By Dan Walk
1 It’s been so easy — and fun — to rip the Pirates apart for their losing ways over the past two decades — especially their late-season failures in both 2011 and ’12. But Pittsburgh received a great deal of legitimacy following their aggressive front-office approach of signing first baseman Justin Morneau and outfielder Marlon Byrd this past week. Both additions addressed vital team needs and have propelled the Pirates into one of baseball’s top three or four teams. I never thought I’d say this, but now that the Indians’ playoff chances are long gone, I’ll be rooting for the Pirates this year. I’m finally convinced.
2 The Pirates, however, still have a lot of work to do. Today, they’re expected to reach the golden No. 81 in the win column for the first time since 1992. But a winning season is no longer a focus of this franchise and fan base. Pittsburgh needs to continue to fight St. Louis for the NL Central crown because falling into a one-game wild card playoff against most likely the Reds is territory the Pirates don’t want to encounter. The additions of Morneau and Byrd — plus Pittsburgh’s stellar record against the Cardinals — should be enough for the Pirates to win the division.
3 Right now, I believe the Dodgers are the Pirates’ best competition in the NL. No team in baseball has been more impressive over the past few months. The Dodgers have the kind of rotation that could be troublesome for the Pirates, especially if they meet in the NLCS and the Dodgers have home-field advantage. But as it currently stands, if the playoffs started today (I know, everyone hates that statement), Pittsburgh would face L.A. and Atlanta would take on a wild card team in the divisional series. The Braves have the best record in baseball and are legit, but I expect the Dodgers to finish with this year’s best 162-game mark.
4 The AL is still commanded by the Tigers, who may be better than last year’s World Series team. Don’t let Boston’s record fool you — Detroit is better. Victor Martinez is back from last year’s season-long injury and is the hottest hitter in baseball, batting around .380 since the All-Star break. Miguel Cabrera has been battling injuries lately but is still the best hitter in baseball. Justin Verlander has been shaky as of late, but still, no pitcher is better in the AL. Add Anibal Sanchez’s league-leading ERA, Max Scherzer’s league-leading record and a quality Doug Fister to the bunch, and Detroit is downright scary. Everyone would be picking the Tigers to win the World Series if they had a dominant closer.
5 Completing my division-by-division NFL previews, it’s time to touch more on the AFC North, starting with the Steelers. A reader brought up a great point when I mentioned that the Steelers are a Ben Roethlisberger injury away having a poor season. He said that the Patriots and Packers would be in the same, horrible predicament if they lost Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, respectively. He’s definitely right, but I meant to say that a healthy Big Ben is needed more than any other season, considering he doesn’t have much of a supporting cast at running back and wide receiver this year. I understand that the Steelers are against signing free agents — even their own, i.e. Mike Wallace — but you can’t expect to win every year through the draft. Pittsburgh cut its best running back from last year — Jonathan Dwyer — and just doesn’t have the look of a playoff contender this season.
6 The Browns, meanwhile, are still trying to become relevant again. I said last year that they could be a playoff contender but was way off — they finished 5-11. Cleveland has had two winning records since the franchise restarted in 1999 — 9-7 in 2002 and 10-6 in 2007. I believe quarterback Brandon Weeden will make some more strides forward and Trent Richardson will improve on his 3.6 yards per carry during his rookie year to rush for 1,000-plus yards. Cleveland also has an above average defense and I truly believe has its best overall cast of characters since the expansion year of 1999.
7 The Bengals and Ravens are still the AFC North favorites — more notably Cincinnati. Many are expecting big things out of the Bengals, who haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. I imagine they won’t lose to the Texans in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season if they win the division this year. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have been stars since they entered the league in 2011 and are only getting better. And the Bengals are solid defensively. Don’t sleep on the Ravens though, even if they lost a ton of players from last year. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and others are gone, making Baltimore officially Joe Flacco’s team. The Ravens have been in great hands since Flacco arrived in 2008 — they’ve won nine-plus games each year. Baltimore won’t be as good as last year but will still be a playoff contender.
8 Now that the NFL season begins on Thursday, here comes the magical moment: my playoff predictions. Last September, I had Houston beating San Francisco in last year’s Super Bowl. This year, I have the 49ers winning it all over the Broncos. Also in the NFC, I have the Redskins, Falcons, Saints, Packers and Seahawks. It was incredibly hard to leave the Lions and Giants out — and could the Rams be a surprise playoff team instead of Seattle? In the AFC, I’m thinking the Patriots, Dolphins, Texans, Bengals and Ravens make the playoffs. The Colts are certainly worth a look as well. Email me your playoff picks — the NFL is just days away!
9 I guess I’ve been looking past Anthony Pettis all along. Pettis proved he’s more than just a flashy fighter when he submitted Benson Henderson in the first round Saturday night to win the UFC lightweight championship. I’ve long considered Henderson one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport — but then Pettis finished him in a matter of minutes. And Pettis was in control nearly every second leading up to the end. UFC commentator Joe Rogan incorrectly predicted the start of the “Machida Era” when Lyoto Machida won the light heavyweight title years ago. Might this be the start of the “Pettis Era” in the lightweight division?
10 As my friend Joe pointed out Saturday night, UFC champions Jon Jones and Georges St. Pierre better take note because over the past year in the UFC, title defenses haven’t come easily. Three champions have fallen over the past year, starting when Cain Velasquez beat heavyweight title holder Junior dos Santos on Dec. 29. Jones and St. Pierre go against some of their stiffest competition these next few months. Don’t be surprised if one of them — more likely GSP — gets knocked out.
The preceding was The Walk Talk 10, which runs in the Tribune's sports section every Tuesday. Assistant news editor Dan Walk can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.