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Midseason NFL contenders/pretenders

The NFL has reached the halfway point through the season. Clear contenders in the Bears, Falcons and Texans have emerged, but many teams still remain question marks. Here are three pretenders and three contenders midway through the year.

Pretenders

1. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) – Ray Lewis is not expected to return anytime soon to a defense already struggling. The Ravens are a team built on defense, however, they currently are ranked 24th in total yards allowed this season. With the Steelers right on their heels, it will be up to Joe Flacco and the offense to pick up the slack of the defense. Can Flacco carry his team with an aging defense? Look for the Ravens to struggle the rest of the way.

2. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) – As good of a story as Andrew Luck and the Colts are, they should be considered a pretender. Luck is a young quarterback and will have his share of growing pains the rest of the way. Four of the Colts five wins have come against the Browns, Titans, Dolphins, and Vikings. With two games left against the Texans, it will be difficult for the less-experienced Colts to compete for the division.

3. Minnesota Vikings (5-4) – The Vikings were once a promising 5-2 team, but their last two games are proof that they are pretenders. The Vikes were blown out at home against the Buccaneers 36-17 and failed to rebound, losing in Seattle. Their remaining schedule may be the most difficult in the NFL: two against the Bears, two against the Packers, and one against the Texans. The Vikings will not finish this season above .500.

Contenders

1. New England Patriots (5-3) – The Patriots still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They sit in first place in perhaps the weakest division in the NFL and play five of their remaining eight games in Foxboro. New England’s offense ranks first in the league in total points scored and total yards. Look for the Patriots to finish the season as a strong contender in the AFC.

2. Seattle Seahawks (5-4) – The Seahawks have proven themselves to be a true contender this year in their wins against the Patriots, Packers, and Vikings. They are currently in a wild card spot and play extremely well at home. With a strong defense and a favorable schedule the rest of the way, look for the Seahawks to be in the thick of the playoff race.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3) – Although the Steelers got off to a slow start, they have won four of their last five games and have looked strong on defense. In those four wins they allowed 14, 17, 12 and 20 points. Veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger knows how to win football games, plain and simple. With the loss of Ray Lewis, the Ravens will falter, leaving room for the Steelers to make their move.

Four reasons why Verlander struggles in the World Series

Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball. He won both the Cy Young and MVP award in 2011, becoming the first starting pitcher to do so since Roger Clemens in 1986. His fastball tops out at 100 MPH, and he only becomes more dominant as he goes deeper in his outings. Up until game one of the World Series, Verlander was 3-0 this postseason with a miniscule 0.74 ERA and a .122 OBA (opponent batting average). So why is it that the most dominant pitcher in the game today has now lost his third straight career World Series game? Here are four possible reasons why:

1. Too much time off

Back in 2006, Verlander had nine days off after the ALCS ended in four games against the Oakland A’s. This time around he had seven days off after the Tigers defeated the Yankees in four games. Like in 2006, Verlander simply did not look sharp in game one of the World Series. He left too many pitches out over the plate, and the Giants took advantage. Who would think that sweeping the Yankees in the ALCS could have actually hurt Detroit’s ace? It’s certainly possible.

2. Opposing lineups are locked in

Give the Giants a whole lot of credit for knocking Verlander out early. Their hitters are locked in after winning the last three games of the NLCS to defeat the Cardinals. Marco Scutaro hit .500 in the series, slapping 14 hits in just seven games. Pablo Sandoval too is dialed in this postseason, and that showed in game one as he mashed two Verlander mistakes over the wall. The Giants are focused, and their hitters were ready for anything Verlander had to throw at them.

3. Facing unfamiliar opponents

Verlander had only faced the Giants once before in his career, and this could play at an advantage for San Francisco. The Giants offense had to prepare for one man. Verlander had to prepare to face nine unique batters. Like in 2006, he did not have much experience against the Cardinals. That being said, he did bounce back and pitch well in game five of the 06′ World Series. Expect him to do the same if he gets another opportunity this year.

4. Can’t handle the pressure (unlikely but possible)

Yes, this is highly unlikely that a pitcher such as Verlander would collapse under the pressure. However, it should not be ruled out. Even the best in the game can struggle on baseball’s biggest stage. Again, it’s unlikely to be the case because Verlander had been near perfect this October. The reason for his struggles is likely a combination of the three circumstances above.

Cincinnati Reds collapse under pressure

The San Francisco Giants had no business winning this series. The Cincinnati Reds collapsed after dominating the first two games on the road. Cincinnati had not lost three straight home games all season but do so in the first round of the playoffs? Even with the injury to ace Johnny Cueto, the Reds had to have this series. The Giant stole it from them and not because of their own heroic play.

Let’s break things down. The Reds two-hit the Giants in game two of the series and won 9-0. They headed home with a commanding 2-0 lead, knowing that they had played well at Great American Ballpark all season. Surely the series was over.

With a tremendous effort from Homer Bailey in game 3, the Giants only managed one hit through the first nine innings. They were fortunate to have the one run after Gregor Blanco was hit by a pitch and later scored on a sacrifice fly in the 3rd inning. Unfortunately for the Reds, they had only mustered one run through nine innings as well, and the game went to extras. Jonathan Broxton took the mound in the 10th for the Reds and immediately allowed two singles. He should have gotten out of the jam, but with two outs eight-time gold glove winner Scott Rolen made a rare error that allowed the Giants to take the lead 2-1. This turned out to be the pivotal moment in the series as the Reds would eventually lose game 3. The Giants, having been one-hit through nine innings, had life because the Reds allowed it.

Cincinnati, seemingly demoralized, lost game 4 again at home 8-3 the next day.

Still, entering game 5, the Reds should have had some confidence having beaten Matt Cain all three times this season, including in game 1 of the series. Mat Latos was strong through the first four innings, but then hell broke loose in the 5th. Latos imploded on the mound. After allowing a leadoff single and then a triple, Latos got Cain to ground out. Reds shortstop Zack Cozart then botched an opportunity in the field, allowing another run to score. Latos walked Marco Scutaro, gave up a hit to Pablo Sandoval, and the bases were loaded for Buster Posey. Latos didn’t even turn to look at the ball as Posey launched a moonshot into left field, silencing the Cincinnati crowd. It was 6-0.

The Reds made an effort at a comeback but came up short in the 9th inning. Rolen struck out to end the game with the tying run on first base, and the Giants breathed a sigh of relief. The collapse was complete.

Cincinnati, having not lost three games in a row at home all season, choked on baseball’s biggest stage. There are no excuses for this team that won the NL Central by nine games. They should have swept away the Giants in three games, but the Reds gave them a chance. The Giants didn’t win the series, the Reds lost it.