Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Best and Worst of 1-49

As Super Bowl 50 gets closer, the reminiscing continues.  I can't wait to see what the NFL has in store for the Golden Anniversary party on Sunday.  What I've got in store today, though, is another list.  Well, two lists actually.

Everyone has their favorite Super Bowl, and selecting the best is a very subjective exercise.  Same thing with choosing the worst.  Last year's game was great.  Two years ago...not so much.  And there are a whole bunch that fall somewhere in the middle.

Over the course of the first 49, there were plenty of classic games and plenty of duds.  Narrowing it down to the 10 best and 10 worst wasn't easy.  Ranking those 10 in any sort of order is virtually impossible.  So I decided not to do it.  My top 10 and bottom 10 are listed in chronological order instead.

The 10 Best
Super Bowl III: Jets 16, Colts 7-Why is it an all-time great?  Because it legitimized the AFL and helped make the Super Bowl what it is.  In terms of quality, it's probably not in the top 10.  But you can't deny Super Bowl III's impact and importance.

Super Bowl X: Steelers 21, Cowboys 17-This was probably the first real "classic" Super Bowl.  It's the one where the NFL Films highlights shows the freeze-frame of Lynn Swann making that diving catch.  Steelers-Cowboys II three years later was pretty good, too.

Super Bowl XXIII: 49ers 20, Bengals 16-"Hey guys, ins't that John Candy?"  That's how Montana-to-Taylor started.  Eight plays and 92 yards later, the 49ers dynasty had its third championship.

Super Bowl XXV: Giants 20, Bills 19-We're also celebrating the 25th anniversary of Super Bowl XXV this year, so we've been hearing a lot about this classic recently.  From Whitney Houston's national anthem to Bill Parcells' genius game plan to poor Scott Norwood, Super Bowl XXV had it all.  It will always remain the closest Super Bowl ever.

Super Bowl XXXII: Broncos 31, Packers 24-After so many duds during the NFC's 13-year winning streak, Super Bowl XXXII was a refreshing (and at the time, rare) close game.  Green Bay let Denver take the lead so they'd get the ball back with more time, but the Broncos' defense came through and clinched the championship.  Two lasting images from this game--John Elway flipping head over heels for a first down and Pat Bowlen saying "This one's for John" as soon as he was handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Super Bowl XXXIV: Rams 23, Titans 16-One of the most unexpected matchups in Super Bowl history was also one of the best.  The Rams took the lead on that 73-yard touchdown pass with like a minute and a half left.  It looked like the Titans would tie it and send it to overtime, though...until Mike Jones made that tackle on the 1-yard line as time expired.

Super Bowl XXXVI: Patriots 20, Rams 17-Back in 2002, people didn't hate the Patriots yet.  We actually thought it was cool that they had the lead on the Greatest Show on Turf.  It was tied at 17-17 when Tom Brady did what he always does for the first time, setting up Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal.  Vinatieri, of course, would kick the winning field goal on the final play of the game again two years later.

Super Bowl XLII: Giants 17, Patriots 14-All anybody could talk about going into Super Bowl XLII was how the 18-0 Patriots would finish off the "greatest season ever" and join the '72 Dolphins as the only undefeated champions in the Super Bowl Era.  Somebody forgot to tell the Giants, though.  David Tyree invented the helmet catch before Eli hit Plaxico Burress for the game-winner with 35 seconds left.  Four years later, they met in another classic, and the Giants did it again.

Super Bowl XLIII: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23-Topping Super Bowl XLII wasn't really possible, but Super Bowl XLIII came close to matching it.  Pittsburgh had that awesome 100-yard James Harrison interception return touchdown and led 20-7 before the Cardinals scored 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to take the lead.  No problem.  Ben Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone (again with 35 seconds left) to make the Steelers the first team to win six Lombardi Trophies.

Super Bowl XLIX: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24-It was last year.  We all remember what happened.  The Patriots took the lead, but Seattle had a miracle catch and was on the 1-yard line with two chances to win the game, only to make the stupidest play call ever and lose it instead.

The 10 Worst
Super Bowl V: Colts 16, Cowboys 13-Jim O'Brien kicked one of three last-second game-winning field goals in Super Bowl history (and the only one by someone other than Adam Vinatieri).  It was an exciting finish to an otherwise terrible game.  There were 11 combined turnovers and people took to calling it the "Blunder Bowl."

Super Bowl VI: Cowboys 24, Dolphins 3-Super Bowl VI wasn't much better than the previous year's.  The Dolphins would famously go undefeated the next season, but in Super Bowl VI, the Cowboys held them to just 185 total yards and 10 first downs.  Miami scored just a field goal.  Of the 98 teams to play in a Super Bowl, 97 have scored a touchdown.  Only the '71 Dolphins didn't.

Super Bowl XVIII: Raiders 38, Redskins 9-Marcus Allen breaking through for a 74-yard touchdown is the indelible image of a completely unmemorable game.  The Raiders set records (since broken) for points and margin of victory in an absolute beat down of the defending champion Redskins.  It was also the AFC's last win until Super Bowl XXXII 14 years later.

Super Bowl XX: Bears 46, Patriots 10-How did the '85 Bears only win one championship?  They shut out both the Giants and Rams in the playoffs, so it was something of a minor victory when the Patriots took a 3-0 lead.  It wouldn't last, though.  The rout was so bad that they let William "Refrigerator" Perry score a Super Bowl touchdown.  (Thanks to my dad's VHS tape, this is the first Super Bowl I saw in its entirety.  My collection started here.  It's currently at 30.)

Super Bowl XXIV: 49ers 55, Broncos 10-Guess what jersey color Denver wore for this one?  I can't really blame the Broncos for getting blown out in this one, though.  The defending champion 49ers played the absolute perfect game in winning their fourth title in nine years.  As painful to watch as it was if you were a Broncos fan, watching the 49ers offense execute the way that it did was a thing of beauty.

Super Bowl XXVII: Cowboys 52, Bills 17-I think this one is the Super Bowl that changed people's perceptions of the Bills, who are finally getting their due as a great team 25 years later.  It was Buffalo's third straight loss and by far the worst.  Nine turnovers led to 35 Cowboys points, which just happened to be the margin of victory.  Dallas would've set a record for points scored if Don Beebe hadn't knocked the ball out of Leon Lett's hand.

Super Bowl XXIX: 49ers 49, Chargers 26-Five years after the 49ers' last title, Joe Montana was gone and Steve Young was the man in San Francisco.  He "got the monkey off his back" with as impressive an offensive performance as we've ever seen in a Super Bowl.  The rout was on early.  Young hit fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Rice for a 44-yard TD on the fourth play from scrimmage, the first of his six touchdown passes in the game.

Super Bowl XXXV: Ravens 34, Giants 7-For all of their memorable trips to the Super Bowl, the Giants would like to have this one back.  They played their worst game of the year against a Ravens defense that gave them no shot.  Kerry Collins threw five interceptions, and a kickoff return touchdown is the only thing that prevented them from being shutout.

Super Bowl XXXVII: Buccaneers 48, Raiders 21-If you're a fan of a defense, you probably loved Super Bowl XXXVII.  Because the Bucs' defense completely dominated the Raiders' No. 1 offense.  Rich Gannon threw five interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, and was sacked five times.  It was 34-3 Bucs before the Raiders made it somewhat close, until two defensive touchdowns in the final 1:18 put a ribbon on it for Tampa Bay.

Super Bowl XLVIII: Seahawks 43, Broncos 8-Denver obviously hopes their Super Bowl experience in San Francisco is vastly different than the one they had two years ago in New York.  The opening snap went over Peyton's head for a safety and it only got worse from there.  To say the Seahawks beat the Broncos into next week and then some would be an understatement.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Peyton's Last Dance?

Brett Favre will be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.  His career ended on a Monday night in Minnesota in December 2010, when he was pile driven into the frozen ground by Bears defensive end Corey Wootton and suffered the last of his many concussions.

John Elway's Hall of Fame career ended a little differently.  He went out on top.  At the end of Super Bowl XXXIII in n January 1999, he took a knee and then was carried off the field after being named MVP, as the Broncos won their second straight title.  Seventeen years later, another Broncos quarterback has a chance to write a similar script.

Super Bowl 50 will most likely be Peyton Manning's final game.  While he hasn't come out and said it, Peyton has given all indications that this is it.  He even went so far as to tell Bill Belichick that this was his "last rodeo" at the end of the AFC Championship Game.  If that's not an indication he's leaning towards retirement, I don't know what is.  Win or lose, but especially if the Broncos win, Sunday's game will probably be the last time we see Peyton Manning on the field as an NFL quarterback.  Will his Hall of Fame career end the same way Elway's and Michael Strahan's and Jerome Bettis's and Ray Lewis's did?

I don't think this news (keep in mind, none of this is official, it's all purely speculation) surprises anyone.  There are a lot of people, myself included, who figured this would be Peyton's last year.  When he got hurt and benched in Week 10, some wondered if that was already the last time we'd ever see him on a football field in uniform.  Personally, I never thought Peyton Manning would go out that way.  If his season had ended against the Chiefs in Week 10, I bet Peyton Manning would've come back for another year.  After all, he's still under contract for 2016.  But the Football Gods had other ideas.

It's been clear for a while that Peyton's career has been nearing its end.  Some wondered if he'd ever be able to come back from the neck surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season, which led to his being fired by the Colts.  Denver took a chance that he wasn't done, and the Broncos were rewarded for it.  He wasn't the Peyton Manning of old, but he was close.  Their offense put up points at a historic pace.  They went to a Super Bowl in his second year with the team (only to get humiliated by Seattle).  Last season he didn't look like himself in a playoff loss to, of all teams, Indianapolis.  As it turns out, he was playing through an injury for the final two months of last season.

The 2015 edition of Peyton Manning was nothing like past vintages.  He's no longer the best player on his team.  Instead of trying to outscore you, the Broncos were asking Manning to do just enough to win the game while the best defense in the league took care of the rest.  It was unlike anything we'd ever seen.  He'd turned into "Peyton Manning: Game Manager."  But the results were the same.  And there were still glimpses of the old Peyton (like that game-winning drive against the Steelers in the Divisional playoff).

Will his legacy be defined by Super Bowl 50?  Absolutely not!  Manning's not going to match Brady's four titles and three Super Bowl MVPs.  Hell, even his little brother has two rings and was Super Bowl MVP both times.  Yes, a 1-3 Super Bowl record looks a lot worse than 2-2.  But how many quarterbacks have started four Super Bowls?  (For the record, there are six others: Tom Brady, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Roger Staubach and Jim Kelly.)  And, don't forget, Peyton has already led his team to a championship.  Only 30 other quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era can make that claim.

So, no, Peyton Manning doesn't "need" to win Super Bowl 50.  But wouldn't it be the perfect ending of the story?  He gets benched, misses five games, returns as a backup only to enter in relief in the second half of the last regular season game, which his team wins to clinch home field advantage in the playoffs.  He leads a comeback win in the first playoff game, then gets back to the Super Bowl by winning the final matchup in a rivalry that defined a generation.  There's only one possible way for it to end.  Right?  Riding off into the sunset (I'm assuming on a white bronco) as a Super Bowl champion.

Manning could write the same ending as Elway, which would be only fitting.  Because there are so many parallels between them, and not just because they're both Broncos.  Elway lost his first three trips to the Super Bowl before rewriting the story with two wins at the end.  The last of those wins was 17 seasons ago, which just happened to be the rookie year of the No. 1 pick out of Tennessee.  Now Elway is Manning's boss.  He brought Peyton to Denver with one goal in mind--winning a Super Bowl.

When the Broncos upset the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, Pat Bowlen famously said after he was handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy, "This one's for John."  Just picture the scene on Sunday night.  Orange and blue confetti is streaming down, and Elway says on the victory podium, "This one's for Peyton."

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Super Bowl 50 All-Time Team (Defense)

I told you that we'd start seeing all kinds of all-time Super Bowl teams during the bye week.  The NFL announced the official one, which was voted on by Hall of Fame voters, today.  And ESPN finished their countdown of the 50 greatest players in Super Bowl history today, too.

As for my Super Bowl all-time team, I revealed the offense yesterday, and I came pretty close to what the NFL had.  The only player I didn't have was Hall of Famer Larry Allen, who I actually had on my original list at guard before cutting him.  On defense, though, I don't quite see eye-to-eye with the Hall of Fame voters.  My linebackers are almost completely different than the quartet of Hall of Famers they came up with (I'm just going ahead and putting Ray Lewis in the Hall of Fame, even though he isn't eligible yet).

Just like the offense worked out nice and evenly with 25 players including the two return men, it's the same thing with the defense.  The defense proper gives us 23, with the kicker and punter getting us to 25.

Defensive End: Charles Haley (49ers-23, 24; Cowboys-27, 28, 30), Harvey Martin (Cowboys-10, 12, 13), Reggie White (Packers-31, 32), L.C. Greenwood (Steelers-9, 10, 13, 14)
Well, this one was really easy.  Charles Haley is famously the only player in history with five Super Bowl rings.  It's why he has a bust in Canton.  And it was his trade to the Cowboys that ended one dynasty and started another.  Harvey Martin was the first Super Bowl MVP to pass away, which means, sadly, he'll be one of the two that won't participate in the pregame ceremony (the other is Peyton Manning, who has a good excuse).  Another late defensive end is Hall of Famer Reggie White.  He sure made the most of his first Super Bowl opportunity, sacking Drew Bledsoe three times.  My love of should-be Hall of Famer L.C. Greenwood and his gold shoes is well known.  I think he was the most overlooked member of that "Steel Curtain" defense that was the first real dynasty of the Super Bowl era.

Defensive Tackle: Joe Greene (Steelers-9, 10, 13, 14), Randy White (Cowboys-10, 12, 13), Leon Lett (Cowboys-27, 28, 30), Vince Wilfork (Patriots-39, 42, 46, 49)
Is it even possible to come up with any sort of football-related list of all-time greats and not include Mean Joe Greene?  White was co-MVP of Super Bowl XII, when the Cowboys forced seven Broncos turnovers (the first of Denver's four losses in orange, hence the white next Sunday).  Leon Lett, unfortunately, is best remembered for having the ball knocked out of his hand by Don Beebe at the end of the Cowboys' rout over the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII.  What we forget is his role in Dallas' absolute dismantling of Buffalo (both that year and the next).  It's a good thing this isn't a real team.  Because it would be expensive to feed both Lett and Vince Wilfork, the defensive version of Tom Brady for the Patriots over the last decade.

Linebacker: Chuck Howley (Cowboys-5, 6), Ray Lewis (Ravens-35, 47), Rod Martin (Raiders-15, 18), Bobby Wagner (Seahawks-48, 49), Tedy Bruschi (Patriots-31, 36, 38, 39, 42), Jack Lambert (Steelers-9, 10, 13, 14), Lawrence Taylor (Giants-21, 25)
The first defensive player and only player from a losing team to win MVP honors, Howley had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in Super Bowl V, then had one of each the next year.  Ray Lewis and the Ravens' defense beat the Giants down a couple times over in Super Bowl XXXV, when he was named MVP.  He then capped his career 12 years later with another title.  Rod Martin: three interceptions in Super Bowl XV, a sack and a fumble recovery in Super Bowl XVIII.  For the first time in three years, Bobby Wagner isn't playing in the Super Bowl.  I guess he can't add to his Super Bowl-record 22 career tackles until next year, then.  Tedy Bruschi was the heart-and-soul of the Patriots long before Tom Brady arrived.  Speaking of heart and soul, that was Jack Lambert and his toothless grin for the Steelers dynasty.  The Giants won two Super Bowls because of their defense.  Lawrence Taylor wasn't just the best player on that defense.  He was arguably the greatest linebacker in NFL history.

Cornerback: Deion Sanders (49ers-29; Cowboys-30), Larry Brown (Cowboys-27, 28, 30), Darrien Gordon (Chargers-29; Broncos-32, 33), Mel Blount (Steelers-9, 10, 13, 14)
How awesome was Deion Sanders?  Wins a title with the 49ers, has an interception in the Super Bowl, then goes to Dallas and wins another the next year.  The other Cowboys cornerback in Super Bowl XXX was Larry Brown.  All he did was intercept two passes and win MVP.  Perhaps the most surprising name on this list is Darrien Gordon.  He played in Denver for two years, won two rings, and had two Super Bowl interceptions.  His 108 interception return yards against the Falcons set a Super Bowl record.  Mel Blount was one of the anchors of the "Steel Curtain.:

Safety: Jake Scott (Dolphins-6, 7, 8), Dwight Smith (Buccaneers-37), Willie Wood (Packers-1,2), Cliff Harris (Cowboys-5, 6, 10, 12, 13)
Why does Dwight Smith make the cut?  Easy.  He had two pick-sixes during the Bucs' rout of the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, when he should've been named MVP instead of teammate Dexter Jackson.  Speaking of interceptions, Miami's "other" No. 13, Jake Scott, was MVP of Super Bowl VII, when his two picks helped clinch the perfect season.  He then had two fumble recoveries in Super Bowl VIII, as the Dolphins defended their title.  Cliff Harris played in five Super Bowls with the Cowboys' "Doomsday" defense.  Hall of Famer Willie Wood broke open Super Bowl I with his interception early in the third quarter of a close game tahat would turn into a Packers blowout.  Ronnie Lott is one of the greatest defensive backs in history, but he played both cornerback and safety, and I can't put him on at one over the other.

Kicker: Adam Vinatieri (Patriots-31, 36, 38, 39; Colts-41)
Duh.  Probably the easiest position to pick of any, which is why it was the only unanimous one among the Hall of Fame voters.  Seriously, who else could it be?  There have been just three game-winning last-second field goals in Super Bowl history.  Vinatieri has two of them.  In a three-year span!

Punter: Ray Guy (Raiders-11, 15, 17, 18)
Seriously, was there any other choice at punter either?  Ray Guy is the best punter ever.  That's why he's in the Hall of Fame.  And if you need convincing that he was actually a "football player" and not just a punter, is this enough proof for you?

So, there it is.  My 50-member all-time Super Bowl team, just in time for Super Bowl 50.  And, if you're keeping track, here's the team-by-team breakdown.  Not surprisingly, there are a lot of Cowboys, Steelers, 49ers and Patriots (if a player appeared in Super Bowls with two different teams, they both count):

Cowboys-12, Steelers-9, 49ers-7, Raiders-6, Patriots-5, Packers-4, Ravens-2, Broncos-2, Dolphins-2, Giants-2, Redskins-2, Colts-1, Chargers-1, Seahawks-1, Buccaneers-1

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Super Bowl 50 All-Time Team (Offense)

With the 50th anniversary Super Bowl matchup set, we're going to have our traditional two weeks of buildup before the Broncos and Panthers finally take the field.  Among the things we're going to see, which I think is appropriate considering the game number, is all-time Super Bowl teams.

Most of the all-time teams that will be announced this week will include 50 players (it's only fitting to do 50 players for the 50th Super Bowl, after all).  However, the 50 "greatest" players will mainly be quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, with some defensive players mixed in.  It's highly doubtful that any of these all-time teams will include offensive linemen or specialists (although, I'm sure Adam Vinatieri will be on a few).

I'm not saying that all of the quarterbacks and running backs aren't deserving (most of the Super Bowl MVPs do come from those two positions for a reason).  But a team of all offensive skill position guys isn't exactly a "team."  So I'm gonna do things a little differently.  My all-time Super Bowl team will be 50 players, but I'm building a full team.  That means I've got a full complement of offensive and defensive linemen, a kicker, a punter, and return men.  I've broken this up into two posts.  Today it's the offense, with the defense coming tomorrow.  It wasn't done intentionally, but there are 25 players on each side of the ball.

Quarterback: Tom Brady (Patriots-36, 38, 39, 42, 46, 49), Joe Montana (49ers-16, 19, 23, 24), Terry Bradshaw (Steelers-9, 10, 13, 14)
This was the easiest position of them all.  They're the only three quarterbacks who've won four Super Bowls, and Brady and Montana are the only three-time MVPs.  Brady is also one of only two players to appear in six, and the only one to start six.  He's 4-2, of course, while Bradshaw and Montana are both 4-0.

Running Back: Franco Harris (Steelers-9, 10, 13, 14), Roger Craig (49ers-19, 23, 24), Emmitt Smith (Cowboys-27, 28, 30), Larry Csonka (Dolphins-6, 7, 8), John Riggins (Redskins-17, 18)
It was really tough to keep Marcus Allen off, but these five hold the slight edge.  Four of them were MVPs, while Craig (who should be in the Hall of Fame) was the first player ever to score three touchdowns in one Super Bowl (XIX) and is third all-time in all-purpose yards.

Wide Receiver: Jerry Rice (49ers-23, 24, 29; Raiders-37), Lynn Swann (Steelers-9, 10, 13, 14), Deion Branch (Patriots-38, 39, 46), Cliff Branch (Raiders-11, 15, 18), Hines Ward (Steelers-40, 43, 45)
Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver ever.  It's only natural that he holds every Super Bowl receiving record.  Most of the records he broke were Lynn Swann's.  Deion Branch gets on because he had 24 catches in three games and was MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX.  Cliff Branch was on all three Raiders championship teams and Hines Ward won two with the Steelers.

Tight End: Jay Novacek (Cowboys-27, 28, 30), Shannon Sharpe (Broncos-32, 33; Ravens-35)
Tight end was a surprisingly difficult position to come up with two.  Jay Novacek gets on because of his importance to the Cowboys' dynasty.  Shannon Sharpe is one of the greatest tight ends ever, and he won a ring his first year in Baltimore after winning two in Denver.

Tackle: Rayfield Wright (Cowboys-5, 6, 10, 12, 13), Art Shell (Raiders-11, 15), Joe Jacoby (Redskins-17, 18, 22, 26)
Wright played on all five Cowboys teams that got to the Super Bowl in the '70s.  I don't care what position you play, that's an impressive stat.  Art Shell and Gene Upshaw were one of the most dominant offensive line duos in NFL history.  Joe Jacoby, who, like Roger Craig, isn't in the Hall of Fame but should be, represents all of the "Hogs."

Guard: Nate Newton (Cowboys-27, 28, 30), Gene Upshaw (Raiders-2, 11, 15), Jerry Kramer (Packers-1, 2)
That Cowboys dynasty might've had the Triplets, but they won three Super Bowls in four years because of that offensive line.  Gene Upshaw's career was so long that he played in Super Bowl II and was still a starter when the Raiders won 13 years later.  And somebody from the Vince Lombardi Packers had to be on there, so why not Jerry Kramer?

Center: Mike Webster (Steelers-9, 10, 13, 14), Bart Oates (Giants-21, 25; 49ers-29)
Just like the Cowboys' offensive line was the most under-appreciated part of their dynasty, the same can be said about the Steelers.  And no one on that Pittsburgh line was better than Hall of Famer Mike Webster.  Bart Oates played in three Super Bowls and won them all, and let's not forget how much the Giants' running game dominated Super Bowl XXV.

Kick Returner: Desmond Howard (Packers-31)
The easiest call behind quarterback.  Howard was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXI, when his 99-yard return broke the game open.  He had 244 all-purpose yards in that game (154 kick return, 90 punt return) to set a record.

Punt Returner: John Taylor (49ers-23, 24, 29)
Such a tough call between Taylor and Troy Brown.  But it's Taylor that holds the Super Bowl records for punt returns and return yardage, so he gets the nod.  Then there's Montana to Taylor, one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

2016 Conference Championships Picks

You can't say it all the time, but this year I think it truly is the case that the four best teams in football are the only ones left standing on Conference Championship weekend.

After the craziness of Wild Card Weekend, things returned to normal in the divisional round.  All four games were decided by a touchdown, but the home team ended up winning each, setting up a pair of 1 vs. 2 matchups.  In Denver, it'll be Brady-Manning XVII, for the fourth time in the AFC Championship Game.  Meanwhile in Charlotte, we've got Heisman Trophy winners meeting in a conference title game for the first time ever, which is kind of crazy if you think about it.  Speaking of crazy things to think about, the NFC champion will head to San Francisco with a better record, yet the Patriots-Broncos winner will likely be the favorite.

While I'm on the topic of favorites, my Super Bowl pick at the start of the playoffs was Arizona-Denver.  Nothing I saw last week gave me any reason to change that pick.  I thought going in that the Cardinals were the best team, and I still think that.  And I thought that having home field would make the difference for the Broncos, which I also think will be the case.

AFC: Patriots (13-4) at Broncos (13-4): Denver-Why does everyone think this is going to be a New England blowout?  The way people are putting money on the Patriots, you'd think the Broncos might as well not even bother showing up.  Apparently, this is going to be last year's AFC Championship Game all over again.

Well, I've got news for you.  It won't be.  For starters, the game is in Denver, and the Patriots are a much different team on the road in the playoffs.  And everybody seems to be forgetting that the game is in Denver for a reason.  The Broncos beat the Patriots during the regular season...with Brock Osweiler at quarterback...when New England was still undefeated!  I don't know if it's because people are just used to seeing the Patriots win that they made the easy pick, but there isn't much of a talent gap between these teams.  And you'd have to think that the Patriots won't automatically get all the calls like they do at home, too.

It's also worth noting that the Broncos didn't play that well last week, and they still found a way to win.  They won't be able to get away with playing as poorly against the Patriots as they did against the Steelers.  They know that.  But people haven't been giving that Denver defense enough credit all season.  And that Broncos defense is going to be the key to the game.  New England's offense is better than the limited Pittsburgh offense Denver faced last week.  They'll need to find a way to shut down Frat Boy and keep Brady under pressure.  If they can get to Brady and force turnovers, the Broncos will be in business.

Is this Peyton Manning's last best chance?  Probably.  The Broncos offense knows they were bad last week and got away with it.  They also know that can't happen again.  And it probably won't.  They'll bounce back in a big way.

Obviously the big story heading into the AFC Championship Game is Manning vs. Brady again.  Everybody's focusing on Brady's record, but there's another stat that's worth considering.  They're 2-2 against each other in the playoffs.  Brady won the first two.  In New England.  Manning has won the last two.  Both in AFC Championship Games.  One in Indianapolis, and two years ago in Denver.  So, in many ways, this is the rubber match.  And at the end of the day, we'll see an orange-clad team headed to the Bay Area for the Super Bowl.

NFC: Cardinals (14-3) at Panthers (16-1): Arizona-With two Southern-based teams playing for the NFC title, you wouldn't have thought weather would be a factor.  But the blizzard actually went as far down as Charlotte, and the Panthers had to cover the field, which also affected their preparations for the game.  How much?  We'll see.  The Cardinals had no such problem with practice.  However, how cold will it be, and will that have any impact on Arizona?

The Cardinals showed people a lot last week.  Aaron Rodgers pulled off another one of his Houdini acts, only to have Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald march Arizona right down the field for the game-winning touchdown in overtime.  Of course, it was a defensive lapse that put them in that position, but they actually played a pretty good game on both sides of the ball against the Packers.  Overall, that was a high-quality football game played by two good teams, where the better team ended up winning.

Carolina, meanwhile, absolutely blitzed Seattle in the first quarter of their Divisional Playoff game.  It was a statement made by a Panthers team that went 15-1, yet was the underdog against the two-time defending NFC champions.  However, that second half Seahawks comeback has to be a source of concern.  For everything the Panthers did right in building that 31-0 lead, they almost gave it all back.  If they hadn't been up by as much as they were, it's very possible that they could've choked away their chance.

This game will be all about those two explosive offenses.  Rather, it'll be about which underrated defense does a better job at stopping (or at least slowing down) the other offense.  We all know what Cam Newton can do with his legs.  We also know what Carson Palmer is able to do.  I'm curious to see what kind of defensive game plans the two coaching staffs come up with.  Because, as good as the offenses are, I think it's people like Dwight Freeney and Patrick Peterson and Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman that are going to determine this game.

We've got a great matchup in store here, and the winner won't deserve to be an underdog in the Super Bowl (even though they will be).  For the last month or so, I've been saying that I think Arizona is the best team in football.  I'm not changing my mind now.  We'll see the Cardinals in San Francisco.

Last Week: 3-1
Playoffs: 6-2
Season: 162-102

Saturday, January 23, 2016

DH In the NL?

With Baseball's CBA set to expire after this season and the players and owners having virtually nothing to fight about during negotiations for the new one, the topic of the DH in the National League has come up as a potential talking point.  A lot of experts are saying it's inevitable, and Commissioner Manfred has hinted that it could become a reality as early as the 2017 season.  After seeing way too many pitchers get hurt either batting or running the bases, National League owners, who've always been resistant to the change, seem to be more receptive to the idea, too.

This has seemed inevitable for a while, and a lot of reasons for it make sense.  The National League and one of the leagues in Japan are the only two leagues IN THE WORLD that don't use the DH.  The owners, who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on pitching every winter, so it's only natural that they'd want to protect their investment.  Likewise, the player's union wouldn't be opposed to 15 extra DH jobs and the high salaries they'll command.

They've used the DH in the All-Star Game no matter which league is the host since 2011, and we're going into the fourth season of year-round interleague play.  It took some getting used to during that first season, but we've got either American League pitchers hitting or National League teams using DHs every day of the season.  Short of expanding to 32 teams with 16 in each league (which I think is likely at some point), the only way to address that difference while keeping the leagues even would be to adopt the DH across the Majors.

But I hope it doesn't happen. Yes, you read that correctly.  I, a staunch DH supporter, hope they don't go to a universal DH in Major League Baseball.

Major League Baseball is unique in that they play by two different sets of rules.  No other professional sport can say that.  And that's part of what makes Baseball so great.  If you go to an NFL or NBA game, it's going to be exactly the same no matter what team you see.  Not so in Baseball.  The American League is completely different than the National League game.  And that's been the case for more than 40 years since the DH was first introduced in 1973.

I think that's why people get so passionate about the DH debate.  You're either on one side or the other, and there's no convincing you otherwise.  If you're a Cardinals fan, you're a National League guy.  You think the DH is an abomination and always will.  Likewise, if you're a Red Sox fan, you think the DH is great.  You can't envision your team without David Ortiz.

The strategy is completely different, too.  National League managers have to think about when to use pinch hitters and when to double switch.  They have to consider so many more things when making pitching changes than American League managers do.  It's not hard to see why plenty of people prefer the National League game to the AL game, which consists of an endless parade of one-batter relievers that can make the late innings drag on and on.

In some ways, managing in the American League is much easier, though.  You don't have to worry about pinch hitting for your starter when he's still throwing well or try to get him through an inning because his spot in the lineup is coming up and you don't want to waste a reliever.

It's because the games are so different that interleague play is such a cool thing.  Not only do you get to see teams that you otherwise wouldn't, they have to play a completely different style.  That's why home field advantage in the World Series can make such a difference.  American League teams have to figure out a lineup without a DH in it.  The reverse is also true.  A lot of National League teams aren't built to have a DH, and adding one requires a different kind of adjustment.

Call me crazy, but I've always loved that difference.  And I don't think I'd be the only one who missed it if they went to a universal set of rules.  The DH is a part of baseball.  But let the purists have their pitcher hitting, too.  Otherwise, what's the point of interleague play?  All the games would be the same.  And where's the fun in that?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

My Olympic Basketball Teams

USA Basketball has released the list of 30 names that are finalists to be among the 12 that'll be on the Olympic team.  There are some no-brainers (LeBron, Steph Curry), but it'll be interesting to see who fills out the roster.

We know Kobe won't be there.  He's making his retirement official once the Lakers' season ends.  Which he should.  I'm glad he's taking it out of Coach K's hands, too.  Another Olympic gold would've put a nice bow on his career, but Kobe's not the player he once was.  He's certainly not one of the top 12 American players at this point in time.  But the sentimentality of it and the potential uproar over not taking him, whether he deserved a place on the team or not (as if Mike Krzyzewski cares about that) would've been ridiculous.  I'm glad we won't have to deal with that.

So who will be on the men's Olympic basketball team?  Once again, several of the spots seem fairly obvious.  Nike might as well ask them what number they want and start selling the jerseys now.  The only thing that will keep LeBron, Steph Curry, Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant out of Rio would be injury.  You can probably add Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis and Chris Paul to that group, and I'd be very surprised if Chris Paul and Dwight Howard weren't on the team.

That's nine roster spots, which leaves us with three.  And knowing Mike Krzyzewski and the way he's constructed the last two Olympic teams, those spots will go to the guys who best fit the roles he needs them to fill...not necessarily the best players.  With that being said, I like Andre Igoudala to grab one of those three spots.  Igoudala was on the team in London, and he's proven to be a very valuable member of that Warriors lineup.  He'd be a bench guy in Rio and would probably accept that role with no complaints.

For some reason, I like Rudy Gay, too.  He just seems like the perfect guy to be that extra shooting guard/small forward you may need but likely won't need to rely on.  Which leaves us with one remaining roster spot.  It's a toss up between Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Love.  Love was on the gold medal-winning team in 2012, but I think I'd actually prefer Leonard.  James Harden seems unlikely to make the Rio team, but you still need that Harden type of player.  And I think Leonard fits the bill more than Love does.

With that, here's my men's roster headed to Rio in August:

Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Andre Igoudala, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook

On the women's side, things seem just as clear cut.  It would be easy for Geno to pick a team made up exclusively of former UConn players--and that team would still probably win the gold medal--but you know that won't be the case.  At the very least, Brittany Griner and Candace Parker will be there.

You know the women's team will be very UConn heavy, though.  And, frankly, it should be.  One of the reasons UConn is so dominant is because they have the best players.  It would make sense that the UConn players continue to be the best ones at the professional level.  Besides, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore have become such U.S. National Team stalwarts that it's impossible to envision an Olympic squad that doesn't include them.  Especially since this will likely be Bird's Olympic swan song, and probably Taurasi's, as well.

I've only got five UConn Huskies on the final roster.  In addition to the Big Three, it's difficult to picture an Olympic team that doesn't include Breanna Stewart.  When all is said and done, she may go down as the greatest women's college player ever, and she'll be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft.  Stewart might not play that much in Rio (there are so many dominant post players in the U.S. it's ridiculous), but she's going to be an important part of the U.S. National Team for years to come.  It's important for her to come see what this is all about.  Just like it was important for LeBron and Melo to get that first Olympic experience out of the way during the Athens debacle 12 years ago.

Tina Charles is the fifth UConn player (five and a half if you count Elena Delle Donne).  Along with Charles, Sylvia Fowles, Angel McCoughtry and Tamika Catchings have been key members of the U.S. National Team for a long time.  Unless something drastic happens, they'll all be in Rio.

All we've got left is the backup point guard.  It's been Lindsay Whalen's job for a while, but she'll definitely have some competition.  Odyssey Sims is a star in the making, and she was on the team that won gold at the 2014 World Championships.  Sims beat out Skylar Diggins for the final spot on that roster.  I think the roles will reverse this time.  Skylar is motivated by that snub and is determined to make the Olympic team.  They'll both be on plenty of U.S National Teams in the future, but it looks like there'll only be room for one in Rio.  I'm taking Diggins, but either one would be a fine choice.

Looking to extend that 41-game Olympic winning streak, here are the 12 American women I'm sending to Rio:

Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Tina Charles, Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins, Sylvia Fowles, Brittany Griner, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi