although the losses of seniors Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon are huge, the Badgers return two of the better players in the conference in Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor.

There is no question that the Big Ten is going to be tough this year, with many analysts saying the conference — with powerhouses Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue (even with the loss of Robbie Hummel), along with improving programs Illinois and Minnesota — is the uncontested best in the country.

But even though center Keaton Nankivil has as many bad nights as good, and even though watching a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy is less painful than watching forward Tim Jarmusz try to shoot the ball, I like Rob Wilson, I like Ryan Evans, and I love Bo Ryan and the Badgers’ chances of beating anybody — anybody — at home.

At the very least, gimme the Badgers finishing in the top half of the Big Ten and returning once again to March Madness. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see that wind up as a modest prediction.

3. Brett Favre. OK, everybody’s tired of him, so I’ll make this brief. While fans drooled over his comeback victory last week over the Arizona Cardinals, few seemed to appreciate that Favre’s most recent spectacular game was probably his last.

I’m not buying the talk that the 3-5 Vikings are now suddenly back in the NFC North hunt or even the playoff hunt. The purple needed a Herculean effort from Favre just to beat one of the worst teams in the NFC at home.

What once looked like an easier second-half schedule now looks like a collection of games full of land mines: They have to play a rested Packers team coming off their bye, they have to play the Giants, one of the hottest teams in football, and no matter who they get to play on the road, Minnesota hasn’t won a game away from Minneapolis since last year’s victory at Lambeau Field.

Favre, who I actually believe when he says he’s not coming back next year, could have another great game against Buffalo in week 13, but by then, will anyone care?

4. Randy Moss. If you have him on your fantasy team, don’t start him. If you have him over for dinner, don’t give him one of those “comment cards” to fill out. I can’t imagine, after seeing the lack of effort he displayed during his short return to Minnesota, that he will be a productive player for the Titans. But hey, I was wrong about the public’s desire for a Hawaii Five-O remake. I could be wrong again.

5. The Green Bay Packers at Midseason. Who can figure these guys out? After losing two straight games against teams they are clearly better than, they come back with three straight wins against 2009 playoff teams. Sure, the Vikings and especially the Cowboys aren’t the teams they were last year, but you know that victory over Minnesota was huge for the team and for Aaron Rodgers in particular.

And although the offense was disappointing in New York, the defense was stunningly good in a game that few honestly gave the Packers a chance of winning. And against the Cowboys, they did what good teams should do to bad teams: Embarrass them like embarrass my son by singing Big Time Rush songs loudly in public.

Although the Packers’ upcoming schedule is a beast (the next four of five are on the road, followed by a tough home game against the Giants), the only predictable thing about Mike McCarthy’s banged-up group is that they will finish the season as NFC North champs.

6. The Milwaukee Bucks. Gee, the Bucks always seem to get overlooked by the Madison-area media, don’t they? And who am I to reverse that trend?

Thanks for sharing my “friendship blog” with me. Now get your mats out. It’s time for a nap. With half of the NFL season, the college basketball season, the NBA, and plenty of college football left, we need to rest up.

Does Randy Moss’s Exit End NFC North Race?
November 1, 2010

All I can guess is that Brad Childress got jealous of the attention that Mike Shanahan was getting as the NFL’s nuttiest head coach.

So just a day after Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan made the incredibly illogical decision to pull quarterback Donovan McNabb in a crucial game situation for – and I still can’t believe this – Rex Grossman (which resulted in, no duh, Grossman screwing up and losing the game) – Brad Childress and the Vikings waive Randy Moss.

That’s right. If they weren’t already (and let’s face it, they were), the Minnesota Vikings have officially become the butt of all jokes in the NFC.

Speaking of butts, it’s too bad for Moss that he didn’t have a chance to moon Childress like he did the fans at Lambeau Field back in 2005. Childress deserves it a lot more.

I don’t care how much of a cancer Moss had become (and his postgame rambling words of love for all things Boston – I think he might have even mentioned Boston Rob Mariano – was the first sign of trouble) or how poor his statistics were (in four games with Minnesota he caught just 13 catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns) or even if he gave up on a crucial play on Sunday.

Because defenses had to count for his unquestionable ability, Moss opened up the offense for the Vikings, particularly for Percy Harvin. After Moss’s second coming, the Vikings scored more points and gained more yardage, and Percy Harvin blossomed, including a career-best 104 yard performance in Foxboro on Sunday.

Wasn’t it just two weeks ago that Moss was getting credit for inspiring his teammates with a halftime pep talk? Wasn’t it Moss who television cameras continually showed on the sidelines instructing Harvin on routes?

But Moss made the mistake of crossing Childress with his comments yesterday and Childress, already seen as a joke for playing head coach while Brett Favre really calls the shots, couldn’t tolerate that.

Even if it meant worsening his team, further alienating himself from his players, leaving himself open to more media criticism (ESPN’s Tedy Bruschi immediately went on NFL Live and called Childress “inept”), and most importantly, wasting a third-round pick, crucially important for a team facing a rebuilding process.

But hey, Childress probably doesn’t care about rebuilding. He knows he won’t be around to be part of it.

So, after the Vikings continue to be the most-covered, most-talked about bad team in recent NFL history, are they really out of the NFC North picture now that they are (gulp) tied with the Detroit Lions for the division’s worst record at 2-5?

And what about the Chicago Bears? Even after an uninspiring 1-3 stretch (which included a win over godawful Carolina), they’re just a half game back of the Packers, with a head-to-head win over Green Bay to boot.

In short, how many teams are realistically competing for the NFC North crown?

Coming off a road victory over the Jets that was at once one of their most unwatchable wins but also one of their most impressive wins in recent memory, the Packers are clearly the class of the division. Their offensive line is playing well, Brandon Jackson is improving as a sub for the injured Ryan Grant, and their decimated defense is holding up remarkably well. Perhaps the biggest concern is one of the preseason’s smallest concerns, the play of Aaron Rodgers. Like his mentor Favre, Rodgers’s game has fallen off from last season, though not to the extent that Favre’s has.

The Packers face four teams with a winning record in their last eight games, but it is questionable if Chicago will be any more relevant than 70s crooners England Dan and John Ford Coley by the time they play again on January 2. So, even if they lose to the Patriots, the Falcons, and the Giants, the Packers can count on being at 10-6.

Coming off of their bye next week, the Bears, who have played the worst of any of the NFC North teams of late, get the advantage of facing the Patriots and Jets at Soldier Field. But if their offensive line doesn’t play better, it won’t matter if they play teams on Uranus, they ain’t beating anybody. With only two obvious wins upcoming, the Bears have a real shot at finishing under .500, which could spell the end of the Lovie Smith and Mike Martz era in Chicago.

Since losing by 14 points to Minnesota on August 26, the Lions have gone 2-2 with two close losses to the Packers and Giants, two of the NFC’s best teams. With Matthew Stafford back from a shoulder injury, it’s not hard to imagine Detroit beating the likes of Chicago and Minnesota at home and even the Bills on the road (despite the fact that they currently have a 24-game road losing streak). Trouble is, it is hard to imagine them beating the likes of the Jets, the Patriots, the Dolphins, the upstart Buccaneers, and even the woeful Cowboys in Texas. They are playing better, but the Lions are a lock for their tenth consecutive losing season.

That leaves the Vikings. Minnesota is the only team that, despite all the drama, one could envision getting on a roll. They’ve already endured the most difficult part of the schedule. Despite losing, they’ve played the Jets, the Patriots, and the Saints (all road games) tough. Outside of a road game at Philadelphia on December 26, they don’t have any obvious losses coming up. Despite the Favre dramatics, they’ve stayed relatively healthy. And despite the loss of Moss, they should get Sidney Rice back soon.

But looking at it another way, the Vikings have two wins on the season against teams with a combined record of 3-11. While it’s not impossible that they can beat the Redskins and the Bears of the world, it’s far from a given. Best case scenario for Minnesota – and I’m really looking through purple-colored glasses now – is probably finishing 9-7. And with the competitive races in the NFC East and especially NFC South, 9-7 is unlikely to earn a wild card spot in the NFC.

Given the Packers’ last two crucial victories and the Vikings’ last two tough losses, what Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth just last week called a race between two teams has suddenly devolved into a one-team contest.

But if we were giving credit for dramatics or asinine coaching, the 2010 Vikings would emerge victorious every time.