In my NFL predictions I made a short while back, I had the Pittsburgh Steelers heading for another Super Bowl. Is that a realistic prediction or am I just a crazed biased fan? Most experts are picking the Chiefs to reach the promised land.
ESPN has come out with odds and a plan on how each NFL team can get to the big dance.
How All 32 NFL Teams Win Super Bowl
#10. Pittsburgh Steelers
Chance to win Super Bowl LIV: 2.8%
Chance to make the playoffs: 51.4%
Caesars Super Bowl odds: +1800
Plenty of Super Bowl winners have lost big names and still managed to improve the following season. The 2007 Giants come to mind, as they lost Tiki Barber to retirement after the three-time Pro Bowler posted 2,131 yards from scrimmage. The Giants did manage to hold on to Michael Strahan after the fellow future broadcaster considered retirement, which came in handy during Super Bowl XLII, but there's going to be life for the Steelers after trading wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Even if the offense does take a step backward, there's reason to believe Pittsburgh should improve on its 13th-placed finish in DVOA. It had sub-replacement players taking meaningful snaps at inside linebacker and cornerback last season, spots that should be filled by new additions such as Steven Nelson, Mark Barron, and first-round pick Devin Bush. An out-of-character 27th-place finish in special teams DVOA is also unlikely to recur. The league's eighth-easiest schedule should leave the Steelers well-positioned to win 10 or 11 games in 2019, which could be enough to win the North and host at least one playoff game.
For the record, here are the teams ahead of Pittsburgh in ESPN’s analysis of who has the best chance to reach the Super Bowl.
9. Houston Texans
8. Chicago Bears
7. Minnesota Vikings
6. Los Angeles Chargers
5. Philadelphia Eagles
4. Los Angeles Rams
3. New Orleans Saints
2. New England Patriots
1. Kansas City Chiefs
ESPN has also posted further analysis of the Steelers leading into the season opener Sunday night.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 NFL season preview: All eyes on new-look offense
Jeremy Fowler/Mike Clay, ESPN.com
The Pittsburgh Steelers are ranked No. 17 in ESPN's preseason Football Power Index. Here's everything you need to know about them heading into the 2019 NFL season:
The big question: Does the Steelers' offense have enough firepower to win without Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown? This question lingered throughout the offseason, and it's one Pittsburgh is eager to answer. The Steelers believe they have a chance in every game with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. The next step is discovering whether receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner can turn Pro Bowl seasons into Year 3 greatness. The Steelers are confident the production will be there. Outside of that, expect the Steelers to spread the ball around, with several different receivers posting respectable numbers -- maybe 500 yards here, 700 there -- and the hope a no-huddle attack remains one of the league's best.
Offseason in a nutshell
This is the time for the defense to make a leap. The draft-day trade for linebacker Devin Bush gives Pittsburgh a legitimate playmaker in the middle. His skill set was obvious in camp. Safety Terrell Edmunds looks comfortable enough in Year 2 to turn freakish athleticism into more splash plays. The Steelers are deeper at corner, have an emerging leader in T.J. Watt and a starting defensive line that can compete with any team. The key is improving that ugly minus-7 turnover margin from last season.
Inside the Steelers' schedule
Most important game: Though the playoff stakes are hardly boiling in Week 1, beating the New England Patriots in Foxborough in the first "Sunday Night Football" game of the season would inject serious confidence into the Steelers, who never have defeated Tom Brady in New England. The Steelers like the chemistry in the locker room without the constant drama of the past two seasons, and they'd like to show that matters on a big stage.
Toughest stretch: Weeks 9-11 feature the Colts, the defending NFC champion Rams and the Browns on Thursday Night Football. At least the Steelers get the first two of those games at home, and have handled the Colts in recent seasons. But Cleveland is a different team now.
Over or under 8.7 wins? Over. The Steelers are talented enough to win nine or more games and compete for a third AFC North title in four seasons. Pittsburgh can still win with sacks, good line play and steady play from Roethlisberger, who has never had a losing season. Prediction: 9-7.
Schedule ranking: No. 26
We almost listed Weeks 1-3 as the Steelers' hardest schedule stretch, but that strength is mostly the opening Sunday night visit to the Pats. Weeks 2 and 3 are Seattle at home and a trip to San Francisco. Like the rest of the AFC North, the Steelers' schedule is going from tough in 2018 (fourth) to easier in 2019. The end of the season gets interesting, because the Steelers have a lot of road games, to visit what we think will be weaker teams.
Breakout fantasy star
The Steelers' history of developing young wide receivers into stars will again be put to the test as 2018 second-round pick Washington looks to help replace Brown. He was limited to 37 targets as a rookie, but has big upside after dominating deep downfield during his time at Oklahoma State. There is room for Washington to take on a big role, with the likes of Donte Moncrief and rookie Diontae Johnson his primary competition for snaps behind Smith-Schuster.
Most interesting player prop
Over or under 1,290.5 receiving yards for Smith-Schuster:
Fowler: Over. The Steelers will try to infuse more balance into the offense with Conner and the running game, but Roethlisberger is at his most comfortable in the no-huddle with four- and five-wide sets. That bodes well for Smith-Schuster, who knows how to get open and has serious chemistry with Roethlisberger.
Clay: Over. Smith-Schuster racked up 1,426 yards with a 24% target share last season and that was with Brown and his 161 targets in the picture.
Smith-Schuster wins the NFL receiving yards title. Smith-Schuster has shown a flair for the big play, and he's worked hard this offseason to show he can handle the load as the team's new No. 1 receiver. Getting 1,500-plus yards is very possible for Smith-Schuster, who can parlay a big Year 3 into a potential new contract in the offseason. Without a clear-cut second option taking away 75 to 80 catches, Smith-Schuster will get every opportunity to post big numbers despite double-teams coming his way.
Where the Steelers landed in NFLRank
No. 35: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
No. 38: QB Ben Roethlisberger
No. 79: RB James Conner
No. 83: LB T.J. Watt
So…the Antonio Brown saga just continues to linger. Not only are fans ripping the shit out of A.B. for how he is conducting himself but former teammates turned NFL broadcast analysts are turning on Brown as well. First it was Ryan Clark now Merril Hoge:
“There ain’t a bigger line of garbage than he works hard. Everybody in the NFL works hard. Anyone who is a good pro works hard. Because he works hard, it doesn’t take you away from being a bad pro. Also, how hard is Brown working if he skips so many practices, meetings and games? He’s a horrendous pro. He’s an embarrassment to the National Football League.”
Before I move onto the UFC and Bellator taking place this weekend, this is a must read about the late Bart Starr and his wife of 68 years, Cherry. The story is very touching and if it doesn’t move you, than you don’t have an emotional bone in your body.
For the first time in 68 years, Cherry Starr will watch football without the love of her life
Two big events in MMA take place tomorrow, it’s UFC 242 and Bellator 226: Bader vs. Kongo.
Before I get to the cards and my predictions, if you were ever curious as to why lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov wears that crazy furry hat, here’s why.
Hailing from Dagestan in Russia, Khabib’s manager Sam Kardan told his fighter in 2012 that for his first trip to the United States to take on a fight and train he should bring with him something that will bring attention to himself. Friends of Nurmagomedov told him it should be a “papakha” the same headdress you see him wearing now. The hat has a very significant meaning.
The papakha is a traditional headdress that is worn by soldier heading off to war. Khabib wanted to honor those men from his culture and country that have worn the papakha. Nurmagomedov explains further:
“UFC is very big stage, very big platform. You can show around the world our culture. It's an honor to me to represent my traditional headgear around the world, my culture, my history. I have an opportunity. People know me and I want people to know where I am from. I want to show people Dagestan, Dagestan culture, Dagestan history, because we have very, very big history in Dagestan. If I have opportunity, why not? Why not?”
Let me tackle the Bellator card first that has an incredible 20 fights on the schedule that goes down inside the SAP Center in San Jose, California tomorrow. The headliner is heavyweight champion Ryan Bader facing the challenge of Cheick Kongo. Bader has now fought five times in Bellator since leaving the UFC and has won them all. In fact, Bader has won his last seven bouts since losing to Anthony Johnson in a main event fight of UFC on Fox on January 30, 2016.
Since that loss, Bader has not won just the Bellator heavyweight belt but the light heavyweight championship as well. Bader has suffered just five losses in his career and all were to good fighters (Johnson, Glover Teixeira, Lyoto Machida, Tito Ortiz, Jon Jones). To counter that, Bader has won 27 fights, 12 by KO or TKO and three by submission.
As for Congo, he heads into tomorrow’s card with a 30-10 record scoring 14 knockouts and four submissions but he himself has been knocked out three times and submitted once. It was Frank Mir who holds the sole submission of Kongo. The challenger is also on a roll as of late having won his last eight fights. He won’t be winning this one.
The other 19 main card fights are:
Daniel Straus vs. Derek Campos
Pat Curran vs. Adam Borics
Emmanuel Sanchez vs. Tywan Claxton
Gaston Bolanos vs. Daniel Carey
Sam Sicilia vs. Roberto de Carvalho
On the undercard:
Peter Ishiguro vs. Elias Anderson
Cornelius Savage vs. Evan Gubera
Favian Gutierrez vs. Alan Benson
Cass Bell vs. Isaiah Rocha
Albert Gonzalez vs. Tyson Miller
Ivan Batinich vs. Daniel Compton
Amber Leibrock vs. Jessica Borga
Abraham Vaesau vs. Renato Alves
Chris Gonzalez vs. Luis Vargas
John Macapa vs. Ashleigh Grimshaw
James Terry vs. Batsumberel Dagvadorj
Daniel Gonzalez vs. Jonathan Adams
Adam Piccolotti vs. Jacob Smith
Hyder Amil vs. Ignacio Ortiz
Then we have the big one that kicks off around 10:30 tomorrow morning from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. It’s UFC 242 and the main card is scheduled to begin around 2:00 so it should be interesting watching mixed martial arts in mid-day.
As I normally do, I’ll give my analysis and picks only on the biggest fights of the card, which includes 13 fights on the preliminary and main schedule of bouts.
As the UFC held its face-offs yesterday, the final preliminary fight pits Joanne Calderwood against Andrea Lee and when these two met yesterday in front of UFC President Dana White, Lee came to the face-off decked out in a cowboy hat and what appeared to be an evening dress and if appearances have anything to do with the outcome, then Calderwood appears to be ready for a fight while Lee looked like she was headed for the prom.
Lee does have an 11-2 won/loss record and has won seven straight since losing to Sara D’Alelio by a rear naked choke, whereas Calderwood is coming off a decision loss to Katlyn Chookagian. Calderwood is a tough cookie though and while I have not seen Lee fight, my gut says the Scottish born Calderwood wins this one.
On the main card, Curtis Blaydes takes on Shamil Abdurakhimov and will try to get put himself back into the contention picture. Blaydes has lost twice, both to Francis Ngannou and each by TKO which has set him back in the rankings. Those are Blaydes only two losses and he has 11 victories in his 15 fights with one no contest. His one NC was because he tested positive for marijuana following a TKO victory over Adam Milstead on February 4, 2017.
In looking at Abdurakhimov’s career, he holds a 20-4 record with nine knockouts and four submissions. He has suffered a TKO or KO twice and been submitted once. Two of Abdurakhimov’s losses came at the hands of Derrick Lewis who scored a TKO over the big Russian, and the other notable loss was to Thiago Santos who won a unanimous decision. For this one, I think if Blaydes is on his game, he wins the decision. It could easily go the other way as well.
Before the co-main event lightweights Islam Makhachev and Davi Ramos will go at it then we get to the top of the card. At the top of the card we have two outstanding fights. First the co-main is a rematch between Edson Barboza and Paul Felder in the lightweight division.
In the first bout which came on July 25, 2015 it was Paul Felder’s first loss of his career. At that point he entered the bout with a record of 10-0 and the two men were former sparring partner. At that time Barboza was 16-3 and had lost to Michael Johnson, a fight he had just before the Felder matchup. Barboza also had lost to Donald Cerrone and Jamie Varner. Since the Felder victory, Edson Barboza has lost five of his last eight bouts including being knocked out by Justin Gaethje this past March. Now with a 2-7 record, Barboza and Felder are claiming they are different fighters.
For Edson Barboza he has one of the most amazing knockouts in UFC history, a KO he scored on Terry Etim on January 14, 2012 when he landed a wheel kick that iced Etim and put rendered him unconscious. That is the fight that established Barboza as one of if not the most dangerous kicker in MMA. 12 of his 20 victories have come by TKO or KO and of those 12, five have come by way of kicks or a combination of kicks and strikes.
Edson Barboza has probably faced stiffer challenges than that of Felder having fought Gaethje, Dan Hooker, Kevin Lee, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Beneil Dariush, Gilbert Melendez, Anthony Pettis, Felder, Michael Johnson, Bobby Green, Even Dunham, Donald Cerrone, Jamie Varner, Tony Ferguson, and Ross Pearson, all of which he only lost to Cerrone, Johnson, Ferguson, Khabib, Lee, and Gaethje.
As for Paul Felder, he holds two distinctions…one he is not just an excellent fighter but he might be the best announcer the UFC has. He’s great at the mike and not bad in the Octagon. Felder has had 20 fights since turning pro in 2011 and has won all but four. His four losses are of course to Barboza but also to Mike Perry by decision, Francisco Trinaldo, and Ross Pearson. Felder comes off an impressive win over a tricky James Vick and has won four of his last five.
I believe the result of this co-main event rides on which Edson Barboza shows up. Most MMA fans know what Paul Felder will bring to the table but Barboza is a question mark because you never know if his kicking game will be on for his bout. If it is, that’s trouble for Felder. I think if Barboza gets into a striking war and dirty boxing, Felder can finish him or dominate for a victory. But if Barboza uses his speed and distance, it’s lights out for “The Irish Dragon.”
My pick on this one is Barboza by decision.
Now the highly hyped main event for the undisputed lightweight championship of the world. Here you have unbeaten Khabib Nurmagomedov facing the challenge of interim champion Dustin Poirier. Poirier is going into tomorrow very, very confident. He believes he is going to finish Khabib. If he can pull that off, his victory will be legendary. That’s because Khabib Nurmagomedov has NEVER lost as a pro. Before turning to MMA, just look at the accolades Khabib has reached:
If that’s not enough, if you love animals then you might have an opinion change on Khabib because as a young child his father wanted to teach him a lesson about toughness so as the story goes, it was 1997 and Khabib had just turned to the age of nine. His father led him into the forest where he had a small bear chained to a tree. He told his son to wrestle the bear. Keep in mind Nurmagomedov was JUST nine years old.
What becomes obvious when you watch the video below is that the bear was pretty much harmless and at a disadvantage being chained up. But still, here’s a young nine year old at a minimum showing courage and the fact that he knew something about wrestling already. Young Khabib really had no choice not because his father told him to do it but apparently the culture and beliefs of the Dagestani culture demand respect for a child’s father and other elderly folk.
As for this fight with Poirier, in 27 fights none of which he has lost, Khabib has submitted nine opponents and knocked out another eight. His first 16 fights took place in Russia. In his American soil debut, he battled Kamal Shalorus on January 20, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee on the undercard of the Jim Miller vs. Melvin Guillard main event. Shalorus was 7-1-2 at the time of that fight and he ended up being submitted with a rear naked choke.
Obviously, Khabib has won every fight since 10 straight wins in all, four by KO or submission including his last fight, one that will be remembered forever because he not only punished former champion Conor McGregor, he forced the Irishman to tap in the fourth round by applying a neck crank. Before that victory Khabib had beaten the likes of Al Iaquinta, Edson Barboza, Michael Johnson, Rafael dos Anjos, Pat Healy, Thiago Tavares, and Gleison Tibau.
Facing the undefeated Russian and attempting to do what no other man could do before him is Dustin Poirier fresh off an amazing fight for the lightweight belt with Max Holloway. That made it four straight victories for “The Diamond” as he calls himself. Poirier believes he is the best lightweight in the world and if he defeats Khabib there is no reason not to believe him.
Poirier lost to Conor McGregor by a first round knockout but many like myself believe that fight was stopped too early. Since that loss, Poirier has dropped just one fight a knockout at the hands of Michael Johnson but also a no contest with Eddie Alvarez as a result of Alvarez landing knees to the head of Poirier when The Diamond was on his knees.
In a rematch, Poirier knocked out Alvarez in the second round of their bout in 2018. He also knocked out Justin Gaethje and Anthony Pettis. Poirier owns victories over Jim Miller, Bobby Green, Yancy Medeiros, Diego Brandao, and an earlier victory over Holloway. But among his losses are a submission defeat at the hands of “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung, Cub Swanson decisioned Poirier, and the knockout loss to Johnson as well as the McGregor disaster.
For me, this fight boils down to several simple factors. If Khabib gets the bout onto the ground, it’s over. I’ve watched plenty of film on Khabib and he is flat out a BEAST when it comes to grappling. He’s like an octopus and once he has you in his grip, there’s no getting out and I don’t care who you are. Then his ground and pound can be VICIOUS.
My problem with Khabib’s game is I don’t think he’s ever really been hit HARD in the face. If Poirier can do that and he does strike with authority, we might have an interesting bout. Poirier’s only chance here IMO is to keep the fight in the center of the Octagon, stay on his feet, and getting Khabib to play his game of striking and dirty boxing. If he can accomplish that, we’ll find out how tough the jaw of Khabib Nurmagomedov actually is.
But I just can’t see Dustin Poirier carrying out that game plan. In the end, I think he will show great courage and try to stand in there with the master grappler, and because of his heart he will refuse to tap and instead Poirier will go to sleep as a result of a rear naked choke.
To close today and head into the weekend, a few Major League Baseball notes. First of all, with the Pittsburgh Pirates, they had a baseball rarity at PNC Park last night. Not the loss the Bucs suffered at the hands of the Miami Marlins 10-7, but because for Miami, Brian Moran made his pro baseball debut. On the other side was his younger brother Colin who came to plate for Pittsburgh to be pitched too by his older brother.
I’m sure these two had plenty of occasions of pitching to and hitting off each other growing up but in the history of Major League Baseball dating back to 1900, there has NEVER been a brother pitching to a brother in any game. Not until last night. Result? Younger brother Colin struck out on just six pitches. Now you know who owns the bragging rights in the Moran family. Proud parents Bill and Diane were in attendance and for Brian, it was his first big league K.
This past Wednesday in Cincinnati, the Reds’ Michael Lorenzen made history as well. In that game a 8-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, Lorenzen not only pitched, he also manned the outfield for a bit and at the plate hit a round tripper making him one of only two Major League Baseball players to do that in a single game. Pitch, play the outfield, hit a home run. The other player? “The Great Bambino.” “The Sultan of Swat.” The great and legendary Babe Ruth who turned the trick on June 13, 1921. For the record, Lorenzen pitched two innings and surrendered one hit and one run while striking out one. In his only at-bat, he hit that home run that scored two RBIs for his seasonal stats that show a batting average of .353 for 2019.