AFC East 2011 NFL Preview

The AFC East has been at the center of attention for the league and everyone making weekly NFL football picks for quite some time. For a decade, that has been because the New England Patriots have always been contenders, and have competed for and won multiple Super Bowls with some of the game’s best players on hand. But lately, there’s also another team that has been generating just as much, if not more, excitement and buzz.
That team of course is the New York Jets, and since Rex Ryan has been their head coach, they have been one of the major focal points of the entire NFL. That surely is going to remain the same for 2011, and they are a team that is charging head to get to that elusive Super Bowl. They’ve enjoyed a lot of success under Ryan and even beat the Patriots in the playoffs last season, but haven’t been able to go all the way yet.

The Patriots though haven’t been sitting idly by, either. Actually, thanks to some of the moves they have made in preparation for the 2011 season, they look to be the odds-on favorites with NFL football picks and bettors to go all the way. That’s because a team that was already good has seemingly added a few more crucial players.

They brought in disruptive defensive line player Albert Haynesworth, and flashy wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, and they didn’t give up much for either man. Both of those guys are risks, but they both have a lot to prove and will be eager to get it done for the Patriots.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills are trying to better themselves, and the Miami Dolphins are in a state of transition as they try to figure out the future as well. As you prepare your early NFL football picks, one look at the AFC East gives you two real Super Bowl threats, the Patriots and the Jets, and that’s always exciting.


Made in Holywood: Rory McIlroy a global phenomenon aware of his roots

In search of background on "this McIlroy kid" – as many still know him in America – media from across the globe have been besieging Holywood Golf Club near Belfast, where Paul Gray, the general manager, says from a seat in the bar: "He used to beat around here in the evenings if his mum and dad were up for a meal. He had a little plastic club when he was a toddler and he would knock balls off that wall over there."

The last landmark you pass on the road to Holywood is the George Best city airport, a Northern Irish monument to genius. Past the UVF flags of east Belfast and the cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the route leads through quiet rainy streets to a modest suburban club where boys are striking balls down a range with noticeably raised enthusiasm.

Holywood is the nurturing ground of the 22-year-old US Open champion. This week Rory McIlroy will endeavour to double his collection of golf's major titles in the Open Championship at Royal St George's in Kent. In a BBC Northern Ireland documentary this week his country saw him cross a threshold. The morning after his stunning win at Congressional he emerged into fame's white light: police escorts to the airport, hug-happy sponsors and a kind of besotted glee on the faces of all who saw him.

Captured, in all its splendid and terrifying detail, was the moment McIlroy's life became a movie. "You are so gracious," gushed a hotel employee as she waved him off to a sponsor's gig in Cape Cod. The McIlroy cavalcade shifted with presidential intent. State troopers cleared a path to a private jet. Two days later, when he finally reached his £2.2m home near Holywood, the new champion told his family: "There were paparazzi at the airport – like, proper."

Gray, 37, has watched the whole McIlroy romance bloom. The golf pro at Holywood for 11 years, he is now the manager, running the club shop and overseeing the junior programme. In his own career he says he "played around Ireland, in the final stages of Open qualifying, once, won a few pro-ams then focused more on teaching. I was never good enough to get to European Tour standard." He took on McIlroy at Holywood when the wunderkind was 15. Did he beat the upstart? "Of course I didn't," he says.

"Rory was seven when he started here. The age to join was always 12. Because he was so good Michael Bannon, who was the pro here at the time, spoke to the junior convenor and said: 'This kid's brilliant. Because he's so good we need to have him as a member of the club. He's going to be great.' His whole family were members. The club then changed their rules, basically. We have about 180 kids here now and had to close it at that point because it becomes unmanageable."

On the day of our visit McIlroy is at Sandwich, negotiating a golf course for the first time since Congressional, where he won by eight strokes, 12 days after Tiger Woods had said he would miss a US Open for the first time since 1994. McIlroy's triumph evoked Woods winning the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes at 21 and was billed as "Rory's redemption" after his collapse at Augusta in April.

"Some people may have wondered why I chose to go straight from one major to another without anything in between and the answer is simple," he said at Sandwich. "Because of what happened at Congressional and the way it became such a big deal, I wanted to get everything out of the way and sorted so that when I started playing again I could just concentrate on the golf."

"What happened" is that McIlroy became a global sensation, almost as much as for his winning nature as his talent. American writers practically cuddled him off the course. "It's nice to be nice. And it doesn't cost you a penny," one golf correspondent recalled Rory's father, Gerry, saying. The counterpoint with Woods was obvious.

ESPN's Rick Reilly wrote: "McIlroy is not a member of [commissioner Tim] Finchem's PGA Tour. He's played in the US only five times this year. It's possible America won't see him but twice more this season. Without Tiger, the Tour is already dying for star power. This only makes it worse. The top four players in the world are European. And now golf's abiding dude lives near Belfast. Finchem better get the archaic 15-tournament-minimum-for-membership rule slashed if he wants McIlroy to be a member. And, unless he has had his cerebral cortex removed, he wants McIlroy to be a member."

Golf's abiding dude had nailed the Augusta demon at the first opportunity. Four shots clear after three rounds at the Masters, he imploded from the 10th hole. "Maybe I just wanted it a bit too badly," he told the BBC. "I was flustered, my mind started to race a bit." The standing ovation that accompanied him off the 18th green was both a kindness and an embarrassment. Consultations with Jack Nicklaus, a perspective-restoring trip to Haiti as a Unicef ambassador and some straight, cool reflection at his impressive home had sorted his mind out by the time he reached Congressional, where he played like the ultimate baby‑faced assassin.

"He doesn't act like the whole world's his spittoon," another American writer said, referencing Woods again. At Holywood it's not difficult to see why egocentricity and coldness are not McIlroy traits. "People from Northern Ireland don't tolerate that in general," Gray says. "People from here don't respect that at all.

"He's doing a thing in August for us. The Rory McIlroy Classic is to raise money for the junior club. We have an open day and he's coming to present the prizes. After he won at Congressional I was thinking: 'He's definitely not going to be here now.' But Gerry helps me run it and he said to Rory: 'I suppose you're big-time now and you're not going to be coming to present my prizes?' Rory said: 'No, no, I'll be there.'"

In the clubhouse where we sit, 150 locals gather to cheer him through the final rounds of majors, "if he's in contention", Gray emphasises. The bar shuts at the normal time, regardless of any time difference. A sense of order and proportion prevails. The mind keeps trying to picture a mop-haired McIlroy skipping about with his plastic club.

"When he was eight he looked like a scratch handicap golfer. He didn't play off that mark, obviously, but he had that look: the swing, the pitch, the way he putted. He had a proper little game," Gray says. McIlroy, who first held a club at 18 months, won a world championship for nine- to 10-year-olds in Miami. "Then when he got to 11, 12, he became a low handicapper, and from 12 to 15 started to beat people who were five or six years older than him. That's the age when he started to look extra special.

"He copied his dad, who was a scratch golfer. Gerry had a nice swing. He used to bring Rory up in the buggy before he could walk. Rory would sit and watch. When Rory could get about, Gerry had a little club for him and he used to knock about the tee. Kids are great copiers. A kid of that age you should never give any instruction to. You should show them a good swing and let them watch it. They'll copy it.

"He was always winning things, bringing silver home. Everyone was really proud of him as an amateur [he was world champion at 17]. He was always breaking all sorts of records. Rory played all sorts of other sports, too, which is important, because if you don't do that you don't have all the physical skills to be a great golfer. You'd be very one-dimensional and wouldn't have the athleticism."

Gray looks a little frazzled from the media invasion: "USA Today, radio stuff from Australia – all over the place. Sports Illustrated. ESPN. We were doing about 1,300 hits on the website and it went up to 28,000 on the Monday after he won the US Open."

A 10-minute walk away in this mostly middle-class community of 12,000 souls overlooking Belfast Lough is Sullivan upper school, where McIlroy paid a visit after his victory at Congressional. Its motto is Lámh Foisdineach An Uachtar or "With the gentle hand foremost", a spookily appropriate adage for a golfer. Also close is the home where he revolutionised preparatory routines by building his own mini-course, much as the great Vincent O'Brien constructed a replica of Tattenham Corner for his Derby contenders further south in Co Kildare.

McIlroy's home laboratory has four greens, four tee boxes, three types of sand and different roughs and types of grass to replicate tournament conditions. Gray says: "At the time you could hear people saying: 'What's he doing that for? He's mad.' But it's been a fantastic move. If he was home for three weeks before the Open and he wanted to practise, there's nowhere of that standard within an hour and a half's drive of here. Secondly, if he did go to that place he'd be mobbed by people wanting his autograph.

"He has the privacy there, he's left alone, it gives him great focus and he can prepare for whatever's coming up. It's been a brilliant move. I was up there a few months ago and they were getting the sand ready for the bunkers, different types for the US Open. Each bunker has different sand from around the world. It's all details."

"I see myself always being here, always living here," McIlroy told the ubiquitous but well-treated BBC camera crew. So no 12-bedroomed, sun-toasted Orlando mansion, then. In his re-emergence in Kent this coming week, he enters a familiar phase in which everyone wants a piece of him, colleagues view him in a new expectant light and the camera's eye bears down with a special scrutiny on every shot. No longer the prodigy, he is instantly the icon of golf, the new George Best in a land with a preternatural gift for bequeathing virtuosity.

"If you look how many golfers have won the Open and never won anything else in their life there are plenty. It's been the ruination of them," Gray says. "I hope it doesn't happen to Rory. I really don't see it."

Outside a group of lads who are the age McIlroy was when the club rules were rewritten to allow him to join are taking lessons under a bruised, rain-swollen sky. "Before Rory," Gray says, "the best we had here was a PGA pro like me or an Irish international. They would have been looked up to. The kids here are buzzing. It sets the bar for them so much higher. Their dreams become bigger."


NBA, players quick to make their 1st moves after lockout

No formal talks have been scheduled between owners and players for about two weeks as the NBA lockout reaches Day5.
The last NBA lockout reduced the 1998-99 season to 50 games. Players are preparing to hang in as long as necessary this time, rather than agree to the financial changes owners seek.
The landscape already is shifting:
• Free agent centers Nenad Krstic and Hilton Armstrong will play in Europe next season, as will undrafted guard Ben Hansbrough, the 2011 Big East player of the year from Notre Dame.
MORE: With lockout in place, NBA and players prepare for next step
STORY: Midnight strikes, NBA locks out players
MORE: What is at stake in labor negotiations?
Armstrong, a little-used reserve since being drafted in 2006, finished last season as an Atlanta Hawk. He signed with the French club ASVEL.
Krstic, who started 67 games with the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder last season, left for CSKA Russia and received a two-year, $9.8 million contract. Krstic, however, told the Boston Herald that jumping abroad won't become a trend among NBA players.
"I don't think you will see a lot coming here," Krstic said from his home in Kraljevo, Serbia. "Europe is not in a great situation financially. There are only four or five teams now that can offer much to NBA players, and those teams right now are almost full.
"That's a problem for NBA players. It was a reason why I had to go right away. I got maybe the best contract in Europe because of that."
Hansbrough will play for Germany's FC Bayern Muenchen, and fellow undrafted forward Matt Howard of Butler also is looking to Europe.
Mundo Deportivo of Spain reported that Rudy Fernandez, traded from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Dallas Mavericks last month, is being offered a six-year deal to return to Real Madrid of the ACB, Spain's elite league. Because Fernandez isn't a free agent, however, he can't leave the NBA until after 2011-12.
• Player contracts are not insured by the NBA during the lockout, so simply working out has its risks. If a player without insurance gets hurt and misses time once the lockout ends, he faces the possibility of forfeiting money. National teams with NBA players are scrambling to find ways to insure contracts for Olympic qualifying events.
• NBA.com and team-affiliated websites have deleted players' images, video involving current players and 2010-11 box scores. That includes those from the Mavericks' NBA Finals victory against the Miami Heat. Even the NBA's touted Stats Cube statistical analysis database has been disabled, though player statistical pages remain.
• NBATV is focused on the WNBA and slam-dunk contests from before 1996. "We do not think it is appropriate to be using video and photography of current players at this time," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement.


Lakers Trade Rumors: Iguodala for Odom talks died because of Odom

Trade talks between the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers for a swap between Andre Iguodala and Lamar Odom may have died because of Odom himself.
According to HoopsWorld, "Philadelphia wasn't going to trade Iguodala for Odom if the latter was going to be unhappy and unmotivated. That's when the talks died."

Essentially, the 76ers didn't want Odom to come to the team if he didn't want to be there.

Odom has been the subject of numerous trade rumors since weeks before the draft. He has been connected with the Orlando Magic for Dwight Howard, the Golden State Warriors for Monta Ellis, and other teams around the NBA for their draft picks.
Odom is perhaps the Lakers' most tradable asset because of his contract.

He is a quality power forward in the league making only $8.9 million next year. He also has a team option for the same amount next year, or the team can buy out his contract for about $2 million, freeing up salary cap space for the team.

In addition, Odom is only 31 years old averaging 14.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 4.0 assists in his 12 year career.

Iguodala is younger than Odom and may have more potential at 27 years of age. In his career, Iguodala has averaged 15.6 poitns and 5.8 rebounds per game.

Like Odom, Iguodala has also been linked in numerous trade rumors including with the Golden State Warriors in a trade for Monta Ellis.


Vietnam and China Pledge to Peacefully Resolve Maritime Dispute

China and Vietnam pledged Sunday to resolve their maritime dispute in the South China Sea through peaceful dialogue.

Chinese media says Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son met in Beijing Saturday and agreed to address the dispute through negotiations and peaceful, friendly consultations.

However, no details on specific plans or timing were given.
Meanwhile, about 100 Vietnamese rallied in the capital of Hanoi Sunday for the fourth consecutive weekend to protest against China's role in the escalating dispute.

The crowd grew as it marched through Hanoi's streets, chanting and singing patriotic songs. The demonstrators were outnumbered by police, who let the peaceful protest continue.

The rare demonstrations are in response to rising tensions in the diplomatic dispute over competing claims to the Spratly and Paracel island chains and other maritime territories.

Last month, Vietnam complained that a Chinese patrol ship severed an exploration cable trailing from an oil survey ship operating in waters inside Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. The Philippines also has complained of Chinese patrol boats interfering with oil exploration off its western coast.

In each case, China insisted its ships were operating appropriately in waters under Beijing's administration.


Dallas Mavericks beat Miami Heat to win their first NBA Championship

Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks captured their first NBA championship on Sunday with a 105-95 win over the Miami Heat - the team that denied Dallas the title five years ago.
Jason Terry scored 27 points and Nowitzki finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds as the Mavericks won the best-of-seven championship series four-games-to-two.
Germany's Nowitzki was named Most Valuable Player of the finals, finally earning the NBA's biggest prize to secure his place among the NBA's greats.
"We are world champions. It sounds unbelievable," said Nowitzki, who turns 33 next Sunday. "This feels amazing."
Terry ran the clock down in the final minute then passed to a wide open Shawn Marion who chose not to shoot as the seconds clicked down.
When the buzzer sounded Marion handed the ball to 17-year veteran guard Jason Kidd who tried twice before in the finals with the New Jersey Nets but failed to get a Championship ring.
"Everybody wrote us off but ourselves," Kidd said. "No matter how old you are we understood how to play the game.
"I don't feel 38 mentally or physically. I feel great."
Kidd and J.J. Barea combined to finish with 24 points and 13 assists for the Mavericks, who clinched their first NBA championship in their 31-year franchise history.
LeBron James scored a team-high 21 points and Dwyane Wade finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the Heat, who failed to send the series to a decisive seventh game despite having home court advantage.
"Hats go off to Dallas," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "There is an emptiness to it. It was a tough series. Sometimes you just come up short. Crunch time needed to be done, they made bigger plays than us."
This year's final was a rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals, which Miami took in six games for its first title in franchise history.
With Terry having a superb start to game six, the Mavericks led 53-51 at the end of the first half in what began as a game of runs by either side. Terry came off the bench to score 19 points in the first two quarters on eight-of-ten shooting.
James had his best start of the series by scoring nine points and dishing three assists in the first quarter. But he never did get the synergy going with his fellow superstars Wade and Chris Bosh, who finished with 19 points in game six.
"It hurts of course," said James, who made his first four field goals of the contest.
Tempers flared halfway through the second quarter when the Mavericks' DeShawn Stevenson and Miami's Udonis Haslem got into a shoving match.
Haslem was celebrating an Eddie House three pointer when he brushed past Stevenson who shoved him. The Heat players came charging off the bench and Mario Chalmers made a bee line for Stevenson.
Chalmers, Haslem and Stevenson all received technical fouls but no one was ejected because a timeout had already been called before the players left the bench.
"Our guys took it personally tonight," said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. "They were not going to be denied. Dirk and Jet (Terry) have had to live for five years with what happened in 2006 and as of tonight those demons are officially destroyed."
Nowitzki struggled early Sunday, scoring just a single point in the second quarter, and finishing with three points on one-of-12 shooting in the opening half. But once again he finished strong by scoring 10 of his 21 in the fourth.
"He goes one-for-12 in the first half and then in the second half he was just absolute money," Carlisle said.
Dallas's Ian Mahinmi, of France, nailed a buzzer-beating field goal at the end of the third to give the Mavericks a nine point lead at 81-72. Dallas got their own rebound and Terry ran down the clock and then pump faked James before slipping a short pass over to Mahinmi who got nothing but net.
The Heat had almost twice as many free throw chances as the Mavericks but hit just 60 percent of them. They also had 16 turnovers.
Although the Mavericks had several players in foul trouble in the fourth, they built their biggest lead of 13 points in the final period.


Gilbert Arenas, athletes still causing Twitter headaches

Likewise for the deluge of regrettable tweets by athletes and coaches, like the ones that brought Orlando Magic guard Gilbert Arenas an NBA fine Wednesday and brought criticism to New Orleans Saints halfback Reggie Bush last month.

What we don't know, and what coaches, teams and leagues are scrambling to figure out, is how to deal with a medium built upon spontaneity.

"Twitter was especially designed to be the world's most promiscuous communication medium," says Robert Thompson, Professor of Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "Forget the editorial process, forget a second draft, and forget simply a second thought. It just comes out."

But the pitfalls of Twitter are nothing new in sports. As early as 2008, pro and college players were being fined or suspended for their 140-character missives. Yet some athletes have endured Twitter backlash on more than one occasion, including Arenas.

So why can't athletes avoid the trap?

"That's like asking 'Why does a guy keep lining up on the wrong side of the formation?' " says former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon. "It's because they're just not thinking."

But social media researchers say there's more to it. Homero Gil de Zuniga, assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism, points to an aspect of human-computer interaction that makes tweeting a socially risky undertaking.

"The misuse of Twitter is due to a lack of understanding of the power of social media," says Gil de Zuniga. "If you were in the middle of a public square, you wouldn't yell something you might post on Twitter. But in reality, when you tweet, that's what you're doing.

"That's hard to understand when it's you and a keyboard. There's a sense of intimacy and to some degree anonymity. It doesn't feel like you're talking to 2 million people."

That might explain why Arenas tweeted June 1 that he would be "direct sexting in no time" and comments that could be interpreted as sexual innuendo.

Or why Bush tweeted last month that he was enjoying the NFL lockout: "Right about now we would be slaving in 100 degree heat, practicing twice a day, while putting our bodies at risk for nothing."

Bush endured fan backlash and later tweeted that he was only kidding.

Arenas tweeted Wednesday that he was fined for his actions, but did not specify which tweets were in question. Arenas had just rejoined Twitter on May 31, the night of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, after he quit the social website in the wake of his January 2010 suspension by the NBA relating to his felony gun possession charge, and the following tweet:

"i wake up this morning and seen i was the new JOHN WAYNE. lmao"

Orlando Magic spokesman Joel Glass declined Wednesday to reveal the offending tweet or tweets or the fine amount. The NBA declined to comment.

Erik Qualman, author of a best-selling book Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business on the impact of social media, says the youth of the average tweeting athlete helps explain why players get into hot water.

"You're talking about a younger generation, Generation Y, whose interpersonal communication skills are different from Generation X," Qualman says. "The younger generation is more comfortable saying something through a digital mechanism than even face to face."

Qualman explains that athletes such as Bush, who are constantly in the news media spotlight, don't have their guard up when tweeting.

"He's always been in the spotlight," Qualman says. "So when he's in front of reporters he puts the filter on. But then when you're tweeting you don't put up that mental block."

But avoiding reporters is one of the reasons athletes flock to Twitter.

Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely sees Twitter as a way to connect with fans on a previously unreachable level.

"It gives us the ability to not have to go through the media," Feely says. "You get the opportunity to not go through a writer, whose going to write the story the way he wants to write it. You have the chance to create your own narrative. "

Leagues on the lookout

The risk is something teams and leagues are struggling to come to terms with. More than half of NBA players have Twitter accounts, according to USA TODAY research. In the NFL, more than 1,000 players spread across 32 teams maintain active accounts.

The popularity of the medium forced the NBA to draft policies concerning when and how employees can use Twitter. In 2009 the league drafted a social media policy that prohibits players from posting to social media sites 45 minutes before a game until media leave the locker room postgame. The NFL adopted a similar policy in 2009. The NHL is working on a policy now.

"There are players that use it judiciously and those that don't," says Julie Fie, VP of communications for the Phoenix Suns. "We keep our fingers crossed when we say that nobody's crossed the line. I won't be surprised if something like that happens."

Major League Baseball, which has just over 200 tweeting players, does not have a Twitter policy, but it did set a precedent by fining Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen two games and $20,000 for his bitter tweets after being kicked out of a game in late April.

In the college ranks, where tweets have brought suspensions upon numerous athletes, several coaches have decided to ban social media among players.

At Mississippi State University, men's basketball coach Rick Stansbury instructed players not to use Twitter last season after a player criticized the team's performance in a postgame tweet.

"Twitter has allowed the outside world to come into your locker room," Stansbury says. "I think that's affected coaches' ability to keep things in-house and to build team unity and togetherness."

He says his ban on Twitter isn't permanent.

"I think it's based on the maturity of the team," he says. "Some players don't show enough maturity to understand that they can't take back what they say and the world sees it."

Stansbury's stance is an increasingly popular one. Boise State and North Carolina are among the football programs that have banned Twitter.

"If I were a head coach … my temptation would be to say, 'Look, we can't have you out there spewing whatever you're thinking at any given time,' " Thompson says. "On the other hand, I don't think people should be allowed to tell other people what technology to use ."

Miami football coach Al Golden weighed both sides of the argument when he inherited a Twitter ban by previous coach Randy Shannon. A tweeter himself, Golden sees social media as a teaching tool.

"Everything that we're trying to do is about empowering the kids," Golden says. "Rather than have systematic control, I would much rather say to them, 'Look guys, I know everybody in your age group does this. Just understand that you're a little bit different. People are going to be watching you.' "

But such a stance can create a nightmare for public relations departments who seek to control the message. In the NBA and NFL, newcomers are lectured on the dangers of social media at educational rookie camps in the preseason. In college, some programs turn to outside consultants to monitor social media use among students, alerting coaches and staffers of missteps.

This sort of institutional control will soon mean tamer tweets, and less fun for the voyeuristic public, Thompson says.

"Among sports figures there's going to be a progressively more careful and sophisticated and managed way that they go about doing this," he says. "The longer this stuff is around, the more filtered it will eventually be and it will be a lot less fun to follow them.

"Enjoy it now."