Tuesday, February 18, 2014

fantasy: mock drafting above my pay grade

Have you ever done something so trivial, so mundane, so obscure, so utterly pointless, that you almost couldn't get enough of it? Well, if not, don't worry; you're not the weird one. What I'm trying to say is this topic, or rather activity, is quite foreign to roughly 97% of the American population, yet I've never been more fond of it. I mean, when it's all said and done, there's just nothing better to do on a freezing weeknight during an apocalyptic Chicago winter in February - outside of the bar - than mock draft. And that 97% is missing out big time.

In my first mock draft analysis leading up to the 2014 baseball season, we'll be experiencing several firsts all at once. For one, the only mock drafts I've ever participated in were the ones you just sign up for on Sportsline or ESPN with nine or 11 other random people who end up quitting after a pick or two. This one's the real deal. Long story short, I came across a piece by Howard Bender of RotoBuzzGuy.com last week, did a tiny bit of digging on what he calls the Mock Draft Army, sent him an email immediately because anything called the Mock Draft Army is something I need to inquire about, and next thing I know, he's emailing me back asking if I want to do a mock draft. Yes!!! He proceeds to follow up with instructions for navigating the draft site, and sure enough, here I am in a 15-team 5x5 roto draft with actual professionals, which I certainly am not. Howard Bender is an incredibly nice guy. And this is going to be interesting.

So I'm punching above my weight class right out of the gate. And to further spice things up, I'd never done a 15-team draft before in any format. I'm accustomed to 10- or 12-team, standard roto leagues. Hell, I thought I was venturing out by making my long-standing 10-team league into a keeper league this year. But here I am, and I'm going to give it my all. And it's not like I haven't had my fair share of training for this moment, either. I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to fantasy baseball, and although I haven't done anything quite like this before, I'm no stranger to the mock draft lobby. This'll be fun.

So let's get on to it. Below you'll see the draft order and participants (with links to their twitter feeds and websites, where applicable), followed by a quick blurb of each of my picks and my thought process, along with some of the other choices that stood out to me at that point in time. I'm pick #13. Here we go:

               1. The Shockers - Jim M.
               2. Brad Johnson - The Hardball Times
               3. LBK's Fake Team - LBK
               4. Running with Scissors - Eric Caturia - RotoWire
               5. Traded a Fister for a BJ - G.M.
               6. Glove Love - Tony Goldenstein - RotoWire
               7. MIKE CLIFFORD - Michael Clifford - FantasyTrade411.com
               8. @WaiverWarrior - Adam
               9. @FantasyTrade411 - Trader X - FantasyTrade411.com
              10. @askROTObaseball - David Kerr - FantasySquads.com
              11. Dexter Spivey - Scott Gilroy - rotoinfo.com
              12. @rotobuzzguy - Howard Bender - RotoBuzzGuy.com
              13. @CAREERYEAR

              14. Tim McLeod - RotoRob.com
              15. @nyyfan14 - Arad M

Round 1
#1 The Shockers - Miguel Cabrera 1B, DET
#2 Brad Johnson - Mike Trout CF, LAA
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Paul Goldschmidt 1B, ARI
#4 Running with Scissors - Carlos Gonzalez LF, COL
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Andrew McCutchen CF, PIT
#6 Glove Love - Hanley Ramirez SS, LAD
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - Bryce Harper LF, WSH
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Chris Davis 1B, BAL
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Adam Jones CF, BAL
#10 @askROTObaseball - Robinson Cano 2B, SEA
#11 Dexter Spivey - Jacoby Ellsbury CF, NYY
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Ryan Braun RF, MIL
#13 @CAREERYEAR - Troy Tulowitzki SS, COL

#14 Tim McLeod - Jason Kipnis 2B, CLE
#15 @nyyfan14 - Joey Votto 1B, CIN 

ROUND 1: Welcome to the 15-teamer, I guess. At pick 13, I didn't really know what my strategy should be other than hope Ryan Braun falls to me or the president of Troy Tulowitzki's fan club isn't one of the 12 guys ahead of me. Tulo was ranked 13th on this site, and I was perfectly happy grabbing him here after Braun went the pick before me. If he's on the field, he's the top shortstop. The ony thing that gave me pause was hoping Clayton Kershaw would make it back to me, and without knowing anyone in the room, I just had to go with my gut that this group wanted to hold off on pitching. I don't think Tulo makes it back around if I don't grab him now.

Round 2
#1 @nyyfan14 - Giancarlo Stanton RF, MIA
#2 Tim McLeod - Adrian Beltre 3B, TEX
#3 evil empire - Clayton Kershaw SP, LAD

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Prince Fielder 1B, TEX
#5 Dexter Spivey - Yasiel Puig RF, LAD
#6 @askROTObaseball - Evan Longoria 3B, TB
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Edwin Encarnacion 1B, TOR
#8 @WaiverWarrior - David Wright 3B, NYM
#10 Glove Love - Dustin Pedroia 2B, BOS
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Jose Bautista RF, TOR
#12 Running with Scissors - Alex Rios RF, TEX
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Yu Darvish SP, TEX
#14 Brad Johnson - Carlos Gomez CF, MIL
#15 The Shockers - Justin Upton LF, ATL

ROUND 2: Bingo! Having Kershaw fall this far is unlikely, even in my 10-team redraft league, but I'll certainly take it here. As I said in the chat after the pick, pitching might be deep, but there's only one Clayton Kershaw. He's the best in the game, and that warrants more than second round consideration. I'd take him as high as 5th overall with some shaky springs from the back half of the first rounders as they stand now. Plus, now I can draft hitters while the field takes pitchers in rounds 4-7, which could be a nice perk. The bottom line is Kershaw should end up higher than 18th overall on the player rater October 1st, which is all we care about.

Round 3
#1 The Shockers - Albert Pujols 1B, LAA
#2 Brad Johnson - Freddie Freeman 1B, ATL
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Allen Craig 1B, STL
#4 Running with Scissors - Jay Bruce RF, CIN
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Jean Segura SS, MIL
#6 Glove Love - Buster Posey C, SF
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - Yoenis Cespedes LF, OAK
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Max Scherzer SP, DET
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Adam Wainwright SP, STL
#10 @askROTObaseball - Ian Desmond SS, WSH
#11 Dexter Spivey - Hunter Pence RF, SF
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Elvis Andrus SS, TEX
#13 evil empire - Jason Heyward RF, ATL

#14 Tim McLeod - Shin-Soo Choo LF, TEX
#15 @nyyfan14 - Matt Carpenter 2B, STL

ROUND 3: I'm not sure how much of a reach this is, and I had my eye on another, less exciting name, but I just didn't want Heyward to get snatched up between my picks. Everything's primed for a huge year for him. Plus, I wasn't quite so afraid that the guy I wanted was a flashy enough pick to stand out from the others available. We'll see if it panned out.

As for the round, we start to see more of the elite starters fall off the board, which is fine by me. More hitters for me to choose from. A little run of top tier shortstops, as well, with Jean Segura, Ian Desmond and Elvis Andrus all having their names called. Of that group, I like Segura least. I just need to see him do it again.

Round 4
#1 @nyyfan14 - Joe Mauer 1B, MIN
#2 Tim McLeod - Pedro Alvarez 3B, PIT
#3 evil empire - Matt Holliday LF, STL

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Mark Trumbo RF, ARI
#5 Dexter Spivey - Eric Hosmer 1B, KC
#6 @askROTObaseball - Wil Myers RF, TB
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Felix Hernandez SP, SEA
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Carlos Santana C, CLE
#9 MIKE CLIFFORD - Stephen Strasburg SP, WSH
#10 Glove Love - Starling Marte LF, PIT
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Ryan Zimmerman 3B, WSH
#12 Running with Scissors - Cliff Lee SP, PHI
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Jose Fernandez SP, MIA
#14 Brad Johnson - Alex Gordon LF, KC
#15 The Shockers - Ian Kinsler 2B, DET

ROUND 4: Boom! Got lucky again with unsung run producer Matt Holliday making the turn. I actually bumped Mauer over him in my queue after my last pick, but he was swiped to start the round. So Mr. Dependable it is. I'll take 20-plus homers, 90-plus RBI, 90-plus runs and steady average all day long. Advanced stats are nice, and we can learn a lot about the game by embracing them, but bWAR isn't a 5x5 category. At least not yet. And in the stats we care about, Holliday is about as consistent as they come.

Round 5
#1 The Shockers - Justin Verlander SP, DET
#2 Brad Johnson - Josh Donaldson 3B, OAK
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Brett Lawrie 3B, TOR
#4 Running with Scissors - Chris Sale SP, CWS
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Madison Bumgarner SP, SF
#6 Glove Love - Manny Machado 3B, BAL
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - Yadier Molina C, STL
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Matt Kemp CF, LAD
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Craig Kimbrel RP, ATL
#10 @askROTObaseball - David Price SP, TB
#11 Dexter Spivey - Cole Hamels SP, PHI
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Kyle Seager 3B, SEA
#13 evil empire - Jose Altuve 2B, HOU

#14 Tim McLeod - Adrian Gonzalez 1B, LAD
#15 @nyyfan14 - Zack Greinke SP, LAD

Round 6

#1 @nyyfan14 - Chase Headley 3B, SD
#2 Tim McLeod - Aroldis Chapman RP, CIN
#3 evil empire - Anthony Rizzo 1B, CHC

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Mike Minor SP, ATL
#5 Dexter Spivey - Jedd Gyorko 2B, SD
#6 @askROTObaseball - Mat Latos SP, CIN
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Josh Hamilton RF, LAA
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Domonic Brown LF, PHI
#9 MIKE CLIFFORD - Carlos Beltran RF, NYY
#10 Glove Love - Ben Zobrist RF, TB
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Jose Abreu 1B, CWS
#12 Running with Scissors - David Ortiz DH, BOS
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Michael Wacha SP, STL
#14 Brad Johnson - Greg Holland RP, KC
#15 The Shockers - Everth Cabrera SS, SD

Round 7

#1 The Shockers - Anibal Sanchez SP, DET
#2 Brad Johnson - Kenley Jansen RP, LAD
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Billy Hamilton CF, CIN
#4 Running with Scissors - Jayson Werth RF, WSH
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Michael Cuddyer RF, COL
#6 Glove Love - James Shields SP, KC
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - Gerrit Cole SP, PIT
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Brian McCann C, NYY
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Desmond Jennings CF, TB
#10 @askROTObaseball - Jonathan Lucroy C, MIL
#11 Dexter Spivey - Homer Bailey SP, CIN
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Koji Uehara RP, BOS
#13 evil empire - Wilin Rosario C, COL

#14 Tim McLeod - Salvador Perez C, KC
#15 @nyyfan14 - Jon Lester SP, BOS

ROUNDS 5-7:  Here we start to see just how quickly the field is thinning out, offensively speaking. Brett Lawrie in the 5th round? Josh Donaldson before Chris Sale? I think the pitching hate has gone a little too far, but I was pleased with the guys I ended up with here. Having Altuve drop to me at the end of Round 5 was a nice value, I believe. I may have reached a bit for Rizzo, but there was no way he was making it all the way back to me at the end of Round 7. As one of the last remaining utility-type sluggers, I had to grab him. Round 7 saw me round out the infield with my Wilin Rosario, and I couldn't be happier. Rosario belts. I want to play this league out!

Round 8

#1 @nyyfan14 - Dexter Fowler CF, HOU
#2 Tim McLeod - Leonys Martin CF, TEX
#3 evil empire - Gio Gonzalez SP, WSH

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Joe Nathan RP, DET
#5 Dexter Spivey - Matt Cain SP, SF
#6 @askROTObaseball - Brandon Phillips 2B, CIN
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Trevor Rosenthal RP, STL
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Brandon Belt 1B, SF
#9 MIKE CLIFFORD - Pablo Sandoval 3B, SF
#10 Glove Love - Jordan Zimmermann SP, WSH
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Aaron Hill 2B, ARI
#12 Running with Scissors - Kris Medlen SP, ATL
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Xander Bogaerts SS, BOS
#14 Brad Johnson - Christian Yelich LF, MIA
#15 The Shockers - Matt Adams 1B, STL

Round 9

#1 The Shockers - David Robertson RP, NYY
#2 Brad Johnson - Shelby Miller SP, STL
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Alex Cobb SP, TB
#4 Running with Scissors - Casey Janssen RP, TOR
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Julio Teheran SP, ATL
#6 Glove Love - Austin Jackson CF, DET
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - Jim Johnson RP, OAK
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Hyun-Jin Ryu SP, LAD
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Aramis Ramirez 3B, MIL
#10 @askROTObaseball - Billy Butler DH, KC
#11 Dexter Spivey - Starlin Castro SS, CHC
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Martin Prado 3B, ARI
#13 evil empire - Matt Wieters C, BAL

#14 Tim McLeod - Masahiro Tanaka SP, NYY
#15 @nyyfan14 - Michael Bourn CF, CLE

Round 10

#1 @nyyfan14 - Matt Moore SP, TB
#2 Tim McLeod - Sonny Gray SP, OAK
#3 evil empire - Shane Victorino RF, BOS

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Victor Martinez DH, DET
#5 Dexter Spivey - Carl Crawford LF, LAD
#6 @askROTObaseball - Glen Perkins RP, MIN
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Curtis Granderson CF, NYM
#8 @WaiverWarrior - J.J. Hardy SS, BAL
#9 MIKE CLIFFORD - Evan Gattis C, ATL
#10 Glove Love - Jeff Samardzija SP, CHC
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Sergio Romo RP, SF
#12 Running with Scissors - Jered Weaver SP, LAA
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Danny Salazar SP, CLE
#14 Brad Johnson - Chase Utley 2B, PHI
#15 The Shockers - Nelson Cruz RF, ---

ROUNDS 8-10: Value time! Well, except for the guy who took Nelson Cruz. Ouch. Anyway, I grabbed three guys here who were all picked in the first six or seven rounds of fantasy drafts last year, some much higher. In Gonzalez, I've got a workhorse with strikeout and elite wins potential to act as my No. 2 starter. In Round 9, I couldn't help but pull the trigger on Wieters. I can understand why the hype has calmed down, but this is still a guy who has provided some pretty solid fantasy seasons lately. And this is a 2-catcher league! Catcher may be deep, but it's not 20-deep. Wieters may still have a breakout in him, and this he's almost certain to outplay this position.

Speaking of outplaying his draft position, Shane Victorino is not likely to finish outside the top-100 overall if he remains healthy. He's going to be counted on for more run production this season, and perhaps a leadoff role if things play out just right. No way he lasts this long in real drafts. I gotta write this down...

.. ok, where was I?

Round 11

#1 The Shockers - Jason Castro C, HOU
#2 Brad Johnson - Patrick Corbin SP, ARI
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Nolan Arenado 3B, COL
#4 Running with Scissors - Brandon Moss 1B, OAK
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Wilson Ramos C, WSH
#6 Glove Love - Adam Eaton LF, CWS
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - Alejandro De Aza CF, CWS
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Khristopher Davis LF, MIL
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Jurickson Profar 2B, TEX
#10 @askROTObaseball - Alfonso Soriano LF, NYY
#11 Dexter Spivey - Asdrubal Cabrera SS, CLE
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Anthony Rendon 2B, WSH
#13 evil empire - Will Middlebrooks 3B, BOS

#14 Tim McLeod - Andrew Cashner SP, SD
#15 @nyyfan14 - Grant Balfour RP, TB

Round 12

#1 @nyyfan14 - Jed Lowrie SS, OAK
#2 Tim McLeod - Neftali Feliz RP, TEX
#3 evil empire - Hisashi Iwakuma SP, SEA

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Hiroki Kuroda SP, NYY
#5 Dexter Spivey - Josh Reddick RF, OAK
#6 @askROTObaseball - Francisco Liriano SP, PIT
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Rafael Soriano RP, WSH
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Andrelton Simmons SS, ATL
#9 MIKE CLIFFORD - Howie Kendrick 2B, LAA
#10 Glove Love - Jason Grilli RP, PIT
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Mike Napoli 1B, BOS
#12 Running with Scissors - Daniel Murphy 2B, NYM
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Brian Dozier 2B, MIN
#14 Brad Johnson - Yan Gomes C, CLE
#15 The Shockers - Miguel Montero C, ARI

Round 13

#1 The Shockers - Coco Crisp CF, OAK
#2 Brad Johnson - Jhonny Peralta SS, STL
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Brett Gardner LF, NYY
#4 Running with Scissors - Steven Cishek RP, MIA
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Brad Miller SS, SEA
#6 Glove Love - Mike Zunino C, SEA
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Addison Reed RP, ARI
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Johnny Cueto SP, CIN
#10 @askROTObaseball - Doug Fister SP, WSH
#11 Dexter Spivey - R.A. Dickey SP, TOR
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Devin Mesoraco C, CIN
#13 evil empire - Will Venable RF, SD

#14 Tim McLeod - Oswaldo Arcia RF, MIN
#15 @nyyfan14 - CC Sabathia SP, NYY

Round 14

#1 @nyyfan14 - Fernando Rodney RP, SEA
#2 Tim McLeod - Tony Cingrani SP, CIN
#3 evil empire - Tommy Hunter RP, BAL

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Chris Archer SP, TB
#5 Dexter Spivey - Melky Cabrera LF, TOR
#6 @askROTObaseball - Norichika Aoki RF, KC
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - A.J. Pierzynski C, BOS
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Jonathan Papelbon RP, PHI
#10 Glove Love - Lance Lynn SP, STL
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Travis d'Arnaud C, NYM
#12 Running with Scissors - Alexei Ramirez SS, CWS
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Alex Wood SP, ATL
#14 Brad Johnson - Jarrod Saltalamacchia C, MIA
#15 The Shockers - Justin Masterson SP, CLE

Round 15

#1 The Shockers - Torii Hunter RF, DET
#2 Brad Johnson - Corey Kluber SP, CLE
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Avisail Garcia RF, CWS
#4 Running with Scissors - Jonathan Villar SS, HOU
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Ernesto Frieri RP, LAA
#6 Glove Love - Huston Street RP, SD
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - John Axford RP, CLE
#8 @WaiverWarrior - B.J. Upton CF, ATL
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Mark Teixeira 1B, NYY
#10 @askROTObaseball - Chris Johnson 3B, ATL
#11 Dexter Spivey - Cody Asche 3B, PHI
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Michael Brantley LF, CLE
#13 evil empire - Jarrod Parker SP, OAK

#14 Tim McLeod - Nick Castellanos 3B, DET
#15 @nyyfan14 - Ben Revere CF, PHI

ROUNDS 11-15: In these middle rounds, if often feels like you're just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. A lot of 'potential' guys, soon-to-be 27-year olds, prospects getting their chance. 'Upside' guys, as they're known in the 'industry'. Middlebrooks could be a solid producer at the hot corner with a healthy season and some much needed confidence, so he'd certainly qualify under the 'upside' tag. 20 homers isn't out of the question.

Iwakuma, he of the recently injured finger, is not going to fall this far in your drafts. His injury should be a non-factor (he pitched through similar issues last year), and he's absolutely for real. If he's your No. 3 starter, you could do worse. I also like Parker's strikeout upside, for what that's worth.

I sandwiched my first closer with a couple upside-type outfielders in Venable, who I love, and Brantley, who is blah. It may just be me, but Brantley could be so much more than what he is in my opinion, and until he taps into his potential in both the power and speed departments, I'm not buying. Venable, on the other hand, is the picture of someone who's tapping into his potential. His 20-20 talent is more than legit, and if he has a lucky BABIP or HR/FB year, he could transform into Carlos Gomez-light, which would be infinitely worth more than a 13th-rounder.

Oh, and Tommy Hunter has a shot at fantasy goodness if he takes hold of the opportunity to shut the door for the O's. After all, who'd heard of Jim Johnson before he burst onto the scene? Same is true with most closers, come to think of it, and Baltimore seems to be a nice spot for racking up saves in league-leading bunches. I'll wait on saves and take this type of guy as my No 1. reliever and play the waiver wire for always-available saves.

Round 16

#1 @nyyfan14 - Colby Rasmus CF, TOR
#2 Tim McLeod - Kole Calhoun RF, LAA
#3 evil empire - A.J. Burnett SP, PHI

#4 @rotobuzzguy - George Springer CF, HOU
#5 Dexter Spivey - Clay Buchholz SP, BOS
#6 @askROTObaseball - Rex Brothers RP, COL
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Jimmy Rollins SS, PHI
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Taijuan Walker RP, SEA
#9 MIKE CLIFFORD - Yonder Alonso 1B, SD
#10 Glove Love - Oscar Taveras OF, STL
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Rick Porcello SP, DET
#12 Running with Scissors - Jim Henderson RP, MIL
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Drew Smyly SP, DET
#14 Brad Johnson - Eric Young RF, NYM
#15 The Shockers - Todd Frazier 3B, CIN

Round 17

#1 The Shockers - Bobby Parnell RP, NYM
#2 Brad Johnson - Tim Lincecum SP, SF
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Adam Lind 1B, TOR
#4 Running with Scissors - Kyle Lohse SP, MIL
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Josh Johnson SP, SD
#6 Glove Love - Nick Markakis RF, BAL
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - Nick Swisher 1B, CLE
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Yordano Ventura RP, KC
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Peter Bourjos CF, STL
#10 @askROTObaseball - Chris Tillman SP, BAL
#11 Dexter Spivey - Mike Moustakas 3B, KC
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Rajai Davis LF, DET
#13 evil empire - Zack Wheeler SP, NYM

#14 Tim McLeod - Erick Aybar SS, LAA
#15 @nyyfan14 - Marlon Byrd RF, PHI

Round 18

#1 @nyyfan14 - David Freese 3B, LAA
#2 Tim McLeod - Marco Estrada SP, MIL
#3 evil empire - Justin Morneau 1B, COL

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Brandon Beachy SP, ATL
#5 Dexter Spivey - John Lackey SP, BOS
#6 @askROTObaseball - Josh Willingham LF, MIN
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Nate Jones RP, CWS
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Kevin Gausman RP, BAL
#9 MIKE CLIFFORD - Juan Francisco 1B, MIL
#10 Glove Love - Chris Carter 1B, HOU
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Corey Hart RF, SEA
#12 Running with Scissors - Matt Dominguez 3B, HOU
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Josmil Pinto C, MIN
#14 Brad Johnson - Ryan Howard 1B, PHI
#15 The Shockers - A.J. Griffin SP, OAK

Round 19

#1 The Shockers - Alcides Escobar SS, KC
#2 Brad Johnson - Kendrys Morales 1B, ---
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Yasmani Grandal C, SD
#4 Running with Scissors - Ivan Nova SP, NYY
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Jose Veras RP, CHC
#6 Glove Love - Matthew Davidson 3B, CWS
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - Brandon Morrow SP, TOR
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Cody Allen RP, CLE
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Ricky Nolasco SP, MIN
#10 @askROTObaseball - Russell Martin C, PIT
#11 Dexter Spivey - Ervin Santana SP, ---
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Adam LaRoche 1B, WSH
#13 evil empire - Kelly Johnson 3B, NYY

#14 Tim McLeod - Neil Walker 2B, PIT
#15 @nyyfan14 - Ubaldo Jimenez SP, ---

Round 20

#1 @nyyfan14 - Omar Infante 2B, KC
#2 Tim McLeod - Jose Quintana SP, CWS
#3 evil empire - Daniel Straily SP, OAK

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Dan Haren SP, LAD
#5 Dexter Spivey - Jhoulys Chacin SP, COL
#6 @askROTObaseball - Michael Morse LF, SF
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Welington Castillo C, CHC
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Archie Bradley RP, ARI
#9 MIKE CLIFFORD - Eduardo Nunez SS, NYY
#10 Glove Love - Ian Kennedy SP, SD
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Lorenzo Cain CF, KC
#12 Running with Scissors - Derek Norris C, OAK
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Gregory Polanco CF, PIT
#14 Brad Johnson - LaTroy Hawkins RP, COL
#15 The Shockers - Jake Peavy SP, BOS

Round 21

#1 The Shockers - Nate Schierholtz RF, CHC
#2 Brad Johnson - Nathan Eovaldi SP, MIA
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Tyson Ross SP, SD
#4 Running with Scissors - Jose Iglesias SS, DET
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Martin Perez SP, TEX
#6 Glove Love - Erasmo Ramirez SP, SEA
#7 MIKE CLIFFORD - Yovani Gallardo SP, MIL
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Alexander Guerrero 2B, LAD
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Daniel Nava LF, BOS
#10 @askROTObaseball - Travis Wood SP, CHC
#11 Dexter Spivey - Bartolo Colon SP, NYM
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Alexi Ogando SP, TEX
#13 evil empire - Mitch Moreland 1B, TEX

#14 Tim McLeod - Dioner Navarro C, TOR
#15 @nyyfan14 - Edward Mujica RP, BOS

Round 22

#1 @nyyfan14 - Scott Kazmir SP, OAK
#2 Tim McLeod - Cameron Maybin CF, SD
#3 evil empire - Junior Lake LF, CHC

#4 @rotobuzzguy - Alex Avila C, DET
#5 Dexter Spivey - Ryan Doumit C, ATL
#6 @askROTObaseball - James Loney 1B, TB
#7 @FantasyTrade411 - Stephen Drew SS, ---
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Kolten Wong 2B, STL
#9 MIKE CLIFFORD - Matt Joyce LF, TB
#10 Glove Love - Wade Miley SP, ARI
#11 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Raul Ibanez LF, LAA
#12 Running with Scissors - Denard Span CF, WSH
#13 LBK's Fake Team - Carlos E. Martinez RP, STL
#14 Brad Johnson - Jordy Mercer SS, PIT
#15 The Shockers - James Paxton SP, SEA

Round 23

#1 The Shockers - Michael Pineda SP, NYY
#2 Brad Johnson - Mark Melancon RP, PIT
#3 LBK's Fake Team - Dustin Ackley CF, SEA
#4 Running with Scissors - Carlos Ruiz C, PHI
#5 Traded a Fister for a BJ - Tyler Skaggs SP, LAA
#6 Glove Love - Andre Ethier RF, LAD
#8 @WaiverWarrior - Grady Sizemore CF, BOS
#9 @FantasyTrade411 - Danny Farquhar RP, SEA
#10 @askROTObaseball - Bronson Arroyo SP, ARI
#11 Dexter Spivey - J.P. Arencibia C, TEX
#12 @rotobuzzguy - Jason Vargas SP, KC
#13 evil empire - Tim Hudson SP, SF

#14 Tim McLeod - Dillon Gee SP, NYM
#15 @nyyfan14 - Ryan Hanigan C, TB

ROUNDS 16-23:  Alright, time to round out the squad and see if we can catch lightning in a bottle. Everyone will have their own opinions of who they like late, and every year there's a first-page performer to be found in these critical final rounds. 2014 will be no different, and there are a couple here that I want to highlight. Let's start with my picks to plug the corner and middle infield spots, with each enjoying their time in the roto spotlight in the not-so-distant past. I'm talking, of course, about Justin Morneau and Kelly Johnson, each of whom is getting used to a new city this year. And in each new city they'll set up shop in two of the most hitter-friendly venues in the league in Coors Field and Yankee Stadium, respectively. Morneau is more of the wildcard, with his slow recovery from concussion symptoms, but Johnson seems almost a lock to at least pop 15 dingers while leveraging that short porch in right field.

Mitch Moreland and Junior Lake were added to round out power and speed categories, with obvious breakout potential (er, hope?) for each. Moreland once again should see plenty of pitches to hit in a stacked Rangers lineup, and something's got to break right for the Cubs eventually, right?

Kershaw will have to carry my top-heavy rotation, but I was happy to nab Zach Wheeler, who I think has the most upside of any pitcher I selected in this group. He was certainly more hyped during the year last year, which is curious.

Well, there you have it. The dork-a-thon comes to an end. For what it's worth, my team was projected to finish first on the site we drafted on, which was a pleasant surprise, to say the least.

Also for what it's worth, when I saw that my team was first I asked a fellow drafter who was lingering in the draft room if his screen said his team was first because I thought they were just trying to get me to purchase the expansion pack or whatever. So there's that.

The bottom line, as always, is that anything having to do with fantasy baseball, no matter how trivial it may seem to the outside world, is awesome to a select few. And I'm happy to call myself a member of said few.

Now, if only the season would start... (sigh)


*Thanks to Howard Bender and all of the other writers/contributors who made this mock draft and subsequent write-up possible.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

nfl: divisional round picks: broncos-chargers

San Diego at Denver (Broncos (-9.5))

After a pretty chalky weekend of matchups, I'm afraid not much is going to change with our final game of the quartet.

Quite simply put, I think we see the best that Peyton Manning and the Broncos have to offer this afternoon. This is it for them. It starts now. The road to Manning's second Super Bowl, and the franchise's first since John Elway was quarterbacking them over a decade ago.

Yes, the Chargers were able to come into Denver and steal a win on a Thursday night earlier in the regular season. And yes, San Diego has given Manning fits throughout his spectacular career. But this afternoon will be different, and Phillip Rivers and the Chargers will be left in Manning's wake.

There's really not too much more to say about this one. The Chargers have been the comeback story of the year, arguably a less likely turnaround than division rival Kansas City's shocker of a season. It's been a great ride, and I'm very excited to see what the future holds for Rivers and his gang of young players. But the buck stops with Manning tonight.

Denver has been the prohibitive favorite nearly all season, and they'll be gunning for a showdown with familiar foe Tom Brady and the Patriots in next week's AFC title game. The Chargers just won't manage to put up much of a roadblock.

You've already heard all you need to know about these teams, so I'll just get right to it. I'm taking the Broncos to win and cover handily in this one, setting up an AFC title game for the ages next week.

Denver to win and cover (-9.5).



nlf: divisional round picks: 49ers-panthers

San Francisco at Carolina (49ers (-1))

Cam Newton. Colin Kaepernick. Two young, exciting quarterbacks with very promising careers in front of them, squaring off in a Round 2 playoff showdown. Can it get any better than that?

Well, if you're a fan of defense, the answer is yes.

Sure, the Niners and Panthers feature two of the best dual-threat QBs in the NFL, but where they hang their hat is on the other side of the ball, tormenting opposing offenses with freak athletes at nearly every position in the front seven.

This matchup is going to come down to two superstars who may not even get their hands on the ball. I'm referring, of course, to 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis and Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. These two defenders are the keys to their respective castles, and also to a prolonged playoff run.

Last week we saw Willis and the Niners' defense wreak havoc on a Green Bay offense that had just gotten its leader back in Aaron Rodgers and featured a Rookie of the Year candidate at running back in Eddie Lacy. Willis and company stymied the Packer offense all night, getting to Rodgers early and often, forcing him to make quick decisions if he wanted to stay upright. They stuffed Lacy at the line time and time again, delivering punishing blows to the big back that had him rotating on and off the field and never really able to establish a rhythm on the ground.

To be sure, the 49ers have suffered their fair share of setbacks on defense compared to the group that finished in the top 5 a year ago, most notably with the off-the-field struggles of pass-rusher Aldon Smith. They've also had a tough time finding consistency in the secondary, even cutting ties with former coverage wiz Nnamdi Asomugha mid-season.

But the one constant head coach Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers have been able to count on has been Willis, whose played every snap during his seven seasons in a San Francisco uniform. And for most of those seven years, he's been the best middle linebacker in football not named Ray Lewis. His closest comps on Pro-Football-Reference are Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas. This is a future Hall of Famer if I've ever seen one, and he will be prominently featured this afternoon as the Niners once again try and slow down Newton and that Panthers rushing attack.

Now, about those Panthers, and specifically Kuechly, who has exploded onto the scene much like his quarterback in his first two years in the league. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year last year by a landslide. He's been able to stabilize an oft-maligned unit and give head-coach-turned-folk-hero Riverboat Ron Rivera an Urlacher-esque presence in the middle of his defense.

And for all the press Rivera's gotten throughout the latter portion of the season for his aggressive offensive tactics, he's still very much a defensive-minded coach, having come from a background as coordinator of some of the best defenses we've seen in the last 10 years. It's no surprise that his most successful seasons came with the Bears when he had a reliable All-Pro to count on at middle linebacker.

Even though Carolina decided to sever ties with general manager Marty Hurney before this season, he certainly did an admirable job filling in the defense with players who complement Kuechly and get after the quarterback. The only place he largely failed to do so is in the defensive backfield, where the Panthers are questionable at best and remain susceptible to big plays in the passing game.

Simply put, we're going to be treated to quite the showcase of middle linebacker play this afternoon, as Willis and Kuechly will no doubt add to their already impressive resumes as destroyers of opposing ball carriers.

But the biggest differentiator in this contest, as is the case in most playoff matchups, isn't how the superstars play. It's going to come down to their supporting casts, both on offense and defense.

We know the front seven will be stiff, but will the Panthers secondary be able to hold up against Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and an increasingly impressive Niners passing game? 

Same goes for San Francisco, as they'll need to slow down Newton and his band of misfits on the outside, one that drove down the field for an improbable game-winning touchdown in the final minute the last time these two squared off?

That contest ended 10-9 in favor of Carolina. It was an old-school, physical battle between the trenches. An instant classic that provided a great story line for Newton and his still ascending career arc.

And this is what scares me. You see, the 49ers really don't need any more motivation to win this game. They've already came so close to a Super Bowl victory a year ago, having had their glory snatched away by the Baltimore Ravens. Now, Harbaugh and company have their home loss to Carolina to point to in addition to all they've been through in his tenure. This 49ers team is out for blood.

The Panthers? Well, they've really never been in this situation with Rivera and Newton at the helm. This is their first playoffs together, and after an up-and-down season that saw them rip off an improbable 11-1 stretch after starting the season 1-3, it's just hard to guess how they'll respond. To add to that uncertainty, pass-catching stalwart Steve Smith will be hobbled by a knee injury that's given him fits in his attempt to recover.

Just like the Pats last night, I'm afraid this 49ers club is a team build for playoff success. They've got everything working for them, everything in their corner. Oh, and they've got a better collection of players up and down the roster. I just don't see this one being particularly close.

It will be fun to see how Newton and Keuchly respond to the spotlight in their first playoff games, but their effectiveness against a seasoned 49ers group remains to be seen. One point doesn't quite seem like enough to protect them against Willis and company.

San Francisco to win and cover (-1).


Saturday, January 11, 2014

nfl: divisional round picks: patriots-colts

Indianapolis at New England (Patriots (-7))

Taking a look at these two teams, the similarities are uncanny. Both have franchise quarterbacks, both rely heavily on who's-that-guy types at the skill positions, and both have had their fair share of struggles on defense throughout the 2013 season.

Now, I don't have as much to say about this matchup as, say, Bill Simmons, but I would like to share a couple things before I get to my pick.

First, this game is expected to be played in some inclement weather in the Boston area. Wind and heavy rains are expected throughout the contest. We're watching right now what those elements can do to a quarterback who's not used to playing in them. I just saw a stat right before halftime of the Saints-Seahawks game showing Drew Brees with three completions for 19 yards after nearly 30 minutes of football in the rain and driving winds of Seattle. Brees, as you know, is used to the temperature- and precipitation-controlled confines of the Superdome in New Orleans.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is also used to playing indoors, in Indianapolis, after playing his college ball in the relatively mild climes of the Pac-12. It will be very interesting to see how the weather affects Luck's otherworldly abilities tonight.

Tom Brady, on the other hand, played his college football at Michigan before joining the Pats in 2000. He's seen his fair share of poor elements, and he's been mostly successful. This, along with all of his experience in big games with head coach Bill Belichick, will play a starring role this evening.

Second, I'm not sure people are playing up the impact of last week's emotional win over the Kansas City Chiefs enough. They completed the second-biggest comeback in playoff history in that win, and did it in spectacular fashion. I don't have any stats or anything, but it just seems like more teams fall flat after performances like that than continue their inspired play. Just this past Monday we saw Auburn fail to pull another rabbit from their seemingly bottomless hat in the national championship game. Even though they played great and provided us with a phenomenal final act for the BCS, their number just seemed to be finally up against a superior opponent.

And that's what I think tonight's game is going to look like. Luck and the Colts have been on an incredible ride since he was drafted prior to last season. They've been almost unbeatable in close games. They've completed unreal comebacks time and time again. They've been super easy to root for. They've been a great story.

But tonight, in the wind and rain of Foxboro, the clock is going to strike midnight. The Pats, with all that Brady and Belichick have been through just this year alone, are looking like a sleeping giant right now. They're hitting on all cylinders, and the complete unknowns that have made up seemingly their entire roster this year are coming on strong just at the right time. That's the benefit of having essentially two head coaches. Belichick is a defensive wizard. Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are his near-equals on offense. They've had 18 weeks to coach up the young guys. And due to recent struggles in playoffs past, they're as hungry as ever.

Luck and the Colts are about to run headlong into the wood chipper in New England, and seven points aren't enough to save them.

New England to win and cover (-7).


nfl: divisional round picks: seahawks-saints

New Orleans at Seattle (Seahawks (-7.5))

Welcome back for another installment of our NFL playoff picks. This weekend we've got another exciting slate on tap as teams vie for the opportunity to advance to their respective conference's championship games.

The first game of the weekend doesn't require too much digging, in my opinion. These teams played just six short weeks ago in Seattle, and that game was not close. Not in yards, not in turnovers, not in points. The Seahawks simply took the wind out of the Saints' sails halfway through the first quarter and never turned back, polishing off a 34-7 win in front of a mostly-sleeping Monday night audience.

This time around, the circumstances really aren't much different. The game is in Seattle, a place that's been widely recognized as providing the largest home field advantage in the league due to the 12th Man and the unique weather conditions. It was a prime time game, one of the biggest matchups of the regular season for both teams. And both squads were relatively healthy heading into it.

Now, Seattle is coming off a Wild Card Weekend in which they did not participate, and they're as healthy as they've been all season long, welcoming back game-breaking wide receiver Percy Harvin with an unlimited snap count and return duties.

During that Week 13 matchup with the Saints, the 'Hawks were able to hold Drew Brees and that explosive New Orleans passing attack to just 147 yards while piling up their usual interceptions and pass deflections all over the field. This defense was constructed with these exact matchups in mind. Combining long, lanky defensive backs with athletic pass rushers on the outside, Seattle is essentially a passing offense's worst nightmare.

And, although they were able to power their way to an opening round victory in Philadelphia last weekend, the Saints are still very much a passing offense. Brees and head coach Sean Payton are famous for their multiple attack, combining deadly accurate quarterback play with brilliant play design to spread defenses out and take advantage of mismatches in coverage.

This is also an offense loaded with playmakers on the outside, using seam-running stalwarts Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston with speedsters Robert Meachem and Kenny Stills in tandem to torture under-matched defenses. If you're not able to play man-to-man coverage against Brees while forcing him to move around in the pocket, you're going to be in for a very long day.

But last week Payton did something we're not used to seeing from the pass-happy guru: run the football. They beat the Eagles at their own game this past Saturday, rushing 36 times at 5.1 yards per carry. Led by former first-round pick (post-hype fantasy sleeper alert!) Mark Ingram, who carried 18 times for 97 yards and a touchdown, the Saints controlled the clock and kept Chip Kelly's explosive offense on the sidelines en route to a 26-24 victory.

Popular opinion around the talk-show circuit would have you think that it would be in the Saints' best interest for them to employ a similar gameplan this afternoon. After all, when the Seahawks did look vulnerable this year (which wasn't much, but stay with me here), it was when teams ran the ball right at them and controlled the game on the ground.

I'm of a different opinion, however. I believe for the Saints to have a chance to advance to the NFC title game, they're going to have to win the way we're used to seeing them win with Payton and Brees at the helm. They're going to have to win this game through the air, utilizing the threat of their newly established run game to keep the Seahawk pass rush at bay with play-action passes and added protection for Brees as he scans the defense for mismatches.

The Seahawks are going to try to play man-to-man defense on the outside with their big defensive backs. They're going to rush the passer and try to fluster Brees, forcing him into check-downs and poor decisions that lead to turnovers. This has been their blueprint dating back to the start of last year, and there's really been no reason to shift their philosophy. They're the toughest team to beat at home in the league, and it all starts with that tenacious pass defense.

On offense, Seattle will employ a bruising combination of Marshawn Lynch at the point of attack and Russell Wilson on the edges. If the Saints aren't able to keep Wilson in the pocket, their odds of winning will go from slim to none.

In terms of a pick in this game, it's all going to come down to New Orleans and their ability to dictate things on offense. The Seahawks aren't built to play from behind, and the Saints will need to give them a taste of their own medicine and get out to a quick start, likely through the air. If they can pop Seattle in the mouth with a couple of big pass plays early, Payton will be able to lean on their newfound ground game to chew up the clock and keep Wilson on the sideline.

But, as is usually the case in Seattle, they'll be battling more than just the league's top pass defense and most boisterous crowd. They'll need to throw effectively through a light rain that's expected to fall throughout the contest.

The chips appear to be stacked a little too heavily against the Saints and their attempt to play spoiler for a second straight week on the road. I do see this being a close contest, but Pete Carroll and the Seahawks are just too tough at home, especially when you add in the elements. Seattle wins this one to advance to the NFC title game next week.

Seattle wins, New Orleans covers (+7.5).



Sunday, January 5, 2014

nfl: wild card weekend picks: 49ers-packers

San Francisco at Green Bay (49ers (-3))

The final game of the NFL's Wild Card Weekend will no doubt be a fun one, and not just because of the two traditional NFC powers who are set to square off. Forecasters are predicting the weather at storied Lambeau Field in Green Bay will be well below zero come kickoff. This is what playoff football is all about.

As for the teams, their roads to this Week 18 showdown really couldn't have been more different.

The 49ers are simply rolling heading into the playoffs, having won six straight on their way to a 12-4 record. If not for division foe Seattle, San Francisco wouldn't even be playing this week.

But it's not like the 49ers need the rest. They're as healthy as they've been in months, welcoming back Michael Crabtree and easing him back into his featured role in the passing game over the last few weeks.

Frank Gore had himself yet another 1,000-yard rushing season. Colin Kaepernick is looking more comfortable. Vernon Davis is a freak. The front seven has seen its play pick up in recent weeks. The secondary is solidifying. And that's not even mentioning their biggest asset, head coach John Harbaugh. The amount of winning he's done since taking over the Niners is damn near unprecedented. You just never know what he's going to pull out of his hat. Oh, and he's owned Green Bay.

As for the Packers, they're still pinching themselves after last week's shocking last-minute win over the rival Chicago Bears. As it stands now, they're 8-7-1, the fourth seed in the playoffs, hosting a 12-4 team that only a year ago was competing for a Super Bowl ring.

But, Green Bay has a little history on their side here. Every season, we see a home underdog in the playoffs pull one of these games out. The Packers, for everything they aren't defensively, are likely a lot better than their record when a certain somebody is taking the snaps. That certain somebody now has a game under his belt after missing the previous seven weeks with a broken collarbone. That certain somebody has already made a Wild Card run to a Super Bowl victory.

That certain somebody is, of course, quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Basically the second guy on the Hall of Fame waiting list right now behind Tom Brady. Eliminator of weaknesses. Destroyer of defenses. Superstar in every sense of the word. (And all of this from a Bears fan.)

With Rodgers back in the Green Bay lineup, you can throw everything else out the window. Yes, rookie runner Eddie Lacy has been fantastic this year for the Pack. But this game is coming down to two people and which one imposes their will most effectively. This is between Harbaugh and Rodgers.

We'll certainly hear a lot about the brutal cold throughout the game, but I don't think that slows either of these two gunslingers. Rodgers will want to hit San Francisco with quick passes, up-tempo offense and shotgun runs to Lacy while putting together sustained drives and wearing out the defense. Harbaugh will try to keep a questionable Packers defense off balance with his trademark quick-hitting powers, traps and counters with both Gore and Kaeperkick.

Rodgers will want to get top target Jordy Nelson in space one-on-one for big gains and opportunities for Nelson to run after the catch. Harbaugh will do his best to manage the same for Davis, Crabtree and veteran Anquan Boldin.

These are two intense leaders who approach the game in much the same way. The only problem for Rodgers is that he's got no say in what Packers do on defense to slow down the multiple 49ers attack, resigned to his thoughts on the sideline when the offense isn't out there. Harbaugh? He touches it all.

And that's the basis for my picks in this one. I'm excited to hopefully see another instant classic, as we've been spoiled by great games to start this year's playoffs. We're going to be witnessing football at its core in Green Bay today. It's going to be a heavyweight slugfest between two of the best we've ever seen at their respective jobs. And it's going to be freezing cold! This will be a win-win-win for NFL fans this afternoon.

As for the picks, I've got Harbaugh and the Niners both winning and covering the three today. I just think, aside from the overall talent gap, Harbaugh's schemes on both sides of the ball will be too much for Rodgers and the Pack to overcome.

One thing's for sure, regardless of outcome: I don't think anyone wants to play either of these teams anytime soon. These are dangerous playoff teams.

San Francisco to win and to cover (-3).



nfl: wild card weekend picks: chargers-bengals

San Diego at Cincinnati (Bengals (-7))

After a wild pair of games on Saturday, these Sunday games have a lot to live up to. The matchups are ripe to deliver yet another crazy day on Wild Card Weekend. Let's get to them, starting with our 12pm CT showdown between two teams who aren't getting much love in the press as the playoffs get going.

Even the NFL did its best to bury the matchup, slotting it in the unenviable early Sunday spot, sandwiched between the game-of-the-week-type matchup Saturday night and the most primetime offering Sunday will provide later this afternoon.

But this is still an intriguing game from a few different angles. For starters, this Chargers team is a relative conundrum in and of itself. They've beaten Denver in Denver, the only such team to do so. They've also lost to the Raiders. It's just tough to know which Chargers team is going to show up.

Likewise on the home sideline. The Bengals knocked off the Patriots and Colts this year handily, but also lost stinkers to the Browns and Dolphins. They score a lot of points when they're at home, and their defense is one of the best units in the league. The questions here surface more on the offensive end; are we going to see the team that posted 34-plus points over their last three home contests? Or the one that posted just 30 combined earlier in the year over a 2-game stretch?

The only Bengal who can answer that question is quarterback Andy Dalton, who's been both maligned and celebrated in his time at the helm of coach Marv Lewis's offense. He's led his team to the playoffs each year he's been a pro, but he's yet to land that elusive first playoff win. He's never quite had a matchup like this one, however. Typically, it's been Dalton's teams that were big underdogs against a superior opponent in the playoffs. This time, that script is flipped, and Dalton might be able to put those questions off for another week. The reason? He's going to get a lot of help today.

What the Bengals have been able to do under Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is build a very balanced club, one with the ability to cover up its holes with outstanding play in other facets of the game. When Dalton's struggling in the passing game, they can turn to the ground with thunder-and-lightning backfield combo Benjarvis Green-Ellis and Gio Bernard. When nothing's working on offense, it's been the defense that's been able to pick up the slack, both in terms of field position and on the scoreboard, tallying six touchdowns on interception or fumble returns.

The bottom line: Cincinnati is a quietly dangerous team, regardless of who's making the plays.

The Chargers? Not so much. They've been among the worst defensive units in the league all season long. Philip Rivers, whose legend grows with each bolo-clad interview, has been a great comeback tale this season, leading the league in completion percentage and leading his team to big, unexpected wins.

Rookie head coach Mike McCoy, for all his clock management follies, has done a great job in turning this team around. If you told me at this point last year that the Chargers were just 12 months from a possible playoff win, I'd have checked you into the nearest insane asylum.

But it hasn't been all Rivers this year. A big piece of the Chargers' success on offense this year has been the revitalization of the running game under McCoy. Former first-rounder Ryan Mathews has been a revelation in 2013, playing in 15 games and churning out 1,255 yards on the ground on 285 carries, both easily career highs. He's had some help from diminutive running mate Danny Woodhead as well, who has tacked on another 1,000 total yards to the San Diego offense, more than half of which has come through the air. Shoot, when you add the two together, you've got the most effective backfield combo in the league. By far.

It's been a nice season for both teams thus far. The Bengals expected to be here, hosting their first playoff game of the Dalton era with a chance at rising to the occasion and advancing past the Wild Card Round.

The Chargers have already surpassed expectations for McCoy's first season. Regardless of what happens today, you've got to believe anyone with any stake in the Charger organization has already chalked 2013 up as a success.

As for the game, it's going to come down to the two things teams must do in order to advance in the playoffs: hang on to the football, and cram it down your opponent's throat.

If the Bengals' backfield duo can take enough pressure off Dalton and keep the Charger defense guessing, this game should go their way handily.

But if the Chargers get off to a fast start and are able to lean on their two very productive rushers, the Bengals could find themselves having to one-dementionally come back from a deficit on the right arm of Dalton.

What's the more likely outcome? I see Cincinnati controlling this one, both with their ground game and that top-5 defense. They'll be able to stuff Mathews between the tackles and use athletic linebackers to stick on Woodhead in the flats. Their defensive line, even without all-world tackle Geno Atkins, will give Rivers fits in the backfield, forcing him into long-yardage situations and disrupting his timing on crossing routes.

Weather and circumstance make me think this will be a close contest, but it just seems to me that the Chargers have already accomplished what they'd set out to do this year.

The Bengals? They're just getting started.

Bengals to win, Chargers to cover (-7).