Wednesday, August 20, 2014

2014 NFL Preview: NFC North

Chicago Bears: In typical Chicago Bears fashion, the 2013 season showed plenty of signs for optimism only to end in crushing disappointment. Head coach Marc Trestman was able to turn around the long-suffering offense in his first year with the team, but of course as soon as the offense was fixed, the defense crumbled due to a combination of injuries and poor play from the front seven. The Bears head into 2014 with even more of a chip on their shoulder and their most promising roster since their NFC Championship run in 2010. Trestman's offensive system has made this unit one of the scariest in the league. Whether it's via the rushing game or the passing game, this team can hurt you and they should only be able to get better this year. Brandon Marshall is the model of consistency at wide receiver with seven straight 1,000 yard+ seasons, Alshon Jeffery is quickly becoming the league's next premier receiver thanks to his great hands and knack for making improbable catches and Matt Forte is one of the very few running backs left in the league that excels in every aspect of the game. Of course you can't go through talking about the Bears offense without mentioning one of the most polarizing figures in the NFL, quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears handed a Cutler a huge new contract in January and now it is up to him to prove that he can lead this team and perform on a more consistent basis. With an offensive line now in place that actually will allow him time to make reads and not get murdered every time he throws, the excellent coaching from a lauded QB guru in Trestman and all the weapons around him, Cutler has never been in a better position to succeed in his career thus far. After years of being mocked by fans and analysts alike, I think this will be the year Cutler silences his critics and plays like the franchise QB he's always been capable of being. While Cutler may be considered by a lot of people to be the biggest thing holding the Bears back from being a contender, I think the play of the defense is ultimately going to determine whether or not the Bears can finally break their recent curse. The team went out and invested heavily on defense- especially on the defensive line- in the offseason to try and make sure the 2013 debacle doesn't happen again. Defensive end Lamarr Houston gives the Bears one of the best run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL while defensive ends Jared Allen and Willie Young should give the Bears the huge pass-rushing boost they needed after putting up a paltry 31 sacks in 2013. The interior line also underwent a big makeover as the team is relying on a combination of veterans in Jeremiah Ratliff (or as I like to call him "The Artist formerly known as Jay Ratliff"), Stephen Paea and Nate Collins and rookies Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton to become an effective run-stuffing rotation. After being the root of many of the problems in 2013, the play of the interior line is going to be an especially important factor if the Bears defense wants return to dominant form in 2014. The biggest question mark on this defense remains at safety, where the Bears have no clear starters enter to season. With Major Wright now with the Buccaneers and Chris Conte starting the season on IR, there is a currently battle going on between new veteran additions Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Adrian Wilson, Danny McCray and rookie Brock Vereen for the two starting spots. Safety play was a huge problem for the Bears last season, so hopefully whoever wins the jobs can provide some much-needed stability at the position. If the defense can play at least play relatively well throughout the year and Cutler doesn't go down for any extended period of time, I fell like the Bears can end their four-year playoff drought this season.

Detroit Lions: Much like their divisional counterparts in Chicago, The Lions had yet another season in 2013 that started out well only to end in the familiar ugliness and misery of a losing season. Their failure to win the division despite being in firm control in early November and losing six of the last seven games on the year caused the Lions to fire Jim Schwartz after five seasons as head coach. The Lions are coming into 2014 with a new head coach in Jim Caldwell, who is the antithesis to Schwartz in both personality and game-planning/what side of the ball takes precedence. Caldwell-who was the Colts head coach for three years after Tony Dungy retired and the offensive brainchild behind the Ravens Super Bowl run in 2012- has plenty of offensive weaponry to work with and will probably get more out of them than the defensive-minded Schwartz  did. Not only will Caldwell will probably get more production of out this offense, he now has more weapons to work with than Schwartz did in any of his five years with the team. They helped out quarterback Matthew Stafford by bringing in veteran wideout Golden Tate and drafting tight end Eric Ebron to give them more trustworthy options in the passing game alongside the one and only Calvin Johnson. While Ebron may take some time to get acclimated to the NFL, Tate should make an instant impact on the flow and production of this offense as he gives the Lions their first legit number two wideout in years. These new weapons in the passing game paired with arguably the best running back tandem in the league in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell gives the Lions an opportunity to have the most potent offense they've had in the modern era. As usual with the Lions, just about the only weakness the team possesses is on the back end of the defense. The team once again did nothing to address their secondary problems in free agency or the draft. For whatever reason, the team has a lot of faith in young corners Darius Slay and Bill Bentley, despite the fact that they haven't produced much. The safety situation isn't much better as they have the decent but not overly productive Glover Quin and journeyman James Ihedbigo holding down the middle of the field. The Lions secondary isn't asked to do as much as most secondaries due to the quality of their defensive front, but they still manage to cost the Lions games due to their poor play. The Lions are moving in the right direction, but I don't think they have enough in the tank to have anything more than an outside chance of making the playoffs in 2014.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers are an old-school franchise that relies on the draft to build their team. Because of this approach to running a football team, the Packers don't change much on a year-to-year basis, which is both a good and bad thing. Aaron Rodgers is in the prime of his career and as long he's calling the shots, the Packers are going to be contenders. Though Rodgers is the type of guy that makes everyone around him it better, it helps that he has plenty of elite talent around him in the form of wide receivers in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and second-year running back Eddie Lacy. Nelson and Cobb are bound to get more targets this year now that James Jones and Jermichael Finley are out of the picture and they should live up to that challenge as they are two of the more consistently reliable wideouts currently in the league. While Cobb and Nelson are undeniably important to the success of this offense, Lacy has been a godsend for a Packers offense that struggled with the run for years. His old-school power back style has given the Packers a much needed additional facet to their offense that takes pressure off Rodgers and the receivers from being the team's sole source of offense. While the Packers still have much of the core of their team in tact, they just aren't as scary as they once were. The defense lacks any dynamic playmakers outside of Clay Matthews and can be easily beaten by any above-average offense. The team did draft a potentially elite safety in HaHa Clinton-Dix in the first round this year, but even if Dix ends up being a stud, he won't be enough to fix the general lack of talent they have throughout most of the defense. The Packers offense will keep them competitive and give them an edge over most teams, I just feel that they don't have the defensive firepower to beat a lot of the high-caliber teams in the NFC.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are yet another team that has undergone a major makeover from 2013 to 2014. The team has brought in a new head coach in Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator in Norv Turner and potential new starting quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater to hopefully get the Vikings back on track after a disastrous 2013 to follow-up their surprise playoff berth in 2012. Of all the Vikings offseason moves, bringing in Zimmer as the new head coach is the most intriguing. Zimmer has been one of the elite defensive coordinators in the NFL for over a decade and this head coaching opportunity is long overdue. If Zimmer's toughness and intelligence as a coordinator translates to the head coach position, Zimmer will turn around the Vikings in no time. Turner's presence as an offensive coordinator should also be very beneficial to the Vikings rebuilding effort. Turner did the best job he possibly could on a trainwreck Browns team in 2013 and with a lot more talent to work with in Minnesota, his impact should be much greater. Turner should especially make his mark in the passing game where the team has a rising star in wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and a underrated tight end in Kyle Rudolph that could be deadly in Turner's tight-end friendly scheme. The Vikings weren't too active in free agency, but did make a few moves on defense- that were no doubt influenced by Zimmer- by signing defensive tackle Linval Joesph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to mid-level deals. Joesph and Munnerlyn were two of the most unsung players in the league in 2013 and under Zimmer's wing, have serious potential to be even better this season. Munnerlyn was an especially great pickup that gives second-year Xavier Rhodes a veteran mentor while also giving the Vikings a huge boost at a position that gave them a lot of problems a year ago. The Vikings comeback aspirations are being held up by one key position: quarterback. At the time of this publication, the Vikings have no official starting quarterback. Last year's main starter Matt Cassel and the rookie Bridgewater appear to be dueling for the spot, while longtime Viking Christian Ponder appears to be the odd man out. Whether it be Cassel, Bridgewater or Ponder who ends with the job, I don't know if any of these guys are truly the answer the Vikings are looking for at quarterback. Cassel looked good at times last year, but is ultimately too inconsistent to serve as the team's long term starter, Ponder has proven time and time again that he can't be a starter in the NFL and Bridgewater, while demonstrating some potential in OTA's and the preseason after a string of shaky pre-draft workouts, is far from a sure thing. The team may have the freak force of nature that is running back Adrian Peterson to fall back on, but the speed of the Vikings turnaround is going to depend on how well the starting quarterback plays. The Vikings are putting the right pieces in motion to return to relevancy, I just don't think 2014 will be the year that they actually do so.

Projected Standings for the NFC North:
1.Chicago Bears (11-5)
2.Green Bay Packers (10-6)
3.Detroit Lions (8-8)
4.Minnesota Vikings (6-10) 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

2014 NFL Preview: NFC East

Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys have long been the whipping boys of the NFL with their consistent underachieving and track record of choking in high-stakes situations. As much as Cowboys want this streak of being a mediocre football team to end in 2014, I would be shocked if it did. Hell, I would be shocked if the Cowboys can even get back to their typical 8-8 level this year. The Cowboys still have the offensive tools to get the job done, it's just that their defense is an absolute joke. The 2013 Cowboys were one of the worst defenses in NFL history; getting pummeled in both the rushing and passing game every time they took the field. Somehow this unit only got worse this year with the departure of two of their best players defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (free agency) and defensive end DeMarcus Ware (released after refusing to take a pay cut) in the offseason. Losing Hatcher and Ware was bad enough, but things managed to only get worse when inside linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL in OTA's. Lee is really the only player on this defense that can make a serious impact. Lee is one of the premier two-way linebackers in the league and this defense is a completely different unit when he's on the field. Not having him for an entire season is going to be devastating for this already weak defense. Owner/GM Jerry Jones once again demonstrated his incompetency at the position by failing to bring in anybody that can really make this defense better. Jones' idea of reworking the defense is bringing in guys who did alright in a strong rotation (Jeremy Mincey) and one of the biggest busts in recent history has caused nothing but headaches during his tenure in the NFL (Rolando McClain). When your best pickup to fix the defense is a defensive tackle coming off a torn ACL (Henry Melton), you know something has gone horribly wrong. Somehow these random veteran pickups weren't the dumbest thing Jones did this offseason. Jones not only completely avoided addressing the biggest problem on the defense (secondary) in either the draft or free agency, he went out and used the team's first round pick on an offensive lineman- a position they were already stacked at-when there were a ton of promising players on the board that could helped them out tremendously. Maybe Jones will feel some type of regret for not taking a defender in the first round when his Cowboys are getting ripped to shreds week in and week out for the whole season. The Cowboys offensive prospects aren't even quite as bright as usual with Tony Romo coming off major offseason back surgery. If Romo returns to form this year, this offense will probably be even more deadly than usual due to the combination of a poor defense that will allow Romo and co. to be on-the-field more than ever and pass-happy Scott Linehan taking over offensive coordinator duties. Even if Romo bounces back from surgery without any setbacks and has a career year, the Cowboys are still going to be pretty much DOA due to their defense. The Cowboys are going to need make some major changes in personnel on and off-the field if good ol' Jerry wants to gets back to the Aikman/Staubach glory days of the franchise.   

New York Giants: The Giants may have finished on a strong note in 2013, but the season was still a major disappointment for the G-Men as they missed the playoffs for a second straight year. With that disappointment in mind, the Giants went and out addressed their two biggest problems last season- offensive line and running back- in free agency and the draft. The offensive line woes a year ago where the major reason that the running game was ineffective and Eli Manning threw so many interceptions. The Giants now have three new potential starters in guard Geoff Schwartz, center J.D. Walton and rookie center/guard Weston Richburg- who is battling for the starting right guard spot with incumbent Giant Brandon Mosley. These new starters are leading a much needed youth movement for a Giants line that was old and often overwhelmed a year ago and should also provide a lot more consistency with both rush and pass blocking. Behind the refurbished offensive line, the Giants went out and invested in a pair of new running backs to fix their 29th ranking rushing offense from a year ago. In my humble opinion, Rashad Jennings was one of the most underrated pickups of this offseason. Jennings has quietly put up pretty good numbers with the Jaguars and Raiders over the past two seasons and should thrive now that he's finally been given the opportunity to be the feature back. The team also went and out drafted Andre Williams to be their new power back after both Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs left the organization in the offseason. Jennings and Williams have all the skills necessary to be the next great "Thunder and Lightning" rushing duo. The Giants free agent spending spree carried over to the defensive side as the team invested in the likes of cornerbacks Domniqiue Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond, defensive end Robert Ayers and inside linebacker Jameel McClain to bolster the depth of their already solid defense. With all the smart pickups the Giants made in the offseason to help him out, The Giants are going to need Manning to step up now more than ever. Manning's 2013 season was miserable, but I believe he possesses the poise and talent to turn this team around. Manning was the guy that led this team to two Super Bowls in the past decade and if he wants to get this team back there again, he's going to have dig deep and rediscover the part of himself that is a winning quarterback who can take over a game at will. With an improvement in overall talent and a brilliant head coach in Tom Coughlin running the show, the Giants certainly have the potential to surprise and take home the NFC East title in 2014.  

Philadelphia Eagles: There's a lot fewer questions marks surrounding the Eagles going into this season than there was at this time last year thanks to their success in 2013. Chip Kelly's offensive magic translated to the NFL, they have a legitimate starting (and quite possibly long-time franchise) quarterback in Nick Foles and the offensive line went from a mess to arguably the most dominant unit in the league in the matter of a single season. The only question that remains in Philly this season is can they do it all again in 2014. The answer will come in due time, but as of right now, I think they are fully capable of repeating their success this season. I would be absolutely flabbergasted if Foles' incredible play last season was a fluke. Foles was able to master Kelly's rapid-pace offense without get flustered or overwhelmed with the pace at any point The poise and intelligence Foles that demonstrated under center last season was rare for a second-year player and it should only improve in his third season. In addition to having the next potential superstar quarterback in Foles, the team has perhaps the best running back in the league not named Adrian Peterson in LeSean McCoy. McCoy was built for Kelly's offense and it showed in 2013 as he racked up over 2,000 total yards including a league-leading 1,607 yards on the ground. At the still young age of 26 and the added presence of speedster Darren Sproles in the backfield this year to take away some of the focus that is normally put on him, McCoy is primed to be just as dominant in 2014.  Despite all their strengths, there's still some question marks on this team, primarily on the defensive side of the ball. The Eagles D is a relatively young unit that made a ton of mistakes in 2013 that led to quite a few big plays being made against them, and I don't expect much to change this year. The Eagles tried to work on their league-worst secondary from a year ago by adding safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Nolan Carroll in free agency. Jenkins brings a more stable presence to the middle of the defense than any of the safeties they had last year while Carroll is a relatively solid corner that gives them someone to fall back on if injuries occur to their starters, but ultimately I don't know much of an impact these guys will make on the quality of this unit. There's also the problem of finding someone to replace the production of the team's top wide receiver DeSean Jackson- who the Eagles released for no apparent reason after having a career year in 2013. Rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff have looked good in OTA's and the preseason thus far and having Jeremy Maclin back in the mix after missing all of 2013 with a torn ACL is a huge plus, but it's going to be a tall order for any of these guys to match the explosiveness and consistent big-play ability Jackson brought to this offense. The Eagles are a young team on the rise with a whole lot of potential for future success, but in the interim I think they lack the playmakers on defense to make a deep playoff run and be serious title contenders.  

Washington Redskins: There is no team going into 2014 that I find to be a bigger crapshoot than the Washington Redskins. This is a squad that went from promising upstart franchise in 2012 to lowly bottomfeeders in 2013. The Redskins true identity lies pretty much solely on the shoulders of third-year quarterback Robert Griffin III- who is entering a make-or-break year in 2014. Is Griffin III the poised, dynamic playmaker that won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 or the jittery guy that relied way too much on his feet and got shut down for the last quarter of the season in 2013. With no major injury to bounce back from this year and a fully-loaded arsenal of playmakers around him (running back Alfred Morris, wide receiver Pierre Garcon, tight end Jordan Reed and new addition DeSean Jackson), we will see the player Griffin truly is come out this year. Griffin has the benefit having a brilliant offensive mind in new head coach Jay Gruden in his corner to help him and try get back on track in 2014. Gruden had great success in his tenure as the Bengals offensive coordinator making Andy Dalton a reliable starting quarterback. Gruden brings a relatively balanced offensive system to the Redskins that has proven to be successful year in and year out. If any coach in this league can unlock the potential Griffin has, it's Gruden. While Griffin is certainly the most pressing issue for the Redskins, it's certainly not the only issue the Redskins face in 2014. Their defense is still loaded with holes and they didn't really have the cap space or number of high draft picks (thanks to the trade to get Griffin in the 2012 draft) to fill them this offseason. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is still in his prime and will bring a huge playmaking force to the middle of the line, but outside of him there's not a single pickup they made that will make much of an impact this year. Tracy Porter is just another expendable corner, Akeem Jordan is an above average inside linebacker at best and rookie Trent Murphy- this team first draft pick in 2014- won't see much action because the Redskins already have a lethal pass-rushing outside linebacker tandem in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Even if the offense fires on all cylinders, there's little doubt in my mind that their overall lack of talent will hold them back. The Redskins have the potential to be either right in the middle of the playoff hunt or be back in the league's basement depending on how well their offense plays and if their defense can make enough stops to win close games.

Projected Standings for the NFC East
1.Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
2.New York Giants (9-7)
3.Washington Redskins (7-9)
4.Dallas Cowboys (6-10) 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

2014 Fantasy Football Sleepers

If you play fantasy football, you know that finding hidden gems in the later rounds of the draft is essential if you want to win your league. With that mind, here are the unheralded guys that I think have the potential to make a huge splash in 2014.

Quarterback: Josh McCown (Buccaneers) (Average Draft Position: 11th-13th round)
Josh McCown's surprising success with the Chicago Bears filling-in for an injured Jay Cutler made him a great mid-season waiver wire pickup in 2013. McCown may be with a new team in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but should once again be surprisingly productive this season. Just like with the Bears, McCown has two huge targets to throw to in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. Jackson and Evans aren't quite as gifted as Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, but have the reliable hands and downfield abilities alongside the size that is needed to cause a whole lot of matchup problems for opposing defenses. With this Evans/Jackson tandem leading the charge, don't be the least bit surprised if McCown is a top 10 fantasy quarterback in 2014.
Other Potential Sleepers: Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), Carson Palmer (Cardinals), Jake Locker (Titans)

Running Back: DeAngelo Williams (Panthers) (Average Draft Position: 10th-12th round)
DeAngelo Williams have been a solid RB3/4 option for years with the Panthers thanks to his guaranteed 12-15 touches a game and consistent albeit unremarkable numbers. With Cam Newton coming off offseason ankle surgery and a plethora of new wide receivers on the team, Williams has a legitimate chance to be more heavily featured in this offense this year. Williams' familiarity with the offense and abilities as a two-way back make him a valuable asset for an offense that is going through such a major overhaul in its receiving corps. With 2014 being the shakiest year for running backs in recent memory, Williams is a good guy to gamble on.
Other Potential Sleepers: Terrance West (Browns), Lamar Miller (Dolphins), Jeremy Hill (Bengals)

Wide Reciever: Terrance Williams (Cowboys) (Average Draft Position: 7th-9th round)
Terrance Williams may not be as much of a sleeper as the other guys on this list, but that doesn't mean he's not being undervalued going into 2014. Williams is the clear number two wideout in the powerful Cowboys offense and is coming off of a pretty impressive rookie campaign where he picked up 736 yards and 5 TD's. With a notoriously pass-happy offensive coordinator in Scott Linehan now calling the plays in Dallas and a shockingly porous defense will simultaneously allow a lot of points to opponents and a lot of opportunities for this offensive unit to shine, look for Williams to put up potentially eye-popping numbers this year.  
Other Potential Sleepers: Jeremy Maclin (Eagles), Robert Woods (Bills), Doug Baldwin (Seahawks)

Tight End: Kyle Rudolph (Vikings) (Average Draft Position: 8th-9th round)
Kyle Rudolph has been a reliable endzone threat for years now, but look for 2014 to be the year where he really flourishes. New Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner is essentially the tight end whisperer with his ability to get maximum output out of whatever tight ends he has to work with. Turner's skills were especially on display last year in Cleveland, with the great season he managed to get out of the previously unknown and ineffective Jordan Cameron. Turner should yet again have a field day this year with Rudolph- who is bigger and has better hands than Cameron. Rudolph has the perfect scheme and skill set to be the best tight end in the league this year not named Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski or Vernon Davis.
Other Potential Sleepers: Garrett Graham (Texans), Dwayne Allen (Colts), Tyler Eifert (Bengals)

Defense: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Average Draft Position: 12th-15 round)
Out of all these sleeper picks, there is none I'm more confident in than this one. The Buccaneers had two All-Pro players (Gerald McCoy and LaVonte David) and a defense that ranked in the top half of all fantasy and real-life defenses last year with the cancerous Greg Schiano at the helm. Now that defensive masterminds Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier are in the respective roles of head coach and defensive coordinator and there's a third perennial All-Pro caliber player in the mix (cornerback Alterraun Verner), this defense is set to be an absolute force to be reckoned with in 2014. The Buccaneers defense is a huge bargain for where they're going in the draft and should handsomely reward anyone that waits till the last few rounds to take a defense.
Other Potential Sleepers: Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints       

Thursday, August 14, 2014

2014 NFL Preview: AFC West

Denver Broncos: The 2013 Denver Broncos were pretty much an unstoppable force until they ran into a brick wall otherwise known as the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. The Broncos took a valuable lesson from their blowout defeat in the Super Bowl and went out and made some major moves in the offseason to fix their problems on defense, which makes their already strong team that much better in 2014. The secondary was the only real problem for the Broncos last year, especially when cornerback Chris Harris and safety Rahim Moore went down in the early stages of the playoffs. The Broncos fixed that issue in a big way by bringing in two of the best players in the league at their respective positions in cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. Talib gives the Broncos the shutdown corner they've lacked since Champ Bailey slowed down and got out of elite form a few years ago while Ward brings another sure tackling run-stuffer to an already stacked rush defense as well some pretty solid pass-coverage skills that are an improvement over basically every safety that they had on their roster last year. Their other high-profile offseason pickup, defensive end DeMarcus Ware, isn't anywhere near the player he used to be, but should at least give them another able pass-rusher if he's used as a part of a rotation. However, the biggest difference maker for this 2014 Broncos defense is the return of outside linebacker Von Miller to the lineup. This defense was a completely different animal in the nine games Miller appeared in 2013 and with him back healthy alongside their new additions and 2013 standouts Terrance Knighton and Danny Trevathan, this defense should be back to the elite level they were at in 2012. The Broncos have a rejuvenated defense going into 2014 that should nicely complement their powerhouse offense- which should remain the most deadly unit in the league as long as Peyton Manning continues to play like Peyton Manning. Of course, Manning isn't going to repeat his record-breaking 2013 campaign, but it's not like he's going to all of sudden poop out either. This offense is just as good, if not better than the unit that helped him set records last season. Number one wideout Demaryius Thomas is now entering the prime of his career, the Broncos went out and replaced departed redzone target Eric Decker with another monster target in Emmanuel Sanders, and the league-best offensive line from a year ago is set to get even better with the return of three-time Pro Bowl/All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady to the lineup after missing almost all of 2013 with a Lisfranc injury. If they stay healthy and Manning continues to play like his inhuman self, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the Broncos made it back to the Super Bowl this season.

Kansas City Chiefs: 2013 was a tale of two teams for the Kansas City Chiefs. They started off 9-0 and were the last undefeated team in the league before going on a 2-6 skid to end the season that was punctuated by one of the biggest collapses in NFL history as they blew a 28-point lead in their wild card matchup with the Colts. I expect the 2014 Chiefs to be in line more with the team that had the epic late-season collapse in 2013 than the team that look the league by storm in the first half of the year. Let's face it, the Chiefs success in 2013 was a fluke. They beat a bunch of subpar-to-terrible teams in the first nine weeks of the year in 2013 and got their asses handed to them the minute they started playing playoff-caliber teams in the latter stages of the season. With their 11-5 finish last season and matchups against the NFC West, they're facing much stiffer competition this season, making the odds of repeating their success in 2014 very slim. Not only do the Chiefs have a tougher schedule this year, they also have regressed as a team. The offensive line essentially got nuked this offseason as starting left tackle Branden Albert and starting guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Ashmoah left the team in free agency. The moves leave the team with three, inexperienced new starters and saddles second-year tackle Eric Fisher- who struggled immensely throughout his rookie season- with the role of anchoring the line at left tackle. There is no offensive line in football that I have less faith in this season than the Chiefs and I expect both the passing and rushing game to suffer because of their instability and overall lack of talent. The Chiefs offense is also still incredibly one-dimensional as the offense basically runs through handoffs and shovel passes to running back Jammal Charles. If Charles went down in their current offensive scheme, I honestly don't know how would they function. While Charles is an undeniably excellent back, they're going to need someone else to step up and make plays if they want to improve on offense and become a perennial playoff contender. Quarterback Alex Smith may not be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but he can make some plays if you give him the opportunity and, the Chiefs have competent receivers in Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery and Anthony Fasano that would allow to do so. The Chiefs are coached too well and have too much talent to go back to their 2012 bottom-of-the-barrel status, but I'd be highly surprised if they were able to get back into the playoffs this year.

Oakland Raiders: Mark Kriegel of NFL AM hit the nail on the head when he referred to the 2014 Oakland Raiders as "the football version of The Expendables". The Raiders had an almost endless amount of space this season and they decided to spend it on every available member of the 2009 Pro Bowl class, all the while letting two of the most talented players on their roster (tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lammar Houston) move onto other teams. The Raiders did make a few good pickups in free agency (wide receiver James Jones, cornerback Tarrel Brown, defensive end Justin Tuck), but a vast majority of the guys they signed this offseason are once great players who now are just shells of their former selves (running back Maurice Jones-Drew, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, tackle Donald Penn to name a few). Out of all the moves The Raiders made this offseason, none was more baffling than the trade they made with the Texans for quarterback Matt Schaub. Schuab's play has been consistently declining since 2011, with his trainwreck 2013 campaign where he completed more passes to the defense than his own guys proving that he has basically nothing left in the tank. Why anyone would turnover the reigns to their offense to Schaub at this point in his career is mind-boggling. Unless Schaub miraculously stops his recent downward spiral and goes back to his pre-2011 form, the Raiders will probably be benching him in favor of rookie Derek Carr by the time October rolls around. Even if the Raiders had a competent quarterback, they just simply don't have the talent to win a lot of football games. Their rushing attack is being led by one of the most fragile players in the league (Darren McFadden) and a former elite back who's consistent injury history has slowed him down immensely (Jones-Drew), their receiving corps besides Jones is practically non-existent, and their defense is a combination of really talented young players with almost endless potential (Sio Moore, Nick Roach, their 2014 first-round pick Khalil Mack) and veterans who are too old to do much of anything but collect a paycheck and make the occasional nice play (basically every one else on the defense), which makes them an average unit at best. This season will more than likely go down as the last year of the Dennis Allen/Reggie McKenzie-era and potentially the last season the Raiders ever play in Oakland, as the lease on their stadium is up and the ownership has pondered moving them to either San Antonio or Los Angeles. Whether they end up staying in Oakland or moving elsewhere, I don't believe the Raiders will start winning until they get an owner whose last name isn't Davis and a dynamic coach that can bring a new attitude and winning culture to this long-struggling franchise.

San Diego Chargers: The Chargers are coming into 2014 fresh off a playoff berth and basically the same roster in place, which is both a good and bad thing for this squad. On the good side, Philip Rivers is finally back in his groove with head coach Mike McCoy and Frank Reich- who got promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator after Ken Wisenhunt left for the head coaching job with the Titans-running the offense. With another year to build his rapport with budding star wide receiver Keenan Allen and a solid offensive line that won't allow him to get murdered every time he drops back to throw, Rivers should be able to do even better this season. The McCoy effect has also translated to the backfield as Ryan Matthews and Danny Woodhead emerged as a really solid two-headed beast out of nowhere last season. Matthews finally lived up to his potential in 2013 with a league-high six 100-yard rushing performances while Woodhead was the perfect complement to Matthews' bruising style with his reliable hands and quickness out of the backfield that led to him finish the year with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 8 TD's. As long as Matthews can remain healthy and Woodhead doesn't suddenly flounder, this duo should be lethal yet again for this offense.The problems with the Chargers pretty much solely lie on the back end of their defense. Their secondary was abysmal last season and they don't really look like they're going to be much better in 2014. They have a pair of potential new starting corners in 2014 first-round pick Jason Verett and ex-Chief Brandon Flowers, but I don't think this duo will be enough to turn the tide for this putrid unit. Verrett is a player I liked coming out of the draft this year due to his physical presence, but he's too small to be the number one corner and will be more than likely stuck with a nickel role in this defense. That number one corner spot will probably go to Flowers, who has suffered one of the saddest declines in recent NFL history going from highly underrated shutdown corners to one of the worst corners in the league over the last couple of years. Unless defensive coordinator John Pagano is a literal wizard, Flowers will not return to his old form in San Diego. If Flowers even manages to serve as a serviceable stopgap corner before the Chargers bring in someone else next season via free agency or the draft, his season can be deemed a great success. The Chargers will be in the hunt for the playoffs once again, but with the same holes that plagued them last year and a much tougher schedule this year, I expect them to just miss the cut.

Projected Standings for the AFC West:
1.Denver Broncos (13-3)
2.San Diego Chargers (8-8)
3.Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
4.Oakland Raiders (4-12)  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

2014 NFL Preview: AFC South

Houston Texans: The 2013 Texans campaign was a shocking nightmare, as the team followed up two straight playoff berths with a 2-14 season that ended with 14 straight losses. While the Texans are almost a lock to do better in 2014, there isn't much of a reason to get really excited about the Texans this year. It's undeniable that the Achilles heel of the Texans last season was quarterback play. Matt Schaub was a turnover machine, Case Keenum looked good at times, but struggled to get the ball in the endzone and T.J. Yates was pretty much useless in his one start. For whatever reason, The Texans didn't really do much to address this problem in the offseason. They brought in journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and drafted Tom Savage in the fourth round, but I don't see either of them being able to solve the problem. While Fitzpatrick isn't quite as bad he's made out to be, he's not a guy that you can really count on to consistently win games. At the very least, Fitzpatrick does have experience and won't completely flop with veteran playmakers like running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson around him, making him the reluctant best option for the starting job. Savage is a completely different story, as he's a rookie with a huge arm and a lot of potential to be productive at the pro level in the future. The problem with Savage is that's he's far too unpolished at the moment to see the field at all this season, let alone be the starting quarterback. Of course, you always have Keenum as a fallback option, but he probably won't get much done as this is mostly the same offense he failed to produce with last season. It's a shame too because the Texans are built like a playoff team outside of the quarterback position and only got stronger in the offseason with the addition of number one overall draft pick outside linebacker/defensive end Jadeveon Clowney,  a potential sleeper tight end in third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz. and veteran safety Chris Clemons to their already talented units on both sides of the ball. The Texans are a squad with a lot of talent, but they won't return to the playoffs until they find a steady, productive quarterback.

Indianapolis Colts: In an extremely weak division, the Colts reigned supreme in 2013 going 11-5, which was a mere four games ahead of the second-place Tennessee Titans. In 2014, nothing has changed as the Colts are still head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in the division, and have only improved in the offseason. The Colts biggest additions were on the defensive front as they picked up defensive end Arthur Jones and inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson to help turn around a rush defense that ranked 26th in the league in 2013. Jones and Jackson alongside the wildly underrated inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman and ageless pash-rushing demon Robert Mathis give the Colts a pretty lethal front seven that could really turn some heads this season. While the additions on defense certainly make the Colts a stronger team, the biggest reason the Colts should be even better in 2014 is quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck was sensational in 2013, cutting down his turnovers substantially and showing a lot more poise in and out of the pocket. Throw in the return of a healthy Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen, a potential comeback season for offseason pickup Hakeem Nicks and his ever-growing chemistry with T.Y Hilton, and Luck has all the tools he needs to have his best season to-date in 2014. Really the only giant question mark this team has is in the running game. Trent Richardson proved last year that he can not handle the duties of being a number one back in this league. Richardson's god awful vision and inability to break tackles isn't something that can be easily fixed, and I expect him once again struggle this season. The news doesn't fare much better in the Colts backfield behind Richardson as Vick Ballard is already out for the season with a torn achilles, leaving the injury-prone Ahmad Bradshaw as their backup and most reliable option in the running game. With basically no contingency plan in place if Richardson struggles yet again, the Colts could be forced into being a completely one-dimensional offense this season. The Broncos and Patriots clearly still run the AFC, but if there's any team that can emerge as a dark horse and unseat them from their throne, it's the Colts.

Jacksonville Jaguars: A sense of optimism may be around the corner in Jacksonville. The team used their first pick in the draft this year on quarterback Blake Bortles, who they believe is their quarterback of the future. Based on his college game tape and pre-draft workouts, I believe Bortles possesses the talent to eventually turn this down on their luck franchise around when he gets the chance to start in the coming years. However, that feeling of hope will be not be present this year as 2014 is shaping up to be yet another year of misery for the Jaguars. Of all the teams in the NFL, I don't think there is a team with less talent on their roster than the Jaguars. They did have a decent draft this year and added some solid enough veterans in free agency, but they still have giant gaps on both sides of the ball that weren't remedied in the offseason. First off, their offense is still an absolute disaster with middling journeyman quarterback Chad Henne leading the charge. Henne hasn't done much of anything in his two seasons with the Jaguars thus far yet he remains the starting quarterback. Henne's subpar production isn't entirely on him, as his offensive line has been terrible and his best wide receivers are often injured or suspended . Going into this season, Henne faces the same problems as the offensive line is still weak (even with the addition of ex-Bronco guard Zane Beadles) and number one wideout Justin Blackmon is suspended indefinitely. The Jaguars only hope on offense is running back Toby Gerhart. Gerhart has been touted as the next bellcow running back that's going to take the league by storm by many analysts and Jaguars coaches this season. Gerhart certainly has the size to be a dominant back (6'0, 231 lbs), but you don't know if he can handle that workload since he's never been a starter nor do you know how good he really is since he only got a small number of carries each year backing up Adrian Peterson with the Vikings. For the Jaguars sake, they better hope Gerhart pans out. They've got basically an entire offense riding on him at the moment. Things aren't much brighter on the defensive side of the ball. The team did invest heavily in a new, veteran-led defensive line, but I don't think guys like Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Ziggy Hood are going to do much of anything to turn this team around. Seahawks castoffs Bryant and Clemons are going to be asked to do a lot more with considerably less talent around them and I really don't think they can live up to the challenge. Hood has a similar problem as Bryant and Clemons as he's also coming from a talented defense that thrived with or without his contributions. Hood struggled mightily last year for the Steelers and I doubt his elevated role with the Jaguars will do anything to help matters. Outside of these new guys, this is basically the same defense that finished in the bottom five in total defense a year ago. I expect this unit to be just as bad, if not worse in 2014. Gus Bradley is a good, motivated coach who is respected by his players and is able to get the most out of them. The problem is that no matter how good the coaching is, there just isn't enough talent on this squad to make a splash anytime in the near future.

Tennessee Titans: The Tennessee Titans are a team that is pretty easy to forget about. They aren't offensively bad, they certainly aren't great, they're kind of just there and I don't expect that to change in the slightest in 2014. Aside from the departure of longtime running back Chris Johnson and budding star cornerback Alterraun Verner, it's pretty much business as usual with the Titans. Just about the only intriguing storyline for the Titans this season is how quarterback Jake Locker will fare  in a make-or-break season after the Titans declined the fifth-year option on his rookie deal due to his inability to stay healthy for a full season. How Locker plays this year will not only decide his future with the Titans, but as a starter in the NFL in general. Locker looked better than ever in his five starts last season and if he can beat the odds and stay healthy, I believe he will string together a solid season and become the Titans long-term starting quarterback. The other intriguing storyline involves the impact of rookie running back Bishop Sankey could have on this offense. Sankey was one of the most heralded running back prospects in this year's draft thanks to his elusiveness, ability to catch passes out of the backfield and pass-block. With Johnson gone and an offense that is hurting for additional weapons next to wideout Kendall Wright, Sankey has the potential to be an integral part of this offense this year. The Titans are a bit better off on defense with 2013 All-Pro defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and linebacker Zach Brown anchoring a surprisingly stout front seven, but suffered a huge loss on the back end with Verner departing in free agency. Verner was a dominant presence in this secondary that was excellent in coverage and created a lot of turnovers. This secondary has instantly become more vulnerable without Verner and whoever gets the starting job (either Coty Sensabaugh or Blidi Wreh-Wilson) next to Jason McCourty is more than likely going to have endure some serious growing pains. The Titans might a new coach in Ken Wisenhunt, (potential) new franchise running back in Sankey and a handful of other new faces on offense and defense, but this is still the same old mediocre Tennessee Titans.

Projected Standings for the AFC South:
1.Indianpolis Colts (11-5)
2.Houston Texans (7-9)
3.Tennessee Titans (6-10)
4.Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Concert Review: Summer Slaughter-- Worcester, MA-- August 9th, 2014

The Summer Slaughter Tour has served as the peak of the summer for extreme metal enthusiasts in the United States since 2007, and I finally got that annual feeling of joy on Saturday when this tour hit The Palladium in Worcester, Massachusetts. With its heaviest lineup in years, this year's edition successfully brought the tour back to its death metal roots.

My friends and I arrived around 2:30 and found out that there was a local opener going on before the tour package started. We wisely used that time to get food, water, etc. since none of the touring bands were worth missing. We got back to the venue shortly after tour opener Boreworm had started their set. The Michigan-bred act won a nationwide contest tour organizer's held to fill the opening slot for the tour package this year. For an unsigned, Boreworm showed an incredible amount of poise and chemistry on stage and you can tell they were stoked to be playing on a tour with so many bands they admire. As for the music, their blend of deathcore and prog didn't always gel, but every song had moments that were impressive- which is more than I can say about a lot of the unsigned bands in Massachusetts. Boreworm certainly has potential moving forward and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they eventually got signed.

Fallujah was the first signed national act to play on the day. There are a lot of great bands on this tour that I really wanted to see, but Fallujah was firmly at the top of my most anticipated list. Even with the immense around of hype I had going for, Fallujah didn't disappoint in the slightest.The previous time I saw them opening for The Black Dahlia Murder last October, their set was dragged down by an awful sound mix that all but completely drowned out the guitars. A near flawless sound mix made all the difference in the world for the quality of the performance as the guitars sounded excellent, the vocals were punishing and most importantly, it allowed the nuances and beauty of their music to shine completely through. The setlist was divided evenly between their two LP's: 2011's The Harvest Wombs and the newly released The Flesh Prevails- which is currently my favorite record of 2014. The setlist ended up serving as the perfect showcase of what Fallujah is about as a band. New songs "Carved From Stone" and "Sapphire" laid on the atmosphere while "Become One" and "Cerberal Hybridzation" showed just how great they are crafting full-on tech death with stunning melodies. The only problem with their set is that was an all too brief 20 minutes. Fallujah blew the doors off the first time I saw them and set the bar high for the rest of the bands on the bill right out of the game. I'm crossing my fingers they can land on a tour where they get longer than 20 minutes to play in the very near future.

Fallujah is a tough act to follow, but Within the Ruins didn't do a bad job of doing so. Within the Ruins is often accused of being a "robotic" band that completely relies on studio mastering and electronic effects to play their music. Anyone that thinks Within the Ruins is a studio-manufactured band that has no real talent and can't play live needs to go to one of their shows the next time they come to their city. Everything they play on record, they can hit live without missing a beat. Aside from being very precise, Within the Ruins is just a damn good time in a live setting. From the dizzying, insanely technical playing style of guitarist Joe Cochi to the biting and consistently improving vocals of Tim Goergen, there is never a dull moment when Within the Ruins is on stage. Making things that much better is how amped the crowd gets when they play. They're from Westfield, Massachusetts-which is an about an hour from Worcester- and the hometown crowd made them feel more than appreciated with an absolutely explosive reaction from everyone in the room. As an active member of the Massachusetts metal scene, I've witnessed firsthand their rise from practically unknown local band to rising extreme metal stars in only a few years time. It's always great to see a band from your state break out of the local scene and thrive on a national/international level. They were slightly less energetic and commanding as the last time I saw them, but Within the Ruins still put on a pretty great set.

Decrepit Birth was up next and though it's been four years since the last time I saw them, nothing has changed a bit. Vocalist Bill Robinson is still a beast, guitarist Matt Sotelo can still shred with best of them and the drums are remarkably powerful even for a death metal band. The one thing that made this set particularity standout was the antics of Robinson. He came onto the stage smoking a joint and spent the entire first song alternating between screaming and puffing on the joint when an instrumental section came in. Things only got weirder from there as Robinson proceeded to do a series of spastic hand motions next to Sotelo every time he played a solo. These hand movements looked like a combination of spirit fingers and what you would do if you were trying to conjure up a demon from the depths of hell. Robinsion's antics were really unexpected and entertaining, and that paired with how stellar they sound as a band made this the best set I've seen from Decrepit Birth to-date.

Origin was up next. After years of hearing how crazy they were live, I was really excited to get the chance to finally see them. Crazy doesn't even being to describe Origin's performance,  they're a full-on sensory overload live. Saying that Origin was basically like listening to a wall of noise for 30 minutes would be a gross understatement. The vocals, guitars and drums were at the highest possible levels you could fathom, which made their set a roller-coaster that constantly teetered between overwhelming and enthralling. I'm well aware that Origin is a highly technical band with a consistent sense of chaos in their music, but a slightly more toned-down mix would have benefited them immensely. Gripes with sound aside, there's no denying that Origin has a insane stage presence. Vocalist Jason Keyser is a hell of a frontman that brings a hardcore type of energy to a death metal and bassist Mike Flores is a madman who spent the whole set losing his mind on the lefthand corner of the stage away from the rest of the band. Origin certainly had moments of greatness, but were ultimately just too much to take in to be anything more than solid.

Goatwhore hit the stage next and brought back every ounce of momentum that was lost during Origin's performance. Their southern-tinged blackened death/thrash is great on disc, but it really flourishes in a live setting. The set was driven by cuts from their latest LP Constricting Rage of the Merciless, which all slay live. Thrashers "Baring Teeth for Revolt" and "FBS" are amongst the best material in the catalog with riffs galore and the trademark snarls of Ben Falgoust on full display while "Schadenfreude" shows that they can write killer material with a bit of a melodic edge to it without giving up any of their aggression or evil aura. Goatwhore is the rare band who is unapologeticaly heavy yet still fun as hell live.

Thy Art is Murder was up next. Their studio material isn't anything particularity noteworthy, but their live show is undeniably impressive. Their music is not even close to original as it's the same breakdown-riddled deathcore that has dominated the extreme musical landscape for the past six or seven years, but they are so damn good at it that it doesn't even matter. You'll be hard pressed to find deathcore bands that have a better vocalist, more punishing breakdowns or as imposing of a stage presence as these guys do. Just like their last time playing this tour, they managed to get one of the biggest crowd receptions of the day with people screaming along to every song and going absolutely berzerk in the pits throughout the set. Their rapid ascent in the scene over the past couple years may shock some people, but if you even pay a lick of attention to deathcore, their success couldn't be any less surprising. These guys put on consistently killer live shows and have mastered all of the key elements that are needed to have a successful deathcore band. Like it or not, Thy Art is Murder is proof that deathcore isn't dead.

The Faceless hit the stage next. Even though I've seen them four times and they've been one of my favorite bands for the past five years, I was still shocked at just how amazing The Faceless was at this show. With all the member shakeup that has occurred with these guys over the past few years, I didn't expect the newest version of The Faceless to be the tightest lineup they've had to-date. The band was firing on all cylinders from start to finish. I don't think it can be stressed enough how much of an impact Geoffrey Ficco has had on their live shows. Not only he is an energetic, charismatic frontman, but he has some of the most devastating high and low screams I've ever heard. I was a big fan of their previous vocalist Derek Rydquist, but I have to say that I like Ficco quite a bit more. His stage presence and vocals have completely overhauled this band's identity as a live act for the better. This show also marked the first time I was able to actually hear Michael Keene's clean vocals for the whole set. Keene's clean vocals have been practically inaudible every other time I'd seen them, so it was awesome to actually hear them clearly for the first time. Keene's cleans being present on "Accelerated Evolution", "The Eidolon Reality" and "Coldly Calculated Design" made these tracks feel more complete and were able to match the power of the studio recordings perfectly. The setlist was pretty standard for them, but "The Ancient Covenant" and "Hymn of Sanity" were pleasant unexpected inclusions that ended up being amongst the highlights of the set. After all these years as a touring band and enduring member changes galore, The Faceless have finally grown into a live act that is comparable to the incredibly high-quality of their studio material.

Dying Fetus hit the stage next. This was my fourth time seeing them and there really isn't much to say about them that hasn't been said countless numbers of time before. Even on a tour full of brutal bands, Dying Fetus still manages to blow everyone else away with how insanely heavy they are. It's remarkable to me that a trio is able to be the single most powerful and destructive force in all of heavy music.  If you're a death metal fan and you haven't seen Dying Fetus, you're missing out on a special experience and you need to do everything in your power to correct that immediately.

The crowd thinned out an alarming amount prior to Morbid Angel's set, which doesn't really shock me because Morbid Angel doesn't have the clout they once had and based on the reaction they got, it was clear that Dying Fetus was the headliner of this tour in most people's eyes. Regardless of the relative emptiness of the crowd, Morbid Angel put on a great performance that reminded everyone of why they are death metal royalty. I had been waiting to see Morbid Angel for a long time and after the trainwreck that was Illuid Divinum Insanus, I was relived to find out that they still have the raw intensity that defined their essential works of the late 80's and early 90's. At the ripe old age of 49, David Vincent sounded almost unfathomably excellent delivering classic tracks like "Maze of Torment", "God of Emptiness" and "Rapture". Even though Vincent has made a lot of questionable musical decisions of late and has one of the corniest stage presences I've ever witnessed, he hasn't lost a bit of the vocal edge that made the early Morbid Angel records so special. Morbid Angel's lone remaining founding member and one of my all-time favorite guitarists, Trey Azagtoth, is also continuing to tear it up after all these years. His grimy guitar tone and distorted solowork was an absolute pleasure to see live and was often the most endearing aspect of their set for me. The setlist was solid enough with a lot of prime cuts from Covenant, but only two tracks from Altars of Madness (the aforementioned "Maze of Torment" and "Immortal Rites") and a decent amount of material from the vastly inferior Steve Tucker-era made it a tad bit disappointing on the whole. I'm honored that I was finally able to cross Morbid Angel off my to-see list and it's great to see how good they still sound 25 years after their debut came out.

Side Notes:
-Boreworm's vocalist looks like a younger, slightly skinnier version of Corpsegrinder from Cannibal Corpse.
-I had not another close call with getting a guitar pick after Fallujah was done. Scott Corstairs' pick landed basically right in front of me and once I found on the floor, some kid came from behind me and grabbed it.
-Decrepit Birth vocalist Bill Robinson went on a rant about racial/gender equality and gay rights before they played "Symbiosis". I didn't expect that at all during a death metal show, but it was definitely a cool moment.
-Origin had the audience do a silent wall of death before they played "The Aftermath"
-Goatwhore vocalist Ben Falgoust kept calling for the crowd to "pump their fists like they were seeing Priest in 84"
-Goatwhore had the crowd do the "Four Sides of the Apocalypse" before they played "FBS". It was essentially a wall of death where people ran from the four corners of the floor and met in the middle. It was incredibly badass to watch and looked like a lot more fun than a tradtional wall of death.

Boreworm 6.5/10
Fallujah 9/10
Within the Ruins 8/10
Decrepit Birth 8/10
Origin 7.5/10
Goatwhore 9/10
Thy Art is Murder 8/10
The Faceless 9.5/10
Dying Fetus 8.5/10
Morbid Angel 8.5/10
Carved From Stone
Cerebral Hybridization
Become One

Within the Ruins:
Gods Amongst Men
I, Blasphame
Feeding Frenzy
Calling Card

Decrepit Birth:
The Infestation
The Resonance
A Gathering of Imaginations  
Prelude to the Apocalypse

Expulsion of Fury
All Things Dead
The Aftermath
Unattainable Zero

Poisonous Existence in Reawakening
Alchemy of the Black Sun Cult
An End to Nothing
Baring Teeth for Revolt
Apocalyptic Havoc

Thy Art is Murder:
Shadow of Eternal Sin
Laceration Penetration 
The Purest Strain of Hate
Dead Sun
Whore to a Chainsaw
Reign of Darkness

The Faceless:
An Autopsy
The Eidolon Reality
(Shape Shifters)
Coldly Calculated Design
Accelerated Evolution
The Ancient Covenant
Legion of the Serpent
(Hail Science)
Hymn of Sanity

Dying Fetus:
In the Trenches
One Shot, One Kill
Intentional Manslaughter
Justifiable Homicide 
Your Treachery Will Die With You
From Womb to Waste
Praise the Lord (Opium of the Masses)

Morbid Angel:
Immortal Rites
Fall from Grace
Day of Suffering
Maze of Torment
Vengeance Is Mine
Ageless, I Still Am
Curse the Flesh
Existo Vulgore
Where the Slime Live
Blood on My Hands
Bil Ur-Sag
Word of Shit (The Promised Land)
God of Emptiness

Friday, August 8, 2014

Album Review: Darkest Hour-Darkest Hour

There are few bands that are worthy of more admiration in the modern metal scene than Darkest Hour. They have endured countless member changes over the years and have never really enjoyed a vast amount of success yet have been the epitome of consistency over their nearly 20-year career. The band's eight LP, Darkest Hour, is yet another winner for these hardened metal veterans.

This record marks a new chapter for Darkest Hour, as they undergo their most drastic (and pretty much only) sound change of their career thus far. The prominent melodic death metal influence that has driven this band since their inception is scaled back in favor of a more traditional metalcore sound. While it doesn't affect the actual musical compilations too much outside of a few breakdowns that wouldn't typically be there, the vocals are noticeably different as John Henry heavily uses traditional clean singing for the first time in the band's history. Henry has used clean vocals in the past, but the ones on this record are a lot more alternative-based than the gritty cleans he used sporadically on Deliver Us and The Human Romance. The enhanced focus on clean vocals will undoubtedly alienate some longtime fans of the band, but I found it to be a nice change of pace for them. The use of clean vocals allow Darkest Hour to explore new territory as a band and write some of the catchiest metalcore songs I've heard in ages. The hooks on "Anti-Axis" and "Futurist" have been embedded in my head since I first spun this record and demonstrate just how gifted of a singer Henry is. It's honestly a bit shocking Henry didn't start singing like this earlier given how good he is at. The new side of Darkest Hour's sound culminates on the beautiful "By the Starlight"; which features a lengthy acoustic intro with Henry and female indie artist Draemings exchanging vocal lines before seamlessly transitioning into a more traditional Darkest Hour track around the halfway point. Henry's vocals are especially fantastic here as they hold up well and perfectly complement the haunting vocals of indie artist Daremings. "By the Starlight" was a huge musical gamble for Darkest Hour to take and it pays off big time as it hammers home the point that they can have success out of their melo-death comfort zone.

While this record is certainly more accessible than their earlier work, Darkest Hour still devotes ample time to decimating the listener. Aside from "The Misery We Make" and "Departure", there are traces of the old Darkest Hour in every single song on this album, which makes this transition in sound not nearly as jarring as it could've been.  The first two tracks "Wasteland and "Rapture in Exile" are whirlwind, thrashy tracks with violent double bass, blistering guitar solos and plenty of Henry's powerful screams that start the album off with a ton of momentum. The album takes a bit of break in the middle of the album before closing out the record with the chaotic "Lost for Life" and "The Goddess Figure" and the sprawling epic "Hypatia Rising". Even the more straightforward, melodic songs like the aforementioned "Anti-Axis" and "Futurist" have a distinct edge to them thanks to the punch of the instrumentation. The presence of a more "generic" formula doesn't do anything to deter the sheer amount of talent Darkest Hour has. Henry is still one of the best vocalists in the genre, guitarist Mike "Lonestar" Carrigan still knows how to write plenty of hard-hitting riffs and new drummer Travis Orbin brings an explosive presence and level of precision behind the kit that they never had in the past. No matter how melodic things get on this record, Darkest Hour frequently reminds the listener that making straight-up heavy music is still their top priority as a band.

I highly commend Darkest Hour for making this record. It takes a lot of balls to go out and make an album that deters from your signature sound after all these years in the business. While it may not be a masterpiece like Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us, this record proves that Darkest Hour can make great music while not strictly adhering to the melodic death metal sound that has defined them as a band up to this point of their career. Darkest Hour may have branched out into something different musically, but they still have the same amount of passion, finesse and songwriting ability that they did when they started out 19 years ago.

4/5 Stars
Standout Tracks
1.Rapture in Exile
2.By the Starlight
3.Lost for Life