Saturday, August 2, 2014

NFL Divisional Preview: NFC West

It is almost August so you know what that means - NFL training camps are back in full swing and the Hall of Fame game is just around the corner as the official kickoff of the road back to the Super Bowl. With that said, we start our divisional previews with the home of the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the rest of the tough NFC West. This division is still the murderer's row of divisions with any of the teams here being legitimate threats to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Arizona Cardinals

I am still as high on the Arizona Cardinals this year as I was last. Arizona is ready to bust out, especially with Jonathan Cooper coming back from a season-ending injury last year and the addition of Jared Veldheer from Oakland to anchor the offensive line. The emergence of Andre Ellington at the running back spot really helped situate the Arizona offence as something not to be messed around with. The all-around explosive back should better in year two. All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald is still a premier pass catcher in this league. The growing capability of Michael Floyd to be Robin to Fitzgerald's Batman has taken this offence to new levels. Keep an eye on recent second-round pick tight end Troy Niklas out of Notre Dame. His pass catching capability and decent blocking skills should give quarterback Carson Palmer another weapon to add to this potentially potent offence.

This defence is still one of the best in the league, but still might might be the worst ranked defence in this division. That's a scary thought. Losing both middle linebackers this off-season, from one leaving in free agency to Darryl Washington being suspended potentially for a year for drug and assault charges, have left the cupboard a bit bare at the linebacker position, where last year it was the teams strength. Kevin Minter, last year's second round draft pick, will be relied upon to elevate his play. While losing their middle linebackers from last year, the Cardinals made a scary pick up by signing Antonio Cromartie away from the N.Y. Jets. Adding Cromartie to pair with All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson should have quarterbacks on opposing teams shaking in their boots as they both have ability to pick off a pass and take it to the house for six. The safety pair of Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon is also scary. Both have the ability to make big plays and are a very young duo that will grow over the course of this season. Arizona has probably the slimmest chance of any of making the playoffs of any team in this division as it stands right now. That’s not from lack of talent, but just a super tough division. Prediction: 8-8

San Francisco 49ers

Having been oh so close to championship glory the last two years, the 49ers show no signs of not repeating and making it back to at least the NFC Championship. The 49ers are one of the most talented teams in the league with an offence that got better this past off-season. Acquiring Stevie Johnson from the Buffalo Bills, drafting of Carlos Hyde and the return from injury of Marcus Lattimore will bolster that side of the ball. Trading for Johnson gives quarterback Colin Kaepernick another big body target — just in case he didn't have enough in the form of Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, and Vance McDonald. This passing attack should go as far as Kaepernick's arm and accuracy will take them. The 49ers have the weapons to be a top 5 passing attack in the league. The biggest change will look to be in the back field, where a changing of the guard appears to be happening, with Frank Gore getting older and drafting Hyde, Lattimore, and LaMichael James in the last three years. All three of those younger backs will eat into Gore's bell cow status that he has had since arriving in San Fran in 2005, which might actually be even more dangerous considering the level at which each back is capable. The offensive line is still one of — if not the — best line in football. So, whoever is in the backfield will have wide open spaces in which to run.

The San Fran defence is one of the better ones in the league, but still ranks No. 2 in my books when it comes to the division. The injury to NaVorro Bowman certainly hurts and takes away one of the league's premier middle linebackers for potentially the entire year, depending on how fast he bounces back from injury. The drafting of Chris Borland should help ease the hit at middle linebacker until Bowman gets back, and gives them incredible depth after he returns. The front three of Justin Smith, Glenn Dorsey, and Ray McDonald are solid. Smith is getting up there in years, so this might be the year his play starts to decline. The secondary is solid but not spectacular. Eric Reid should be the bright spot this year as the second-year player will have an opportunity to shine for this defence. Prediction: 11-5, battling for a Wild Card spot in the NFC.

Seattle Seahawks

The champs are here! The Seahawks have as good a chance as any team to make a repeat trip to the Super Bowl. Getting a full year out of star wide out Percy Harvin would be nice. Being very limited in playing time last year because of injury, if Harvin can stay healthy, he can be that explosive player that the Seahawks traded for last year to take the top of defences. The return of Marshawn Lynch from his hold out is huge news, this offence runs through him his presence makes this team the threat it is. The rest of Russell Wilson's supporting cast at wide out are playing above their potential right now and will be tested more with the departure of Golden Tate to Detroit. Look for second-round pick Paul Richardson to be the guy who steps up  for Wilson to get them back to Super Bowl. Zach Miller at tight end is an average tight end who does his job well, and the offensive line is young and talented. Russell Okung is not talked about enough for his solid play at left tackle.

The defending champs largely bring back their entire defence. The Legion of Boom's play last year was incredible and Richard Sherman is the face of it. The secondary of Seattle is the best in the league and the combination of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas at safety is the best in the league. Between Chancellor's hard hitting and Thomas' ball hawking capability, the sky is the limit for this group. The linebackers for the champs are underrated. Wagner and Wright are great coverage linebackers and are quick with great range. The extra pass rush capability of Bruce Irvin off the weak side makes this a formidable trio. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were great pick ups two off-seasons ago and anchor this line to bring the pressure against opposite quarterbacks. Both should pick up 10 sacks this year. Prediction: 12-4, deep run with a strong chance of repeating as Super Bowl champs

St. Louis Rams

This team is by far the biggest wild card in the division, and it all depends on the health and play of quarterback Sam Bradford. The Rams could sneak into the playoffs as the third team out of this division and could be just as dangerous as the Seahawks or 49ers. Bradford, first and foremost, has to be healthy for this team to do anything and has to return to form he showed as a rookie. If that happens, this team could go for division title. If not, they could easily be last place in this division. The wide receivers and tight ends for Bradford are some of the most explosive in the league. Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis, Brian Quick and especially Tavon Austin have the potential to blow the top of any defence when used correctly. Running back Zac Stacy was a surprise last year and should continue his success. Drafting Tre Mason out of Auburn should add an explosive, shifty back out of the backfield. Greg Robinson, the guard out of Auburn, should help anchor the left side of the line with Jake Long. Resigning Rodger Saffold to play right tackle should keep Bradford up-right.

This front four of the Rams' line absolutely terrifies me, and I am not even a quarterback. The addition of Aaron Donald to the already talented line of the Rams should keep quarterbacks up at night. Chris Long and Robert Quinn might be the most talented duo off the ends in the league. Quinn should have another 15 or more sack season, while Long should be in the 10 sack range. Even the defensive tackles can get around 8 sacks each. Michael Brockers and Donald will cause chaos up the middle of the offensive line. Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis are two great young talents who are playmakers at their position, can fly to the ball, and are solid against the run. The strong side linebacker position is a little bit weaker than elsewhere in the linebacking core. I expect Ray-Ray Armstong to come out strong in pre-season and take the job away from Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Losing Cortland Finnegan to Miami this off-season hurts this secondary, Janoris Jenkins will now be relied upon to be the shut down corner and Trumaine Johnson will be a solid across from him. The depth behind them is kind of shaky, but the pressure put on them by the front 4 on line should ease pressure on secondary. This team can either boom or bust as of right now. Prediction 7-9, but with the potential to compete in the division.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Monday, June 30, 2014

Money in the Bank 2014

We are in the month of June and that can only mean one thing (aside from the World Cup): it is time for the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. This year sees the traditional ladder match for the briefcase with the contract for a title shot any time within the next calendar year. Added to the established tradition, there will be another ladder match for the actual title. Who wins, who loses? It’s all about who can climb the ladder to success!

Pre-show: Daniel Bryan for the first time addresses the WWE Universe after being stripped of the WWE World Heavyweight Title

Daniel Bryan showed up to his interview with Michael Cole all smiles and without the neck brace he was last seen in. When asked about his possible return he did his own impression of Bad News Barrett stating he had some bad news: the possibility of a second neck surgery. That will certainly set back the recovery time and may have an impact on who wins the title later on, a title that still feels like his. His favourites to win the title match were John Cena, Randy Orton, or Roman Reigns, the result of a fan-submitted question. He then got interrupted by Bo Dallas of all people, told to “BO-lieve” and that injury is a “pain in the neck” (yes the puns continued) which then followed with Bryan telling him to “BO-leave”, ending the segment in a YES chant. It seemed to me that that spot for Bo Dallas hurt him more than it helped him, picking on a fan favourite for a legitimate injury.

Tag Team Title Match: The Usos vs. Rowan and Harper

The match started with the Usos getting beaten up right away, but didn’t last and overall, it was a pretty even match. I particularly liked Jimmy (or is it Jay?) doing his best Jeff Hardy impersonation by jumping off the crowd barricade and a corkscrew moonsault. This match saw several superkicks and high flying action and to me was a great match to start the event with. The entertainment factor of the match was enhanced by a double superplex by the Usos and a double Uso splash, allowing them to retain the titles. While it was not surprising that the Usos retained their titles, it was nice to see them pulling out extra moves to pull out the win. The fans deserved to see something new at the pay-per-view and they got it. I just wish Rowan would have hit the top rope splash that he was planning on doing.

Divas Championship Match: Paige vs. Naomi

This match started with the usual hair pulling that one has become accustomed to in a Divas match, but it didn’t take long for the real match to start. The match in general was pretty entertaining and I was most pleased to see Paige retain with what appears to be a brand new finisher. This match was a pretty good showing for Naomi who pulled out a couple moves I never would have thought she was talented enough to do. It’s nice to see someone in that locker room good enough for the Divas title (even if she didn’t win it right now) that isn’t Paige or A.J. Lee.

Adam Rose vs. Damien Sandow (dressed as Paul Revere)

This match was the next installment in Sandow’s costume of the week phase, and not surprisingly, his costume couldn’t help him win against Adam Rose who brought his entire entourage along with him. Also on that note, I know JBL hates that bunny, and I’m starting to agree with him. If Randy Orton brings back the Punt, I hope that bunny is the first target. Sandow was once again the laughing stock of the night, which for me is a huge waste of his talent. It’s easy to forget this is the man who won the World Heavyweight Championship Money in the Bank Ladder match the year before and that is a shame.

Traditional Money in the Bank Ladder Match: Seth Rollins vs. Rob Van Dam vs. Jack Swagger vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Kofi Kingston vs. Dean Ambrose

This first ladder match of the evening was of the traditional format, six superstars trying to grab a briefcase suspended over the ring with a contract for a WWE World Heavyweight Championship match anytime in the next calendar year. It was originally seven superstars, but Wade Barrett injured is right shoulder during the taping of Smackdown last week and could not compete tonight. That being said, the rest of the field put together a very entertaining match. RVD pulled out his usual arsenal of classic ladder match moves - five-star frog splashes (from the top of the ladder no less) and rolling thunder (onto a ladder) – and it went over huge with the crowd. These types of matches are supposed to be every man for himself and for the most part it was, until Kane surprised everyone by coming down to the ring to deliver the tombstone piledriver to Dean Ambrose as he was about to win the match, and then held the ladder in place while Seth Rollins ascended the ladder for the win. Despite being a superstar short (courtesy of Barrett’s injury), I thought this match was very entertaining throughout. It really felt like anyone (well anyone besides Kofi Kingston) could win, and honestly I am quite alright with Rollins winning the briefcase. And the Authority coming out to congratulate him afterwards was simply icing on the cake.

Rybaxel vs. the Dust Brothers (Goldust and Stardust)

This match (and Stardust) is a direct result of the extended losing streak the Rhodes brothers have been on for the past couple months. Cody Rhodes kept setting up different tag partners for Goldust to no avail, and thus Stardust was unveiled. The match itself had its usual entertainment value as all four of these competitors are good in-ring talents. Stardust would get the win for the team thanks to a roll-up pin (thus fulfilling WWE’s one-roll-up-pin-per-event rule that seems to be in place) and the fans seemed to love it. Personally I would rather have seen the Rhodes brothers against each other in place of this match, something I thought the extended losing streak was building to. It would seem that if Stardust doesn’t work out, that match will indeed happen sometime in the future.

Rusev vs. Big E.

This match was sort of billed unofficially as Russia vs. USA and it was the match I was most looking forward to outside of the two ladder matches. Despite suffering a huge spear from Big E. on the apron, Rusev would pull out the win thanks to his Accolade submission move. This match for me was the coming out part for Rusev as Big E. represented his first real challenge and Rusev excelled. Rusev proved he is a legitimate title contender and will be a champion someday.

Layla vs. Summer Rae (with Fandango as the Special Guest Referee)

This essentially boiled down to two women fighting for the affection of one man. Layla would win the match with a huge kick to the head of Summer Rae and end up with Fandango’s affections. Everything that the Divas title match did right earlier in the night, this match was a polar opposite by comparison. By this point it seemed like the crowd just wanted to see more ladders.

Money in the Bank Ladder Match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Sheamus vs. Bray Wyatt vs. Alberto Del Rio vs. Cesaro vs. John Cena vs. Randy Orton vs. Roman Reigns vs. Kane

For the first time ever, the Money in the Bank ladder match saw the Titles on the line instead of a traditional briefcase with a contract inside. As the match got going it became clear early on that Kane was once again to provide a supporting role and help Randy Orton win the belts, something he ultimately failed to do. John Cena would be the man to claim the title belts, despite being quite ineffective most of the match.  Even though this match had two more competitor than the earlier ladder match, this one felt way more conservative in the action. Sure there was some pretty innovative offense making use of the ladders, like Orton delivering his patented DDT to Seamus on the floor from a ladder bridged between the ring and announce table, but it felt like ladders were dismantled and thrown out of the ring as much as they were used as weapons (although Orton got a pretty bad laceration as a result of a ladder). I particularly liked Roman Reigns hitting everyone in the match with one of his three signature moves and he looked the most impressive of everyone in the match. Cena won his 15th major title in WWE, which I suspect will overshadow how well Reigns performed in that match, but it is a huge accomplishment nonetheless.

Overall Thoughts

Overall I thought that parts of the event were very entertaining and fun to watch and other parts left something to be desired.  The first two matches of the night were really the two best of the night that didn’t have a ladder added to the mix. I felt that with Cena in the title match, almost all unpredictability left the match because the only real people who were ever going to win were Cena or Orton. Roman Reigns would have made a great interim champion, but it appears his feud with Orton is what’s on the table for him in the near future. Add to that the entire Fandango segment that was essentially a filler match. All that said, it was an entertaining event for the most part and I’m interested in seeing when Seth Rollins cashes in his contract, but no doubt he’ll be calling himself Mr. Money in the Bank until he does.