Sunday, 31 December 2006

RJ's NFL Picks - Week Seventeen

I went 7-9 last week. That puts me at 140-100 for the season, which is an overall winning percentage of approximately 58%. (For a comparison, check out the "experts" over at ESPN.)

The following are my picks for the NFL's Week Seventeen:

Saturday, Dec. 30

New York Giants (7-8) at Washington (5-10) - 8:00 pm

The Giants have finally slipped below .500 after having dropped their last two games. However, they are still likely to make it into the postseason with a win Saturday night (depending on how Green Bay does, and the strength-of-victory tiebreaker). The Redskins are just playing for pride, and the chance to be spoilers.

RJ’s Pick – Redskins by 1

Sunday, Dec. 31

Carolina (7-8) at New Orleans (10-5) - 1:00 pm

Carolina becomes a playoff team with a win and a Giants loss plus a Packers loss. New Orleans has already wrapped up the #2 seed in the NFC and has nothing to play for, so they may rest their starters.

RJ’s Pick – Carolina by 3

Cleveland (4-11) at Houston (5-10) - 1:00 pm

Cleveland has dropped three straight. Houston is coming off a shocking win against the Colts last week.

RJ’s Pick – Texans by 4

Detroit (2-13) at Dallas (9-6) - 1:00 pm

This is a sad week for me, as I find myself forced to pick against my beloved Lions. Dallas is still playing for something (the NFC East title), while Detroit would actually be better off losing, so they can get the #1 pick in next year’s draft.

RJ’s Pick – Dallas by 23

Jacksonville (8-7) at Kansas City (8-7) - 1:00 pm

Both teams still have a shot at earning a Wild Card berth, but they both need a win and a l ot of help. Jacksonville is an awful away team, so I’ll go with the Chiefs.

RJ’s Pick – KC by 5

New England (11-4) at Tennessee (8-7) - 1:00 pm

Tennessee has won six in a row. If they can make it seven, they have a decent shot at making the postseason. And you can be sure that nobody wants to meet a team as hot as the Titans in the playoffs.

RJ’s Pick – Tennessee by 2

Oakland (2-13) at New York Jets (9-6) - 1:00 pm

The Jets are in with a win. Oakland is winless on the road this year.

RJ’s Pick - Jets by 11

Pittsburgh (7-8) at Cincinnati (8-7) - 1:00 pm

The Bengals can still make the playoffs with a win and some help. But the Steelers stand in their way, and the Super Bowl champs aren't going to just roll over for a division rival in their last game of the season.

RJ’s Pick - Steelers by 6

Seattle (8-7) at Tampa Bay (4-11) - 1:00 pm

Seattle has nothing to play for since they wrapped up the NFC West last week. They've lost three in a row, and will probably rest some of their starters in this one. I believe we are about to witness a division champ go staggering into the playoffs as a .500 team.

RJ’s Pick - Tampa Bay by 2

Saint Louis (7-8) at Minnesota (6-9) - 1:00 pm

The Rams still have a chance to qualify for the postseason. The Vikings just want this season to end.

RJ’s Pick - Rams by 1

Arizona (5-10) at San Diego (13-2) - 4:15 pm

Believe it or not, the Chargers (who have won nine in a row) are still battling for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. So they have to show up for this game, at least until they have built up a large enough lead to start sitting some starters (say, by the early third quarter).

RJ’s Pick - San Diego by 8

Atlanta (7-8) at Philadelphia (9-6) - 4:15 pm

The Eagles can clinch the NFC East with a win. The Falcons need a win just to have a slim chance of qualifying for the postseason.

RJ’s Pick - Eagles by 3

Buffalo (7-8) at Baltimore (12-3) - 4:15 pm

Baltimore needs a win to secure a first-round bye. Buffalo is already anxious for next year.

RJ’s Pick - Ravens by 5

Miami (6-9) at Indianapolis (11-4) - 4:15 pm

The Colts (who were once 9-0) could drop all the way down to the fourth seed in the AFC with a loss here. But they are still undefeated at home, so I doubt that will happen.

RJ’s Pick - Indianapolis by 13

San Francisco (6-9) at Denver (9-6) - 4:15 pm

Denver is in with a win. San Francisco looks to shore up their defense in the offseason.

RJ’s Pick - Broncos by 4

Green Bay (7-8) at Chicago (13-2) - 8:15 pm

Chicago will sleep through this one. Green Bay can still make the playoffs with a win and a little help. In any event, this will probably be Brett Favre's last regular season game.

RJ’s Pick - Packers by 6

Weekly Results

Week One 10-6
Week Two 12-4
Week Three 6-8
Week Four 9-5
Week Five 10-4
Week Six 10-3
Week Seven 7-6
Week Eight 8-6
Week Nine 8-6
Week Ten 8-8
Week Eleven 7-9
Week Twelve 12-4
Week Thirteen 7-9
Week Fourteen 8-8
Week Fifteen 11-5
Week Sixteen 7-9


(BONUS: RJ’s Super Bowl XLI Pick – San Diego 31, Chicago 13)

RJ Elliott is a graduate student studying Criminal Justice at the University Of Central Florida. His likes include nature, sports, and pierced blondes. He dislikes daytime television, left-wing dictators, and E. coli-tainted spinach. He is ambivalent about Angelina Jolie.

Saturday, 30 December 2006

Is ESPN Becoming A Caricature of Itself?

At one time William Randolph Hearst was the most powerful man in America. His vast fortune, ownership of newspapers, and ability to coerce were legendary. It was said that giants don't fall but Hearst -- like Napoleon, Caesar, and Enron -- didn't sustain his invincibility. Much of the same can be said for ESPN.

ESPN provides a wealth of programming for those who watch football, basketball, baseball, and soccer. Scratch the last one because no one watches it or cares about it. Apparently the United States has a professional league but few people can name one team aside from the one in DC.

Anyway, ESPN is now in dangerous territory. It's becoming apparent to people who watch networks closely, trying to determine their long term strength not measured in dollars but in respect. They are on the verge of becoming irrelevant.

Mocking ESPN is mandatory for many athletes, fans, and bar patrons. From SportsCenter failing to provide adequate clips to absurd ESPN productions providing the type of quality material Soviet era television was known for, the goobers in suits are fast becoming the MTV of the sports world.

It's a steady decline matched only by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Success followed by failure and someone losing a spleen. It's getting ugly in Bristol and, coincidentally, at Coach Gruden's trailer.

It appears unlikely the precipitous slide will halt. ESPN is far too corporate to understand the average sports fan and once alienated, a sports fan rarely forgives or forgets. Ask Bill Buckner. For now the King of the Sports Hill is ESPN, but like so many giants before them they may become a victim of their own success.

The Critic is a sports junkie, friend to the common man, and a practicioner of the ancient art of BS detection. He maintain his own blog at Critical Sports Blog.

Presented By

NFL Picks of a Thoughtful Fool, Week 17

So that was Christmas. And what have we done?

Not much. The playoff picture is only slightly less murky. And now we are entering the final week of the NFL, also known as the Week of Shame. This is the week that teams throw games.

OK, not literally throw games, but a team with nothing to gain has absolutely no incentive to play starters or even give 100%. You paid hundreds of dollars for tickets, parking and flat beer? Sorry, the team's taking the day off. Caught in a do or die playoff hunt with a hated rival? Sorry, your rival's playing the top seed but they've already locked up home field advantage, they may as well be playing the Lions. Have a website where you painstakingly track games and monitor statistics in an effort to get an idea of who the strongest teams actually are? Sorry, the better the team, the more likely they can sleep through the weekend and screw up your stats.

Last year at this time was a real mess -- remember, the Colts went on cruise control as soon as the lost their shot at the undefeated season, and the Pats executed a drop kick -- it seemed like everyone was taking a little personal time.

This year, the Bears had nothing to play for last week, but they were playing the Lions, so it was six of one, half-dozen of the other. This week they play the Pack, who are technically still alive for a wild card (which caused me to do a double take). A holiday gift for the Pack.

The Saints have locked up the other NFC bye and they play the Panthers, who are also still alive for a wild card. A holiday gift for the Cats.

The Seahawks managed to clinch their so-called division when the Cards beat the 49ers. They play the Bucs in an entirely inconsequential game. It will be interesting to see if the 'Hawks play their scrubs. Even though there is no benefit to winning, are they shameless enough to take their division at 8-8?

Over in the AFC things are better. The only division winner that cannot improve their position with a win is New England. They have the division locked up but no chance at a bye. A holiday gift for the Titans, who need a win and Festivus miracle to catch a post-season berth.

Of course, to truly understand the various wild card possibilities you need slide rules, Gantt charts, 3-D modeling software, and even then it could come down to a coin flip. That aside, at least we know who has a reason to fight and who doesn't, right?

Yes we do, until about 4 p.m. on Sunday. Teams can go from a fighting chance to drawing dead in the late games based on what happens in the early games. For example, if Detroit happens to top Dallas in the 1 p.m. game (absurd, but bear with me), then Philly wins the NFC East and cannot improve with a win in the later 4:00 game. How fast do you think the Eagles starters come out if the Cowboys loss is final at say 4:30? 4:30:01? How is a fella supposed to gamble in such an environment?

There are worse examples. Here is Green Bay's current playoff scenario according to ESPN.com, who presumably have the capital budget to afford the mainframes needed to track all this:

Green Bay can clinch a playoff berth with:

1. A win plus a NY Giants win + GB clinches strength of victory tiebreaker over NYG, or

2. A win plus a NY Giants loss or tie plus a St. Louis loss or tie, or

3. A win plus a NY Giants loss or tie plus a Carolina win, or

4. A win plus a NY Giants loss or tie plus an Atlanta win, or

5. A tie plus a NY Giants loss plus a St. Louis loss plus an Atlanta loss or tie plus a Carolina loss or tie

The Giants play the Redskins on the first game of the week on Saturday night. Green Bay plays Chicago in the last game of the week on Sunday night. Their fate could be sealed, unsealed, and resealed before kickoff.

The Giants should win. Even as dysfunctional as they have been they should beat the Redskins, right? The Pack should win also, practically speaking. The Bears have no reason to start anyone with any talent on defense, and they beat the Lions only via a late game turnover last week. So if they both win, we go to a "strength of victory" tie-breaker.

The strength of victory tie-breaker is the combined winning percentages of all the teams that each team has defeated this year. This, of course, won't be known until the week's games are over. But if it's close, how well off are the Packers for having a bonus victory against a hibernating Bears team with a top winning percentage versus a 5-10 Washington team? A brief description of the situation from Madison.com:

[T]he teams the Packers had beaten were a combined 33-72. The teams the Giants had beaten were a combined 46-59, giving New York an advantage of 13 games.

Given Chicago's NFC-best record, a Packers victory would help Green Bay's strength-of-victory chances immensely.

The Packers would then be rooting for the teams they beat to win their games (Detroit to beat Dallas, Minnesota to beat St. Louis, Miami to beat Indianapolis, Arizona to beat San Diego and San Francisco to beat Denver) and the teams that New York beat to lose (Dallas to lose to Detroit, Carolina to lose to New Orleans, Tampa Bay to lose to Seattle and Houston to lose to Cleveland).

How convoluted is that? I hope all the little ten-year-old cheeseheads have brushed up on their spreadsheet skills for this weekend. The whole thing just makes you yearn for the straightforward clarity of the BCS.

Tiebreakers bring to mind a word that begins with "cluster" and rhymes with fire-truck. You can rid yourself of tiebreakers through tournament-style, neutral-field play à la the NCAA tourney, but I can't imagine the NFL going for that, especially the neutral field part of it. Think of all those publicly financed stadiums losing out on playoff revenue.

And that still doesn't resolve the Week of Shame. If you're locked in before the regular season is over, there is still no incentive to play all-out in your throwaway games. The only thing that would do that was if your seeding was determined by quality of play rather than won-loss record and tie-breakers. It would require a measure that places value on every play of every game, regardless of outcome. One that takes into account opponent strength. One that is not influenced by popularity. One like DVOA.

Per DVOA, the top seeds in the AFC are the Chargers and Ravens. That rates a big fat "duh."

In the NFC, the Bears are still on top, although there has been a measurable slackening over the past three weeks (not just the trash time versus the Lions last week). Instead of the Saints at number two, DVOA puts the Eagles there. That's a tough call, but it is arguable that the Eagles have fewer holes than the Saints, who have an exploitable pass defense. It's not airtight, but it's not unreasonable either.

In fact, a quick scan of the latest DVOA ratings suggests a pretty high correlation between teams making the playoffs and those with high DVOA. The biggest anomaly is the Seahawks. DVOA marks Seattle as the 26th ranked team in the league; the 7th worst. How did they get a home game in wild card weekend? Location, location, location.

At the moment, the DVOA based playoff slate would be San Diego, Baltimore, New England, Jacksonville, Indy, and Cincy in the AFC. Chicago, Philly, New Orleans, Dallas, New York Giants, and Carolina in the NFC. That's not a bad line-up; most importantly there's no undeservings like Seattle. More importantly, everyone would have to be sure to play hard this week or risk losing their seeding.

OK, yes, I know. I would like the NFL to have a DVOA based objective so my DVOA based picks would be better. So sue me.

But what does DVOA say about the actual current playoff situation? Well, if you take DVOA as an accurate measure of the relative superiority of the teams, you can run a simulation of the upcoming week's games to see how things play out.

The Mike Harris Playoff Odds Report has done exactly that -- 50,000 times, in fact. The results indicate that the AFC wild cards are extremely likely to be the Broncos and Jets with Cincy as a dark horse possibility. Leaving the Jags, Titans and Chiefs with only a tiny fraction of outs.

In the NFC the Giants are strongly expected to stumble into the wild card spot that isn't taken by Philly or Dallas. And Philly is strongly favored to take the NFC East.

I've wandered far a field here and not surprisingly lurched into some stat geekery, but you expected that by now. The point is that the Week of Shame is ruled by emotion and circumstance not rational analysis. When winning games or even playing your best is not necessarily the goal, we need to be extra careful making picks.

But first, let's do the house cleaning.

Results
3-3 versus the spread. Another sub-mediocre performance. I have had one decent week against the spread this year. The rest of the time it has been grinding losses and sister kissings. For the year we are 27-32, giving a net loss of $820. Good riddance 2006, don't let the door hit ya.

I panicked last week when the formula kicked out 12 money line picks, putting my entire season of solid money line success on the table. Well guess who is whistling a happy tune now. 9-3! Sweet Fancy Moses! $2305 back from a $1200 layout gives an $1105 gain for the week and nearly doubles the annual profit to $2216.92. So sad to see you go 2006, please come back soon.

Other Notes

• In the likely instance that the Bengals don't make the post-season, they have the special torture of being able to point to one single moment that cost them their berth. No, it's not fair or accurate but there it is. When Brad St. Louis looks in the mirror, Bill Buckner is looking back. Worse still, that final drive for the touchdown was one of the finest I have ever seen. Carson Palmer must feel like a guy who is about to score with one of the hottest chicks ever, only to have some dweeb interrupt to say her Mom called and said she had to come home 'cause it's a school night.

• Speaking of the Bengals, they recently put former Iowa State defensive lineman Jason Berryman through an exploratory workout. Berryman sat out the 2004 season as he was serving 6 months in jail for theft and assault. The Bengals should be a perfect fit.

• Did the Bears sleep through the Lions game? Normally I'd say yes, but it turns out their performance fits a disturbing trend. From Aaron Schatz, DVOA Poobah:

The Bears had an above-average defensive DVOA in every single game until three weeks ago. Not only have they had below-average defense for three straight weeks, but each game is worse than the previous one.

Like I said last week, they are a very beatable top seed.

• Miami played Chet Lemon at QB in the second half Monday night (that's a joke for any old Detroiters) and will likely start him on Sunday. If he plays well, speculation is that either Harrington or Culpepper will need to update his resume.

• Tom Coughlin is a disaster. This guy is world renowned disciplinarian, whose team plays like a Madden team controlled by a spastic. It's been obvious for a while now that he is unclear on the difference between disciplined and draconian, and he usually gets it wrong. This contributes to the bad atmosphere and sniping on the team. But this business of replacing the offensive coordinator in Week 17 is beyond the pale.

There are two things to say about this. One, it smacks of desperation. He's bet his remaining bankroll on one spin of the wheel. If the Giants win he can go before the Giant higher-ups and plead for his job saying he figured out the problems and he's ready to win next year. Accorsi or Casserly or whoever happens to be GM, would be an idiot to buy that, but what does he have to lose?

Second, even in desperation he's still Tom Coughlin. He is going to let QB coach Kevin Gilbride -- The Man Who Ruined Eli -- call the plays. Brilliant. Look for the Giants to improve next year without him.

• I've developed a somewhat perverse fascination with how Matt Millen is going to screw up the first pick in the draft. Most everyone in the world will assume he'll take Brady Quinn. He shouldn't. He should take Joe Thomas. He needs O-line help more than QB help.

Even if he is smart enough to see that, he has to be careful. Ideally he could trade the first pick to someone who would take Quinn, but the Raiders pick second and while they certainly need a QB, they are equally desperate for O-line help. Maybe Al Davis' disembodied brain would pony up some quatloos for a sign and trade giving him a certain Brady Quinn and the Lions Joe Thomas and a later draft pick. That's a long shot though.

Another way to play it would be to trade the pick outright and hope you are still high enough to grab say, Justin Blalock and Troy Smith when they come around, but you better get something serious in return.

The smart thing to do is just pick Thomas and if you want to mess around, trade your second rounder for some lates. So figure that to not happen. After seeing a back up QB and a converted safety play wide receiver this season, how much do you want to bet Millen goes in that direction again and picks Dwayne Jarrett and he ends up being a Mike Williams clone. Mike Martz would head for greener pastures and Millen would probably get another contract extension.

Monday Night Football capsule review
Theismann said being short is a huge advantage for the ball carrier on a shovel pass. Earlier in the year, he claimed short pass receivers were better than tall ones. How much you wanna bet he spends a good deal of time watching midget wresting videos?

Having inflicted damage on the careers of everyone from Jim Belushi to Barack Obama, they apparently had to stoop to ordering one of their own employees, Steve Young, in as first half guest. Steve was presumably promised a couple of extra personal days and a better parking space in return. Of course, he promptly screwed the pooch by dissing Daunte Culpepper, claiming that he had been "missing meetings." Culpepper, who was in attendance, hunted him down and squared him away. Just another Monday Night Fiasco.

But all that was balanced by the fact that they were masochistic enough to bring back Jimmy Kimmel back at half time, who trounced them again. I will acknowledge that this final show of the year was the best. It must have taken Herculean effort, but the Stooges finally achieved inoffensiveness. Way to reach for that star, guys.

On to the last picks of the season. (*wipes a tear*)

Point Spread
In honor of the Week of Shame, we'll forgo our typical systematic search for poorly set spreads. Let's start with the games with potential for being thrown and then see what's left.

The betting public believes that Seattle is going to snooze their season finale. That would explain why 4-11 Tampa Bay is giving them 3 points. Well, when you combine the fact that Seattle is a lousy team, they have nothing to play for, and the game is in Tampa Bay, three points is not such a bad deal. Let's go with the public on this one. Pick: Bucs -3

Similarly, the Panthers are giving 3 points to the Saints in New Orleans. Normally that would be a ridiculous spread, but the Panthers are in the hunt and the Saints are set. In this case we have two other circumstances to consider. One is the ongoing sentimental pride of the Saints in their season. Set or not, I don't think they'll be keen on writing off a home game in front of their loving fans. The other thing is that if the Giants win on Saturday. The Panthers are drawing dead -- so much for their incentive. We'll buck the public on this one. Pick: Saints +3

The Pats are in Tennessee with no reason to play so again, despite their superiority, they are getting 3 points. The Titans are just barely breathing with respect to the post season, but they are also having a good time playing behind Vince Young. Who knows what we'll get from the Pats, another drop kick? Again, I'm going to go with the guys who have a reason to play. Pick: Titans -3

Lastly, Da Bears. Bucking the trend here, the Bears with nothing to play for are giving the Pack three. Makes no sense to me, in light of the spreads in the other shame games. As with Carolina, if the Giants win the Pack may be drawing dead (depending on how that strength of schedule thing works out). But you know what, even if they are, there is the potential for this to be a last chance to rally round His Royal Favreness. I'm going to take the points on the belief that the Bears will sleep and the Pack will be motivated for some reason. Pick: Packers +3

That takes care of the potential Games of Shame.

The Chiefs are giving 2.5 to the Jags in KC. Both these teams are alive provided they win and three other teams lose. If the good Jags show up, they should handle the Chiefs easily. Let's assume that if there was ever a reason for them to show up it's now. Pick: Jaguars +2.5

The Giants are giving 2.5 to the Skins in DC. You know, even though they will be without Michael Strahan and (possibly) Jeremy Shockey, I really can't see them losing this game. Maybe they can just ignore Coughlin and come up with their own game plan. Maybe Tiki won't be ready to let this to be his last game. It would make Sunday a lot more interesting if they lost, but I gotta figure they beat the sorry Redskins by at least a field goal. Pick: Giants -2.5

St. Louis has exactly a snowball's chance in hell of making the post season. They need everybody and their Auntie Emma to lose including, the Giants, which means there is the potential for them to be drawing dead. They are giving the eliminated Vikes 2.5 in Minnesota and the Vikes are the better team. Pick: Vikings +2.5

Lastly, because if I make and win eight spread picks I can redeem my season, I'm going to make a pick in the only game where both teams have been eliminated. Houston is giving 4 to the Browns down in Texas. The Texans are probably feeling a little more positive considering they just beat the Colts, whereas the Browns just dropped a groaner to the Bucs. Plus, I think the Browns are a bit more banged up. Pick: Texans -4

Money Line
Part of the beauty of betting the money line is that the bets are based on won-loss straight up. The gambler and the team he bets on have the same goal. That is not the case with the spread. But unfortunately, it is also not the case during the Week of Shame. Oh well, I reserve the right to asterisk these for posterities sake. See the recap for the picks.

Pick Recap

Point Spread
Buccaneers -3
Saints +3
Titans -3
Packers +3
Jaguars +2.5
Giants -2.5
Vikings +2.5
Texans -4

Money Line
Washington, $125
Pittsburgh $225
Jacksonville $120
Minnesota $130
New Orleans $125
Oakland $600
Seattle $170
New England $160
San Francisco $475
Chicago $68.97

And the bell rings for the final round. And with that I guess I'll see you next year.

(Don't ya hate people who do that?) Next week: season wrap-up and playoff preview.

David Mazzotta is author of the comic novels Apple Pie and Business as Usual.

BC Magazine's 2006 Athlete Of the Year: You

In one of the closest and highly contested votes in history, the online Blogcritics Magazine named you as 2006's Athlete of the Year.

Edging out Tiger Woods by mere votes, you were an integral part in helping the St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Heat, Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Hurricanes, Team Italy, Texas Longhorns, and Florida Gators to national championships by caring and cheering them on from preseason to the title game. You were also ever present in the stands when Roger Federer, Jimmie Johnson, and the aforementioned Tiger Woods won their championships.

Many editors left you off the ballot because you went all season without officially recording a touchdown, home run, rebound, birdie, TKO, sack, assist, shot-on-goal, save, pole position, ace, or bunt single. Yet those voters failed to recognize that you recorded many of these stats in your backyards, in the streets, in your dreams at night, and on countless hours of video games.

By the same token, many editors put you first on the ballot because you never held out for a contract, called out a teammate in public, refused to enter a game, became benched for poor sportsmanship, butted heads with the coach, hogged the ball, or took steroids. You did, however, yell at the refs an awful lot and talked trash to the opponent, but that's okay.

Other athletes who received honorable mentions:

Vince Young: After being slighted in the Heisman voting, Young upstaged shiny trophy holders Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart with 267 yards passing and 200 yards rushing, including a memorable 4th-and-goal scamper to score the winning touchdown. Our cunning sports editor, however, slept through the damn thing.

His paths with Bush crossed yet again in the NFL Draft. Young was drafted third -- one spot below Bush (but hey, seven above Leinart!) -- to the Tennessee Titans. Proving even more critics wrong, Young became the starting quarterback in Week 4 and beat teams like the Giants, Colts, and Jaguars, as well as helped the Titans win six straight games and remain in contention for a Wild Card spot in the final week of the season.

Dwyane Wade: The Miami Heat guard had a breakthrough season as he led the team to their first ever NBA championship. In the finals, he averaged over 34 points a game, much in part to everyone in the world fouling him, including several players sitting on the bench.

Roger Federer: His second Australian Open. His fourth Wimbledon. His third U.S. Open. That better friggin' count. Oh, and the one he didn't win -- the French Open -- he lost in the finals. Total hack.

Ryan Howard: In only his second season the Philadelphia Phillies' first baseman hit 58 homers -- a number you can blame on the steroid era as just being okay -- to snag the MVP award.

Zinedine Zidane: The French soccer star may have crippled his team in the waning minutes of the World Cup finals by gently placing the top of his skull in the ribs of Marco Materazzi, but come on -- that was one kickass headbutt.

LaDainian Tomlinson: To channel the spirit of Kenny Mayne, the San Diego Chargers' running back is "gonna get his name in the paper." Through 15 games LDT scored 31 touchdowns -- 28 of those on the ground -- and broke Shaun Alexander's one-year-old rushing touchdown record and Paul Hornung's 46-year scoring record, leaving Hornung with j ust one scoring record left intact.

Tiger Woods: The same year his father passed away, Woods won both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, coincidentally both at 18-under-par. Oh, and his video game? Pretty sweet stuff.

Shaun White, Ted Ligety, and Chad Hedrick: Wow, we had Olympic Games this year. Weird. It's sort of hard to remember when a lot of the athletes from Bode Miller to Lindsay Jacobellis ate it big time, but White, Ligety, and Hedrick more than made up for the slackers. And if the sports editor had it his way, he'd get an opportunity to mention Pete Fenson giving America its first curling medal.

Jerome Bettis: In a little known fact that slipped through the cracks of big media, the Steelers' running back grew up in Detroit, which also happened to be the ba ckdrop for Super Bowl XL. Funnier still, "XL" is the Roman numeral for "40" but it can also mean "extra-large," which is what Bettis is. Boy, the reporters really should have done something with that. Oh well. Hindsight.

Bettis and the Steelers topped the Seattle Seahawks 21-10, after which Bettis immediately retired. While not everyone agreed the Steelers were the year's best story, they all struck common ground when they said the officiating in the game was superb.

Barry Bonds: Ha! Just kidding.

The prestigious voting panel consisted of sports editor Matt Sussman and assistant to the sports editor Sal Marinello. No other editor voted, since not one could think of a single athlete's name.

We would have included you in the voting, but this was thrown together rather hastily, so to cover our collective ass we just gave the award to you.

Matt SussmanBeing sports editor of Blogcritics isn't Matt Sussman's main job -- nor is blogging at The Futon Report or writing a weekly column for the Toledo Free Press -- and it shows. Contact him at .

So You Want To Play The Ponies: The Horseplayer World Series - Preview, Part I

By now everyone has heard of the World Series of Poker. While it has been around since the early seventies, it exploded when Chris Moneymaker, with a $39 entry fee in a PokerStars online tournament, found himself champion in 2003 winning an astounding $2.5 million.

2005 marked the beginning of a new World Series event. The Horseplayer World Series! And January 18-20 marks the third annual Horseplayer World Series to be held at The Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas Nevada. This event, sponsored by Coast Casinos, should prove to be bigger and better than ever.

Unfortunately, the online qualifying events are over for this year and the only way that you will get in (assuming you haven't won the right already) is to pay the $1000 entry fee for the three day event.

In year one of the HWS, Michael Ray, a CPA from California who dabbled in handicapping at the local tracks after work, found himself winning it all. Like his career choice, handicapping was an analytical process. This process worked for him to a tune of $384,000.

In year two, 2006, it was Mark Clement from Buffalo, New York who took the top prize, beating out 734 other handicappers for a prize of $367,500. What was Mark's strategy? Get there early to acclimate to the time zone change; to get into the zone! He blocks out distractions that can interfere with his focus and always considers the human factor.

With the advent of sites like Daily Handicapping Contests and Public Handicapper the world of handicapping has grown enormously in 2006 and that should mean a larger turn out for the 2007 event.The Orleans Hotel & Casino is expecting as many as 1000 horseplayers from around the country, from around the globe to attend. The First place prize money is 50% of the total entry fee. With 1000 entries, that comes out to $500,000 dollars. Prize money is paid out to the top 30 places.

Who will it be this for 2007? Only time will tell, but I am going to use this series to inform and educate on the contests that will be available next year and perhaps you can be the Chris Monymaker of handicapping.

T. Michael Testi is the curator of the PhotographyToday.Net website, a photographer, writer, software developer and ardent fantasy football fan. He also blogs at PhotographyTodayNet and at All This and Everything Else

Will Florida Follow The German Plan?

Prior to the outbreak of World War II French military planners were convinced The Maginot Line, a long reinforced wall with heavy gun emplacements, would afford the military time to repel German invaders. The Germans knew about the formidable structure and simply went around it and in some cases, after gaining entrance to rear areas, allowed units to move through it.

Ohio State appears to be a formidable fortress and few outside of Gator country give the University of Florida much of a chance in the National Title game. The prevailing theory seems to be the Buckeyes are simply too strong. Football coaches comment that another big, strong powerful team like Michigan is one of only a few teams that could knock off the mighty Buckeyes. Perhaps.

Florida is loaded with speed and a young coach who certainly thinks outside of the box. Urban Meyer's methodology is questioned and his offensive scheme is puzzling to many who prefer a power game coupled with an air attack if necessary. This could be the deciding factor.

Ohio State's talent is three deep in many positions and they possess speed, but they are used to facing other teams playing a power game or pro-style offense. Florida possesses extraordinary speed at all positions and will simply run around your blocks of granite in much the same way the Germans skirted the Maginot Line. Their offensive style isn't something a month of practice against the scout team can prepare you for any degree of success.

If Florida comes out and withstands the early pressure of playing in the biggest game of the year, an upset is probable. It's been done before, and Meyer -- of German descent -- is cocky enough for his players to buy into what he's saying. Thus, my pick for the national title is Florida over The Ohio State University, 27 - 21

The Critic is a sports junkie, friend to the common man, and a practicioner of the ancient art of BS detection. He maintain his own blog at Critical Sports Blog.

Presented By

Revisiting St. Patrick Roy and "Le Trade"

1995 is a year of infamy for Montreal Canadiens fans. It was the year Patrick Roy was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. It was less the trade per se (if Wayne Gretzky could be traded then any athlete on the face of this earth can be traded) and more how he left town that left Montrealers with a feeling of being betrayed.

Roy will no doubt go down as one of the greatest goaltenders in the history of hockey. Some already claim -- with some justification -- he stands above everyone. He was ordained St. Patrick for his angelic playoff of performances where he would literally perform miracles.

However, on December 2, 1995 he acted anything but a saint in the eyes of many. Head coach Mario Tremblay elected to keep Patrick Roy in a game against the Detroit Red Wings after he allowed nine goals. The unwritten rule is that when your star goalie is having an off night you take him out. Sort of like what a manager does with a pitcher who does not have his stuff.

Whatever the motivations were that lead to Tremblay's decision, it's how Roy reacted that will stay with me as a sports fan. He was obviously and rightly upset. However, he let his ego get the better of him in full public view. He allowed his emotions to cloud his judgment. After finally being yanked, he walked past Tremblay behind the bench and straight to President Ronald Corey where he said this was his last game with Mario Tremblay as coach of the Canadiens.

A black night indeed. He was soon traded in what is known as "Le Trade." General Manager Rejean Houle was unfairly forced into it and it turned out to be a bad one for the Habs.

Roy was traded to the Avalanche. Instead of asking for Joe Sakic straight up, they threw in Captain Mike Keane along with #33 in exchange for Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky, and Andrei Kovalenko. Three players who never had a significant impact on the Habs let alone the league. It was a steal for the Avalanche who went on to win two Stanley Cups with Roy.

The Roy trade set the Canadiens organization back a few years. It was a deal that was triggered by Roy's impetuous outburst. Houle should have been more patient, but hindsight is always 20/20. The day they announced the trade I was listening to the radio with my brother before leaving for school. We could not believe it.

Roy remains unapologetic about that day. He felt justified. I think otherwise. Especially considering he wishes to one day return to the Montreal Canadiens family. The reality is that he alone was responsible for what happened that night. He could have kept his cool. Who knows? Maybe the Habs would have won two cups with him instead of the Avs. We'll never know. What we do know is that Roy ripped the hearts of many Canadiens fans.

He has to make amends with the fans first. Then perhaps we can consider his return. He lost his cool once before in front of a live audience -- what's to say he wouldn't do the same with important decisions within the Canadiens organization? Indeed, all evidence seems to indicate that Roy remains the supreme egoist he always was. While an effective coach, he has been involved in some scuffles in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The Canadiens organization for one reason or another has always earned the scorn of former players from Geofferion to Richard to Lafleur. In the case of Roy, it's hard to see, no matter how hard one tries, that he was right all along. I still feel the same now as I did then. The onus was on him to handle it better. It should have been done behind the scenes and away from the screens to be broadcast like a cheap opera. Everyone deserved better -- the fans, the Habs, and above all, Patrick Roy and his legacy.

Alessandro Nicolo - the hack with a knack - is a freelance writer and sedentary bon vivant living in Montreal.

New U. of Cincinnati Coach Part Of A Problem

When we look at leaders we rarely see one departing for other jobs or duties prior to completing the one in front of them, especially if the task involves leading others who look to said person as their leader. In college football it's all the rage and those who leave a school prior to a bowl game to coach the new school in its bowl game can never be counted on as trustworthy.

Brian Kelly is the new coach at Cincinnati and the former coach at Central Michigan. He was offered the Cincy job and departed like Paris Hilton at a MENSA meeting. Kelly left behind young men he helped to develop. In a telephone interview with ESPN during the Central Michigan bowl game Kelly said the CMU kids understood other opportunities were out there.

He's correct, but one wonders if a trio of his best players came to him two days before his big chance at bowl game glory and said, "Coach, we've found other opportunities that we'd like to pursue at Western Michigan. So we aren't playing in the bowl game but we wish you well."

How magnanimous would Coach Kelly be at that point? People comment, with no insignificant degree of ignorance, that it's just business. A fully acceptable explanation as long as the coach stays around to finish the season. Otherwise he's simply bailing out on kids he recruited. If he's a man of honor he'll come out and say that and state he has no regrets. He'll explain that his loyalty is to the next job available.

Coaches complain about athletes not being committed and misbehaving. Fans get in on it but rarely do we look at coaches with the same critical gaze. In effect we are holding 18-year-olds to higher standards than a 35- to 60-year-old coach. It's unfortunate and wrong.

Brian Kelly is punching his ticket and the next stop is the Bearcats. If I were a current team member or prospective recruit I'd think twice before playing for a man who seems to have forgotten that teamwork and integrity goes as much for coaches as fans.

The Critic is a sports junkie, friend to the common man, and a practicioner of the ancient art of BS detection. He maintain his own blog at Critical Sports Blog.