Thursday, August 23, 2012

2012 NFL Predictions Sure to Go Wrong

Yes, kids - football is in the air once again.  That also means it's time for my annual season predictions!  Feel free to tell me they suck and I have no idea what I'm talking about; after all, in my previous NFL predictions I haven't gotten more than three or four correct at any one time. 

1. The Buffalo Bills will be a Wild Card team this year.  Bills fans have had much to cry about for more than a decade now.  The last couple years the team has gotten off to a fast start - they went 5-2 in their first 7 games last season, but went on to lose 8 of their final 9 games - but they haven't been able to sustain that kind of momentum down the stretch.  This year will be different.  I think the Bills will win at least 9 games and grab one of the two Wild Card spots this season.  Mario Williams will be a fantastic addition on their defensive line, and Ryan Fitzpatrick is 100% healthy after his rib injury that gave him grief last year.

2. The New Orleans Saints will not finish any higher than third in their division.  I might even be a little generous with saying they could finish third in the highly competitve NFC South.  With head coach Sean Payton suspended for the entire year, and several other key players suspended for at least a few games, I don't see how the Saints will be able to compete this season.  Drew Brees will still lead the offense to scoring lots of points, but their defense won't be able to stop anyone and the coaching staff will lack continuity.  It's going to be a rough year in the Big Easy.

3. Tim Tebow will be the starting QB for the New York Jets for at least half the season.  Speaking of rough seasons, I think the Jets are really going to fall off a cliff.  Mark Sanchez hasn't shown any signs of progressing as the starting quarterback, and I think he'll have the plug pulled on him during the season.  The Jets' real problem all along is that they lacked leadership on the field, and at least Tebow is a proven leader.  Still, I don't think the Jets win more than 5 games this season.

4. The NFC North will send three teams to the playoffs.  I really, really like the Lions.  I had originally thought about predicting them to win the North outright (I think they could win as many as 12 games this season), but I couldn't quite pull the trigger on that prediction.  I think the Packers still win the North, but the Lions have an even stronger season this year than last season, and the Bears could be really good as long as Cutler and Forte stay healthy on the offense. 

5. Ken Whisenhunt will be one of the first head coaches who finds himself on the hot seat.  Conversely, I am really down on the Cardinals.  Their quarterback situation is up in the air, despite John Skelton looking like he'll be the Week 1 starter.  Their running game doesn't look so hot, but they still have Larry Fitzgerald making opposing defensive backs look like kids, and they have a solid #2 in Michael Floyd.  They have three east coast trips this season, and they never play well on the east coast.  I don't think they win more than 6 games this season, so Whisenhunt could face being unemployed if the season gets away from him. 

6. The Jacksonville Jaguars will wind up with the #1 overall pick in next year's draft.  Yeah, that's a fairly indirect way of saying the Jaguars will be terrible this year - I don't see them winning more than 2 games - but if they do have the #1 pick in the NFL draft, they face a very interesting situation: Do they stick with Blaine Gabbert at QB, who was their first round selection in 2011, or do they draft presumptive #1 QB Matt Barkley from USC?  That's a real dilemma for the Jaguars' front office.

7. The Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, and reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants all miss the postseason.  This round of predictions is much more "who's in and who's out of the playoffs" than my last couple sets of NFL predictions.  If you look back on the last decade or so of the league, the prevalent trend is that there are usually 5 or 6 teams who made the playoffs in a given year, but fail to return to the playoffs the following season.  I think Andy Dalton is going to have the traditional sophomore slump, which puts the Bengals in a bind most of the season.  I think the Broncos will finish with roughly the same record they had last year, even with Peyton Manning at quarterback, and that will leave them home in January.  And lest anyone forget, the Giants were only 9-7 last season, which I don't think will get it done in the NFC East this year.

8. Cam Newton will be the league MVP.  I'm drinking the Cam Newton Kool-Aid.  He had an outstanding rookie season, and I think he's primed to build on it in 2012.  I think Carolina winds up winning the NFC South this year and brings some excitement back to the fan base, something missing since their Super Bowl appearance against the Patriots.  I love his attitude and watching him play, and I realize this pick is a bit more outside the box than picking someone more typical like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or maybe even Arian Foster.

9. It's the final swan song for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.  Hey, I wish these guys could find the secret to immortality and keep playing until the end of time.  They've both been asked about retirement about as many times as Brett Favre was over the course of his last few seasons in the league (though Reed has hinted about it much more strongly than Lewis ever has), and I think this year they both hang it up for good.  I'm sure their retirement will depends a lot on how far the Ravens go this season, which is why I say....

10.  The Baltimore Ravens will beat the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 47.  I picked this same matchup and outcome two years ago, and ended up with egg on my face.  This is one of those "head vs. heart" picks for a bunch of reasons.  First and foremost, I want to see my team win it all, and see Ray Lewis and Ed Reed both pull a John Elway to retire as champions.  On the other hand, I have no idea how well the defense will play without Suggs for at least half the season.  I would love to see Sergio Kindle become the player the Ravens had hoped him to be when they drafted him two years ago, but I have no idea what he'll put out on the field.  Then again, who else in the AFC can really put together a run?  I expect the Steelers will grab the other Wild Card in the conference, but I could see them getting picked off along the way.  The Patriots are always going to be competitve, but I don't know how well their defense will play throughout the season.  The Texans are a legitimate threat, but who knows if Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson stay healthy?  It's worth noting that I expect the AFC title game to be Baltimore vs. Houston, and those two teams face off in October, so that game could go a long way towards deciding who gets the #1 seed in the playoffs.
As for the NFC, I think it's fairly safe to say it'll come down to Green Bay vs. San Francisco.  Those two teams also face off in Week 1, so that game could be a big factor as to where those two teams play in January.  Still, I think the Packers represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

I'm still the first to admit that I'm going with my heart instead of my head here.  The Ravens are certainly just as likely to get picked off as any other team in the hunt, and even if they ultimately do reach the big game, there's no guarantee they'd beat the Packers.  If I had to go with my head, I'd take the Texans to reach the Super Bowl this year, but I think they'd lose to the Packers.  So I'm covering myself there, even if it does mean I'm cheating.

Enjoy the season!

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Today, I turned 33.  I think it's fair to say I am now officially in my mid-thirties.

On the surface, that line probably sounds like I'm depressed over turning 33.  It really isn't.  It's more of a, "Wow, I'm standing on the precipice" kind of thought.  I'm definitely not a kid anymore, despite some of my efforts to cling to areas of my childhood, like watching old episodes of Transformers and G.I. Joe on YouTube.

I have a whole lot to be thankful for at this stage of my life.  First and foremost is my girlfriend Kim, who I talked about at length in my last post.  One thing I didn't really mention at all in that post is our tendency to drive other friends around us nuts given how happy we are together.  I know that makes me sound like I'm bragging, but it's become a running joke with our friends by making them sick to their stomachs from seeing us together.

The point here is that Kim really wanted my birthday to be something special this year, and boy, oh, boy did she ever.  She told me several weeks ago that she put dibs on me for the night before my actual birthday, but she kept the details to herself.  I really liked the idea of having a surprise or two in store for me, so I happily went along with it.  Of course, I tried thinking of possible ideas over what she had planned, like the Lions/Ravens preseason game for one.  She said that wasn't it, but it started off with dinner and then something else afterwards.

She picked me up last night at my place, and we got right into her car for our first stop.  She took us to her favorite bar near Federal Hill in the city, the place where we had met up for happy hour to reconnect last fall.  She said she had something for me upstairs, so I walked up the steps and saw several friends all waiting with their cameras taking pictures of me.  There were Happy Birthday decorations all around, and several buddies of mine jumped out from behind a wall to scream "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RAY!"

Yes, she put together a surprise party for me.  I've never had a surprise party thrown for me, and this went far beyond anything I could have expected.  My mom and both of my sisters were there as well, and I was super impressed over how Kim orchestrated the whole thing (with the help of a couple other friends to supply email addresses in order to plan the party).  It was an awesome party, and all my friends and family there agreed that Kim really did an awesome job with it.  I've known all along that I've been lucky to have her, and last night summed up just how lucky I am.

On the flip side, remember my list?  Yeah, it was designed from the get go to wrap up on my 33rd birthday, and that wasn't quite the rousing success.  I never even came up with 101 tasks to complete, and I only actually finished a dozen or so tasks on there.  One of the tasks that I did was write a letter to myself to read on my 33rd birthday, which I just re-read before writing this post.

I'm not going to go into great detail over the letter, but I wrote it in April 2010.  It wasn't terribly long, but I'm happy to say that several of the hopes and questions I had at that time have come true.  Sure, most of them came about in a roundabout way, but that's how life tends to work.

Up until this year, my life has had its share of ups and downs, just like most other people.  Last year has lots of really low points, but this year has been almost all up for me.  Kim has been at the center of all things great for me this year, and I'm really looking forward to celebrating a lot more birthdays with her in the future.

I just have to plan something super special for her when her birthday rolls around in November too.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Best of Both Worlds

I promised myself when The Lady in My Life and I had made things official back in February, I wouldn't talk about our history much at all until we had at least hit six months together.  I'm pretty superstitious about relationships, and I've been that way ever since high school.  For the most part, anytime I've ever brought a girl home to meet my family or even mentioned dating someone to one or more people in my family, things tend to crumble shortly after sharing the news.  This sequence of events has repeated itself many times over the years, and thus has made me really nervous about telling anyone in my family about my dating life.

That probably sounds pretty immature and childish of me and I can't really argue against it.  I'm sure it was a sort of circular problem, meaning I somehow perpetuated the issue by continuing to think about it.  In the case of my current relationship, I can honestly say that happiness trumps any anxiety over telling friends or family about my dating life.  I'm happier now than I've probably ever been in any relationship I've ever had before.  This past weekend marked six months since we made things official, so my superstitious side can finally sit down and shut up.

Our story dates back to 2001.  Kim and I first met as coworkers that summer, and I was still an undergrad at the time.  We gradually got to know one another over the course of the next several years as friends, leading up to when I had left that company after nearly five years.  I finally moved on during my studies in grad school, and we had lost touch for a couple years before we had reconnected through Facebook.

Before I get too ahead of myself, I have to share some details over our time as coworkers.  First, I drove Kim absolutely nuts when we had worked together.  Her favorite way to describe me was the brother she never wanted, mostly because I found new and creative ways to get under her skin as much as possible.  I wasn't ever mean-spirited about it (unless you want to count me saying she looked like a horse's ass when dressed up in an Eeyore costume); it was all in fun really.

I do have to share one good story that pretty much set a direction for our friendship for a long time before I can talk more about our dating relationship.  The company for which we had worked had a point system for hourly employees to use for unpaid time off.  These points would automatically renew every year on an employee's anniversary date, and any unused points didn't carry over to the next year at all.  If I had leftover points by the time my anniversary date rolled around, they were gone.

On the eve of my first anniversary with the company, I had several points to burn and had to figure out a way to use as many as possible.  At the time Kim was in charge of attendance and call outs, so anyone who called out of work had to go through her.  I talked to my mom about it, and she said to make up a "family emergency" to use my time off as a long weekend.  That sounded like a good idea to me, so I called into work and left a message for Kim that I would be out for a couple days.  However, I had...embellished a bit on the family emergency.  I said my grandmother in PA was in a minor car accident and was shaken up a bit from it.  I cannot stress this point enough: this entire story was a bold-faced lie.  My grandmother has never been in any car accident that I can remember, and I made up the entire thing just to get out of work for a couple days.

This lie was the kind of lie that sent people straight to hell, and was also bound to lead to bad karma for me.  Kim was genuinely concerned about my grandmother and the rest of my family, and I BS'd my way through the story.  When I came back to work a few days later, she asked how my grandmother was doing, and I told her she was fine after having a few days to get over it.

Fast forward to a year later.  Kim and I were having lunch with a few coworkers, one of whom was someone I was dating at the time and knew the entire made up story about my grandmother.  Kim happened to mention something about hating doing attendance in the past and dealing with people's lies about calling out of work for reasons like car trouble, sick kids, etc.  My ex said something about grandmothers getting into car accidents too, and Kim immediately looked at me and (rightfully) chewed me out for making up the story.  I had no leg to stand on since I was caught red-handed, and Kim has held that over my head ever since.

In spite of that story, Kim and I were friends for the rest of the time we had worked together.  In 2006 I left that company to work elsewhere while I was in grad school, and I didn't talk much to Kim after that.  By 2009 we had found each other on Facebook and relived some good stories from our days of working together.  Of course we talked about the story involving my grandmother, but we got a good laugh out of it.

That summer was when I had moved to Virginia, and it was around then that Kim and I had spent enough time with each other that we had realized there was an attraction lying under the surface.  I don't think either of us really knew what to do about those feelings at the time, but the spark was definitely mutual.  In the end, we stayed friends, and we kept in touch regularly.  In fact, Kim was a big help when my parents had briefly separated that fall even though she hadn't met anyone in my family at that time.

Over the next year or so, we had drifted apart again.  It wasn't for any specific reason or anything, just that we had our individual lives to live.  At the time, I had expected to be in Virginia for the long haul, despite coming back to Baltimore somewhat regularly to visit my friends and family.  Still, it was tough to keep in touch for a while.

Finally after I moved back to Baltimore last year, Kim emailed me through Facebook to catch up.  We hadn't spoken at that point in over a year, and I was really surprised and happy to hear from her.  She always was The One Who Got Away From Me, so I was eager to see her again.  We met up for happy hour, and all that attraction that we had from before came back all over again.

We spent a whole lot more time with each other this time around, and we built a really good connection with each other.  At first though, we agreed that we'd only be friends since Kim was in the process of getting divorced.  Gradually things changed a bit, and Kim was quicker to realize how good we'd be as a couple than I did.  A lot quicker, actually.

I finally came to my senses one night in early February.  I have to say, for several weeks leading up to that night I had really wanted to say something to Kim about my feelings for her.  Trouble was, my own anxieties about being honest with my feelings really kept me from saying anything.  One night after a really rough week at work, Kim and I went out to get some drinks for some relief.  On the way home, I mustered up the guts to say how I really felt about her (the drinks helped quite a bit).  We talked about it more the next day over breakfast, and I could tell Kim was really happy about it.  I was excited too because Kim and I knew each other inside and out for years, and then we were on pace to deepen our relationship.

Our first official date as a couple was on Valentine's Day, and I made sure to make it special.  We've been happy ever since, to the point that several of my friends have talked about getting sick over seeing how happy Kim and I are (I take those words as a compliment).  Kim and I have the best of both worlds at hand; we're best friends and we're a couple.

I've learned over the years that timing is everything in relationships.  That may sound like a cliche of sorts, and that might be a fair thing to say.  However, there's truth to it.  Kim and I could have really tried pursuing things when we had gotten close around the time I had moved to Virginia, but I don't think it would've worked then.  My life was taking a new direction, and given the distance between us at that time, we wouldn't have been able to see each other often.  Once I had moved back to Baltimore, the opportunity presented itself again, and we're both happier now for it I think.  The future looks bright for the two of us, and that's just how we like it.

P.S. My grandmother is doing just fine to this day, by the way.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review: Total Recall

I am a big fan of the original Total Recall film with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone.  When word came out the film was being remade, I wasn't quite sure how I felt about it.  I knew the original version was vastly different from its short story source material by Phillip K. Dick, and supposedly the new version would be a more direct adaptation, so I was willing to give it a try.

Can't win 'em all, though.

The original film centered heavily around Mars, but this new version (and the original short story) had nothing to do with that planet.  The basic plot is essentially the same though: Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell - remember him?) has been having a series of dreams about some woman he's never met.  His wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) is doing everything she can to help him, even through his very boring job working in a robot factory.

Eighty years or so from now, the Earth is a vast wasteland, and the only hospitable places left are in Europe and Australia.  Europe is home to the rich portion of mankind, while the lower class resides in Australia.  A tunnel called The Fall runs through the center of the Earth to connect the two regions.

Because Quaid is so bored with his banal job, he visits a company called Rekall to give him a false memory of being a secret agent.  The false memories involve Quaid being undercover for the government and exposes a crazy conspiracy while killing lots of bad guys.  You know, like the basic plot of lots of action movies.

When Quaid is about to be put under at Rekall for his memory implant, things go haywire.  He's suddenly involved in a murder of nearly a dozen soldiers, his wife tries to kill him, and he's on the run trying to figure out whether he's really himself, or this is all still in his head.  Along the way he finds his way over to Europe where he meets Melina (Jessica Biel) and learns more about his former life as an undercover agent working against the evil Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston).

It's worth noting that the overall look of the film is incredibly impressive.  Both Australia and Europe look like massive metropolis centers, each with distinctive looks to them.  There are a few action sequences which are pretty exciting, including a hover car chase and a shootout entirely in zero gravity.  The real flaw here is that none of the characters are compelling at all.  I don't care about Quaid the way the original film managed to accomplish.  The original film had him daydreaming of Mars and wanting to go there, so his motivation to go to Rekall meant more than just being bored.  There was a recurring theme of whether the action truly was going on, or if everything was in his head as well.  This time, that theme does pop up once or twice, but it's more of an afterthought thrown in as a nod to the original film than anything else.

Speaking of nods to the original, this version of Total Recall felt more like a film that knew it was a remake than being concerned with telling its own story.  Early on, Quaid runs into a three-breasted woman while on his way to Rekall.  The original version of Total Recall had a three-breasted woman as well, but she was part of a group of mutated humans living on Mars who had brief contact with the Martian atmosphere.  Here, she was there because....she was there.  She certainly didn't add anything to the film except for director Len Wiseman to make audiences think the three-breasted woman was the most memorable part of the original version.

There's also a scene about halfway through that's a clear nod to an important scene from the original as well. Quaid and Melina are surrounded by robotic cops and approached by Quaid's buddy claiming they're still asleep at Rekall.  The whole thing is a dream Quaid is experiencing, and he has to take initiative in order to wake up.  The tension doesn't hold the same weight because the audience just doesn't empathize with Quaid the same way as in the original.  Like I said before, the theme of whether this is really happening or if it's all just a dream in Quaid's head is really watered down this time, and thus the entire film is less engaging.

Len Wiseman has a history of making films that are visually impressive, but lack human element.  Live Free or Die Hard was much weaker than any of the previous Die Hard films, mainly because it was an action film with John McClane penciled in as the hero.  However, late in that film McClane has a conversation with an FBI agent about finding McClane's daughter in case he doesn't see things through to the end.  I remember feeling really hollow watching that conversation, and the same hollow feeling was all over Total Recall.  It's a trip not worth remembering.