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NFL Picks Week 5

Here is my pick record on the season: 46-18

Last week: 12-4

Now, onto my picks for this week:

Philadelphia Eagles (1-3) at Buffalo Bills (3-1)

The pick: Philadelphia

Kansas City Chiefs (1-3) at Indianapolis Colts (0-4)

The pick: Kansas City

Arizona Cardinals (1-3) at Minnesota Vikings (0-4)

The pick: Minnesota

Seattle Seahawks (1-3) at New York Giants (3-1)

The pick: New York

Tennessee Titans (3-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2)

The pick: Pittsburgh

New Orleans Saints (3-1) at Carolina Panthers (1-3)

The pick: New Orleans

Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3)

The pick: Cincinnati

Oakland Raiders (2-2) at Houston Texans (3-1)

The pick: Houston

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) at San Francisco 49ers (3-1)

The pick: Tampa Bay

New York Jets (2-2) at New England Patriots (3-1)

The pick: New England

San Diego Chargers (3-1) at Denver Broncos (1-3)

The pick: San Diego

Green Bay Packers (4-0) at Atlanta Falcons (2-2)

The pick: Green Bay

Chicago Bears (2-2) at Detroit Lions (4-0) 

The pick: Detroit

No. 2 Maryland Soccer Resumes Rivalry With No. 23 Virginia

It wasn’t pretty, but ultimately the second-ranked Maryland Terrapins (11-0-1, 3-0-0) were able to pull off a 2-1 overtime win Tuesday over Rutgers (4-5-1). John Stertzer (8), celebrating his 21st birthday, headed in the game’s first goal in the 20th minute off a corner kick. However, the Scarlet Knights responded with a goal by Sam Archer to knot things up just two minutes later. The game would remained tied through regulation. However, seven minutes into overtime, Stertzer (9-97th) put the icing on the cake by scoring his second goal of the game to give Maryland their fourth win in 10 days. As a whole, the Terps have surrendered just three goals in their last six matches.

Maryland will resume one of college soccer’s most historic rivalries tonight with the No. 23 Virginia Cavaliers (6-4-0, 2-1-0) in Charlottesville, VA. The Cavaliers are coming off a 2-0 home win over Clemson in which they held the Tigers without a shot until the 53rd minute and allowed only two shots throughout the entire match. Virginia was able to tally 15 shots in the game.

The Terrapins are the fourth different ranked opponent that Virginia will battle this season. The Wahoos are 1-2 against ranked teams, beating then-No. 25 Duke before losing to both then-No. 19 Charlotte and then-No. 4 North Carolina. The Cavaliers have been outshot 50-34 and outscored 5-2 in these games. Here are some more notes to tonight’s game:

  • Virginia has outscored its opponents 20-14 this year. They’ve netted 10 first half goals and 10 second half goals while yielding five goals in the first half and eight in the second.
  • Will Bates leads the Cavaliers in goals (9) and points (21). His three assists rank second on the team behind Brian Span’s four assists. Bates has scored in nine of Virginia’s 10 matches.
  • Span is second on the team with three goals and 10 points. He is the only Wahoo besides Bates with more than four points on the season.
  • Nine different Cavaliers have notched goals this season.
  • Maryland owns a 37-28-8 edge in the programs’ all-time series, which dates to 1941. The teams have met five times in the last two seasons, with Maryland winning both matchups by 2-0 counts last season and Virginia taking all three contests in 2009, including two in the postseason. The Terps are 5-4-1 in their last 10 matches against the Cavaliers.
  • Maryland is 3-0 against top-25 ranked opponents this season. They have outshot ranked teams by a 46-20 margin. The Terps have outscored ranked opponents 14-2 this season. Against unranked teams, their margin is just 17-6.
  • Casey Townsend leads the Terps in goals (11) and points (22). Stertzer is second with nine goals and 21 points to go along with three assists.
  • Townsend ranks second in the ACC with 11 goals, one behind Duke’s Andrew Wenger. Will Bates is tied for third with nine.
  • Townsend is the reigning ACC, NSCAA and Soccer America National Player of the Week. He is currently seventh all-time in career goals at Maryland with 37.
  • John Stertzer is coming off his second multi-goal performance of the season.
  • Patrick Mullins is third on the Terps with 12 points on five goals and two assists. Sunny Jane leads Maryland with five assists.
  • Maryland is ranked first nationally with 31 goals; Virginia is tied for 18th with 20 scores. The Terps have also given up an ACC-low eight goals this season.
  • Maryland played more games (12) than any other team ranked in the top 25 of the NSCAACoaches Poll.
You can listen to the action live from Charlottesville on WMUC Sports at 6:45. I will be on the call along with Josh Fendrick.

After Huge Win, No. 2 Terps Host Rutgers Tonight

After a week that saw the Maryland Terrapins men’s soccer team tie Seton Hall 0-0 and beat Virginia Tech 2-0, Maryland dropped from No. 1 in the rankings to No. 3, behind UConn and Creighton, respectively. Once they defeated Charlotte last Tuesday by a score of 3-1, the Terps prepared to host the No. 2 Blue Jays at Ludwig Field. Coming into the game, not only was Creighton undefeated with a record of 8-0-0, but the Blue Jays had also not even been scored upon.

The Terps made quick work to change that behind possibly the top forward in the nation. Casey Townsend (11) scored in the 14th minute in what ultimately proved to be the game-winner. Maryland’s defensive backline was stellar, holding Creighton without a shot until the 48th minute and posting their sixth shutout of the season.

The Terrapins (10-0-1, 3-0-0 in the ACC), now ranked second in the nation, are unbeaten in their first 11 games of the season for the first time since 1968, when the program won its first National Championship. They host Rutgers tonight (4-4-1) at Ludwig Field. Here are some notes for the game:

  • Rutgers comes into tonight 1-3-1 in their last five matches. The No. 2 Terrapins are the third ranked team the Scarlet Knights will face this year. Rutgers dropped a 1-0 game on September 16 to No. 25 Iona and lost 2-0 to No. 9 Indiana two days later.
  • Rutgers has scored as many goals (15) as the team as given up this year. Kene Eze (five goals) and Juan Pablo Correa (four goals) lead the Scarlet Knights in scoring.
  • Tonight’s game will be the fourth meeting all-time between Maryland and Rutgers. The Terrapins hold a 2-1 series advantage.
  • The Terps are coming off a week in which they defeated two ranked opponents in No. 12 Charlotte and No. 2 Creighton.
  • Maryland has outscored its opponents by a 29-7 margin this year. Casey Townsend (22 points) leads the Terps with 11 goals. John Stertzer (17 points) has scored seven times while Patrick Mullins (12 points) is third on the team with five goals.
  • The seven goals the Terrapins have given up are the fewest of any ACC team. They are allowing just 0.64 goals per game and have surrendered only 29 shots on goal all season.
  •  Maryland has outshot their opponents 193-85 this season.
  • This is Maryland’s eighth home game of the season. The Terps are averaging 4,537 fans per game at Ludwig Field in 2011.
You can listen to the action live on WMUC Sports at 7:20. Josh Fendrick and Pauly Kwestel will be on the call.

NFL Picks Week 4

Here is my pick record on the season: 34-14

Last week: 10-6

I’m in a major work crunch at school right now so I don’t have time to explain my picks, but here’s who I like in Week 4:

Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Chicago Bears (1-2)

The Pick: Chicago

Buffalo Bills (3-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-2)

The Pick: Buffalo

Tennessee Titans (2-1) at Cleveland Browns (2-1)

The Pick: Tennessee

Detroit Lions (3-0) at Dallas Cowboys (2-1)

The Pick: Dallas

Minnesota Vikings (0-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (0-3)

The Pick: Minnesota

Washington Redskins (2-1) at St. Louis Rams (0-3)

The Pick: Washington

San Francisco 49ers (2-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (1-2)

The Pick: Philadelphia

New Orleans Saints (2-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2)

The Pick: New Orleans

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) at Houston Texans (2-1)

The Pick: Houston

New York Giants (2-1) at Arizona Cardinals (1-2)

The Pick: New York

Atlanta Falcons (1-2) at Seattle Seahawks (1-2)

The Pick: Atlanta

Denver Broncos (1-2) at Green Bay Packers (3-0)

The Pick: Green Bay

New England Patriots (2-1) at Oakland Raiders (2-1)

The Pick: New England

Miami Dolphins (0-3) at San Diego Chargers (2-1)

The Pick: San Diego

New York Jets (2-1) at Baltimore Ravens (2-1)

The Pick: Baltimore

Indianapolis Colts (0-3) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)

The Pick: Tampa Bay

The Greatest Night In Baseball History

The very first Major League Baseball game was played on May 4, 1871 between the Cleveland Forest Cities and the Fort Wayne Kekiongas. A lot has changed in the national pastime in the 140 years, four months and 24 days since. Baseball has seen a number of odd and amazing things happen in the 51,281 days pass since then, but last night we may have witnessed the greatest night in baseball history.

The scene set at the beginning of the night was perfect. Two teams in each league tied for the last elusive playoff spot. Each league had one team (the Red Sox in the American League and the Braves in the National League) trying to stave off possibly the greatest collapses in baseball history while two others (the Rays in the AL and the Cardinals in the NL) looked to put the finishing touches on improbable comebacks.

The stories of how each team got here, into a tie on the final day of the season, are all very unique. On September 2, the Red Sox held a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card race. No team in major league history had ever blown a nine-game lead in September. In the 25 games since September 2, the Red Sox gave up six runs or more in a game 18 times as Boston’s pitching staff surrendered an astounding 6.4 runs per game. Their starting pitchers compiled a 7.91 ERA over the last 19 games. The Red Sox would go 7-18 since September 2, falling into a tie for the AL Wild Card with Tampa Bay.

The Rays, despite vaulting nine games in the standings to catch Boston, had been on a rollercoaster ride in September. Tampa Bay was just 10-9 against every other team in baseball during the month. However, the Rays were able to make up ground so quickly because they dominated the Red Sox, winning six of seven games against Boston. By the time each team would play its final series of the year on September 26, Tampa Bay had vaulted itself into a tie atop the AL Wild Card standings.

On the National League side, the Braves were faltering in similar fashion to the Red Sox. Atlanta held an 8.5 game lead over St. Louis on September 5. However, since then, the Braves went 7-15, with 11 different pitchers taking a loss. During that stretch, Atlanta averaged only 3.09 runs per game and allowed 4.36 runs per game. Over the course of the season, those numbers were 3.96 and 3.73, respectively.

As Atlanta cooled off, the Cardinals began to catch fire. St. Louis’ run actually began a little bit earlier than the Braves’ collapse though, which allowed them to gain slightly more ground. On August 25, the Cardinals were 10.5 games behind Atlanta in the NL Wild Card race. In the 31 games since then though, St. Louis went 22-9, including a three-game sweep of the Braves from September 9 through 11. During that stretch, the Cardinals averaged 4.84 runs per game while surrendering just 3.84 runs per contest. With their 13-6 victory Tuesday over the Astros, St. Louis was finally able to erase the deficit and move into a tie atop the NL Wild Card leaders.

The final night of the season proved to be the final stop on the magical carpet ride the Rays and Cardinals had taken throughout September. However, for most of the night, it looked as if both of those teams would either not get the job done or be forced into a one-game playoff to decide their playoff faith the next day.

The Cardinals erased any chance of doubt early on by taking a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning. They would cruise to an 8-0 victory, the only game of the four teams tied for a Wild Card spot that lacked drama.

Meanwhile, after a Ryan Howard RBI-double in the top of the first for Philadelphia, the Braves responded by tying the game on a Chipper Jones sacrifice fly in the bottom half of the frame. In the bottom of the third, Dan Uggla gave Atlanta their first lead of the game with a two-run home run to left to make it 3-1. However, the Phillies began to inch closer as the late innings fell upon Turner Field. A Jack Wilson error in the top of the seventh allowed Raul Ibanez to score to make it 3-2.

The score would stay that way as Braves manager Freddi Gonzalez summoned Craig Kimbrel, who saved a rookie-record 46 games this year, into the game to close things out in the ninth. Kimbrel immediately allowed a single to Placido Polanco, who was pinch-run for by Pete Orr. After striking out Carlos Ruiz for the first out, Kimbrel committed the worst sin that a pitcher can make; giving out free passes to first base for batters. He walked pinch-hitter Ben Francisco and followed that up with the same result to Jimmy Rollins to load the bases with one out. The free passes allowed Chase Utley to hit a sacrific fly to left and just like that, Kimbrel blew his eighth save of the season as the Phillies tied the game at three.

The game would remain scoreless until the 13th, with Atlanta missing a golden opportunity to win with runners on the corners and two outs in the 12th. Scott Linebrink entered the game out of the Braves bullpen for the top half of the inning and made the same egregious mistakes as Kimbrel. After striking out Dominic Brown, Linebrink walked Brian Schneider. Rollins flied to center for the second out but then an Utley single pushed Schneider to third. With runners on the corners and two outs, the same situation the Braves failed to score with in the bottom of the 12th, Hunter Pence hit a weak line drive that found a hole in the right side of the infield to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead.

Atlanta had one final opportunity to extend their season in the bottom frame of the 13th. However, with a runner on first and one out, Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play as the Braves’ season suddenly and shockingly ended. With five games to play, Atlanta had owned a three-game lead over St. Louis. In those five games, though, the Braves scored just seven runs, going 0-5. However, their bullpen implosion would not be the only one by a team on this night to put the finishing touches on a sinking season.

Over on the American League side, things could not have started off any better for the Red Sox. For just the third time in 15 games, the Red Sox would able to put a crooked number on the scoreboard before the opposing team, using a Dustin Pedroia single to take a 1-0 lead in the third. However, Boston coughed the lead right up on a two-run J.J. Hardy homer in the bottom half of the inning. The Red Sox continued to claw back though, scoring one in the fourth on a balk by Orioles pitcher Alfredo Simon and then using a Pedroia home run to take a 3-2 lead in the fifth.

As Boston was taking the lead and the reigns in the Wild Card race, Tampa Bay looked like their season would end because of their struggles against every other team besides the Red Sox. By the end of the fifth inning, the Yankees had a 7-0 lead and the Rays’ postseason hopes looked pretty much dead.

However, just like that though, a funny thing happened. It was almost as if the baseball gods intervened to suddenly change the fortunes of the games. As the Orioles and Red Sox stopped play for a rain delay, Tampa Bay suddenly began a miraculous comeback. With Boston watching from the locker room, the Rays got their first three men on base against Boone Logan in the bottom of the eighth. New York manager Joe Girardi decided to bring in Luis Ayala and Tampa Bay capitalized immediately. Sam Fuld walked score Johnny Damon to make it 7-1. Ayala hit Sean Rodriguez with a pitch to force in another run to make it 7-2 before striking out Desmond Jennings for the first out of the innings. B.J. Upton then hit a sacrifice fly to make it 7-3 with two outs and the Rays’ hottest hitter, Evan Longoria, coming to the plate. Suddenly, with two men on, a glimmer of hope appeared at the end of the tunnel for Tampa Bay. Longoria crushed a pitch over the fence in left field, and just like that the Rays were within one at 7-6. John Jaso singled before Ayala retired Damon to end the inning and stop the bleeding.

Tampa Bay was afforded one more shot in the bottom of the ninth inning to put their playoff destiny in their own hands. The Yankees’ new pitcher, Cory Wade, retired the first two hitters of the plate though, and suddenly the Rays were down to their final out. With light-hitting Sam Fuld due up next, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon made the curious decision of pinch-hitting Dan Johnson. Among non-pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances this year, Johnson (.119) had the lowest batting average this season of any hitter in baseball. However, be it the baseball gods or Maddon’s knowledge that since 2008, Johnson was 17-for-52 (.327) with eight home runs and 14 RBIs in 22 games against the Red Sox and Yankees and just . 20 for 168 (.119 with three homers and 17 RBIs in 56 games against the rest baseball, Johnson came through. Down to his final strike, Johnson crushed a ball over the fence in right field to miraculously tie the game and send it to extra innings.

Soon afterwards, the Red Sox and Orioles resumed play at Camden Yards. The Boston bullpen was able to keep Baltimore off the scoreboard in the seventh and the eighth and hand the ball to closer Jonathan Papelbon for the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead. Coming into this game, the Red Sox were 77-0 this season when leading after eight innings. Papelbon struck out the first two batters of the inning and the Red Sox were one out away from controlling their own destiny once again in the postseason hunt. However, fate kicked in against Boston. Chris Davis hit a double and then Nolan Reimold stepped to the plate. Papelbon pumped two fastballs by the bat of Reimold and Boston was just one strike away. However, Reimold smashed a ground-rule double into right to tie it at three. Robert Andino then digged into the box. It would be the last batter of the Red Sox’s miserable and depressing fall from grace. Andino lined a ball hard into left field. Charging hard was Carl Crawford, who slid feet first, but the ball clanked off his glove, scoring Reimold and sending Boston back into the clubhouse with a loss after leading in the eighth inning for the first time all season.

At this time, the Yankees and Rays had moved into the bottom of the 13th inning. Pitching for New York was Scott Proctor, who had throw 2.1 innings of scoreless baseball as Longoria stepped back into the box. With the eyes of a tormented Red Sox Nation now upon him, Longoria worked the count to 2-2. He then fouled off a pitch before lining a rocket down the left field line. The ball stayed fair and flew just over the fence as the Rays celebrated being the first team in baseball history to overcome a nine-game deficit to make the postseason. It was just the third time in Yankees history, and first since 1953, that New York blew a seven-run lead in the 8th inning or later. Like what happened to the Braves, it took one final bullpen collapse to be the final straw of the Red Sox’s season, finishing off the most epic collapse of all-time.

Boston did not win consecutive games since beating Oakland in a doubleheader on August 27.  The Red Sox were 1-2 against Texas, 2-5 against Toronto, 1-6 against Tampa Bay, 2-5 against Baltimore and 1-4 against the Yankees in September, finishing 7-20 overall in the month. The 20 losses in September were the most by a Red Sox team in the month since 1952. The team with baseball’s third-highest payroll will be watching the playoffs from home for the second season in a row while the Rays, who own the major’s second-smallest payroll, will be going to the postseason for the third time in four years.

The night started with the potential to be magical, but it proved to be even better than that. The Rays were one strike away from losing. The Red Sox were one strike away from winning. But in each case, the opposite happened. The timing of the games and the simple brilliance of ninth-inning rallies, two teams’ bullpen collapses and a walk-off home run proved to be as dramatic as baseball can get. With so much on the line, seeing all of this was unbelievable. When the dust settled, the only word that could even come close to describing the enchantment of the cascade of events crashing down last night is this one: Amazing.

There have been 51,282 nights in baseball history. None of them were better and filled with more collective drama and magic than what we witnessed last night.

No. 3 Maryland Soccer Welcomes In Top-15 Opponent Charlotte

In their most lopsided game in all of 2010, the Maryland Terrapins dismantled the Virginia Tech Hokies on their home turf by a score of 7-0. However, after Virginia Tech, which had been picked in the preseason to finish in last in the ACC this season, beat then-No. 1 North Carolina September 10 in a 1-0 double overtime thriller, alarms went off that the No. 1 Maryland Terrapins could not take the Hokies lightly this time around.

Sure enough, the Terps did not come into Blacksburg too overconfident. After a frustrating 0-0 tie Tuesday at Seton Hall, Maryland got the ball to their top scorers early and often to create opportunities. While Virginia Tech goalie Kyle Renfro ultimately made eight saves, the Terrapins were able to find the back of the net twice to secure victory. John Stertzer headed in his sixth goal of the year in the 29th minute off a Kaoru Forbess free kick. In the 41st minute, Forbess sent a cross into the box that Casey Townsend netted for his ninth goal of the season to give the Terps a commanding 2-0 lead. Forbess now has three assists in the last four games after tallying just one in the first five matches of the year. Goalkeeper Will Swaim and Maryland’s backline were able to keep the Hokies off the scoreboard for their fifth shutout of the season as Maryland improved to 8-0-1 overall and 3-0-0 in the ACC. It is the first 3-0-0 start for the Terps in the ACC since 2003.

After spending last week away from Ludwig Field, the Terps (8-0-1, 3-0-0), now ranked third in the nation, host No. 12 Charlotte (7-1-0) in the first of two top-15 opponents the Terps will welcome to College Park this week. The 49ers are 2-0-0 against ACC opponents this season, having beaten then No. 10 Virginia 2-1 in overtime and Clemson 3-1. Here are some more notes for tonight’s game:

  • The 49ers enter tonight’s game on a five-game winning streak. They have outscored their opponents 16-5 this season and have shutout their opponents four times in eight games.
  • Charlotte boasts a very balanced scoring attack. Reigning Atlantic-10 Player of the Week Evan James leads the 49ers with four goals on the year. Jennings Rex is second on the team with three goals. Donnie Smith, Tyler Gibson and Isaac Caughrans have tallied two goals apiece.
  • This game will mark the second meeting between the two schools. Maryland defeated Charlotte in 2008 in overtime by a score of 2-1.
  • Over the last three seasons, the 49ers are 5-0-1 against the ACC, including a 2-0-0 record this year.
  • Maryland is outscoring its opponents 25-6 this year. The Terps have allowed just one goal in the last three games.
  • Of the six goals Maryland has allowed this season, five of them have come in the second half.
  • Maryland is surrendering just 0.67 goals per contest. They have allowed only 21 shots on goal all season.
  • The Terrapins are led on offense by Casey Townsend, who leads the team in both goals with nine and points with 18. Townsend had nine goals in all of 2010.
  • John Stertzer is second on the Terps in scoring with six goals and three assists for 15 points. Patrick Mullins is third with five goals and one assist for 11 points. Sunny Jane leads Maryland in assists with five.
  • The Terps have outshot their opponents 165-69 this year.
  • This is Maryland’s sixth home game of the season. The Terps are averaging 4,643 fans per game at Ludwig Field in 2011.
You can listen to the action live on WMUC Sports at 7:20. Luke Jackson and Pauly Kwestel will be on the call.

Monday Night Madness Podcast No. 3

I was on the airwaves by myself this week. Monday Night Madness began with discussion of both the American League and National League Wild Card races. I then discussed Week 3 in the NFL with the excitement surrounding the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions and why the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. The show wraps up with the decline of Maryland football.

You can also download the Monday Night Madness podcast on iTunes or download the show by clicking here!

NFL Picks Week 3

This is the first time I’m publicizing my weekly NFL picks. I have a 24-8 record on the season. Here are my picks for Week 3:

New England Patriots (2-0) at Buffalo Bills (2-0)

Three of the four teams in the AFC East have perfect records. That will change this weekend. The Bills have been the surprise team of the NFL this season, destroying the Chiefs 41-7 in Week 1 before a dramatic come from behind 38-35 win in their home opener against the Raiders last week. Buffalo leads the NFL in rushing, averaging 193 yards per game. They will need to be able to control the clock against New England’s lethal offense. The Patriots have the NFL’s top offense, accumulating 1,126 yards (563 yards per game), or 174 more than second-place Carolina. Tom Brady has been nearly unstoppable, throwing for over 400 yards in both games so far this year. He has 940 yards in total to go along with seven touchdowns and one interception for a 128 quarterback rating. The Bills will have to find a way to pressure Brady to pull off the upset.

The Pick: New England

San Francisco 49ers (1-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-1)

Both of these teams lost heartbreaking games last week to fall to 1-1. The 49ers have the NFL’s top rushing defense, surrendering only 54.5 yards per game on the ground. That matchup will be key because the Bengals will try to run the football with Cedric Benson (41 carries for 180 yards and a touchdown) to keep pressure off rookie quarterback Andy Dalton (37-for-53 for 413 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 105.7 rating). The Bengals defense has looked good so far this season against two relatively weak offenses, the Browns and Broncos. The 49ers have the NFL’s 31st-best offense statistically, averaging just 207.5 yards per game, so Cincinnati’s defense could be in for another good day. A Week 4 matchup against Buffalo will be the Bengals’ defense first true test of the season.

The Pick: Cincinnati

Miami Dolphins (0-2) at Cleveland Browns (1-1)

Miami’s offense ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in total yardage (397 yards per game), but the Dolphins are tied for 25th in points scored, averaging 18.5 per game. Miami has been able to move the ball well in between the 20s, but their inability to score touchdowns has cost them so far. Cleveland owns the second-best pass defense in the NFL, giving up just 165.5 yards per game through the air, and sixth-best total defense (289.5 yards per game) but it’s unclear yet if that’s because of the Browns’ talent or the weak offenses of their first two opponents, the Bengals and Colts. Offensively though, Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy (41-for-72 for 424 yards, three TDs, one INT and a 82.2 rating) may be able to go to the air early and often. The Dolphins talked all about how great their defense was in the offseason, but they have yet to back it up on the field. Miami has the NFL’s worst defense through the first two weeks of the season, allowing a staggering 483.5 yards per game.

The Pick: Miami

Denver Broncos (1-1) at Tennessee Titans (1-1)

The Titans looked awfully impressive against the Baltimore Ravens last week, winning 26-13 over a team that dominated the Steelers 35-7 in Week 1. Tennessee’s third-ranked defense has been absolutely nasty this year, surrendering just 276 yards per game, which is not good news for  a struggling and injury-plagued Broncos offense that ranks 23rd in the league (314 yards per game). The return of running back Knowshon Moreno and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd should help the Denver offense. Tennessee may only be a good running game away from being a surprise team. Chris Johnson is averaging just 2.3 yards per carry (33 rushes for 77 yards). He has yet to score a touchdown and his longest run of the season is only nine yards. Last year, he rushed for 4.3 yards per carry and had a long run of 76 yards.

The Pick: Tennessee

Detroit Lions (2-0) at Minnesota Vikings (0-2)

The Lions have certainly lived up to the hype as the NFL’s up-and-coming team through the first two weeks of the season. Detroit’s eighth-ranked offense is racking up 421 yards per game while its seventh-ranked defense is allowing just 291 yards and 11.5 points per game. The Lions are a young and exciting team that no one wants to play right now because its scary how good this team can become. Second-year defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh may already be the best defensive lineman in the NFL and quarterback Matthew Stafford (47-for-72 for 599 yards, seven TDs, two INTs and a 112 rating) to receiver Calvin Johnson (nine catches for 117 yards and four touchdowns) is rapidly becoming one of the top QB-WR duos in the NFL. The Vikings will have to attack Detroit’s secondary down the field to keep up with Detroit’s potent attack. Donovan McNabb has passed for just 267 through the first two games of the year, but if he can get the ball to receiver Percy Harvin (nine catches for 83 yards) in space, it will open things up for running back Adrian Peterson (41 rushes for 218 yards and two TDs). The Vikings may be 0-2, but they have lost both of their games by a total of 11 points.

The Pick: Detroit

Houston Texans (2-0) at New Orleans Saints (1-1)

There may not be a more exciting game to watch this week. This one features two of the best offensive attacks in the league so there should be no shortage of points. It is Houston’s first true test of the season for their top-ranked defense (271 yards per game) after easy wins against Indianapolis and Miami. It’s also where we find out just good the Texans really are. They are the perceived team to beat in the AFC South. If they pull off the upset in a very tough place to play on the road, people will start taking Houston seriously as contenders. Putting pressure on New Orleans’ fifth-ranked offense (421.5 yards per game) led by Drew Brees (58-for-86 for 689 yards, six TDs, no INTs and a 114.9 rating) is the key for Houston’s new 3-4 defense. If the Texans give Brees time to throw, he will spread it around to each of the weapons at his disposal. Nine different Saints have receptions this year.

The Pick: New Orleans

New York Giants (1-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (1-1)

Michael Vick is expected to play Sunday after leaving Philadelphia’s Week 2 loss early to the Falcons last week with a concussion. That’s not good news for the Giants, who allowed Vick to accumulate 664 total yards of offense by himself in two meetings last year. New York is surrendering 283 yards per game through the air, which ranks 24th in the NFL, which also doesn’t bode well for them, considering the Giants haven’t exactly faced any juggernaut passing attack in the Redskins and Rams the first two weeks of the season. The Giants simply need more from Eli Manning (37-for-62 for 491 yards, two TDs, two INTs, 82.1 rating), but chances of that are slim against an Eagles secondary that features Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie.

The Pick: Philadelphia

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-1) at Carolina Panthers (0-2)

It will be a battle between two first-round quarterbacks in Carolina’s Cam Newton and Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert. Newton has far and away exceeded all expectations, throwing for 854 yards in his first two career NFL games, the most-ever for a rookie. However, Newton has thrown four picks compared to three touchdowns and that’s why the Panthers have a zero in the win column, despite losing both of their games by seven points. The rookie Gabbert saw his first career NFL action last week against the Jets, but was impressive against one of the top defenses in the NFL, finishing 5-for-6 for 52 yards. Carolina has allowed 295 yards per game through the air, 26th in the league, which should give Gabbert many more passing lanes to throw to than he saw against New York.

The Pick: Carolina

New York Jets (2-0) at Oakland Raiders (1-1)

This game begins a grueling three-week road trip for the Jets, who after playing in the Black Hole, have to travel to play Baltimore next week before heading up to New England for their annual rivalry with the Patriots. The Jets may find comfort in the fact that despite Oakland being one of the toughest places to play in the NFL, the Raiders defense has been awful so far, which could be the perfect cure for New York’s inconsistent offensive attack. Oakland’s 25th-ranked defense has allowed 395 yards per game through the first two weeks, and could be the perfect opportunity for the Jets to finally be able to get Shonn Greene (26 rushes for 75 yards and a TD) going. The Raiders will look to their fourth-ranked rushing attack featuring Darren McFadden (42 carries for 222 yards and a TD) to shorten the game, but the Jets defense, which looked phenomenal last week, will look to be aggressive in stopping that. With the best cornerback tandem in the NFL in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, New York can certainly afford to send in extra blitzes to slow down McFadden.

The Pick: New York

Baltimore Ravens (1-1) at St. Louis Rams (0-2)

The Ravens are not as good their 35-7 victory Week 1 victory over the Steelers, but they are certainly not as bad as what they showed in a 26-13 loss last week to Tennessee. Simply chalk that loss up to being a little bit overconfident coming off a dominating victory over their arch-enemy. Baltimore is going to come out hungry to prove that they are more of the Super Bowl contender they showed in Week 1. The Ravens defense has been great against the run, fourth in the NFL, but horrendous against the pass, 28th in the league. Baltimore really needs to pressure the quarterback because its secondary has really struggled to this point without rookie corner Jimmy Smith. Look for the Ravens to be aggressive in sending blitzers at Sam Bradford (39-for-76 for 519 yards, one TD, no INTs and a 77.7 rating). Baltimore’s offensive gameplan should feature Ray Rice (32 carries for 150 yards and a TD), Ray Rice and more of Ray Rice. He has looked very dynamic through the first two weeks of the season, and facing the NFL’s worst-ranked run defense, could be in for a field day today.

The Pick: Baltimore

Kansas City Chiefs (0-2) at San Diego Chargers (1-1)

Things have gotten real bad in Kansas City. They’ve lost three of their best players, Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki, to season-ending knee injuries. Adding insult to injury, the Chiefs have been outscored 89-10 through the first two games of the season. Things don’t look like they’ll get any better on the road today. The Chargers trot in their third-ranked offense, racking up 438.5 yards per game. Philip Rivers (62-for-88 for 713 yards, four TDs and four INTs for a 90.8 rating) is finally getting some help from the running game. Ryan Mathews is finally starting to live up to his first-round billing last year, having rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in 2011.

The Pick: San Diego

Green Bay Packers (2-0) at Chicago Bears (1-1)

Many people forget that it was the Bears who actually won the NFC North division last year. The NFL’s oldest rivalry resumes today at Soldier Field as both teams look to get their defenses performing back at an elite level. Green Bay has been absolutely awful defending the pass the first two weeks of the season, surrendering an NFL-worst 400 yards per game. Luckily for them, they have Aaron Rodgers (46-for-65 for 620 yards, five TDs and no INTs for a 126.4 rating), which is why the Packers are simply outscoring their opponents, racking up 36 points per game, to be 2-0. Meanwhile, the once-proud Chicago defense has surrendered 30 points to both the Saints and Falcons in each of the first two games of the season. It won’t get any easier today. The Bears need to run the ball more, as they are just 27th in the NFL in rushing despite Matt Forte averaging 4.5 yards per carry. It’s what they do best on offense and should help shorten the game and keep Jay Cutler (41-for-77 for 556 yards, three TDs, one INT and a 84.1 rating) upright.

The Pick: Green Bay

Arizona Cardinals (1-1) at Seattle Seahawks (0-2)

It’s one of the worst defenses in the game against the NFL’s worst offense through the first couple weeks of the season. The Cardinals could be 2-0 right now if not for their defense collapsing in a one-point loss to the Redskins last week. They are allowing 466 yards per game, which is good enough for 29th in the NFL. They may be able to solve some of their problems though against a Seahawks team that has gotten absolutely nothing going offensively. Seattle’s pathetic attack is averaging just 191.5 yards per game, 16 behind the 31st-ranked 49ers. The Seahawks have put up only 47.5 rushing yards per game, or seven less than the 31st-ranked Cowboys rushing offense is averaging. On the other side, maybe the Seahawks can find a rhythm offensively against the porous Arizona defense.

The Pick: Seattle

Atlanta Falcons (1-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1)

After being outscored 44-20 in the first six quarters of the season, the Bucs got back to the ground-and-pound attack that won them 10 games last year. LeGarrette Blount (18 carries for 86 yards and two touchdowns on the season) suddenly became the featured weapon and Tampa Bay came back to beat the Vikings 24-20. The Bucs should stick to what they do best today but the Falcons should also try a more run-oriented attack in this one. Tampa Bay is giving up 156 yards per game on the ground, second-worst in the NFL, while Falcons running back Michael Turner has plowed for 214 yards, 6.9 yards per carry, and a touchdown through the first two weeks. A win for the young Bucs will prove they are ready to build on their surprising 10-win 2010 campaign. However, a defense still learning may be what prevents Tampa Bay from knocking off one of the top offenses in the NFL.

The Pick: Atlanta

Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) at Indianapolis Colts (0-2)

This game looked like a gem when it was scheduled. But that was before we learned Peyton Manning would be out for a large chunk, if not all of the 2011 season. In his absence the Colts have played pretty uninspiring football. Indianapolis has been outscored 61-26 through the first two games of the season. Meanwhile, the Steelers were able to bounce-back from a 35-7 Week 1 loss to the Ravens with a dominant 24-0 victory over the Seahawks last week, getting back to a more balanced approach offensively. The Steelers threw 31 passes against Seattle compared to 35 runs. Against Baltimore, Pittsburgh tossed 41 passes compared to just 16 rushes. Look for the physical Steelers to duplicate their Seattle gameplan by powering through the NFL’s 29th-ranked Colts rush defense.

The Pick: Pittsburgh

Washington Redskins (2-0) at Dallas Cowboys (1-1)

Monday Night Football this week features possibly the best historical rivalry in the NFL. After the Eagles’ loss last week, it is the Redskins who find themselves on top of the NFC East division. Washington has thrived behind Rex Grossman, of all quarterbacks. Grossman has passed for 596 yards, four touchdowns and two picks for a 90.6 rating. The Redskins will need to throw the ball to win, as Dallas has allowed only 59.5 rushing yards per game, second-best in the league. Offensively for the Cowboys, Tony Romo should play while running back Felix Jones and receiver Dez Bryant are question marks. Romo (43-for-69 for 687 yards, four TDs, one INT and a 108.8 rating) shook off a horrible Week 1 choke to the Jets and a punctured lung against the 49ers in Week 2 to lead Dallas to a come from behind 27-24 overtime victory. An interesting note coming into this game is that the Cowboys have both the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense and defense, while Washington ranks 11th in both offense and defense.

The Pick: Dallas

Justin Verlander’s Brilliance

Though just 28 years old, Justin Verlander has had plenty of ups and downs in his career. He has tossed two no-hitters in his career, more than Bob Gibson, Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux combined. Verlander led the majors in innings pitched (240) and strikeouts (269) in 2009 and tied for the league in wins with 19, but that was coming off a season in which he finished with 17 defeats, the most losses of any American League pitcher. In 2007, he had a .750 winning percentage, the best in the AL, but also hit 19 batters and threw 17 wild pitches, both of which were the worst in the majors. Everything has come together for him in 2011.

Instead of leading the league in losses, wild pitches and hit batsmen like he has in years past, Verlander’s 2011 season has him leading the majors in both wins (24), innings pitched (244), batting average against (.190), hits allowed per nine innings (6.1), WHIP (0.910) and strikeouts (244). If that wasn’t enough, he is also leading the American League with a 2.29 ERA, a 178 Adjusted ERA-Plus and .828 winning percentage. Just about the only categories Verlander doesn’t lead the league in are walks issued per nine innings, in which he is eighth in the AL with 2.07, and strikeout-to-walk ratio, where he is third with a 4.36 mark.

Another way of looking at his success is by going through each of his starts. Verlander has gone at least six innings and thrown no fewer than 104 pitches in each of his 33 starts. He has allowed four runs or more in an outing just four times all season.

Verlander has also had a number of purely dominant stretches this year. During one nine-start stint from May 29 through July 10, he went 8-1 with a 0.75 ERA and .182 batting average against in 72 innings while allowing 46 hits, walking 10 and striking out 74 batters. During that stretch, Verlander’s shortest outing was seven innings pitched. Only one pitcher has had that dominant of a stint this season. Cliff Lee’s current nine-start stretch since August 4, in which he is 6-1 with a 0.75 ERA and .198 BAA in 71.2 innings pitched while allowing 50 hits, walking 10 and striking out 74 hitters, is a run strikingly similar to that of Verlander’s in midseason.

The next stop for Justin Verlander is the postseason as the Detroit Tigers have clinched the AL Central division. During the 2006 playoffs, he made four starts, going 1-2 with a 5.82 ERA and 1.662 WHIP in 21.2 innings while allowing 26 hits, walking 10 and striking out 23. The Tigers were able to reach the World Series that year, but Verlander struggled mightily. His success in 2011 has given the Tigers hope of another World Series appearance. As the ace of Detroit’s staff, Verlander will make, if needed, at least two starts per series should the Tigers continue to advance. If the past is any indication, Verlander will learn from his playoff failures and turn them around into virtually unhittable outings this October.

Appreciating Mariano Rivera

How valuable is a closer really in today’s game? The game’s greatest of all-time, Mariano Rivera, has thrown more than 80 innings in a season exactly once in his career, when he tossed 80.2 in 2001. The best starting pitchers throw as many as three times that amount every season. Closers almost exclusively take the ball with the lead and for only one inning in a game. From 1969, when the save was first made a statistic, through 1985, one-inning saves made up just 21 percent of all saves. That number has progressed ever since to a record-high of 85.3 percent this season. How can a pitcher like Mariano Rivera be considered one of the greatest ever when starting pitchers throw as many as three-to-four times the amount of innings every season?

There have been too many times to count when we have heard an announcer say something along the lines of, “Joe Torre (or Girardi) is not going to wait any longer. He is bringing in Rivera right now.” In the era of one-inning closers, Mariano Rivera has defied common logic from managers. He has 116 career saves of more than one inning. Since 1994, when the era of the one-inning save began, Keith Foulke is next on the list with 55 saves of more than one inning.

Mariano Rivera has extinguished more rallies than any other reliever, most often when the stakes are highest, in the postseason. Opposing hitters possess a .176/.213/.229 batting line against Rivera in the playoffs. Fifty-eight of his 94 postseason appearances have been for longer than an inning. Thirty-three of them have been two innings or more. Of his 42 playoff saves, 31 of them have been longer than one inning. Countless times has Rivera come into a ballgame with the Yankees’ postseason lives on the line and countless times has he led them to survive another inning, another game, another series.

The New York Yankees have won four World Series championships since Rivera became their full-time closer in 1997. Without him waiting as a security blanket for the late-innings, when the pressure is highest, it’s impossible to know exactly how New York would have been affected, but there’s a chance that without Rivera, the Yankees might have won none of those titles. The ultimate goal of sport is to win, and Mariano Rivera, reliever or not, is as big a reason as any why the Yankees have been so successful in not only making the postseason, but winning championships.

Rivera not only has great statistics, but he completely dwarfs almost everyone in each pitching category. Obviously, he has 602 saves, the most all-time. The closest active pitcher to that would be Francisco Cordero, who is 279 saves behind him with 323. Another way of looking at it is Mariano Rivera has 86.4 percent more saves than anyone else. The greatest margin over the closest active player by anyone who broke a record at the time player in any category? That would be Walter Johnson, who when he broke the strikeouts record in 1921, had 57.5 percent more punch outs than Grover Cleveland Alexander, who was second amongst active pitchers.

Rivera has also thrown a total of 1,209 regular season innings in his career. He has faced 4,806 batters and allowed only 1,207 of them to reach base. He owns a career WHIP of 0.998. There have been only two pitchers in major league history to throw more than 1,000 innings and have a career WHIP below 1.00; one is Addie Joss (0.97), who last pitched in 1910 and the other is Big Ed Walsh (0.9996), who threw his final pitch in 1917. Including this season, Rivera has eight years with a WHIP below 1.00. Billy Wagner is the only other relief pitcher to accomplish that and Walter Johnson, who has nine seasons with a WHIP below 1.00, is the only pitcher in history to succeed that.

Mariano Rivera has also had 10 seasons in which he has finished with an ERA below 2.00. The next closest relievers to him (in seasons of 50 innings or more) are Wagner and Hoyt Wilhelm, who each had six such seasons. If Rivera can keep his current 1.98 ERA south of 2.00 for the final 10 games of the season, he would tie Johnson for the most seasons ever with an ERA below 2.00 with 11.

Even in more modern statistics, no one comes even close to Rivera. He has a career Adjusted ERA-Plus of 205. The average major league pitcher has an Adjusted ERA-Plus of 100, meaning over the course of his career, Rivera has been twice as good as the average pitcher. The closest to Rivera in career Adjusted ERA-Plus is Pedro Martinez, who has a career mark of 154. Only one active starting pitcher, Zack Greinke in 2009, has had a year in which they’ve been as good as Rivera has for his entire career. Rivera has compiled 12 seasons with an Adjusted ERA-Plus of at least 205. The only active closers who have had at least two seasons with an Adjusted ERA-Plus that good are Joe Nathan (five) and Jonathan Papelbon (three).

The conventional way to measure a closer’s value is by the save statistic. Mariano Rivera has reached the summit of that mark with 602 career saves. However, it’s Rivera’s postseason brilliance, his ability to defy age and the conventional wisdom of how to use closers and statistical dominance in almost every category that prove that relief pitchers can provide an incredible amount of value despite not pitching nearly as often as a starting pitcher. Mariano Rivera may not have started many games on the mound in his career, but his ability to finish them proves he has been just as valuable as any other starting pitcher during his career.