Album Overview: Jay-Z~ Magna Carta…Holy Grail

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Within a summer that commercially released studio albums by Wale, J.Cole & whatever it was that Kanye West was trying to do, Jay-Z re-emerged quite publicly with his twelfth solo effort that reminds us of the magnetism he commands within the culture. While his last project- the collaborative conceptual, Watch the Throne with the aforementioned West was solid at best, Hova returns to the alpha-spirited secularity that longtime hip-hop fans are accustomed to.

Aside from referencing diverse and timeless marks of society within the modern constraints of the public, what makes Magna Carta such a valiant effort is the variance of polished production.  The individual beats give a collective reverberation to the work as a whole. Top reputable producers in the industry – Timbaland, Pharrell and Swizz Beatz- deliver for Brooklyn’s icon, making this album a stream of clean-hitting beats prepared for many combinations of lyrical punches.

2009′s The Blueprint 3 had a tendency to come off as trite, almost with a “going through the motions” vibe; this next standalone compilation makes me curious how many more decades I can expect to hear a purposeful voice of influence from Jay-Z. After ‘retirement’ in 2003, who would have bet on multiple major releases after? If Jay is the Michael Jordan of rap music, this period could draw comparisons to Jordan returning to Chicago post-baseball career. With all that said, the songs on Magna Carta…Holy Grail:

1. Holy Grail (feat. Justin Timberlake)  - produced by The-Dream, Timbaland

The keys in the introductory track compliments Timberlake’s voice well to take enough time to set-up the sick drop that comes in that lets us know this album isn’t sleeping around with too much sensitivity. Jay  uses this as a cautionary ode to establishment, both for the tone of this release and his success, alluding to the financial  and personal pitfalls of other entertainers . The mortality of  fame-allergic Kurt Cobain is and met by JT even singing a famous Nirvana lyric, get over it purists.

” I’m the n****, caught up in all these lights and cameras/ But look what that s*** did to Hammer/ God dammit, I like it, the bright lights is enticing/But look what it did to Tyson”

2. Picasso Baby-  produced by Timbaland and J Roc

Shawn Carter would like to remind those who forgot (like we could) of the high society indulgences he gets to enjoy on a regular basis. The lavish nature of the affluent is told without shame yet the enjoyable thing about the track is that Jay-Z has a good grasp on notable fine artists. Timbaland makes this a classic nodder and the ironic thing about the prosperity mentioned throughout is that this sounds like a throwback basement production, which is a very good thing.

” It ain’t hard to tell, I’m the new Jean Michel/ Surrounded by Warhols, my whole team ball/ Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel/ I just wanna live life colossal”

3. Tom Ford- prod. by Timbaland and J Roc

Shoutout to American fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford, courtesy of Jay-Z. Songs entitled after notable businessman and innovators are nothing new in the rap game but this one is sure to be played in clubs all over and draw attention to someone who is not exactly a household name. Picture multitudes of sexy women in their best garb dancing to a party song named after you, automatic increase in quality of life. Enjoy it, Tom.

“Paris where we been, ‘pard my Parisian/ It’s Hov time in no time, f*** your whole season/ It’s Bordeauxs and Burgandies, flush out a Riesling”

4. F*ckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt- feat. Rick Ross prod. by Boi-1da

A standard “look how I’m living” track, complete with Ricky Rozay. Afterall, what would be bragging about material possessions, accumulated wealth and power without the Teflon Don? The worldly experiences of an ex-drug dealer turned business mogul and superstar are most amusing as hubris can often be. It seems S.Carter has an affinity for Italian luxury.

“Lucky Lusiano is what they call me, paisano/ Hundred keys on the piano plays across the Verrazano/ El Padrino in the villa sipping vino/ Not bad for a Mulliano”

5.Oceans (feat. Frank Ocean)- prod. by Pharrell Williams & Timbaland

One of Jay-Z’s most crucial attributes that have kept him relevant yet maintain his artistic intergrity is the ability to appeal to many demographics. It is here that the wise choice to include Frank Ocean and his nuanced hook will ensure this song being a radio play and get more album listens from lukewarm rap fans. Pharrell heads a very tightly produced sound tailor-made for an accessible Jay-Z track yet with his critiques within.

” The oil spill that BP ain’t cleanup/ I’m anti Santa Maria/ only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace/ I don’t even like Washingtons in my pocket”

6. F.U.T.W. - prod. by Timbaland & J Roc

Vintage HOVA. Showcasing one of the most interesting beats on the album, the hunger of a younger rapper seaps through on a track that exhibits themes of a more angst-ridden man urging the audience to “f*** up this world.” Although not exactly altruistic, the recognition of street mentality shines through that highlights the dichotomies of a man whose social mobility has been extraordinary.

” See most of my n***** die in their twenties or late teens/ I’m just tryin to come up from the thumb of this regime/ One percent of a billion is more than n***** ever seen/ Still they wanna act like it’s an everyday thing”

“America tried to emasculate the greats/ Murder Malcolm, give Cassius the shakes/ Wait, tell them rumble young man, rumble/ Try to dim your lights, tell you to be humble”

7. Somewhereinamerica- prod. by Hit-Boy & Mike Dean

Not an overly impressive effort of lyrical writing but the integration of old-time brass and the ivory of the piano make an extremely easy-listening sound for a song that is much more free form than the others in structure. Somewhere, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’. Only in America.

“Shoutout to old Jews and old rules/New blacks with new stacks/ I already been the king, retro act”

8. Crown- prod. by Travis Scott

Jay-Z historically has made clever songs that speak directly to his critics and detractors that goes back to early releases. Despite the non-necessity to do that given his cultural stature and influence, Crown carries the same energy of a person who is still proving oneself, even referencing the leader of Roc Nation’s dealings as sports agent and. The competitive fire is still alive within an accomplished person of multiple venues.

“Put in the belly of the beast/ I escaped, a n***** never had a job/ Scott Boras, you over baby/ Robinson Cano, you comin with me”

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9. Heaven prod. by Timbaland

The most genuine, ‘real’ song Hov has recorded in quite some time. An ominous hooking asks, “Have you ever been to heaven? Have you ever seen the Gates?” The atmosphere of this gushes while the spiritual acknowledgements towards God, humanity and redemption resonate while Jay-Z recants his own deviance from a path of enlightenment. Honesty is appreciated within any medium so the rebuking of detractors and those who question secretive affiliations finds the ears of those tuned for ambiguity. Equally as impactful are lyrics that compares the hardcore fanbase as worshippers, perhaps placing too much admiration towards a single man.

“Question religion, question it all/Question existence until them questions are solved/Meanwhile this heretic, I be out in Marrakesh/ Morocco smoking hashish with my fellowship”

“Tell the preacher he’s a preacher/ I’m a motherf****** prophet, smoke a tree of knowledge/ Drink from a gold chalice,you gotta love it/ I arrive at the pearly gates, I had luggage/ Meanin I had baggage”

10. Versus prod. by Swizz Beatz & Timbaland

The first of the two condensed mini-tracks on the album clocking in at 00:52. Jay-Z has a precedent for the unconventional formatting on albums such as the hidden easter eggs found on the Blueprint. I assume Swizzy and Timb wanted to include a snippet of the beat they created, perhaps from executive pressure as well.

“The truth in my verses, versus/ Your metaphors about what your net worth is”

11. Part II (On the Run) (feat. Beyonce)- prod. by Timbaland

The inevitable collabo with the wifey. Not exactly a benchmark of textbook rapping from the higher standards of earlier work in the catalog, yet the harmonious union of real life man and woman will surely get radio play thanks to an enjoyable sound, once again from Timbaland. Songs of excitable energy and invigoration through romance are generally popular among huge stars, especially when the partnership has had as much notable commercial success as  is their reality. Toast to cliches indeed, Beyonce.

“Deeper than words, beyond right/ Die for your love, beyond life/Sweet as a Jesus piece, beyond ice/ Blind me baby, with your neon lights”

12. Beach Is Better prod. by Mike Will Made It

When less becomes more, we are still left craving even more. Humans are all guilty of being hypocrites  for this and I am guilty in wanting this production to be a full length song after it really opens up . Like “Versus,” track number twelve on album number twelve enjoys a short stay, clocking in at less than minute. I can’t help but think a true banger could have been recorded using the skeleton of the album version.

13. BBC (feat. Nas)- Produced by Pharrell Williams

The flavorful sound of Latin and South American dance influence is fully realized by Pharrell, who creates a mixture in which the product could have a catatonic dancing merengue in no time. Nas’ appearance solidifies the theme of ‘worldly don,’ as these two are globally accepted as the best and most influential figures in the industry.  Despite the caricature-like nature of the verbal self-descriptions, we all know the rivalry that once existed. Perhaps old habits die hard? The energy is undeniable; BBC makes me want to snatch a Modelo and find the rhythmically-inclined voluptuous women in red dresses.

NAS  ” Pharrell’s a pharoh, peep the features/Unlaced Adidas/ Top of the world like pryamids in Giza/FILA sweats, ’88 I rocked a mock neck/Carried a nine in my projects/ Bucket hat, EPMD cassettes”

14. JAY Z Blue- prod by Timbaland

The life and times of S. Carter has bred much more responsibility since the arrival of daughter, Blue Ivy. Stresses of parental duty in the complex living structure of a  mogul are addressed in an cautious manner; the paranoia of someone who wishes to correct past cycles of abandonment. However, the gawking, relentless nature of the media has made it difficult to do so. Jay responds to this as he should, with primal instincts like a boss.

“Baby need Pampers/ Daddy needs at least three weeks in the Hamptons/ Please don’t judge me, I just hugged the block/ I thought my Daddy didn’t love me/ My baby gettin chubby/ Cue that Stevie Wonder music, aww isn’t she lovely?”

15. La Familia- prod. by Timbaland

A fascination with Mob mentality has become a recycled archetype within the inner cities and rap game for multiple decades.  While concepts of honor and loyalty are measures of character, it seems the criminal perversion of these ideals have altered perception. I suppose the growth and development of a middle-aged HOV hasn’t dissuaded him from continuing to embrace this in music. Regardless, the pulse of the high tempo Timbo production makes it something to sway to.

“NFL investigation? Oh, don’t make me laugh/ FBI investigation? We stood up to that/ Facts only, everything real in my raps only”

16. Nickel and Dimes- prod. by Kyambo Joshua

To conclude the album, a more controlled and personal sound was chosen. This allows Jay-Z to use the ambiance for self-reflection, resulting in a complete body of work that is a compound of success, arrogance and materialism yet also a willingness to display a wide array of sensibilities. Despite claims that this album is very corporate (which cannot be argued in its marketing), it is not an impersonal one. The heart is still there, despite being dressed in fine fabric. While cynics may now view Shawn Carter as merely a newer member of the one percent, this track punctuates the correlation of the artist’s steep resources and the platform he attained to arrive there.

” Between beauty and beast, I walk like the line/ Johnny Cash, I’m a real g/ I cut myself today to see if I still bleed, Success is so sublime/ Gotta do that from time to time so I don’t lose my mind/ Something about the struggle so divine/ This sort of love is hard to define”

2013 NBA Finals Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs Miami Heat

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The last time Lebron James faced the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals was in 2007 and it did not go particularly well for the league’s most celebrated superstar. All the King’s horses and all of his men could provide no relief for a Humpty Dumpty-esque fall in a humiliating four game sweep. In fairness to James, that Clevelend Cavaliers team was perhaps the worst Finals team of the modern era (with terrible offensive strategy)  willed by an all-generation talent still green in his playoff legacy.

Six years later, the Spurs still play proficient team basketball, dispatching all their previous three playoff opponents (LAL, GSW, MEM) convincingly. San Antonio has been a team of resilient never-say-die cockroaches for the last half decade; a squad who does nothing but produce yet despite previous historical success in the playoffs, has not been a popular NBA Finals choice.  Yet coach Gregg Popovich (second G is for genius) has extracted this resurgent push from a mix of veteran and upcoming players, notably Tim Duncan who continues to churn along effectively logging further playoff mileage on his lanky frame. The guy is like a ’95 Toyota Camry, if that Camry was the best power forward of all-time.

Duncan knows that point guard Tony Parker is now the engine of this Spurs attack, as he showcased blowing by younger and more athletic guards all playoffs long. Lest we forget that Parker was Finals MVP in their last O’Brien ceremony when they shrugged off Lebron  and Co. quickly and painfully in ’07? It’s clear this is Parker’s ship to navigate now but with such a solid team concept, hubris does not plague this team of perpetual winners. The Spurs have the ability to play a methodical half-court game with discipline and high chemistry passing. Rising star Kawhi Leonard figures to factor heavily into San Antonio’s potential success this series as he will assuredly draw the daunting assignment of guarding James, four-time league MVP and as tough a physical matchup as we’ve seen. Leonard is a jack-of- all trades so he must seize his opportunity to make defensive stops, get to the rim with his own athleticism and convert jumpers with consistency. The team has a young, efficient outside shooter in Danny Green and the shifty yet noticeably aged long bomber Manu Ginobili to knock down timely shots from the perimeter but in order to match Miami’s athletic pace, San Antonio must match with the three ball and solid offensive rebounding. The Spurs also have the luxury of two bonafide big men with Duncan and C Tiago Splitter who will pull down boards. However, when Lebron James decides to attack the rim, are there enough fouls to go around to keep them in the game?

Bosh being Bosh.

The Miami Heat will look to run the floor and create odd man breaks through turnovers. The Spurs backcourt (specifically Ginobili who has been inconsistent all playoffs) need to protect the ball and keep it out of the hands of the transition offense of Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and of course, number 6. One interesting thing to keep on eye on is how effective Dwayne Wade will be on a hobbled knee. Like Ginobili, Wade has seen better days so Danny Green’s job of defending the Heat’s other franchise Finals MVP may not be as difficult as on paper. However, D Wade is still an experienced ex-superstar who has an ability to make clutch plays even if he is limited. Chris Bosh has a distinct advantage with a valued mid-range and entended jumpshot which will force the Spurs big men to spread out, making the lanes more vulernable than usual for penetration in the paint. That means team defense will be more committed to protecting the lane but with valuable floor spacing, first year Heat players like future Hall of Famer Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and even Mike Miller will undoubtedly have some open looks. Miami must be disciplined within team defense to combat the height of Duncan and Splitter with toughness from longtime stalwart Udonis Haslem and with help of coach favorite Shane Battier. Chris ‘Birdman’ Anderson has been a bundle of energy for the Heat this playoffs and must keep up his lunch-pale mentality to frustrate Duncan and provide support for when Tony Parker gets around his defensive assignment. A lot hinges on what Wade and Bosh can produce, as both have been something of glorified role players as of late. However, if they can be efficient in their touches, it will force the Spurs to commit to a more traditional defensive mentality instead of the trap most teams employ to try and stop King James.

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Series Prediction: Heat in 6.            Finals MVP: Lebron James

The Spurs will be a handful for this Heat team, who do not possess the depth San Antonio has. The Spurs are more well-rounded and have their system down to a science thanks to the best coach in the game. Gregg Popovich is the best coach in basketball today and will do all he can to slow down the high-flying Heat. Also, San Antonio is one of the toughest places in basketball to get playoff wins.

However, Miami has an effective strategy of allowing James to roam when the ball is not in his hands that he takes advantage of with freakish, once in a lifetime talent. When Lebron does have the ball, he draws defenses towards him like bugs to blue light. While both teams are big on the three pointer and have guys who slice through the lane (Parker in SA’s case) no other team in the NBA has an explosive player like Bron who has the power, strength, hops (easily putting his forehead at the rim in Game 7 of the ECF) with the extremely unpredictable PASSING VISION that can create for his team, who specialize in specific strengths. Mario Chalmers has proven since college to be a big shot, big game player with his outside game. Ray Allen has the purest shot in the generation, perhaps in the history of basketball and as mentioned, even forwards Chris Bosh and Rashard Lewis can extend range and make the Spurs chase out to the perimeter. Who will be this year’s Mike Miller (still getting minutes) that gets hot on the biggest stage? Either team will need members of their roster to step up to win this year’s title as this will be a battle.

Ultimately though, Lebron James is at the pinnacle of his career and is doing things collectively that nobody has seen with his brand of physicality and basketball IQ. He will redeem the embarrassment of the 2007 NBA Finals at the hands of the Spurs because of an improved all-around game, matured mentality and a MUCH better team. A consecutive NBA title and Finals MVP will force basketball critics, sports anchors, fans and the general public to accelerate the perception of an all-time legend and consider his trajectory as one of the best players to ever lace up and compete on the hardwood of the National Basketball Association.

Album – Joe Budden~ No Love Lost

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Many do not correlate high-concept substance with the current state of rap/hip-hop. New Jersey rapper Joe Budden, of Shady Record’s group Slaughterhouse, bucks this notion with ferocious verbal precision and enriched honesty on his album, No Love Lost. Who says rappers can’t share intrinsic struggles with an audience accustomed to hype and hubris? Budden delivers in spades with a well-rounded entry, shifting in tone and tempo throughout.

Making no apologies, Joe explores the depths of inner struggles residing within. This contemplative album earnestly renders the intensity of a creative mind that dwelled in poverty, addiction, spiritual unrest and civic disarray in contemporary America. The artist weaves words poetically displaying hyper-realized awareness. Tracks Runaway and My Time are odes to this particular talent, serving as musical confessionals, cleansing for an analytical man poised to impart slanted wisdom after many self-imposed failures.

That’s not to say Budden doesn’t showcase the arrogance many rap fans enjoy, as shown on Last Day ,including bravado-personified rappers Juicy J and Lloyd Banks. Wiz Khalifa and French Montana collaborate on NBA, acronym for Never Broke Again. While college students can’t relate to this idea yet, this certified banger plays well on heavy-duty speakers. Allusions to professional athletes, combining double-entendres with real figures are a staple of Budden’s rhymes. Fellow head-nodder She Don’t Put It Down implements a smooth hook with a steady bass line and verse from Lil Wayne. The remix employs the skills of Fabolous and Twista. While not exactly wholesome, there’s a time and place for everything.

Skeletons unites fellow Slaughterhouse members Joell Ortiz and Crooked I in an angst-ridden reflection sure to evoke reactions from psych majors. Remaining group member Royce Da 5’9” appears on All In My Head, another introverted expression of ambiguous sanity. Unsettling connotations of Budden’s subject matter are offset starkly, lamenting past relationships with women on You and I and sensitive sensibilities of interaction on Castles. 

No Love Lost concludes with an outro of the same name, furthering convictions of a lyrical poet for the modern era. Street sense and literal elements co-exist in harmony on this group of recordings, dispelling common misperceptions of the genre.

Alfred Morris: Never thought in a ‘million years’ I’d play with someone like RG3

roccocaz:

So happy and blessed to have these two cogs in the office. HTTR

Originally posted on NFL.com Blogs:

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Washington Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris has rushed for 1,106 yards through 12 games. He ran to the Redskins facility early Thursday morning to chat with “NFL AM” about his coming-out party after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Morris also discussed his quarterback, Robert Griffin III, saying the running back should be Rookie of the Year, the Redskins’ run to the playoffs and his now-famous car, “Boo”.

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Film Review- The Master

*Warning- SPOILERS ahead!*

Perhaps just like the instability of a wounded soul sifting for meaning and purpose, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newly acclaimed film, The Master does not follow a specific format. It’s as organic as it is beautiful to look at. Just like an exposed individual, the truth can be unnerving to perceive. The particular perception of Anderson’s Oscar caliber film is extreme. Extreme but maybe an extremely necessary voice that is timeless.

Some would call this film meandering or self-indulgent. The short-sighted nature of that assessment is that this is not a film to ENTERTAIN. Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely entertained but the character studies were meant to envelope fragments of the human experience through a very specific set of eyes. Joaquin Phoenix is unrecognizable as Navy seaman Freddie Quell, a demented and disturbed war veteran now stagnant in his life. Quall has little to turn to as America is captivated by General Douglas MacArthur’s rally speech at the conclusion of World War II. He is a sexually obsessed and borderline deviant nymphomaniac. The crudeness in which he speaks reveals a fragmented and weary soul. While the whimsical score evokes a certain misguided calmless, there is fright and a fragile, frazzled emotional frustration buried in Freddie Quell’s eyes. This is evident in the odd exchanges he communicates with his clients after the war, taking a portrait photography gig at a department store. Expanding the notion of captured visuals, director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. frames the screen beautifully with sharp vivid imagery, bucking the notion that modern cinema must be shot digitally; instead utilizing 70 mm stock. Many frames exhibited an extended depth of field giving great atmosphere and tone. The lighting was dramatic where it needed to be: in the company of puzzling communication, rooms of ambiguous intentions, yet open and transcendental in the midst of open plains and captivating the vast motion of the sea. I found it interesting how the movie began on an island, representing the alienation present in Quell’s head and the spontaneous nature in which both he and the foamy seas choose to present themselves.

After jumping job to job and souring his cabbage farming duties, Freddie flees Salinas and takes his specially distilled liquor with him where stumbles upon a departing yacht. This is where he meets Lancaster Dodd (who is rarely ever mentioned by legal name) also known as “Master” played assuredly by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. Right away, Freddie is drawn to the charismatic, engaging, witty, bright and multi-faceted nature of Dodd’s being. Hoffman and Phoenix are both going to be strong favorites for Best Actor and Supporting Actor and while it’s hard who discern just who is the leading man, that’s yet another mark of PT Anderson’s amazing work. The story follows the growth and development of Freddie Quells yet the film centers around the teachings and philosophies of Hoffman’s character.

The intrusive, murky shots with muddled objects in the forefront during their initial conversations suggest a ‘feeling-out’ process in which neither individual’s motives are quite clear. Once again, the shadows are dialed up and reminiscent of the important moods in The Godfather. Similar objectives are achieved here. While isolated on the boat with Dodd and his ‘family’, Master preaches about psychological healing, using the restraints of time against the embedded trauma of the past trillions of years: since the very beginning of existence. His faux teachings of spiritual training and his audio tutorials of ridding negative emotions are eerily comparable to L. Ron Hubbard’s initial groundwork for the Scientology cult. He preaches the ancient nature of one’s true spirit but warns his clients, “Your memory’s uninvited.” Dodd seemingly has a patchwork quilt of methods to soothe and solve one’s own self-enigma having a hand in everything around him, including acting as ordained minister to marry his own daughter.

A particularly nuanced and intense scene between Master and Freddie occurs when the latter is being ‘processed’ by Dodd. We learn more of Quell’s troubled past serving our nation, his severed love life, the incestuous drunken sexual actions with his aunt, his psychotic mother and the murders he carried out for our government overseas. This scene builds in tension and raw emotion and Lancaster Dodd refers not only Freddie but the human race as animals. He is very skilled and layered at chipping at the psyche of the troubled while he feasts on the traumatized. We meet Master’s family, including his wife Peggy, who is played BRILLIANTLY by Amy Adams. This role might be the most accomplished I’ve seen her as an actress thus far. Peggy supports and endorses strongly everything her husband preaches, including their joint ambitions of curing leukemia and psychological disorders and returning our minds back to the “inherent state of perfect” they were trillions of years ago through time travel hypnosis therapy. They see each mortal life as yet a vessel to pass along a state of consciousness that never has died. ‘The Cause’ aka The Cult aims to remedy the soul and spirit through “memory fillers” but essentially it sounds like nonsense and moreso cognitive delusion. As with most cults, there’s some singing, some dancing, the standard seductions of the damaged and wounded. Perhaps even Peggy aims at a more pure goal, evidenced by her displeasure of Lancaster getting drunk with the distilled liquor Freddie makes, erhm persuading him not to get inebriated anymore.

The water journey endured by The Cause lands them initially in New York City to attract other clients but after some resistance, their travels take them to Philadelphia where they run a brainwashing clinic in the home of Helen Sullivan, played by Laura Dern. Soon after arriving however, Lancaster is arrested for a wrongful withdraw of funds from the group back in NYC and an angry, ‘animalistic’ Freddie Quells gets locked up too for violent resistance of the police. It is then that Freddie reaches a crossroads of realizing the absurdity of his new friends or submitting to The Cause completely. Dodd explains that nobody likes Freddie except him and it is obvious that he yearns for Quell’s attention and possibly aims to craft Freddie’s disillusion into a protege of sorts. Phoenix’s character endures an aggressive application of re-conditioning the perception of all three of his eyes in an eerie scene that alters the very nature of texture and color frequency. As Peggy and Lancaster maintain to those in need of their administration, “You’re asleep and have been for trillions of years.” The basis of their cult is expanded and Lancaster publishes his second book of ideologies entitled, ‘The Split Sabre.’ A woman points out the error in foundation that Dodd has written in his new novel, noting that his vital question of, ‘Can You Recall?’ has now been written as ‘Can you Imagine?’ Despite Freddie’s newfound docile nature and submission to The Cause, he still retains the impulsive anger that has plagued his previous self. He assaults a naysayer of Dodd’s new book, proving that the methods are not what they were explained.

Freddie Quells abandons The Cause, riding away on Master’s motorcycle in the Nevada desert, returning home to his former lover, Doris, who has since moved on and married with children. No doubt this is another instance of trauma for Freddie. He stays away from Lancaster until Dodd contacts him to come to London, where he has setup a new expansive office in the heart of England. Peggy never trusted Freddie and it seems fitting that the big, empty office ridden with shadows still mirrors the ambiguous motives of The Cause yet with much more room to operate, given their past history with Freddie. Master explains that if Quells isn’t all in to support them that he never wants to see him again, although it is evident that he cares very much for Freddie, serenading him with a song heard earlier regarding Doris. It is at this piint that I’m calling Lancaster ‘Master’ Dodd’s sexuality into question. It would explain his commitment to Freddie ddespite the distrust his wife and family had all along. Was he in love with Freddie Quells or did he just fervently believe in the cause? I tend to lean more towards the former, Anderson showing us the corrupt nature of the human condition and those with a major platform. Just like Freddie Quells, I believe Lancaster Dodd to be a sexual deviant, at least bi-sexual at that.

The film concludes with a solitary Freddie Quells, bar-hopping, chasing women, etc. However, the main difference is that know he has a new convulted foundation to seduce and prey on vulnerable women, as learned by Master Dodd. He still is a lost soul, exposing himself to numerous pitfalls. It’s fitting that the final shot maintains a cyclical return to the opening shot, Anderson telling us how fragile the human soul is, naively never progressing and evolving despite radical developments. Quell is yet again on an island; physically as well as emotionally, the man is still in search of his own current in the midst of the organic, fluid, and ever-spontaneous nature of life.

True to form, Paul Thomas Anderson completes a cornucopia of cerebral morality questions and exploration of the conditions we live in. As in any effective period piece (this time 1950), the actions and dynamic situations our characters find themselves in still portray the struggles that we endure, trillions of year in the making or not. This film will be a powerhouse at Oscars season and I fully expect Anderson, Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams to be in consideration of the Academy. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s components took home multiple awards. It was staggering and like There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and Punch Drunk Love, evoked an artistic and subtly indifferent view of the lives we lead.

ROC Rating: 9.3/10

NFL Preview: NFC West

ARIZONA CARDINALS

The most tense QB competitions in the NFL seemed to reside in the NFC West. Let’s begin with the Kevin Kolb- John Skelton feud that transpired for the Arizona Cardinals. Despite Arizona sacrificing multiple assets to acquire the green quarterback when he wore emerald in Philadelphia, Kolb has failed to firmly capture the reigns and hearts of the Cardinal faithful. Skelton won the battle out of camp and will be the starter while Kolb and his lucrative salary ($12 million guaranteed) idle on the bench, when the franchise also surrendered CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second round draft choice. It’s been obvious for a while that the players and coaches feel more comfortable with Skelton conducting the offense as he tends to stand more firm and confident in the pocket. Regardless of the ambiguous nature of the QB position, Arizona touts All-World receiver Larry Fitzgerald to make life more manageable while also adding the physically-imposing WR Michael Floyd from Notre Dame with their mid first-rounder to take pressure off of Larry Fitz. It must be said that Floyd has gotten off to a slow start and not instilled the brand of confidence expected of a top 15 pick. The top four of the receiving corps is rounded out by mainstay Early Doucet and Andre Roberts, who quietly had a nice preseason.

Arizona has a pretty depth unit at halfback. While none are spectacular yet, Beanie Wells runs efficiently between the tackles and second year player Ryan Williams from VT returns after missing all of 2011. Don’t sleep on KR Larod Stephens-Howling to carry the rock and showing more than his typical third down duties. Offensive line coach Russ Grimm NEEDS to get the most out of his unit, as most of the line is not very reliable and a definite concern of the entire offense. They will have to do it without LT Levi Brown, who is out for 2012 with a torn triceps. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but now subpar veteran D’Anthony Batiste will start on Skelton’s left but Bobby Massie could possibly move over from RT and play the other bookend. Grimm will need to have LG Daryn Colledge, C Lyle Sendlein and RG Adam Snyder to be on their ‘A’ game all season long. At this point in time, they appear to be one of the worst units in the NFL. It’s obvious that Todd Heap will never play the TE position up to his former Pro Bowl level in Baltimore but he is a savy vet capable of decent stats. Rob Housler looks to fulfill the explosive role that modern TE’s have evolved into but the problem is, he has issues setting his blocks.

Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton saw his defense improve drastically in the second half of ’11-’12 after a pitiful start. Budding superstar CB Patrick Peterson showed off early as an electrifying punt returner but look for his to become a solid blanket of resistance at his main position with his many servings and doses of athletic talent. Behind him are reliable veteran safeties Adrian Wilson, who is the defense’s version of Mr. Cardinal, and Kerry Rhodes who came over from the Jets a season ago. Former Steeler William Gay will play opposite Peterson at CB and former Patriot James Sanders looks to factor into the dime and nickel packagaes. The key pieces of Horton’s 3-4 base will be rising star DE Calais Campbell, one of the most underrated players in the NFL and steady walk-and-talker Darnell Dockett who boasts great athleticism and speed yet is still hard to run on. O’Brien Schofield and Sam Acho look to provide the pass-rushing as the two edge linebackers but NT Dan Williams needs to improve and have his teammates confident he will eat up blocks for Dockett, Campbell, the aforementioned linebackers and the interior ‘backers Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington. Arizona’s defense could be much more steady and consistent from the jump than they were to start last season.

It seems head coach Ken Whisenhunt is either being very coy about his squad thus far or not very confident that they can make a splash this year. Either way, Arizona looks to be a medicore team with decent upside and very fortunate to play in a division that only has one menacing NFC contender.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

As is just so happens, the previously warned powerhouse of the NFC West is none other than our next team, the Niners. San Fran was extremely close to a Super Bowl birth, getting mildly outclassed by Eli Manning in the NFC Championship with some untimely special teams gaffes in their final game. Previously rocky QB Alex Smith showed some guts in his improving play and head coach Jim Harbaugh quickly took iron fist control of one of the NFL’s most decorated franchises. The 49ers are a confident bunch, rightfully so. Not only did they bolster their offense with the mercurial yet generational stud receiver Randy Moss, they signed Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham and fellow champion teammate, the Juggernaut back-breaker, tailback Brandon Jacobs. Jacobs and elusive rookie LaMichael James look to aid veteran workhorse Frank Gore for a more balanced rushing attack. Despite losing WR Josh Morgan to the Redskins, San Francisco has fairly deep options at WR. Besides Moss and Manningham, Michael Crabtree returns looking to improve and live up to his bill as a number one option. The team also drafted receiver A.J. Jenkins at the tail end of the first round out of Illinois. Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke wanted to add more explosion to the offense after being forced to play a more conservative, possession controlled game to compliment the stingy and athletic defense.

LT Joe Staley is proving to be a steady option and a hell of a performer for the Niners’ offensive line, who ranked eighth in rushing offense last season. Mike Iupati is a mauling guard who is in his second season along with the RT Anthony Davis, both chosen in the first round in 2010. Johnathan Goodwin is a veteran who pleased coaches last season with his play at center yet San Francisco aims to make former T Alex Boone slide over and play right guard to replace Adam Snyder, who signed with Arizona. This group is very solid and wants to create lanes for Gore, Jacobs and James yet create comfortable pockets for Alex Smith, who I still am not sold on as being a Super Bowl caliber quarterback. Then again, Trent Dilfer was technically a Super Bowl winning QB too. One luxury the 49ers have is at the TE position, where Vernon Davis continues to climb the ranks as one of the best while also using the sneaky Delanie Walker who works as a FB/TE hybrid and very effective on wheel routes.

The defense of the San Francisco 49ers was certainly it’s strong suit in their pursuit of a Lombardi last season and big things are expected once again. The man in the middle at linebacker leads this phase of the squad and former Ole Miss star Patrick Willis proves to be the heir apparent to Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher as the best MLB in the game for the new generation. The rest of the front seven ain’t too shabby either. The defensive line yielded an NFL low 77.3 yards rushing per game as well as 3.5 yards per carry. All Pro DE Justin Smith was an unstoppable force of wreckage, teaming up with Ray McDonald and Issac Sopoaga in the front line trenches. Off the edge linebacker position of the 3-4 are the young and disrupting Ahmad Brooks and second year phenom Aldon Smith. Not only is Smith an excellent all-around playmaking linebacker, he also had my favorite sack celebration of the year as seen in this hilarious remembrance from 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtJQ4c668Hw. Rising star NaVorro Bowman plays inside next to Ole Patty Willis. We are all blessed to see this unit operate.

CB Carlos Rogers earned a very well-deserved first Pro Bowl nod in his first season with the Niners as he shut down major receivers and dominated games. It seems the most problematic aspect of Rogers’ game was rectified as he finally learned to ctach and hold on to a pigskin, recording 6 INTs. These numbers helped the San Francisco defense rank second in interceptions with 23. Tarell Brown also played very steadily, snagging four opposing passes and helping ball-hawk Dashon Goldson at safety and allowing strong safety Donte Whitner to lay heavy hits for an extremely balanced and formidable attack on defense. CB Chris Culliver will aid the team in nickel and dime situations.

Injuries withstanding, the 49ers are the cream of the crop in the NFC heading into the season. Perhaps Green Bay or Philadelphia can thwart their goal of a sixth Super Bowl title but expect the Niners to run away with the NFC West crown and be playing into February if all goes according to plan. They have the leadership, the defense, more explosion on offense and a rejuvenated Bay Area crowd. All this hinges on the continued evolution of QB Alex Smith. If he digresses, he will be the scapegoat for the team’s woes.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

The other NFC West strenuous QB camp comp was regulated to Pete Carroll’s new look Seattle Seahawks. When I say new look I’m not just referring to the transformations Nike made to the uniforms. Seattle made their biggest splash when they inked former Packer backup Matt Flynn to a lucrative contract. Ironically enough, he will begin the season on the bench as rookie Russell Wilson drafted from Wisconsin showed enough to get the nod and lead a young team with many questions. The engine workhorse of the offense, Marshawn Lynch, will begin the season dinged up so who knows how he will activate Beast Mode. He’s a hell of a back, Seattle needs him to shoulder the load once again for his new QB. Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell is thrilled at Lynch’s newfound discipline and vision in the running game his first full year in Seattle that helped the Seahawks go 5-3 the finall games of ’11. RBs Leon Washington and fourth round rookie Robbie Turbin will spell The Beast in the one cut zone-blocking scheme. Prized free agent from last year, WR looks to have a much improved season after collecting a fat pay check and an array of nagging ailments that kept him from producing as expected. Also getting targets from Wilson/Flynn at wideout will be former Notre Dame pass catcher Golden Tate and Ben Obomanu. Surprise player Doug Baldwin will operate in the slot most likely and even girzzled journeyman Braylon Edwards will attempt to get in on the action. Wait, what?? Let’s just hope Seattle has a viable public transportation system. Former Borwn TE Evan Moore will line up at the same position as Zach Miller and Moore will also be battling third year pro Anthony McCoy for PT.

Nimble and gargantuan yet oft banged-up LT Russell Okung will have to be a consistent contributor in order for the Seahawk offense to have success. His progression has been slowed by injuries but he definetly has the tools to be a good-great tackle in this league. Lining up to him is ‘Captain Ugly’ (word to the Baltimore Ravens) Pat McQuistan, who has never been anything to write home about. C Max Unger is back after injuring his toe and will hope to live up to a hefty contract extension and prove to be very effective in the ZBS. However, the right side of the line is iffy at best starting John Moffitt and Breno Giacomini replaces slated RT James Carpenter who will miss significant time this season.

The Seattle Seahawks defense quietly ranked in the top 10 last season, showing off good speed and ball attacking talent. Cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are very effective playing bump-and-run coverage but coordinator Gus Bradley runs many zone schemes, allowing rising star safety Earl Thomas and fellow third year pro Ken Chancellor to roam the field and make impactful plays. Aging Mr. Seahawk defensive back Marcus Trufant will play in the slot in nickel and dime packages which is helpful given his lengthy arms. One move I wasn’t terribly thrilled with in the draft was SEA selecting West Virginia DE Bruce Irvin 15th overall. I don’t doubt his skills but the guy was quite troubled off the field and better things could have been done with the quality of that pick. I could end up being proved wrong but if they really coveted Irvin, a trade down could have also secured the new pass-rusher. He could turn out to be quite dangerous on the edge. Red Bryant will spell him on rushing downs and many snaps overall after getting a contract extension. Former Michigan nose tackle Alan Branch seems to have figured it out well enough to start and use his size and power after failing to do so in Arizona. Brandon Mebane shoots the gaps well and can eat up multiple blocks, proving to be a well-rounded option up front. Linebacker is not a particularly strong unit for the ‘Hawks. However, Bobby Wagner is now techinally a veteran so his experience could lend very helpful for the defense as a whole. Strong side linebacker K.J. Wright is fluid in pursuit, if not exactly a household name. Veteran Leroy Hill is a very solid pro football player and helpful in run support, even if he does enjoy the BC buds a little too much.

Pete Carroll has a lot to prove in this league. Despite his tainted success at USC, the NFL is a whole other animal to contend in. Just ask Steve Spurrier. Still, the Seahawks have integrated some talent on offense AND defense. The Russell Wilson situation will be interesting given the money sunk into Matt Flynn. The pumped in noise of Qwest Field could call for Flynn if Wilson struggles but I have a feeling Seattle can prove to be a formidable opponent.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Sorry St. Louis but that brings us to the worst team in the division. Now, things could change and they could shock myself as well as other ‘real’ NFL analysts but it’s never a good sign when your number one quarterback, who was selected number one overall in 2010 has no real receiving threats or a line to give him time to deliver the rock. I really like Sam Bradford and believe in his abilities. However, heralded head coach Jeff Fisher and staff have their work cut out for them in their first year in the state that serves as the gate for the West. It doesn’t help that new defensive coordinator, the aggressive Gregg Williams has been suspended indefinetly by the league for the Saints’ bounty scandal. Poor STL had no idea this would transpire when they hired him so automatically, the Rams were at a disadvantage before the year even started. Luckily, new owner Stan Kroenke and his front office did a great job accumulating multiple draft assets when they traded the number two overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington so the Redskins could select rookie QB sensation Robert Griffin III. Unfortunately, that will not help during the 2012 campaign where they are sparse at key positions.

Workhorse RB Steven Jackson has had to absorb hits like a linebacker as he continues to play out his prime in St. Louis. New tackle Wayne Hunter will be behind RT Barry Richardson and starting LT Rodger Saffold will have to keep Bradford’s ankle safe and create lanes for Jackson and rookie tailbacks Isiah Pead from the Cincinnati Bearcats and Daryl Richardson who were selected in the second and seventh rounds, respectfully. The problems with this offense are not the ball carriers or QB but their protection and the receiverw who need to stretch the field. Luckily, STL signed C Scott Wells to help with the cohesive unit responsible for sustaining the offense. Bradford has a mish-mash of options but can any of them emerge as a number 1 option? Shifty slot receiver Danny Amendola is a solid player that draws comparisons to Wes Welker but was sidelined last year with injury. St. Louis inked former Giant and Eagle receiver Steve Smith (not the good one) and he will compete with willing blocker Brandon Gibson and last year’s third rounder Austin Pettis. None of these options are overwhelming. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will try to utilize second year TE Lance Kendricks in the passing game and also can hopefully lean on veteran FB Ovie Mughelli for support in the ground attack.

One of the best signings in the NFL offseason was the Rams securing the services of scrappy CB Cortland Finnegan in free agency. Not only is he a good, physical cover guy, Finnegan will get in the head’s of his opponents and take them out of their game or force them to retaliate and get costly penalties. St. Louis traded down from Washington’s sixth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft to number fourteen and selected LSU DT Michael Brockers, who was quite the talent in the vaunted SEC. DE Robert Quinn looks to improve on a lackluster rookie season and will need to push himself to keep up with the beastly son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long. Chris Long had a career year, in which he tallied thirteen sacks, earning him a five-year, 60.3 million dollar contract extension, $36.8 million guaranteed. Free agent DT Kendall Langford comes over from Miami to play next to Brockers and make plays with lateral swiftness.

MLB James Laurinaitis is the geographical focal point of the defense and best of the linebackers. He also has gotten better every season and is in a contract year, so look for a focused season for ‘Little Monster.’ His fellow linebackers are sub-par, touting Mario Haggan, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and insignificant ex-Redskin Rocky McIntosh on the outside. The St. Louis Rams took a risk and rolled the dice when they drafted ex-Florida turned North Alabama DB Janoris Jenkins in the second round. Jenkins, a first round talent, fell because of numerous off-field issues including a possession of marijuana days before the draft. Trumaine Johnson is an option/project at cornerback if Jenkins doesn’t work out. Quintin Mikell and Darian Stewart will start at both safety positions as both can lay the lumber in the box but are questionable in coverage. S Craig Dahl will be reserve im case either slips up or gets injured.

I have no doubt that head coach Jeff Fisher can restore credibility to the St. Louis Rams’ organization. He is a great leader and great captain for a proverbial football ship stranded at sea. The question is how much progress will be made this season? Bradford is a smart accurate quarterback but I’m thinking the Rams will need their palpable 2013 draft assets to build an actual contender. I can’t see them finishing anything but fourth in this division and under .500 with the vertical options Bradford has to work with. After all, it’s only year one of Fisher’s regime.

NFL Preview- AFC West

DENVER BRONCOS

John Elway was passively adamant that he did not trust nor want media sensation Tim Tebow as his team’s long term answer at quarterback. This ruffled many staunch Tebow supporters the wrong way but who are they to question an all-time great critiquing the very position he mastered? One team’s past proves to be another franchise’s future when Elway traded Tebow and signed another all-time great to lead his team- QB Peyton Manning. Disclaimer: I may be a tad biased as Elway and Peyton are my two favorite quarterbacks in NFL history.

Big brother Peyton looks to be lean and mean this season and from everything I’ve heard and seen, looking to be putting great velocity on the ball. While I do think he will be a degree inferior to prime Peyton at thirty six years old, we are still talking about a (seemingly) healthy Peyton Manning. Game contact excluded, Peyton seems to have healed fin from his neck fusion surgery and is looking to create immediate chemistry with playoff hero, WR Demaryius Thomas. Thomas is a physical freak that draws Terrell Owens/Brandon Marshall comparisons. Manning’s cerebral line breakdowns could elevate his receiver to Pro Bowl level. Eric Decker also proved to be an opportunistic threat, accounting for big catches from Tebow in games that have become instant classics for Bronco Nation. A guy like Peyton can only improve their confidence and opportunities. He did get it done with Austin Collie.

Pro Bowl LT Ryan Clady will now be responsible for Manning’s health and he is a damn good one. Some die-hard Broncos fans think he is a tad overrated but I do not agree. Granted I do not watch every Denver game but having a QB with pre-snap genius and a fast release will surely benefit Clady and make his job easier. Statistically, the Denver OL rated out pretty poor in run blocking and pass blocking efficiency. They will have to be focused and ready but as mentioned, a certain laser, rocket-armed QB can remedy this by himself. Second year RT Orlando Franklin showed well in his rookie season and looking to be a key factor in the run game on the right side. C JD Walton had a terrible season so him and guards Chris Kuper & Zane Beadles MUST step it up to give the offense the success Manning and Elway are accustomed to.

RB Willis McGahee may not have much in the tank moving forward. Tim Twbow helped open his rushing lanes tremendously last season, which will not be the case this season. Denver took RB Ronnie Hillman in the third round this past draft so he should help spell Willis with his size and good hands but…he’s still a rookie. The always injured Knowshown Moreno has been a big disappointment in his time in Denver but he will be given a chance to compete in camp. He needs to make the most of it.

Tebow was given entirely too much credit for the close game wins last season and often overlooked in the equation was the relentless pressure of the defense. Defensive Rookie of the Year LB Von Miller aims to gain further experience and master his craft while terrifying QB’s, RB’s and slot receivers in the process. Another sackmaster in Elvis Dumervil stands strong on the DL, who provides a great complimentary skillset to pair with the immensely talented Miller. He will need support in the run from Robert Ayers, Ty Warren & first round draft selection DT Derek Wolfe as well as the returning Justin Bannan.

The secondary is headlined by aging future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey. While declining, Bailey still provides a heralded role as a savvy shutdown defender and the vocal and mental representative of the defense’s backend. Athletic Super Bowl XLIV hero Tracy Porter will now be on Manning’s side after being signed in the offseason to start opposite Champ. Longtime Charger Drayton Florence will also be in this stable of Bronco defensive backs. The safety position remains fluid heading into the season despite signing free agents Mike Adams and Jim Leohnard. Leohnard is still rehabbing from injury so look for Quinton Carter to crack the starting lineup to start the season.

Head coach John Fox has quite the opportunity to improve upon Denver’s unlikely 2011 postseason birth and success. Despite playing in a close-knit division, the Broncos look to be playoff bound. Acquiring a top three talent all-time to man the most important role in team sports is certainly a comfortable notion to consider. Let’s see if the defense continues to follow suit and allows to the Broncos to soar Mile High. Where’s Pegasus when you need him?

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

The 2011 Chiefs were struck horribly with season-ending injuries to dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball when RB Jamaal Charles and S Eric Berry suffered significant knee damage. They look to now run strong and with the veteran leadership of QB Matt Cassell who himself missed seven games due to injury, Kansas City certainly has detractors to prove wrong. Head coach Todd Haley needs to prove to ownership that he’s worth his salary so bringing in former Madden coverboy Peyton Hillis seems like a beautiful fit paired with Charles to invigorate a pride amongst the corn-fed blue collar mentality that is displaced throughout Missouri and Kansas. Hit with the franchise tender, Pro Bowl WR Dwayne Bowe is seeking a long term deal with this club, who have not had a formidable receiving threat other than Bowe since TE Tony Gonzalez powered his way to the Dirty South. WR Jonathan Bladwin has had a very strong showing thus far and is making a stronger case for the Chiefs’ front office to gold off before breaking the bank on Bowe. TE Tony Moeaki also returns from a season-ending ACL tear (told you it was bad luck) and looking for a big rebound year with and from Cassell. Kansas City made some smart acquisitions on offense, signing former Texans RT Eric Winston and TE Kevin Boss. LT Brandon Albert needs to live up to his highly invested draft choive and not only keep Cassell upright but give clear lanes for Charles and Hillis.

Kansas City selected talented yet risky Memphis DT Dontari Poe with their first round selection, eleventh overall. In the recent years past, the Chiefs have spent numerous top five overall picks on the defensive line, also selecting expected starters Tyson Jackson and the man in the middle Glenn Dorsey, who looks to be banged up to start the year. Penn state outside linebacker Tamba Hali will be suspended the first game of the season but look for him to rebound with a vengeance and try to make a further reputation for himself. With Brandon Carr departing for the Dallas Cowboys in free agency, another starting cornerback needs to step up opposite star Brandon Flowers, who also looks to be nursing some ailments heading into 2012. That guy should be former Raider Stanford Routt, who was a starter in Oakland. The aforementioned safety Eric Berry is an absolute stud, playing a ballhawking role as well as a technically-sound hitter and tackler drawing inevitable comparisons to the most talented safeties of this generation Ed Reed and Sean Taylor.

GM Scott Pioli has done a solid job building this team over the years and hopefully this team can shake the injury pestilence that plagued this team so drastically a season ago. Look for the Kansas City Chiefs to make a push for a wildcard spot once again and perhaps challenge the Broncos and Chargers for the AFC West crown.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Da Rah Rah RRRRaiders. Hopefully, this team can muster some passion for 2012 and play for the late pioneering Al Davis. This team has a lot of question marks. For one, will the hefty blockbuster trade that brought in former great QB Carson Palmer prove to be worth it? His arm strength has undoubtedly taken a plummet and his targets are young but unproven outside Darius Heyward-Bey who has not made the impact that was counted on. Palmer still possesses excellent leadership and veteran savy that could prove to produce more than 2011 but he certainly needs assitance. Can Darren McFadden stay healthy for an entire season? If he can, the Raiders offense could rumble through him but losing RB Michael Bush to the Bears requires another steady option toting the rock if Run DMC cannot stay on the field. McFadden will have a huge season if the Oakland trainers take care of him. If not they will count on Mike Goodson to move the chains in McFadden’s absence. The Raiders brought in first year head coach Dennis Allen along with new offensive and defensive coordinaters Greg Knapp and Jason Tarver along with a new general manager, Reggie McKenzie.

WR Denarius Moore aims to be the second option at pass-catching on the outside. Jacoby Ford is the third receiver, returning after a meager output of nineteen receptions. After losing TE Kevin Boss, Brandon Myers is slated to start on the offensive edge but is valued more for his blocking than his chain-moving (16 receptions in 2011). The Raiders offensive line did quite well last year in pass protection, surrendering only 25 sacks which was good for third-lowest in the NFL. LT Jared Veldheer is a benemouth 6 foot 8, 321 pounder who started every game in ’11-’12. Stefen Wisniewski also started 16 times at left guard in 2011 and will line up this year at center alongside new right guard Mike Brisiel, acquired via free agency from Houston. The issue with the Raiders offense that is quite noticeable is the lack of a true pass-catching TE. For Palmer, a QB with decreasing arm strength and wideouts who aim to stretch the field, the absence of a safety blanket underneath hurts his offense.

The savy veteran of the Oakland defense remains DE Richard Seymour, who has flirted with retirement in the recent past but remains a steady contributor. The Raiders lost their best pash-rusher, Kamerion Wimbley as well as starting CB Stanford Routt in free agency so it is imperative that guys rise up and make a name for themselves. The Raiders already had problems getting to the QB in ’11, only registering thirty nine sacks, good for 15th in the NFL. Left end Lamar Houston will be counted on opposite of Seymour to bolster this number. Inside linebacker Rolando McClain must re-focus on football after being sentenced to 180 days in jail. Now that’s a true Raider! The Raiders are, however, solid in the middle of the defense generating well-rpunded pressure and run support by DT Tommy Kelly and Desmond Bryant. Philip Wheeler will line up at starting strongside LB with McClain and former Seahawk top five draftee Aaron Curry looks to work himself into the starting rotation in some defensive packages.

It’s never easy to lose your two best CBs in back-to-back seasons but after seeing Nnamdi Asomugha and Stanford Routt exchange uniforms, Oakland’s secondary must rely on cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Richard Bartell who not exactly standouts at the position. They should be grateful that they have former Longhorn Michael Huff supporting the third level or the pass defense could be disastrous. Tyvon Branch helms the other safety position, who will be asked to do a lot more due to the decline of talent at the outside positions.

I don’t see how the Raiders can finish any higher than fourth in the AFC West. Even if Palmers succeeds, there’s more holes on this team than the police cars Arnold shot up in Terminator 2 with the minigun. The Black Hole will feel like a true black hole for fans until this team overturns some of the roster that McKenzie and Allen inherited. At least the uniforms are still classic.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

The Super Chargers were not so super a season ago. For starters, Philip Rivers had the worst year of his otherwise excellent career, including throwing a personal worst twenty interceptions and ending up with the lowest QB rating he’s endured thus far at 88.7 He looks to rebound and I firmly believe he will do just that, taking lumps that could be necessary for the continued evolution as a top-tier signal-caller.
Unfortunately, Rivers lost the production of number one guy Vincent Jackson when he bolted for the Bucs. GM AJ Smith signed former New Orleans receiver Robert Meachem to be his replacement. The Chargers also will line up Malcom Floyd and newcomer Eddie Royal in the slot to catch passes and hopefully lots of touchdowns from Rivers. Future Hall of Fame TE Antonio Gates looks to stay healthy and get back to his old dominating ways after a year of being nagged by ailments and lesser production. Roscoe Parrish has since been cut as he aimed to be the fourth option at wide receiver for the Charger offense, battling victors Richard Goodman and Vincent Brown for playing time.

Ryan Mathews will miss the beginning of the 2012 campaign after enduring a broken clavicle in the preseason. Regardless, a lot is expected of the well-rounded Mathews, who San Diego feels very comfortable with his rushing and receiving. The nagging question is can this desired workhorse back remain healthy when it matters. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ he will see a full healthy year as a veteran. Smith inked Ronnie Brown to backup Mathews but guys like Jacob Hester and bruising bulldozer Le’Ron McClain will see touches too. LT Jared Gaither is an athletic tackle yet has focus issues. IF he hones his skillset and his work ethic becomes second nature, he will continue to improve and it will be HUGE for not only his unit, but the entire team. Tyronne Green will line up next to the former Maryland Terrapin. C Nick Hardwick is the glue yet the hinge on which the offensive line operates as nobody has been able to beat him out for his position depite the attempts.

John Pagano steps in the seat of defensive coordinator with the club. The team spent it’s first rounder on DE Melvin Ingram and they expect him to disrupt the opposition early and often. Ingram is needed due to the inability of former first rounder Larry English failing to adjust to the pro game and make an impact on the Bolts’ defense. The outside linebackers of the team are more than solid, with savy vet Shaun Phillips playing the leftside while former Raven Jarret Johnson setting the edge on the flip side. Another former Raven Antwan Barnes looks to use his speed in pass-rushing scenerios. Nose tackle Garay looks to eat up blocks and allow his linebackers to swarm the ballcarrier, particularly for Takeo Spikes, Donald Butler and second round pick Jonas Mouton. San Diego will need exemplary play from it’s front seven due to the Chargers finishing 28th in passing yardage per attempt and dead last on third down. Antoine Cason is a nice player at CB but they seek improvement from longtime Charger Quentin Jammer. The safety position was infused with youth when they drafted LSU standout Brandon Taylor to play with Eric Weddle and hard-hitting Atari Bigby.

Coach Norv Turner better put this ship back on course because this cat is certainly running out of lives. It’s a wonder he’s stayed as long as he have, given all the failures of a talented roster. However, I do expect San Diego to duke it out with Peyton and the Broncos for the top spot in this sneakily competitive division.

Film Review: THE GODFATHER

In honor of AMC’s ‘Mob Week’ I am going to post I very thorough look at what I consider the best American film of all-time. Artistically, technically, & true to the warm and sinister side’s of the human condition as we internalize our own power and influence, The Godfather is now forty years old. Francis Ford Coppola turned an already great novel by Mario Puzo into some of the most iconic work ever accomplished in film.
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Great films are not defined by how much money they make or even how many awards they may capture. A great film is one that is produced carefully with an idea to convey or a human story to dictate. It must have great staying power in the consciousness of the general public. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather achieves all of the above and sets the bar for American cinema. Made in 1972, The Godfather remains tied for the highest ranked film of all-time on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Critically acclaimed, the Mafia family epic continues to stir America by providing popular one-liners and references throughout popular culture. The Godfather is a masterful blend of technical and narrative technique that continues to be revered by audiences everywhere.

Coppola’s film derives from the novel written by Mario Puzo. The characters embody dominating and apparent traits. Don Vito Corleone is played by Marlon Brando in a monumental performance. “In makeup and physical movement instantly evocative of Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in ‘Citizen Kane,’ Brando does an admirable job as the lord of his domain. He is not on screen for much of the film, though his presence hovers over all of it”. Corleone is a highly complex figure. His professional life festers in crime and corruption, yet his strict code of conduct is most honorable. “Vito Corleone, was a man of morals, principle, and courage in a world sorely lacking in either – a man who stands throughout the film in stark contrast to the State.” As a character, Vito presents profound social paradoxes as he transcends the status quo of society with nobility, yet still dabbles in illegal activity. Vito is also shown to be a loving, devoted patriarch of an extended Italian-American family. His eldest son Santino, nicknamed Sonny, is played by James Caan. Initially, Sonny is set to take the reigns as Don of the family due to his domineering nature. However, he is also very temperamental and not as strategic as his father. His impulsive nature is critiqued by Vito and cause for concern as a Mafia Don. The middle son is named Fredo, played by John Cazale. His role is most limited of the sons, yet his nature is reflective of the warm side that Vito possesses. Fredo is the most sensitive and compassionate of the three, yet he lacks the leadership and control needed to oversee a crime syndicate.

Michael Corleone is the youngest son, played brilliantly by Al Pacino as one of the most developed and dynamic characters in the modern film era. In the beginning, Michael is established as the outlier of the family empire, choosing not to partake in his family’s operation. He is a former war veteran following previous education at an Ivy League school. Throughout the film, his assimilation into the role of Don is hauntingly authentic. After his father is hospitalized, Michael begins to display instinctual traits bestowed upon him. He exhibits quick thinking in tense circumstances, prompting the nurse to move his father’s hospital bed in fear of assassination. He shows himself to be courageous and fearless, acting as guard in front of opposing threats with no weapon. After convincing Enzo to stand guard with him, Michael shows his composure as he calmly lights a cigarette for the trembling baker. These attributes are all included when he volunteers to murder corrupt police Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo to disrupt the balance of power after Vito is shot. Following the homicides in a public restaurant, Michael loses his established innocence in regards to his deviant upbringing. When his first wife, Appolonia is murdered by his own bodyguard, it is apparent that Michael begins to detach his previous emotional ties with his newly acquired role in the family. At the film’s conclusion, Michael is portrayed as a calculated man who is feared yet respected by his peers. His ruthless demeanor replaces the previous man whom is loving and affectionate. Although beneficial as Don of the family, Michael’s changing persona is a landmark of great character development.

Coppola does a phenomenal job establishing shots effectively. They serve a purpose, to tell the audience more than the action unfolding. For instance, when Rocco kills the driver Paulie, a long shot captures the parked car amongst the blowing grain fields in broad daylight. The long shot reveals that execution is not an intimate act to the crew. For these men, it is common and impersonal to slaughter someone perceived as deceitful with such nonchalance. Shooting the scene in the middle of the day with bright sunlight suggests that Vito’s men dictate their own circumstances. In the far distance, stands the Statue of Liberty, a symbolic structure of prosperity and opportunity in America, especially for immigrant families. Deciding to include a symbol of hope and integrity so distant suggests a certain disconnection from these ideals previously explored. The use of extreme long shots in Sicily not only displays the lush beauty of Italian landscapes, but further segregates the atmosphere from the claustrophobic nature of New York City. A particularly stunning bird’s eye shot captures the custom of Michael and Apollonia walking through the Sicilian village after being married followed by the residents.

Lighting plays a pivotal role in the storytelling of Don Vito Corleone and his authoritative Mafia family. The business dealings of Vito, Santino, Michael, and Tom Hagen lurk unmercifully in the violent placement of shadows. The Corleone family conducts business with highly powerful men around New York City. These scenes display a high concentration of dark shadows with tactical interruption of lit subjects across the frame. The shadows and lighting play a major role in character development as well as cinematography. Hard and overhead lighting is often used on the mobsters to depict them and their actions in an unflattering fashion. Much of the time, light is dispersed abruptly across particular features to portray vulnerability or conniving intentions of a certain character. Vito’s eyes are purposefully shadowed to suggest the mystique and ambiguity around his valued thought process.
Conversely, the family-oriented scenes such as Connie’s wedding are lit overtly and intrusively cut to depict the light-hearted nature of a family event set amongst the business dealings of mobsters. “Beginning with the opening sequence intercutting Vito’s sepulchral study with the bright wedding outside, Coppola renders the Corleones threatening in their business and appealing in their closeness as they negotiate the legacy of Vito’s prosperity). The implications suggest a certain friction between Vito’s business life and his unadulterated care for his family. Many of the scenes defined by shadows foreshadow imminent threats to come. For example, Luca Brasi’s meeting with Sollozzo is intentionally dark to signify a breach of trust. Brasi is strangled to death, yet the viewer can already sense that Sollozzo is aware of Corleone and Brasi’s ulterior motives. Darkness plagues scenes in which Sollozzo is trying to finagle Tom Hagen and his pull with the family into narcotics distribution. Half of Sollozzo’s face is completely dark. The intimidation factor is highlighted by deep shadows to express the distrust and timid approach shown by Hagen to Sollozzo. The scene at the hospital where Michael tries to hide his father from a potential assassination is unusually dark to convince the audience that trouble may or may not arise in a typically safe public setting.

The Godfather utilizes a grainy, warm-colored brand of cinematography. Much of the film uses muted yellow or red tones, projecting a realistic interpretation of Italian-American families and the passion they exude. The props used are directly attributable to an Italian family and their culture. The texture of each frame creates a high degree of realism for the audience. The viewer can visually smell the garlic frying or hear the sizzle of sausage and meatballs in the pan. Individual fibers on the suits are so comprehensive to the viewer that the scene depicted establishes a rooted connection, even to a disconnecting lifestyle. When Sonny is murdered in the toll booth, the armed men are seen through his point of view behind the steering wheel before having his car attacked with bullets. Everything is carefully placed; from the wine bottles and glasses, to the firearms and fruit. All items encompass a defined means of living for the particular group of characters in the film.

For a 3 hour film, editing is a key component. Coppola/crew do a marvelous job transitioning between scenes/locations to let the story unfold, yet still focus on major plot devices. The main transition used is a lap dissolve between scenes all throughout the story. Fade-out, fade-in is carefully used when transitioning between significant lapses in time. For example, one is used when the setting shifts to the Christmas season after previously being a warmer time of year. Other times Coppola uses fade-out, fade-in is when the geographical setting is distant from New York City, like when Michael is in Sicily or when Tom Hagen flies into LA. Coppola is conscience to make these transitions more significant to reflect the diverse locations, specifically the urban environment of New York City and the beautiful remote landscapes of Sicily. The scene in the hospital keeps the viewer on edge because of editing. The quick cuts around the dark corridors establish an apprehensive environment as Michael is unsure if enemies are going to kill his father.

Coppola makes artistic statements with use of parallel editing. The baptism ceremony where Michael becomes godfather to Connie’s son is a prime example. As the Catholic priest conducts his ceremony, Michael is required to proclaim his faith in God as Father Almighty, Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior, as well as the Holy Catholic Church while renouncing Satan and evil. Cuts are included during the scene to show the crime bosses of the other New York Mafia families are massacred under Michael’s direct orders. The display of brutal murders stemming from Michael as he renounces evil in the Catholic Church is extremely ironic. It reveals the hypocrisy of his words while displaying the result of his actions. “Coppola edits between the baptism with holy water of a newborn child and the bloody slayings of several Mafia Dons. Coppola’s editing cuts produce a level of art which is film at its highest level. Coppola creates a dynamic conception of objects: being as a constant evolution from the interaction between two contradictory opposites”. The viewer sees this scene as very powerful and effective due to the editing of contrasting connotations.

Montage is used after Michael kills Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo to reveal the city’s reaction in the form of newspaper photographs and headlines. Very quick lap dissolves are used obtrusively to gauge the city’s reaction and to move the story along a few months in a brief period of time. The juxtaposition of black and white newspaper photos and color footage of prime characters accomplishes the aftermath of an entire city upon learning of their corrupt police captain’s drug racketeering. The music included is an upbeat piano to match the tempo of the montage’s pace.

The Godfather includes numerous examples of cultural and national significance. The dialogue includes selected conversations in full Italian. Even Italian slang terms and words are sprinkled in casual conversation. As previously mentioned, the Catholic faith is a large component of the Corleone family. The majority of Italians have historic roots to Catholicism, and the associations with the Church are a large theme of the film. Hence the title of the film becomes more significant being that Vito is godfather to Johnny Fontane and Michael to Michael Francis. A godfather is a sacred honor and title of the Catholic faith. The film includes themes of prejudice and bigotry that are appropriate given the era and dissention of large groups throughout the picture. Racial slurs such as dago, guinea, wop, greaseball and goombah are thrown around prevalently to describe Italians. Jack Woltz sarcastically refers to Tom Hagen as his kraut mick friend when learning of his German-Irish descent. Sonny refers to African-Americans as ******s while he stereotypically chastises blacks for desiring automobiles made by Cadillac. During the meeting between The Five Families, it is agreed that narcotics distribution is not taboo to the black community, described as animals with no soul. The ethnocentric nature of many characters is extremely plausible and accurate given that pride in one’s heritage is also a large theme in the movie.
Being a male-dominated picture, women are not portrayed in an equal fashion. This includes the scenes in Sicily as well as New York. The arranged meeting and eventual marriage of Michael and Apollonia reveals that a woman’s free will to choose is not traditional priority. Instead, her father makes the decision for her initially. Carlo is condescending to Connie, beating her several times and abusing her verbally. He does not even make an effort to hide an implied affair. Sonny also is unfaithful to his wife several times, suggesting that he uses woman as resources instead of partners.

Sound is also a crucial element in the narrative structure of The Godfather. Traditional Italian music consisting of vibrant horns and strings are heart in times of celebration such as the weddings of Michael and Connie. Other music used is subtly ominous reflecting the mood of stressful narrative sequences. Suspenseful and tense moments use a simple key arrangement deemed as ambient sound to keep viewers intrigued and keep the plot unassuming. A haunting organ is played during the baptism and murders of the other New York crime bosses. Gun shots and fire arms are magnified in different ways at different times. When Clemenza gives Michael the revolver to be planted at the restaurant, Michael fires it and is taken aback at the crisp blast it omits. Clemenza explains this is to frighten the other patrons eating there. The audience also jumps to the unusually loud bang from a small pistol. Even atmospheric sound such as a crackling fire highlights the growing animosity between Tom Hagen and Wolfe’s disagreement to cast Johnny Fontane in his new film.

Despite having box-office success and critical acclaim in the industry, The Godfather reaches legendary status through strength in narrative story-telling. Francis Ford Coppola utilizes different forms of editing and cinematography to tell the story of the Corleone family crime syndicate. Adapted from the novel written by Mario Puzo, The Godfather includes highly celebrated characters and dialogue through their development and the actors in those roles. The cinematography also reaches powerful realms of realistic interpretation through grainy, unsaturated color and impeccable props, settings, and wardrobe. Viewers can empathize with many of the cultural themes presented such as racial or gender prejudice and religious affiliation. The Godfather remains an accurate commentary on life in progressive America since the surge of European immigrants early in the century. Although much of the film is set in dark shadows, The Godfather continues to glow luminously on the mantle of modern American films.

NFL Preview- AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS

The always resilient Ravens look to rebound from a gut-wrenching loss in which they were a botched kick from Super Bowl XLVI. It’s been a long offseason for Baltimore, negotiating with both top 2008 offensive draftees who are now franchise players in RB Ray Rice and improving QB Joe Flacco. Rice got his long term deal, structured strategically by GM wizard Ozzie Newsome. It seems Flacco’s imminent deal could be backloaded to balance the instant paydays Baby Ray recently received. Either way, these two seem to be Ravens for the extended forseeable future. However, owner Steve Bisciotti and Newsome still need to lock up the QB from Delaware, especially in today’s NFL where passing is as dangerous as it’s been in history.

Baltimore will line up two promising catching tight-ends as Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson look to improve their complimentary yin-yang skillsets in the Ravens offense. Primary receiver Anquan Boldin seems to be slowing down as a true number one option; look for Torrey Smith to get many more primary reads, instilling trust in his offense and coaching staff after a 50 reception, 841 yard rookie campaign where he hit pay dirt seven times. Former Texans WR Jacoby was also added to the roster and could fill a role either in the slot or outside. Baltimore needs to tweek their powerful blocking scheme after losing Pro Bowl G Ben Grubbs in FA to the Saints. Furthermore, the T position is not quite set as Michael Oher starts camp back over to regain his infamous blindside duties on Flacco’s left side. If Bryant McKinnie is distraught or unavailable, will hybrid Marshall Yanda be able to provide a consistent mauler mentality as a starter or will Ray Rice need to elevate his blockers? C Matt Birk is also getting long in the tooth and his Ivy League education cannot remedy this fact. Sturdy batting ram Vonta Leech is there to break facemasks and get the most out of OC Cam Cameron’s run calls, who always seems to be on the hotseat in the minds of faithful B-More die-hards.

Of course the black cloud over Baltimore this season is the loss of 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, LB Terrell Suggs, who ruptured his Achilles tendon while ‘training.’ Combined with unsung hero Jarrett Johnson bolting for San Diego, guys really need to step up and fill in the front seven around Haloti Ngata, the best DT in football and first ballot Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. 52 has come into camp in shape and nimble but with the inevitable downfall and loss of impact of NFL players, how much more playmaking can Lewis provide going forward? He’s an excellent example of mind over matter but matter is still science. Baltimore once again acquired an excellent value pick in the draft when they took Alabama LB Courtney Upshaw in preparation for the days when Lewis and Suggs are no longer the dominant specimens they are notorious for. Coupled with the untimely Suggs injury, Upshaw looks to be even more opportunistic in his transition into one of the NFL’s most consistent units. The Ravens also still have young LB Sergio Kindle on the roster whose contributions have been negligent thus far.

Ed Reed is my favorite Raven of all-time. I saw his playoff game-clinching INT vs. Houston as a possible Swan Song to the fans. Reed is back this season. Not without a degree of friction as Reed is seeking a new contract to ride out into retirement. Ed is certainly not the player he once was physically but his high football I.Q. has mastered the scheme and has valuable benefits for guys like second year CB Jimmy Smith who is supremely talented but needs to hone his game and master his craft to utilize these tools. Fan favorite CB Ladarius Webb mans the other side as a playmaking CB who has a tendency to get picked on when he has an off day. What’s interesting is that now the once overwhelmingly bolstered LB has question marks. Can guys like Jameel McClain, Paul Kruger, & Terrence ‘Mount’ Cody maintain a high enough motor and execute the defensive responsibilities to appease their fully matured longtime defensive leaders?

Baltimore is a team that has a chance to take the AFC depending on these mentioned key factors. Can they finally buck all of the other AFC powers like New England and Pittsburgh for conference supremacy? Time will tell but if not, they will have have squandered multiple opportunities with elite talent and the window for this group outside of Flacco, Rice, and Smith is barely ajar. They have a great opportunity to avoid being the Baltimore Bridesmaids and win a second Lombardi. In Ozzie they trust.

Key losses: OLB Jarret Johnson, DT Cory Redding, OG Ben Grubbs

Key additions: OLB Courtney Upshaw, WR Jacoby Jones, S Sean Considine

CINCINNATI BENGALS

The AFC North was the only division to tout three playoff teams in the NFL. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are expected but the surprise birth was the Cincinnati Bengals, whose offense was led by first and second round rookies WR A.J. Green and QB Andy Dalton. Who Dey nation was pleasantly surprised as the transition from Palmer-Johnson was overly smooth. Is there a set-up from the high expectations that one of these two playmakers will endure a sophomore slump? It seems more likely that if either were to go through the second year blues it would be Dalton, who plays a much more demanding position and has to read elite opposing defenses. This has nothing to do with the fact that I can’t stand seeing Dalton’s Phoenix blazen follicles clash with the Cincinnati’s hideous orange uniforms.

Green is a freak athlete and I see his season going extremely well despite Dalton’s overall game leading this team to victories. I have my doubts about BenJarvus Green-Ellis, The Law Firm, being a full-time halfback but he is an extremely savy runner to make up for issues of burst speed. I’m not too sure about backups Bernard Scott and converted FB Brian Leonard being good options so someone will need to step up after parting ways with troubled RB Cedric Benson. The 2012 NFL Draft did manage to secure Cincinnati’s hopeful number two option at receiver in Rutger’s Mohamed Sanu who impressed at rookie mini-camps. I see him as a great complimentary option to take heat off of A.J. Green. TE Jermaine Gresham is proving himself to be a viable threat catching passes which is great for a young QB. The Bengals also added Kevin Zeitler in the draft, who will hopefully plug a hole at RG.

The 2012 first round selection was Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick who will now have a steep learning curve when he returns from injury. Make no mistake, Kirkpatrick is a talent and is hoping to start opposite Leon Hall once he gains the trust of DC Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis. Nothing is guaranteed and Kirkpatrick starts off his career in a tough manner. In the meantime, veteran and former 80 million dollar man Nate Clements will man the left corner position if he can briskly get off of the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. No prospect saw their stock fall as violently as Arizona State LB Votanze Burfict with character and work ethic issues. If he approaches his NFL role with a chip on his shoulder, the front office in Cincy could be pleasantly surprised but Burfict scared enough teams off where he will have to earn it. Underperforming LB Rey Maualuga will need to take control of this defense and they will require significant pressure from DE Carlos Dunlap and DT Geno Atkins. The secondary seems complete and FS Reggie Nelson showed to be reliable last season in his significant range and intuition. The depth at CB looks good on paper, obtaining former Dolphin Jason Allen but still littered with ex-Cowboys, aging Terrence Newman and Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones.

A lot of football fans expect big things for the Bengals after a promising 2011 campaign but I remain skeptical and will have to be proven that they are more than a ‘good’ team who happened to have a Cinderella season. However, I have certainly been wrong before and this could be one of those cases.

Key losses: WR Jerome Simpson, WR Andre Caldwell, DE Frostee Rucker, DE Jonathan Fanene, OG Nate Livings.

Key additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CB Jason Allen, CB Terrence Newman.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

After failing to acquire the position to obtain Robert Griffin III, Mike Holmgren and company still used their two first round draft choices to bolster the offense, trading up one whole spot to take stud Alabama RB Trent Richardson and Oklahoma State pocket QB Brandon Weeden. Much controversy arose from the Weeden selection, as most Browns fans wanted to use that choice on a possible number 1 or 2 WR but Baylor WR Kendall Wright was chosen earlier in the round by Tennessee. I am told by Cleveland faithful that he very well could have been the choice but…ya know, that internet thing. Either way, the Brownies need supplemental draft pick, another Baylor Bear, WR Josh Gordon and 2012 forth round draftee Travis Benjamin from ‘Da U’ to answer the call immediately. Pretty dodgy to rely on 4 rookies to move the ball at all key playmaker positions but WRs Greg Little and Mohammad Massoquai scare absolutely nobody and Cleveland currently has the worst receiver corps in the NFL.

That means the ball will be in Trent Richardson’s hands a lot so hopefully they utilize his carries and take care of his body effectively as he is undoubtedly the best RB prospect to come out since Adrian Peterson in 2007. The good news is that the OL has EXCELLENT pieces. LT Joe Thomas is one of the best lineman in the game already and they invested a first rounder on athletic C Alex Mack, who is also looking to be one of the top guys at his position in the pro ranks. The other three young projected starts- LG Jason Pinkston, RG Shawn Lauvao, and RT Mitchell Schwatrz- will need to gel with these Pro Bowlers immediately if Cleveland wishes to have any sort of success and keeping their good defense off the field.

The city of Cleveland has terrible sports fortunes (that is not a Lebron dig). In a year in which they look to turn over a new leaf, one of their best, prototype DT Phil Taylor will be down for most (if not all) of the 2012 season with a torn pectoral. Taylor is a nasty and robust foundation in the middle who was looking to capitalize on a very promising rookie season. Hopefully, DT Athyba Rubin can have a comparable impact for the sake of Cleveland’s mental health. Luckily, the Browns re-inked tackling machine D-Qwell Jackson who put up MONSTER numbers and proving to be one of the best inside linebackers after finally regaining his health. Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong as surrounding defenders at the second level are nothing special and pretty mediocre athletes so they must rely on technique and veteran instincts.

The Browns showcase yet another player at the near top of their position, third year CB Joe Haden. He is quickly becoming of the very best covermen in football. Starting opposite is Sheldon Brown, who displays great savy and leadership but will eventually be overtaken by Buster Skrine if the speedster can improve his run support. The safety position seems pretty bleak at the moment as projected starters Eric Haag (who?) and T.J. Ward who was lost to a foot injury but fills the box very well.

Pat Shurmur is going to need the raucous Dawg Pound to display a hell of a homefield advantage if the Browns want to escape the basement of the extremely taleneted and well-coached teams of the AFC North. It doesn’t bode well for them and I don’t forsee them being anything other than fourth in the division. At least they have a promising young new core on offense with some talented mainstays on both sides of the ball.

Key losses: RB Peyton Hillis.

Key additions: RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden, DE Frostee Rucker.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Sixburgh is in the house. The only reason that the AFC North gets second notice in the hierarchy of the NFL is due to the six Lombardi’s accumulated by the most successful franchise in the NFL. Pittsburgh’s 2011 season was underwhelming by their standards, getting Tebow’d in overtime of the Wildcard Round and dealing with nagging lower body injuries to QB Ben Roethlisberger. Fret not Steeler Nation. The Steelers front office, particularly Kevin Colbert, sat back and patiently picked up two exemplary offensive linemen to infuse into their aging unit that has forced Big Ben to move around and get hit more than is comfortable lately. Stanford mauler David DeCastro was chosen in the first round and the best overall player at his position. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Ohio State T Mike Adams was taken in the second round despite having a first round grade by many scouts and analysts. Hopefully, C Maurkice Pouncey improves as he has to see Haloti Ngata twice a season and a schedule that will line him up against the NFC East. T Willie Colon also returns to the starting lineup after missing 2011 but is now practicing at G. With RB Rashard Mendenhall out for most likely half of the season recovering from knee injury. Issac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer will battle for the bulk of carries throughout camp and preseason. Redman is a strong and steady runner that is very effective when the schematics are executed in the trenches and on the second level. He’s a problem to take down.

Although extending WR Antonio Brown to a comfortable deal, Pittsburgh still need to commit to their best receiver, dominating downfield threat Mike Wallace. The Road Runner Wallace has yet to sign his franchise tender and new OC Todd Haley will have to rely on number 17 to have comfortability with his trademark three and four receiver spread formations. Emmanuel Sanders is a great option to have as a number three and they also return former Jet Jerricho Cotchery. Fan favorite TE Heath Miller will look to operate underneath Haley’s new vertical offense and provide Ben with his trusty outlook receiving option.

Original Gangster nose tackle Casey Hampton is not able to perform thus far but is expected back by the start of the regular season. For a man of his size and considerable cognitive and physical talents, this does not seem as worrisome as it would for most key defensive players. The Steelers have the best LB group in the NFL despite the retirement of Steelers longtime warrior James Farrior. Controversial heavy-hitter James Harrison and Michigan standout LaMarr Woodley will bring the heat from the edges, looking to bolster their output of nine sacks a piece, which is pedestrian for them. Lawrence Timmons displays the most athleticism of the defense’s sub group and will attempt to lead watching from Farrior over the years. Improving 3-4 DE Ziggy Hood is working to provide ruckus of the edge because I’m not very optimistic about how much Brett Kiesel can disrupt offenses with his long frame and long beard any longer.

The biggest question mark on the Steelers’ defense remains the cornerback rotation. Returning is vet Ike Taylor but other than that, I hope mastermind DC Dick LeBeau can mold a young cast including Cortez Allen, Terry Carter, Keenan Lewis and Walter McFadden. If Troy Polamalu can remain healthy, obviously he adds versatile dynamics that very few teams, if any, can claim at the safety position. FS Ryan Clark is back and while still a trustworthy starter, I’m still disappointed at his bad angle resulting in a last drive loss versus Baltimore when Flacco hit Torrey Smith in the back of the endzone for the divisional sweep.

Once again, this division will boil down to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Never count out a motivated group of well-coached Steelers and that’s exactly what they deploy for 2012. Head Coach Mike Tomlin is secured for the long haul and they aim to capture the division crown back from the Ravens. Who am I to bet against that? There is a reason why they’re the Pittsburgh Steelers and every other team isn’t.

Key losses: CB William Gay, LB James Farrior

Key additions: RG David DeCastro, LT Mike Adams, NT Alameda Ta’amu