FIRST/SECOND QUARTER: What to like and dislike about last week’s loss to the Bengals

Todd: While the Pats’ defense only allowed one touchdown the entire game, they did struggle at times getting off the field.  Cincinnati’s balanced offensive attack (162 yards rushing, 179 passing) converted 6-of-15 third down opportunities and held the ball for over 34 minutes.  It also seemed the Bengals could effectively run the ball up the middle whenever they wanted, something they might have tried much less had Vince Wilfork been playing, which will be a concern going forward.  But generally speaking, when your defense holds the opposition to thirteen points, you like your chances at victory…unless the offense can’t find the end zone themselves.  The play-calling seemed out of sync all day (a dreadful 1-of-12 on third down), summed up by the Pats attempting as many running plays as Brady had completions (18).  After striking the perfect balance in Atlanta, the offense reverted back to a pass-first mentality with Stevan Ridley out.  Unfortunately Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes and saw his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass (52) end two games and about six inches shy of Drew Brees’ record, his struggles in part due to Cincy’s physically defensive play.  Just as the Pats’ D had made a statement early in their win over the Falcons, the Bengals did the same thing on the second play of the game when Geno Atkins barreled through the Pats’ o-line for an easy takedown of Brady, one of four sacks and several pressures they had on the day.

Mike: What's not to like? The Pats played horribly. This was a horrible game to watch, and it never seemed like they were in synch once during the entire debacle. The Pats kept giving up long scoring drives to the Bengals and looked mostly inept on offense themselves. All in all, a forgettable game.

THIRD/FOURTH QUARTER: Patriots-Saints preview and other games we like this week

Todd (0-3 last week, 5-7 season): I’ll start with some good news—it looks like Rob Gronkowski will finally make his much-anticiapted 2013 Pats debut, which combined with Ridley’s return (he’s been practicing this week) is a big plus for Brady and the offense.  But the bad news is that Gronk won’t even be the best tight end playing at Gillette Stadium this Sunday.  That honor belongs to Jimmy Graham of the unbeaten New Orleans Saints, who is averaging over seven catches and one touchdown per game, and at his current pace could approach 2,000 receiving yards by season’s end.  The Pats’ defense had all sorts of problems trying to contain Tony Gonzalez for most of the game two weeks ago in Atlanta, and Graham represents a younger and taller version of Gonzalez.  Even if the Pats’ defense can slow Graham down, who do they have that can cover Darren Sproles in the open field?  Drew Brees just has way too many options in his passing arsenal, including old friend Benjamin ‘I can’t believe he’s still playing’ Watson.  I know I’ve said it before, but this will be the biggest test of the season to date for the defense, one where I think they’ll ultimately come up short.  Saints 30, Patriots 21.

As for my weekly picks, kudos to Mike for his white-hot 6-0 streak the last two weeks (and correctly picking Indy’s upset of Seattle), while I’ll give myself whatever the opposite of kudos are.  2-7 the last three weeks?  Not gonna get it done.  Eliminating themes to my picks last week didn’t get it done either.  How about eliminating any analysis whatsoever?  Chiefs over Raiders, Texans over Rams and Seahawks over Titans.  Done, done and done.

Mike (3-0 last week, 9-3 season): I'm not so sure Gronk is going to play this week, as the latest reports coming out of the Bunker in Foxboro are indicating that doctors haven't cleared him to play yet.

If he doesn't play, I think the Patriots will have a tough road ahead of them this weekend as they take on one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now in New Orleans. Frankly, even if Gronk does suit up, I question just how effective he will be coming back from such a long layoff. The problem is that fans are going to expect him to be an immediate savior, and he's going to need some time to regain his dominant form.

On the other side of the ball, sure, the defense held down the Bengals last week, but that was the Bengals...this is an elite quarterback and offense on the other side of the field this week, and I think the Pats are going to have a hard time stopping them. Saints 28, Pats 17.

As for the other games this week, I'll take the Steelers over the Jets, The Niners over Arizona and Dallas over Washington.

(Oh, and by the way-Jacksonville is going to beat that 28-point spread against Denver-not necessarily win the game, but they WILL beat that spread).

SEVENTH INNING STRETCH: Final thoughts on Red Sox ALDS win versus the Rays

Todd: These Red Sox remind me of your typical great mom-and-pop sandwich shop because they’ve got SUBS that deliver (Gomes, Bogaerts, etc) and GRINDERS up and down the batting order who make opposing pitchers work, which is exactly what they did in their relatively easy takedown of the Rays.  Putting up nineteen runs in Games 1 and 2 against Matt Moore and David Price, two pitchers who had good regular season numbers against the Sox, was a surprise to me.  But it was not surprising the Sox relied on the same offensive approach that served them so well all year, to wear down Tampa Bay’s pitching staff by working counts (they might’ve also been aided in Game 1 by Will Myers’ I-got-it-no-you-take-it method to playing right field).

They say success starts at the top, and Boston’s 1-2 combo of Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino were the catalysts in the ALDS, going 15-for-32 (.469) with five stolen bases and nine runs scored; in contrast, the Rays scored 12 runs as a team in the series.   On a whole the pitching performed well, including Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa—the duo provided a bridge of more than solid footing with six scoreless innings of three-hit, one-walk and six-strikeout ball in seven appearances.  And after Koji’s hiccup in Game 3, I like the way he bounced back to in the Game 4 clincher, striking out Evan Longoria to send the Rays to the links.

Mike: I am so glad that the Sox got past the Rays. I can't stand watching Joe Maddon manage a game! With all of his little shifts and the umpteen pitching changes, it is like watching paint dry! Seriously, outside of an All-Star Game, who uses NINE pitchers in a game? No wonder Game 4 took a mind-numbing four hours to play! Tampa is a tough team, but with their Yahoo fans, and lame stadium, they don't deserve to be in the ALCS or World Series, they're cute and all, but they need to get off the playground and let the big boys play!

TOP OF THE NINTH: ALCS Preview – Red Sox vs. Tigers

Todd: Throw out most of the numbers the Sox and Tigers had against each other this year (Tigers won the season series, 4-3) as both teams beat up on pitchers we’ll see little to none of in the ALCS.  Now here are some fairly relevant numbers: Detroit only hit .235 in their ALDS win over the Oakland A’s and their bats have been struggling for the better part of a month since Miguel Cabrera injured his midsection.  At present, the Tigers’ third baseman (who went 5-for-20 with one home run vs. Oakland) does not look like the same MVP-caliber hitter who went 8-for-19 against the Sox this season.  After slugging .733 in August and earning AL Player of the Month honors, he has slugged only .333 since September 1.  As for the former Red Sox, shortstop Jose Iglesias is hitting about like you’d expect from a defensive wizard (1-for-12 in the ALDS), but Victor Martinez enters the LCS on a roll (9-for-20 with a HR).

Two statements I never thought I would utter about the Red Sox in my lifetime are that they are World Series champs (twice over!!) and that they need to steal bases to win.  Regarding the latter, the running game was certainly a big part of Boston’s success against the Rays and should be again versus the Tigers, as catcher Alex Avila has struggled this year behind the plate.  Coming into 2013 Avila averaged around 30 percent throwing out baserunners for his career, but this year he has thrown out only 15 of 88 attempted basestealers (17 percent).  The contrast in running styles between the two teams (the Tigers stole 35 bases as a team this year compared to Jacoby Ellsbury leading MLB with 52 steals) also shows up in the recent performances of the two leadoff hitters.  Ellsbury could not be any hotter (9-for-18 in the ALDS with 7 runs scored and 4 stolen bases), while Austin Jackson couldn’t be much colder (2-for-20 with 13 strikeouts against Oakland).  The question will be whether the Sox can continue to get on base by grinding through at-bats against a quartet of very talented Tigers starting pitchers.

Pitching-wise, after John Lester draws the Game 1 start, might John Farrell decide to start Clay Buchholz in Game 2 over John Lackey?  Other than that, not many questions about the staff, which has looked good and I think they’ll continue to do so.  This ALCS should feature many close games, but overall I like the way Boston is playing on both sides of the ball right now.  I’m going to take the Sox to beat the Tigers in six games, in part because I’d prefer not thinking about the prospect of them having to face Justin Verlander in a deciding Game 7. Also, I like the Dodgers over the Cardinals in six, setting up a dream Boston-LA series!

Mike: It's a fitting match up, the two top teams in the AL most of the year are squaring off with the World Series at stake! I think it's going to be an epic series, with the Sox winning in six.

I also agree with Todd that the Dodgers are going to win the NLCS, bringing the BEAT LA chants to Fenway!

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