Wednesday, January 15, 2014
New England Patriots
ESPN Power Ranking: 5 (regular season)
Online odds to win the Superbowl: 5/1
For the third year in a row and the eighth time since January 2002, the Patriots will be participating in the AFC Championship Game. Unlike 2003-2012, this season's trip to the NFL's Final Four was a surprise to most people. Since this date one year ago, the Patriots have lost Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Sebastian Vollmer, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes and Jerrod Mayo (among others). Welker, Gronkowski, Wilfork and Mayo were not only All-Pro players but arguably the single best player at their position in the entire NFL (Note: only if you count "slot receiver" as Welker's position. I'm not suggesting he's better than Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald). It's doubtful that any team in NFL history has lost that much talent in a single season and advanced as far. No matter what happens on Sunday in Denver, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have done amazing things to put the Patriots in a position to win their fourth Superbowl.
Denver is favored to beat the Patriots on Sunday and rightfully so. Denver has a unique home field advantage because of the high altitude that the Denver players are accustomed to and the opponents typically are not. Many defenses have wilted in the fourth quarter in Denver over the years. Obviously Denver also has a huge advantage in the form of Peyton Manning's weapons. Four of the top five WR/TE threats in this game play for the Broncos. I see two major advantages for the Patriots. First, New England's secondary is relatively healthy for the first time since September while Denver just lost its best cornerback for the rest of the season. The Broncos defense fell apart against the Chargers when Chris Harris left the game. Cornerback is the second most important position after quarterback (as the Patriots learned the hard way in last year's AFC Championship). The Pats now have a decided edge in the secondary. The second advantage is Bill Belichick. Belichick vs John Fox is a massive mismatch (assuming Bill doesn't do some "eccentric" in a key moment as he's done in recent years). The media will talk Brady vs Manning all week long but I see the running game deciding the AFC title. If the Pats continue to run the ball well, they will reduce the number of plays for their defense and the high altitude becomes less of an issue. If Denver can run the ball well, Manning will be in a lot of 3rd and shorts where Thomas, Thomas and Decker (all 6'3" or taller) and Wes Welker will be tough to defend.
As for the Patriots' future, it remains fairly bright despite all the setbacks this year. Tom Brady had a very good season considering the loss of Welker, Hernandez and Gronk for most of the season. There's no reason why he can't be All-Pro caliber for another two or three years. It's been an up and down season for Dobson, Boyce and Thompkins (both in learning curve and injuries) all three showed promise at one point or another. If Wilfork and Mayo return healthy (I'm more confident about Mayo than Wilfork), the Patriots should be in pretty good shape on the defensive side of the ball. Logan Ryan and Jamie Collins both had good rookie seasons and the hope is that they will be better (certainly more consistent) in 2014. Unfortunately, the Patriots have some key players who could be headed to free agency, most notably Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman, LeGarrette Blount and Ryan Wendell. The biggest question mark for 2014 and beyond is of course Rob Gronkowski. I think most Patriots fans are concerned that he will never be healthy. You also have to wonder if he'll be the same player after the knee injury (ankle sprains, back issues and arm injuries don't usually derail careers but knee injuries often do). Even if he does return healthy, will he play the same way? Can he run down the middle of the field without thinking that some cowardly defensive back is about to dive into his knee. Whatever the case, the Patriots will either need to draft a tight end in a high round or pick up a good one in free agency.
ESPN Power Ranking: 28
Online Odds to Win 2014 NBA Title: 250/1
After six years of competing for an NBA title, the Celtics are back to where they were before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived. That is, trying to develop talent knowing that most of the players on the roster will be somewhere else in the near future. The draft lottery has not been kind to the Celtics over the years. In 1997, Boston had a 36% chance of landing the first overall pick (which everyone knew would be Tim Duncan). In 2007, the Celtics had a 39% chance of picking first or second (Kevin Durant went second after Greg Oden) but ended up fifth (it must be noted that pick was used to get Ray Allen). The Celtics had a reasonable chance at getting a top three pick in both 1999 (13%) and 2006 (18%) but things didn't work out. The only time the Celtics did have good luck in the draft lottery was in 1986 when they ended up with the second overall pick. That pick, Len Bias, died from a cocaine overdose two days after the draft. The 2014 draft appears to be loaded, including some potential franchise players. Drafting in the top three or four in 2014 could put the Celtics on a faster rebuilding trajectory.
After a surprisingly good start (12-14), the Celtics have lost 12 of 13 but have played several solid games during that time. They gave the Clippers, Warriors and Blazers (a combined 44-11 at home) tough battles on the road over the past week. Although there has been no consistency, Green, Bradley and Sullinger have done some nice things at times. Even Kris Humphries chipped in with a 16-point, 14-rebound effort on the road trip. Let's be honest. The best case scenario is the Celtics playing well, but not well enough to put wins on the board and negatively affect their spot in the draft lottery. That's assuming they are in the draft lottery. The Eastern Conference is so bad this year that Rajon Rondo's return could actually be enough to get the Celtics to the playoffs. I'd rather the Celtics make the playoffs than just miss the playoffs. Just missing the playoffs means drafting in the 11-14 range which won't get the Celtics the potential franchise player that they desperately need.
It's hard to analyze the Celtics future, largely because we don't know if Rondo will be around and we don't know where the Celtics will be drafting in June. One one hand, it feels like the Celtics are a long way from seriously competing for an NBA title. The NBA is a star-player driven league and the Celtics only have one of those (and Rondo is coming off a serious knee injury). On the plus side, some guys on the current roster could be nice pieces in an NBA rotation. I don't think Sullinger, Bradley and Olynk will ever be NBA All-Stars but they could be good NBA players. Jeff Green's inconsistency is frustrating. He's the most talented player (other than Rondo) but he doesn't appear to be a guy you can build around. It's very early to judge, but Brad Stevens appears to be a good hire. The most important thing for the Celtics future is the nine first round picks in the next five years (including either the Nets or Hawks first round pick in 2014, the Clippers in 2015 and the Nets in 2016 and 2018). They also have the option to swap picks with the Nets in 2017. The Nets have all the earmarks of a team that could be really bad in a year or two so the KG/Pierce trade could turn out to be a bonanza. Or course, that's also going to require some draft lottery luck.
ESPN Power Ranking: 5
Online Odds to Win 2014 Stanley Cup: 8/1
A year ago at this time, the Bruins were 12/1 odds (about 8%) to win the Stanley Cup and they nearly pulled it off. Last season's playoff run was somewhat bizarre. The Bruins were extraordinarily lucky to survive their first round series with the Maple Leafs and extraordinarily unlucky against the Blackhawks in the Cup Finals. In between, they dominated the Rangers and Penguins despite most hockey analysts picking against them. If the Leafs had been able to protect a three goal lead in the final 11 minutes of Game 7, the Bruins may have cleaned house. Claude Julien no doubt would have been gone. Tuukka Rask would probably still be in a Bruins uniform but wouldn't have been given a $56 million contract. In a weird way, the playoff run helped put an end to Tyler Seguin's career in Boston (it gave him an extra three rounds to NOT produce) and Torey Krug's emergence made it easy for the Bruins to part company with Andrew Ference. Unfortunately, some bad bounces, an injury to Bergeron and a horrible minute of play late in Game 6 prevented the Bruins from taking home the Cup for the second time in three years.
The Bruins have been up and down this season. Right now they are down, losing five of their last eight games. I don't think it's a coincidence that this bad stretch started with Dennis Seidenberg being lost for the season with ACL/MCL tears. Seidenberg is one of the five or six most important Bruins so replacing him will not be an easy task. The big surprise for the Bruins this season has been Reilly Smith who leads the team with 15 goals and is second to Krejci with 33 points. Jerome Iginla and Brad Marchand have picked up the pace after slow starts. On the down side, Loui Eriksson has been injured most of the season, Shawn Thornton was suspended for 15 games and Carl Soderberg isn't scoring. The Bruins have given up the second fewest goals per game (after LA) in the NHL but their defensive numbers aren't as good since Seidenberg went down (from 2.0 to 3.1 goals against per game). Offensively, the Bruins are fourth in the Eastern Conference in goals but are again having problems on the power play (12th in the East). The Bruins will need to replace Seidenberg and figure out the power play (at least to the point where it is mediocre) if they want to return to the Cup Finals.
The Bruins future remains very bright. Rask, Bergeron, Marchand, Chara and Seidenberg are locked up for a while with Lucic signed through 2015-16. Krejci and Boychuk (among others) will be an unrestricted free agents after next season. Dougie Hamilton has been a bit of a disappointment but he's only 20 years old and has the talent and size to a top NHL defenseman. Ryan Spooner (21) and Reilly Smith (22) clearly have the offensive skills and the Bruins hope they can develop the rest of their game. 21-year-old defenseman Joe Morrow, who came over in the Seguin trade, is one of the Bruins' top prospects. Torey Krug is an interesting player and a legitimate offensive weapon but at 5'9", 180 pounds you have to wonder if his future is as a defenseman. The Bruins still have a lot of talent. There's no reason why they can't be a Cup contender for years to come.
Boston Red Sox
ESPN Power Ranking: 1 (2013 season)
Online odds to win 2014 World Series: 10/1
What a difference a year makes. Last year, I scolded the Red Sox for spending so much money on Victorino, Napoli and Dempster, largely because I had no confidence they could stay healthy. I felt the same way about Lester, Lackey and Buchholz. As it turned out only Buchholz (among those six) missed significant time. Pedroia, Ellsbury and Ortiz also didn't miss a lot of time, though each battled through injuries. I started calling Boston "Injurytown" because the four major teams have had so many seasons ruined over the past five years because of excessive injuries, but the Sox were very fortunate in that department in 2013 and obviously it paid off.
The Red Sox are in an incredible position right now. They just won the World Series, have most of their key players (Ellsbury the big exception) back in 2014 and have arguably the most talented farm system in baseball. At the end of last season, Baseball America ranked the Red Sox as the top farm system with Houston finishing a distant second. I've been critical of some of the moves the organization has made of late, including the Iglesias trade, but was thrilled when they dumped $250 million of salary on the Los Angeles Dodgers in August of 2012. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant move for the long-term but it turned out to be a brilliant move for the short-term as well. Red Sox ownership and GM Ben Cherington seem to understand that overpaying B-level players (like Jacoby Ellsbury) on long-term contracts doesn't make sense. They also understand that they have a good farm system that should feed the Red Sox roster, not be used only as trade bait.
2014 will be an interesting year. The big questions will be: (a) Can the veteran players be as healthy in 2014 as they were in 2013? (b) Will the young players like Bogaerts, Bradley Jr and Middlebrooks be productive? and (c) Will Koji Uehara continue to be a dominant closer? If the answers to those three questions are Yes then the Red Sox again be contenders for a World Series title.