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September 16, 2011

Week 2 NFL Picks

Last week, I went 9-6-1 in my picks which looks pretty good on the surface. However, I made a Facebook group with a few of my friends that is a very interesting microeconomy. Essentially, we post bets and respond to those of others with payment due via Paypal on Tuesday morning. On this group, I posted seven potential $10 bets for people to choose whether or not to accept. On these “conviction” bets, I went 1-6. Ultimately, four bets were taken–one by Asif–and on these I went 0-4. I therefore went 8-0-1 on the picks with which I had the least conviction. The lesson, as always, is that I actually have no idea what I’m talking about and you should never ever ever ever ever ever listen to my gambling advice.

Overall, though, it was a very good weekend of watching football with one glaring exception. During the first half of the Sunday 1pm games, DirecTV Sunday NFL Ticket was FROZEN. This means that at the bar I was at we were stuck with Bears-Falcons (which was OK for awhile) and Colts-Texans which sucked from almost the very beginning. I truly do know how lucky we are to be able to watch every football game on TV, especially ones from out of market. Until comparatively recently, we wouldn’t have been able to listen to these games on the radio. We would have had to READ about them the next day in the NEWSPAPER. That being said, we now live in a day and age where the technology exists to broadcast all of these games. DirecTV, having bid on an exclusive monopoly to do so, has a responsibility to make sure that IT WORKS WHEN THE GAMES COME ON. Semi-relatedly, I don’t understand why the local Chicago CBS affiliate must stay on Colts-Texans instead of switching to a more compelling game when the Texans are up 31-0. Nobody in Chicago wants to see this, ESPECIALLY Colts fans. If Ravens-Steelers was any closer, I don’t know if I would have been able to contain my rage.

As will be the case throughout the season, I am picking against my friend Asif who writes at Uninformed Commentary.

Previous Records:
Ryan: 9-6-1
Asif : 8-7-1 and $10 of Glasspiegel’s money

Chicago @ New Orleans (-7)

Ryan: As I wrote earlier this week, Jay Cutler appears to be in full-fledged Eff You mode. The Saints looked great on offense last week against the Packers but struggled mightily on defense. This deficiency could obviously be partly attributed it to the weapons of mass destruction that are the Packers offense but the ease with which Green Bay moved the ball up the field was substantial even when taking this into account. This line seems a little bit too high, especially if Urlacher plays for the Bears as is expected. Bears cover.

Asif: Sorry, but I’m not buying the Cutler renaissance, and here’s why. The Bear’s offensive line is terrible. Cutler was sacked four times and hit six times against Atlanta last Sunday. All this is a year after he was the most sacked QB in the NFL. The Saints lack a pass rusher on the order of John Abraham, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to bring the blitz so don’t expect Cutler to be upright too much. Sooner or later he’s going to fold. He is, after all, Jay Cutler. Saints cover.

Kansas City @ Detroit (-8.5)

Ryan: The Chiefs were abysmally bad last week versus the Bills and the Lions were exceedingly good last week versus the Buccaneers. To make matters worse for the Chiefs, they lost safety Eric Berry for the season. It is never good when a bad team loses one of its best players.

As much as I hate to pick a team coached by noted egomaniac Todd Haley, I think that this line is a little bit too high and that Detroit is susceptible to relinquishing a back door cover. I think Detroit wins but Chiefs cover.

Asif: Detroit is my NFC sleeper, although I guess they’re not really a sleeper because everyone expects them to outperform. Matthew Stafford looked like an all-pro last week, but I do think that Tampa might have been the most overrated team in football coming into the season.

Todd Haley might the worst coach in the NFL. He randomly shuttles his best offensive player (Jamaal Charles) to the bench in favor of an aging Thomas Jones and his play calling is general is abysmal. His stupidity is exacerbated by his inability to work with others, evidenced by his forcing Charlie Weis out of town and firing Chan Gailey. Gailey’s Bills of course, trounced Haley’s Chiefs last Sunday. This line seems a bit high, but I’m not convinced of the Chiefs ability to play defense at all so I’ll bite on Detroit to cover.

Jacksonville @ NY Jets (-9.5)

Ryan: For the first three quarters versus the Cowboys on Sunday night, the Jets did not look very good on either side of the ball. They had to have A LOT of random things go their way to win that game; they blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown and capitalized on two unforced Tony Romo errors–a fumble on the Jets one-yard line and a monumentally stupid interception. Even then, the Jets barely squeaked by with a 27-24 victory. The Cowboys are a lot better than the Jaguars but I just don’t see the Jets offense as being good enough to cover this spread. Jets win but Jaguars cover.

Asif: The Jets always seem to find some way to upset me. The Jaguars are about as interesting as the city of Jacksonville, which is to say that they’re not interesting at all. Fun story: I was in the Jacksonville airport once. It sucked. I’ll go with the Jags to cover mostly because I’m not much of a believer in Mark Sanchez. I would be very surprised if Jacksonville actually won the game.

Oakland @ Buffalo (-3)

Ryan: I never predict Oakland games right. When I think they will win, they lose. When I think they will lose, they win. Let this be your disclaimer that if you want to double your assets you should bet the house against whatever I decide in the next paragraph.

At least on offense, Buffalo is pretty good. I’m not necessarily on the “Ryan Fitzpatrick straight up wins football games” bandwagon quite yet but I’m on the “Ryan Fitzpatrick straight up wins football games against bad teams and covers the spread against good teams” bandwagon. Despite their win against Denver last week, I am still of the opinion that the Raiders are a bad football team. Last week when they wanted to give the game ball to Al Davis, the only thing I could think of is that the Raiders players are abundantly self-aware and recognize the extent to which they have been collectively drafted ahead of where they should have been and/or overpaid. Buffalo covers.

Asif: Oakland beat Denver. That and five dollars will get you a cup of ice cream. I’m jumping on the Bills bandwagon now. Although beating Kansas City is no great accomplishment, I like their offense. This line seems way too low to me, Buffalo covers.

Arizona @ Washington (-4)

Ryan: Week 2 is kind of difficult to pick against the spread because on one hand we have impressions going into the season but on the other we have seen real football which can alter those impressions to some extent. I am particularly grappling with how I feel about Washington; my preseason prediction for them was that they would quit on Mike Shanahan early in the season in the hopes of ridding themselves of such an oppressive dictator but then they came out and trounced the Giants last week. Was this a mirage? Are the Giants actually awful? How many times will they make Asif cry this season? There is no way to know yet. That’s why they play the games.

At home last week, the Cardinals were unable to convincingly beat a team starting a rookie quarterback. Granted, Cam Newton appeared very poised and collected but did the Cardinals and their lack of an NFL-caliber secondary enable him to be so? This game is tough because I still think the Redskins are going to be bad but the Cardinals might just be worse. With no conviction (and if last week is any indication, I will get this pick right), I say Cardinals cover.

Asif: The most overrated unit in all of football right now is the Redskins defense. Sure they looked great against the Giants last week, but here’s the dirty little secret: New York’s O-line is dogsh*t. The Redskins did nothing to get better on defense in the offseason so I’m not going to buy the line that they’re magically improved by Albert Haynesworth’s not being around.

Cam Newton put a scare in the Cardinals and I’m not sold on their defense. Going up against Sexy Rexy, it shouldn’t really matter if they’re actually good. The Kevin Kolb experience looked like a success last week with over 300 yds passing 2 TDs, 0 INT and a 130 passer rating. I still think that there will be some ups and downs, but having Larry Fitzgerald around will certainly help Kolb as the season wears on. I’ll take Arizona and the points.

Baltimore (-6) @ Tennessee

Ryan: Based on the facts that the Ravens destroyified the AFC Champion Steelers last week and that Tennessee couldn’t beat a team that had cut its starting quarterback earlier in the week to save money, this line seems at least 3-6 points too low. OR IS THAT JUST WHAT VEGAS WANTS US TO THINK? Last week, the Patriots covered in the “this line seems way too low” game and sportsbooks reportedly got crushed.

I think that the Titans struggle through a re-building year and we see Jake Locker starting around Week 8. Baltimore covers, perhaps twice.

Asif: Baltimore absolutely dismantled the Steelers last week. I watched a fair amount of the game and it was domination from the first quarter on. Baltimore definitely looks like an early Super Bowl favorite which means we’ll get to enjoy plenty of pictures of toothless Ravens fans throughout the season.

I have a soft spot for Matt Hasselbeck since we share an alma mater (Boston College); and he wasn’t terrible last week, so I don’t really see much wrong with starting him. I like Jake Locker a lot, but he was pretty raw in college so a year sitting behind Hasselbeck and learning a few tricks might be good for him. That said, there isn’t a whole lot to like about the Titans. Baltimore covers easily.

Seattle @ Pittsburgh (-14)

Ryan: Last Sunday, I ended up watching the second half of the 4pm games by myself. This wasn’t particularly weird as if there is something I really enjoy doing–and as you might guess by reading this far in this column, watching football is one of those–I won’t not do it just because I don’t have someone to do it with me. What was particularly weird, in an AWESOME way, was that there was a cute girl at the table next to mine doing the same to root for the Seahawks against the 49ers. Because I had mistakenly bet $10 on a team led by Tarvaris Jackson, I had the same rooting interest. My bet and her team lost in devastatingly painful fashion.

The Steelers looked dreadful last week so I am masochistic enough to pick T-Jack on the road again because this line is so high. I will put my picks column reputation on the line for it but I will NOT be betting money on it again this week. Seahawks cover.

Asif: Pittsburgh, or Sh*tsburgh as Sienna Miller calls it, looked terrible last week, but I think they’re too good of a team to put up consecutive stinkers (see what I did there with the pun? Get used to it, poop jokes are about all I’ve got). Seattle is not. This line still seems too high though. I’ll take Seattle to cover and I’ll probably regret it.

Green Bay (-9.5) @ Carolina

Ryan: The worst game in any sport that I have ever been to was Panthers @ Packers during Week 13 of the 2008 season. Lambeau Field was filled with Favre-loving, Thompson-hating malcontents as the Packers came back from a 21-10 deficit to make it 31-28 late in the 4th quarter. All I kept saying to anyone around me who would listen and many who had no desire to was to put two defensive backs on Steve Smith because I just KNEW from how the season had been going that he was going do something that supremely pissed me off. Sure enough, Jake Delhomme hit Smith on a bomb to the 1-yard line and DeAngelo Williams ran the ball in on what I think was the next play. In this instance, I was not happy to have been right.

As I briefly alluded to earlier, I am now calling the Packers offense the Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is almost unfair to the rest of the league to give the Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who won their last six games last season in methodical fashion, a healthy Jermichael Finley and speedy Randall Cobb. If ARodg stays healthy this season, the Packers are gonna score a lot of points. In related news, when it’s daytime and there aren’t any clouds, the sky is blue.

Cam Newton did look very good last week against Arizona but they don’t have any defensive backs as good as the Packers’ third best cornerback, Sam Shields. With a week of game tape on Newton coupled with his having had a limited chance to learn the playbook due to the shortened offseason, I think the Packers straight up dominate this game on both sides of the ball. Packers cover.

Asif: I’m not sure what to make of Cam Newton. Everything in my gut tells me he’s going to be a bust, but every time I bet against him (see: title game, BCS) I lose. So, here you go Cam, I’m going to admit that you actually might be good. The rest of your team however, leaves a bit to be desired. I could see Carolina making teams sweat or possibly pulling off a couple upsets as long as Newton plays well, because they have a solid running game. I don’t think that they’ll be able to keep up with a team as good as Green Bay, who are my NFC favorites. Packers Cover.

Tampa Bay @ Minnesota (-3)

Ryan: When you are watching four games at once with no sound, you miss subtleties that you would otherwise pick up like Donovan McNabb’s only having 39 passing yards. 39! That is a historically dreadful performance which was somewhat obscured on the final scoreboard because of a Percy Harvin return touchdown at the beginning of the game.

Tampa Bay also had a dismal performance last week versus Detroit that was slightly obscured by an Aqib Talib pick-six. They couldn’t get ANYTHING going on offense. Some of this can be attributed to what may end up being a beastly Lions defense but there should be some cause for concern for the 45 Bucs fans out there. Ok, that was mean, the Bucs have at least 75 fans. I am picking the Buccaneers to cover but will be extremely dismayed if this doesn’t happen in a game where LeGarrette Blount only gets five carries like last week.

Asif: Unlike Ryan, I did notice how terrible Donovan McNabb was last weekend. Mostly because my Eagle hating sense also applies to former Eagles and the stink coming from McNabb’s performance was too much to ignore. Strangely it smelt like Cocoa Puffs and week old mayonnaise. I don’t see this McNabb thing in Minny ending well, but at least the layer of blubber he’s put on should keep him warm during those cold Minnesota winters.

Tampa is the most overrated team in the NFC. They were lucky to play an easy schedule last year. I like Josh Freeman, but take a quick look at the rest of their roster. Any names jump out? Didn’t think so. Their best receiver is Kellen Winslow and he hasn’t been good in like five years. Aqib Talib is pretty good at football, but much better at shooting people. Minnesota to cover.

Cleveland (-2.5) @ Indianapolis

Ryan: Last week, at an indie coffee shop, I ordered a small coffee which came out to be $2.04. At first, I pulled out my credit card to try to pay. I STRONGLY prefer to pay via credit card because it means I have a paper trail of where in the world all my money has gone. Also, I know this runs counter to common consumer spending habits but I spend much less money when I don’t have any cash. Finally, going to the ATM is an arduous chore and the less often I spend cash the less often I have to do so. Of course, the barista made me pay cash, which I actually DID have at the time. I pulled out two dollars and asked if that would be enough and she INSISTED that I break another dollar. Why aren’t establishments more lenient in situations like this? It’s four cents and my inconvenience of having to now carry around 96 cents in my pocket that I will NEVER use except for maybe on laundry would strongly outweigh theirs of being four cents short. If this happened to the store 100 times in a week and they gave in to the customers on all of them it would add up to four dollars. That’s NOTHING. I left the transaction feeling gravely injusticed.

Considering I used my CBS/Colts rant in the opening, I don’t have too much to add in the way of analysis for this game. Whereas last season Kerry Collins was merely a statue, last week he looked like one of the rancidly decaying variety. This game should be blacked out nationally. Browns cover.

Asif: In my recap of last week’s games, I wrote this:

“There’s a lesson to be learned here. No matter what the line is and no matter who the opponent is, when you’re predicting a game involving the Browns and Cleveland is favored, just take the points. Trust me, you’ll never be disappointed.”

At the risk of sounding like Bill Simmons, I’m going to amend that to add, “Unless that opponent is the 2011 Colts.” Without Peyton Manning, the Colts are terrible. The Texans could have dug up Johnny Unitas’s corpse and they would have beat Indy by two touchdowns. Seriously, Arian Foster didn’t play, Matt Schaub tossed two picks and Houston still won by four touchdowns. If the Colts somehow win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, though, I might consider giving up on football entirely. Browns Cover.

Dallas (-3) @ San Fransisco

Ryan: As I mentioned in the Jets passage, anything that plausibly could have gone wrong did for the Cowboys last week. San Francisco had a lot of luck in blowing out the Seahawks. In a game that it looked like the Seahawks would cover, Ted Ginn had two return touchdowns in about 10 seconds to make it look like a blowout victory. With conviction (this means you should STRONGLY consider betting the other way), Dallas covers.

Asif: Tony Romo is the best crappy quarterback in the NFL. He looks great on paper, has every tool you’d want in a quarterback, puts up great fantasy stats and somehow manages to always kill his own team in the clutch. I hate the Cowboys so I’m not complaining about any of this, just pointing it out. I wish I could find a bottle of the tears Cowboys fans shed after that last interception. San Fransisco is not good. Cowboys cover.

Houston (-3) @ Miami

Ryan: The Texans looked really, really good last week and this was not just because they were playing the suddenly hapless, Manning-less Colts. They were dominant on both sides of the ball. Everything we read about Mario Williams struggling with his new role in Wade Philips’s defense seemed to go away immediately as he had two sacks and a forced fumble.

The Dolphins had a decent game on the offensive side of the ball, especially considering Reggie Bush’s known deficiencies as a conventional running back, versus New England but struggled mightily on defense as it seemed like the Patriots could gain 40 yards on any play they felt like it. I’m riding with Houston to cover.

Asif: If the Texans don’t win the AFC South they should be contracted. So much for Vontae Davis and Sean Smith being the best corner tandem in the NFL. I think Chad Henne might be slightly better than he’s given credit for. He’s certainly no worse than Mark Sanchez, who manages to escape the same rap due to his superior supporting cast. Still, I think that Houston is simply the better team in this match-up. Texans cover.

San Diego @ New England (-7)

Ryan: As I mentioned earlier, Donovan McNabb only had 39 passing yards last week versus San Diego. The Chargers also held Adrian Peterson to under 100 yards but somehow only beat the Vikings by a touchdown. You would have to imagine that at some they would figure out a way to stop giving up return touchdowns. Considering, though, that New England gave up 488 yards of total offense to the Dolphins last week, I am expecting the Chargers to put up some major points this week.

Having two absolutely beastly tight ends, the Patriots may well represent the prototype for where offense in the NFL is going. Individually, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are almost impossible to cover–they are too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. When they are on the field together, it goes from being a match-up nightmare to waking up covered in blood. That being said, I don’t see the Patriots putting up another 600 yards of offense this week. I think they win this game out but the Chargers cover, either in a close game or via the dreaded backdoor.

Asif: New England is frustratingly good, but they do have a fundamental flaw–their secondary. Devin McCourty had a great rookie year but I worry about their ability to cover second and third receivers. Chad freakin’ Henne passed for 416 yards against the Pats on Monday night. This would be a weakness that the Chargers could exploit, if they were coached by someone not named Norv Turner. Patriots Cover.

Cincinnati @ Denver (-4)

Ryan: This line completely hinges on whether Andy Dalton or Bruce Gradkowski starts for the Bengals. I never thought that Bruce Gradkowski would ever swing my decision to bet in favor of the team he was starting for as opposed to against it but, well, here we are.

Denver was another of the four teams that I bet on last week and as soon as I saw one offensive series I immediately regretted doing so. They could get absolutely nothing from the run and when you are relying on Kyle Orton to singlehandedly beat the opposing defense you are likely going to come away disappointed. Because it looks like Dalton is going to start, I am picking the Broncos to cover. From a monetary perspective, though, I am staying the F away from this game. Like Browns-Colts, it should just be blacked out nationally and we should have to read about it the next day in the newspaper in box score form.

Asif: Some Denver fans bought a billboard trying to get John Fox to start Tim Tebow. Man are they going to be disappointed if and when he actually does start. For Fox, the whole Tebow situation has to be like dating a girl whose ex gave her herpes. You like your new girlfriend, but you just can’t get rid of the disease. It goes away for a while, you push it back out of your mind (to the bench), but it never goes away and always bothers you. And yes, this is probably the only NFL picks column that will compare Tim Tebow to a venerial disease. Personally, I think Fox should just troll everyone and start Brady Quinn.

As crazy as this sounds, I think that people are sleeping on the Bengals. Their QB situation is a mess, but their defense is basically the same as it was two years ago when they won the NFC North. Their receiving corps might actually be improved as I’d take AJ Green over the 2010 versions of Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Jordan Shipley is definitely a serviceable second receiver as well. I’ll take Cincy and the points.

Philadelphia (-2.5) @ Atlanta

Ryan: I am torn on this game because the Eagles looked great last week and the Falcons looked horrible but went 7-1 at home in the regular season last year (to make that stat look more impressive I conveniently ignored their playoff shellacking at the hands of the Packers…shhhh). This looks like one of those games where Vegas is daring you to take the Eagles. I really can’t get into this game where I take the choice that is obviously wrong because I think that is what Vegas doesn’t want me to do, though. If I do, I’ll end up I’ll end up like the guy in the Princess Bride battle of wits. I’ll take Philly to cover.

Asif: The Eagles are the best NFC team that doesn’t play in Wisconsin. The Falcons are good, but I think last week exposed some of their weaknesses, namely the offensive line. For all his other great attributes, Matt Ryan isn’t the most mobile quarterback. Philly is known for putting on the heat and they have the corners to effectively cover Roddy White and Julio Jones. The Falcons are good in coverage, but I think they might have trouble containing Mike Vick when he scrambles. Give me Philly to cover and excuse me while I go punch a wall repeatedly.

Monday Night

St. Louis @ NY Giants (-5.5)

Ryan: While the Rams were pretty bad last week, at least it was against an Eagles squad that is projected to be one of the best in the league. The Giants were brutally bad last week versus the Rex-Skins. With injuries and just simply tiring of what Tom Coughlin brings to the table, this season may just end up being a lost cause for the Giants. Sorry, I’m not sorry, Asif. Rams cover.

Asif: To answer Ryan’s earlier question I predict the Giants will make me cry about six times this season. After that I will die on the inside and just accept defeat after defeat. They should get a boost from the return of Justin Tuck, but the pass rush wasn’t their problem last Sunday. There just isn’t a ton to like about the Rams, especially if Sam Bradford plays like he did last week. As apprehensive as I am, I’ll take NY to cover.


September 13, 2011

Cutler’s Quest for Redemption

The Bears entered this season with expectations that were a little bit low considering that last season they went 11-5, won the NFC North and made the NFC Championship game without losing any irreplaceable players this offseason. According to Grantland’s football statistician Bill Barnwell, the Bears were beneficiaries of an immense amount of luck last season. Barnwell pointed out that “Football Outsiders estimated that the Bears would have won just 8.2 games against an average schedule with average luck.” Vegas odds had the Bears at +836 to win the NFC North this season which means that $100.00 bet on this result would return the original bet plus $836.00.

As we are all well aware, Jay Cutler has been especially maligned. Fans and media had always taken issue with Cutler’s body language and decision-making but in the wake of the Bears’ loss to the Packers his toughness was questioned. The extent of Cutler bashing reached epic proportions on a national level as fans, media and even other players lined up to take their shots. The message was resoundingly clear: Jay Cutler is a pussy who is ill-equipped to lead a professional football team.

Whether this disparagement was appropriate or undeserved, it clearly motivated Cutler in a manner that past criticism and getting traded by the team that drafted him did not. Throughout training camp and the preseason we heard that Cutler was in superb shape and dialed in. However, we have heard this so many times about so many players that we are understandably wary about believing the hype before the real games start. From the opening snap, though, it was obvious that Cutler had a chip on his shoulder and that his physical and emotional fire was permeating through to the rest of the Bears on both sides of the ball.

While being careful not to draw conclusions too strongly from a one game sample size, there was a lot to be optimistic about for Bears fans. The Bears beat a Falcons squad that went 13-3 last season and was picked by many experts to be strong contenders again this year. The Bears defense was stalwart, giving up no touchdowns and just two field goals until the game was out of hand. With Julius Peppers, Amobi Okoye, Israel Idonije, and Henry Melton, they have one of the best defensive lines in the league. The seemingly ageless Brian Urlacher was everywhere with 10 tackles, an interception and the aforemtentioned fumble recovery.

On offense, Matt Forte looked like one of the best running backs in the league, rushing 16 times for 68 yards and catching five balls for 90 yards and a touchdown. Jay Cutler played an unbelievable game, completing 22 of his 32 passes for 312 yards, two touchdowns and one interception (on a tipped ball). The lone sore spot was familiarly the offensive line, which despite adding tackle Gabe Carimi in the first round of the draft, gave up four sacks. Somehow, the Bears need to better their protection or at some point Cutler won’t get back up.

As mentioned before, Cutler had a fiery focus that we really have not seen before from him. While it is fascinating that he could be so motivated by spite–so much more so than from the intrinsic value of fulfilling his potential–this is human nature. Anybody who has ever been slighted personally or professionally (read: all of us) can empathize with the hellbent determination Cutler seems to now have with proving the doubters wrong. ESPN’s Bill Simmons calls this the “Nobody Believed in Us” Theory.

In addition to the national criticism that Cutler faced, he also went through a very public break-up with actress reality TV “star” Kristen Cavillari, during the course of which he was allegedly emotionally abused. While this gives Cutler a second reason to perform out of spite, it is very curious that Cavillari would supposedly be an abuser in this relationship. I would venture to say that the 32 starting NFL quarterback positions are among the 100 most sought after jobs for males in America. Within those 32, Cutler is slightly above average. He has worked hard–real hard–to get to where he is. Cavillari, meanwhile, doesn’t do and hasn’t done anything. She is famous for being stupid, self-unaware and famous. On a purely superficial level–one that is more than fair to evaluate her on–shouldn’t she have considered herself blessed to be engaged to someone with such considerably higher achievements?

Sometimes, “Nobody Believed in Us” is synthesized; this past week Aaron Rodgers tore into those in the media who were critical of his not organizing player workouts in the offseason. In reality, there were very few who didn’t believe in Rodgers and the Packers this season but they seized on the words of anyone who didn’t and used it for extra motivation to beat the Saints on Thursday. With Cutler, though, it is very real and has the chance to be fantastic for the Bears’ fortunes.

In the next two weeks, the Bears will face challenges on the road against the Saints and at Soldier Field versus the Packers that should be a pretty good litmus test of where they are as a football team. If they emerge from this stretch 2-1 and Cutler continues to productively harness the chip on his shoulder throughout the season, the Bears should be in pretty good shape to defy preseason expectations and at the very least contend for the playoffs.


September 12, 2011

Football and Me Part II

This is the second post in a series in which I will document this football season. It will broadly be about the Badgers and Packers but will more specifically be about myself in it. Football season does not just happen on the field. It is about great friends, foods, drinks, and merriment. My hope is that it will be interesting for readers but at the very least it will serve as a journal to look back on. I wish I had done this last year.

All last week, I was on pins and needles. The Badgers had played UNLV and, especially on offense, were dominant in doing so but this was just an appetizer for the sacred cow main course that is the NFL and my beloved Green Bay Packers. During the course of the offseason, almost every time I found myself facing internal or external battles, I could make myself in at least a slightly better mood by thinking, “THE PACKERS WON THE SUPER BOWL!” in my head. Over and over and over again. More than occasionally, this merry sentiment would slip out into conversation, Facebook and Twitter.

As much as I love the Wisconsin Badgers and going to their games, my love for the Packers is far deeper. I have been a Badgers fan since I was 18 but a Packers fan since I was about 12 (before that there was a dark period in my life where I rooted for the Cowboys. I don’t know how or why my dad would let such a terrible thing like that happen but those are dark days that are not discussed with my family). I LOVE the NFL and I LOVE the Packers to a maniacal extent and could not contain my anxiety or excitement for the Super Bowl defense to begin.

I spoke at length about Will’s last week and, as dynamic as it is for Badgers games, it is an electric atmosphere when the Packers play. It gets packed (pun intended) shoulder-to-shoulder inside and out with Chicago residents who fervently bleed green and gold. In my illustrious sports watching career, I have never been in an environment outside of an arena or stadium that comes even close to comparing to that of Will’s during Packers games.

I had been planning on going to Will’s with my Uncle Johnny, Granny and their caretaker. I go to Will’s enough that I have the ability to reserve a table but feel guilty doing so and therefore generally try to get there early enough to nab one. This time was different, though, and I was stunned to see at 5:00, 2.5 hours before kick-off, that there was not one to be had. We decided instead to grab dinner at Big Star in Wicker Park. It was my first time eating at Big Star after hearing about it constantly and seeing it extremely crowded every time I ventured past and the meal did not disappoint. We got queso fundido for the table and I ordered a taco al pastor and a taco de panza. All three were stunningly delicious and I will write an in depth review accompanied by pictoral food porn for The Unvegan later this week.

I got dropped back off at Will’s at about 6:45 and it was a good thing I didn’t get back much later as it got filled to capacity around 7:00 and they stopped letting people in. To give you a mental image of how many Packers fans this means were there, Will’s has three rooms inside and an expansive patio that were all filled shoulder-to-shoulder. It isn’t always that full but it is usually close and the season opener was obviously a special occasion.

I was joined at Will’s by my friend Habib. If you recall from last week, I am giving my friends fake names so as to not jeopardize their careers in any way when this s— gets real. This pseudonym comes from our Iowa trip last year when a racially intolerant, sore loser on the sidewalk took exception to his happiness after the Badgers won. Although it was a blatantly offensive incident, we choose to use the nickname for irony and humor now. Habib is one of my best friends in the world and we love to partake in excessive quantities of football and food together. He will be a recurring character in this journal. My friends Bill, Stuart, and Rafael (once again, names are fake) were also in attendance in all their splendor. Bill grew up a Vikings fan but has converted from the dark side to become a Packers aficionado largely because of how awesome it is to watch games at Will’s. There was also a cute girl whose number I got last season but didn’t call because the timing coincided with the start of a since-ended relationship; I was honest about the circumstances and am graciously being given a second chance.

If you are still awake 700 words in, the game FINALLY kicked off. Aaron Rodgers, who has stunningly beautiful eyes, moved the Packers offense up the field methodically, culminating in a back shoulder touchdown strike to Greg Jennings. On the ensuing Saints possession, the Packers defense forced a fumble and Aaron Rodgers threw another dart touchdown pass, this time to Jordy Nelson. After a Saints touchdown, Rodgers connected with a long pass and run to my new man crush Randall Cobb. By the end of the first quarter Rodgers had completed 14 of his 15 passes (the one glaring incompletion was a throw-away) for 188 yards and three touchdowns. I’m no advanced statistician but I am pretty sure that is kind of good.

This night was especially unique because we were watching outside in the rain. For whatever reason, a lot of people have a strange aversion to rain. I have never understood this; when it isn’t cold, rain is refreshing. To the best of my knowledge, the Wicked Witch of the West was a fictional character and most people don’t melt. I would much rather that it be raining outside and warm out than not raining and cold but at the first sight of rain the percentage of awesome people in the crowd outside went up substantially as the people who were scared of getting wet headed inside. We collectively danced triumphantly all six times Bang on the Drums by Todd Rundgren blared over the soundsystem after Packers touchdowns and were euphoric at the 42-34 final score that was just a little bit too close for comfort at the end.

On Saturday morning, I went back to Will’s for the Badgers game versus Oregon State. It was a transcendently beautiful September day in Chicago and I was joined by my friend Ronald and later Habib, who was fresh off taking the GREs earlier in the morning. I ran into an old friend from studying abroad in London and generally had a great time basking in the sun, paying little attention to what ended up being a 35-0 destroyification.* Russell Wilson was incredible again but it is difficult to get a real bearing on where the Badgers stand nationally until they play Nebraska at the end of the month.

*Once again, not a real word but should be

Habib and I ended up grabbing Al’s Beef for lunch (it was delicious but we both paid the price later; we knew that would be the case going in though and regret nothing) and then headed to the Alabama bar in Wrigleyville, Houndstooth Saloon, to watch a little bit of Alabama-Penn State if for no other reason than to take in the game in the company of people who had a vested interest in the outcome. Once it became clear that Penn State was and would be outmatched, we headed off to catch the end of Federer-Djokovic and ultimately went home. Overall, it was a great week of football; the Packers and Badgers both went 1-0 and I am very excited for Badger Nation to descend on Chicago this coming weekend as Wisconsin plays Northern Illinois at Soldier Field. Heeeeeere we goooooooo!



September 9, 2011

NFL Week 1 Picks

The appearance of this is awful and no matter how many times I try to correct the spacing in WordPress it goes back to being brutal. I think I am going to have to start splitting these posts up going forward or learn some HTML. 

As we previewed yesterday, my friend Asif and I will be picking the lines each week. We are both 1-0 so far – TAKE THAT VEGAS WE ARE UNDEFEATED. However, as many of our picks differ only I will be undefeated after this week. Sorry, Asif. Asif, by the way, writes the blog Uninformed Commentary. Did anyone happen to catch how amazing the Packers offense looked yesterday? I feel like it almost isn’t fair for the league to add a healthy Jermichael Finley and lightning fast Randall Cobb to that juggernaut. From here on out, I am going to refer to the Packers offense as the weapons of mass destruction. FOOTBALL IS BACK BABY!

The Super Bowl is forever away so let’s savor this while we’ve got it because we all know how trying the deep, dark offseason can be. On to the rest of the picks:
Atlanta (-3) @ Chicago
Ryan: I think that going into this season, Atlanta is a little overrated and the Bears are a little bit underrated. People forget that the Bears went 11-5 and won the NFC North last year. I think Cutler comes out this season with a chip on his shoulder and the Bears find a way to win this game in their patented ugly fashion. Bears to cover.
Asif: Jay Cutler was emotionally abused by Kristin Cavallari. This doesn’t have any relevance to the game, I just like pointing out that Cutler is a huge, sulky faced wuss. He’ll probably beg out of this game with an injury in the second quarter. Atlanta has a great offense and the defense should be at least marginally improved. Falcons to cover.
Cincinnati @ Cleveland (-6.5)
Ryan: The Bengals are going to be really bad this season. That should come as little surprise because the Bengals are really bad almost every season but it must be said. Andy Dalton may well end up being a decent starting quarterback in this league but right now, with a limited training camp, no real weapons at receiver and in that dysfunctional organization, he has little chance at success.The Browns have been one of those good bad teams for a few years and I think they make a slight leap to better good bad team this year. Colt McCoy looks like he is going to be a viable NFL starter but these things take time. I think the Browns come out and stomp the Bengals though. Browns Cover.
Asif: Yuck. The Cleveland Browns are the most aptly named team in sports. That’s a poop joke, get it? Another little known fact, the Bengals don’t start quarterbacks who aren’t gingers. Peter King’s sources say this is the reason they never win the Super Bowl. This line is way too high. I’ll take the Bengals and the points.Buffalo @ Kansas City (-5.5)

Ryan: In Part II of his massively long but quite informative 4-part NFL Preview on Grantland, Bill Barnwell pointed something out that defied logic to the extent that it was beyond shocking:

Despite Jamaal Charles’ grossly outplaying Thomas Jones in every situation imaginable, Jones still got 15 more carries than Charles did during the regular season. It makes sense to give Charles regular rest, but there’s no possible explanation for giving Jones more carries than Charles. A 70/30 split between Charles and Jones would make sense. An 80/20 split would be even better. Fifty-fifty is absurd.

Those are the type of things that cause ulcers when the injusticed player in question is on your fantasy team but otherwise go unnoticed. I don’t know whether to blame Charlie Weis or Todd Haley but the only legitimate reason I can think of for this phenomenon is that it was a conspiracy against fantasy football players that went all the way to the top.I think this line is a little bit too high.The Bills are another one of those good bad teams. They will compete in most games but find new and excruciating to lose games they deserve to win. Bills Cover.
Asif: The Bills suck, probably because they’re so cheap that they cut or trade away such luminaries as Trent Edwards and Marshwan Lynch, says Gregg Easterbrook. Personally, I blame the collapse of the American Steel Industry. Kansas City has good BBQ and they let you smoke in bars, that’s all I know or care to know about it as a location. Chiefs to cover.
Philadelphia (-5) @ St. Louis
Ryan: You know how at this point stats exist for every obscure corner of what happens on the field in sports? Since we have saturated this market is there any way we could start getting stats for players and coaches about what happens off the field? For example, I am deeply interested in Andy Reid’s season and career Big Mac (or Big Mac near equivalent like the Whopper or Double Quarterpounder with Cheese or one of those Baconalia burgers at Denny’s) totals. I would set the 2011 over/under at 450. How does Reid stack up in this department to other greats like Rex Ryan or Romeo Crennel? We need more advanced statistics on things like this if we are going to properly evaluate legacies. Also, Eagles cover.
Asif: I hate the Eagles. I hate their players, their fans, their city, I hate their uniforms. I hate the Eagles so much that I automatically dislike other sports teams from Philadelphia (suck it Phillies). I hope they make it to the Super Bowl just to lose in the most soul-crushing way possible so that their fans can feel a tiny piece of the anger and animosity I feel every time I see the Eagles on TV. The Eagles probably one of the two best teams in the NFC (the Packers being the other), but there’s no law against me rooting for Michael Vick to break his dog-murdering leg. St. Louis is the least interesting team in the conference. Philly covers, easily.
Detroit @ Tampa Bay (-1.5)

Ryan: I may or may not have written this before but why is it not generally accepted that Ndamukong Suh’s nickname is Donkey Kong? This situation is so glaring that it should be one of those circumstances where the nickname effectively becomes the name. Suh IS Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong IS Suh. I don’t have a firm grasp on this game but I think Tampa Bay covers.

Asif: I don’t care about this game, I just want to see Ndamukong Suh take someone’s head off. Between Suh and Nick Fairley, the Lions defensive line should lead the league in unnecessarily violent QB sacks. Tampa Bay is only slightly more interesting than St. Louis. Fact: nobody will watch this game. I’m going with Detroit.

Tennessee @ Jacksonville (-3)

Ryan: If the goal of an organization is for its players to quit on its coach, waste a season, and garner a high draft pick, I think the Jaguars made the absolute right decision by cutting David Garrard when they did. This isn’t to say that he is much better than Luke McCown but the timing of the whole situation was very curious.

I don’t understand what the point of the Hasselbeck signing was for Tennessee. If I was running that organization, this would have been the season to take the medicine for re-building. I may have explored trading Chris Johnson, starting Jake Locker right away, and set about on a 3-5 year re-building plan with a new nucleus. Much easier said than done though because fans rarely tolerate overt re-building. I just don’t see what the point is in winning six games instead of two. Tennessee wins outright and therefore covers.

Asif: Luke McCown is the Jaguars’ starter. Jack Del Rio is so getting fired this year. Chris Johnson is awesome, too bad the Titans have absolutely nothing else on offense. Cortland Finnegan is an angry leprechaun. Fact: no one will watch this game either. I’ll take Tennessee and the points.

Pittsburgh @ Baltimore (-2.5)

Ryan: This is a great game and an absolute treat to get in the Sunday noon slot as stressfree football since the Packers already took care of business. The dilemma for where I watch football this Sunday is as follows: Joe’s on Weed Street has the best vantage point in Chicago for seeing all of the games. It has decent drink specials. The problem is that its food is absolute garbage. It is also kind of far away. A bar in sort of my neighborhood, Schoolyard Tavern, has one seating area where you can see six screens (including a rectangle wall of four together which is awesome) but sometimes one or two of them overlap (fact: I would be much better at NFL Sunday TV distribution than any bar manager I have come across in my illustrious football watching career). Its TVs are HD but nothing spectacular. It has very good bar food but the drink specials aren’t really specials ($5.00 for a 16 oz Miller Lite is arguably worse than a normal). Both bars have cute waitresses. These obviously aren’t the only two choices in the city but I’ve talked myself into this being an A or B situation. I think I’m going to go with Schoolyard because of the food but am open to being talked into a better bar.

I really don’t have a read on this game so I’m going to take the points. Steelers cover.

Asif: The two dirtiest teams with the most annoying fan bases in the NFL, except the Steelers get celebrated because the Rooney’s are classy or something. Well everyone is on to your games now Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger is still a creep (just a married one), Rashard Mendenhall likes bin Laden and James Harrison… actually I’m not going to say anything bad about James Harrison because I fear he might find and murder me:

As for Baltimore, Ray Lewis should be in jail and well it’s Baltimore so I don’t really need to pile on. I’ll take the Ravens to cover.
Indianapolis @ Houston (-8.5)
Ryan: All five of my regular readers are aware that I wrote a Peyton Manning column a couple weeks ago. I wrote, “Spoiler alert: whether he or the Colts actually know it now or not, he will play. We all know this right now but that won’t stop us from hearing about it incessantly possibly all the way up until 90 minutes before the game.”
So, I was quite clearly VERY wrong. Like, I predicted 100 with absolute surety and it ended up 0. On the positive side, this enhances my Texans sleeper pick and I now know what Skip Bayless must feel like when he looks in the mirror. Houston covers.
Asif: This game will feature more fat people in the stands than any other this week. To be a Colts fan you have to have a BMI in the obese range. Also, Pey Pey’s neck is broken so it looks like we won’t have to listen to the bragging of insufferable Colts fans for much longer. I’ll take Houston to cover and I’ll probably regret it.
NY Giants (-3) @ Washington
Ryan: This line seems way too low but IS THAT JUST WHAT VEGAS WANTS US TO THINK?! The Giants always seem to have great Septembers and awful Decembers and I am resolved to pick against noted egomaniac Mike Shanahan every chance I get until I am proven wrong. Giants cover.
Asif: No team had a more devastating pre-season than my beloved Giants. They lost their top corner, their number 1 pick and likely 3rd corner, their 5th corner who became their 3rd corner after the other two went down and their starting middle linebacker. Still the Redskins are starting Sexy Rexy at QB, so this should be an easy win for Big Blue. Giants by a TD.
Seattle @ San Fransisco (-5)
Ryan: Huh? Didn’t Seattle just win a playoff game? Didn’t San Francisco only have seven weeks to install an entirely new system? I have a hard time thinking that new coaches are going to be successful the first few weeks of this season so I am taking Seattle and the points.

Asif: Starting Alex Smith is clearly a ploy to get the number one pick and Andrew Luck. Too bad San Fransisco has a halfway decent defense or it might have worked. Enjoy another decade of mediocrity Bay Area! Tarvaris Jackson is the Seahawks’ starting QB, that is all you need to know. I’m still taking Seattle and the points.

Minnesota @ San Diego (-8.5)

Ryan: I am certainly not high on the Vikings this season but this line seems a couple points too high. I would have had similar advice for the Vikings as I had for the Titans – take your medicine now and rebuild around Christian Ponder. Having McNabb win an extra two or three games doesn’t seem to be in the long-term best interest of the franchise. Vikings lose but cover.

Asif: Donovan McNabb is fat. Philip Rivers is a jerk. Norv Turner is the only head coach who could see a team that led the league in offense and defense miss the playoffs. Minnesota and the points.

Carolina @ Arizona (-7)

Ryan: This line would have to be substantially higher for me to take a rookie quarterback and new head coach on the road. I think Cam Newton will ultimately be a pretty serviceable NFL quarterback but he is going to take some lumps this year.

I am very interested to see how Kevin Kolb does this season and beyond. Certainly he will be better than the three-headed monster that was John Skelton, Derek Anderson, and Max Hall but, um, I would set my sights well above that bar if I was a Cardinals fan (thankfully I am not). Cardinals cover.

Asif: Cam Newton is chocolate Tim Tebow, with a nicer smile and less Jesus. If Kevin Kolb is the real deal then Arizona should win the NFC West handily. They’ll probably win it even if he sucks, because the NFC West is dog sh*t. Cards.

Dallas @ NY Jets (-4.5)

Ryan: The Cowboys were actually decent in the second half last season. After a 1-7 start which saw Wade Philips get fired, they finished the season 5-3. The Cowboys offense should be quite good this season if its key components stay healthy and I think the team continues its momentum from the end of last season into the start of this year.

I am interested to see how beautiful GQ cover boy Mark Sanchez and the J-E-T-S do this season after two straight AFC Championship Game losses. I know that stats say Sanchez is a below average quarterback but it does seem as though he possesses the poise and intangibles to guide the Jets through close games. I think Dallas covers though.

Asif: Remember all that bad stuff I said about Philadelphia earlier? Take that and double it and you’ll understand how I feel about Dallas. Tony Romo may not be a good quarterback, but he’s the league leader in smiles! Mark Sanchez should probably ask the girls he dates for ID before he, you know, dates them. While he’s at it he should also learn how to complete 60% of his passes. Which Ryan is the evil twin? I’m going with Rob because of the goatee, and because foot fetishes aren’t evil, just gross. Jets to cover.

Monday Night:

New England (-7) @ Miami

Ryan: As Asif says below, I really think this game is as simple as the Patriots being really good and the Dolphins being really bad. If you recall, the Dolphins tried but failed to fire their coach this offseason and then gave him an extension when their motives came out. This reminds me a little bit of when Norm MacDonald hosted SNL 1.5 years after being fired for not being funny enough. Pats cover.

Asif: The Patriots are good. The Dolphins are bad. I lived in Boston for the past year and one of my favorite things to do was to listen to sports radio callers. Patriots fans are the most ignorant front-running bunch of mouth breathers ever and I’m a Boston sports fan myself (Patriots excepted). I would venture that the average Patriots fan has an IQ below 70 and that none of them had seen a football game before the 2001 season. I’ll step down from my soap box now, long enough to pick the Pats by a jillion points because the Dolphins suck. Why do the worst fans get to enjoy the best teams?

Oakland @ Denver (-3)

Ryan: This game is gross and there is a 100% I watch all of it. I would never watch a prime time NBA game between the Nets and Warriors but that is why the NFL the is king while David Stern spends the season railroading the players for extra money for the owners. With very little conviction in this pick, I say Denver covers.

Asif: I’ve got Denver as the winner of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. The Broncos aren’t really good at anything. Well, Kyle Orton is good at being drunk. Their backup QBs were both 1st round draft picks. They both suck, but oo look muscles. The Raiders are the Raiders and they play in Oakland, where dreams go to die, in a crack den gang massacre. Broncos to cover.


September 8, 2011

Welcoming Back the NFL With Open Arms

It came back! It came back! When Football went away again in February I was in despair (well, I wasn’t right away because I was ecstatic the Packers WON THE SUPER BOWL but let’s just play along with this break-up, make-up theme for a little while). How could it leave AGAIN? What did I do wrong? Is there anything I could have done differently to prevent this from happening? Did that one time where I missed the first quarter of Packers-Vikings on the drive back from Michigan have broader implications than I realized at the time?

Night after night I went without Football. There were gaping holes emotionally and physically. I missed everything. I missed the Packers. I missed Fantasy. I missed highlights. I missed the Red Zone Channel. I missed the unbelievable elliptical background fodder that was Sunday, Monday, and Thursday Night Football. I missed the touchdowns. WHY DID YOU LEAVE AGAIN? WHAT COULD I HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY?

How was Football doing without me? I followed all of the Lockout newsflow to my personal detriment, hanging on every word from Albert Breer, Mike Silver, Mike Florio, and Peter King as I wanted to break my TV every time I saw Jeff Pash or Jeffrey Kessler trying to taint my pure, innocent NFL. I started to come to grips with the fact that maybe it wouldn’t come back. I rebounded with Basketball which was great for a little while until IT LEFT ME TOO. In my darker moments I dabbled in WOMEN’S SOCCER. You are starting to see how deep a void Football’s leaving seared in my soul.

I never really got over it, finding myself always checking in, reflecting on what was, and lamenting about what could be. I loved football unconditionally and it just callously went away. Sure, there were signs. When the playoffs started, there were just four games per weekend for two weeks. Then there were two. Then there was zero. Then there was one. I had given the NFL the space it thought it needed but that space just made me more disposable.

Anyways, the NFL has clearly seen the error of its ways. IT’S COMING BACK and I am taking it back in with open arms because it will be DIFFERENT this time. Its love for me will be fulfilling and reciprocal and I know in my heart of hearts that IT WILL NEVER LEAVE AGAIN.

Each Friday, my friend Asif and I will be picking the lines. We will be doing Thursday picks on Thursday so the below is a little bit of an appetizer. Asif writes the blog Uninformed Commentary.

New Orleans @ Green Bay (-4)

Ryan: I really don’t have any bearing on the Saints. I think they could go anywhere from 6-10 to 12-4. They could miss the playoffs entirely or contend for the Super Bowl. Barring injuries to Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, or BJ Raji, the Packers are primed to make a run at repeating as Super Bowl champs.

This line seems a little bit too low but that might just be what Vegas WANTS us to think. The Packers are adding Jermichael Finley, who if healthy will be the best tight end in the universe this season, back to a team that won the Super Bowl. On top of having the potential to absolutely shred apart the NFL this season, Jermichael is the most attractive man I have EVER seen in person and it isn’t even remotely close. I say that with no remorse. He is gorgeous.

I feel like this year might be the reckoning for Sean Payton. He has been quite effective as head coach of the Saints so far but he doesn’t seem like he would be particularly enjoyable to play for. Also, for some reason this scandal, which I initially thought would be quite serious, just completely went away for some reason. From what I can tell, the investigation got curtailed because the “nothing to see here” defense was taken at its word. What goes around tends to come around though and I think this may be the year it all comes crashing down for Payton and the Saints. Packers cover.

Asif: I don’t see what makes New Orleans any better or worse than they were last year. They replaced a former Heisman winning scat back (Reggie Bush), with another former Heisman winner with speed concerns (Mark Ingram). Maybe I’m being crazy, but I have this nagging sense that Ingram may be the next Ron Dayne. A great college back whose lack of speed (and affinity for the buffet) impairs him at the next level. Jeremy Shockey took his tattoos, girly uncut hair and newfangled STDs to Jerry Richardson’s Carolina Panthers, but I don’t think he’ll be missed that much.

The Packers on the other hand, actually look improved to me, especially since Ryan Grant gives them a consistent running game. I think Jordy Nelson is going to take a big step forward this season as well. All of this means that Packers fans like Ryan will be more insufferable than ever, but hey at least they are not the Cowboys or Steelers. You have to be thankful for the little things. Green Bay by a touchdown.


September 5, 2011

Football!

This is the first post in a series in which I will document this football season. It will broadly be about the Badgers and Packers but will more specifically be about myself in it. Football season does not just happen on the field. It is about great friends, foods, drinks, and merriment. My hope is that it will be interesting for readers but at the very least it will serve as a journal to look back on. I wish I had done this last year.

This whole week, all I could think was, “Football! Football! Football! Football! Football! Football! Football!” This happens a lot during the deep, dark offseason even more so this week. I have a 50-track mind but the first track and one with the highest play count is football. The possibilities for the Badgers and Packers this season are endless (well, endful*, because sports, unlike life, has well-defined winners and losers and comes with unfettered closure at the conclusion of each season).

*Apparently not a real word but it should be.

The Packers won the Super Bowl and have coaching and roster continuity that gives them as good a chance as anyone to win it again this season. The Badgers reached the Rose Bowl last year, and, although they lost some key players, were given a rare spark with transfer Russell Wilson. I am all-in on the Russell Wilson narrative. The Badgers are clear cut favorites to win the Big Ten and could legitimately contend for the national title if all breaks right. We are fast approaching the most wonderful time of the year and I cannot wait to see it all shake out.

Thursday night, the Badgers had their season opener, hosting UNLV at Camp Randall. I grappled with making the pilgrimage to Madison but ultimately decided to watch the game at Will’s Northwoods Inn, a Wisconsin-themed bar in the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago which will be the setting of many entries in this journal this season. Will’s has everything you could possibly want out of a Wisconsin bar. Its patrons and staff are deeply passionate and knowledgeable about the Packers and Badgers and are universally the unique brand of friendly that I have only come across in the midwest.

Will’s is adorned wall-to-wall with Packers and Badgers pictures and memorabilia, deer antlers, old beer signs, and rustic photographs. My favorite Northwoods-y picture on the wall at Will’s features a boy in overalls, no older than 12, unable to contain a grin from ear to ear as a deer is on its hind legs licking the boy’s face as a puppy would do. The (real, I think) photograph symbolizes the type of all-encompassing connection that a gifted few are able to cultivate with nature and its inhabitants in that special part of the country. This picture always makes me nostalgic for summer camp. When inside, you are in an oasis that feels as if you have teleported directly to the rural Northwoods as opposed to at a bar in a major urban center. This is by careful design and executed flawlessly.

The outside of Will’s features an expansive patio with two large televisions, about 10 tables, a large moose statue, and a beautiful Leinenkugel’s mural. Until it gets unbearably cold, sitting outside is your dominant strategy for comfort but you lose some of the camaraderie that comes with watching the game inside. I typically go to Will’s with friends but it is the type of bar where you can go alone and immediately make friends with strangers. One of my best friends now is someone who I met at Will’s two seasons ago.

All week, I had been thinking of taking my Granny to watch the Badgers at Will’s. On the day of the game, she was up for it so I decided to do it and it was a great decision. Granny is 92 years old but young for her age. She is adoring and adorable. Although she cannot see or hear very well, I knew she would get a kick out of the game-like atmosphere at Will’s. If you explain what is happening on key plays, she can maintain a pretty good understanding of the flow of the game. I introduced her to cute girls as my girlfriend and was greeted with enthusiastic smiles in return; I didn’t get any numbers but Granny is going to be a great wingman this football season.

When we got to Will’s, a great table opened up so we sat down and ordered food. I opted for a bacon cheeseburger (chedder cheese and of course sans vegetables) with tater tots* and a Diet Coke while I ordered a small cheeseburger with tater tots and a ginger ale for Granny. We had an hour and a half to wait till kickoff but we had a solid table.

*Because you are dying to know, here is my stance on tater tots vs. french fries. French fries have a higher potential value (think transcendent fries like crispy, well-seasoned curly fries or, in my somewhat unpopular opinion, McDonald’s fries) but tater tots have greater expected values. There are a lot of bad french fry styles out there (like the irresponsible cringly fries at White Castle or fries that are potato-y and not well done) but tater tots are pretty standard. Will’s doesn’t have bad fries but it doesn’t have great fries either so tater tots are my consistent move there.

Bubbling with anticipation, our collective perception of time started to slow to a halt. Minutes went by very slowly, as if we were stuck starving in a boring high school class mentally counting down the seconds before lunch. The bar gradually filled in until it was time for kickoff and there were pathways to move through but no other open space. My good friends John and Matt* joined Granny and I at our table.

*When we reach the roadtrip chapters in this series I imagine that it will be in my friends’ best interests if I give them pseudonyms. Even though nothing particularly inappropriate happened on Thursday, I am just going to start doing that now. The over/under on number of times this season that I am going to have to look back at old journal entries to figure out what fake names I assigned to my buddies is 75.

The game finally started and Wisconsin dominated from the very beginning. Russell Wilson missed a few passes early but turned in a stunning overall performance. He completed 10 of his 13 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, rushing twice for 62 yards which included a long 46-yard touchdown run. Montee Ball and James White both looked like NFL running backs and combined to score five touchdowns. Somewhere around 27-0, Granny commented rhetorically in her soft-spoken southern drawl that “UNLV just isn’t very good, are they?” Wisconsin’s defense bent a lot but didn’t really break. Hopefully this was a case of playing down to opponents rather than a sign that the Badgers will have to win some shoot-outs. The Badgers ended up winning 51-17 but missed covering by a half point which I am sure was infuriating to many.

Granny and I left Will’s at halftime (a function of having been there for three hours, the game’s essentially being over and the bar’s being really hot) but overall had a great night. This night was an appetizer for football season when the Badgers play real opponents and the Packers regular season begins. My appetite appropriately whetted for the time being, I am still so ready for some football. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.


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