For Week Three, Staff Writer Duncan Slobodzian will be breaking in three AtD newcomers. Correspondents Chris Rotolo, Mike McLoughlin and Drew Conn will be making their predictions about the most competitive division in the NFL, who deserves the Most Valuable Player crown in the American and National Leagues and whether or not the blue and gold can recreate the magic of the 2007 season.
1. The good old NFL season is just around the corner. There’s been a flurry of offseason activity, among the coaching ranks and the rosters. What division looks to be the most competitive, in your opinion?
MM: The most competitive division in the NFL will continue to be the NFC East. The Giants and Cowboys may be weaker this year since both teams’ quarterbacks lost a standout wide receiver. Couple that with the Redskins overhauling the defensive line with Brian Orakpo and Albert Haynesworth, and the Eagles bringing in playmakers like Jeremy Maclin and Michael Vick. I can envision all four teams competing very well with each other. While I would still rank the teams from first to last — Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, Redskins — the gap between the first and last team in the division is smaller than any other in the NFL.
CR: The NFC North is the only division in the NFL with three legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The Vikings and Bears no longer have the same gaping offensive fissures as last season. Brett Favre is Minnesota’s starting quarterback, and pay no mind to the critics, the man is an upgrade to Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels. After 20 years, the Bears finally found a franchise quarterback in Jay Cutler. Green Bay has the most balanced offense in football with Ryan Grant in the backfield, Donald Driver and Greg Jennings on the wings and Aaron Rodgers, one of the best young field generals in the league, at the helm. In addition, all three of these franchises’ defenses frustrate opposing offenses well enough. Finally, Detroit will not be the joke of the league if Daunte Culpepper starts. You can have worse leaders than him, and his primary target, Calvin Johnson, reminds me of Culpepper’s former teammate Randy Moss. Culpepper has had a lot of practice tossing up jump balls to big wide outs.
DC: Without a doubt, the two most competitive divisions are going to be the NFC East and the NFC North because they are the only divisions where you can make a very legitimate case for three out of the four teams to finish first in the division. Brett Favre and Jay Cutler will be huge additions for their respective teams, and Aaron Rodgers will be seen as an elite quarterback after this season, but I have to give the edge to the NFC East simply because the Detroit Lions are going to be absolutely terrible again. In the East I am not only intrigued by the additions of Michael Vick and Albert Haynesworth, but I am also curious to see how the Giants and Cowboys play without Plaxico Burress and Terrell Owens. Ultimately this division will be dictated by how well, or poorly, these two teams are able to adjust their passing games without these superstar wide receivers.
DS: I figured these would be the popular answers. Good arguments all around, but the 3 points go to Chris for his analysis of the major playmakers in the NFC north. Drew racks up 2 points for bringing up the point about the big name receivers. It should figure to be a major storyline this year. One point for Mike since he made more or less the same contention, but didn’t go as hard as my man Drew.
2) There’s only about a month left of regular season baseball to play. Who do you see as the frontrunners for the American League and National League MVP?
MM: The frontrunner for the NL MVP race right now is, of course, Albert Pujols. With a .333 batting average, .427 on-base percentage and .628 slugging percentage, he is not just having the best year in the National League, but in all of baseball. Couple this with his stellar defense at first base and you are looking at one of the best players of our generation. The AL MVP race has garnered more discussion, although it is not particularly close. While newspaper headlines would lead one to believe Mark Teixeira is the favorite for the MVP, he is not even the best candidate on his own team. Derek Jeter is having a renaissance year at shortstop, with improved defense and a ridiculous average. That aside, the AL MVP will be Joe Mauer. Even though he missed around 30 games, he still has 26 homeruns and 80 RBI’s on a Twins team that sometimes looks lost offensively. He is also leading the league with a .367 batting average. While these numbers might not look flashy, you must consider the position he plays. Mauer is putting up these numbers as a catcher, a position not known for its offensive ability. To lead the league in batting average and have respectable power numbers, while playing a position as demanding as catcher, makes Mauer a lock for MVP in the AL.
CR: While Alex Rodriguez was rehabbing during the first month of the season, the Yankee lineup was in shambles and not producing. Since Rodriguez’s return, the third baseman has provided a feared presence in the middle of the order. Critics cannot even call A-Rod’s lack of clutch performances into question, as he seems to have overcome his situational hitting anxieties. If you need more convincing, the Yankees opened the season 13-15. Since A-Rod’s return, the Bombers have gone 72-33, earning themselves the best record in baseball. A-Rod gets my vote for the AL. The emergence of Pablo Sandoval has alleviated all types of pressure from his team, the San Francisco Giants. Their pitchers know they do not have to throw shutouts every night, and the hitters do not have to swing for McCovey Cove every at-bat. Sandoval leads his team in every major offensive category with a .330 batting average, 21 home runs and 75 runs batted in. He is the Giants’ only real offensive threat. San Francisco trusts in Sandoval, and his offensive prowess has carried the Giants into the Wild Card race. He sounds like an MVP to me.
DC: I find it very difficult to argue against the NL MVP belonging to Albert Pujols because he has had another amazing year. There is a reason why this guy is called “The Machine.” He is about as consistent a hitter as there is, and the most clutch batter in baseball. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no need to talk about a number two or three guy in the NL because they simply do not matter. However, the AL race is much more interesting. I would have to say that Mauer is the current front-runner, and will ultimately win the MVP, but you must give Teixeira some credit as a number two guy since he has brought stability to the middle of the Yankees lineup, which is something they have needed for years. But I think the dark horse that no one really talks about right now is Derek Jeter. The guy has been great for the Yankees and should at least be mentioned in the MVP discussion. He has a .330 batting average, leads the team in hits and steals, and is a close second in runs scored and on-base percentage. And do I need to mention that he is also the captain and undisputed leader of the best team in baseball?
DS: This was an alley-oop of a question — or at least half of one. Pujols is undisputedly the frontrunner in the NL, but I see the AL as slightly more wide open. I like Mike for the 3 here, the stats cited just don’t lie. Two for Drew since he identified Mauer as the favorite but spent more time talking about Jeter. Chris gets the 1. Interesting take on Sandoval, but his numbers pale in comparison to Pujols’ numbers.
3) The College’s football team hit the new turf on Sept. 5 in their season opener. What’s your season prediction for the Lions?
MM: I will admit that my knowledge of the College’s football program is marginal at best, which is why I will predict an undefeated season for the Lions! Now that they are playing on a football field that is not covered with lead, the team will truly realize the potential they have always had.
CR: Currently, the Lions rank sixth in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) pre-season coach’s poll. After reading head coach Eric Hamilton’s comments from the NJAC pre-season media conference call, I am not so sure the team is much better than that. “We may not have the most or the best talent in the conference coming back,” Hamilton said. “But we have a lot of players returning with a little bit of experience.” In addition, Hamilton said the team’s quarterback situation was not yet settled between seniors Chris James and Bill Picatagi in the preseason. A conference championship contender needs to have a clear-cut leader this close to the start of the season. As for the defense, Hamilton wants to get some bigger bodies on the defensive line and was not reassuring when he expounded on the matter. “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that,” he said. If your trench fighters are not the biggest and strongest, then you have to have a solid line backing core, which, based on Hamilton’s comments, he and his coaches seem unsure about. Taking all of that into consideration, I would say the future of this season is not looking too bright.
DC: Regarding Lions football, I have one word for you — experience. There are alot of upperclassmen on this team who have been out there before, and I expect them to execute on both sides of the ball. And I hear that we were predicted to finish sixth in the NJAC this year? I smell déjà vu, as we were predicted sixth in 2007 and then went on to win the NJAC. I have a lot of faith in Chris James and the rest of the upperclassmen this year, and I’m going to predict that we at least tie our 2007 record of 9-3. I really believe that we can win the NJAC this year if we stay healthy and play smart, hard-nosed football.
DS: Hats off to Drew and Mike for their glass-more-than-half-full brand of optimism, but since I think Chris’ take is a little closer to reality, he gets the 3 points. The Lions should figure to be competitive in the perennially tough NJAC this year, but an undefeated season or repeat of ’07 seem far-fetched predictions for any program. Two for Drew, 1 for Mike.
Chris earns his first career win, 7 – 6 – 5