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The final four, NFL Conference Championships will be played this coming weekend and the match-ups are intriguing, as they usually are every year. Water Cooler Talk will give you the insight of each game and tells you what to watch for when the game play occurs. So kick back, relax, hide the monitor from the boss and let Water Cooler Talk help you be the sports guru of the office this week.

Since the playoffs expanded to the current 12-team format in 1990, this is the first year in which the #1 and #2 seeds from each conference have met in the conference championships. What makes this weekends games so intriguing, is that each of the four teams have had completely different paths coming into this weekend.

The Carolina Panthers started 14-0 before losing Week 16, but finished strong at 15-1 and clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs Week 17.

The Arizona Cardinals started their season 4-2 before ripping off 9 straight wins before losing Week 17, a loss in which head coach Bruce Arians sat his starters in the second half of the game after Seattle was trouncing them on both sides of the ball and knowing Carolina had all but sealed their home finale.

The Denver Broncos offense has fluttered all season with and without Peyton Manning and didn’t clinch the AFC West and home-field advantage until Week 17 thanks in part to the Kansas City Chiefs long winning streak and the Bengals and Patriots late-season blunders.

The New England Patriots lost 4 of their final 6 games which ultimately led them to the #2 seed. Injuries to the offensive line and their two biggest play makers in Gronk and Julian Edelman had a lot to do with their late season stumble.

New England at Denver:  The Patriots seem to be healthy with the return of OL Sebastian Vollmer, WR Julian Edelman and TE Rob Gronkowski. Each of these players had an impact on Saturday that helped lead the Patriots past the Chiefs. Brady wasn’t sacked, Gronk had 2 TDs and Edelman had 10 receptions for 100 yards. Seeing how a depleted Steelers offense weaved their way through Denver on Sunday, this offense should be licking their chops.

While the Patriots confidence in their offense should be high, the same can’t be said for the Broncos offense or defense. Manning struggled at times to throw the ball and his receivers had numerous drops. The wind may have factored into most of the mistakes, but numerous mistakes need to be avoided in the playoffs. In order to advance to the Super Bowl, the Broncos need to get their pass rush to Brady to throw off the timing patterns on defense while limiting turnovers and converting third downs to avoid giving the ball to Brady on offense. If Denver can do this, with what should be a very energetic home crowd, they may just make it to San Francisco.

Many are hoping for Manning to get to the Super Bowl and ride off into the sunset with another championship. While that would be a good story, I just don’t think it’s going to happen. Brady and Belichick have the winning ingredient which will lead them to their seventh appearance in the Big Game. The Patriots will win a scrappy, hard fought affair, 26-20.

Arizona at Carolina:  When looking at Arizona’s season between weeks 7-16, you’d have said they’re legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but their last two games have to say otherwise. After getting embarrassed in their regular season finale, they were barely able to escape the Packers last week, a team in which they dominated in Week 16. The loss of Tyrann Mathieu was a big blow and his absence is really starting to show defensively. Their offense has big-play ability on seemingly every snap, but the run game is a huge factor into that success. If David Johnson can’t get rolling early, those big plays may not be there for Arizona on Sunday against a stingy Panthers defense.

The first 30 minutes of games have been fantastic for Carolina for much of the season to this point, but it’s the last 30 minutes of the game which has Carolina fans referring back to the 2003-2004 Cardiac Cats. Big leads have turned into small margins of victory against the Colts, Packers, Giants and now the Seahawks. Besides this obvious mishandling of the offense and defense after halftime, there really isn’t anything bad to look at. The offense has big-play ability on the ground and through the air and the defense simply smothers runners and receivers at will while threatening to get to the quarterback on nearly every play. The Panthers need to frustrate Carson Palmer early and limit the run game like they did against Seattle early. Big lead or not after halftime, in-game adjustments will play a major factor if they hope to advance.

I anticipate smash-mouth football for a full 60-minutes on Sunday thanks in part to two physical defenses on the field. One turnover could mean the difference, so both QBs will need to protect the ball and not take unnecessary risks. I think the home-field advantage will ultimately help Carolina move on to San Francisco and they’ll move on to face the Patriots with a score of 28-21.

There you have it, the Patriots and Panthers will advance in what will be a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII.

That’ll do it for this week’s edition of Water Cooler Talk. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@JasonSaulter) if you like what you’ve read and be sure to check out other blog entries. Enjoy the games on Sunday and have a great week and weekend everyone.

 

It’s an exciting and sad time of year for Water Cooler Talk as the NFL playoffs are set to begin this week as well as the National Championship in college football, but that means football season is drawing to a close. Let’s take a look at the Wild Card games on Saturday and Sunday, as well as the title game between Clemson and Alabama on Monday. Black Monday didn’t have as many surprises as expected, but are there more coaches on the move? Water Cooler Talk talks about the Hall of Fame voting in MLB and some free agents who may be signed soon. Let’s get 2016 kicked off right! Hide the monitors from the boss (because let’s face it, you’re not ready to be back), kick back, and let Water Cooler Talk help you be this week’s sports guru of the office.

NFL:

NFL-logoAre any of us surprised that Cleveland fired their head coach and GM? Probably not. Is anyone surprised on how the Browns will look to fill those positions? Probably not. Usually, you look for a GM first so they can bring in a head coach they can work with. The Browns however are going about the process backwards, they’re looking for a head coach who will then have input on who will be hired as the GM. Is it any wonder this team has been so bad for so long? This job is very undesirable, which leads me to believe they’ll have to reach to bring someone in.

Tom Coughlin stepped down as the New York Giants head coach after 12 seasons at the helm. Kudos to the ownership for not firing the future hall of fame coach, they instead let him walk away with dignity. The players didn’t find this to be a satisfying move, but 12 years is a long time with one franchise. I think Coughlin finds another job in a hurry, and I think the vacancy left for the Giants will be filled in with a very viable head coach.

The Miami Dolphins are interviewing anyone who has ever coached…that’s exaggerated but they are talking to a lot of former head coaches. They are obviously ready to put a record together that matches their on-field talent.

49ers owner Jed York admitted he made a mistake last offseason by hiring Jim Tomsula, and after a 5-11 2015 he’ll look to get the team back to the glory days of winning. This too would be a desirable destination, but GM Trent Baalke is staying put. If you remember, this is the guy who drove Jim Harbaugh away to Michigan, so a red flag still remains within the 49ers front office.

The Eagles are also looking to get back to their days of winning consistently, and I’m sure it begins with someone who’s the total opposite of Chip Kelly. This is also a desirable destination, and whoever fills the position should have success for numerous years to come.

Tennessee is another desirable destination seeing as they have an established QB for years to come, a solid defense, and the #1 overall pick for the 2016 NFL Draft.

After a disappointing 8-8 season, the Indianapolis Colts didn’t fire Chuck Pagano, they instead gave him a new contract. I don’t disagree with the move as Pagano is a good coach who just happened to fight injuries on his squad throughout the season. With this new contract, let’s see if he and GM Ryan Grigson can work out their differences and get the Colts back on top in the AFC South and eventually get to the Super Bowl.

Sean Payton is still employed as the New Orleans Saints head coach, but that could change in the weeks to come. Both parties seem ready to part ways after 10 years, but the Saints won’t let Payton go so easily. Word has it that the Saints want a 2nd-round draft choice for Payton’s services. Plenty of teams will inquire about Payton, and I think the 49ers are the team to get him.

Four games are on tap for this weekend with the AFC Wild Card games on Saturday and the NFC games on Sunday. Let’s predict who will win this weekend:

Chiefs at Texans – Houston will look to embarrass Kansas City after the Chiefs put a whooping on the Texans in the season opener. The Chiefs are riding a 10-game winning streak while the Texans won 6 of their final 8 after their bye. The Texans suffered a big loss on Sunday when LT Duane Brown was lost for the season. KC continues their hot streak and gets by Houston with a score of 20-14.

Steelers at Bengals – The Steelers needed a lot of luck to get into the playoffs, but no one cares how you get in as long as you’re in. The Bengals have played surprisingly well with AJ McCarron as the QB and were close to having a first-round bye. If D-Will is out for the Steelers, this game will go to the Bengals. Should D-Will play with his ankle injury, I still think he’ll be ineffective enough that the Bengals strong secondary can contain Big Ben and Antonio Brown enough to move on to the next round. Cincinnati wins 23-15.

Seahawks at Vikings – The Vikings got embarrassed by the Seahawks just a few weeks ago, a game which was played in Minnesota. The Vikings want revenge, but I don’t know if they’re receiving corps can do enough. Sadly, I think Seattle will win 27-16.

Packers at Redskins – The Packers just can’t click offensively, the complete opposite can be said for the Redskins. With Green Bay struggling as bad as they are, I think Kirk Cousins leads the Redskins to a 30-24 victory. You like that!

NCAAF:

635850317002095475-1004202147_yuhhhhhIt comes down to Clemson and Alabama for the national championship. These are the two teams that absolutely deserve to be in this position, as they’re the best teams in the nation, especially after convincing wins on New Year’s Eve. Offensively, Clemson has a significant advantage. Defensively, these two teams are evenly matched. Both front-sevens have superb talent while each team fields an above-average secondary. Clemson DE Shaq Lawson is expected to play, which helps the Tigers have hope. I’m a fan of the Crimson Tide, but I think Clemson gets their first title since 1980 with a 28-27 win.

NCAAB:

2015-College-Basketball-National-Championship-Odds-and-Predictions-300x282If you missed last night’s Oklahoma-Kansas 3 OT thriller, then you missed what will most likely be the game of the year. #1 ranked Kansas and #2 Oklahoma showed us why they’re ranked where they are and should continue to do so throughout the remainder of the season. There’s plenty of buzz in Lawrence, KS and Norman, OK, as both teams have squads to potentially get to the Final Four. While Kansas is more balanced, Oklahoma has POTY candidate Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard. The next time these two will meet is on February 13th.

Let’s not forget about Michigan State. They were #1 until last week when they lost to Iowa, and that was without their best player on the floor, Denzel Valentine. The Spartans will soon have their POTY candidate back and are heavily favored to make a push to a Big Ten title and a Final Four appearance.

MLB:

1280px-Major_League_Baseball.svgThe Los Angeles Dodgers made a couple of moves last week to bolster their starting rotation. The first signing included LHP Scott Kazmir who got a 3-year deal with an opt-out option after 2016. The Dodgers then signed Kenta Maeda to an 8-year deal. Maeda hails from Japan and has a variety of pitches to include a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider and changeup. This past season he won Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award and has a lifetime 97-67 record with a 2.39 ERA. LA now has six arms to work with in the rotation, with five lefties and Maeda who is the lone right-hander for now.

Yoenis Cespedes is still the one name we’re all waiting for to sign. It sounds as if the Baltimore Orioles are the front-runners to sign the superstar outfielder, which indicates they’re moving on from Chris Davis. The remaining chips should fall in place shortly after he signs, names like Justin Upton, Howie Kendrick, Denard Span, Dexter Fowler, and Ian Desmond will find landing spots.

The voting results will be in tomorrow on who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this July. Ken Griffey Jr. is definitely in, and the consensus is he’ll be the first player to ever be unanimously voted in. Other names who should make the list this year are Mike Piazza and Tim Raines. Names who should be in but will probably have to wait another year are Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina.

Alan Trammell, who played for the Detroit Tigers from 1977-1996, will also most likely not get voted in which means he’ll move off the ballot starting next year. Known more for his defense than offense, the second baseman hit a career .285 with over 2,300 hits and 1,000 RBIs. If Trammell hopes to make it in,he’ll need the Veterans Committee to make that vote, but no one from the Golden Era has been voted in by this committee.

Then there’s Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Not going to happen…ever.

That’s it for this week’s edition, the first of 2016 Water Cooler Talk. I hope to have helped make you become the sports guru of the office this week, and if I have hit me up on Twitter and tell me about your conquest. Have a great week everyone!

 

 

As we’re used to seeing in recent memory, the playoff picture in the NFL comes down to Week 17. Water Cooler Talk breaks down the playoff implications and gives you the winners this week. 2016 starts with a bang with UFC 195, Water Cooler Talk predicts who will win the Welterweight title. Water Cooler Talk is excited to discuss the splash made in the MLB yesterday afternoon. We can finally talk about intriguing bowl games! Water Cooler Talk is excited to bring you the last edition of 2015, so hide the monitors from the boss to make you the sports guru of the office heading into 2016.

NFL:

NFL-logoThe 1972 Miami Dolphins had another legitimate scare, but they again got to pop the corks as the Carolina Panthers fell to the Atlanta Falcons, 20-13. It was pretty evident from the start that the Falcons would not let the Panthers go vertical, and it paid off as Cam Newton failed to throw for 150 yards or have a passing TD. Ted Ginn was held to just one catch for nine yards and Greg Olsen could only tally 40 yards of four receptions. The Carolina defense couldn’t contain Julio Jones nor could they get the Falcons off the field on third down. It was a good win for Atlanta and well deserved as they were still fighting for a playoff spot, but with the Arizona win those hopes vanished quickly.

Is there reason for concern in Carolina? In the secondary, yes. Injuries have plagued the secondary in recent weeks and teams have figured out the blueprint to beat the team 10+ yards down the field. The Panthers desperately need their first-round bye to rest the banged-up secondary, Charles Tillman mainly, in order to make a legitimate run to the Super Bowl.

If the wild card couldn’t get any more exciting prior to Week 16 in the AFC, you were wrong thanks in part to the Steelers offense being grounded in Baltimore and a questionable coaching decision by Bill Belichick to kick the ball to start overtime against the Jets. Kansas City held off the Browns to clinch their spot in the playoffs, so now it comes down to Pittsburgh and New York to see who gets the last position.

In the NFC, one spot is still up for grabs. The Packers and the Vikings will be on Sunday Night Football to finish the regular season, the winner takes the NFC North crown and the 4-seed. The loser will take the 5 or 6 seed.

Let’s look at the playoff scenarios and matchups for Week 17:

Jaguars at Texans – It’s simple for the Texans, win and you’re the AFC South champs and hold the 4-seed in the AFC. I’ll take the Texans to win by double-digits.

Jets at Bills – The Jets need to win to clinch. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall have never played in the postseason, so you know they’ll continue their hot streaks to make their playoff dreams come true. The Jets will not be grounded as they get a 27-17 victory.

Patriots at Dolphins – A Patriots win means home-field advantage. A loss means a first-round bye. Patriots win after an embarrassing loss in OT last week, 24-14.

Titans at Colts – The Colts need so much help to make the postseason. Here’s the full breakdown:

Colts win over the Titans, Steelers beat the Browns, Jaguars beat the Texans, Ravens beat the Bengals, Raiders beat the Chiefs, Falcons win over the Saints, Chargers upset the Broncos, Bills beat the Jets, Dolphins win against the Patriots.

Steelers at Browns – Pittsburgh needs to win and the Jets need to lose. The Steelers do get the win, 31-13.

Ravens at Bengals – Cincinnati needs to avoid the upset just for pride heading into the playoffs. They can’t be worse than they are now (3-seed) if they hope to finally get a postseason victory (it’s been 25 years). The Ravens do get the win, 19-13.

Seahawks at Cardinals – Seattle is going to the playoffs, but will it be as the 5-seed or 6-seed? We do know they’ll be playing next weekend, so do they rest or play the Cardinals knowing it’s a division game and Arizona is still playing for home-field? Arizona needs a win and a Carolina loss to clinch home-field advantage based off of NFC tiebreakers. If both Arizona and Carolina win, the Cardinals are the 2-seed. I’ll take the Cardinals to win 29-23.

Bucs at Panthers – Carolina needs to win. If they don’t, they need Arizona to lose to clinch home-field advantage. This game has been flexed from 1:00 to 4:25 ET so the Cardinals don’t have an advantage on deciding whether to sit their starters or not. Carolina bounces back with a 24-14 win.

Chargers at Broncos – The Broncos need a win to secure the division. If they lose and the Chiefs win, they’ll be a wild-card team. If the Broncos win and the Patriots lose, they’ll have home-field advantage. San Diego is so banged up that they have no chance of winning. Denver wins easily 27-10.

Raiders at Chiefs – Kansas City is riding a 9-game winning streak and are the first team in NFL history to reach the postseason after starting 1-5. The AFC West is on the line, so they won’t take the foot off the gas. Chiefs go 11-5 on the year with a 20-12 win.

Vikings at Packers – The winner is the NFC North champs and the loser is either the 5 or 6 seed. Either way, both teams will be playing in the Wild Card round. With the Packers at home, I’ll take them to win 20-19.

NCAAF:

NCAA-College-Football-LogoWe can finally talk about some good bowl matchups for this week! Of course, the big games are on New Year’s Eve with the semifinal games taking place. Let’s predict the winners of the high-profile games:

Tuesday, December 29: #17 Baylor vs. #10 North Carolina – Baylor is on their third starting QB, but despite this have finished strong. UNC is looking for an 11-win season, something that they’ve only accomplished three other times in their long history. The scoring will be plentiful, and I’ll take the Tar Heels to eke out a 38-34 win.

Thursday, December 31: #18 Houston vs. #9 Florida State – The Cougars aren’t a team to sleep on as they’re the AAC champs and have a high-powered offense. The AAC gets some much-needed pride as Houston defeats ACC powerhouse FSU with a score of 27-20.

#4 Oklahoma vs. #1 Clemson – Both of these teams will score. Oklahoma doesn’t get much attention defensively since they play in the Big 12, but they have enough talent to stop the Tigers offense. I don’t know if you can call it an upset, but I’ll take the Sooners to win 26-23.

#3 Michigan State vs. #2 Alabama – Both teams play physical as they’re both stout in the running game and on defense. Alabama has the better defensive line and they of course have the Heisman winning RB in Derrick Henry. The Crimson Tide move on to face Oklahoma on Monday, January 11th with a convincing 30-14 win.

Friday, January 1: #13 Northwestern vs. #23 Tennessee – ACC vs. SEC matchups are always interesting and usually don’t quite go as expected. The SEC has the upper-hand more times than not, but I’ll take Northwestern to finish off their impressive season with a 20-14 victory.

#14 Michigan vs. #19 Florida – The ‘Fighting Harbaugh’s’ have already exceeded expectations this season. Florida on the other hand is currently in a tumultuous state despite having a season in which no one predicted. Michigan begins their 2016 run with a bang as they dominate the Gators, 24-9.

#8 Notre Dame vs. #7 Ohio State – The Fighting Irish were a mere field goal away from potentially being in the top-four. The Buckeyes hit a roadblock with Michigan State, their first of two tests on the season. I like Notre Dame in this one 27-24.

#6 Stanford vs. #5 Iowa – The Hawkeyes were oh-so-close to the top-four. The Cardinals lost bad games when they could least afford to. I think Stanford pulls off a close game, 21-17.

#16 Oklahoma State vs. #12 Ole Miss – The Cowboys really dropped off the final two weeks of the season while the Rebels have had some turbulence recently with DE Robert Nkemdiche finding himself in trouble the last few weeks. Hugh Freeze won’t allow that to affect his team, Ole Miss wins 31-17.

Saturday, January 2 – #11 TCU vs. #15 Oregon – The Horned Frogs were legitimate contenders for a National Championship through October, but injuries really hurt the team. Oregon struggled to find their step early in the season, but have finished strong as expected. I like TCU in a shootout, 37-32.

UFC 195:

ufcRobbie Lawler will face “The Natural Born Killer,” Carlos Condit on January 2 for the Welterweight title to help bring in the new year. This will be Lawler’s second title defense, and it comes against the former interim champ. Lawler (20-11) only fought once in 2014 while Condit (30-8) is fighting for just the second time since a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus in 2013. Maybe I’m just too much of a fan of the title changing hands, but I like Condit to win in the third round by TKO to become the new Welterweight champ.

MLB:

1280px-Major_League_Baseball.svgThe New York Yankees made the splash that we’re used to seeing every offseason as they acquired LHP Aroldis Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds for four prospects. This move will be a PR nightmare for at least the near future as Chapman is under investigation stemming from an alleged domestic violence incident that occurred in October. This same ordeal is what stopped the Dodgers from acquiring Chapman during the Winter Meetings.

The Yankees now have a stockpile of closers at their service. Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and now Aroldis Chapman are all options for the 9th inning. We haven’t seen the back end of a bullpen look this solid since the “Nasty Boys” of the Cincinnati Reds in the early-80s to early 90s.

Is it necessary to hang on to Miller? Do they trade him? The answer for now, is he stays put. Chapman is facing a possible suspension that doesn’t exceed 50 games, so the Yankees need the 8th and 9th inning to be held down by Betances and Miller until Chapman can join the team in the regular season. As July approaches and the trade deadline looms, that’s when I expect Andrew Miller’s name to be in the trade discussions.

That does it for Water Cooler Talk in 2015. If you like what you see here, be sure to follow me on Twitter. Have a happy and safe new year everyone, I’ll talk to you again in 2016.