#DigSportsDesk - The Lede
DeflateGate: Is It Time to 'Fess Up?
By TERRY LYONS, Digital Sports Desk Editor-in-Chief
Some roads are paved by an overnight construction crew with a slab of blacktop. Some roads are paved brick-by-brick, by skilled workers who toil for hours on end to be sure each piece of stone is laid perfectly in unison with the next, all cemented in a pavement that will last for generations to come. Today, there is a new road being paved from Park Avenue in New York to Foxboro, Massachusetts. It might be cheap asphalt or it might be everlasting cobblestone. Only one thing is for sure, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the foreman on the job.
Over the course of more than 100 days, the National Football League and the New England Patriots have been on far opposite ends of a legal tango trying to uncover the facts behind a relatively stupid aspect of league rules involving the proper amount of air in a game ball. While airing that controversy out, the NFL has cautiously detoured, carefully dictating the road that Brady will soon walk down.
This week the NFL, via a team of hired-gun lawyers and investigators, handed down a 243-page report, authored by an independent sleuth but powered by NFL league counsel Jeff Pash’s checkbook. The Wells Report, camouflaged with legal mumbo-jumbo, uncovered and delivered a “more probable than not” scenario to implicate two New England Patriots game-day employees for their role in tampering with game balls and deflating them to illegal levels of PSI (pounds per square inch) and much to Brady’s liking for a game played on a cold, damp winter evening. The report also stated that Brady “was, at least, generally aware” of the incident. Although the Wells Report left “reasonable doubt” for a level of proof mandatory in a court of law, the investigation left little to the imagination for the all important court of public opinion.
Why is this crazy incident and the Wells Report so important?
On one side of that document, the newfound Magna Carta for NFL integrity because of the fact the alleged perpetrators tampered with the GAME BALLS, is a model sports franchise, model owner and model quarterback with a (real) supermodel wife. The New England Patriots are not only the reigning Super Bowl champions for the NFL, the most powerful, profitable and influential sports league in word history, but they also represent the sport in nearly every fraction one can imagine.
The team owner has been the foundation of the franchise, etched into the New England community for rescuing a franchise that nearly moved down 95 to, god forbid, Hartford, Connecticut. But, more than that, Robert Kraft, along with a very small handful of other NFL team investors, is the face of NFL ownership with visions of man-hugs dancing in our heads, even after contentious labor negotiating sessions, when Kraft was the savior of the NFL as labor stoppage threatened the 2011 NFL season.
The team’s head coach, Bill Belichick, has carved his own legacy in stone as he is certainly on the Mt. Rushmore of the NFL’s greatest coaches ever, alongside Lombardi, Halas, Shula and Landry. Belichick out-smarts, out-prepares, or simply out-coaches his opponents on a scale unimaginable in the modern-day era of salary cap and free agency. His legacy, while secure, was tarnished severely back in 2007 when the NFL levied a $500,000 fine for an unfair videotaping incident known to all as “SpyGate.”
The team’s quarterback and leader, Brady, is amongst the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Period. Off the field, Brady fast became the poster-boy for what the NFL likes to portray as its model citizen. Brady’s good-looks, his storybook romances and media-friendly demeanor are fed to sports fans on a weekly basis every autumn. Most importantly, on the field of play, Brady has backed it up with a decade-plus of winning ways, complete with IV Super Bowl Wins and III Super Bowl MVPs. With it all, Brady has enjoyed endorsements, fame, good fortune and extremely positive public relations throughout his career.
On the other side of the document is the NFL and its Commissioner Roger Goodell, accusing its model citizens of cheating.
As the Patriots camp reacted to the Wells Report, the model team owner put out his statement, noting, “to say we are disappointed in its findings, which do not include any incontrovertible or hard evidence of deliberate deflation of footballs at the AFC Championship game, would be a gross understatement.” Then both Brady’s agent and his father took similar positions to put up a smoke screen of plausible deniability, all using Nixonian-like phraseology, while failing to come out and plainly state - “We didn’t do it.”
As fate would have it, Brady was booked at a Salem State University speaking series, where he had the nerve to helicopter in to sit alongside media maven Jim Gray for a show right out of “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” On that set, Brady smugly glossed-over the news of the day, claiming he hadn’t had time to fully digest and read the account that will undoubtedly be attached to his lifelong resume, nevermind (potentially) negatively impact the 2015 New England Patriots season, depending on yet-to-be prescribed NFL discipline via fine or suspension.
Brady’s continuous, ill-advised steps, from his initial press conference just days after the Deflategate controversy broke to his disingenuous remarks at the bewitched Salem State appearance, place Brady in a precarious position, both in terms of fighting the NFL on the matter of discipline and on his trial in the all-important court of public opinion. While his actions can not be properly compared to the utter depths of sports malpractice, orchestrated somewhat recently by Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong for cheating their sports and fellow competitors by constant denial of utilizing performance enhancing chemistry, the fall-out might be as impactful were it not for the mountain of goodwill Brady has previously built up.
Says sports media guru and former White House Director of Communications Kevin Sullivan, "While it's still unclear what exactly Brady's role was, he has too much personal goodwill in the bank and too much success on the field for this to seriously damage him. Deflategate will be part of his legacy, but more likely as a footnote than a headline.”
With that in mind, it might be time for Brady, Belichick, Kraft and the New England Patriots to set the record straight or ‘fess up. Even if they have ballboys Jim McNally and John Jastremski text it to us.
Nassau Coliseum Memories
By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Sports Desk
It was a scene straight out of Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” as my Mom drove up Hempstead Turnpike, past Borelli’s Pizza and across Meadowbrook Parkway, to the brand new arena, glowing in splendor in the vast nothingness of Mitchell Field. As she maneuvered past the parking lot attendants and made a u-turn to drop-off the pack of 13-year olds, her maternal instincts kicked-in and the familiar phrase of “Be Careful” echoed out as the car doors opened. Unlike Frances McDormand’s portrayal of Elaine Miller, mother of William, in the motion picture, my Mom, now 90-years old - God bless her, wasn’t worried about her son doing drugs at a rock show. She was worried about her 13-year old running from the car, so excited to attend the first New York Islanders regular season game ever played.
Now, in 2015, it would be real easy to “Google” - New York Islanders - Nassau Coliseum - First Game - and get some details, but this reporter is going to wing it and encourage the Internet trolls to add comments to correct any wrong-doings of this column. I will trust my memory.
The Islanders lost, 3-2. Eddie Westphal, the captain stolen from the Boston Bruins in the dispersal draft, scored the Isles’ first goal. Our tickets were $6.00 face value a hefty price tag for a Newsday paperboy and a considerable increase over the $3.25 student tickets we had purchased to attend the Tuesday night game against the Los Angeles Kings to be staged a few nights later. It was a cool October Saturday night and the buzz outside the arena was noticeable. The opponent was the equally inexperienced Atlanta Flames as the schedule-maker at the National Hockey League brilliantly plotted to have one of the two fledgling NHL expansion clubs get a “W” on their very first outing.
Sports marketing and retailing had yet to be realized in the manner they are today. I wore an Islanders pull-over sweat shirt, ordered from a Sears-Roebuck catalog. There was no such thing as a replica jersey. At that time, if you were to purchase such a thing, you had two choices and they were a Gerry Cosby’s sporting goods store in Westbury or one at Penn Station, adjacent to Madison Square Garden in New York, home of the “hated” New York Rangers. To obtain a New York Islanders jersey, one with Westphal’s No. 18 or Gerry Hart’s No. 2 or Brian “Spinner” Spencer’s No. 9, you had to have it custom made at Cosby’s or mail away to purchase it from stores in Sherbrooke, Ontario, Canada, the real home of ice hockey. The concession stands at the new Nassau Coliseum had little to offer at the time, maybe a foam cut out of a finger or a poster or two.
Instead, we cut out photos from SPORT magazine or, maybe a rare color shot in the New York Times Sunday magazine as colorized newspaper publishing for the six-day-a-week Newsday had yet to come to fruition. We all chose our favorite players, who were cast-a-ways from that God-awful NHL dispersal draft. One of my friends decided Garry Howatt, the feisty forward, would be his guy while another picked Germaine Gagnon. Everyone liked Billy Harris, the Islanders’ top rookie pick, and we all thought Gerry Desjardin would get the job done in goal. He would be the brick wall, the stopper.
Upon entering the Coliseum, the smell was “new,” probably from the 15,000+ newly installed seats. Keep in mind, this wasn’t the very first sporting event at the new Nassau Coliseum. We'd already attended the New York Nets vs. Pittsburgh Condors basketball game before the Islanders were to play their first regular season game ever. It was new because this game actually counted and it counted just the same as so many of the painful nights ahead when Long Island’s very own expansion team would endure such inaugural year misery. Time passed quickly and more memorable nights for Islanders fans were in the glory years ahead.
Those moments from the early 1980s are the times being remembered now, as the Nassau Coliseum hosts its final New York Islanders regular season game. The team will soon be moved to the hip, (wink, wink) center of the ice hockey universe in Brooklyn, and Long Islanders who want to watch their team will have to “change at Jamaica” on a Long Island Rail Road train to Brooklyn. The young fans from Ft. Green and Flatbush will experience the first-ever Islanders NHL regular season game at the Barclays Center, the team’s new home. The memories of the old Brooklyn Dodgers in baseball and the new Brooklyn Nets for basketball will now mesh with a sport entirely foreign to Kings County. The memories of the Islanders and the Nassau Coliseum will shutter when the team either wins the Stanley Cup or is eliminated from the 2015 NHL Playoffs, the former being a storybook final chapter but the latter being more likely this spring.
My memories rush by, as if I were dying an instant death and my life’s best moments were flashing before my eyes. I close those eyes and I can picture Bobby Nystrom’s overtime goal to clinch the 1980 Stanley Cup championship against the Philadelphia Flyers. That moment was the culmination, but, I still and equally cherish — the journey. Thinking of that, my mind conjures up the sight of J.P. Parise’s goal against the New York Rangers in 1975, again in overtime, but instead it was scored at Madison Square Garden to close out a series that allowed the Islanders to turn the corner towards legitimacy. That ’75 Islanders team accomplished the impossible, coming back to beat the Rangers, then doing the same against the Pittsburgh Penguins, going down 0-3, but winning the series in seven games, a feat only accomplished once before, by the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs. When the Isles did the same thing against the big, bad Flyers in the very next series, only to fall short in Game 7, the Islanders had truly arrived and it was now a matter of time and overcoming the Flyers and a great Montreal Canadiens team to the north.
Just how did they go from expansion babies to Stanley Cup contenders in just three years? My mind wanders to seeing coach Al Arbour behind the bench and team GM Bill Torrey walking the concourse, a concourse poorly designed with too few restrooms and no amenities to speak of from an era of arena design drawn before the days of The Palace of Auburn Hills and luxury boxes on three levels. Torrey and Arbour were the masterminds and we loved them, almost as much as we loved our parents.
My mind rushes to seeing “No. 5,” the great Denis Potvin - the key piece of the soon-to-be-built - and “get this” - the NY Islanders dynasty. Potvin would become the cornerstone, the captain and the best hockey defenseman I’d ever seen, because the Bobby Orr I chose to compare to Potvin was one with knee injuries and a Chicago Black Hawks jersey, not the Bobby Orr - the greatest player of all-time - from his heyday with the Boston Bruins. My mind rushes to watching “No. 19,” Bryan Trottier and his mack truck, bone crushing, body checks and his wizardry in guiding the Islanders first line with wingers Michele “Mike” Bossy from Lavelle, Quebec and Clark Gillies of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Bossy was the goal-scorer the Islanders desperately needed and Gillies became the enforcer who went skate-to-skate and duked it out with all the bullies of Broad Street, like the Flyers’ Dave Schultz, or even Boston’s invincible Terry O’Reilly.
My mind also rushes to visions of the guys who were in the trenches for the Islanders, the guys who brought team chemistry and that extra boost. They were as valuable as Potvin, Trots and Bossy and their names were Wayne Merrick, Nystom, Lorne Henning, maybe even Anders Kallur. My mind envisions the toughest of defensemen, in Potvin, of course, but also in his brother, Jean. The defensive alignments escape me, but I can remember Dave Lewis and Dave Langevin. And, after the Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Olympics, I remember a young Ken Morrow joining the crew, straight from the gold medal stand in Lake Placid and solidifying a team defense in front of goalkeepers Billy Smith and the popular Glenn “Chico” Resch.
Going back to Torrey, I remember being sad to see the likable Billy Harris traded across the country to the LA Kings, but was happy to see the defense shored up with Lewis and a second-line center brought forth with Butch Goring joining the corps. Torrey had a way, much like basketball great Red Auerbach of the famed Boston Celtics, to secure that one extra piece, that one spark plug or trade deadline gem. In addition to Goring, I knew great things would happen when the Islanders obtained “No. 27” John Tonelli - not only because he wore the same uniform number that I did (truth be told, I also admired Toronto’s Darryl Sittler) - but because he would add extra goal-scoring and toughness, much like Goring did.
The visions are not all about Stanley Cup Championships and ice hockey games. My memories are equally vivid from New York Nets games against Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and the Kentucky Colonels or of David Thompson and the Denver Nuggets or Moses Malone, the youngster straight out of high school, playing for the Utah Stars. As the youngest member of what was certainly a “basketball family,” we probably attended twice as many Nets games as I did Islanders. Similar to the Isles, the Nets delivered in a big way. They stepped up from dark days of Lavern Tart and Joe DuPre in the old Island Garden with the team coached by York Larese to better days with Rick Barry and coach Louie Carnesecca, lured from St. John’s to the pros. The Nets of Coliseum fame were either championship contenders or ABA champions, led by Coach Kevin Loughery and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, of course, and some of my favorites like Ollie Taylor or Wendall Ladner, who died so suddenly and shockingly in an airplane crash at JFK airport.
I loved the Nets of ABA days with John Williamson and John Roche at guard, St.John’s very own Billy Paultz, “The Whopper,” at center and Tom “Trooper” Washington alongside The Doctor at forward. When the Nets and the ABA merged into the NBA in 1976-77, we went from the highly anticipated pairing of “Doctor J and Tiny A (Nate Archibald) in the NBA” to the likes of Bubbles Hawkins as Archibald blew-out his Achilles’ and Erving was sold, shipped and sent to the Philadelphia 76ers right at the peak of his career. The Nets were in financial ruin and their ownership group, headed by Roy L.M. (Let’s Move) Boe was about to relocate the team to Piscataway, New Jersey just to break my heart, I was sure.
Of course, the Coliseum was not just a sports arena. It was a concert hall, too. I caught my very first Bruce Springsteen show on New Year’s eve 1980 at the building, and many more Springsteen shows after that, from "The River" to "Tunnel of Love" and well beyond. We saw “Chicago” - not the Black Hawks, not the Bulls - but the most popular rock band of the ‘70s, and we caught the Allman Brothers, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Elton John and Billy Joel. We watched St. John’s in the ECAC basketball playoffs and an occasional regular season college game, including one that stands out that was an utter annihilation of the Redmen by No. 1 Oregon State.
More importantly, one of the most lasting images I will ever have of the Nassau Coliseum was a simple public address announcement made at an Islanders game against the old California Golden Seals, they of Carol Vadnais and white skates. The public address bellowed the news that the Viet Nam war was over and I remember the game stopping after a whistle, the announcement, and the players all banging their sticks on the ice or against the boards. My cousin, Air Force pilot Kevin Cheney, was going to come home soon. The next summer, they threw a ticket tape parade for the returning POWs. I remember THAT like it was yesterday.
The closing of the Coliseum is long overdue. I hear they’re thinking of reducing it in size, a bit, refurbishing and updating the old, cement barn, built to resemble The Spectrum in Philadelphia or The Summit in Houston, the modern day marvels of the 1970s arena design. They can do what they want. I hope they make it a town hall for Long Islanders. I hope they make it more affordable and family friendly for ice shows and the circus. I hope they find an indoor lacrosse team or an ECHL ice hockey club. Billy Joel can still play and so can Elton. Sadly, though, too much time has passed for Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. Too much time has passed for Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Too much time has passed for the Allman’s and too much time passed for the likes of the late Brian “Spinner” Spencer, who was once my pen pal as he did time, awaiting the death sentence in a Florida jail after his post hockey life had spun way out of control and into the depths of drug abuse.
My memories are alive and well, unlike Spencer, who was shot and killed in a drug deal gone terribly wrong a few years after being exonerated of the crime he was accused of committing. My memories of a young, hard-hitting fan favorite, my “Spinner" Spencer, along with my fond memories of the Long Island’s very own Islanders and Nets and the dump called the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, will live on forever.
On the Rise in AL
(From Wire Service Reports)
Will Oakland Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien establish himself as an effective every-day player? Can Kansas City Royals second-year right-hander Yordano Ventura live up to his "ace" nickname? Can Boston Red Sox righty Matt Barnes be effective out of the bullpen
The answer to these questions are yes, according to The Sports Xchange's network of baseball correspondents brought to you by DigitalSportsDesk, who predict each American League team's on-the-rise player.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
HOUSTON ASTROS: CF Jake Marisnick doesn't project to be even an average hitter (ZIPS predicts Marisnick to post an 81 wRC+ this season), but his defensive acumen in center makes him a valuable asset for a team searching for means to suppress runs. Marisnick saved 14 runs over 534 innings last season, and if he sticks as a regular, that total will surely rise. While spring training stats should be taken with a grain of salt, Marisnick did hit .303/.400/.485 through his final weekend in the Grapefruit League. Should his bat develop, the Astros would be elated.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS: DH/1B C.J. Cron got his feet wet in the big leagues last season and has shown signs this spring he may be ready for a breakout season. Cron hit .256 with 11 homers and 37 RBIs in 79 games last season but never got to settle in and get consistent playing time. This year, Cron will be the Angels' primary designated hitter, will spell Albert Pujols at first base and will bat cleanup when the club is facing left-handed pitchers. He's had a big spring, hitting .421 with three homers, eight doubles and a 1.225 OPS.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS: SS Marcus Semien spent his first two major league seasons as a utility infielder for the Chicago White Sox, making 50 appearances at third base, 29 at second and six at shortstop. This year, he'll open the season as the A's starting shortstop and will get a chance to establish himself in the major leagues at one position. Semien has good power for a middle infielder -- he hit six home runs and drove in 28 runs in 64 games last year. He hit two home runs and four doubles in his first 19 spring training games for the A's. The biggest question is whether Semien can be a solid defensive shortstop, day in and day out, over a full season. He had a strong spring training defensively, but the true test is yet to come.
SEATTLE MARINERS: C Mike Zunino wasn't drafted for his bat when the Mariners selected him third overall in the 2012 draft, but he showed some unexpected power and a knack for timely hits last season. What he didn't show was any kind of consistency. The Mariners need Zunino to improve on his .199 batting average if they want to get any kind of contribution from the bottom of their batting order.
TEXAS RANGERS: 2B Rougned Odor was supposed to spend 2014 in Double-A but instead played in 114 games in the majors at 20, making him the youngest player in the majors. Odor didn't just play either; he hit .259 and showed power, swatting nine home runs and collecting 48 RBIs. The 15 homers he totaled, with six coming at Double-A, are a sign of what's to come too. Odor showed more progress at the plate in the spring, keeping his average over .400 throughout Cactus League play.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
CHICAGO WHITE SOX: LHP Jose Quintana, 26, has been one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball the past two seasons. He's led the White Sox in quality starts, including 66 percent (21) of his 32 outings in 2014, but has just an 18-18 record in that span to show for it. He took 17 no-decisions last year, and four times left games with the lead, only to watch the Sox lose. Perhaps no pitcher was happier to see the Sox sign LF Melky Cabrera and DH Adam LaRoche, who should give 1B Jose Abreu more protection. That might lead to more run production in Quintana's starts.
CLEVELAND INDIANS: RHP Carlos Carrasco, whose career seemed dead in the water early in the 2014 season, rallied late in the season for such a strong and impressive finish that he will start the 2015 season as the No. 2 starter in the rotation. In Carrasco's last 10 starts last year he had a 1.30 ERA and opposing teams hit .179 against him. In 40 appearances overall, 14 starts, he had a 2.55 ERA. He could be poised for a breakout season in 2015.
DETROIT TIGERS: 3B Nick Castellanos had a solid rookie season in 2014, hitting .259 with 11 home runs and 56 RBIs. But he struggled defensively after his third position change in three years -- third, to the outfield and last year back to third. Castellanos, 24, spent some time working on his crouch and first step in an effort to get better at third. He is a diligent worker on offense and has a good idea of what's going on at the plate, leading to the belief his production at the late will take an uptick this season and beyond.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS: RHP Yordano "Ace" Ventura went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA as a rookie last season. He threw seven scoreless innings against the Giants in Game 6 of the World Series. He threw seven no-hit innings against the Mariners in spring training. Manager Ned Yost named Ventura, 23, to be the Opening Day starter. Ventura's fastball has been clocked in three figures. He could be the staff ace for several years.
MINNESOTA TWINS: SS Danny Santana took the American League by storm last season after debuting in the majors on May 5. If not for Jose Abreu's monster season on the south side of Chicago, Santana certainly would have been in the mix for the AL's Rookie of the Year Award. In 405 at-bats (101 games), Santana hit .319 with seven homers and 40 RBIs. He also stole 20 bags and scored 70 runs. With the Twins continuing issues in center field, Santana played primarily in the outfield last season, but Molitor has shifted Santana back to his natural shortstop spot. He responded with a great spring, hitting .333 in 57 at-bats with three steals.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
BALTIMORE ORIOLES: OF Alejandro De Aza has the power and speed to find an everyday role with the Orioles this season. The club acquired him in August for RHPs Miguel Chalas and Mark Blackmar. De Aza finished with a slash line of .293/.341/.537, three homers and 10 RBIs in 20 games, helping Baltimore make a run to the American League Championship Series. He will likely start in left field and bat leadoff against right-handed pitchers. De Aza does need to improve defensively, but he could become the perfect complement to center fielder Adam Jones.
BOSTON RED SOX: RHP Matt Barnes came to camp as a starter and appeared ready to leave Florida as a member of the Boston bullpen. Barnes, 24, is one of the club's top prospects. Slowed by a bout with food poisoning late in camp, Barnes had a 5.25 ERA in seven Grapefruit League games through April 1. He appeared in five games in relief for Boston last year, recording a 4.00 ERA. In 23 games (22 starts) for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2014, Barnes went 8-9 with 3.95 ERA.
NEW YORK YANKEES: 2B Rob Refsnyder remains someone on the rise for the Yankees even though he will open this season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The Yankees knew Refsnyder could hit and he validated that by batting .333 (13-for-39) in spring training. However, the fielding is still a work in progress for the converted outfielder. Refsnyder made six errors in spring training, but INF Brendan Ryan's calf injury might put him in the mix for Opening Day. If Refsnyder is not there for the season opener, he likely won't appear in New York unless incumbent Stephen Drew falters or gets hurt.
TAMPA BAY RAYS: RHP Jake Odorizzi had a solid rookie year last season, going 11-13 with a 4.13 ERA in 31 starts. Particularly impressive was Odorizzi's 174 strikeouts in 168 innings, with just 59 walks. He also allowed 156 hits, which were less than one per inning. A split-finger pitch learned from RHP Alex Cobb during spring training last year gave Odorizzi something off speed to disrupt the hitters' timing and became a strikeout pitch as the season went on. There is seemingly room for improvement, too, as Odorizzi is just 25.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS: RHP Miguel Castro burst into prominence with a sensational spring training. The 20-year-old's fastball was timed at 100 mph. With a plus changeup at 83 mph and a decent slider, Castro was baffling hitters. The native of the Dominican Republic, who is 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, figures to be a reliever this season, but he has been a starter and that could be his future. He was 8-3 with a 2.68 ERA in 16 games (15 starts) last season at short-season Class A Vancouver, Class A Lansing and Class A Dunedin.
On the Rise in NL
From Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez looking healthy and taking better care of his aging body, to Milwaukee Brewers hard-throwing right-hander Wily Peralta filling the "ace" hole in the rotation, to young Miami Marlins left fielder Christian Yelich preparing to take his game to the next level, there are a number of players who could be on the rise this season.
Below is each National League team's player most likely to fit into that category, according to The Sports Xchange's network of baseball correspondents.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: CF A.J. Pollock appears to be on the verge of a breakout season, and all that seems to stand in the way is health. He has made a steady progression. Pollock made the team in 2013 because of spring injuries and played so well -- 28 doubles, eight homers, 38 RBIs -- that he stayed the whole season. He was hitting .316 with 16 doubles, six homers and eight stolen bases the first two months of last season before suffering a broken hand when he was hit by a Johnny Cueto pitch on May 31. He is the D-backs' best defensive outfielder and will play almost every day.
COLORADO ROCKIES: RF Carlos Gonzalez is coming off a miserable season that saw him set career-lows in games played (70) and batting average .237 and finish with a paltry .723 OPS. But he is playing at about 210 pounds this season, down from 235 after being more diligent than ever about his body and his conditioning. A healthy left knee enables the left-handed hitting Gonzalez to put weight on his back leg, which he was unable to do most of last year, and drive the ball. There's no doubt about his talent. Gonzalez won a batting title, three Gold Gloves and has twice been an All-Star. He was an elite player when healthy and should be so again.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: C Yasmani Grandal was the key player the Dodgers received back from the San Diego Padres in the trade that sent former MVP runner-up Matt Kemp south. The Dodgers think they got a young catcher with tremendous upside offensively who might have been undervalued after two difficult seasons with the Padres. Grandal served a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's performance-enhancing drug policy, then sustained a severe knee injury within a month of his return. Grandal had reconstructive surgery and raced through his rehab in time to open the 2014 season in the Padres' lineup. He hit just .225, and his defensive skills eroded as a result, but the Dodgers expect much more.
SAN DIEGO PADRES: 3B Will Middlebrooks is coming off two injury-plagued seasons that saw the one-time Red Sox top prospect morph into a suspect. However, Middlebrooks had an outstanding spring with the bat and in the field -- looking more like the player who hit .288 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs in 75 games as a rookie in 2012 rather than the .213 hitter of the past two seasons.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: RHP Yusmeiro Petit pitched well enough as a starter in 2014 to be a serious candidate for a spot in this year's rotation. The problem was: He pitched even better out of the bullpen, and that is where Giants manager Bruce Bochy considers him most valuable. While most observers fear ace LHP Madison Bumgarner might get overworked this season, Petit actually is a greater possibility for overuse. After all, while Bumgarner likely will pitch just once every five games, Petit is a candidate to get used in any of the other four.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
CHICAGO CUBS: OF Jorge Soler, a 23-year-old Cuban defector who signed a nine-year free-agent deal with the Cubs in 2012, appears set in right field and is projected to bat second. Last year, he quickly moved through Double-A Tennessee and landed at Triple-A Iowa, where he played in 21 games and batted .282. He spent the last five weeks of the 2014 season with the Cubs, hitting .292 in 89 at-bats through 24 games. He reached safely in 20 of his first 23 career games and became the first Cub with 18 RBIs in his first 27 games since Mandy Books in 1925. Soler hit .340 in 17 spring training games.
CINCINNATI REDS: OF Brennan Boesch was signed to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training camp in November. The 29-year-old might have bashed his way into a reserve outfield spot. Boesch batted .389 with four homers and 15 RBIs with a .667 slugging percentage in his first 19 Cactus League games, pretty much assuring him a spot on the Reds' Opening Day roster. The Reds are Boesch's fourth organization since 2006. He would be a viable left-handed bat off the bench for a club that lacks bench power.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS: RHP Wily Peralta, a hard-throwing 25-year-old, enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, finishing 17-11 with a 3.53 ERA in 198 2/3 innings covering 32 starts. With RHP Yovani Gallardo gone, Milwaukee lacks a true "ace," but the belief is that Peralta has the stuff and mindset to slide into that role in the not-so-distant future. Through two-plus major league seasons, Peralta has a 30-27 record with a 3.83 ERA in 70 games (69 starts).
PITTSBURGH PIRATES: LF Starling Marte has already established himself as a good major league player, hitting .291 with 13 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 135 games last season while also playing superb defense. However, at 26, Marte hasn't reached his peak yet and many scouts and statistical analysts believe this is the year he breaks out into a superstar. Thus, it would not be a surprise if he finished the year with a .300 batting average, 20 homers, 40 steals and his first Gold Glove.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: RHP Carlos Martinez won the No. 5 starting spot, just as the Cardinals hoped he would and just as he wanted to. Biding his time as a reliever for most of the past two years, Martinez longed for the chance to start every fifth day, and he will get it. Wearing No. 18 in honor of the late Oscar Taveras, Martinez must prove he can pitch with precision as well as power so that he can give the club six inning or more every fifth day. Martinez, 23, went 2-4 with one save and a 4.03 ERA in 57 games (seven starts).
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
ATLANTA BRAVES: SS Andrelton Simmons has been one of the top defenders in baseball since he came up to the majors in 2012, winning a Gold Glove in each of his two full seasons. He took a step back at the plate last year, though, and hopefully will benefit from the extra time put in working with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. The spring results were encouraging.
MIAMI MARLINS: LF Christian Yelich just signed a seven-year, $50 million contract extension -- and it appears to be a wise investment for the Marlins. Yelich, 23, is mature beyond his years. His eye at the plate -- his ability to lay off balls and swing at strikes -- is so advanced that it has startled veteran scouts. As Yelich gets older, that pitch recognition figures to get even better, and the respect he will get from umpires will improve, too. Add to that, Yelich's speed and ability to steal bases and his developing offensive game.
NEW YORK METS: RHP Rafael Montero allowed just one run and struck out 14 batters over his final 11 2/3 innings last September. He surged into contention for either a late-inning bullpen role or a rotation spot by striking out nine and walking just two over nine innings in his first three Grapefruit League appearances in March. He struck out six over six scoreless innings against the Marlins on March 30. With RHP Vic Black nursing a shoulder injury, the Mets will go the old-fashioned route by easing Montero into full-time major league duty as a reliever before eventually transitioning him back to a starter.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: RHP Ken Giles had a dominant rookie season in 2014 as he went 3-1 with a 1.14 ERA in 44 relief appearances. The hard thrower struck out 64 in 45 2/3 innings while giving up 25 hits and walking 11 for an outstanding 0.788 WHIP. The best part for the Phillies is that Giles is just 24 and figures to get even better with more experience. He will begin the season as the primary set-up reliever but will move into the closer's role if RHP Jonathan Papelbon is traded.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS: C Wilson Ramos injured his left hand and had to leave the Opening Day game last year in New York against the Mets. He missed 74 games last season but still hit .267 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs in 88 games and 341 at-bats. Ramos, in 2013, hit .272 with 16 homers and 59 RBIs in 287 at-bats and he played in 78 games. He hit .265 in 83 at-bats during 25 games in 2012, and then followed that up by hitting .272 with 16 homers and 59 RBIs in 287 at-bats in 78 games in 2013.
NFL: Combine Give-Away/Take-Aways
Here are five takeaways from Saturday's media session:
1. Washington OLB Shaq Thompson -- It was the first question asked: What position are you? And unequivocally and unmistakably, Thompson answered: "Outside Linebacker."
Thompson quickly denied the rumors that he would also be participating in running back drills and said his return to offense was "out of the question." He plans to tell NFL teams that he wants to stay at linebacker instead of moving to safety or offense.
"It's where I feel most comfortable," Thompson said on why he's so adamant on staying at linebacker. "I like to be up by the line of scrimmage. I feel like I'm physical enough. I'm not the biggest guy, but I have a lot of heart."
With experience at both inside and outside linebacker, Thompson said he doesn't have a preference and he has talked to both 3-4 (inside Will) and 4-3 teams (outside Sam). He said his best strength is making plays in space and being a team leader, having fun and beating up the ball carrier, which sounds very similar to the player he patterns his game after: Lavonte David.
"He's a little bit taller than me," Thompson said. "But we have the same attributes, the same speed. We can cover tight ends and running backs. I feel like I can do the same things."
Although the size doesn't stand out, Thompson said height is overrated at the position. And both he and UCLA's Eric Kendricks will have to battle the "undersized" labels.
"Being too short is overrated," Thompson said. "You have a lot of short linebackers out there. London Fletcher was 5-9 and he brought a lot of inspiration to us. I don't feel height makes the player. Both Eric and I have a lot of heart and toughness. He's a great linebacker, size doesn't matter."
2. Washington CB Marcus Peters -- A prospect with considerable baggage, Peters did his best to quell the concerns about his character on Saturday, saying he made his mistakes and has to grow from them.
"It was just a miscommunication, mostly on my behalf," Peters said regarding his dismissal from Washington. "I didn't take the coaching transition too well."
Peters was kicked off the team in November after several altercations between him and the new coaching staff, although he did call the reports of him choking a coach on the sidelines "false." Since leaving the Huskies program, he has been enjoying family time at home, especially with newborn son Carson, who was born last fall. Peters has also received advice from an unlikely source: Seattle Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch.
"That's someone that has mentored me throughout my whole life," Peters said. "I watched him grow up playing Pop Warner football. I watched him in high school and I watched him through college. And I got a chance to play at Washington and he played for Seattle."
Peters said his talks with Lynch are personal, but it was encouraging to hear that he did reconcile with the Washington coaches and will participate at the school's Pro Day on April 2.
"I recently went up there a couple of weeks ago and had a real good conversation with Coach (Chris) Petersen. We sat down and talked about everything that happened," Peters said. "I sincerely apologized to him again for what I put him and the team through this year. But it was a good conversation and he welcomed me to the Pro Day."
Peters' mea culpa has mended things at Washington, but is it enough to convince NFL teams he's worth an early first round pick? Time will tell.
3. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory -- After weigh-ins, Gregory created some buzz on Friday but for the wrong reason. He tipped the scale at only 235 pounds, a lighter weight than most expected for his 6-foot-5 frame. But according to Gregory, NFL teams aren't worried about it and know he will get bigger, although it might be tough for him to keep on the added weight.
"I can probably say it is a little harder to maintain," Gregory said. "But I have always been able to put on weight real quickly and lose it real quickly."
Gregory plans to be heavier for Nebraska's Pro Day and is confident that he can carry and play with added muscle mass, saying he has weighed anywhere from "230 to 258" pounds in the past. He revealed that while he has received positive feedback and he isn't worried about it affecting his draft projection, some teams have been "stuck" on the lower weight. Gregory has the pass rush ability to be appealing to any scheme but also admitted the lighter weight could be a turnoff for some teams.
"I've had a mixture of both," Gregory said when asked about the teams interested in him and the schemes they run. "But with the weight right now, I am sure a lot of 3-4 teams will look at me instead of the 4-3 teams."
While his size isn't imposing, Gregory does play stronger than he looks, which can be attributed to the emphasis on fundamentals he learned at Nebraska. And he thinks players at the next level can take that for granted.
"Even at 235 pounds, I still think I set the edge pretty well because of my technique," Gregory said. "I use my strength well for what I weigh. I just did 24 on the bench so I'll only get stronger."
4. Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- With 40 straight starts under his belt, few thought Ekpre Olomu would face durability questions during the draft process, but after a knee injury during December practice, everything changed for the former Ducks defensive back. Nonetheless, Ekpre-Olomu is staying positive after surgery eight weeks ago.
"I'm not really too worried how it will affect my draft stock," Ekpre-Olomu said. "I'm more worried about once I get there, how I'm going to move on from there, and how I'm going to perform once I get onto the team."
Ekpre-Olomu said he feels great and the doctors tell him the knee is healing ahead of schedule. Although the reality is, he likely won't be ready for the start of the 2015 NFL season, which will put him at a disadvantage, missing rookie minicamps, training camp and the preseason. So how does he plan to compensate while on the sideline?
"I'm going to have to be determined to learn the playbook and make sure all those mental reps those guys are getting on the field," he said. "I have to make sure I'm getting a double amount because I'm not going to actually be on the field. You just have to work as hard as you can every day."
Ekpre-Olomu cited his instincts and quickness as his best strengths, which fits what the tape says. The bigger question might be, is he ideally suited to stay outside or might he be better inside as a nickel cornerback in the NFL?
"I'm a versatile player," Ekpre-Olomu said. "I was able to play nickel throughout my career at Oregon and it is going to help me in the long run because now the league runs through the slot receiver. If you can have a guy that can cover the slot and shut him down, it helps the team. And that's all you're looking forward to, trying to win games for the team."
5. Virginia DE/OLB Eli Harold -- One of the most fascinating aspects of the NFL Draft process is learning about a player's journey to this point. And Harold is no exception. The former Virginia player lost his mother to cancer while he was in high school, something that forced him to grow up at an early age.
"Growing up without a father and having a mother really doing everything for you, it's pretty tough when you lose her," Harold said. "She was my rock. She would be proud of me right now."
Harold's mother was diagnosed with yellow jaundice when he was just 14 years old and that would later turn into pancreatic cancer. She died a year later and Harold's older brother acted as a father figure, giving him a support system. Now, Harold just wants to leave a lasting legacy for his mom.
"The man upstairs blessed me, I'm going to do it for my mom," Harold said. "I just want to show the world that I can do more than just having my hand down. So tomorrow is the day. It's the proving ground and I'm psyched for it. That's what I worked all my life for."
Harold thought he was ready for the NFL game and left Virginia early to follow his dreams. He launches himself off the line of scrimmage and plays with a relentless motor that pops on film. But even Harold admits he needs to get bigger. Currently at 247 pounds, he ideally wants to get to 255 for the next level.
"I feel like being in the league, you have to be a little bit bigger than what I am now," Harold said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes. My pro day is March 2 and I'm going to go back and try to bulk up a little bit and show the scouts I can play and not lose a step with the weight on."
(Recap by Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, owned and distributed by The Sports Xchange in cooperation with Digital Sports Desk.)
The NFC East and the AFC South. Those are the two divisions whose teams must each play every team in the NFC South, a division without a winning team this year and a pathetic combined record of 22-41-1. The losers, determined by flipping the same logic, would be the be the AFC West and NFC West, whose 2015 schedules are tied to the AFC North, which sent three teams to this year's playoffs and finished regular season with a combine 38-25-1 mark. The NFC West itself will once again be a tough division because it not only plays against the NFC North (38-25-1 this year) but plays twice against each of its divisional rivals (NFC West was 37-27 this season). For those who do not have the NFL's official schedule abacus, here are the basics elements: Every team plays 16 games as follows:
--Home and away against its three division opponents (6 games).
--The four teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle (4 games).
--The four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle (4 games).
--Two intraconference games based on the prior year's standings (two games). These games match a first-place team against the first-place teams in the two same-conference divisions the team is not scheduled to play that season. The second-place, third-place, and fourth-place teams in a conference are matched in the same way each year.
Beginning in 2010, a change was made to how teams are paired in the schedule rotation to ensure that teams playing the AFC and NFC West divisions would not be required to make two west coast trips (e.g. at San Francisco and at Seattle), while other teams in their division had none (e.g. at St. Louis and at Arizona).
The official 2015 schedule, with playing dates and times, will be announced in the spring.
NFL Kickoff 2015 Weekend will begin on Thursday night, Sept. 10, and the regular season will conclude on Sunday, Jan. 3.
Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, will be played on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016.
Here are the 2015 matchups by formula:
--AFC EAST intraconference vs. AFC SOUTH
--AFC EAST interconference vs. NFC EAST
--AFC NORTH intraconference vs. AFC WEST
--AFC NORTH interconference vs. NFC WEST
--AFC SOUTH intraconference vs. AFC EAST
--AFC SOUTH Interconference vs. NFC SOUTH
--AFC WEST intraconference vs. AFC NORTH
--AFC WEST interconference vs. NFC NORTH
--NFC EAST intraconference vs. NFC SOUTH
--NFC EAST interconference vs. AFC EAST
--NFC NORTH intraconference vs. NFC WEST
--NFC NORTH interconference vs. AFC WEST
--NFC SOUTH intraconference vs. NFC EAST
--NFC SOUTH interconference vs. AFC SOUTH
--NFC WEST intraconference vs. NFC NORTH
--NFC WEST interconference vs. AFC NORTH
Here are opponents for all teams in 2015:
--1. New England Patriots. Home: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins; Away: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants.
--2. Buffalo Bills. Home: Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants. Away: Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins.
--3. Miami Dolphins. Home: Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants. Away: Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins.
--4. New York Jets. Home: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins. Away: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants.
--1. Pittsburgh Steelers. Home: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers. Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks.
--2. Cincinnati Bengals. Home: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Houston Texans, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks. Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers.
--3. Baltimore Ravens. Home: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks. Away: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers.
--4. Cleveland Browns. Home: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers. Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, New York Jets, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks
--1. Indianapolis Colts. Home: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Away: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers.
--2. Houston Texans. Home: Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Away: Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers.
--3. Jacksonville Jaguars. Home: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers. Away: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
--4. Tennessee Titans. Home: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers. Away: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
--1. Denver Broncos. Home: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings. Away: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions.
--2. Kansas City Chiefs. Home: Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions. Away: Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings.
--3. San Diego Chargers. Home: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions. Away: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings.
--4. Oakland Raiders. Home: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings. Away: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions.
--1. Dallas Cowboys. Home: New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, New York Jets. Away: New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins.
--2. Philadelphia Eagles. Home: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins. Away: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, New York Jets.
--3. New York Giants. Home: Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, New York Jets. Away: Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins.
--4. Washington Redskins. Home: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins. Away: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, New York Jets.
--1. Green Bay Packers. Home: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers. Away: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders.
--2. Detroit Lions. Home: Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders. Away: Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers.
--3. Minnesota Vikings. Home: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers. Away: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders.
--4. Chicago Bears. Home: Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders. Away: Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers.
--1. Carolina Panthers. Home: Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts. Away: Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans.
--2. New Orleans Saints. Home: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans. Away: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts.
--3. Atlanta Falcons. Home: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts. Away: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans.
--4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Home: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans. Away: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts.
--1. Seattle Seahawks. Home: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers. Away: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals.
--2. Arizona Cardinals. Home: St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals. Away: St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers.
--3. San Francisco 49ers. Home: Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals. Away: Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh Steelers.
--4. St. Louis Rams. Home: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers. Away: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals.