By Dan Walk
1I spoke to a reader last week about the Steelers and how I haven’t written about them in a while. My stance is that there’s not much to write about yet – or at least nothing positive. Pittsburgh fans better hope for a long playoff run out of the Pirates; Penguins season cannot come soon enough. Health is going to be a major concern this season, as the Steelers are a lengthy Ben Roethlisberger injury away from being one of the worst teams in the league. Simply put, the Steelers haven’t gotten better from last season’s 8-8 record.
2 Two things are certain after what transpired Saturday for the New York Jets: Rex Ryan will be fired before the season ends, and he has no idea who will start under center in Week 1. After rookie Geno Smith threw three interceptions and finished with a QB rating of 45.7, Ryan brought Mark Sanchez, his starter since 2009, into a meaningless Week 3 preseason game in the fourth quarter. Of course, Sanchez got injured and is out indefinitely. Injuries happen, but Ryan was asking for it by putting Sanchez behind a backup offensive line.
3 As it was, the Jets didn’t have great options at quarterback before Ryan trotted Sanchez out there in the fourth quarter. Smith didn’t look good in his only preseason start. Sanchez hasn’t looked good for years – and that’s exactly why New York drafted Smith in the second round. This Smith-Sanchez situation brings us back to the thought process that having two starting quarterbacks means you don’t have one. The Jets, Raiders and Bills will all finish with losing records this year – all because they have sub par quarterbacks.
4 Our weekly division-by-division NFL previews continue with the NFC North, which has four teams primed to compete for a playoff berth. The reigning division champion Packers are once again the favorites, but their offensive line and defense are major question marks. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will win this team its fair share of games, but as we learned the last two seasons, once the playoffs arrive, Green Bay’s weaknesses aren’t enough for Rodgers to overcome. The Bears, Lions and Vikings all should be competitive, but the Vikings’ playoff run last season was a fluke and won’t be duplicated
5 Chicago is an interesting team. The Bears missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, leading to coach Lovie Smith’s dismissal. The Bears were 7-2 before falling apart and finishing outside of the playoffs at 10-6. Chicago has similar strengths and weaknesses as Green Bay, except they have Jay Cutler instead of Rodgers at quarterback. The Lions, meanwhile, have improved up front defensively and added Reggie Bush to an offense that can score in bunches with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. The Lions may need to score 30 points a game to make up for secondary deficiencies, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Detroit is this division’s second team to make the playoffs.
6 Out in the NFC West, it’s clear the 49ers and Seahawks are the class of the division. But the Rams and Cardinals are by no means terrible. Let’s start with the Rams, who have a ton of talent on defense. Sam Bradford is a quality quarterback, even if he’s the division’s third-best behind San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. St. Louis went 2-1-1 against Seattle and San Fran last year and clearly isn’t intimidated by those two elite teams. But the lack of a starting running back now that Steven Jackson is gone will hold the Rams back a bit. The Cardinals are in a similar boat with not much offensively but a great defense. Arizona may be the NFL’s best fourth-place team.
7 The NFC West, however, starts and ends with reigning conference champions San Francisco and Seattle, the latter of which went from 7-9 in 2011 to a team that was 31 seconds away from playing the 49ers in the NFC title game. Both teams have inexpensive and talented quarterbacks starting in their second season, a quality running game and great defenses. What else could you ask for? I believe San Francisco is still the class of the NFC, and that says a lot considering there’s so many talented teams in the conference this season. Seattle isn’t far behind, and we could see the Seahawks and Niners face each other with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Next week, I’ll preview this year’s AFC North and recap my playoff picks.
8 I know there’s a whole month left of the 2013 MLB season, but two regular season awards are already chiseled in stone: American League and National League Cy Young. Through Monday, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw led the NL in many major categories, including ERA (1.72), WHIP (0.86) and WAR (7.1). He’s also second in strikeouts and innings pitched. Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, and it isn’t even close. In the AL it’s Detroit’s Max Scherzer, who holds a 19-1 record. He’s the third pitcher since the live ball era began to win 19 of his first 20 decisions. Sure, receiving more than seven runs of support per nine innings has been beneficial to Scherzer’s record, but he’s still the league’s best pitcher even when ignoring his historic win-loss mark.
9 Now that Tracy McGrady announced his retirement from the NBA, many are asking if he’s a Hall of Famer. My response is no, considering his playoff success. The only time McGrady reached the second round was this year with the Spurs, when he played a little more than 30 minutes in six games. A very successful scorer, McGrady won two scoring titles and was All-NBA seven times. But his playoff troubles mean he shouldn’t be a Hall of Famer.
10Fight fans, this next week is for you. Starting Wednesday, the UFC will broadcast three fight cards in eight days – including two free ones on the new Fox Sports 1. The first features a headliner between two welterweight contenders – Martin Kampmann and Carlos Condit. Kampmann won when the two faced off in 2009, but Condit will be victorious in the rematch. A huge lightweight title fight follows on pay-per view Saturday between champion Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis. It was Pettis who beat Henderson in 2010, but Henderson hasn’t lost since. This one should go to decision, with Henderson winning a close one. Last but not least is a Sept. 4 card led by light heavyweights Glover Teixeira and Ryan Bader. Teixeira will prove he’s a title contender with a knockout of Bader.