A muddied-up midtable

- November 25th, 2014

Last year in the Premier League was notably for something it was missing for most of the season – a midtable.

For some reason, there was a very clear divide between teams that were contending for spots in Europe and teams that weren’t too far out of the relegation battle. Most of the year, it was a very small group containing Southampton and Newcastle – and for a while, just the former.

This season we have seen a rebirth of that muddy middle of the league.

It may still be relatively early being less than a third into the season, but when looking at the gap between fourth place and 12th is just five points – less than two games difference.

You can chalk this up to several things. There’s clearly more parity in the league this year, with less of a difference between the clubs a level below the championship contenders.

You can also chalk up this bloated midsection to the struggles of a few supposed contenders, like Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool. In fact, United and Liverpool make up the beginning and end of our midtable section sitting at fourth and 12th, respectively.

While we always enjoy a nice title race, isn’t this sort of midtable just as exciting when it takes up several of the European spots?

Any given week you can see teams rise or fall five or six places in the snap of a finger.

It also has allowed those struggling contenders a chance to stay in the hunt despite their many woes.

While we would suspect the cream will eventually rise to the top, we should enjoy this while it lasts. And if it does persist, we could be in for one of the most exciting race for Europe we’ve ever seen.

CHELSEA: CHAMPIONS ELECT

Is it too foolish to call Chelsea the champions in waiting already? It isn’t even December after all.

But after another win, this time beating West Brom 2-0, the Blues now have a six-point lead over second-place Southampton.

Jose Mourinho even got a favour from the Spanish national team, which didn’t select “injured” players Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, despite their readiness for this match. It appears that the Special One had a favour to spend and used it. Another example of his stellar management.

You’d also be surprised to find that Chelsea scored its only two goals this week before West Brom went down to 10 men. Why they didn’t add on to the scoreline might be a sign of humility.

The Blues won’t even face a real test in England until Christmas time, when a run of Southampton (away), Spurs (away), Newcastle at home, Swansea (away) and Man City at home will either end the title race, or open it up completely.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

It has been a tough season for injuries around the league and it just keeps getting worse. After several stars went down during training and last week’s friendlies, it was also reported that Daniel Sturridge and Radamel Falcao both suffered setbacks from their injuries … After dominating Manchester United and still losing – typical Gunners – Arsenal now sits at 17 points after 12 games. That’s their lowest total in 32 years … While it was nice to see Hull’s Jake Livermore refuse to celebrate against his former club, did he forget that he barely played for Spurs and that’s why he left? … What a beautiful strike by Olivier Giroud in his return from injury. You have to wonder what Arsene Wenger will do when he returns to full health and also has Danny Welbeck playing well … Pretty sweet backheel from Fernandinho to set up Yaya Toure’s winner against Swansea. It would’ve been nicer though if he hadn’t telegraphed it all the way. The only people who didn’t see it come were the Swans defenders … Will Newcastle ever lose again? Well, probably, but this five-game winning streak in all competitions is something else, isn’t it? … Does anybody else find some irony in seeing the lowest scoring team in the league, Aston Villa, actually pot one against the best defensive side in the league, Southampton? And what a mistake by Fraser Forster coming out on that ball.

THE LAST WORD

What are Southampton’s chances to contend?

I saw this interesting chart on the odds on how the Saints will finish this season based on past results in the Premier League and it’s looking pretty good for the southerners.

Of team with 22+ points after 10 games, 27% won the league, 56% finished in the top two, 85% in the top four, 95% in the top six and just two teams (5%) in EPL history were outside the top six.

So, if I were Southampton, I’d start thinking ahead in the January window about at least playing in Europa League next season, perhaps starting to buy depth for the squad.

NFL Week 12 picks

- November 22nd, 2014

The lines are from Vegas and the home teams are in CAPs.

Kansas City -7 over OAKLAND

I really should have known better than to make this my survivor pool pick. The Raiders win for the first time in more than a year, breaking a 16-game losing streak, Matt Schaub’s 24-game losing streak and even score the first rushing TD of the season against the Chiefs. Goddamnit, Andy Reid.

Cleveland +3 over ATLANTA

This line actually seems low considering the return of Josh Gordon to the Browns lineup.

Tennessee +12.5 over PHILADELPHIA

Do you really want to be giving this many points with Mark Sanchez at QB? Of course, Philly’s defence will probably score 21 points in this one.

NEW ENGLAND -7.5 over Detroit

When the Pats are hot, they get real hot. I’ll ride them until I have a reason not to.

MINNESOTA +10 over Green Bay

Simply, the Packers are a much better team at home and you can’t give this many points to a home dog in a division game.

INDIANAPOLIS -15 over Jacksonville

Why wouldn’t the Colts be able to rough up the Jags again? They did it on the road already this season.

Cincinnati +1 over HOUSTON

If Arian Foster plays, flip this pick. I don’t think the Bengals could stop him, even he is limited.

CHICAGO -6 over TampaBay

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bears go on a hot streak to end the season and just barely miss the playoffs.

Arizona +7.5 over SEATTLE

We know the Seahawks will snap to life at some point, but can you really give the best team in the league more than a TD?

SAN DIEGO -5 over St. Louis

Just because the Rams upset the Broncos last week, doesn’t mean they’ll turn it on again. Especially on the road against another top QB.

Miami +7.5 over DENVER

The Broncos’ long list of injuries could be a problem against Miami’s strong defence.

Washington +10 over SAN FRANCISCO

Can you really trust the 49ers with this many points? They haven’t impressed at home this season either.

NEW YORK GIANTS +3 over Dallas

The Giants always find a way to spoil things for the Cowboys.

BUFFALO -2.5 over New York Jets

The Bills are the home team in name only, hosting the Jets in Buffalo. Kyle Orton may have fallen off a cliff, but he and Buffalo have already beaten the Jets badly this season.

NEW ORLEANS -3 over Baltimore

If the Saints put up three stinkers at home in a row, it might be time to start discussing Sean Payton’s job security and Drew Brees’ future prospects.

Last week: 7-7

This season: 85-74-1

Rethinking the playoffs + Week 11 picks

- November 14th, 2014

It seems to happen every year, sparking debate about reform that ultimately never comes: One team beats out another with a better record to either make the playoffs or get a home game.

At the rate New Orleans and the NFC South is going, we could see a team with a losing record make the playoffs while a strong team like Dallas, Philly, Seattle, Arizona, Green Bay or San Francisco is sent packing when the regular season ends.

How is that right?

While it’s a bit questionable to not allow division champs an automatic berth, I can see some upside towards it. Winning a contest among the weak shouldn’t be a reward. In fact, if you can’t score enough wins against your fellow chumps, that should be damning enough.

Perhaps we keep divisions and use them for scheduling purposes only.

I could be swayed either way in this debate.

The one unalienable point that should be changed is how the playoffs are seeded.

Wild cards should be forced to play road games against a team that has a worse record than it.

What sense does it make that a team like Green Bay or Detroit could finish 12-4, finish a behind their rival in a tiebreaker and be forced to play on the road in the playoffs while New Orleans gets its comforts of ‘dome?’

The playoffs should be seeded by record, regardless of division.

Best of all, it’s the right move: Some that the NFL would receive some actual kudos for making.

The lines are from Vegas and the home teams are in CAPS.

Buffalo +6 over MIAMI

In the most “Bills” sequence ever, Kyle Orton was called for intentional grounding and a safety after a good two-minute debate by the refs, the Bills recovered a fumble on the ensuring punt and then ended up missing a long field goal. Talking proud, Buffalo.

CLEVELAND -3.5 over Houston

Ryan Mallet’s first start probably isn’t going to go so well in the Dawg Pound.

CHICAGO -3 over Minnesota

The Bears have to turn it around at home after two massive losses in a row, right?

Philadelphia +5.5 over GREEN BAY

I get the fear that it is Mark Sanchez on the road against an offensive juggernaut like the Packers, but man was that Bears defence awful last week to inflate Green Bay’s ego.

KANSAS CITY (pk) over Seattle

Losing Brandon Mebane will hurt the Seahawks rush defence, which falls right into the hands of the Chiefs.

CAROLINA +1 over Atlanta

The Panthers couldn’t possibly look as bad as they did against Philly. Two of the Falcons wins have come against the lowly Bucs this season.

Cincinnati +7 over NEW ORLEANS

I don’t think that Andy Dalton can have as terrible of a game as he did last week because, well, that would be nearly statistically impossible.

Tampa Bay +7 over WASHINGTON

With the Bucs going back to Josh McCown, I actually think they have a chance in this one.

Denver -9.5 over ST. LOUIS

Sorry Rams fans, but Shaun Hill just isn’t going to be the answer against Peyton Manning.

NEW YORK GIANTS +4 over San Francisco

Just when you count the Giants out, they’ll unexpectedly turn things around. But man, that run defence was awful against Seattle.

Oakland +11.5 over SAN DIEGO

The Raiders kept it close when these two teams last met and, honestly, I would be surprised if Oakland picked up its first win in a year.

ARIZONA -1 over Detroit

If coach Bruce Arians believes he can win the Super Bowl with Drew Stanton, who am I to say otherwise? This defensive battle will definitely go UNDER.

New England +2.5 over INDIANAPOLIS

You just can’t bet against a red-hot Tom Brady coming off a bye week in a prime-time game.

Pittsburgh -5.5 over TENNESSEE

Big Ben will easily win the battle of the longest-named QBs in the game.

Last week: 7-6

This season: 79-67-1

Liverpool going into the Reds

- November 11th, 2014

Hey Liverpool: What’s wrong?

This has been a weekend of disappointment for many contenders as Chelsea continues to build its lead in its run to an eventual championship.

But perhaps the most disappointing is Liverpool, who fell to the Blues at Anfield for the second time in a row. This is the third loss in a row for the Reds including their Champions League loss to Real Madrid.

The midweek loss was nothing unexpected and Liverpool actually did better than expected in spite of resting many of its players.

And there’s why this weekend’s result matters: Liverpool was preparing for Chelsea much more than Madrid.

Emre Can opened the scoring for Liverpool on a deflected goal that was more luck than anything, then it was mostly Chelsea on the attack.

What happened to the free-scoring team of yesteryear? There were rightful shouts for a penalty against Gary Cahill near the end of the game, but that’s a call that’s hard to make without the proper line of sight as the Chelsea defender did make his handball block look innocent enough.

With the international break on now, Brendan Rodgers has some time to sort things out for his club. If he can’t though, he might join the sack race.

HOW GOOD IS SERGIO AGUERO?

With another two goals this week in Manchester City’s disappointing draw at QPR, Sergio Aguero now leads the Premier League with 12 this season.

The question that should be asked but rarely is, is if Aguero is the best player in the EPL and where does he rank among the all-time greats?

He has already stated that he will see out his entire contract with the Sky Blues and will even stay until the team wins the Champions League – which at this pace means he’ll be staying forever.

On a goals-per-minute basis, he is the best in the league by a safe margin, but that leads to the only negative in his case as the best in the league: He gets hurt more often than you’d like.

He is always a safe bet to miss a game or two every few months and isn’t built to take a beating like some other Premier League strikers.

What he does have: Amazing ball control, a good eye for passing, a solid penalty strike and an overall amazing nose to finish around the net.

You also can’t forget his clutch goal to win City the title a couple of years ago at QPR.

When Aguero’s career comes to an end, he should be mentioned in the same breath as Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer. And you won’t be able to argue that Wayne Rooney deserves to be there ahead of him.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Arsenal picked up its second loss of the season, slipping in the hard rain at Swansea. It’s games like this that Chelsea hasn’t blown, which is why it is putting so much distance on the field … Callum Chambers was abused out wide by the Swans. You have wonder why Arsene Wenger did nothing to adapt … 10 yellow cards were shown in this game, which didn’t actually look as chippy as you might expect from a disciplinary total like that … In a week with a few amazing goals, Gylfi Sigurdsson had one of the contenders with his outstanding free kick … Swansea and Southampton will be fighting for spots in Europe for sure. I’d be shocked if neither of the two weren’t playing in Europe next season … Another week, another three points for the Saints … Playing Crystal Palace will usually make anybody’s defence look good, but the Red Devils are lucky that Fraser Campbell didn’t put home that attempt when he was let in unmarked … Who the heck is Marnick Vermijl and what is he doing on Manchester United’s bench? … Whatever happened to Ander Herrera? He was one of Louis van Gaal’s big summer signings and now he can’t get any run at all … Congrats to Burnley for picking up its first win of the season. Too bad it is still at the bottom of the table after QPR’s draw … It’s not looking good for the three promoted teams so far: Leicester City, QPR and Burnley are all sitting in the relegation zone … Newcastle has now won four straight games, somehow giving all-but-sacked Alan Pardew a new lease on life. How long before the Magpies start slumping again? … Another candidate for goal of the week: Ayoze Perez’s cheeky backheel … In a somewhat surprising outcome, West Ham didn’t score this week.

THE LAST WORD

How good of a manager is Mauricio Pochettino, really?

This is the narrative that has come up now that Spurs have gotten off to a struggling start – again – and losing to Stoke City on the weekend.

Pochettino, as you may recall, walked into a pretty good situation at Southampton last season and managed the team to a solid finish.

But he did so with a group of under-rated players that have since shown to have more class than previously thought. He also had little work to do with transfers, as the team didn’t exactly

At Tottenham, he has been put in the opposite situation. He had a big budget to bring in whatever player he wanted and had a team that was good enough to earn a Europa League spot last season.

But success in Europe aside – even if it’s just in Europa League – this has been a disappointing season for Tottenham and fingers will likely start to be pointed at the manager.

Could we be in for another Andre Villas Boas disaster? Time will tell, but Pochettino needs to start picking up some wins or his time at a big club will be very short.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

NFL Week 10 picks

- November 8th, 2014

The lines are from Vegas and the home teams are in CAPs.

CINCINNATI -6 over Cleveland

It takes a lot to have the fourth-worst quarterbacking day in NFL history. Andy Dalton looked absolutely awful and I’m not sure why the Bengals even continued to call enough passes for him to get 10-for-33. Ugly.

JACKSONVILLE +6.5 over Dallas

With Tony Romo likely playing and the Cowboys needing a win, I see them pulling out a close one, but not covering.

DETROIT -2.5 over Miami

Getting Megatron back and motivated should push the Lions over the top of the frisky Dolphins.

Kansas City (pk) over BUFFALO

The Chiefs are picking up steam and the Bills running game should suffer in this one.

San Francisco +5 over NEW ORLEANS

The Niners have a decent record in the Big Easy and will be fired up after that tough loss to the Rams.

BALTIMORE -10 over Tennessee

The Titans are a wreck and the Ravens are dynamite at home.

Pittsburgh -4.5 over NEW YORK JETS

I wouldn’t bet against Big Ben throwing for six touchdowns for the third week in a row with this matchup.

Atlanta -1 over TAMPA BAY

The Falcons completely destroyed the Bucs earlier this season and the Bucs seem to think that going back to Josh McCown will be the answer here – I don’t.

OAKLAND +12.5 over Denver

The Raiders did OK in Seattle last week, enough to think that this line is too high for a home dog, even if this is a mismatch.

ARIZONA -8 over St. Louis

The Cardinals are starting to look like a good, consistent Super Bowl contender. Could we actually see a host team in the big game?

New York Giants +10.5 over SEATTLE

The Seahawks just aren’t the same this season. If the Raiders can cover in Seattle, so can the Giants.

Chicago +8 over GREEN BAY

Can you really give eight points to a desperate team in a division matchup coming off of a bye week?

PHILADELPHIA -7 over Carolina

Is it completely wrong to think that Mark Sanchez might actually be an upgrade over the turnover-prone Nick Foles?

Last week: 9-4

This season: 72-61-1