2018 NBA Finals Preview

Déjà Vu.

After a First Round that saw many close games and even a couple of upsets, the NBA Playoffs once again fell into the same cycle of predictability we have come to know it by for the last five years. That predictability has resulted in history being made once again with the NBA Finals featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors for the fourth straight season, a previously unheard of feat. 

In the Cleveland Cavaliers, what you have is a Rolls Royce driving around with spare tires. LeBron James has had a postseason that could quite possibly go down as the best an individual player has ever had, averaging 34 points, 9 rebounds, and nearly 9 assists per game while shooting 58 percent from the field. Not a single player on the Cavaliers has averaged more than 15 points per game this postseason other than Janes. The only player who comes close to this mark is stretch big man Kevin Love, who has only averaged just below 14 points per game this postseason, and his health remains a serious question mark after suffering another concussion in the Eastern Conference Finals.

LeBron has carried the Cavs kicking and screaming to the NBA Finals, his historic eighth straight appearance. LeBron hit a clutch game winner in game five and had a heroic game seven in the First Round against a more cohesive team in the Indiana Pacers. He was able to put the Toronto Raptors back into extinction in a sweep that also featured an impossible game winner in game 3 of said series. He was able to overcome the youthful, superstar-less, but dynasty in the making Boston Celtics with a sixth straight game 7 win. LeBron James has all but ended the G.O.A.T. conversation with his historic postseason. Even if he loses in the Finals again and his record in such series falls to 3-6, who carries a team like his this far into the postseason? Only LeBron.

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LeBron James has all but ended the G.O.A.T. conversation with his postseason run in 2018.

The Golden State Warriors mostly breezed by the first two rounds of the NBA Playoffs despite two time MVP Stephen Curry missing significant time due to injury. It was only when the Warriors ran into the Houston Rockets, a team built with the sole goal of defeating the Warriors, did they experience any hiccups. The Warriors squandered a double digit lead in game 4 of that series with a historically bad fourth quarter by scoring only 12 points, no thanks to a disappearing act by Kevin Durant. That same disappearing act occurred again in game 5, but then the injury gods smiled upon Golden State once again by taking away the Rockets’ best performing player in the series, Chris Paul. With Paul lost due to a hamstring injury, the Warriors overcame a 3-2 series deficit to defeat the Rockets in seven games, keeping their impending dynasty alive.

Last year, there were questions as to whether or not the Warriors could overcome the collapse of their 3-1 series lead in the 2016 Finals with the arrival of the talented, but at the time not reliable, Kevin Durant. Durant ended most of that doubt with a Finals MVP earning performance, as the offensive juggernaut disposed of LeBron and the Cavaliers in five games. With a far less talented Cavs team in the finals this year, the collective offensive firepower of future hall of famers Stephen Curry, Kay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green should be able to overcome injury concerns with supposed LeBron stopper (there is no such thing) in Andre Iguodala, the Finals MVP in 2015. It’ll take a superhuman LeBron James to keep the series competitive, and while he’s more than capable of answering the bell, the Warriors dynasty shall be cemented with their third championship in four years.

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The Warriors have a chance at solidifying their dynasty in the 2018 NBA Finals.

Prediction: Warriors in 5.

Finals MVP: Stephen Curry.

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NBA Playoffs: Conference Semifinals Preview

The east and west’s final four duke it out for the right to be in the NBA’s final four.

After a first round that saw some series have predictable results and others that were nothing short of shocking, we have reached the halfway point of the NBA Playoffs. While the Western Conference Semifinals have already gotten underway and should yield expected outcomes, the Eastern Conference Semifinals should prove to be a much more compelling watch.

Western Conference

2. Golden State Warriors V. 6. New Orleans Pelicans, GS leads series 1-0

Remember when the sky was falling due to the Warriors finishing the last seventeen games of the regular season 7-10? That proved to be an aberration, a team that was bored and wanted to play in the postseason already. Golden State blew past an over matched San Antonio team, and that was without their heart and soul, Stephen Curry. The Pelicans undoubtedly surprised most by sweeping the higher seeded Trailblazers in the first round, and with the emergence of Anthony Davis and the two guard combo of Drue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, looked like they could prove to be a worthy foe against the Warriors. If game one was any indication, the Pelicans may not be as strong as we thought they were. And with the impending return of Curry to the Warriors’ lineup, the Pelicans may be blown away in this series.

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Prediction: Warriors in 5.

1. Houston Rockets V. 5. Utah Jazz, Hou leads series 1-0

The Jazz are a nice reminder that well built teams still exist in the NBA today after defeating the more talented Oklahoma City Thunder. The rise of rookie Donovan Mitchell is a sight to behold, and should the Jazz be able to keep the core of Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, and Rudy Gobert together a few more seasons, Utah could prove to be a contender for years to come. Unfortunately, their scrappy defense has nothing on Rockets MVP candidate James Harden, as Houston is the far more talented team and should dispose of the Jazz quickly, especially if Ricky Rubio is battling an injury.

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Prediction: Rockets in 5.

Eastern Conference

2. Boston Celtics V. 3. Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have become the popular pick to emerge as the Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals after their series win over a Miami Heat team that was a shell of their former glory days. “The Process” seems to have panned out for young stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who dominated against Miami. They face a tough challenge in the Boston Celtics, however. Sure, it took them seven games to dispose of an underachieving Bucks team, but the fact this team was able to win a playoff series without star players Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving is a testament to Celtics coach Brad Steven’s coaching prowess, as he is able to get the most out of rotational players like Terry Rozier of all people. It’s a classic showdown reminiscent of the teams’ 1980s playoff showdowns, and is without question the most compelling of the remaining playoff series since it could go either way.

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Prediction: Sixers in 7.

1. Toronto Raptors V. 4. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Raptors seemed to have gotten the monkey off their back after winning a tough series against a game Washington Wizards team, but now they must face their arch nemesis who has dominated them time after time: LeBron James. Sure, it took the Cavaliers seven games to beat a better constructed team in the Indiana Pacers, but the herculean effort of “The King” proves LeBron James is a team all by his lonesome. One can’t believe James’ supporting cast won’t show up at all for a second straight series, but LeBron’s path to the NBA Finals may prove to be more bumpy this season than previously anticipated.

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Prediction: Cavaliers in 6.

 

2018 MLB Preview: National League and Playoffs

By Matthew and Sean Duckett

Baseball is back, and that means it’s time for us at Bros Can’t Hang to give our preview of the 2018 season!

The chaotic offseason saw All-Star players scatter across the league, the arrival of Japanese Babe Ruth, and Derek Jeter become the most hated front office official in sports. Despite the sports world seemingly tumbling into chaos in 2018, baseball is looking to be dominated by the usual suspects. Today, we look at the National League and hope Giants fans don’t send us hate mail.

NL East

Washington Nationals

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Positives: The Nationals get another stab at postseason glory with their roster intact. Bryce Harper looks to improve on an already impressive 2017, and has the likes of Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and a returning Adam Eaton to help. The Nationals have the best top of the rotation in all of baseball, with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg looking to put up Cy Young numbers once again this season. There are no weak spots on this roster.

Negatives: There is little time for the manager to gel with the players. With Bryce Harper possibly departing after this season, newly hired manager Dave Martinez, longtime Joe Madden protege, needs to find the winning playoff combination quickly, or he could see generational talent bolt for greener pastures. The Nationals are creeping up on the luxury tax as well, so finding adequate replacements for Harper would be a monumental task.

Question Mark: Can Matt Wieters bounce back? Ok, I lied. There is one weak spot on this team, and it’s behind the plate. Matt Wieters was abysmal at the plate last year with a 63 OPS+. He somehow played worse in the playoffs, putting up a slash line of .143/.333/.143 en route to a NLDS loss, aka a Nationals Special. They will need him to be at least replacement level.

Prediction: The Nationals at worst the number two team in the NL. If Dusty Baker was truly holding the Nationals back, this could be the first of many deep playoff runs if Harper stays in D.C. 92-70

 

Philadelphia Phillies

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Positives: The Phillies are about to surprise a lot of people, and they can thank the gobs of young talent expected to play key roles this season. Shortstop J.P. Crawford should get his first full season in the majors to why he’s been a top prospect for years. LF Rhys Hoskins put up 2 WAR in ⅓ a season. His counterpart, Nick Williams, put up respectable hitting numbers as well. SP Aaron Nola will have some pressure taken off him with the addition of Jake Arrieta, adding depth to a much maligned Philly rotation.

Negatives: As mentioned, the rest of the SP unit is quite bad. Actually, they’re not bad, they just have yet to put their talent to use. Using Inside Edge, it seems that the Phillies pitchers each have one pitch they can get outs with, but cannot seem to make use of the rest of their repertoire. If the young arms can figure out their secondary pitches, the Phillies could be an even better team than many predict them to be. If not, they stay locked in the basement of the NL East.

Question Mark: Can the bullpen lock it down? Signing Pat Neshek was a statement signing. Coming off his best season in the majors (1.59 ERA, 10 K/9), Neshek is set to anchor a bullpen that will find themselves in the highest leverage situations the team has faced in years. With Hector Neris throwing filth in the ninth, the bullpen looks set to improve on a respectable 2017 (15th in ERA).

Prediction: The Phillies back-end starters figure out their stuff and allow the pen to close out meaningful games. The young core snatches second place away from the Mets and Braves, and threaten to take the second Wild Card spot. 83-79

 

New York Mets

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Positives: The rotation is among the best in baseball. Health cooperating, the three-headed monster of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz could wreak havoc on opposing teams. The last time all three were healthy, they combined for 11 WAR, all posting an ERA+ of 118 or above.

Negatives: The lineup is going to have to wait a while for help. OFs Michael Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes are dealing with injuries, with Conforto unlikely to return until least mid April, and as late as May. His 145 OPS+ will be severely missed. Todd Frazier and Adrian Gonzalez are overrated additions at best.

Question Mark: Can Matt Harvey find anything again? Just a few years ago, Matt Harvey was headlining the Mets rotation, leading them to a World Series in 2015. Now? Inside Edge reports that in 2017, Harvey gave up a 1.008 OPS on his fastball, and a 1.007 OPS on his curve. For context, Barry Bonds led all of baseball in OPS in 1995 at 1.009. Batters literally become Barry Bonds against him. It may be wise to move on.

Prediction: Key players missing time is almost a guarantee for the Mets, and the team’s best hitter will already miss a month. Given Cespedes’ age and wrist, he could miss time a well. Throw in an injured SP, and the Mets stumble their way to the middle of the NL standings. 79-83

Atlanta Braves

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Positives: Despite the hemorrhaging of prospects, due to some Blue Chips-esque prospect signings of their ousted GM, the Braves still have plenty of young talent in the minors and majors. An offensive core of SS Dansby Swanson, OF Ronald Acuna, and the grossly underrated 1B Freddie Freeman could produce a scary lineup as soon as this season. Speaking more on Freeman, he slugged .603 against righties the past three seasons (fourth best in MLB) and posted the second highest line drive rate in the game last season. If he was playing for the Yankees, Freeman would be a household name.

Negatives: Much like last year, the pitching still has major issues. Adding Scott Kazmir would be great if he could be plugged into the middle of the rotation, but it’s looking like he’ll need to carry a good chunk of the load for Atlanta. Projected closer Arodys Vizcaino’s ERA was 3.47 in the second half of the season. Not what you want out of a position requiring clutch.

Question Mark: Would the real Julio Teheran please stand up? I drafted Julio in the last round of a fantasy draft his rookie year of 2013, and he produced solid output. Since then, I have watched his career unfold, and it truly seemed like 2017 was the year he was going to prove he was consistent Ace material. Boy was I wrong. Teheran posted an lowly 4.49 ERA and an even worse 4.95 FIP. Many attribute this to Atlanta’s new ballpark, which is more hitter friendly than the previous. Here’s hoping Teheran can return to his elite form in 2018.

Prediction: The Braves are a promising young club with some glaring issues in the rotation and bullpen. They won’t be as disastrously bad as last year, but they are still a couple seasons off from contending. 73-89

 

Miami Marlins

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Positives: The returns for trading their outfield were actually pretty good. Lewis Brinson, the prize in the trade that sent Christian Yelich to the Brewers, has ranked as a top 30 prospect the past three seasons, coming in at number 16 for 2018. From Coral Springs, Brinson could wind up becoming the face of the franchise in desperate need of players to root for. The return for Marcell Ozuna was nice as well.

Negatives: They will likely end up trading their last valuable asset, speedy Catcher J.T. Realmuto (yes, speedy) sometime soon. Realmuto’s dissatisfaction with the Marlins ownership, much the disappointment of the fans, is understandable given how close this team was to becoming a playoff team. However, cash rules everything around Miami (CREAM), and they had to dump expensive or soon to be expensive assets. Perhaps Houston could make a push for his services if McCann falters as hypothesized in the AL write up?

Question Mark: Did Derek Jeter give Giancarlo and co. gift baskets upon trading them?

Prediction: The Marlins had the fire sale to end all fire sales this offseason, and their roster reflects it. Marlins’ Park will somehow be emptier. 60-102

 

NL Central

Chicago Cubs

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Positives: Roster depth means that Joe Maddon can use his gamer tendencies to play around with the lineup. While Addison Russell and Javier Baez will be the everyday middle infielders, do not be surprised to find Ben Zobrist or Ian Happ taking reps at second over the season. The latter two could also spent time in the outfield, which provides the Cubs a safety net if Kyle Schwarber falters again. Throw in MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, and this lineup has a solid mix of power, contact, and glovework. Well-rounded teams make the deepest playoff runs.

Negatives: Injuries could derail the season. The Cubs’ two best pitchers, Kyle Hendricks and newly signed Yu Darvish, have missed significant time in the past. Hendricks missed nearly two months last season, while Yu Darvish was coming back from Tommy John surgery. If issues persist, Theo Epstein will have to search far and wide for replacement level starters both in and outside the organization.

Question Mark: Is Jason Heyward’s defense worth it? His two seasons with the Cubs have been severely disappointing. No team wants to spend upwards of $28 million a season for a non threat behind the plate. His .153 average during the playoffs is painful. If JeyHey gets off to a hot start, it may be wise to search for a trade partner while eating some of the contract.

Prediction: The Cubs are once again a solid ball club with all the pieces in place to win the World Series. Joe Maddon’s tinkering could either push them over the top, or sink them come October. 93-69

 

St. Louis Cardinals

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Positives: The Cardinals were a pedestrian hitting team last year, sitting near the league average in OPS+. The addition of Breakout All-Star Marcell Ozuna (37 HR), plus full season of Paul DeJong, Matt Carpenter, and Tommy Pham could result in a serious power surge in St. Louis. Pham put up almost 3 WAR in just 108 games last year.

Negatives: The losses of Lance Lynn and Mike Leake leave a rotation lacking stamina. They’ll have to hope phenom prospect Alex Reyes can A. Make the rotation and B. Eat innings upon returning in May.

Question Mark: How hard does Manager Mike Matheny tank this team? The ability for Matheny to derail games with his questionable tactics is well known to Cardinals fans. He blames the wrong players when issues arise, and is completely out of his depth when it comes to implementing advanced stats. He comes from the Goose Gossage sabermetrics “are for nerds” school of thought. If Matheny can’t get his act together, he’ll have to start watching Cardinals playoff runs from his couch starting next season.

Prediction: The talent of the Cardinals’ roster will outplay their bumbling manager and secure a Wild Card spot. They, like the Giants, always threaten to fluke their way deep into the postseason. 88-74

 

Milwaukee Brewers

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Positives: The acquisitions of OFs Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain add two bonafide All-Stars to a team whose rebuild is ahead of schedule. Cain has World Series experience, and will provide a veteran presence to a team that was one game out of the playoffs. With their other outfielder Domingo Santana coming off a 30 homer campaign, the Brewers have a wonderful combination of power, contact, speed, and fielding playing deep.

Negatives: There is not room for all their good bats. The crowded outfield situation means that playing time for April wonder Eric Thames and the reviled Ryan Braun could be scarce. Thames. Each have experience playing the infield, but each would have been better suited in left field. Given Braun is still owed $20 million, Eric Thames may see himself shipped out to the AL come the trade deadline.

Question Mark: Why didn’t the Brewers pursue any good pitchers in Free Agency? The Brewers rotation put up solid numbers last year, but their back end does not inspire confidence. Not pursuing Darvish or Arrieta is understandable, but it is inexplicable that they did not make a play for a Lance Lynn type. With Alex Cobb still on the market, Milwaukee may want to take a good look at him.

Prediction: If SP Jimmy Nelson can stay the course upon returning in late May, and the new outfield meshes as well as they do on paper, the Brewers could very well see themselves in the playoffs. They can’t compete with Chicago, but have the edge on other Wild Card hopefuls. 87-75

Pittsburgh Pirates

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Positives: Competitiveness is on the horizon. Losing Andrew McCutchen meant the Pirates lost their soul. The also lost staff Ace Gerrit Cole. The good news is that the new core has already seen time in the majors, and should take a step forward this season. 1B Josh Bell finished with a respectable 108 OPS+ and placed third in Rookie of the Year voting. Jameson Taillon has the stuff to be a front end starter, as his 4.44 ERA disguised his 3.48 FIP (meaning he was VERY unlucky).

Negatives: The lineup cannot score. The Pirates wound up third to last in runs scored and team OPS+ in 2017. There is not much to indicate those numbers will improve significantly in the new campaign. Corey Dickerson will bring some additional power to the plate, but someone else needs to step up.

Question Mark: Who else leaves? 2B Josh Harrison has made it clear he does not wish to stick around if the Pirates are not serious about winning. SP Ivan Nova seems like an obvious trade piece given his low salary. The Pirates’ front office has to decide if they want to keep their role players and make a push in 2019, or sell the lot and hope for sustained success come the next decade.

Prediction: The Pirates are a young-but-also-not-young team that requires a lot of guesswork to place in the standings. A mediocre finish seems to be the safest bet. 75-87

 

Cincinnati Reds

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Positives: Joey Votto has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down. The man is an inner circle Hall of Famer, but because he plays for one of the consistently worst teams in baseball he is oft-forgotten in conversations about the greatest active players. The only players with a better career slash line than Votto? Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby.

Negatives: Everything else sucks.

Question Mark: Why do the Reds insist on putting Billy Hamilton at leadoff? He’s had four seasons to put up something resembling a good on base percentage, but has not. The Reds need to bat him ninth or they will continue to waste Votto’s God-like hitting numbers.

Prediction: This is a bad ball club, but the rotation is young and could improve on a league-worst team ERA. But better than worst is still not great. 70-92

 

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers

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Positives: Top Tier talent at essential positions. It is no surprise that a team owned by Magic Johnson of the “Showtime” Lakers features top-level talent at the most glamourous positions in baseball. Clayton Kershaw is undeniably the best pitcher in the game when he is healthy. Kenley Jansen lead all pitchers Win Probability Added at 5.57 and posted an ERA+ of 318(!), higher than any mark in Mariano Rivera’s career. SS Corey Seager and 1B Cody Bellinger are perennial All Star talents. Put simply, this team is Hollygood.

Negatives: The Bullpen. The Dodgers desperately need their relievers to step up, so that Jansen can actually close out games. Pedro Baez imploded into nothingness and could not even make the playoff roster come the NLCS. The rest of the relievers are an unidentified blob of passable mediocrity. Manager Dave Roberts will have to experiment a ton during the regular season to create a World Series caliber pen.

Question Mark: How will last year’s crushing defeat affect this season? Making it back to the World Series is tough. Consecutive World Series appearances has only happened once in the past six seasons. If the Dodgers cannot get past last season’s disappointing end, it could be another early exit come playoff time.

Prediction: This team has all the talent to be perennial World Series contenders. Honestly, it’s surprising that we are not in the midst of a Dodger Dynasty given how long they have been expected to win. Though the playoffs are tough to predict, it is safe to say the talent on this roster will cruise to a first place finish in the NL West. 98-64

 

Colorado Rockies

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Positives: Youth on the mound. The Rockies have an impressive stable of young SPs headed into 2018. Though the base stats look ugly, each pitcher who started in 20 or more games last year posted an ERA+ above league average. Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland could soon blossom into the Ace-level pitchers Colorado has lacked its entire existence.

Negatives: Beyond top five MVP Finalists Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, the Rockies lineup is lacking. Carlos Gonzalez, though impressive in the second half, has become a shell of his former self. Trevor Story’s power has vanished, leaving Colorado dependent on at best mediocre hitters to fill in the gaps.

Question Mark: Will the bullpen live up to its cost? After losing Pat Neshek to Free Agency, the Rockies’ front office spent over $100 on bullpen arms Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGhee. With the MLB’s shift towards RP reliance, this should not come as a surprise. However, such a heavy investment in not-so-young pitching could have negative effects now and in the future.

Prediction: The NL West will most likely be the most competitive in baseball. With a little luck, we could see three teams form the division playing into October for the second year in a row. Colorado can be one of those teams if the pitching continues last year’s momentum, and if Arenado and Blackmon can once again carry the offense. 84-78

 

San Francisco Giants

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Positives: This team is not nearly as bad as their 2017 record indicated. Injuries plagued the team at positions where they could not afford players missing time. Ace Madison Bumgarner should be back to form alongside RF Hunter Pence and 1B Brandon Belt.

Negatives: My God this farm system is abysmal. A lack of backup in the minors means that starters must stay healthy if the Giants want to compete. The back end of the rotation is as forgettable as a Dwayne Johnson film (looking at you, Baywatch). Can we take a second to mention that almost all of Dwayne Johnson’s movies are terrible? Maybe he could have played a better third base than the Frankenstein’s monster SF had last year.

Question Mark: Will the former MVPs recover their lost glory? The biggest story for the Giants this season will be how the trio of Buster Posey, Evan Longoria, and Andrew McCutchen play in 2018. All coming from one or a series of down seasons, a bounceback by two or all could be the difference between missing the playoffs or some good ol’ fashioned even-year BS. With the aforementioned lack of a farm system, the Giants chose to reload instead of rebuild. After missing out on the Giancarlo Stanton and the Shohei Otani sweepstakes, settling for past-their -prime stars like McCutchen and Longoria was the Giants’ only hope of competing. On top of that, the Giants will be without ace Madison Bumgarner and end of the starting rotation anchor Jeff Samardzija for the first month of a very front loaded schedule that features many match-ups against NL West rivals.

Prediction: If the Giants tread water without Bumgarner, they’ll be in contention for the second Wild Card spot this year, and a postseason appearance may help them lure free agents come the stacked upcoming offseason. That or another disastrous campaign awaits, but we’ll go with the former. 82-80

 

Arizona Diamondbacks

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Positives: The D-Backs have a critically underrated rotation. While Robby Ray deservedly got the spotlight, every pitcher in the rotation put up at least 3 WAR last year. Most notably, Taijuan Walker appears to have risen from the shadow realm of draft busts. Repeat success would mean this rotation is built of bonafide Aces and second/third men.

Weaknesses: Losing J.D. Martinez to the Red Sox obviously hurts. Steven Souza and Jarrod Dyson are nice adds, but cannot come close to replacing the reign of terror Martinez went on after being shipped to the desert (29 HRs in 62 games). Beyond that, the power numbers of numerous Diamondbacks could decrease with the implementation of a humidor in Chase Field. Fangraphs hypothesizes that HRs in Chase Field could decrease around 30% with the new climate-controlled baseballs. Now, Studs like Paul Goldschmidt likely won’t have an issue cranking out homers even with the new tech. But it could curtail lesser skilled hitters like Jake Lamb.

Question Mark: How much will the team improve? With the Giants and Rockies making big moves in the offseason, one cannot help but be concerned that the Diamondbacks have not done enough this offseason to keep up.

Prediction: The Diamondbacks are good, but good is not enough here. The lack of power hitting will ultimately derail them come mid/late season. 80-82

 

San Diego Padres

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Positives: Ironically, the Dads’ best asset is their youth. CF Manuel Margot is a future All-Star, C Austin Hedges is a plus defender with solid power, and Top 30 prospects Fernando Tatis Jr. (5) and Luis Urias (29) are waiting in the wings. The Padres look to be the team to watch in 2020.

Negatives: It isn’t 2020. Pretty much everything outside of the future is in bad shape for the Padres. Bottom barrel pitching, whatever defense, and a lack of team identity all make playoff contention seem much farther than it actually is.

Question Mark: The most obvious question is why San Diego would commit eight years and $144 million to first baseman Eric Hosmer, who could easily not be a part of the team’s long term success. Hosmer has shown he can be a plus bat, but is a comically overrated defender (even more so than Derek Jeter). Defense gets worse with age, and without a DH spot to hide in, Hosmer could very quickly become a negative asset for this ballclub.

Prediction: Things are not going to be fun in America’s finest city this year, but that does mean they can add more pieces that could have significant roles in the upcoming decade. 71-91

 

NL Awards

MVP

Matt: Joey “Ted Williams Jr.” Votto (1B, CIN)

Sean: Bryce Harper (RF, WAS)

 

Cy Young

Matt: Clayton Kershaw (SP, LAD)

Sean: Noah Syndergaard (SP, NYM)

 

Rookie of the Year

Matt: Ronald Acuna (OF, ATL)

Sean: Ronald Acuna (OF, ATL)

 

PLAYOFFS??

 

AL Wildcard

Matt: Red Sox def. Angels

Sean: Red Sox def. Angels

 

ALDS

Matt: Astros def. Red Sox

Yankees def. Indians

 

Sean: Astros def. Red Sox

Yankees def. Indians

 

ALCS

Matt: Yankees def. Astros

Sean: Astros def. Yankees

 

NL Wild Card

Matt: Cardinals def. Brewers

Sean: Brewers def. Cardinals

 

NLDS

Matt: (HOT TAKE ALERT) Cardinals def. Dodgers

Nationals def. Cubs

 

Sean: Dodgers def. Brewers

Nationals def. Cubs

 

NLCS

Matt: Nationals def. Cardinals

Sean: Dodgers def. Nationals

 

World Series

Matt: Yankees def. Nationals

Sean: Dodgers def. Astros

2018 MLB Preview: American League

By Matthew and Sean Duckett

Baseball is back, and that means it’s time for us at Bros Can’t Hang to give our preview of the 2018 season!

The chaotic offseason saw All-Star players scatter across the league, the arrival of Japanese Babe Ruth, and Derek Jeter become the most hated front office official in sports. Despite the sports world seemingly tumbling into chaos in 2018, baseball is looking to be dominated by the usual suspects. Today, we take a deep dive into the hitting-happy American League.

 

AL East:

1st. New York Yankees

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Positives: Dongs. Dongs dongs dongs. The Yankees acquired NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton in the offseason, the obvious move after being one game out of the World Series the year before. With this, the Yankees will most likely have three 30+ HR hitters (Stanton, Judge, Sanchez) and even more players in the 25 HR range (Gregorious, Bird). Put simply: This lineup is absolutely stacked.

Negatives: They’re called the bombers for a reason: The pitching is usually not very good. Though Luis Severino had a breakout season and CC Sabathia stayed healthy and effective, SP (Starting Pitching) is still a weakness for New York. Masahiro Tanaka pitched lights out in the playoffs, but his inability to use his fastball effectively demolished his ERA last season. Sonny Gray’s peripherals looked in line with his time in Oakland, but the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium could prove too much for the contact-inducing righty.

Question Mark: Health. Giancarlo Stanton has only played more than 120 games once in the past three seasons. Aaron Judge needed shoulder surgery in the winter. Gleyber Torres is still adjusting after Tommy John surgery, Greg Bird seemingly can never stay healthy, and Gary Sanchez missed time last year as well. All the talent on the Yankees roster means nothing if they cannot stay on the field.

Prediction: Even with the risk of multiple players missing time, the Yankees’ “rebuild” was short lived, as they hope to homer their way out of their SP issues. It’s World Series or bust for the most hated franchise in sports. 96-66

 

2nd. Boston Red Sox

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Positives: The hitting is way better than they showed last year. Mookie Betts’ norm is far closer to his 2016 season than 2017. Rafael Devers looks like the truth, and SS Xander Bogaerts should recover from vanishing HR power (10 HR in 2017 despite JUICED BALLS). Add in a 168 OPS+ J.D. Martinez to the mix? Your odds of keeping this lineup quiet drastic go down.

Negatives: Another AL East team with major SP issues. Cy Young finalist Chris Sale should continue to wreak havoc and Drew Pomeranz is an All-Star when he’s on, but everyone after them is a big liability. David Price still can’t figure out pitching in Boston (or media-friendly relationships), and Rick Porcello is the weakest Cy Young of recent memory. Everyone but Price (who came out of the bullpen) disappeared in the playoffs. And honestly, I’m not sold on their relievers outside of Craig Kimbrel.

Question Mark: What will the Red Sox outfield look like defensively? J.D. Martinez appears adamant about playing a non-DH role for some part of the season, despite being the worst defensive RF in the game by nearly all metrics. If the Red Sox cave into his demands and give him time in the OF, it could spell disaster for them come playoff time. An insistence on giving 1B/DH Hanley Ramirez at-bats could hurt Boston as well.

Prediction: The Red Sox added a big bat this offseason, but underperformance in the playoffs could once again rear its ugly head given the largely unchanged rotation. 91-71

 

3rd. Toronto Blue Jays

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Positives: The Blue Jays’ pitching should be in great shape once healthy. Just two seasons ago, this was arguably the best rotation in baseball, leading the league in ERA, WAR, and placing second in FIP. Jaime Garcia isn’t a sexy addition, but does solidify a group of SPs that had an off-year last season. Roberto Osuna could be the best closer in baseball come year end.

Negatives: With the collapse and departure of Jose Bautista, there are some obvious holes in the power department. In 2017, the Blue Jays were basement dwellers in a plethora of hitting stats, equating to a 88 OPS+, the fourth-worst team mark in the league.

Question Mark: Can the new supporting cast bolster the lineup? Curtis Granderson, Kendrys Morales (returning to the team from last year, but expected to play a larger role), and Randal Grichuk could all theoretically contribute, but also could nosedive the Jays to the AL East bunker.

Prediction: Toronto is not a bad team. However, playing in one of the strongest divisions in baseball with major uncertainties on offense does not bode well. Tulo will miss at least 75 games. Kendrys Morales reveals he’s been Bartolo Colon the whole time. 81-81

 

4th. Baltimore Orioles

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Positives: Home run hitting. Despite some players having a down season, the Orioles still boast a line-up filled with power. Led by Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Mark Trumbo, Baltimore ranked fourth in the AL in home runs in 2017. The lineup may not strike fear in opposing pitchers like it did in years past, but this team should be able to hit the ball out of the park once again.

Negatives: Starting pitching. The Orioles are deprived of it. They were worst in the AL last year in home runs allowed and walks, and had the second-worst team ERA in the AL.

Question Mark: Is there an Ace? The Orioles have had trouble filling out their rotation over the past few seasons, but even their mainstays are questionable. Sure, their “best” pitcher, youngster Dylan Bundy, won 13 games last year, but his 4.24 ERA doesn’t exactly exude confidence for an organization that is counting on him to develop into a frontline starter.

Prediction: The Orioles can hit with power, a plus in the AL East. However, their utter lack of starting pitching spells doom and another sub .500 season. 73-89

 

5th. Tampa Bay Rays

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Positives: Chris Archer? Who may be traded before the All-Star break?

Negatives: Where you wanna start?

Question Mark: The Franchise’s existence. Can we add the “Devil” back to “Rays”?

Prediction: Bad. 67-95

 

AL Central

1st. Cleveland Indians

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Positives: The Indians are near the top of the AL Playoff for a third straight season, and that’s because they have top-shelf talent in every aspect of the game. They and the Yankees were the only two clubs in the top five in both OPS+ fourth and ERA+ first in 2017. Two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and SS of the next decade Francisco Lindor headline a team filled with star power.

Weaknesses: Though Andrew Miller and Cody Allen are arguably the best one-two relievers in baseball, losing middle-reliever Bryan Shaw means that Miller will find himself with an increased workload during the season. Bullpen fatigue in the playoffs is a bad recipe, especially given the terrifying bats of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros.

Question Mark: Need there be a sense of urgency? With so many key players entering free agency after this season, this may be the Indians’ last year to truly make a run for the title. The question is whether the pressure to win now pushes them over the top or causes the Indians to self-destruct. The looming pressure of an improved Twins team means that the time to win is now.

Prediction: The Indians are still one of the best clubs in baseball. With all their stars returning, the question is will they align to give Cleveland their first World Series in 70 years? 94-68

2nd. Minnesota Twins

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Positives: The Twins arguably had the best offseason of any MLB team. They were able to re-tool their roster in the short term without any long term risk. Adding SPs Lance Lynn, Michael Pineda, and Jake Odorizzi to their rotation, while loading the bullpen with Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed means their young core has plenty of room to grow and continue last year’s momentum. Adding a power bat in OF Logan Morrison (38 HR, .516 SLG) is also a big plus.

Negatives: The biggest weakness of this team is that everything is “pretty good.” The Twins are not elite in any aspect of the game. Given that the true contenders in the AL have at least one attribute to hang their hat on, it will be hard for the Twins to breakthrough.

Question Mark: Which Byron Buxton will we get this season? Despite his youth, many were beginning to write CF Byron Buxton off as a draft bust of sorts. The former number two overall pick was labeled as a defense only speedster, possessing a slash line of .216/.288/.306 in the first half. Suddenly, it all clicked, and Buxton’s last 57 games saw him slash .300/.347/.546. Mixed with his aforementioned elite defense and 29 stolen bases for the year, a full season of second half Buxton would thrust the young CF into MLB superstardom.

Prediction: The Twins have arrived, but to a party of elite superteams in the AL. Another early playoff exit is most likely, but stranger things have happened. 85-77

 

3rd. Kansas City Royals

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Positives: They get to play in a division with the Tigers and White Sox. The Royals are in a clear rebuild mode, and luckily have some decent trade pieces headed into this season. Mike Moustakas could generate interest at the deadline despite not generating any in Free Agency. Lefty Danny Duffy (3.47 ERA) and reliever Kelvin Herrera will produce a decent haul. In other words, this rebuild will likely be faster than the seemingly endless one of the 2000s.

Negatives: The Royals have arguably the worst lineup in baseball coming into 2018. No one reading this article can honestly say they knew who Chester Cuthbert before his name was typed literally right here. Projected to score the fewest runs of any ball club, the Royals will rely heavily on their rotation to make them look respectable.

Prediction: Do not let the third place finish fool you, this team is not good. With multiple compensation picks in this year’s draft, Royals fans will have to look into the 2020s for signs of life. 70-92

 

4th. Detroit Tigers

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Positives: They won’t be worse than the 2003 squad. Living in Detroit in the early 2000s meant baseball was nothing but pain. You would show up to beautiful Comerica Park to watch people act like Bobby Higginson was good. Tony Clark would ground out swinging at the first pitch. Their best player was the damn DH. Literally the only thing to look forward to was a potential Dmitri Young dinger. Somehow I was there every time they beat the Royals in 2003. The 2018 squad at least has All-Time great Miguel Cabrera to watch.

Negatives: Seriously, if you told nine-year-old me that Brandon Inge and Ramon Santiago would still be in the league through 2013 I would have yelled stranger danger. Referencing 2003 is the only way I can make current Tigers fans feel better. With Miggy on the decline and Justin Verlander looking for another ring in Houston, the Tigers are a true who’s who of “Who’s that?” Seriously, the only reason I can name the probable lineup is because of Battle Royal drafts in The Show ‘18. This is a bad team with some bad contracts to boot.

Question Mark: Was anyone else at the ballpark that one game they gave out Matt Anderson bobbleheads and he got shelled? Pretty sure it was this game. God that guy sucked.

Prediction: Things are not looking good, but the bottom of this division is so bad the Tigers may be able to avoid their second consecutive last place finish. 65-97

 

5th. Chicago White Sox

Michael Kopech

Positives: The White Sox have an elite farm system, and by dumping assets the past two seasons, their prospects will have the opportunity to gain experience on the major league stage. Top five pitching prospect Michael Kopech should be called up this summer, and should make Sox fans forget about Chris Sale quickly.

Negatives: While they wait for Kopech, the White Sox will have a very weak rotation the first half of the season. The trade for James Shields was one of the worst in recent memory. Carlos Rodon is injured, but has been unimpressive when healthy.

Question Mark: Will the team trade Jose Abreu? The former All-Star 1B put up impressive numbers last season, hitting 43 doubles and 33 homers, good for an OPS+ of 140. While there is value in keeping him around, his true worth may be in the trade market come July. An AL team searching for one more big bat could offer a king’s ransom for such gaudy numbers.

Prediction: I do not see this team holding on to Abreu, and I think it will be a rough adjustment to the bigs for this young ballclub. A last place finish is not fun, but this is probably the last time the White Sox will find themselves here for a while. 64-98

 

AL West

1st. Houston Astros

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Positives: Everything. There is not a weak spot on this club. Houston is a five-tool team with elite pitching, even more so given the acquisition of SP Gerrit Cole from the Pirates. Add in a full year of former Cy Young Justin Verlander, and this team is somehow even more terrifying than last season’s.

Negatives: I do not think Evan Gattis is the answer at DH. In addition, while Brian McCann is an excellent game manager, I would not be surprised if he took a major set-back in the hitting and durability department. If the Astros want to get really crazy, they could ship off some prospects for a C/DH (seriously, how do they still have good prospects with the roster they have already?).

Question Mark: The only real question to ask is can the Astros repeat? Cliche, but given how much this team looks to improve, it’s all we can really ask. They would be the first to do so since the 1999/2000 Yankees.

Prediction: The Astros will look to avoid a World Series hangover and are the favorites to win again this year. Given the weakness of their division, expect a similar win total from 2017. 102-60

 

2nd. Anaheim Angels

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Positives: The Angels added some great pieces this offseason. While two-way prodigy Shohei Ohtani headlines the group, signing Zack Cozart, Ian Kinsler, and Chris Young on top of extending Justin Upton puts the Angels in a good spot to compete for the Wildcard. Mike Trout actually has support! Hooray!

Negatives: Albert Pujols is your first baseman. No one would have imagined that would be a negative, but the future first ballot Hall of Famer was the least valuable player in baseball last season (-1.8 WAR). They’ll need IF utility man Luis Valbuena to step up so that Pujols can be the everyday DH (unless they want to throw Ohtani in there), but it is unclear if Pujols would even accept such a role.

Question Mark: How will Zack Cozart adjust to 3B? Before his offense caught up last season, Cozart was a defense-only shortstop during his time with the Reds. He signed with Anaheim with the expectation of moving to second. However, the very day he was flying out to sign his contract, the Angels acquired Hall of Very Good poster boy Ian Kinsler. Cozart still signed with the team and agreed to move to third. The Angels hope he can continue his defensive success at the position. However, SS to 3B is a larger adjustment than many think. If it does not go well, the Angles could have the best defensive middle infield in baseball, but the worst corners in the league.

Prediction: With how talented the AL is, the retooled Angels can really only compete for the second wild card spot. On top of that, they may need to steal some games from Houston if they want to sneak in. If Trout stays healthy, he could add a third MVP to his already HoF career. 87-75

 

3rd. Oakland Athletics

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Positives: Two young studs lead the A’s into the future. 3B Matt Chapman is an elite defender with potential for well above average hitting, while SP Sean Manaea could very well establish himself as the Ace this season if he remains consistent. It is always exciting to see star power on both sides of the field.

Negatives: The supporting cast is not there yet either. The starting pitchers give up too many homers. The ones who don’t have issues striking out batters. The lineup has some interesting pieces in OFs Stephen Piscotty and power hitting mainstay Khris Davis, but this team could have issues getting on base, much to Billy Beane/Brad Pitt’s dismay.

Question Mark: Could the bullpen push them over the top? The A’s bullpen is quite literally the A-Team. A group of ragtag unknowns, but extremely effective in their roles. And they play for a team called the A’s. Many are comparing them to the Orioles, whose conglomerate of relievers stymied the negative effects of a mediocre rotation just a few seasons ago.

Prediction: With the A’s soon to be the only game in town, Oakland fans will be happy to know this team is on the up-and up. Last place finishes are not uncommon for Oakland sports, but the A’s should stay out of the basement for a while. 80-82

 

4th. Seattle Mariners

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Positives: Despite all the hubbub around the initial trade, Dee Gordon moving to CF actually makes sense, given the larger emphasis MLB teams have placed on speed as opposed to arm strength at the position. His and SS Jean Segura’s legs are crucial to Seattle given the glacial pace at which their best hitters, Cano, Cruz, and Seager, move around the basepaths.

Negatives: Everyone is hurt. Granted, this team is not competing anytime soon given the oft-mentioned-in-this-article depth of the AL. But early season injuries for older players like Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz could foreshadow their careers’ end.

Question Mark: Rebuild Time? As mentioned, Cano and Cruz are not getting any younger. Kyle Seager is 30 and Dee Gordon 29. Felix Hernandez will be 32 in April, but last year played like he is pushing 40. Ichiro is actually 8,000 in human years. The Mariners may want to sell the lot and dream it all up again.

Prediction: The Mariners could be an interesting team if their stars can stay healthy as well as return to form, but this is unlikely. To boot, even a healthy summer and star play from star players would not be enough to push them over the Angels, Red Sox, or Twins. 79-83

 

5th. Texas Rangers

MLB: Spring Training-Texas Rangers at Oakland Athletics

Positives: The Outfield. They’re a garbage mid-80s rock band who confusingly made baseball references despite being from England. The Rangers’ outfield consists of exciting young players who could possibly lift the team from last place in the division. RF Nomar Mazara has had two seasons in the majors, but his bat has not yet compensated for his poor defense. However, he is just 22 years old. The power numbers should go up. Delino Deshields Jr. has all the makings of the perfect leadoff man with his high on base percentage and base stealing ability. Willie Calhoun is a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year after tearing up Triple-A Last year.

Negatives: The rotation is likely to be one of the worst in baseball. Cole Hamels is on the decline, Mike Minor has faltered when in a starting role. Matt Moore is trash. Doug Fister has not been good in quite some time. Bartolo Colon emerges from hibernation.

Question Mark: Can Tim Lincecum return to a semblance of his old form? The Rangers were impressed enough by Big Time Timmy Jim’s showcase this offseason to bring him on in a bullpen role. If the two-time Cy Young winner can put it back together, he could find himself back in the rotation. If not, Texas’ vote of confidence should indicate he can be a very effective reliever.

Prediction: The Rangers have a promising outfield but not much else. They will need to find trade partners for Hamels and others in order to set themselves up for future contention. Can the team lobby Texas’ government to legalize weed in time for Lincecum’s debut? 74-88

Awards Predictions:

AL MVP

Matt: Mike Trout (CF, LAA)

Sean: Aaron Judge (RF, NYY)

 

AL Cy Young

Matt: Chris Sale (SP, BOS)

Sean: Carlos Carrasco (SP, CLE)

 

AL Rookie of the Year

Matt: MIchael Kopech (SP, CHW)

Sean: Gleyber Torres (SS, NYY)

Bro-Picks: AFC and NFC Championship Predictions

Football’s Fantastic Four.

The NFL’s conference championship weekend has arrived, and all four QBs playing this weekend have combined to make it to this round 12 times. (*Okay, all of those appearances are courtesy of New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, so what?*) Other than the Patriots, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought these teams were going to make this far as late as last week, as no one expected the Jaguars make the Steelers look like dogs in Pittsburgh, the Eagles looked like they couldn’t complete a pass to save their lives with QB Nick Foles filling in for MVP candidate Carson Wentz, and the Vikings needed the  “Minneapolis Miracle”to upend the New Orleans Saints. The NFL’s regular season might have been outright terrible, but the NFL Playoffs have been nothing short of surprising and thrilling, and the AFC and NFC Championship match-ups could provide even more of those same qualities come Sunday.

Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots (3:05 P.M. E.S.T.)

Let start by apologizing to the Jacksonville Jaguars. I predicted you would go 3-13 this season and remain in the basement of the AFC. I highly doubted the Jaguars would be able to go into Heinz Field and knock off a superior Steelers team despite the fact they had done it earlier this season in week 5. The “Sacksonville” defense has been nothing short of stellar this postseason, as they have sacked the opposing team’s QB 4 times, have forced 4 turnovers, and have scored a defensive touchdown. Their defense is good enough to keep them in this game. Their rushing attack, led by rookie RB Leonard Fournette, has been a steady presence for the offense, scoring 3 touchdowns thus far. Even QB Blake Bortles has silenced some of the haters, making key throw after key throw and has even made plays with his legs en route to the Jaguars improbable postseason run.

However, despite all of the ruckus surrounding New England QB Tom Brady’s hand being injured, the Patriots are going to make it to their record 10th Super Bowl. Head coach Bill Belicheck takes the Jaguars seriously, (*unlike the Pittsburgh Steelers*), and is treating this game as if the Jags are going to pulverize the Pats. He does not want to be on the losing end a third time against Tom Coughlin, Jacksonville’s Executive VP of Football Operations, in big game spots such as these. As fitting as it would be to see the Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL’s forgotten franchise, make it to the Super Bowl, it’s just not going to happen. Even with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s long running feud with the Patriots in mind, the NFL cannot afford Blake Bortles making a Super Bowl over the golden boy.

Winner: Patriots

Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles (6:40 P.M. E.S.T.)

Had QB Carson Wentz been playing this postseason, not only would the Eagles win this game, they’d win the Super Bowl. Sure, QB Nick Foles had one of the greatest NFL seasons ever with 27 TDs compared to just 2 interceptions back in 2013, but everyone had serious doubts he could fill in for Wentz and make it this far this postseason. Foles played mistake free football last week against the Falcons, and let his top ranked defense win the game for him. It’s true defense wins championships, and the Eagles have enough of it and the “underdog” motivation to surprise everyone by making the Super Bowl despite their crushing injuries.

It should be said, however, one of the only defenses to be better than the Eagles this season belonged to the Vikings, who were number one in total defense in 2017. The Vikings shutout Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints offense for a whole half last Sunday, and looked like an impenetrable wall. Sure, it took the “Minneapolis Miracle”, a 61-yard touchdown pass from QB Case Keenum to WR Stefon Diggs, to pull-out a victory, but that play precisely sums up the Vikings this season. People have doubted this team due to it’s lack of star-power, as its top-ranked defense is mostly nameless and their starting QB has been a journeyman in the NFL. The Vikings have been underdogs his entire season, and the opportunity to be the first team to ever play in their home stadium in a Super Bowl is too good of an opportunity to go to waste. Every dog has its day.

Winner: Vikings

Bro-Picks: NFL Divisional Round Predictions

One step closer to Minnesota.

Wild Card Weekend was predictably wild, but gave us some unexpected results. The great choke artist known as Andy Reid gave away yet another home playoff game as the Chiefs blew a 21-3 halftime lead and lost to the Titans 22-21, the Falcons beat the Rams by holding Los Angeles’ explosive offense to 13 points, the Jaguars barely squeaked by the Bills 10-3 in a battle of ineptitude, and the Saints pulled the hat trick by defeating the Panthers for the third time this season.

We have now arrived at the Divisional Round in the NFL Playoffs, where the top seeds in each conference finally get in on the action. The Patriots, Steelers, Eagles, and Vikings may have earned their high seeding during the regular season, but none of that means anything now that every teams’ season can be summed up by one simple phrase: Win, or go home.

Last Week: 3-1

Overall: 167-93

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles (Saturday 4:35 P.M.)

Suddenly, the Atlanta Falcons have become the team no-one wants to see in the playoffs. Their defense is clicking, holding the league’s top offense in the Los Angeles Rams to a measly 13 points. The Falcons scored 26 points, and are undefeated when scoring 20 or more points this season. While the Eagles were experiencing a magical season behind MVP candidate QB Carson Wentz, Philly’s offense hasn’t clicked since Wentz tore his ACL in week 14. The Eagles cannot rely on the arm of backup QB Nick Foles to get them to Minnesota February 4th, and asking their 4th ranked defense to carry them to the Super Bowl is too tall of a task.

Winner: Falcons

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots (Saturday 8:15 P.M.)

The Titans rode on the back of RB Derrick Henry, who rushed for 156 yards and a TD, and had the ball bounce their way, particularly on QB Marcus Mariota’s 1 yard TD pass to himself off a deflection, en route to an epic comeback win on the road last week at Kansas City. Hope they enjoyed it while it lasted. The Patriots will want to smack anyone in their way of another title, especially after reports of a power struggle between QB Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft.

Winner: Patriots

Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday 1:05 P.M.)

The Jaguars made the Steelers look convincingly ordinary back in their week 5 meeting. After Jaguars QB Blake Bortles rushed for more yards (*88*) than he passed for (*87*) in his playoff debut last week against the Bills, it’s safe to assume Jacksonville will have a much more difficult time beating the Steelers this time around. QB Ben Roethlisberger may have thrown 5 interceptions in their last match-up, but he knows how to win in spots such as these. Throw in the return of unanimous All-Pro WR Antonio Brown, and that spells doom for the vaunted “Sacksonville” defense.

Winner: Steelers

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings (4:40 P.M.)

In a game where their one-two RB tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kumara only rushed for 45 yards on 19 carries, Saints future Hall-of-Fame QB Drew Brees turned back the clock by passing for 376 yards and 2 TDs. If need be, Brees can still fling it. However, against a top-ranked but largely nameless defense in the Vikings, Brees will find it much more difficult to have another throwback performance. And with the prospect of being the first team to play in their home stadium in the Super Bowl for the first time in NFL history, the Vikings will be even more motivated to show their regular season dominance wasn’t a fluke, particularly their week 1 drubbing of the Saints.

Winner: Vikings

Jon Gruden: The Return

Sorry Jack, Chucky’s back.

Back in 1998, then Raiders renegade owner, the late Al Davis, made a bold head coaching move. He fired coach Joe Bugel after a terrible 4-12 season, the Raiders worst season since 1987, in favor of a young, fiery, unknown commodity by the name of Jon Gruden. Gruden was a hit with the Raider Nation, embodying the eccentric fan base to a T. The fans showed their adoration for the coach by bestowing him the nickname of “Chucky”, the killer doll and horror icon from the Child’s Play franchise.

Jon Gruden roams the sidelines during his first tenure with the Oakland Raiders.

Gruden’s tenure with the Raiders was immensely successful, posting a 38-26 record in 4 seasons as the Raiders head coach, and guiding them to the AFC Championship game in 2000. His stint with the Raiders came to an abrupt end, however, when Raiders lost in controversial fashion in what is now known as “The Tuck Rule Game” against the New England Patriots. Gruden lost a power struggle with owner Al Davis, the same man who had hired him to lead the Raiders to the promised land. He was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a king’s ransom, including Tampa Bay’s 2002 and 2003 first round draft picks, their 2002 and 2004 second round draft picks, and $8 million in cash.

A joyous Jon Gruden hoists the Lombardi Trophy after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated his former team, the Oakland Raiders, 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Gruden made Davis pay for his move, as the Buccaneers blew out the Raiders the next season in Super Bowl XXXVII 48-21. Gruden’s next six seasons as head coach of the Bucs weren’t nearly as successful, posting a 45-51 record, appearing in the playoffs twice, and no playoff victories. He was fired at the end of the 2008 season after a season ending loss, which knocked Tampa out of the playoffs, to the same Raiders that had traded him away six years earlier. Ironic.

Jon Gruden looking underwhelmed during a press conference while head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It didn’t take long for Gruden to land on his feet, as he was soon announced as the color commentator for ESPN’s flagship sporting event, Monday Night Football, and remained in that role for nine years. Gruden’s star power emerged even more during this time, as he was not only praised for his commentary inside the booth, but began hosting rookie QBs ahead of the NFL Draft in “Gruden’s QB Camp.” He starred in commercials for Corona and Hooters as well, and seemed like a man who was comfortable living his life without the stresses and pressures of coaching in the NFL. But the 3:17 a.m. wake-up calls and itch to coach again never left Chucky, and teams, both in the NFL and the NCAA, seemingly pursued him every offseason. But Jon didn’t feel the time was right to return. Until now.

Jon Gruden during a broadcast of ESPN’S Monday Night Football.

Following a colossally disappointing 6-10 season for the Raiders, a season in which before it began many believed Oakland would appear in the Super Bowl, head coach Jack Del Rio was fired. The team’s star QB, Derek Carr, lost confidence. The offense under the guidance of first year offensive coordinator Todd Downing looked broken. The Raiders had massively underachieved. Before Del Rio could even announce he was fired, ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortenson reported Jon Gruden was set to return to the Black Hole, where his head coaching career began. Nearly 10 days later, Jon Gruden was introduced as the new head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

“This is a big effing deal,” proclaimed Raiders owner Mark Davis at the introductory press conference. It absolutely is. Gruden’s contract is reportedly for 10 years and $100 million dollars. Mark Davis knew he had to make a splash and keep scorned Oakland Raider fans invested in the lame duck franchise for the next two years while they remained in Oakland before bolting to Las Vegas. The fate of the franchise depended on it.

Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis needed to make a splash head coaching hire for his “lame-duck” franchise or risk losing fans before the team’s move to Las Vegas.

It helps, however, Jon Gruden believes he has unfinished business with the Raiders, as he invoked horrific memories of his final game as a Raider, “The Tuck Rule” game. “(Tom) Brady fumbled that ball,” Gruden stated. He went on to say, “Yeah, there is unfinished business as a coach. I was traded, I was fired. I’ve missed the game terribly. But I’ve really missed the Raiders. And for my career to end on that night in New England? It still ticks me off. I’m just so thrilled to be back here.”

Jon’s love for the fanbase and the city of Oakland was also prevalent throughout the press conference. “A big reason why I’m here is my passion for the city of Oakland and this franchise. And the people in the Black Hole, if you’re out there listening. I can’t wait to see you guys, man. I really can’t.”, Gruden stated. While Gruden may have 100 million little reason as to why he’s back, it’s clear he wants to be a Raider again, and wants to deliver a winning football team to the city of Oakland before loading the moving trucks. So much of the love letter to Oakland in the wake of the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas has seemed like a PR strategy, as evidenced by the acquisition of retired RB Marshawn Lynch, a native of Oakland, last offseason. But Jon Gruden epitomizes the Raiders and the East Bay’s attitude, so his adoration for the city and the franchise seems genuine.

Gruden didn’t make any promises in regards to producing a winner on the field, however, stating “I’m gonna do everything I can, no guarantees, no promises, but I want to win.” The Raiders will have to find a way to repair their offense, and must greatly improve their defense as well. Gruden seems to have taken steps in those directions already, as he announced Rams QB coach Greg Olson and Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will be the offensive and defensive coordinators respectively.

It’s not often former head coaches come back to the NFL and succeed, only Dick Vermeil won a Super Bowl with the then St. Louis Rams in 1999 after taking a hiatus from coaching. It’s not like the Raiders have had much success at bringing back old coaches either, as evidenced by Art Shell. After coaching the team from 1989 through 1994 during their Los Angeles days, Shell was re-hired to coach the team in 2006, yielding a disastrous 2-14 campaign, their worst in franchise history.  History may not be on Gruden’s side, but the time was right to come back. “I just, in my heart feel this is the thing to do. This is what I want to do. This is the organization that I want to be a part of, and I’m all in.”, Gruden said.

Jon Gruden and the Raiders won the press conference. They’ve riled-up the Raider Nation and have them believing 2018 will be their year. They have reason to believe Gruden can guide the team back to championship contention despite his near decade-long absence from coaching. Win, lose, or tie, Jon Gruden will be a member of the Raider Nation forever, but only time will tell if Mark Davis’ desperate hire will pay dividends within the next 10 years. Much like at a high stakes poker table in a Las Vegas casino, Mark Davis is all-in on Jon Gruden.

Jon Gruden and Mark Davis pose for a photo after Gruden’s introductory press conference at the Raiders headquarters in Alameda, California on January 9th, 2018.