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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Super Bowl XLIX Preview

After five months of football, there is only one game remaining in this season.  On Sunday afternoon, the New England Patriots will play the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.  This game features the top team from each conference and is widely regarded as one of the most evenly matched Super Bowls of all time.

New England vs. Seattle:  Sunday at 6:30 p.m. EST on NBC.  I'll be honest.  The reason it took me until the night before the game to post this column is because I have waffled all week long about who to pick in this game and why.  I'm not alone in struggling to predict this game.  The seers in the desert have set the betting line for Super Bowl XLIX at a virtual pick 'em  But, fence-sitting is for cowards, and I am no coward.

The intriguing thing about this game is that both teams mirror each other's strengths and weaknesses. The Seahawks are famous for their Legion of Boom defense.  But, that defense has been vulnerable to tight ends all season, and New England has the best tight end in the league in Rob Gronkowski.  The recipe to beating the Patriots in the past has been to pressure Tom Brady up the middle.  However, Seattle's interior pass rush has not been particularly effective this season while New England's interior offensive lineman have been very solid over the second half of the season.  New England's cornerback Brandon Browner has been susceptible to costly pass interference calls this season, but Seattle really does not have the explosive wide receivers to exploit the handsy Browner.

I expect both defenses to play well.  Points will be at a premium.  In the end, the deciding factor in this game is going to be Seattle's running game.  Marshawn Lynch's power combined with Russell Wilson's deception on the read option will create just enough offense to push the Seahawks to victory.

Seattle will accomplish the rare feat of winning back-to-back Super Bowl championships.  Seattle:  21-17.

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Cooking with Banshee: Bacon Cheddar Ranch Dip

Bacon Cheddar Ranch Dip.  With a name like that, I probably don't need any more intro, but this dip is even better than it sounds.  I have served it to friends with refined pallets and friends with bar room pallets.  Both sets of friends loved it.  I originally found this recipe on Hidden Valley's website.  This version contains a few additions and tweaks.

Bacon Cheddar Ranch Dip

16 oz container of sour cream
11 oz packet of ranch dip mix
1 cup finely shredded cheddar cheese
8 slices of bacon, diced
1 bunch fresh chives, chopped

Dice the bacon and cook in a skillet until crisp.  Remove from the grease and set aside to cool.  Combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl.  Mix well.  Fold the bacon into the sour cream mixture.  Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.  Serve with potato chips or vegetables.

Suggestions and Tips:
When it comes to making game day fare, I do not usually advocate skimping on the calories.  However, light sour cream is perfect in this dip.  Since this recipe came from Hidden Valley, it calls for a packet of Hidden Valley brand ranch dip.  I have always used that brand.  A different brand may have a different taste.  It is important for both texture and taste that the cheese be very finely shredded.  Therefore, I buy the prepackaged cheese for this recipe.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

NFL Playoff Predictions: Conference Championships

It's conference championship weekend in the NFL.  By the time Sunday draws to a close, the teams for Super Bowl XLIX will be set.  This year's conference championship games are both rematches from earlier in the year.  I fully expect the outcome of both games to be the same.

Green Bay at Seattle:  Sunday at 3:05 p.m. EST on FOX.  The NFC Championship features the top two seeds in the playoffs.  Green Bay advanced to the conference championship by beating Dallas last week in a controversial finish at Lambeau Field.  Despite obvious mobility problems due to an injured calf, Aaron Rogers was able to throw three touchdowns in the 26-21 victory.  Seattle was tested early at home by Carolina before pulling away in the second half for a 31-17 win.

The Seahawks and the Packers faced each other in the first game of the year.  The Seahawks thoroughly dominated that game in Seattle and won by a score of 36-16.  Since that time, the Seahawks benefitted from addition by subtraction when they sent Percy Harvin packing in October.  After that divorce, the Seahawks won nine of their final eleven games.  Meanwhile, the Seattle defense is the same stingy unit to which we've grown accustomed.

With a healthy Aaron Rogers, the Packers would have the offensive firepower to challenge the Seahawks' top-notch defense.  But, Aaron Rogers is not healthy.  The Seahawks have enough talent in the defensive backfield to gamble with blitzes by the front seven and put pressure on the hobbled Rogers.  The Packers will inevitably break a few big plays, but Russell Wilson's steady offense will provide enough points for Seattle to win by a comfortable margin.  Seattle:  28-17.

Indianapolis at New England:  Sunday at 6:40 p.m. EST on CBS.  For the fifth time since 2004, the New England Patriots will meet the Indianapolis Colts in a playoff game.  During that stretch, the home team won every matchup.  Sunday's game will be played in New England.

The Patriots were the top seed in the AFC for a reason.  Tom Brady's offense has been dynamic all season long, and the defense is perhaps the most talented group of the Belichick era.  The Patriots finished the regular season with a solid 12-4 record.  Last week, Baltimore pushed New England to the brink, but that speaks more to the grittiness of the Ravens than to a weakness on the part of the Patriots.

When these two teams played in Indianapolis in Week 11, the Patriots dismantled the Colts by a score of 42-20.  However, the Colts have been more physical on both sides of the ball during the first two games of the playoffs than they had been all throughout the regular season.  The Colts had the top-rated passing offense during the regular season, but they will need to muster up a meaningful running game if they hope to stay close in this game.  Andrew Luck is the master of the comeback, so this game will never really be out of reach.  But the final score will not be be particularly close.  New England:  38-21.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Oregon vs. Ohio State Preview

History will be made on Monday night in Iriving, Texas when Oregon plays Ohio State at Cowboy Stadium.  The Ducks and the Buckeyes will be playing in the first ever the national championship game of the College Football Playoff era.

Path to the Championship.  The Oregon Ducks won the PAC-12 championship game over Arizona after posting a regular season record of 11-1.  That was good enough for the playoff committee to award the Oregon Ducks with the #2 seed in the playoff field.  This matched them up against the undefeated defending champion Florida State Seminoles in the Rose Bowl.  Oregon didn't just win the game.  The Ducks thoroughly outclassed the Seminoles in a 59-20 route on their way to the national championship game.

The Ohio State Buckeyes were the champions of the Big Ten.  They were undefeated in regular season conference play before beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.  The Buckeyes were the last team to get into the playoffs and were the #4 seed.  That sent them to New Orleans to play the #1 seed Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl.  Not many experts gave the Buckeyes much of a chance against the Tide.  After falling behind in the first quarter, the Buckeyes slowly and steadily pulled out a victory by a score of 42-35.

The Wins.  In the second week of the season, Oregon invited Michigan State to Autzen Stadium and sent them home in defeat by a score of 46-27.  Michigan State was ranked #7 in the nation at the time and finished the season at 11-2, including a victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.  During conference play, the Ducks beat ranked teams on the road at UCLA and Utah.  Oregon dismantled Stanford at home by a score of 45-16 and beat the arch rival Oregon State Beavers on the road to end the regular season.  In the PAC-12 championship game, the Ducks annihilated Arizona by a score of 51-13, who was ranked #7 in the nation at the time.  Oregon followed that up with the aforementioned beatdown of Florida State in the Rose Bowl.

During the regular season, Ohio State only played two ranked teams.  Both of those games were on the road.  The Buckeyes beat Michigan State 49-37.  The next week, Ohio State beat Minnesota 31-24.  The Buckeyes probably earned their spot in the playoffs with their performance in the Big Ten championship game.  A tight victory probably would not have gotten the committee's attention, but Ohio State beat Wisconsin like a drum on the way to a 59-0 shutout.

The Losses.  The only game that Oregon played all year that was decided by less than a touchdown was their lone loss.  Arizona beat Oregon 31-24 at Oregon in early October.  The Wildcats held the Ducks to their lowest point total of the season in that contest.  Of course, Oregon avenged this loss with a dominant performance in the PAC-12 championship game.

Ohio State stumbled early in the season when they lost at home to a very mediocre Virginia Tech team by two touchdowns at home.  Despite the fact that Ohio State was still breaking in a new starting quarterback, that game remains a head scratcher.  Then of course, there is the game in Happy Valley where the Buckeyes in reality lost to a depleted Penn State squad.  Officially, however, that game went in the books as a 31-24 double overtime victory for the Buckeyes.

Banshee's Rooting Interests.  I'm not actually a journalist.  I'm actually a fan.  A passionate fan.  I am a fan of football.  I am a fan of tradition and history.  And, I am a fan of scholar athletes.  As such,  I am very torn about who to root for tonight.

As a Penn State fan, it is engrained into the very fiber of my being to root against Ohio State.  But, I was raised to root for your rivals when they advance to the post season, and I root for the Big Ten in every bowl game.  Ohio State puts that to the test, though, with guys like Urban Meyer coaching the team and self-proclaimed anti-scholars like Cordale Jones at quarterback.

Then there are the Oregon Ducks.  They are led by a shining example of a scholar and a citizen in their quarterback Marcus Mariota.  The man thanked Oregon for his education during this Heisman acceptance speech.  On the other hand, Oregon had long been on my bad list for their lack of tradition and garish uniforms.  But, I gave up all those prejudices when Phil Knight, Nike founder and top Oregon booster, spoke at Joe Paterno's memorial service.  It was a moving and firm tribute to a friend.  Since that day, I want Phil to be happy.  A national championship would do that.

The Prediction.  If you want detailed breakdowns of the X's and O's, then you probably have already tracked that down on ESPN.  Here is how I break it down.  I saw a version of Ohio State that lost to Virginia Tech and Penn State (yes, that was a loss).  I have never seen a version of Oregon who would lose to either of those teams this year.  Oregon will win in a shootout.  Oregon 42-25.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

NFL Playoff Predictions: Divisional Round

This weekend is the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs.  Normally, this one of the most dramatic and entertaining weekends on the sports calendar.  This year, however, the seers in the desert have set the point spread at less than a touchdown in only one game.  Wild Banshee thinks we'll see a little more drama than that.

Baltimore at New England:  Saturday at 4:35 p.m. EST on NBC.  For teams who are not in the same division, the Ravens and the Patriots have developed a heated rivalry over the last several years.  New England earned the top spot in the AFC playoff field with a 12-4 record.  The Pats are coming off a bye and will be playing at home.  So, it's no surprise that they are heavily favored in this game versus the wildcard Ravens.  The Patriots have put on some prolific offensive performances in marquis games this year, but over the course of the entire season, the Patriots and Ravens were not very far apart in total offense or points.  Although the Ravens have long been known for their defense, the primary weakness on this year's team is the defensive secondary.  However, Tom Brady and his receiving corps have not been able to stretch the field with deep passing all year.  I am not picking the upset here, but I do believe that the Ravens will give the Patriots all they can handle.  In the end, Rob Gronkowski will make enough plays to propel New England into the next round.  New England: 24-21.

Carolina at Seattle:  Saturday at 8:10 p.m. EST on FOX.  The Seattle Seahawks begin their title defense at home against a team that had a losing record in the regular season.  The Panthers made the playoffs by being the least terrible team in the horrendous NFC South and then advanced to the second round by beating a Cardinals team that was absolutely decimated by injuries to their offense.  The Panthers have looked every bit as bad as all of that sounds.  Meanwhile, the Seahawks have been on an absolute tear since they cut out the cancer that is Percy Harvin.  The defense is once again a fearsome force, and Russell Wilson is playing championship caliber football at the quarterback position.  Las Vegas set one of the highest point spreads in recent playoff memory for this game, and I whole heartedly agree with that assessment.  Everyone can get a good night's sleep for church in the morning because the Seahawks will have this game well in hand by halftime.  Seattle: 38-10.

Dallas at Green Bay:  Sunday at 1:05 p.m. EST on FOX.  The last time these teams met in the playoffs, it was in the famed Ice Bowl in 1967.  This time around, the fans at Lambeau Field will get to enjoy balmy 18 degree weather.  The Packers were a perfect 8-0 at home this season.  Remarkably, the Cowboys were a perfect 8-0 on the road.  Obviously, one of these streaks must end.  The primary reason for Dallas' road success is that a running game travels well.  The Cowboys running game should be effective again this weekend against a Packers defense that ranked 23rd against the run this season.  Every minute that the Cowboys offense spends grinding out yards on the ground is a minute that the Green Bay offense stays on the sidelines.  Even Aaron Rogers and his prolific offense cannot score points from the bench.  When Rogers is on the field, there are a lot of questions about how effective he can be with a partially torn calf muscle.  Over the past decade, the Cowboys have earned a reputation for wilting when the spotlight was bright, but this year's team has a different vibe.  A gritty vibe.  Tony Romo and the Cowboys will find a way to win on the frozen tundra.  Dallas:  28-24.

Indianapolis at Denver:  Sunday at 4:40 p.m. EST on CBS.  The media storyline heading into this game will be all about the quarterbacks.  Peyton Manning, the face of the Colts for so many years, versus Andrew Luck, the man who seamlessly took over that mantel.  However, it is the running game that will be the deciding factor in this game.  In short, the Broncos have one, and the Colts do not.  Denver will not need a spectacular performance from Manning in order to push past the Colts.  Due to the comeback credentials of Luck, this game will never truly be out of reach, but the Broncos will win this game by a solid margin.  Denver:  35-13.

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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Best Sports Tantrums of 2014

This is one of my favorite columns to write, but the 2014 edition presented some unique challenges.  Some of the best incidents of the year happened after the change from fall to winter but before the start of 2015.  So, stay tuned.  In the mean time, enjoy this look back at the best sports tantrums of 2014.  They are presented in order of occurrence not in order of greatness.

1. Not Very Ladylike.  We didn't have to wait long to get our first great spectacle of 2014.  This clip comes from the Sugar Bowl on January 2, 2014 between Alabama and Oklahoma.  The star of this video is reportedly an Alabama fan who is the mother of three children ... three children who were with her at the game!  This video has all sorts of gems.  Pre-fight trash talk.  A stealthy escape from calmer friends.  A Superman dive.  And a barrage of wild kicks.  My only question is:  Just how many Bourbon Street hurricanes contributed to this craziness?

2.  Lend Me Your Ear.  This incident involves the glorious combination of teammates fighting and body parts being bitten off.  This gem comes to us from the Dodgers' farm system.  On May 20, 2014, the Triple A Albequercue Isotopes were playing a road game in Salt Lake City when hostilities broke out between Miguel Olivo and Alex Guerrero.  The first skirmish takes place during a pitching change in the bottom of the seventh inning.  Olivo, the catcher, was angry with his shortstop for failing to tag out a baserunner who stole second.  Olivo was so angry that he had to be restrained from assaulting Guerrero.  After the inning, the Olivo continued the hostilities in the dugout.  As Guerrero was preparing an at bat, Olivo decked his teammate and knocked him to the ground.  Teammates broke up the scuffle, but when they did, part of Guerrero's ear was in Olivo's mouth.  Not good.  Or as they say in Guerrero's native Cuba, "No bueno."  Guerrero is a top prospect in the Dodgers' organization.  The injury required plastic surgery and sidelined Guererro for over a month.  Unfortunately, since this was a Triple A game, there is not excellent video.  This was the best I could find.  The musical accompaniment is pretty good, though.

3.  Take It All Off.  Single A baseball is a special sort of American experience.  And Joe Mikulik is a special kind of Single A manager.  Mikulik has a long history of histrionics, but his meltdown on August 17, 2014 in a game in Salem, VA, showed some true creativity.  Dressing down an umpire is nothing new for a manager, but Mikulik drew the attention of the national media when he dressed himself down at home plate.

4.  Cow Terd Rant.  Every team has a few crazy fans, but it seems like Alabama football might have the market cornered on crazy middle aged women.  The winter edition of Temper Temper for 2014 included a mother of three going all WWE on a young Oklahoma fan at the Sugar Bowl.  After an October loss to Ole Miss this fall, this old-sounding lady lit into Paul Finebaum on the radio.  I'm not sure what Paawwwl said to provoke this, but clearly Phyllis from Mulga thought it was fightin' words.

5.  Haymakers and Hans Devices.  Brad Keselowski did not win the NASCAR championship in 2014, but he may have accomplished a feat even more rare.  During this year's Chase for the Championship, Keselowski provoked two of the sport's most mild mannered drivers to physical violence.  Less than a month ofter a fracas with Matt Kenneth, Keselowski found himself in the middle of this brawl involving Jeff Gordon.  This fight starts in earnest when Kevin Harvick pushes Keselowski from behind into a group of Jeff Gordon's crew members.  Then it's on.  My favorite part of this clip is the crowd noise.  I don't know if this was broadcast on the big screen displays at Texas Motor Speedway or if the fans could actually see the action from their seats.  Either way, it sounds like a WWE event.

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

NFL Playoff Predictions: Wild Card Weekend

It's playoff time in the NFL.  Since the NFL adopted its current playoff format a decade ago, the Super Bowl champion has been a wild card team three times.  In other words, as long as you make the tournament, you have a chance to win the title.  But the first step to the Lombardi Trophy is to win this weekend.

Arizona at Carolina:  Saturday at 4:20 p.m. EST on ESPN.  The first game of the NFL playoffs is one of the hardest games to predict.  The Arizona Cardinals won eleven games in one of the toughest divisions in the league while the Panthers didn't even manage a winning record in one of the worst divisions in the history of sports.  Unfortunately for Arizona fans, injuries have absolutely decimated the Cardinals.  When the Cardinals take the field, Ryan Lindley will be starting at quarterback instead of either Carson Palmer or Drew Stanton and Stephon Taylor will be starting at running back instead of Andre Ellington.  That is just to much to overcome in a road game in the playoffs.  The Panthers will score just enough points to outlast the Cardinals and advance in an ugly game.  Carolina: 17-13.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh:  Saturday at 8:15 p.m. EST on NBC.  The AFC North was arguably the most competitive division in the NFL in 2014.  This game features a matchup of division foes and fierce rivals.  The Steelers won the AFC North and won five games against playoff teams along the way.  The Ravens only won two games against playoff teams, but one of those victories did come against the Steelers.  In terms of yards allowed, the Ravens have the 8th best defense in the league, but they are ranked 23rd against the pass.  Ben Roethlisberger was the leading passer in entire league this season.  Big Ben and Antonio Brown will be the difference in this game.  Despite a banged up Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers will score enough points to advance past the Ravens in comfortable fashion.  Pittsburgh:  34-24.

Cincinnati at Indianapolis:  Sunday at 1:05 p.m. EST on CBS.  I'm going to be honest.  I was really looking forward to picking against both of these teams in the first weekend of the playoffs.  Now I've got to make a choice.  The choice is even harder since the status of A.J. Green is up in the air due to concussion issues.  If this was 1995 instead of 2015, there is no doubt that Green would be playing, but alas we have better medicine now.  According to the conventional wisdom in Vegas, the home team gets three points in their favor.  So that's what I'm going with here.  Andrew "The Giant" Luck will carry the Colts to victory in a close but ugly game.  Indianapolis:  27-13.

Detroit at Dallas:  Sunday at 4:20 p.m. EST on FOX.  I'm not too proud to admit that I did not believe in Dallas when the season began.  But, I believe now.  The Cowboys are playing on wild card weekend due to the mystical NFL tie-breaker procedures, but they were actually tied for the best record in the entire NFL.  The Cowboys were the second best rushing team in the league this season.  Meanwhile, the Lions were the best rushing defense.  Even thought Suh won his appeal and will be playing in this game, the Lions will still be without Nick Fairley on the defensive line.  That's all the help that the Cowboy's running game needs.  The Cowboys' running game is going to set the tone early in this game and finish out the game during crunch time.  Dallas:  37-24.

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