Lions around the dorm

Howdy sports fans, and welcome to the second AtD installment of the semester. This week, we discuss the Yankees’ playoff chances, the future of tennis in the United States and possible AFC South champions. Going head-to-head-to-head this week is sports editor and AtD rookie Allison Singer, staff writer Justin Jez and correspondent Steve Cohen. Arts & entertainment editor James Queally is ref.

1. Despite a tumultuous season, the Yankees find themselves the current AL wild card leaders courtesy of a nine-game skid by the Seattle Mariners. With a shaky pitching rotation and the recent injuries to Roger Clemens and Andy Phillips, will the Yankees hang on to make the playoffs? And if so, how far can they go?

AS: I think the Yankees are (finally) in it to win it and, at the very least, they’ve got a shot. Losing Clemens to an injury shouldn’t affect them as they make their way into the playoffs. After all, he’s only 6-6 on the season and his current 4.45 ERA is the highest season ERA he’s had since 1999. Plus, with Chein-Ming Wang and Andy Pettite starting, and Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain (if he can keep the ball from “slipping” toward anyone’s head) to seal the deal, the Yankees should be able to land on their feet. Losing Phillips shouldn’t become too much of a problem either. Jason Giambi and Shelley Duncan have already proven themselves to be solid first basemen, and adding another slugger to the lineup may actually help rather than hinder the Yankees’ chance at making the playoffs. If the team can keep itself together long enough to hold on to the wild card, I’d say the Yankees have a shot at another World Series title.

JJ: It seems every year around this time we ask this question of the underachieving Yankees, and every year the answer has been ‘yes,’ they will make the playoffs. The Yanks are four games ahead in the wild card and are being propelled forward by A-Rod’s surreal hitting spree. An All-Star Yankee lineup that can put up double-digit runs every night gives the Mariners little chance to catch up. The Yanks play Toronto seven times and face Boston only three before the end of the season whereas Seattle has to face Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles. Like you said, the Yanks’ pitching will be their downfall in the postseason. I don’t think they’ll make it past the divisional series.

SC: Without question, the Yankees are going to make the playoffs. The last couple of games have shown the Seattle Mariners’ nine-game losing streak was the least of their problems, dropping their last two games to the Yankees in blowouts. Now New York has some breathing room in its hunt for the playoffs. As far as the loss of Phillips goes, he has performed well but it’s not like the Yankees are lacking in depth at first base; they still have Giambi, Duncan, Wilson Betemit and Doug Mientkiewicz who recently returned from injury. Clemens missing the playoffs would be a bigger blow to the Yankees because they need his experience and leadership come playoff time. The Bronx Bombers have the talent to go as far as they want; it’s a matter of whether or not the performance of key players such as Clemens, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera and, most importantly, Alex Rodriguez will determine how far the Yanks can go. Fortunately for this Yankees fan, I think that the A-Rod we’ve seen all this year is going to show up in the playoffs and help lead this team to at least the ALCS if not the World Series.

JQ: Jez earns three points for having the most in-depth and realistic analysis of the Yankees postseason hopes. Mediocre pitching always ruins good teams in the postseason, and he pointed out one of the most overlooked factors in deciding tight playoff races: strength of schedule. Cohen, Singer, I highly doubt there is a World Series appearance in the cards for the “Bombers,” but Cohen picks up two for a solid breakdown of the Yankees’ roster. Allie gets one for knocking on Clemens – he’s 45! 6-6 and a +4 ERA are fine numbers. They need his leadership presence and experience more than anything else.

2. Andy Roddick was the only male American to reach the quarterfinal round at this year’s U.S. Open. The ATP rankings are dominated by foreign players, and the United States has not won a Davis Cup since 1995. Will we ever keep pace with the rest of the world in tennis, or will the sport fall in line with soccer as a game we just can’t win?

AS: There are two parts to this question: Can the United States keep up in terms of being able to take home a championship, and can the United States keep up with other countries in terms of moving tennis into the mainstream. In terms of a championship, I think eventually we will turn out a winner. Go to any high school or college tennis tournament and you’ll see that the United States is not devoid of young talent. One of these players just needs to have the talent and the determination to win. Will tennis ever steal the hearts of mainstream America? The answer to that, I believe, is no. We enjoy watching it to a point, but our love affair with baseball and football leaves little “love” for tennis – and yes, I went there. Maybe tennis and soccer can team up to make a mega-sport and gain some popularity in the United States. Now that’s something I’d like to see.

JJ: First of all, Roddick put up a fantastic effort against Federer. Anyway, I think the reason that so many of the elite tennis players are not American has to do with the popularity of the sport in the states. Look at soccer: In the last decade, with the emergence of the MLS and growing popularity, the United States made it deep in the World Cup and has earned worldwide respect. If tennis was marketed better, given more money and was more important to our culture, then you would see more Americans dominate. No one is beating us in football, baseball and basketball (starting from now on anyway).

SC: The United States is fully capable of keeping up with the world in tennis . when Roger Federer retires. It’s difficult for anyone to compete with arguably the best tennis player of all time. However, it’s not like the United States is not still a competitor as far as the rest of the world is concerned. They have two of the top 10 players in the male circuit (Andy Roddick ranked No. 5 and James Blake ranked No. 6). Unfortunately for every pro tennis player in the world, with the exception of Rafael Nadal playing on a clay court, nobody will win a major without it being a fluke or Federer not competing.

JQ: Jez takes three again for having the most complete answer. Marketing and popularity are key to building a national talent pool for a sport. Singer scores two for also making the popularity argument and for proposing the idea of a tennis/soccer mega-sport. Cohen ends up the low-man this round. Roger Federer may stop the Americans from winning individual slam titles, but he is not the lone reason why we can’t place more than three guys in the top 50 in the world. After Roddick and Blake, our next-highest player, Mardy Fish, stands at No. 40 and he’s only there because of a recent upset victory.

3. Time to pull out your crystal balls guys. It’s the start of the NFL season, and while the Saints are the odds-on favorite to take the NFC, who is your preseason favorite to take this year’s very deep AFC?

AS: As my friend said on Thursday night as we watched Reggie Wayne score his second touchdown, there is something classy about the Colts. Now, I know what you’re thinking: She’s only going with the Colts because they won the other night. But I don’t think anyone can say the Colts don’t have a great shot at taking the AFC. With Peyton’s rocket arm that can hit a target from a mile away, they’re pretty much a lock for the AFC South. Couple Peyton’s experience with young talents like Tony Ugoh and first-year starter Joseph Addai, then add the coaching expertise of Tony Dungy – which, in six years, has led the Colts to four AFC South titles and a big Super Bowl win – and you’ve got a solid AFC Championship bid.

JJ: First off, how can you look past the Bears, Cowboys and Rams in the NFC? But to answer your question, I have to go with the Indianapolis Colts to dominate once again. It is hard to see how the Colts can lose even one game this year after Thursday’s second-half dismantling of the Saints. Peyton is unquestionably the game’s best quarterback. Reggie Wayne was burning the Saints secondary and, despite an early injury, Addai looks like he will be a serious threat at running back. Most importantly, the Colts’ underrated defense looked stellar. They only allowed three points against supposedly one of the best offenses in the league. Yes, there are many great teams in the AFC including LT’s Chargers, but I do not see anyone getting more wins this season than the Colts.

SC: Trying to pick the winner of the AFC before the season starts is like trying to play Dance Dance Revolution without any legs: not possible. The preseason isn’t a strong indicator of who will do what in the regular season and there are too many strong teams to choose from. That being said, I believe this season Steve McNair gets another AFC championship ring. The Baltimore Ravens have three strong receiving threats between Michael Clayton, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. We also can’t forget they vastly improved their running game by picking up Willis McGahee in the offseason. They still have one of the strongest offensive lines in the NFL led by Jonathan Ogden, as well as their ridiculously strong defense led by Ray Lewis. This is a truly complete team which is why my pick to win the AFC is the Baltimore Ravens.

JQ: Cohen gets three for picking up on the revamped Baltimore Ravens; with that receiver core and McNair in the pocket, they may be the only team in the AFC that can go pound-for-pound offensively against the Colts. If this were Around the Horn, he’d get a bonus point for mentioning DDR, but I’m not Adande and he’s not Cowlishaw. Singer grabs two for her basic-but-effective rundown of why the Colts are the odds-on favorite to take the AFC. Jez grabs one because he’s got a big mouth. Rex Grossman is a joke, Tony Romo rode one year of good fortune and will now fade into football obscurity and while I believe the Rams are a playoff threat and possible spoiler, Mark Bulger is not a Super Bowl quarterback – his numbers don’t add up.

In another 7-6-5 race, Jez earns this week’s title and bragging rights.