Tag Archives: Giants

MLB Weekly: Keuchel goes to the DL, Taillon ready to return

Looking Back

The best team in Major League Baseball will be without its best pitcher for at least a week and a young pitcher is getting ready to come back from a serious situation in this week’s MLB Weekly.

The Astros are the best team in the majors, with a record of 44-19 entering Sunday. A major reason for the team’s success is the performance of ace Dallas Keuchel, who is 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA in 11 starts. But he won’t be taking the mound in a game for at least a week after the Astros placed him on the 10-day disabled list Thursday.

He was scratched from his scheduled start Wednesday for what the team termed an illness, but the next day it was revealed that team doctors were examining him for neck discomfort. This is the second time this season he’s gone on the DL for neck issues. After his first DL stint ended in late May, Keuchel made two starts before landing on the DL again. He is not expected to throw for at least a week and will miss at least two starts.

The Astros are expected to get a pitcher back from the DL on Monday when SP Joe Musgrove is slated to make his next start. He went on the DL May 30 with shoulder inflammation and has missed two starts since then. For the season, Musgrove is 4-4 with a 4.89 ERA in 10 starts.

Pirates SP Jameson Taillon is also expected to get the start on Monday after being out for about a month, but he hasn’t been dealing with an injury. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery on May 8 to treat it. He has since made three minor-league rehab starts and is ready to return to the big club. He says he’s 100 percent both physically and mentally, and “probably in a better spot now than [he] was before.” He has made six starts this season, going 2-1 with a 3.31 ERA.

In off-the-field news, two players this week were accused of domestic violence against women. On Wednesday, the former fiancee of Rays C Derek Norris alleged that he “physically and emotionally abused her” during an October 2015 incident that included putting her in a choke hold. The next day, Cubs SS Addison Russell faced similar allegations, with a friend of his wife accusing him of “mentally and physically abusing” his spouse. Both players have denied the allegations leveled against them. MLB is investigating both cases, and the players could face lengthy suspensions if the league determines that either or both violated the league’s domestic violence policy.

This week’s injury report also includes the following players hitting the DL: Nationals OF Jayson Werth (foot), Blue Jays RP J.P. Howell (shoulder) and 2B Devon Travis (knee), Braves P Bartolo Colon (oblique), Diamondbacks OF Yasmany Tomas (groin), Indians SP Danny Salazar (shoulder), Marlins 1B Justin Bour (ankle), Rangers 1B Mike Napoli (back), Padres SP Jarred Cosart (foot), Rockies OF Gerardo Parra (quad), Brewers SP Matt Garza (chest) and 2B Jonathan Villar (back), Rays 2B Brad Miller (groin) and OF Kevin Kiermaier (hip), Pirates C Francisco Cervelli (concussion), Twins SP Hector Santiago (shoulder), Giants OF Michael Morse (concussion), Cubs SP Kyle Hendricks (hand), Orioles RP Darren O’Day (shoulder), Dodgers RP Sergio Romo (ankle), and A’s SP Andrew Triggs (hip).

The Week Ahead

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The Astros look to continue their dominance of their in-state rivals when they host the Rangers — against whom they are 6-1 this season — for three games starting Monday. The AL Central-leading Twins host the Marlins Monday through Thursday in a four-game set. Tuesday sees the Dodgers traveling to Cleveland to take on the Indians in an interleague series featuring second-place teams. The Nationals-Mets NL East rivalry continues Thursday with the first of four games in Queens. On Friday, the Red Sox head to Houston to start a series with the Astros and the Twins host the Indians for four games — including a Saturday doubleheader — that could determine first place in the division. The Cardinals also head to Baltimore next weekend for an interleague battle between teams looking to stay afloat in the playoff races in their leagues.

Some pitching performances of note this week include Taillon getting the start at home Monday against the Rockies and SP Kyle Freeland. Red Sox SP Rick Porcello looks to right the ship that day when he faces a Phillies team with the worst record in the majors. Cubs SP Jon Lester tries for his 150th career win on Tuesday, facing Mets SP Zack Wheeler. Dodgers SP Clayton Kershaw gets a break from hitting Tuesday when he takes the mound in Cleveland against the Indians and SP Trevor Bauer. Mets SP Matt Harvey hopes for a second straight strong performance Wednesday when he takes on the Cubs. Astros SP Mike Fiers is coming off a strong start Saturday, but he faces a tough test on Friday taking on the Red Sox, who send SP Drew Pomeranz out to oppose him.

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MLB Weekly: Trout to the DL, Pujols gets 600, Volquez gets a no-no

Looking Back

A former MVP goes on the DL for the first time while another hits 600 and a former World Series winner throws a no-no.

The Angels are trying to stay afloat for a potential playoff spot — they’re a game under .500 entering Sunday — but they were dealt a major blow over Memorial Day weekend when two-time American League MVP Mike Trout tore the UCL in his left thumb while sliding into second base in a game against the Marlins. He underwent surgery later in the week and is expected to miss six to eight weeks, which means he could be out until August.

This is the first time in Trout’s seven-year career that he has landed on the disabled list. He is not only the Angels’ best player but also in the conversation as the best player in Major League Baseball. At the time of his injury, he was hitting .337 with 16 home runs and 36 RBI in 47 games, putting him on pace to set career highs in those categories if he wasn’t facing an extended DL stint. With a full season under his belt, on that pace, he would certainly be in the conversation for an AL MVP again this season — he’s finished second in MVP voting three times, in addition to the two times he’s won it.

In Trout’s absence, OFs Eric Young Jr., Ben Revere and Shane Robinson are expected to see increased playing time, none of whom can come anywhere close to matching the production output the team is used to getting from Trout.

In better news for the Angels, veteran DH Albert Pujols hit his 600th career home run on Saturday in a home game against the Twins. Pujols becomes the ninth player in major-league history to join the 600-homer club. The milestone shot — a grand slam — came off of Twins SP Ervin Santana in the bottom of the fourth inning of a game the Angels went on to win, 7-2. It traveled an estimated 363 feet and was the three-time MVP’s only hit in four at-bats on the night.

Pujols hit No. 600 a few days after hitting his 599th home run on Tuesday. He is the first player to join the exclusive club since former DH Jim Thome launched his 600th on Aug. 15, 2011 — as a member of the Twins. The 37-year-old Pujols is the fourth-youngest player to hit 600 home runs and the first whose 600th was a grand slam. The closest active players behind Pujols on the all-time home run list are Tigers 1B Miguel Cabrera and Rangers 3B Adrian Beltre, who have 451 and 446, respectively, entering Sunday.

Nobody on the Diamondbacks hit a home run on Saturday — or a single, double or triple. Marlins SP Edinson Volquez no-hit the D-backs at home en route to a 3-0 win. Volquez walked two batters but faced the minimum 27 hitters in the game. He compiled 10 strikeouts and needed just 98 pitches to complete the sixth no-hitter in Marlins history and first of his career. He completed the game in style, striking out the side — SS Nick Ahmed and pinch hitters Daniel Descalso and Chris Owings — in the ninth inning.

There was some question about whether Volquez would even make it past the first hitter he faced in the game. He hurt his ankle covering first base on the game’s opening play when Diamondbacks CF Reymond Fuentes collided with him. He joked after the game that he “thought he broke [his] ankle.”

Volquez dedicated the no-hitter to friend and former Royals teammate Yordano Ventura, who passed away in a car crash in January, on what would have been Ventura’s 26th birthday.

In addition to Trout, other players who went on the DL this week include: A’s SP Kendall Graveman (shoulder), Royals SP Danny Duffy (oblique), Red Sox 2B Dustin Pedroia (wrist) and SP Eduardo Rodriguez (knee), Rockies RP Adam Ottavino (shoulder), Rays OF Peter Bourjos (elbow) and SP Matt Andriese (groin), Astros SP Joe Musgrove (shoulder), Phillies SP Vince Velasquez (elbow) and RP Joaquin Benoit (knee), Orioles C Welington Castillo (groin), Marlins SP Justin Nicolino (finger), Angels OF Cameron Maybin (oblique), Dodgers OF Joc Pederson (concussion) and SP Alex Wood (shoulder), Mariners SS Jean Segura (ankle), and White Sox RP Michael Ynoa (hip).

The Week Ahead

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees

Some of the series to look for this week include a cross-country battle of division leaders when the NL West-leading Dodgers host the Nationals, who sit atop the NL East, for three games starting Monday. The Red Sox visit the Yankees for three starting Tuesday as the top two teams in the AL East continue their famed rivalry. The Cubs host the Rockies for a four-game start getting underway Thursday. The Yankees host the Orioles in another divisional battle starting Friday. In a series featuring teams exceeding expectations, the NL Central-leading Brewers head to Arizona to meet the Diamondbacks beginning Friday.

Some pitching performances of note this week include Dodgers SP Hyun-Jin Ryu filling in for Wood on Monday against the Nationals. Two struggling pitchers meet Tuesday at Yankee Stadium when Red Sox SP Drew Pomeranz takes the mound against Yankees SP Masahiro Tanaka. White Sox SP Jose Quintana hopes to right the ship Tuesday against the Rays and SP Chris Archer. Marlins SP Jeff Locke looks to follow-up a strong first start of the season as he opposes Cubs SP Jake Arrieta. Diamondbacks SP Robbie Ray hopes for a fourth-straight strong start Tuesday at home against the Padres, who throw SP Dinelson Lamet out there for his third start of the season. Wednesday sees Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw make his next start, taking on the Nationals. Red Sox SP David Price gets his third start of the season Thursday, against Yankees SP Michael Pineda. That’s also the day Volquez is slated to go for the “Johnny Vander Meer,” two straight no-hitters. He’ll face the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Mets SP Matt Harvey looks to improve upon his 5.43 ERA Friday when he takes on the Braves in Atlanta.

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MLB Weekly: Rangers on a roll, Freeman on the DL

Looking Back

The Rangers are making up ground in the AL West and an NL East team has lost its best player for at least two months in this week’s MLB Weekly.

Prior to Saturday’s loss to the Tigers, the Rangers had won a MLB-best 10 straight games, catapulting them from last place in the AL West into second place. Entering Sunday, though, they still find themselves 6.5 games behind the division-leading Astros, whose 29-14 record in the best in the majors.

During the 10-game winning streak, which was the Rangers’ longest since winning 12 in a row in 2011, the offense has picked up significantly. In April, the team’s .220 batting average was the third-lowest in the majors. In May through Saturday, which includes prior to the start of the winning streak, the team is closer to the middle of the pack at .251. Their 27 home runs are the seventh-most in MLB, and the team’s slugging percentage has risen from .392 to .427 since the calendar turned to May. The numbers over the last seven days are even more impressive, with the team hitting .300, third best in the majors, with a .449 slugging percentage. The pitching staff’s ERA has also improved, going from 3.89 in April to 3.75 so far this month.

One criticism people can point out about the team’s winning streak is that the bulk of it came against bad teams in the Padres, A’s and Phillies. They’ve split the first two games of this weekend’s series with the Tigers, and things won’t be as easy this week when the Rangers head to Fenway Park to take on the Red Sox. They then head to Toronto for a series with the struggling Blue Jays, with whom they’ve had bad blood in recent years.

The latest injury news involves two of the best hitters in the majors, with the more serious of the two being Braves 1B Freddie Freeman. He’s expected to miss eight to 10 weeks with a fractured wrist after being hit in the wrist by an Aaron Loup fastball during Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays. At the time of the injury, his 14 home runs led the National League, and he was hitting .341 with a 1.209 OPS and a 2.5 WAR. The Braves traded for Cardinals 1B Matt Adams on Saturday, and he is expected to get the majority of the starts at the position while Freeman is out. While Freeman’s injury is a loss for the Braves, they likely be competitive for a playoff spot even without the injury, with an 18-22 record heading into Sunday.

Dodgers 3B Justin Turner was placed on the disabled list Saturday with a strained right hamstring. His .379 batting average is the best in the majors, putting a hole in the Dodgers’ lineup. Utilityman Chris Taylor should be the primary starter in Turner’s absence. Taylor is hitting .338, but he has been lucky in many of his 80 at-bats, as evidenced by his .423 BABIP. His career batting average is .256, and he should be expected to regress back toward that number as he gets more at-bats. The Dodgers are hopeful Turner won’t be out for long, though, with manager Dave Roberts putting out the possibility of him returning “in a couple of weeks.”

Other big names placed on the DL this week include Astros SP Dallas Keuchel, whose 1.84 ERA leads the majors. His injury doesn’t seem to be serious, and the team expects he will miss just one start with a pinched nerve in his neck. The DL move was retroactive to May 17, meaning he would be eligible to return to the team late in the week. The Mariners placed 2B Robinson Cano on the DL Tuesday with a right quad strain, with the move retroactive to the 13th. He is expected to come off the DL when eligible on Tuesday, missing the minimum amount of time.

Also on this week’s injury report: Giants OF Hunter Pence (hamstring), Blue Jays OFs Steve Pearce (calf) and Darrell Ceciliani (shoulder) and SP Aaron Sanchez (finger blister), Diamondbacks OF A.J. Pollock (groin), Indians OF Abraham Almonte (biceps), Mets SS Asdrubal Cabrera (thumb), Rangers OF Carlos Gomez (hamstring), Marlins RP Junichi Tazawa (ribs) and SP Tom Koehler (shoulder), Pirates OF Gregory Polanco (hamstring), Nationals RP Joe Blanton (shoulder), Padres SPs Trevor Cahill (shoulder) and Jered Weaver (hip), Rays 2B Brad Miller (abdominal strain) and Astros C Brian McCann (concussion).

The Week Ahead

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Taking a look at the schedule for the week, the Orioles host the Twins for a three-game series starting Monday, which is the same day the Tigers head to Houston for four with the Astros. The Reds and Indians have their annual intrastate series, with two games in Cincinnati Monday and Tuesday followed by a couple in Cleveland on Wednesday and Thursday. The Red Sox start a three-game series with the Rangers at home on Tuesday, with a Cardinals-Dodgers series also getting underway that day in Los Angeles. In the second half of the week, the Orioles visit the Astros starting Friday, with the Cubs heading to Los Angeles to battle the Dodgers that weekend in a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series. In a matchup of National League contenders, the Rockies host the Cardinals starting Friday.

Taking a look at some of this week’s notable pitching performances and matchups, Astros P Brad Peacock gets the start Monday, filling in for Keuchel, as he opposes Tigers SP Michael Fulmer. Tuesday’s game in Baltimore sees a matchup of pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs when Twins SP Ervin Santana duels with Orioles SP Dylan Bundy. Giants SP Johnny Cuero goes on Tuesday against Cubs SP Kyle Hendricks. Blue Jays SP Marcus Stroman takes the mound Wednesday against Brewers SP Matt Garza, who has pitched surprisingly well so far this season, with a 2.43 ERA. That same day, Red Sox SP Chris Sale tries to become the first pitcher since 1913 to record at least 10 strikeouts in nine straight games; he’ll be opposed by Rangers SP Martin Perez. Pirates SP Ivan Nova looks to continue his streak of lasting at least six innings — he’s done it in all nine starts this season — Thursday as he takes on the Braves and ageless SP Bartolo Colon. Yankees SP Masahiro Tanaka also returns to the mound Thursday, against the Royals, as he looks to bounce back from two poor starts in a row.

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MLB Weekly: Sale racks up the Ks, Harper racks up the $$$

Looking Back

A pitcher is approaching strikeout history — again — and a former MVP is getting paid in this week’s MLB Weekly.

The Red Sox traded for SP Chris Sale in December hoping he could be the team’s ace, and he has not only lived up to but exceeded any expectations the team had for him. Pitching against the Rays on Saturday, he struck out 12 batters, the seventh-straight game in which he has racked up at least 10 strikeouts. That puts him one shy of the record of eight-straight games of 10-plus strikeouts, set by SP Pedro Martinez in 1999 — and matched by Sale in 2015 when he was with the White Sox. Other than Martinez and Sale, only two other pitchers in Major League Baseball history have had seven games in a row of at least 10 strikeouts, SPs Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan.

Overall for the season, Sale has a MLB-best 85 strikeouts in 58.2 innings over eight starts. His ERA stands at 2.15 and a 0.77 WHIP. Opponents are hitting just .177 against him. With those numbers, the Red Sox seem to be getting a good return on their investment, which sent four players to the White Sox, highlighted by 3B Yoan Moncada. Sale is next scheduled to pitch on Thursday at the A’s as he tries to tie the record currently held by Martinez and himself.

Nationals OF Bryce Harper, the 2015 National League MVP, is eligible to hit free agency after the 2018 season, at which time he is likely to get the biggest contract in MLB history. He had one year of arbitration left before then, following this season, but the Nationals apparently didn’t want to have to go through the arbitration process so the team locked Harper up for 2018 this week, inking him to a one-year deal worth $21.65 million, which will probably look like a bargain compared to what he gets on his free-agent contract. That contract is the largest one-year contract signed by an arbitration-eligible player in MLB history. And he can get another $1 million on top of that if he is named NL MVP next season.

After a down season last year in which he hit .243 with 24 home runs, Harper is hitting .368 this season with a 1.220 OPS and 11 home runs entering Sunday, putting him on pace to potentially set a new career high in home runs, which currently stands at 42 in 2015.

As has been the case pretty much every week so far this season, several more name players were placed on the disabled list this week. Perhaps the most significant of the group is Mets RP Jeurys Familia, who underwent surgery to remove an anterior blood clot in his right shoulder. While he’ll be out for a while, the timeline isn’t as bad as the team expected. The Mets were initially concerned that Familia would be out for the season, but the surgery wasn’t as extensive as originally expected and he could be able to throw in about six weeks. That means he may miss three to four months, which means — even though that’s a significant portion of the season — he could be back in August or September if the recovery process goes as expected.

Familia, who recorded 51 saves last season. was suspended for the team’s first 15 games this season for a domestic-violence issue and hasn’t pitched particularly well since being reinstated. He has a 3.86 ERA in 11 appearances in which he is 1-1 with 3 saves in 4 chances. He has 10 strikeouts and 8 walks in 9.1 innings. RP Addison Reed is expected to get the bulk of the save opportunities in Familia’s absence.

The injury report for the Mariners’ starting rotation got worse this week. With SPs James Paxton and Felix Hernandez already on the DL, SP Hisashi Iwakuma was also placed on the DL as he deals with inflammation in his right shoulder. He is expected to miss four to six weeks. And the news on Hernandez got worse this week as he suffered a setback in his rehab. He has been sidelined since April 25 with bursitis in his right shoulder and now is not expected to rejoin the Mariners after he felt just “so-so” after a throwing session on Friday. And SP Ryan Weber, who was called up from Triple-A to start Saturday’s game, had to leave the game after four innings with tightness in his right shoulder.

Other notable players hitting the DL this week include Blue Jays C Russell Martin (shoulder) and SP Francisco Liriano (shoulder), Dodgers SP Kenta Maeda (hamstring) and OF Andrew Toles (ACL), Giants RP Mark Melancon (elbow), Phillies RP Jeanmar Gomez (elbow), White Sox C Geovany Soto (elbow), Marlins SS Adeiny Hechavarria (oblique), Rockies SS Trevor Story (shoulder), Brewers OF Ryan Braun (calf) and Yankees RP Aroldis Chapman (shoulder).

The Week Ahead

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Some series to look forward to this week include the Dodgers and Giants starting a three-game series in San Francisco on Monday. A day later, the Orioles head to Detroit for three games with the Tigers and the Cardinals host the Red Sox for the first of two games. Division leaders battle with the AL Central-leading Twins hosting the NL West-topping Rockies Tuesday through Thursday. The Indians head to Houston for a series with the Astros starting Friday, and the Brewers-Cubs series gets underway at Wrigley Field that day. Friday also sees the Reds start a series at home against the Rockies.

The week opens with a matchup of aces in Cleveland on Monday with SP Chris Archer going for the Rays and SP Carlos Carrasco taking the mound for the Indians. Dodgers SP Brandon McCarthy is scheduled for his first start since April 29 on Monday when he opposes Giants SP Matt Cain in a battle of veterans. Red Sox SP Eduardo Rodriguez and Cardinals SP Lance Lynn, who are both pitching well with sub-3.00 ERAs this season, face off in St. Louis on Tuesday. Dodgers SP Clayton Kershaw takes the mound in San Francisco on Wednesday against Giants SP Johnny Cueto, and Twins SP Jose Berrios — one of the team’s top prospects — gets his second start of 2017 on Thursday at home against the Rockies and SP Tyler Chatwood. Sale gets a shot to tie the aforementioned record on Thursday, when he is scheduled to face the A’s in Oakland.

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Texans trade Osweiler on first day of NFL free agency

For the second straight season, the Texans made headlines on the first day of NFL free agency, but this time it was for getting rid of a player instead of signing one. Also making significant moves today were the Jaguars, Browns and Bears.

Last year, the Texans gave free-agent QB Brock Osweiler a four-year, $72 million contract, but his performance this season left a lot to be desired and led many people to consider that one of the worst free-agent signings in NFL history. Texans GM Rick Smith righted that wrong today, trading Osweiler —  and the $16 million guaranteed to him for the 2017 season — along with their sixth-round pick in this year’s draft and a second-rounder next year to the Browns in exchange for Cleveland’s fourth-round pick in this year’s draft and, more importantly, salary-cap relief. Getting Osweiler’s salary off the books for this season gives the Texans more flexibility to potentially sign a quarterback. Reports have been running wild of late that Cowboys QB Tony Romo is on their radar, and moving Osweiler makes it seem like they are closing in acquiring Romo, either by trade or signing him if the Cowboys cut him.

For the Browns, it’s not exactly clear what they want with Osweiler. There have been reports that teams have already contacted them about possibly trading for the Browns’ newly acquired quarterback. The possibility also exists that the Browns could simply cut Osweiler and take the cap hit. They have plenty of cap room so it wouldn’t have a significant negative effect on them. If the Browns don’t keep Osweiler, they can use the No. 1 overall draft pick to get a quarterback or sign a veteran quarterback to act as a bridge to QB Cody Kessler when he’s ready to take the reins as the starter.

That trade wasn’t the only move the Browns made today, They also tried to bolster their offensive line by re-signing OL Joel Bitonio and signing free-agent OLs JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler to multi-year deals. They also signed WR Kenny Britt, who is coming off of a career year in 2016 with the Rams.

The Jaguars signed some free agents they hope to help their defense, signing CB A.J. Bouye, DE Calais Campbell, S Barry Church and LB Lerentee McCray, which should help them compete in the AFC South. The Bears made a quarterback swap today, releasing QB Jay Cutler and signing QB Mike Glennon to a three-year contract. They lost one of their key players on offense, though, as WR Alshon Jeffery signed with the Eagles.

Other notable players who changed teams today, either through free agency or trade, include:

WR DeSean JacksonBuccaneers
WR Torrey Smith — Eagles
RB Danny WoodheadRavens
CB Stephon GilmorePatriots
QB Brian Hoyer49ers
WR Pierre Garcon — 49ers
WR Brandon MarshallGiants
TE Julius ThomasDolphins
OT Branden Albert — Jaguars
OL Russell OkungChargers

In non-player news from today, the Redskins fired GM Scott McCloughan

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NFL Divisional Round Preview: Patriots are big favorites, Packers-Cowboys play to advance to the NFC championship

With the wild-card games in the books, the top two seeds in each conference take to the field for the first time in this postseason. That means the Patriots, Chiefs, Cowboys and Falcons host games coming off of their first-round byes. For a team like the Patriots, that means veteran QB Tom Brady, one of the best in the postseason, takes on a Texans team with a mediocre offense while Cowboys rookie QB Dak Prescott not only gets his first taste of the playoffs but also the first truly meaningful game of his career, as the Cowboys led the NFC East virtually all season. The Falcons and Chiefs, meanwhile, have veteran quarterbacks — Matt Ryan and Alex Smith, respectively — who haven’t achieved a great deal of success in their postseason careers, save for Smith helping the 49ers reach the 2012 NFC Championship game. After finishing two games over .500 with a 129-127 record against the spread (and 156-98-2 picking games straight up) in the regular season, I went 2-2 against the spread (and 4-0 straight up but just 1-3 on the over/unders) last weekend.

Saturday

No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 seed Atlanta Falcons (11-5, NFC South champions) (-5, over/under 51.5)

The Seahawks are coming off of an impressive win in the wild-card round against a Lions team with a quarterback that has been dealing with a broken finger for the last several weeks. This week, they’ll have a tougher matchup against a squad led by Ryan, who is a leading candidate for league MVP honors. RB Thomas Rawls was the Seahawks’ main offensive weapon last week, running for 161 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. QB Russell Wilson was 23-for-30 for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns. Catching nearly half of those completions was WR Doug Baldwin, whose 11 receptions led to 104 receiving yards and a touchdown. WR Paul Richardson put up decent numbers for him, with 3 catches for 48 yards, including a touchdown on an impressive catch in the end zone, making up for a lack of production from TE Jimmy Graham.

Ryan is coming off of a career year in which he threw for 4.944 yards and 38 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions, giving him a NFL-best passer rating of 117.1. He hasn’t had much success in his postseason career, though, going 1-4 with a 9-7 TD-interception ratio in five starts, and he has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three of those five games. Looking at what the rest of the Falcons offense did during the season, RB Devonta Freeman led the way on the ground, carrying the ball 227 yards for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns. No. 2 RB Tevin Coleman added another 520 yards and 8 scores on the ground on 118 rushes. WR Julio Jones had another of his typically great seasons, with 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and 6 touchdowns in 14 games. WR Mohamed Sanu added another 59 grabs for 653 yards and 4 touchdowns, and Freeman had good production in the air game out of the backfield, with 54 catches for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns. Defensively, the Falcons are among the worst in the league,ranking in the bottom 10 in both points and yards allowed.

This game is a battle of the league’s best scoring offense in the Falcons against a Seahawks defense that allowed the third-fewest points in the league during the season and gave up just 6 against the Lions last week. If the Seattle defense can’t keep the Falcons from getting into the end zone, which I don’t think they will, I think the key offensive weapon for the Seahawks will be Rawls. He’ll have to have another good game, like his 161-yard performance against Detroit, if the team has a chance to win. I don’t think Wilson will be able to keep up with Ryan in the air so it’ll be up to the rushing attack to outplay Freeman and Coleman, in my opinion. I don’t think they’ll be able to do it. Falcons win the game, 30-24, to advance to the fifth conference championship game in franchise history. They’ll cover the five-point spread, and the game will go over the 51.5.

No. 4 seed Houston Texans at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (14-2, AFC East champions) (-16, over/under 44.5)

In a rematch of a Week 3 game that saw the Patriots — with QB Jacoby Brissett starting — shut out the Texans at Gillette Stadium, the Texans head back to Foxborough for a chance at redemption as they try to make it to their first AFC Championship game in team history. Last week, the Texans beat the Raiders at home behind a strong showing by the defense — particularly DEs Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded his first career interception, and Whitney Mercilus, who had 2 sacks and 5 tackles in the game. CB A.J. Bouye had an interception of his own in the winning effort. The offense, as has been the case all season, wasn’t very explosive, although QB Brock Osweiler did show some promising signs at times, making a couple of nice throws to WR DeAndre Hopkins, who had 5 receptions for 67 yards and 1 touchdown on 9 targets. Overall, Osweiler was 14-for-25 for 168 yards and 1 touchdown. Not impressive but the lack of interceptions was a good sign because he had more interceptions than touchdown passes — 16 vs. 15 — during the regular season. The Texans couldn’t get much done in the running game; RB Lamar Miller was only able to get 73 yards on 31 carries, though he did get into the end zone once.

After missing the first four games of the season while serving his suspension for Deflategate, Brady put up impressive numbers, leading many to make him their MVP pick despite missing a quarter of the season. In his 12 starts, Brady had a 28-2 TD-interception ratio while throwing for 3,554 yards. Unlike Ryan, who hasn’t done well in the postseason historically, Brady almost seems to up his game in January. He has won 22 of his 31 starts — including four Super Bowl victories — and thrown 56 touchdowns compared to 28 interceptions. With TE Rob Gronkowski missing most of the season to injury, WR Julian Edelman was the team’s leading receiver with 98 receptions 1,106 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Martellus Bennett stepped up in the second half of the season after Gronk went on IR. He finished the year with 55 catches for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns. RB James White was productive in the passing game out of the backfield, with 60 catches for 551 yards and 5 touchdowns. RB LeGarrette Blount was the team’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 299 times for 1,161 yards and an impressive 18 touchdowns. As if having one of the league’s best offenses wasn’t enough, the Patriots also had the best scoring defense during the season, giving up only 250 points — 34 fewer than the next best team, the Giants.

On paper this game seems like a blowout, and that is reflected as well in the 16-point spread. The Week 3 shutout doesn’t do much to refute that. While I don’t think this game will be close, I find it hard to give a team 16 points in the playoffs. The Texans defense will have to keep Brady and the Patriots in check if they want to have any chance of pulling off the upset because the Texans offense may be hard pressed to get into the 20s against a Patriots defense that allowed an average of 15.6 points per game during the regular season. Patriots win the game easily, but with a 27-13 score I’ll take the Texans with the points, and that will also be under the 44.5.

Sunday

No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 seed Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, AFC West champions) (-1.5, over/under 44)

The Steelers easily took care of the Dolphins in the wild-card round to earn the trip to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs. In Sunday’s game QB Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have a great outing, going 13-for-18 for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns with 2 interceptions, but he didn’t have to be at the top of his game thanks to RB Le’Veon Bell, who set a Steelers postseason record by rushing for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 rushes. WR Antonio Brown helped the Steelers jump out to an early lead with a couple of first-quarter scores. Overall, he had 5 receptions for 124 yards and those 2 touchdowns. The defense had three turnovers, including an interception by LB Ryan Shazier.

For the Chiefs, Smith set a career high this season with 3,502 passing yards, though that resulted in just 15 touchdowns and he threw 8 interceptions, which was his highest total since throwing 10 in 2010. RB Spencer Ware was the team’s leading rusher, getting the start in 14 games and carrying the ball 214 times for 921 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Travis Kelce caught 85 passes to lead the team with 1,125 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. It was WR Tyreek Hill who was the Chiefs’ breakout star on offense this season. He had 61 receptions for 593 yards and a team-high 6 touchdowns in the passing game, but that’s not the only part of the game in which he was active. He had 24 carries for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he added another 3 touchdowns on special teams, returning two punts and a kickoff for scores. Defensively, the Chiefs allowed 311 points during the season — seventh best in the league — but was in the bottom 10 in yards allowed.

The 1.5-point spread indicates that this game is expected to be close. The Steelers have the better offense with the Roethlisberger-Bell-Brown triplets, but the Chiefs have the better defense, which the team will rely on to keep the Steelers out of the end zone as much as possible as Smith and Ware can’t compare to Roethlisberger and Bell. The X-factor for the Chiefs is, of course, Hill. If he can continue the strong second half of the season that he had, it could be enough to get the Chiefs the win If he can score on a kick or punt return, that would certainly help take some of the pressure off of both the offense and defense. In the end, though, I don’t think the Chiefs will be able to score enough points to pull out the victory. The Steelers are the slight underdogs so I’ll take the points. I think Pittsburgh wins, 23-20, and I’ll go under the 44.

No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers at No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys (13-3, NFC East champions) (-4.5, over/under 52.5)

The Packers pulled away from the Giants in the second half of their wild-card game last week and ended up winning by 25 points, but they may have lost a key player in the process. WR Jordy Nelson left the game early with what was later determined to be fractured ribs. Even without Nelson playing the entire game, QB Aaron Rodgers had a big game for the Packers, going 25-for-40 for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns. He had two receivers cross the 100-yard mark; WR Davante Adams had 8 receptions for 125 yards and 1 touchdown, while WR Randall Cobb came back after missing a couple games with an injury and had 5 receptions for 116 yards and 3 touchdowns, including one on a hail-mary pass just before halftime. The running game struggled, as it has most of the season, with RBs Christine Michael and Ty Montgomery splitting the touches almost evenly but totaling just 74 rushing yards between them. On defense, LB Clay Matthews had a sack and a forced fumble and CB Damarious Randall intercepted an Eli Manning pass.

Led by rookies Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys had their best season since 2007 with a 13-3 record. Prescott threw for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns with 4 interceptions. He also had 6 rushing touchdowns on 57 carries. That was nothing compared to what Elliott did on the ground, carrying the ball 322 times for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. WR Cole Beasley was the team’s leading receiver with 75 receptions for 833 yards and 5 touchdowns. Veteran TE Jason Witten added 69 receptions for 673 yards and 3 touchdowns while WR Dez Bryant had 50 catches for 796 yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games. The defense was the team’s weak point during the season, allowing both the fifth-most points and yards in the league.

Both teams have good offenses and questionable defenses so points should be easy to come by in this one. Nelson’s availability is a big question mark for the Packers. The team is saying he likely won’t be able to practice until Saturday, so a decision on his status for the game won’t be known until the weekend. If he can’t go, that would be a blow to the Packers offense and would require the likes of Adams and Cobb to repeat their performances from last week. I give the Cowboys a slight edge in this game because of Elliott. The Packers run game can’t come close to the production he is likely to put up, and that could be the difference in the game. Cowboys win, 30-27, so they don’t cover the spread but do advance to the NFC Championship game. And that score means I’m going over 52.5.

If these results happen, it’ll eliminate the possibility of my preseason Super Bowl LI pick — Packers over Patriots — from happening. With the Patriots likely beating the Texans, that prediction will stay alive if the Packers can manage to beat the Cowboys.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks Wild Card Playoffs: Giants-Packers highlights a weekend full of backup quarterbacks

After 17 weeks of the regular season, the NFL playoffs have arrived with 12 teams hoping to end up in Houston on Feb. 5 to play in Super Bowl LI, although just a handful or so have a realistic chance of making it there. There’s not a lot of star power in the wild card round, with teams like the Patriots and Cowboys having earned first-round byes. The best matchup of the weekend figures to be the last game of the weekend slate, when the Giants head to Green Bay to take on the NFC North champion Packers. Two of the other three games each feature at least one backup or third-string quarterback getting a start. During the regular season, I finished with a 129-127 record against the spread (and 156-98-2 picking games straight up).

Saturday

No. 5 seed Oakland Raiders (12-4, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Houston Texans (9-7, AFC South champions) (-3.5, over/under 36.5)

For the second straight season, the Texans won the AFC South with a 9-7 record and host the first game of the postseason. It didn’t go well last season, when they got shut out by the Chiefs, 30-0. This time, they’ll play the Raiders, who are going to start third-string QB Connor Cook. QB Matt McGloin started in Week 17, filling in for QB Derek Carr, who suffered a broken leg a week earlier. McGloin left the game with a shoulder injury, though, so he will not be ready for action this week, setting Cook up to make his first career start in the NFL. The Texans quarterback situation is also a mess. QB Tom Savage started the last couple of games, but he had to leave Sunday’s game as he entered the concussion protocol and did not return to the game after that. That let QB Brock Osweiler, who was benched for Savage earlier in the season, get back in the game. At this time, Osweiler is expected to start for the home team.

Neither team is likely going to be able to rely on its running game, either. RB Latavius Murray is the Raiders’ leading rusher, but he totaled just 788 yards on the ground in 14 games. Texans starting RB Lamar Miller missed the last two games with injury but is expected to be ready to go this weekend. If healthy he can have a good game, but his health is a question mark. The Raiders likely have the advantage in the receiving game, with WRs Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper each having amassed more than 1,000 receiving yards. Subpar quarterback play limited the production of the Texans’ receivers, with WR DeAndre Hopkins leading the way with 954 yards but just 4 touchdowns. Rookie WR Will Fuller V showed promise at times, hauling in 47 catches for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. If Osweiler starts, look out for TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, who is Brock’s favorite target not named Hopkins. Fiedorowicz had 559 yards and 4 touchdowns on 54 receptions, second only to Hopkins.

The biggest discrepancy between the teams comes on the defensive side of the ball. Even without DE J.J. Watt, who hasn’t played since Week 3, the Texans have one of the best defenses in the league, while the Raiders were in the bottom half of the league in points allowed and in the bottom 10 in yards against. With the teams expected to struggle to score points with the quarterbacks who will be starting for them, defense will likely be the X factor in this game, which is why I give the Texans have the overall advantage. In a rematch of the Mexico City game from Week 11, I’ll take the Texans to win the game, 16-10, so I’ll take the Texans (-3.5) and under the 36.5 total.

No. 6 seed Detroit Lions (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1, NFC West champions) (-8, over/under 43.5)

Losing to the Packers on Sunday night forced the Lions on the road in Seattle instead of hosting a playoff game as the NFC North champions. This quarterback matchup is the opposite of the early game, with two quarterbacks who have strong track records over several seasons in the league. For the Lions, QB Matthew Stafford threw for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns with a career-low 10 interceptions. On the other side, QB Russell Wilson was inconsistent over the course of the season but got better as the season progressed and he got over some injuries that nagged him early in the season. He threw for 4,219 yards and 21 touchdowns with a career-worst 11 interceptions, although he ended the season without throwing a pick in the last two games. Overall, the two teams are pretty evenly matched at the quarterback position.

Injuries caused both teams’ running backs to significantly underperform. No back carried the ball more than 92 times for the Lions. That was RB Theo Riddick, who hasn’t played since Week 13. RB Zach Zenner was the LIons’ best running back late in the season, starting the final two games and scoring 3 touchdowns on 32 rushes. Despite being limited to nine games, RB Thomas Rawls led the Seahawks’ rushing attack, with 109 carries for just 349 yards and 3 touchdowns. Both teams had more success through the air, with each squad having a 1,000-yard receiver. For the Lions, it was WR Golden Tate, who had 91 receptions for 1,077 yards and 4 touchdowns. Veteran WR Anquan Boldin also had a good season; he had 8 touchdowns on 67 receptions. For Seattle, WR Doug Baldwin led the way 94 catches for 1,128 yards and 7 touchdowns. TE Jimmy Graham had 65 receptions for 923 yards and 6 touchdowns in a comeback season after playing in just 11 games in 2015.

The Seahawks have the advantage defensively, ranking in the top five for the season in both points and yards allowed. Even without S Earl Thomas, who is on injured reserve, the Seahawks have the better defensive unit than a Lions squad that allowed 66 more points than Seattle did during the regular season. Although the Lions have a good offense, I think the Seahawks will be up to the challenge and that should be the difference in the game. People say defense wins championships, and I think it’ll win this game for the NFC West champs. Seahawks win the game, 27-20, so I’ll take the Lions with the points and over the 43.5 total.

Sunday

No. 6 seed Miami Dolphins (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, AFC North champions) (-10, over/under 46)

Heinz Field will be the site of the early Sunday game when the Dolphins visit the Steelers. QB Matt Moore is going to get the start for the Dolphins, as he’s done each of the last three weeks as QB Ryan Tannehill recovers from his sprained knee. The Steelers will be starting a quarterback with plenty of playoff experience, Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t have the best season of his career but is still better than the opposing quarterback. Steelers have the definite edge at the position.

The Steelers may have a slight advantage in the running game — with RB Le’Veon Bell, one of the league’s best at the position — but it’s probably the closest among the offensive skill positions. Despite being suspended for the season’s first three games and not playing in a meaningless Week 17 game, Bell ran for 1,268 yards and 7 touchdowns in 12 games. Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi had similar numbers — 1,272 yards and 8 touchdowns — also in 12 starts. A large chunk of Ajayi’s production, however, came in just a few games when he had back-to-back games of 200-plus yards in Weeks 6 and 7, with a third 200-yard performance in Week 16. Outside of those three weeks, his stats don’t look overly impressive. In the receiving game, WR Jarvis Landry led the Dolphins with 94 receptions, 1,136 yards and 4 touchdowns. But the Steelers again have the advantage at this position with WR Antonio Brown –perhaps Pittsburgh’s best offensive player — catching 106 balls for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns despite not playing in Week 17. Bell is also a key part of the receiving core; he was second on the team with 75 receptions on the season, adding 616 yards and 2 touchdowns to complement his rushing numbers.

Although neither team’s defense is particularly noteworthy, the Steelers also have the better unit on that side of the ball, having given up 53 fewer points during the season than the Dolphins did. And the Dolphins allowed the fourth-most yards in the league, which isn’t good when you’re facing a team with Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown. Overall, the Steelers are the clear favorites and should win the game, but I think a 10-point spread is a bit much for a game like this because the Dolphins can put points on the board. I’ll take the Steelers to win the game, 32-27, so give me the Dolphins (+10) and over the 46 total.

No. 5 seed New York Giants (11-5, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers (10-6, NFC North champions) (-4.5, over/under 44.5)

Wild-card weekend concludes with a matchup of one of the league’s best defenses against one of the top offenses. The Packers won 23-16 when these teams met at Lambeau in Week 5 so the Giants are looking to avenge that loss. Giants QB Eli Manning didn’t have great season, putting up his worst numbers since 2013. He threw for 4,027 yards and 26 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, almost single-handedly led his team to the division title as he had to deal with a lack of a running game and a poor defense. He had his best season since 2011, throwing for 4,428 yards and 40 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions.

The running game wasn’t either team’s strong suit this season, although Giants RB Paul Perkins started to come on in the last couple of weeks, culminating in a career-best 102-yard performance against the Redskins in Week 17. For the Packers, WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery was the team’s leading rusher; he ran the ball 77 times for 457 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Giants have a strong one-two punch at receiver, with WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. Beckham had 101 receptions for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns while Shepard totaled 683 yards and 8 touchdowns on his 65 catches. For the Packers, WRs Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams lead the receiving core. Nelson had 97 receptions for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. Adams just missed the 1,000-yard milestone; he had 997 yards and 12 touchdowns on 75 receptions.

The Giants have the advantage on defense, ranking second in the league in points allowed. Conversely, the Packers were 12th-worst in that stat, having given up 106 more points than Big Blue. And the Giants’ defense will have to perform well if they want to win the game because the offense isn’t as potent as Green Bay’s. I expect the Packers to win the game and think they’ll cover, 27-21. I’ll give the 4.5 points and go over the 44.5

Awaiting this weekend’s winners in the divisional round are the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC and the Cowboys and Falcons in the NFC. If my picks hold up, next week’s AFC games would pit the Texans against the Patriots and Steelers taking on the Chiefs in the AFC, while the Cowboys would host the Packers with the Seahawk visiting the Falcons in the NFC.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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