Cincinnati @ Houston- 4:30 p.m. Eastern, NBC- Tom Hammond, Mike Mayock, Alex Flannigan.
The Pick- Bengals +3 over Texans
The Bengals have a strong run defense, but will Andy Dalton be able to deal with a strong Houston pass rush with former Bengal Johnathan Joseph negating the sensational A.J. Green? Cincinnati should be able to limit the Arian Foster-Ben Tate combo and T.J. Yates can’t be trusted to win a big game. Look for Cincinnati to end its two-decade long playoff drought.
Detroit @ New Orleans- 8:20 p.m. Eastern, NBC- Al Michaels, Chris Collinsworth, Michelle Tafoya.
The Pick- Saints -10.5 over Lions
Unless the Detroit pass rush does a significant amount of damage and get to Drew Brees early and often, this game is going to be a shootout. And you don’t want a shootout in the Superdome against the Saints. It’s going to be a track meet and a very fun game to watch, but this game will belong to New Orleans.
Atlanta @ New York- 1 p.m. Eastern, FOX- Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver.
The Pick- Giants -3 over Atlanta
The pass rush could be the difference in this game. The Falcons don’t blitz much and Eli Manning should have a lot of time in the pocket to hit his hot receivers. The Giants defensive line should have their way with the Atlanta o-line, preventing Matt Ryan from finding his superior group of wideouts. The one way Atlanta could dominate this game is by riding Michael Turner and keeping Manning and the New York offense on the field, but the Giants should hold serve at home.
Pittsburgh @ Denver, 4:30 p.m. Eastern, CBS- Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
The Pick- Steelers -8.5 over Broncos
Tim Tebow against the Pittsburgh defense is almost unfair. The Steelers will stifle the Denver ground game and force Tebow to throw it. The only way Denver stays in this game is if their pass rush disrupts Ben Roethlisberger and force turnovers, because Big Ben is going to put it in the air a ton with Rashard Mendenhall out with a torn ACL. Tebow won’t be able to do enough to heroically save Denver this time.
The Chicago Cubs have found their replacement for Carlos Pena at 1B, and it’s a player GM Theo Epstein had in Boston. Highly regarded 1B Anthony Rizzo heads over from San Diego in a four player deal, the Padres announced Friday. This will take Chicago out of the running for Prince Fielder.
Rizzo became expendable when the Padres acquired Yonder Alonso as part of the Mat Latos trade to Cincinnati, and the Cubs weren’t about to start career minor leaguer Bryan LaHair. Rizzo, the 22-year-old lefty who was the main piece sent to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez trade a year ago, hit 26 homers with 101 RBI’s in AAA but struggled mightily in 128 big league at bats last season. He had just a .141 average with San Diego, and he and LaHair will likely split time as Rizzo develops.
The main piece San Diego acquired is former first round pick and hot prospect Andrew Cashner, who is now a tall 25-year-old reliever who some say still has the potential to close. He was injured for most of the 2011 season, but will look to come back and probably get a bullpen spot. The Padres also got OF Kyung-Min Na, a 20-year-old light hitting Korean OF.
To complete the trade, the Cubs also acquired 22-year-old righty starter Zach Cates, who struggles in the Single-A Midwest League last season. San Diego did trade Rizzo at a low value, but they dealt from strength and got a bullpen piece out of it. But the Cubs probably win the deal because Rizzo still has a good deal of potential to shine at the big league level.
The Annual All-Star Game Rant- Ottawa Edition
You’ve probably seen rants about fan voting for All-Star games dozens of times, so this will be brief.
On Thursday, the Ottawa Senators, who host this year’s game but are only fifth in the Eastern Conference thanks to a recent winning streak, will have four of the top six slots go to local players. The most popular player in the voting was D Erik Karlsson, who definitely has a ton of assists (32) but whose plus/minus is only plus-one. Forward Milan Michalek only has 26 points, and will be starting in an All-Star game. Let’s just say four senators from Capitol Hill would be more deserving to represent hockey than four Senators from Canada’s capital city.
There are many reasons the writer of this column only watches baseball’s All-Star game, and this is one of them. The coaches and writers who critically observe the game and truly know which players are deserving of a coveted place in the All-Star game should be the ones who decide who goes in and who takes a break for a few days. The game is for the fans, of course, but the fans should thank the actual experts that would give the fans an All-Star game with the most deserving players being selected.
Bruins Easily Extinguish Flames
It was the ideal combination of factors for a rout. Boston was riding high on a lengthy winning streak, including a 6-1 dusting of the Devils earlier in the week, and Calgary was on a long losing streak on an eastern trip with its top offensive player likely waiting for a home game to score a milestone goal.
The Bruins indeed completed that rout, defeating the Flames 9-0 on Thursday night to extend Calgary’s losing skid to five games. Boston got two goals each from Patrice Bergeron and Nathan Horton, and backup goalie Tuukka Rask saved 25 shots for the easy shutout. With the win, Boston is now an astonishing 23-3-1 in its last 27 games.
It was the third shutout in four starts for Rask, who is proving a more than capable understudy to Tim Thomas. Some viewed the Calgary game as one the B’s might overlook going into Saturday’s Stanley Cup Finals rematch with Vancouver, but Bergeron quickly quelled those thoughts.
“To be honest with you, no one talked about Saturday in the dressing room. We were all worried about tonight,” Bergeron said after the game. “That’s the approach we’ve had all year and now our next job is Saturday — so now we really have to worry about them. It’s going to be a tough game, so tomorrow we need a good practice and be ready for that.”
It was the seventh and final game on the road trip for Calgary, which is 0-4-1 in its last five contests. ”It was embarrassing,” said star Jarome Iginla, one goal shy of his 500th. “We got totally outworked and outcompeted. We got pushed off the puck all night and we were terrible. One of the worst games in memory.”
While the Bruins continue to roll, Calgary sees its season hanging in the balance going into its upcoming homestand. The Flames are still just five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but its deficit could become too much to overcome if the winning doesn’t come back quickly.
Thoughts & Theories
-All-Star game ranting aside, the Senators are among the hottest teams in the NHL and have moved all the way up to the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Daniel Alfredsson had three points in the Sens’ 4-1 win over Tampa Bay, its fourth straight victory, and Craig Anderson racked up 35 saves.
-Looking to come back strong from its Winter Classic loss to the Rangers, Philadelphia got a goal from James van Riemsdyk goal with 32.8 seconds left in the third period to edge the Blackhawks 5-4 to hand Chicago its second straight loss. However, the Flyers’ Atlantic Division (and Eastern Conference) deficit remains at four points after the aforementioned Rangers got a Marian Gaborik goal in overtime to defeat Florida 5-4.
Weekend Games To Watch
Friday- The Penguins have struggled of late, but they have a great opportunity to get a huge win and make some noise in the Atlantic Division with a home game against the Rangers. New Jersey sits just outside the playoff picture and could use a victory over the Southeast Division leading Panthers.
Saturday- There are a whopping 13 games on the schedule, but the Bruins-Canucks Stanley Cup rematch easily takes the cake. A quartet of other games are of note: Ottawa looking to join the conference’s top four on the road at Philadelphia in the first of a home-and-home, Detroit taking on Toronto in an Original Six showdown, New Jersey facing Pittsburgh and Washington playing at San Jose.
Sunday- The Central Division and Western Conference lead could be at stake when Detroit visits Chicago. Ottawa and Philadelphia complete their home-and-home in Canada.
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