Matthews: NFC Forecast...Vikings Team To Beat

BOB’S NFC FORECAST...VIKINGS ARE THE TEAM TO BEAT

The Minnesota Vikings were 13-3 in the 2017 regular season but suffered a crushing 38-7 loss at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. They should be hungry to make up for that embarrassment and have the talent to get the job done.

QB Kirk Cousins should be an upgrade over Case Keenum, DT Sheldon Richardson should bolster the pass rush and Dalvin Cook is an explosive second-year RB coming off  ACL surgery.

Other assets include a stellar 1-2 WR duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and a defensive unit that allowed the fewest yards and points in the NFL last season.

Two games to circle: at Green Bay Sept. 16 and home against Green Bay Nov. 25.

Worth noting: The Vikings were an NFL-best 11-4-1 against the point spread last season (New England was 11-5).

NFC NORTH

1—Minnesota, predicted record 12-4.

2—Green Bay 10-6. Super QB Aaron Rodgers has recovered from last season’s broken collarbone. WR Devante Adams and TE Jimmy Graham will be his favorite targets. Counting on RBs Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery to stay healthy. The defense is nothing special. Can new DE Muhammad Wilkerson return to his old form? Young CBs are long on talent but short on experience.

3—Detroit 8-8. Durable QB Matthew Stafford keys an impressive passing attack. Golden Tate and Marvin Jones were the NFL’s only pair of WRs with 1,000-plus yards receiving last season. But the Lions had an NFL-worst 3.4 yards per carry. Maybe LeGarrette Blount will help.  New coach Matt Patricia is hoping LB Jarrad Davis emerges as the much-needed playmaker on defense.  Secondary and special teams are strengths.

4—Chicago 7-9. Defense is the strength of the Bears and the trade for pass rusher Kahlil Mack made a solid unit even better. QB Mitchell Trubisky is expected to improve, a comeback by WR Allen Robinson would be a big help, Jordan Howard is an underrated heavy-duty RB and shifty Tarik Cohen is exciting on gadget plays. This is a sleeper team that might be a big surprise -- Trubisky is the key.

NFC EAST

1—Philadelphia 11-5. The iffy physical status of QB Carson Wentz and the iffy ability of backup Nick Foles are the main reasons I believe the Super Bowl 32 champions will regress a bit. Coach Doug Pederson is a master at maximizing his offensive weapons. The offensive line and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s deep front seven are strengths.  The return of kick returner Darren Sproles would be a boost. Should easily win an otherwise relatively weak division.

2—New York Giants 7-9. The big question is how much QB Eli Manning has left. Superstar Odell Beckham Jr., and rookie Saquon Barkley could be the NFL’s most exciting WR-RB punch.  New head coach Pat Shurmur figures to be a significant upgrade over Ben McAdoo, particularly on offense. LT Nate Solder is the big hope to bolster OL. DT Damon “Snacks” Harrison is a very good run stuffer.  Promising group of LBs.

3--Dallas 7-9. RB Ezekiel Elliott and the line are the main assets on offense. Can QB Dak Prescott return to his rookie form? Need big improvement from the receiving corps. TE Jason Witten retired and will be in the Monday Night Football TV booth. Solid DL anchored by Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving. Need more from LBs. A healthy Sean Lee for 16 games would be a big boost. Punter Chris Jones is among the NFL’s best. Former ace PK Dan Bailey is gone.  

4—Washington 5-11. Quarterback Alex Smith should be a decent replacement for Kirk Cousins but he’ll miss the explosive weapons he had In Kansas City. Jamison Crowder is the best of a modest group of wide receivers. Jordan Reed is a top-shelf TE when healthy. How much does future Hall of Fame RB Julian Peterson have left as the replacement for rookie Derrius Guice (season-ending knee injury).  Big questions on pass rush and depth at CB.

NFC SOUTH

1—Atlanta 11-5. The Falcons clearly blew Super Bowl 31 but they recovered enough last season to be the only NFC team to make a repeat trip to the playoffs. They should make it three in a row. They’re a young and hungry team. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonte Freeman are one of the NFL’s best QB-WR-RB trios. Tevin Coleman is a solid No. 2 RB and Mohamed Sanu and rookie Calvin Ridley supply depth at WR. Center Alex Mack anchors the OL. Lots of speed on defense. Improved special teams was an off-season priority.

2—New Orleans 10-6.  The Saints started 0-2 last season after three straight 7-9 seasons and it looked like time to rebuild. Then they went 11-3 and lost to Minnesota on a fluke play in the divisional playoffs. The offense is a lethal mixture of passing -- featuring QB Drew Brees and WR Michael Thomas – and rushing with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the NFL’s best 1-2 RB punch. The OL might be the league’s best. The defense is heavy on blitzes and the CB Marshon Lattimore leads the opportunistic secondary. Thomas Morstead is a top punter.

3—Carolina 7-9. QB Cam Newton, RB Christian McCaffrey and TE Greg Olson and WRs Torrey Smith, Curtis Samuel and rookie D.J. Moore supply firepower. Top defenders include DTs Dontari Poe and Kawaan Short and LBs Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson. The secondary is suspect. Lattimore is a top CB. PK Graham Gano led the NFL in field-goal accuracy (29-of-30).

4—Tampa Bay 4-12.  The Buccaneers last made the playoffs in 2007 and aren’t likely to end that drought this season. They’ve finished last in the division six of the last seven years. They w ere 1-7 on the road last season and 3-7 in one-score games. Two signs of a poor team. Jameis Winston is hot-and-cold which makes him warmer than most of his teammates. WR Mike Evans Coach and DT Gerald McCoy are quality players on a roster short on talent. Dirk Koetter is on the hot seat.  Good luck. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will start the first four games as Winston serves a suspension.

NFC WEST

1—Los Angeles Rams 11-5.The Rams improved from 4-12 in 2016 to 11-5 last season and ended a stretch of 13 straight losing seasons for Coach of the Year Sean McVay. Returning stars include QB Jared Goof, RB Todd Gurley II, WRs Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, and DT Aaron Donald are standouts on a star-studded roster.  Impressive newcomers include CBs Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, DT Ndamukong and WR Brandin Cooks.  Best special teams in the NFL by far.  The main threat to Minnesota in the NFC.

2—San Francisco 7-9. Last season’s 49ers started 0-9, traded for QB Jimmy Garoppolo and went 5-0 in December to finish 7-9. Was it a fluke? My hunch is sort of and tough to repeat. Season-ending injury to new RB Jerick McKinnon. Need a stronger pass rush but the overall defense might improve with fewer injuries than last season. Solid special teams.

3—Seattle 6-10. From the Legion of Boom to Legion of Gloom? The glory years appear over. The NFC-best six-season winning streak is in jeopardy. Star QB Russell Wilson will be running for his life behind a weak OL.  Most of the familiar names are playing elsewhere or retired. QB Wilson, WR Doug Baldwin and LB Bobby Wagner are among the top holdovers.

4—Arizona 4-12. New coach Steve Wilks wants to stress the run on offense and star RB David Johnson will be busy after missing most of last season with a broken wrist. Brittle Sam Bradford will start at QB, with rookie Josh Rosen waiting in the wings. Future Hall of Famer WR Larry Fitzgerald remains close to top shelf at age 34. Only four starters on defense return from last season, including star CB Patrick Peterson. PK Phil Dawson and punter Sean Lee are solid veterans.

BOB’S “BEST BETS” KICKS OFF: FALCONS OVER EAGLES

The last time we saw Nick Foles in a game that counted, he was Super Bowl 32 MVP in a wild 41-33 Philadelphia victory over New England.

Foles will start for the Eagles in Thursday night’s 2018 season opener against visiting Atlanta and he’s the main reason my pick is the underdog  Falcons +5 points.

Eagles star QB Carson Wentz (Knee) remains sidelined indefinitely and Foles was awful in the preseason. I expect Atlanta’s Matt Ryan to outplay him in this spot.

The Best Bet”: Atlanta 24, PHILADELPHIA (-2) 20.

BILLS DRAFT HISTORY SAYS FIFTH-ROUND PICK FOR McCARRON WON’T HELP MUCH

Many Buffalo fans were wishing for a Bills-Oakland Raiders trade. The big hope was that Kahlil Mack would be the pass rusher Buffalo so desperately needs, no matter what the price. At least he wound up with the Chicago Bears instead of the AFC East rival New York Jets.

The Bills and Raiders did make a trade: Quarterback AJ McCarron to the Raiders for a fifth-round draft pick. McCarron isn’t likely to contribute much to Oakland. Buffalo’s draft history says the fifth-round pick isn’t likely to be much help.

By far the best fifth-round pick by the Bills was defensive tackle Kyle Williams in 2006.

Fourteen of Buffalo’s fifth-round picks never played a game for the team.

Buffalo has picked three quarterbacks in the fifth round: Dan Manucci in 1979 (19 games, including one start for Buffalo), Fred Basana in 1977 (briefly on the rosters of Buffalo and The New York Giants but never played) and Norm Snead in 1961 (signed with NFL Washington).

A few of Buffalo’s other fifth-round picks made minor contributions, including OT Donnie Green (1971),  DB Rod Kush (1979), punter John Kidd (1984), DB Matt Darby (1992), LB John Holacek (1995),  RB Sammy Morris (2000), DT Justin Bannan (2002) and DB Jonathan Meeks (2013). Karlos Williams (2015) looked good until he decided that playing in the NFL wasn’t his main focus. Too early to write off LB Matt Milano, OG Wyatt Teller and CB Siran Neal.

IT WAS A TOUGH IL SEASON FOR NEW YORK’S THREE TEAMS

Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse all had losing records this 2018 International League season and the rest of the 14-team league must have looked forward to road trips to Western New York.

Records:

Buffalo – 61-77 (finished the season on an 11-game losing streak)...home 33-35...road 28-42...outscored 590-573 (-17)

Rochester – 64-76...home 29-41...road 35-35...outscored 514-485 (-29)

Syracuse – 64-76...home 35-35...road 29-41...outscored 573-565(-8)

Totals – 189-229 (-40)...home 97-111...road 92-118

New York State IL Average Attendance Derby:

Buffalo – 8,250 (5th in the 14-team IL)

Rochester – 6,537 (9th)

Syracuse – 4,177 (13th).

The Red Wings finished 1st in pitching with a 3.39 earned-run average. Pawtucket was No. 2 at 3.43. It was the first time Rochester had the IL”s lowest ERA since 1976. The Wings won the pennant in Joe Altobelli’s sixth and final season as the team’s manager. Dennis Martinez led the IL in victories, ERA and strikeouts.

The Red Wings finished last in batting average (.227), runs (485) and OPS (.650; on-base percentage + slugging percentage).

DOES deGROM HAVE THE EDGE FOR NL CY YOUNG AWARD?

New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom got no decision in a 4-2 victory at Los Angeles Monday night.  That figures. He’s pitched great all season but hasn’t received much hitting support from his teammates. He singled in the only run for the Mets Monday until Brandon Nimmo’s game-winning 3-run HR in the ninth.

Here’s the factoid that might make deGrom the slight favorite at this point in a tight three-man race for the NL Cy Young Award: He has held opponents to three-or-fewer runs in 25 consecutive starts, the best single-season streak in MLB since 1913.

Here’s how the three Cy Yong candidates measure up:

deGrom (Mets) – 8-8 record; 1.68 ERA; 188 innings; 139 hits allowed; 42 walks; 230 strikeouts; 0.96 WHIP (walks+hits allowed per inning); .204 batting average against.

Max Scherzer (Washington) – 16-6 record; 2.28 ERA; 193 2/3 innings; 124 hits allowed; 46 walks; 260 strikeouts; 0.88 WHIP; .179 BAA.

Aaron Nola (Philadelphia) – 15-4 record; 2.23 ERA; 181 2/3 innings; 128 hits allowed; 49 walks; 188 strikeouts; 0.97 WHiP; .198 BAA.

VINC AND WITHERS HELP PETERBORUGH ADVANCE TO MANN CAP

The Peterborough Lakers won the Ontario Major Series A Lacrosse summer box lacrosse championship 4 games to 2 with an 8-7 victory over Oakville last Saturday night at the Toronto Rock Athletic Center.

Rochester Nighthawks coach Mike Hasen coaches Peterborough and several of his K-hawks players are among his stars: Matt Vinc had 38 saves on 45 shots in the title, Jake Withers was 138-for-166 on faceoffs in the playoffs (not including the three games Oakville hosted the Lakers; maybe there weren’t enough people available in the building to adequately staff the stats crew), and Cory Vitatelli had 17 goals in the 11 playoff games.

Peterborough will host the Maple Ridge Burrards (featuring National Lacrosse League stars Curtis Dickson and Ben McIntosh) in the best-of-seven Mann Cup for Canada’s summer box lacrosse championship starting Friday.

BREANNA STEWART LEADS SEATTLE STORM TO WNBA FINALS

The Seattle Storm will host the Washington Mystics Friday night  in Game 1 of the best-of-five NBA Finals.

In the decisive Game %s of the semifinals Tuesday night, Washington won 86-61 at the Atlanta Dream (crowd was 4,435 in the 8,902-seat  McCamish Pavilion) and Seattle won 94-84 at home over the Phoenix Mercury (crowd was 8,9992 in the 17,072-seat Key Arena). Syracuse product and WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart scored 28 points for Seattle and teammate Sue Bird played a great game despite a broken nose. Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi lost the first do-or-die game of her WNBA career after 13 victories.

SHORT SHOTS

New New York Yankees hero Luke Voit stirred happy memories of Luke Easter for this veteran Red Wings follower. The fans in Yankee Stadium have begun to serenade him with LUUUUUKE when he comes to the plate – the way we did so long ago for Luke Easter. Voit has picked up the slack since Aaron Judge was lost to a broken wrist July 26. Yankees GM Brian Cashman traded with St. Louis (pitchers Chasen Shreve and Giovanni Gallegos went to the Cardinals) three days later for Voit. After a brief stint at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he was promoted to the Yankees.  In 19 games, he’s hitting .322 (19-for-59) with 12 runs, 7 HRs and 15 RBI.

SportsBettingDime.com lists the Buffalo Bills at an NFL-worst 250-to-1 to win Super Bowl 33 and an NFL-best at 5-top1 to “win” the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft.

Believe It Or Not: Tarod Taylor and Baker Mayfieldthis season figure to become the 29th and 30th different starting quatrerbacks for Cleveland  since the Browns retuned to the NFL in 1999.

The departure of TE Nick O’Leary leaves only three players left with the Bills from the Rex Ryan/Doug Whaley drafts: Shaq Lawson, John Miller and Adolphus Washington.

Legendary eater Joey Chestnut successfully defended his Chicken Wing-Eating Championship in Buffalo last Sunday. He downed 206 chicken wings in 12 minutes. How about an appearance at Frontier Field next season in a Garbage Plate Eating contest.

EL Manuel had a solid pre-season performance for the Oakland Raiders: 40-of-56 (.714) for 477 yards, with 4 TD passes, 0 INTs and a 120.9 passer rating.  But he was cut to make room for AJ McCarron...Another former Bills QB, former Ohio State star Cardale Jones, was a late cut by the Los Angeles Chargers.

UniAuthority’s UAA Awards listed Rochester’s PLATES as the fifth-best pro motional uniform in minor-league baseball this season.

Last season, Niko Goodrum (13 HRs in 127 games) and Daniel Palka (11 HRs in 84 games) combined for 24 HRs in 211 games with the Rochester Red Wings....This season, they’ve combined for 37 HRs in 218 games in the American League (Goodrum 16 HRs in 116 games for the Detroit Tigers and Palka 21 HRs in 102 games for the Chicago White Sox).

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO...

Wednesday. September 5

T J Warren (25)...Elena DelleDonne (28)...Lance Stephenson (28)....Colt McCoy (32)...Chris Young (35)...Nzar Muhammed (41)...Rosevelt Colvin (41)...Jimmy Haynes (46)...Carlester Crumpler (47)...Brad Hopkins (48)...Dennis Scott (50)...Willie Gault (58)..Candy Maldonado (58)...Bill Mazeroski (82). Rose McGowan (45), Michael Keaton (67), Raquel Welch (78) and Bob Newhart (89) are invited to the birthday party.

Others born on this date: King Louis XIV (1638)...Jesse James 1847...Nap Lajoie (1874)...Paul Volcker (1927)...William Devane (1937)...Freddie Mercury (1946).

Died on this date: Suleiman the Magnificent (1566)...Crazy Horse (1877)...Mother Teresa (1997)...Hugh O’Brian (2016).

Thursday, September 6

Clint Frazier (24)...Tyler Austin (27)...John Wall (28)...Ryan Clady (32)...Mitch Moreland (33)...Jerry Blevins (35)...Samuel Peter (38)...Brendon Ayanbadejo (42)...Derreck Lee (43)...Eric Zeier (46)...Igor Kovalev (48)...Aaron Pierce (49)...Kevin Willis (56)...Mike McCoy (70).

Others born on this date: Marquis de Lafayette (1757)...Jane Addams (1860)...Joseph P. Kennedy (1888)...Dan Cragg (1939)...Jane Curtin (1947)...Chris Christie (1962)...Rosie Perez (1964).

Died on this date: Gertrude Lawrence (1952)...Margaret Sangster (1966)...Tom Fogerty (1990)...Buster Mathis (1995)...Luciano Pavarotti (2007)...Art Modell (2012).

ON THIS DATE IN SPORTS...

September 5

100 years ago (1918), due to World War I, the World Series started one month early...95 years ago (1923), flyweight boxers Gene LaRue and Kid Pancho knocked each other out simultaneously...58 years ago (1960), Cassius Clay – Muhamad Ali – won the Olympic gold medal in light-heavyweight boxing...46 years ago (1972)...11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian Black September members at the Munich Olympics...31 years ago (1987), John McEnroe was fined $17,500 for tirades at the U.S. Tennis Open.

September 6

98 years ago (1920), Jack Dempsey knocked out Billy Miske in the third round for the heavyweight totle in the first radio broadcast of a boxing event...43 years ago (1975), Czech tennis star Martina Navratilova asked the United States for political asylum in New York City during the U.S. Tennis Open...23 years ago (1995), Cal Ripken played in his 2,031st consecutive game to break Lou Gehrig’s record...22 years ago (1996), Eddie Murray hit his 500th career home run.

 

Bob Matthews' Column

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