Lose 6, Pick 6: 2017-2018 NFL Predictions

Compared to other pro sports, the NFL has a surprising amount of parity. Unlike the NBA or baseball, where the team with the most talent/money generally wins, the NFL can pride itself on “any given Sunday.” This doesn’t guarantee a team that was one of the worst in the league last year can suddenly contend for the Super Bowl, it’s certainly more plausible. Especially when people realize that, as a rule, half the teams that were in the playoffs last year end up not making it the following year.

Take a look at this short list compiled since the lockout, where teams that had made the playoffs the year prior didn’t make it that year (so, for example, the Steelers made the playoffs in 2011 but not 2012).

2011:  Bears, Chiefs, Colts, Eagles, Jets, Seahawks
2012:  Giants*, Lions, Saints, Steelers
2013:  Falcons, Ravens*, Redskins, Texans, Vikings
2014:  49ers, Chiefs, Chargers, Eagles, Saints
2015:  Colts, Cowboys, Lions, Ravens
2016:  Bengals, Broncos*, Cardinals, Panthers*, Redskins, Vikings

* Denotes a team was in the Super Bowl the previous year.

It’s something to keep in mind when looking at power rankings or whatever horse shit people are using to drive clicks to their site.

So, let’s play a game: Take six teams that made the playoffs the year before and replace them with six teams that did not. Obviously, when playing, keep in mind divisions and conferences.

The AFC

Who’s Out?

Kansas City Chiefs:  Admittedly, it’s not easy to find six teams to remove from playoff contention this year, especially in the AFC. Andy Reid’s a helluva coach and has assembled a great staff. This can be accurately stated because they’ve made the playoffs three times in the past four years…despite the fact they have almost no vertical passing game. One would think that defensive coordinators would figure this out and shut down his one-dimensional offense but it hasn’t happened (yet).

However, if we’re picking six teams, the Chiefs are going to make the cut. For all his coaching ability, Andy Reid absolutely sucks at clock management. The Chiefs also have a tough schedule with games against teams that either made the playoffs last year and/or on the cusp of entering this year (Patriots, Eagles, Texans, Steelers, Cowboys, Giants and the Dolphins).

And that’s not including the division they play in. The Broncos and Chargers took them into overtime, with the Chiefs’ victories against them coming later in the season when both teams were out of playoff contention. While they swept the Raiders and have dominated the series (Andy Reid’s Chiefs have only lost 1 game to the Raiders), there’s nothing stopping the pendulum from swinging the other way.

Miami Dolphins:  Every year has a “fluke” team that makes the playoffs, a team that didn’t really impress before and doesn’t the year after. Such teams include the Eagles (2013), Lions (2011, 2014), Redskins (2012, 2015) and the Vikings (2012). Last year’s “fluke” was the Dolphins.

Unlike the Chiefs, the Dolphins are an easy pick for this list. The Dolphins piled up victories against mostly crap teams (49ers, Rams) or snake-bitten ones (Browns, Chargers). They also play in a fairly easy division, with games against the Jets and Bills. However, they also have to play the Patriots twice (and went 0-2 against them last year). The Dolphins also lost games to teams that were in contention in 2015 and/or 2016 (Bengals and Seahawks). In fact, their only legit victory was against the Steelers, who underestimated them (the Dolphins were 1-4 heading into that contest).

This year, the Dolphins have to play against the Titans (who they lost to last year), the Ravens (who they also lost to last year…), the AFC West and the NFC South. Jay Cutler is an upgrade over Ryan Tannehill in terms of talent but he’s also only made the playoffs once in his entire career (2010 with the Bears).

Who’s In?

+ Los Angeles Chargers: The problem with this game is that the AFC is a weak conference. There are two elite teams (Patriots, Steelers), one on the cusp of joining the elite (Raiders), teams that are very good but need a quarterback (Chiefs, Texans)…and those teams are on a whole other level from everyone else. Aside from the Bills, Browns and the Jets, the AFC is full of middling teams that have potential but something is holding them back.

Since Kansas City is being ruled out this year, the Chargers have the best shot to replace them. While the Chargers have talent on both sides of the ball (notably Philip Rivers and Joey Bosa), I’m going to put my tinfoil hat on and figure the NFL wants a return on its Los Angeles investment. They’re more likely to see that return with Philip Rivers and the Chargers than the Rams.

The problem with the Chargers is that they are the most unlucky team in the NFL, whether its accumulating injuries or finding creative ways to lose games (4 of their losses had deciding scores within the final two minutes of a game or overtime). Of course, a new coaching staff can fix all that. The Chargers aren’t a pick to be made with confidence but their chances are better than the other teams in the AFC (see the honorable mentions below).

+ Tennessee Titans:  With Andrew Luck dinged up and Joe Flacco’s contract eating up the Ravens’ talent, the Titans make the cut as an AFC playoff team to add. Tennessee has a lot of good pieces in place: stellar offensive line, a potent ground game, star QB and a terrific pass rush. This is a team that kicked the shit out of Green Bay last year and beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead (in December!). The Titans also get some cupcake teams to beat up on (49ers, Browns, Rams) in addition to the weak division they play in.

That said, if the AFC wasn’t so devoid of talent, I’d be a lot more pessimistic about the Titans. Their coach sucks (Mike Mularkey has two winning seasons but is 9-32 otherwise) and Marcus Mariota has been injured each season he’s played. The NFL’s a QB-driven league and the Titans are toast without Mariota.

Honorable Mentions:  The Bills were a possible entrant before they traded Sammy Watkins. The Bengals could sneak in but I think Hue Jackson was the key to that offense’s success. I like Doug Marrone in Jacksonville (he coached the Bills to a winning record a few years ago, only the second time that’s been accomplished since 1999) but Blake Bortles is going to hold that team back. The Colts are a soft team that will fold without Andrew Luck for any period of time…and there’s no guarantee he’ll be 100% when he returns. The Ravens are in a similar situation with Joe Flacco, whose massive contract has really depleted that team of talent.

The Steelers were considered as a team to take out of the playoffs for two reasons. (1) Ben Roethlisberger was considering retirement this past off-season, so it’s fair to question whether his heart’s still in the game. (2) For an elite team, the Steelers have a nasty habit of playing down to competition (they lost two games to rookie QBs last year and allowed the 1-4 Dolphins to beat them). However, the Steelers play in such a weak division and their schedule is pretty easy (they play the AFC South and the NFC North) so it’s difficult to see them missing out.

The AFC Playoff teams:  Patriots, Steelers, Raiders, Titans, Chargers, Texans

The NFC

Who’s Out?

Dallas Cowboys:  Jason Garrett reminds me of Art Shell: A coach who was once a player during the franchise’s glory days who oversees a talented team that underachieves or comes up short. This might be an odd thing to say considering how much Dallas overachieved last year (I was pro-Dak over Tony Romo but didn’t think they’d win 13 games with him) but the fact remains: Green Bay was able to march down the field in 30 seconds to kick the game-deciding field goal and knock the Cowboys out of the post-season. At the very least, a talented team takes that game to overtime.

Another reason to be down on Dallas is that quite a few of their players are either suspended for a few games (Ezekial Elliot, David Irving, Randy Gregory) or injury-prone (Dez Bryant). While Dak Prescott is talented, defensive coordinators now have a whole year of game film on him to study. If anyone’s a candidate for a sophomore slump, it’s Dak. Also, the Cowboys had fits against the Giants last year and with the Eagles on the rise, Dallas won’t have an easy walk to the division crown.

Atlanta Falcons:  Since the lockout, there have been three times a team that was in the Super Bowl has failed to make the playoffs. Last year was crazy enough to have both teams miss it! If we’re picking a team from the Super Bowl to miss the playoffs this year, the Falcons are a better choice than the Patriots.

It’s incredibly hard for a team that lost the biggest game of the year to muster up the strength to make another run, especially when that team blew a 28-3 lead. Out of the following teams (87 Broncos, 88 Bengals, 89 Broncos, 93 Bills, 98 Falcons, 00 Giants, 01 Rams, 02 Raiders, 03 Panthers, 04 Eagles, 07 Patriots, 16 Panthers) that made the Super Bowl but missed the playoffs the next year, the Falcons share similarities with 4 of them: The 87 Broncos lost a 10-0 lead to the Redskins, the 88 Bengals lost to Joe Montana’s game-winning drive, the 04 Eagles couldn’t manage the game clock (as well as Donovan McNabb throwing up on the sidelines, depending on who you ask) and the 07 Patriots lost to David Tyree’s ridiculous catch. Like the Falcons, all of them blew leads or lost in a soul-crushing fashion.  Unsurprisingly, they all missed the playoffs the next year.

Also, Matt Ryan has talent but is overrated. He doesn’t strike fear into defenses like Drew Brees, Tom Brady or even Cam Newton would. A lot of his success last year can be attributed to Kyle Shanahan, who has gone to coach the 49ers. His replacement is Steve Sarkisian, who was last seen at USC (where he was fired for drinking on the job) and being Alabama’s offensive coordinator in the title game against Clemson (which they lost).

The Falcons certainly have the personnel to make another post-season run but it seems more likely they are dethroned in the competitive NFC South. Since the division’s inception in 2002, only twice times has a team repeated as division champion (Panthers from 2014-2015). If we include repeat post-season appearances, only 6 times has that happened (10 Saints, 11 Saints, 11 Falcons, 12 Falcons, 14 Panthers, 15 Panthers).

New York Giants:  The Giants have a good defense but their offense is lacking. They ranked 25th last year in total yardage and 26th in total points scored. Eli Manning may have done his job with 4,000+ yards and 26 touchdowns…but he also threw 16 interceptions (his most since 2013) and maintained a 6.7 yards per average attempt (his worst since 2008). Viewers watched Peyton Manning fall off in his last year with the Broncos, so the defense had to carry his dead weight to a title. The Giants will have to hope for the same thing.

Such a hope will be faint, for the Giants have a tough opening slate. Before their bye week, the Giants face the following teams: @ Cowboys, Lions, @ Eagles, @ Buccaneers, Chargers, @ Broncos, Seahawks. They get to beat up on the Rams and 49ers after that but the Giants could be in too deep of a hole by that point.

Some people might think Brandon Marshall would bolster the Giants’ chances of making the playoffs. Some people would be wrong. The Giants already have one headcase receiver so adding one who is also a locker room cancer despite never being on a team that’s made the post-season is mind-boggling. One of the reasons the Giants were able to win Super Bowls is because they were able to marginalize headaches like Tiki Barber or Jeremy Shockey. Why they’re casting that mindset away now makes no sense.

Detroit Lions:  There are two reasons to be down on the Lions this year: Jim Caldwell and the team’s terrible luck. Caldwell has taken the Lions to the playoffs twice in his three years there but he was also the coach when the Colts folded under Peyton Manning. This ties in with the team’s terrible luck, as the Lions were 9-4 before injuries to talented players (QB Matthew Stafford, center Travis Swanson, running back Theo Riddick) derailed them. The overall point is that Jim Caldwell can do just fine when his talent is healthy but does a poor job at coaching up new talent (which is kinda the point of coaching).

Who’s In?

+ Tampa Bay Buccaneers:  There’s a trend in the NFL of talented young quarterbacks who were drafted by a team picking in the top 5 taking their team to the post-season in their third year. Matthew Stafford (1st overall pick in 2009) helped the Lions in 2011, Cam Newton (1st overall pick in 2011) took the Panthers there in 2013 and Derek Carr (2nd round pick but the Raiders were drafting in the top 5 in 2014) accomplished this feat last year. While this trend only seems to kick in every few years, Jameis Winston has a good chance of helping the Buccaneers be the exception to the rule.

There’s other reasons to like the Buccaneers. DeSean Jackson’s speed will give defensive coordinators headaches, as it willopen up things for Doug Martin (and Winston, if need be). It’ll also take away attention from Mike Evans, who is a little underrated compared to other stud NFL receivers (Odell Beckham, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, A.J. Green). Jackson’s not the only Redskins player the Buccaneers acquired in free agency. Chris Baker will be lining up beside Gerald McCoy, which gives Tampa the best 1-2 punch at defensive tackle in the league.

+ Arizona Cardinals:  An argument could be made for the Cardinals to be an overrated team. Carson Palmer is another year older (38), their offensive line is pretty subpar and their defense lost some key personnel (Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson). Good thing their divisional opponents are fairly weak and they get to beat up on the AFC South!

The main reason Arizona is a contender is Bruce Arians. Arians did a helluva job filling in for Chuck Pagano in Andrew Luck’s rookie year before taking the Cardinals to double-digit winning seasons for three consecutive years. With that kind of track record, it’s reasonable to rule last year as a mulligan. Carson Palmer has also looked really good this pre-season (last year he looked old and decrepit), so the offense will have some potency.

+ Philadelphia Eagles:  A lot of the attention last year focused on Dak Prescott and deservedly so. But there was another NFC East rookie quarterback who performed well and that was Carson Wentz. This is a team that destroyed the Steelers in week 3 last year. They were also 5-1 when Lane Johnson, their best offensive lineman, was in the lineup. In fact, his suspension can be attributed to why the Eagles finished 7-9 as they only won 2 games without him.

With the Cowboys and Giants forecasted to take a step back, the Eagles have the best chance to step up. Their only weakness on offense is at running back (which could be fixed with LeGarrette Blount’s signing). They have some key pieces on defense (Fletcher Cox, Jordan Hicks, Timmy Jernigan) and just like Jim Johnson, Jim Schwartz will get the most out of his personnel. Besides, it’s not like Philadelphia has a history of a rookie QB having a losing season his first year and taking the team to the post-season the following year…

+ Carolina Panthers:  Like the Cardinals, the Panthers had been mainstays in the post-season before not making the cut last year. Like the Cardinals, they have a good chance of returning. Carolina’s problem last year was that they had relied on an injured Cam Newton to carry their offense (who has had no one aside from Greg Olson to work with) and their defense lost Josh Norman.

Well, both of those issues had been fixed. Numerous pieces have been added to give Newton support. As for the defense, it’s unreasonable to guess they’ll return to the level of performance they had with Josh Norman locking down one side of a field. However, Ron Rivera is a good defensive coach and a year should be sufficient to coach up some new talent.

Also, the Panthers were in the Super Bowl just two years ago. If we revisit that list of teams that were in the Super Bowl but missed the playoffs the year after (87 Broncos, 88 Bengals, 89 Broncos, 93 Bills, 98 Falcons, 00 Giants, 01 Rams, 02 Raiders, 03 Panthers, 04 Eagles, 07 Patriots), all but two of those teams rebounded. To elaborate, the 1987 Broncos missed out on the playoffs in 1988 but rebounded to make the Super Bowl in 1989. The 1988 Bengals returned to the post-season in 1990, as did the 1989 Broncos in 1991 and so on and so forth. Carolina strikes me as a team that will rebound. For the curious, only the Falcons (who bottomed out and eventually landed Michael Vick) and the Raiders (who went through a decade plus of futility) are the exceptions to this rule.

Honorable Mentions:  The Saints would be an option if Dennis Allen wasn’t their defensive coordinator (the Saints have been ranked dead last and next to dead last in allowing points the past two years). The Vikings have potential but Sam Bradford’s inability to throw deep will cost that team. The Redskins also have a brutal schedule and have too much dysfunction (drunk GM, Kirk Cousins contract drama, Cousins losing two of his top receivers via free agency and not being on the same page as Terrelle Pryor) surrounding them.

The NFC playoff teams:  Packers, Eagles, Panthers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Cardinals

Doctor Strange

Writing a review for Doctor Strange might be, well, the strangest thing I’ve ever done.  It’s a fun film that’s exceptionally well-cast and stands apart from the majority of Marvel’s other offerings…and yet it’s a film that can’t be objectively recommended.  While it’s a step-up from the likes of Ant-Man, Hulk and Civil War, Doctor Strange has some critical flaws that keep it from entering the Iron Man 1/Winter Soldier/Guardians tier of top Marvel films.

The major critique with Doctor Strange is that the film is just too short.  At a run time under 2 hours, it’s amazing the film accomplishes as much as it does.  It has to establish Stephen Strange’s character, the accident that leads him to becoming a powerful sorcerer as well as how magic works and differs from other superpowers.  That’s a lot to do in a film that’s only 115 minutes.

And it’s that short run-time that really does Mads Mikkelsen (and Rachel McAdams, to a lesser extent) an injustice.  In a film that’s incredibly well-cast, Mikkelsen’s talent is wasted by giving him a role that could have been played by anyone else.  With a longer time, perhaps the actor behind Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre and Hannibal could have put an interesting twist on a villain in a cinematic universe sorely lacking in them.  Instead, his character is never anything more than “revenge seeking ex-student foil to the protagonist.”

Rachel McAdams is also shafted but given that Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man) and Natalie Portman (Thor) have been written out of their respective series, it’s much less of a surprise.  Guess Marvel’s going to stick with romantic pairings between the main cast like Gamora and Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s a shame that these two flaws cripple the film from being something really unique.  Every other aspect of the film is top-notch.  There’s a ton of talent in the cast.  The visuals are spectacular and even more so in 3D.  Some could complain about how formulaic the Marvel movies have become but there’s enough of a performance and visual novelty to make this film worth seeing.  It’s definitely the best Marvel film since Guardians came out over 2 years ago.  However, factor in ticket prices and the flaws emanating from the short run-time and it seems like this film shouldn’t be recommended like it should be.

Aw hell, I’ll probably watch it again.

Inferno

Inferno is a bit of an oddity, as both a Dan Brown novel and a movie.  As a novel, it’s the darker and more mature of his Robert Langdon series (there’s no other way to describe an ending where the characters are relieved only 1/3 of the world was sterilized).  The film adaptation is now happening over 7 years after Angels & Demons hit theaters.  Let’s not forget all the other weird things surrounding the film, like how the project started out as an adaptation of The Lost Symbol (the third book) before the studio decided to skip over straight to Inferno.  Too long of a sequel gap with a somewhat troubled production, the deck is definitely stacked against Inferno…and yet, it was a really enjoyable thriller.

Some might complain about the spoilers in the previous tag but (A) that’s only how the book ends and (B) it’s hard to talk Inferno without using spoilers.  The plot synopsis (Robert Langdon must team up with a doctor to solve Dante-related puzzles while thwarting global conspiracies in order to stop a virus from sterilizing the human race) is almost completely invalidated over the course of the film.  As is true in every Dan Brown work, few things are ever as they seem.  So, the viewing experience centers on the audience not only getting interested in seeing how everything pieces together but if it makes any sense.  Inferno makes full use of dramatic tropes to convey the sense

A more meta recommendation for Inferno is the acting talent involved.  Tom Hanks in a starring role automatically makes any film watchable.  Felicity Jones is the female lead and since she’s going to be the main lead in the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One, some people might want to see if she has the talent to carry a movie.  Inferno proves that she does.  Irrfan Khan is also a treat to watch.

This isn’t to say the movie’s perfect.  The film starts slow and takes its time before the pace picks up substantially (which fits thematically within the story but isn’t too exciting to watch).  The book was darker and edgier than Dan Brown’s other works but the movie’s a bit more upbeat and action-heavy, which can rub some people the wrong way.  The ending, in particular, doesn’t end with the heroes’ efforts to thwart the release of the Inferno virus mostly in vain.

However, most people are looking for an enjoyable way to kill 2 hours worth of time and for that reason, Inferno serves its purpose.  The movie’s a fun little romp with phenomenal acting talent.  Go in with those expectations and Inferno should meet them.  Besides, has there ever been a terrible Tom Hanks movie?

100 Songs from the 1980’s

Pop Icons released a video titled “Best of 80’s music” that was pretty atrocious.  While opinions are subjective, it was really odd to see some songs that were omitted for…well, no reason in particular (like Van Halen’s Jump).  So rather than merely “dislike” the post, it made more sense to make my own list to compare and contrast.  Of course, that video was a little over 8 minutes and only included 66 songs but since video-editing is out of the question, I can list up to 100 in text format and link to the appropriate video.

The only criteria I used were one song per artist (otherwise people like Michael Jackson would own the list), no more than one song per album (sorry Maniac), the song had to be a single (otherwise Heaven and Hell would made the cut), had to have been released in the 1980’s (Pink Floyd’s The Wall came out in 1979) and preference was given to songs that appeared in Grand Theft Auto:  Vice City (which would be an excellent response to anyone who asks for a “best of the 80’s” compilation).

  1. Take On Me” – a-ha
  2. Back in Black” – AC/DC
  3. Summer of ’69” – Bryan Adams
  4. Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” – Aerosmith
  5. Madhouse” – Anthrax
  6. Heat of the Moment” – Asia
  7. Never Gonna Let You Down” – Rick Astley
  8. Turn Up the Radio” – Autograph
  9. Walk Like an Egyptian” – The Bangles
  10. Mickey” – Toni Basil
  11. (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” – Beastie Boys
  12. Hit Me with Your Best Shot” – Pat Benatar
  13. Call Me” – Blondie
  14. Livin’ on a Prayer” – Bon Jovi
  15. Let’s Dance” – David Bowie
  16. Flashdance…  What a Feeling” – Irene Cara
  17. Heaven is a Place on Earth” – Belinda Carlisle
  18. Glory of Love” – Peter Cetera
  19. In the Air Tonight” – Phil Collins
  20. Karma Chameleon” – Culture Club
  21. (I Just) Died in Your Arms” – Cutting Crew
  22. Pour Some Sugar on Me” – Def Leppard
  23. Rainbow in the Dark” – Dio
  24. Money for Nothing” – Dire Straits
  25. A View to a Kill” – Duran Duran
  26. The Final Countdown” – Europe
  27. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” – Eurythmics
  28. She Drives Me Crazy” – Fine Young Cannibals
  29. I Ran (So Far Away)” – A Flock of Seagulls
  30. The Message” – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
  31. Welcome to the Jungle” – Guns ‘n’ Roses
  32. Out of Touch” – Hall & Oates
  33. Miami Vice Theme” – Jan Hammer
  34. Rockit” – Herbie Hancock
  35. Sunglasses At Night” – Corey Hart
  36. What About Love” – Heart
  37. I Wanna Dance with Somebody” – Whitney Houston
  38. The Power of Love” – Huey Lewis and The News
  39. Don’t You Want Me” – The Human League
  40. White Wedding” – Billy Idol
  41. Need You Tonight” – INXS
  42. The Number of the Beast” – Iron Maiden
  43. Centerfold” – J. Geils Band
  44. Thriller” – Michael Jackson
  45. Super Freak” – Rick James
  46. I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” – Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
  47. Don’t Stop Believin’” – Journey
  48. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” – Cyndi Lauper
  49. Working for the Weekend” – Loverboy
  50. Like A Virgin” – Madonna
  51. Jack & Diane” – John Mellencamp
  52. You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” – Judas Priest
  53. Celebration” – Kool & the Gang
  54. Danger Zone” – Kenny Loggins
  55. La Bamba” – Los Lobos
  56. Bassline” – Mantronix
  57. Peace Sells” – Megadeth
  58. Down Under” – Men at Work
  59. One” – Metallica
  60. Too Young to Fall in Love” – Mötley Crüe
  61. Ace of Spades” – Motorhead
  62. Broken Wings” – Mr. Mister
  63. Sister Christian” – Night Ranger
  64. Straight Outta Compton” – N.W.A.
  65. Your Love” – The Outfield
  66. Crazy Train” – Ozzy Osbourne
  67. Ghostbusters” – Ray Parker Jr.
  68. St. Elmo’s Fire (Main in Motion)” – John Parr
  69. Automatic” – The Pointer Sisters
  70. Every Breath You Take” – The Police
  71. Batdance” – Prince
  72. Another One Bites the Dust” – Queen
  73. Cum On Feel the Noize” – Quiet Riot
  74. Keep on Loving You” – REO Speedwagon
  75. All Night Long” – Lionel Richie
  76. Start Me Up” – The Rolling Stones
  77. Rock Box” – Run-D.M.C.
  78. 18 and Life” – Skid Row
  79. Raining Blood” – Slayer
  80. Jessie’s Girl” – Rick Springfield
  81. Born in the U.S.A.” – Bruce Springsteen
  82. We Built This City” – Starship
  83. Mr. Roboto” – Styx
  84. Eye of the Tiger” – Survivor
  85. Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Tears for Fears
  86. Wild Thing” – Tone Loc
  87. Africa” – Toto
  88. What’s Love Got To Do With It” – Tina Turner
  89. I Wanna Rock” – Twisted Sister
  90. Total Eclipse of the Heart” – Bonnie Tyler
  91. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – U2
  92. Red Red Wine” – UB40
  93. Jump” – Van Halen
  94. Chariots of Fire” – Vangelis
  95. Missing You” – John Waite
  96. Walk the Dinosaur” – Was (Not Was)
  97. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” – Wham!
  98. Here I Go Again” – Whitesnake
  99. Kids In America” – Kim Wilde
  100. Owner of a Lonely Heart” – Yes

Best-selling PS2 Games

The GameFAQs poll for today asks “Of the top 10 best-selling PlayStation 2 games of all-time, which is your favorite?”  The answer is obviously Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas but there were some titles on that list that were surprising to see (Tekken 5!?).  Since the poll options are listed alphabetically instead of by sales figures, pulling up the numbers led to some interesting finds.  With this data, people can see the effects of marketing, brand recognition and sequel fatigue.

Below are the poll options listed from highest sales to lowest…

  1. Grand Theft Auto:  San Andreas (27.5 million)
  2. Grand Theft Auto:  Vice City (17.5 million)
  3. Gran Turismo 3:  A-Spec (14.89 million)
  4. Grand Theft Auto III (14.5 million)
  5. Gran Turismo 4 (11.76 million)
  6. Metal Gear Solid 2:  Sons of Liberty (7 million)
  7. Final Fantasy X (6.6 million)
  8. Tekken 5 (6 million)
  9. Final Fantasy XII (5.2 million)
  10. Kingdom Hearts (4.78 million)

Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo absolutely dominate the top half of the list.  Thanks to a combination of marketing, notoriety, critical acclaim and brand recognition, each GTA sequel improved on its predecessor on every conceivable metric.  It’s also worth pointing out that San Andreas set the bar so high that the next GTA game (Grand Theft Auto IV) never surpassed it and the bar wasn’t cleared until GTA V.  Coincidentally, Grand Theft Auto V was also set in Los Santos, the first city players see in San Andreas.

While there’s not much of a drop-off between the two Gran Turismo games, there has to be some series fatigue going on there because all the other excuses don’t apply. Sales in the European market increased but decreased elsewhere between Gran Turismo 3 and 4.  While Gran Turismo 3 came out earlier in the PS2’s lifespan than Gran Turismo 4 did (2001 v. 2005), that didn’t stop San Andreas (2004) from reaching the top of the list.  The same reason could also apply to the slight dip between Final Fantasy X and XII.

It’s not surprising to see Metal Gear Solid 2 on the list, given the hype and anticipation that surrounded the game.  It was shocking to see the drop-off from Sons of Liberty to Snake Eater (3.7 million), though.  Sons of Liberty is rather infamous for its complex plot and movie-length cutscenes but seeing the effects of that divisiveness play out on a business scale is pretty staggering.  Sales for the next game dropped almost in half!  That’s pretty depressing, especially since Snake Eater is widely regarded among Metal Gear fans as the series’ best.

It’s amazing to see how certain continents propelled some games on the list.  Nearly 2/3 of Tekken 5’s sales (4 million) were in Europe and the continent also loves itself some Gran Turismo.  Grand Theft Auto is built primarily on American sales.  If we were looking at sales on a specific area vs. total sales, this list would look a lot different (if we looked at Japan only, for instance, Dragon Quest VIII would make the cut and Grand Theft Auto would tumble down).

One final note to takeaway from all this is that all of the listed games are either PS2-exclusive (Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy) or started out that way before getting ported (Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid 2).  Thanks to a strong relationship with publishers/developers and the success of the PS1 (which the PS2 was backwards-compatible with…), the PS2 ended up being the best-selling console of all-time.  Never underestimate console exclusivity.  It’s one of the main reasons Nintendo is still afloat, after all…

Luke Cage

Marvel’s Netflix division is still going strong with Luke Cage.  While it’s an excellent TV series, there is one pet peeve:  While its plot references fellow series Jessica Jones, Luke Cage doesn’t keep the main thing that should carry over.  Jessica Jones‘ penultimate episode and finale established that Luke Cage, despite his toughness and strength, is vulnerable to concussive force.  That doesn’t carry over into Luke Cage and there’s at least two instances where the lead should be dead.

It should go without saying there will be spoilers for the first seasons of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.

Towards the end of Jessica Jones, Jessica and Luke (who’s mind-controlled by Kilgrave) fight and Luke ends up taking a shotgun blast under his chin.  Now the bullets themselves don’t kill him since they can’t puncture the skin.  However, the concussive force of having shotgun pellets impact his face can knock the brain loose from the cranial spinal fluid it’s floating around in.  This can have all sorts of effects, from inducing dizziness and headaches to altering a personality (if they survive).  Further reading on the effects of internal injuries induced by blast trauma can be read at National Geographic.

At the end of Luke Cage‘s third episode, Luke is in a building with his landlady and is subjected to a blast from a rocket launcher when he uses his body to shield her.  The resulting explosion brings down the building on top of him.  Regardless of his super durability, Luke should have died from the resulting internal injuries either from the blast going off next to him or the building coming down on him.

What if he hand-wave all that way and chalk up the discrepancy to Jessica Jones‘ writers not coordinating with Luke Cage‘s?  Maybe someone wrote Luke to be tougher than it really was?  This is a pretty plausible explanation, especially with a corporate umbrella as expansive as Disney’s.  Even if we buy into that explanation, though, someone didn’t do the research on what happens when a rocket explodes next to you.

Obviously, the fire from the explosion wouldn’t have incinerated his skin but it could still affect him internally.  Luke would have died from the fire eating up all the oxygen in his vicinity, resulting in either a collapsed lung or the fire scorching his respiratory system.  A collapsed lung would have resulted from the air pressure rapidly changing due to the force of the blast.  The rapidity of this change flattens the lung and makes it impossible to breathe.  Luke and his landlady would have then suffocated to death.  If the lung doesn’t collapse, then the explosion’s heat and chemicals used to create would have scorched the airways of the victims.  With the airways set ablaze and respiratory system torched, both of them would have asphyxiated.

I’m no Doctor or even WebMD but TV Tropes pointed this out too.  This is also only the first instance Luke should be dead.

The other instance occurs shortly after mid-season when Luke is shot twice by bullets that can pierce his bulletproof skin.  Let’s put aside “there are safe places to shoot someone” trope and marvel at the fact that Luke Cage is able to move around, defend himself, fight (not at his best but still…) and not bleed out on a 12 hour drive to Georgia from Harlem.  Let’s also marvel at how Luke and Claire can travel across multiple states through multiple congested metros (Philadelphia, Washington D.C….) notorious for how congested they are traffic-wise without stopping for 12 hours.  It’s almost as if a writer ran directions through Google maps and rolled with it…

This piece detracts from an otherwise brilliant show.  Luke Cage has kickass music, a unique yet suitable tone and presentation as well as some great moments and themes that it explores.  Thinking the main lead should be dead after 3 episodes really hung over the series though.  It keeps the show from eclipsing Daredevil as the best Netflix show.

 

 

Majora’s Mask: The Best Zelda

The Zelda timeline splits after Ocarina of Time but in our series playthrough, our group decided to follow the game up with Majora’s Mask since the game stars the same Link.  Not only is the game impressive from a development standpoint (Ocarina came out in November 1998 and Majora’s Mask was released in Sept. 2000, meaning the game was developed in a little under 2 years), it’s one of the highest points in the series.  In fact, let’s be honest, it’s the best Zelda game despite not having a lot of the series’ core elements.  What it lacks in exploration, Majora’s Mask makes up for with characterization and ingenuity.

This isn’t to say Majora’s Mask is a perfect game.  To those who stress about such things, the 3 day time limit discourages exploration.  The game’s fairly linear with access to areas gated by items (the bow is needed to enter the mountains, powder kegs are required to get the horse which is necessary to get to the ocean, etc.).  While challenging, the dungeons are remembered more for their tedium or gimmicks than anything else.

All those low points are overshadowed by how amazing everything else is.  The game has the best characterization in the series, with people who actually have agendas and desires.  In most other Zelda games, NPCs stand in one spot during the day and another at night.  Regardless of what’s going in their lives or in the world, they’ll always be found at that spot.  This makes the characters static and the world less immersive and interesting.

With the clock and timer in Majora’s Mask, NPCs actually move about and will only be found at certain points during that time.  The actions they do and what the player does will affect their schedule.  Take the entertainment troupe leader, Gorman, for example.  He goes to a meeting with the mayor’s wife on the morning of the first day, finds out his show has been canceled and then goes to the bar and drinks himself into a stupor the next two days…unless the player has access to the Milk Bar and all the racial transformation masks, at which point they can snap him out of his funk.  If this is done on the first night, Gorman can be found playing cards with his employers and noting they’ll be leaving town to avoid the moon.

It’s worth noting that helping Gorman is completely optional.  He only gives a mask which isn’t needed to complete the game.  The sequence does show, however, that Majora’s Mask was years ahead of its contemporaries.  In an era where Telltale games and RPGs are built around player choice, Majora’s Mask was among the pioneers of that design decision.

The game’s also incredibly meme-tastic.

link_statue

Autopsy: Ocarina of Time

Continuing on to the next chronological 3D game in the series, the Zelda playthrough arrives at Ocarina of Time.  It’s a game that often tops (or nears the top) of a “greatest games ever made” list but the game was released in November 1998.  There’s some validity to the critique that the game hasn’t aged all that well, although not nearly to the point of Final Fantasy VII (where the non-battle sequence or FMV character models have had people clamoring for a remake for at least a decade).  While not my favorite Zelda game, Ocarina of Time can still be appreciated as a piece of game history.  While there’s some wrinkles to the game, it’s also quite playable.

For the record, our group’s playthrough was based on the Master Quest version on the GameCube.

Ocarina of Time successfully brought the Zelda franchise into 3D.  It was so successful, in fact, it set a template that was pretty well-established up through Skyward Sword.  That template was essentially give the player a safe tutorial area to get used to the game mechanics before unleashing them on a world that’s only gated by the items the player possesses.  The game also established the “collect 3 of ‘x’ (Ocarina‘s spiritual stones, Wind Waker‘s orbs, Twilight Princess‘ Fused Shadow) to open up the 2nd act of the game where you collect ‘y’ (medallions, Triforce pieces, Mirror of Twilight) so you can fight the final boss” plot.

It’s worth considering that even with Breath of the Wild opting for an open-world approach, it wouldn’t be too surprising if they kept some of the Ocarina formula.

Aside from the safe tutorial area, the above isn’t too similar from A Link to the Past.  The obvious separation between Ocarina and A Link to the Past is the series’ jump to 3D, where Ocarina laid the groundwork for future 3D action-adventure games.  Camera lock-on via Z-targeting allowed real time combat that was both challenging and feasible.  The scale and depth of the game was only rivaled by PS1 JRPGs.  While Metal Gear Solid was also released in 1998 and Ocarina’s plot isn’t nearly as complex, the game still tells a story that is epic and sensible.

Without Ocarina of Time, games like Shadow of the Colossus and Devil May Cry would have turned out very differently.

Autopsy: Skyward Sword

Beginning the Zelda series play-through with the first chronological game (complete with drinking game), Skyward Sword is definitely one of the more controversial entries.  There’s definitely some attempt to shake up the series formula and yet the game never truly shines with its originality because of how many references and call-backs there are.  The marketing to tie the game with Zelda’s 25th anniversary didn’t help.  Add in motion controls and the game is going to be a “love it or hate it” deal.  This autopsy of the game will show that Skyward Sword is easily the worst 3D Zelda and a contender for the franchise’s lowest point.

“Worst in the series” might seem like hyperbole until people realize Skyward Sword doubles down on things people hate about Zelda.  Case in point:  tedium.  Majora’s Mask has a section where the player has to go underneath the well and exchange bottled items (fish, milk, a blue potion, among others) and magic beans with mummies in order to progress through the well.  While the majority of those items can be found within the well itself, it’s rather tedious to send the player on various fetch quests to get these items.  Thankfully, it’s only a small part of Majora’s Mask and this whole sequence only needs to be done once.

Skyward Sword, on the other hand, takes that sequence and turns it into the whole game.  “Sure, I could tell the player where Zelda went and send them towards the first temple…but first, they must find these three Kikwi!”  “The player could enter the second temple after climbing up a volcano but first, they must assemble the five pieces of the dungeon entrance since it was broken because plot!”  “The Water Dragon could teach Link the song of the hero but first, they must break the song into collectibles the player now has to go fetch!”

The whole sequence to find the Sandship is like this too.  First, collect a navigation map from the pirate’s house that is inexplicably located on top of a massive rock.  Next, go to the shipyard and ride around on a mine cart to realize the ship’s not here and is probably somewhere else.  Then go to the pirates’ hideout and realize it’s not there either.  With all those locations ruled out, the ship must be somewhere out in the sea but it’s invisible so have fun locating it!

Skyward Sword is the longest game in the series but longevity does not equal depth.  It’s also not necessarily “good” if a game’s length is needlessly padded out.

One other bit before moving on:  People complained about Twilight Princess having way too long of a prologue.  Skyward Sword‘s an even more egregious offender.  It can be argued that a more intensive tutorial is necessary since the game is so reliant on motion controls.  Well, Ocarina of Time had the series jump from 2D to 3D and that game’s tutorial is maybe 30 minutes (if that).

Combine the above complaint with the game’s motion controls and it’s easy to see why people dislike Skyward Sword so much.  To its credit, the swordplay can be incredibly immersive (when the motion controls aren’t so finicky) but there’s never a point where the Wiimote is preferable to a game pad.  Different types of sword attacks have been common in the series since Ocarina of Time so it’s not like none of the sword combat could be reproduced on a conventional controller.

If anything, the motion controls make the game harder than it should be.  There will be more than a few times the game won’t register the Wiimote’s commands because the sensor’s just not registering the player’s input.  Also, while it was mentioned earlier the swordplay can be immersive, this can backfire.  Most enemies have a tell on which way to swing the Wiimote but how fast it needs to be done is a process of trial and error.

Take the third fight with Ghirahim where the boss pulls out the giant sword and the player has to hit the blade in a certain manner to “chip away” at it.  If a player is immersed in the fight, they’ll try to hit the sword as fast as they can.  That’s a mistake since Ghirahim shifts the blade so the same sequence won’t work, so the player has to actually slow down.  This breaks the immersion since why would Ghirahim leave such an opening?

This isn’t to say Skyward Sword is completely terrible.  The soundtrack’s possibly the best in the series.  The characterization for the Skyloft citizens (particularly Groose) is well-done.  Despite complaining about how ridiculously drawn-out the Sandship sequence is, it’s one of the best parts of the game (everything from the Ancient Cistern to the Sandship is golden).  The scenery is gorgeous and the art direction outside of certain parts of characters (Link’s lips, Zelda’s nose) is outstanding.  The stamina gauge, sprinting and the adventurer pouches are all welcome additions to spice up the series.

These compliments are not enough to save the game, though.  Terrible game design and finicky controls are enough to keep this game from being one of the series’ best.  Add in perhaps the most boring overworld in a video game ever (it makes sense that the air around Skyloft is mostly monster-free but it’s definitely not fun to fly around with little to worry about except tornadoes) and obnoxious hand-holding from the worst NPC companion in the series and Skyward Sword‘s going to rank at the bottom of the Zelda tier.  At the very least, no way it’s better than the other 3D console titles.

Drinking Game: Skyward Sword

E3 was a few weeks ago and despite not technically attending the conference and showcasing only one game (primarily), Nintendo put on the best show.  Now, there was a fair amount of impressive games at E3 and arguments could be made for other companies that actually “won E3” but Nintendo was the most impressive.  The Legend of Zelda:  Breath of the Wild makes the NX (or whatever the new console ends up being called) a must-buy.  That’s a pretty impressive turn-around, especially for people like me who haven’t bought a Nintendo console in two generations…

But a detailing of Nintendo’s failures can wait for another day.  It’s a better idea to prepare for Breath of the Wild by playing through the 3D Zelda titles (at the very least), possibly even with friends.  Chronologically, Skyward Sword is the first title in the series (until Nintendo decides otherwise, like how Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time and The Minish Cap were all “first” at one point).  Skyward Sword is also dubious for being one of the worst games in the series, what with the over-reliance on motion controls and the amount of quest padding involved.

Terrible game?  With awful controls?  And questionable design choices?  The only way to tolerate a game with any of this crap is to play a drinking game!

Take a drink whenever…

  • Your character’s name is referenced in dialogue (to make things easier, name the character DRINK).
  • Ghiriahim licks something or teleports.
  • The Guardians catch you in the Silent Realm (finish your drink if you had collected all the Sacred Tears and then got caught).
  • You catch a reference to a previous Zelda game.
  • Fi calculates a probability.  If you wish to live dangerously, drink for every box of dialogue Fi has.
  • A fetch quest is added for reasons that equate to “you must prove your worth”.
  • You hear the “you solved the puzzle” jingle.
  • The Wiimote is out of alignment.