NFL Draft Notes — C’mon Already!

The NFL Draft was set to begin at 5:00 pacific time. I had somewhere to be at 6:00, so I figured I’d at least get to enjoy the first few picks before having to head out. Not so fast.

Kings of Leon, anyone? Huh? Really?

Then Roger Goodell enters to much pomp and circumstance, with that tired routine of his, encouraging boos from the Cleveland crowd. If that wasn’t enough, next we got Goodell’s armchair? Followed by the prerequisite pontificating from the studio talking heads before the Jacksonville Jaguars were even on the damn clock, for what had to be the most no-brainer of first picks in recent draft memory.

And can somebody please tell me why in the world Jacksonville needed to exhaust all ten minutes allotted to them to pick Trevor Lawrence at number one? Or why the Jets needed nearly all of their allotted time to pick Zach Wilson second, especially since they’d been telegraphing this choice without any attempt at deception for weeks?

I smell a rat, and I’m taking aim at ESPN and the NFL Network — doesn’t a longer show allow the networks to air more commercials, and thus rake in the millions of dollars in revenues tied to every additional ad? Yeah, I thought so.

Anyway, delays aside (and I didn’t even make it to the Niners selecting Trey Lance at number three before I had to leave), it was an eventful Day One of the NFL Draft. Here’s a few thoughts while we wait for Round 2 to begin:

  1. Give Aaron Rodgers credit. Two years in a row now he’s been the highest profile NFL star to make headlines on draft night. Will this improve his chances to become the next Alex Trebek one day? Sure it could. Maybe it even accelerates the timetable. Could the Packers actually blink and trade their over-exposed insurance pitchman? Doubtful. However, I do look forward to this high-level game of chicken continuing into the summer months.
  2. Tim Tebow’s making a comeback? Hell yeah, he is. (Oops, sorry Timmy. Heck yeah, he is…) One of the funniest memes I saw yesterday was the one proclaiming that “with the first pick of the NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select Tim Tebow of the New York Mets.” Could Tebow make an impact as a Swiss Army Knife type for Urban Meyer this year? I wouldn’t bet against him. Tight end? Sure. Gunner on kick coverage? Why not. Heck, line him up as the punter on those no man’s land 4th and 4 situations from your own 45. The NFL is more interesting with Tebow hanging around, and in the space of 24 hours, the Jaguars just became a highly intriguing franchise to watch this season (did I really just type that sentence?).
  3. Everybody likes to talk about trades that benefit both teams, but actual examples are few and far between. Yet it seems to me that the Bears moving up to get Justin Fields at number 11 last night will be a home run for Chicago, who boast talent everywhere except under center. And at the same time, Dave Gettleman coming away with three additional picks, including the Bears’ number one next year, sets up the Giants to build something special over these next couple of years. And the Gints still got the playmaker they desired at number 20, when they scooped up Kadarius Toney out of Florida. Will the Big Blue O-line keep Daniel Jones upright to enjoy all the weapons he suddenly has at his disposal? We’ll see… we’ll see…
  4. I’m on record as being a Sam Darnold fan. I’m highly skeptical Zach Wilson will ever end up being a substantial upgrade over Sam at the QB position for the Airplanes, and certainly not this year. Yeah, it’s safe to pencil Gang Green in for another year under .500 and out of the playoffs. In fact, since this is the Jets we are talking about, is there anyone out there who would be surprised if somehow the Darnold-led Panthers do something, at some point in the future, to damage their new QB’s old squad? You know, like knock the Jets out of playoff contention? Yes, we could definitely see that. How about, dare I say it — beat them in the Super Bowl? I don’t know, that sure feels like a stretch to the extreme, but something tells me Sam will get the last laugh on this one.
  5. Speaking of Wilson, based on the number of times I’ve now seen the video on social media — the one where ESPN filmed all the rookies in attendance for the draft last night — I guess I’m not the only one who noticed how uncomfortable young Zach looked, awkwardly tugging on his lapel and looking at his shoes with a pained expression on his face. Meanwhile his cohorts preened and mugged shamelessly for the cameras all around him. Luckily for Wilson he’s unlikely to get much media attention in New York City… ruh roh…
  6. Let’s not go giving Bill Belichick any more rings yet just because he drafted Mac Jones. Is it possible that at least some of Jones’ success is attributable to the two wideouts selected before his name was called last night? And I really hate to pile on, but keep your shirt on Mac…it sure looks like Jones was getting second helping on some biscuits and gravy while his Bama teammates were toiling away in the weight room.
  7. Nice to see that the Raiders brought their draft night sense of humor with them to Las Vegas. Alex Leatherwood? Anyone? Anyone? Just reach, baby…
  8. How dysfunctional must it be in Cincinnati’s draft room that they are letting their 24-year-old, injured QB dictate who their first pick will be? Good to know Jets fans aren’t alone at the bottom when it comes to organizational ineptitude.
  9. I’m fully aware it’s become taboo to take a running back in the first round, but it says here that both Pittsburgh and Jacksonville end up big winners taking Najee Harris and Travis Etienne with their late first-rounders.
  10. Apparently the Lions draft room erupted in cheers when the Dolphins took Jaylen Waddle, leaving Detroit free to pick Penei Sewell at number seven. It sure seems like an incredible selection for the Lions, as everybody has Sewell ID’d as a future star. But this is the Lions we’re talking about here, isn’t it? What tragic injury awaits poor Mr. Sewell? Would anyone be surprised if the big tackle slipped in the shower this morning and severed an achilles tendon? I hate even speculating about bad things befalling the young man, but this Lions shit is deep.

And now onward into the second round. Jets picking second. Cornerback, anyone?

The Perfect Sports Day

Could a new day really be dawning for Mets fans?

Let’s take a look at a few facts:

  1. I recently signed up for the MLB package on Cox, a move that normally would send the Mets season immediately into the tank — and they promptly went out and won two out of three in Colorado (and could have swept if not for their manager’s indifference in waiving the white flag during the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader).
  2. The second (and series-clinching) of those wins came on a game-ending caught stealing. Anyone familiar with the Mets bullpen and its penchant for losing games in the most catastrophic ways imaginable, knows such an ending is something we haven’t been able to even consider possible since the days of Tug McGraw and Jerry Grote.
  3. In the first of Saturday’s seven-inning double-header games (and I’m sorry, but a seven-inning game is both a farce and an abomination, especially when my team ends up splitting or getting swept — and given the spate of cancellations the Mets have experienced here in April, fans may as well get used to this seven-inning bullshit), the Mets came from behind to save Jacob deGrom from what appeared to be a certain loss, with a combination of timely hitting and lock down relief pitching. We can all forgive deGrom if he broke down weeping in the clubhouse from the shock of such a reversal of fortune.
  4. As of midnight Sunday night, the Mets occupied sole possession of first place in the National League East.

As Yosemite Sam might ask, “What in tarnation is going on around here?”

But wait there’s more!

What began as a sunny, beach day in Southern California this past Sunday quickly morphed into what can only be described as The Perfect Sports Day. Here’s a quick timeline to provide context into the above statement, which when taken at face value might be viewed as a gross exaggeration:

*11:15 a.m. — a quick check of Yahoo!Sports informs me that the Mets game will be starting at the unusual time of 12:05 out here — something to do with the Mountain Time Zone (if time zones were the Marx Brothers, Mountain Time would definitely be Zeppo…).

*11:50 a.m. — I flip to channel 1681 (yes, that’s really a channel — so much for Mets games only ever being shown on WOR/Channel 9 back in the day), and much to my chagrin, I discover that the MLB package doesn’t include pre-game shows (not to mention I’m going to be forced to listen to the lame Rockies announcers for the second straight day — a HUGE downtick from Gary, Keith and Ron doing the Mets games).

*11:51 a.m. — to kill the time, I quickly scan the other MLB games in progress and see that the Yankees and Rays are on channel 1667. With fingers crossed I flip over and am immediately delighted to see that the Rays are once again in the process of taking the Yanks to the woodshed, leading 3-2 in the 7th inning (love those early east coast starts).

*11:53 a.m. — not wanting to jinx the Rays, I flip the channel to ESPN, the safe haven for channel surfers looking to regroup before formulating longer-term sports viewing strategies. There I am overjoyed to be greeted by Knicks vs Pelicans, in a close one with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. And if that wasn’t enough good news, the great Doris Burke was doing color on the game! I put down the remote, confident I would not be changing channels until the outcome was decided.

*12:17 p.m. — Knicks point guard Derrick Rose, looking nothing like the Derrick Rose who was a disaster in his first stint as a Knick a couple of years back, drives the lane with the Knickerbockers down three and only a few seconds to play. He draws two defenders and deftly dishes to Reggie Bullock in the corner. Bullock drains the three-pointer and we have overtime — yes!

*12:47 p.m. — With the Knicks having successfully vanquished the Pelicans, stomping New Orleans by ten in the extra period for their sixth consecutive win (SIX IN A ROW — THE KNICKS??), I return to channel 1681, where the Mets are out to an early 2-0 lead over the Rockies. Mets starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, looking nothing like the Marcus Stroman who was barely pedestrian in his 2019 cameo with the Mets before completely spitting the bit on the entire 2020 season, is in the process of baffling the Rockies bats while spinning his second consecutive gem of a start.

*1:43 p.m. — I check Yahoo!Sports again and see that the Yankees have officially been swept — at home — by the Rays, marking their fifth consecutive defeat. This sweep leaves them at 5-10 on the season, good for the worst record in the entire American League (I would subsequently learn that never before in the history of planet earth had the Knicks experienced a five-game winning streak at the same time the Yankees were experiencing a five-game losing streak — this is like cats mating with dogs, or, you know, something really unlikely…) and second-worst in all of Major League Baseball. There is much rejoicing.

*2:17 p.m. — I reluctantly have to leave my post on the couch for a pre-planned family beach jaunt. The Rockies have tightened things to 2-1 in the seventh, and Stroman is beginning to show signs of tiring. I assume as I leave the house that Mets Manager Luis Rojas (I still say Rojas looks way over his head much of the time, but we are in first place, so I’ll swallow my tongue on that topic — for now) will turn to his pen for the latest in a series of high wire acts designed to torture the Mets fan base and ensure another season of missing the playoffs.

*3:21 p.m. — through a confluence of positive vibes and good fortune I get a smidgen of cell service at the beach, just long enough for me to make out the sight of a video airing on InstaGram showing Mets catcher James McCann throwing a runner out attempting to steal second. It appears the play may have ended the game, but I lose my cell signal before I can be sure.

*4:11 p.m. — back at street level, my cell service returns and I am able to see the video (multiple times) and confirm via my trusty Yahoo!Sports app that the Mets indeed did hold the 2-1 lead and win the rubber match of the series in Colorado. On a game-ending caught stealing no less! There is more rejoicing.

So to recap. We’ve got high 80’s temps in Southern Cal and a glorious, April beach day. As a backdrop to that, we’ve got the Knicks on national television, coming from behind to win an OT thriller for their fifth consecutive victory. And somehow the Knicks’ success is being built on a foundation of discipline and tenacious defense, with mostly the same group of guys that didn’t defend a lick or seem to care only a year ago. Cue The Garden’s organ and those deafening chants of “DEE-FENSE.”

Add to that the Evil Empire getting punched in the face (for the second season in a row) by the small market Rays, who, last time I checked, lost all of their best pitchers in the offseason. Sure it’s only April, but the Bronx Bombers in the cellar with a .333 winning percentage? Yeah, cartwheel time!

And to all that we attach the ultimate exclamation point. A Mets victory on the road, where our skipper didn’t over-manage us out of a late game lead, actually allowing his starter go eight innings. And when our fragile-as-an-eggshell closer put the tying run on base in the ninth? We send Mets fans to their Happy Recap with a walk-off caught stealing — our new, free agent catcher doing the throwing, and our new, superstar shortstop applying the tag.

Surely our new, billionaire owner was smiling.

Perfect sports day? Youbetcha…

Exagerration? Notevenalittlebit…

Lightning Round — March Madness Recap and Quick Trip Around the World of Sports

So much to cover, but where to start?

Okay, for starters, which insurance company does Flo represent? And she and Jaime are frenemies and colleagues, right? At least when Jaime isn’t out doing a safe drivers test for some unknown reason, and picking up free wood on the side of the road.

Am I the only one that can repeat every March Madness ad in his sleep after the least couple of weeks?

I mean, we’ve got Chuck, Spike and Samuel L. back for Capital One, and somehow now they’ve got Jim Nantz, Magic Johnson and some random viking along for the ride, too? I enjoy Charles Barkley in just about everything he does, but after a few weeks of loop after loop…enough already!

And we haven’t even gotten into the young lady sitting at the AT&T info desk. She got more airtime than Gonzaga throughout March Madness this year. And sure, she’s no Flo (Aflac?), but I suppose there is a certain sweet charm that some ad exec somewhere decided we needed heavy doses of until we all agreed to convert to AT&T just to make it stop. And how in hell did David Robinson get mixed up in that??

Along those lines, I hope somebody in Buick’s executive offices is comparing sales increases versus their advertising spend. I get it — it parallel parks itself. And the one with the young lady driving, with three clones of herself as passengers? Interesting I guess, even if I don’t really get what they are after there. But is anyone really looking at their spouse or significant other after one of those ads and saying, “gee honey, maybe we really do need to go test drive a Buick this weekend?”

But enough already, as the continuous loop of the same ads was a small price to pay for an incredible tournament. Maybe my enthusiasm is in part due to not having the tournament a year ago, but it seems to me that even with the final ending in a blowout, this year’s March Madness from start to finish was one of the best in years.

And even more importantly, the conclusion of the tournament kicks off one of the best seasonal runs for sports fans everywhere. One where we have things to enjoy, debate and look forward to in every major professional league. Let’s take a look, starting with a Big Dance post-mortem:

MARCH MADNESS

*Looking back, it all ended for Gonzaga when Suggs banked in that incredible, 40-foot, game-winner to advance the Zags into the finals. Not only was a letdown from that exuberance unavoidable, the invincible mystique was gone. UCLA’s effort showed the Bulldogs to be human, with flaws, and eminently beatable, which all came true two nights later.

*But what a shot by Suggs! It immediately goes into the bank of All-Time great moments in NCAA Tournament history, and also served as the opening shot of how sports is a proxy for life. In a matter of 48 hours, we got to see that young man experience the height of exuberance, following his buzzer-beater, only to then taste extreme levels of the agony of defeat, as cameras caught him sobbing uncontrollably in the closing seconds of Gonzaga’s finals lost to Baylor. Powerful stuff, and here’s hoping we see more of that young man going forward.

*Shout out to Baylor, while we’re at it. Have we ever seen dominance so profound in both the national semis and finals of this tournament? Tenacity at both ends of the floor. Size in droves, speed, physicality and shooting touch. How did the Bears lose two games this year?

BASEBALL

*Hope springs eternal for fans of nearly every MLB team this time of year, but I can’t remember Mets fans being more hopeful on Opening Day than we were this year. But then, new owner and all, a very Mets thing happened, and the entire opening series was cancelled thanks to Covid. So we cooled our heels a few days and waited to open in Philly. Which we did, and like clockwork the pen peed all over a deGrom masterpiece, the manager was being vilified for pulling Jake too soon, and mumbles of “same old Mets” began to seep into social media posts everywhere. Yeah, same old Mets.

*And while we’re on the Mets (you didn’t really expect this to start anywhere else, did you?), I’m sure Kevin Pillar is a fine fellow. Good defensive outfielder with some pop at the plate. But did we really have to lead him off in the opener? And in so doing, relegate our best hitter from a year ago, Dom Smith, to the bench? Kind of deflating, Mr. Cohen. And I know our new owner isn’t approving lineup cards (at least not yet), but didn’t somebody besides Luis Rojas at least put eyes on the optics of that one? Yeesh…

*With the Mets idle and waiting out the Nationals quarantine down in D.C., it brought on for Mets fans an earlier than usual version of our annual “root against the Yankees, since the Mets are out of it” time-killing activity. And thank you to the baseball gods for not piling on further, and giving us a Yanks loss in their opener, with the added cherry on top of it being a Gerrit Cole start.

*And yes, I smiled when the fans started booing Giancarlo Stanton before the first series of the year had concluded.

*I’m considering making the Angels my new A.L. team to root for. I live a half hour from their ballpark, which is an unsung stadium in this golden era of awesome baseball parks. And of course there’s Mike Trout, who is easy to root for.

*But the real story for the Angels is Shohei Ohtani. This guy is so cool. Takes the mound Sunday night, and his first pitch is clocked at 98. He touches 100 before the inning is over, and then picks up a bat and steps up to the plate hitting in the two-hole. First pitch he absolutely destroys, sending it on a line 450 feet into the right-field bleachers.

*But it wasn’t all 100 MPH heaters and dingers for the two-way star, and this is where the Mets fan in me has to be careful about fully embracing the Angels. The way Ohtani’s evening ended on Sunday had a very Mets-ian feel to it. He cruises into the 5th, and has two outs and a man on, needing one more out to qualify for the W. Then disaster strikes. He sends a pickoff attempt into the right and the runner advances to third. Next thing you know he’s got the bases loaded after hard-fought walks to Abreu (who’s a beast by the way) and Moancada. Credit to Joe Madden for leaving him in to battle for the win and get out of the mess (he was still touching 100 for crying out loud — are you listening, Luis Rojas?), and he does get out of it, getting a strikeout with a nasty splitter to end the inning. But not so fast…the ball eludes the catcher, who sails one-hops his throw past the first-baseman as the runners are merry-go-rounding the bases. The second-baseman picks up the errant throw and sails his throw to the plate trying to catch the second runner advancing, and now Ohtani is covering the plate as the catcher futilely tries to catch runner number three with a late toss back to the plate. Where Ohtani is cut down at the knee by the runner, and ultimately leaves the game limping. I’m not sure I’m cut out for all of this. I may need to stick with just the Mets for the time being.

NFL

*I know it is the conspiracy theorist in me, but anyone else wondering if DeShaun Watson may have pissed off one too many important people in the Houston front office? Coincidental that all these charges of improprieties come flooding out shortly after the young QB flipped the bird to the entire Texans organization? Regardless, hard to see this one ending well for Watson. And should even a smidgeon of what’s out there turn out to be true? Then good riddance. The Texans just finished a season where they were terrible with him under center. Surely they can do it again without him.

*On the other side of the QB coin, this Jets fan is sorry to see Sam Darnold take his exit. I happen to agree that this outcome was best for all parties involved at this point, but here’s hoping that Sam can experience a turn around in Carolina and win a lot of games with an actual supporting cast around him and a coaching staff that puts him in a position to succeed.

*As for the The Airplanes? I like all the moves the Jets have made so far this off season, but their lack of talent was so glaring it’s hard to imagine a return to competence coming any time soon. Especially with another rookie QB coming to town, no matter how talented he may be. I hope I’m wrong… I hope I’m wrong… I hope I’m wrong…

*With the NFL draft coming up, it reminds me of nearly a year ago when that was all the sports entertainment we were going to get in the entire second quarter. Maybe for nostalgia’s sake we can sequester Roger Goodell in his basement again this year. I’d tune in for that.

NBA

*We are about to learn an interesting lesson on the importance of culture and familiarity in The Association. The Brooklyn Nets will head into the playoffs with far more talent than any other calendar this side of LeBron and AD. But it’s talent that due to injuries and in-season acquisitions will not have had much time together on the court prior to the playoffs beginning. How much does that matter? It says here that talent overcomes all, and should the Nets get all of their stars (and frankly I don’t include Blake Griffin in that statement) on the floor together, in reasonably good health, they will make the finals. Culture and familiarity be damned. Either way, it should be darn interesting to watch and find out.

*Assuming LeBron and AD make it back on the court for the postseason (and is there anyone out there who doesn’t think that will happen?), is there a team out west with a legitimate chance of dethroning them? Utah? They’ve been outstanding all season, but I still don’t see them coming away victorious over the Lakers in a 7-game series. The Clips? Maybe, but then I remember they have Paul George. Next? Damian Lillard is always my sentimental choice to find a way, but sadly I just don’t think they have the horses behind him up in Portland to mount an actual threat. Nope, pencil the Lakers back in the Finals.

AIRPLANE

*No, I can’t resist immediately tuning in anytime I see the classic comedy airing as I spin around my cable guide. Did it again the other day, and as many times as I’ve seen it now (gotta be well into double-digits) I still laugh out loud every time I see Kareem get bent out of shape on the kid in the cockpit who tells him his dad says the Lakers great loafs on defense. Priceless.

Not So Sweet 16

The South Region and the Midwest Region sit together on the “right” side of my March Madness bracket. Those two regions have worked like clockwork in the NCAA Tournament thus far, sending eight teams to the Sweet 16, just as the rules state they are supposed to.

I have correctly guessed the identity of one of those eight teams in the bracket I’ve submitted for a pool set up with a few friends from work. My lone correct guess on that entire side of the draw is Baylor, the number one seed in the South, and a pick that millions of other March Madness fans have also selected correctly in their brackets.

So what that means, is that my Baylor pick, the only thing I’ve gotten right through two rounds on that side of my bracket, will do absolutely nothing to improve my chances. And even if the Bears advance to the Final Four (as I have them doing), it will do absolutely nothing to elevate me from the pack.

In other words, I’m toast.

On the “left” side of my bracket I’ve fared slightly better, having three of the eight remaining teams still alive on my official sheet — USC, Florida St., and Alabama. The prognosis is slightly better for me on this side of the draw, as I have all three of those teams winning their Sweet 16 matchups and advancing to the Elite 8.

Building on that small glimmer of hope, I actually have USC winning out from here all the way until the finals, which means I possess the March Madness version of a “puncher’s chance” to pull off a miracle should everything go right for me and my selections from here.

Only in March Madness could such a dreadful performance be so much damn fun. And that’s really the point of filling out all those little boxes every year, isn’t it?

If we use recent history as our guide, my 4-12 record heading into this weekend’s games would indicate it is highly unlikely I will suddenly become a college hoops Nostradamus, but hey — that’s why they play the games, right? And therein lies the excitement of the greatest sports tournament in the world.

It feels like there’s been more upsets than the norm this year (a statement I make every year right around this time, by the way), so perhaps others are suffering similar, painful reactions when they look at their brackets dotted with red “X’s” and alternate winner names scribbled into the margins. C’mon, there’s a reason Warren Buffett offers a million bucks every year to anyone who can put together a perfect bracket — picking winners in March is damn hard to do!

But here we are every year, trying to identify the next upset candidate from the likes of Grand Canyon, Iona and Hartford. Then again, is there a better feeling in the world of fandom than being the one who knew Abilene Christian would take down Texas in the first round? Methinks not.

Speaking of upset specials, I failed to mention where my predicted USC run would conclude in my tattered 2021 bracket submission. That would be in the finals against Midwest Region number one seed Illinois. The same Illini team that was summarily dismissed by eighth-seeded Loyola-Chicago in the second round, a loss that sent bracket-busting shock waves across the nation’s NCAA pools.

The Loyola-Chicago upset feels a bit unfair to me (mostly because I didn’t call it, but I digress), as I’d completely forgotten about that cool nun who comes to all the Loyola-Chicago games and roots them on. Sister Jean was a television sensation and mainstay of the March Madness fun three years back, when the Ramblers made their Cinderella run to the Final Four.

But who remembers such things? Shouldn’t there have been an asterisk next to the Ramblers slot in this year’s brackets, warning of the potential for divine intervention and to bet against Loyola-Chicago at your own risk? Some things you just can’t plan for…

Most years I’ve felt that in order to have a chance to take home the winner’s share of whatever bracket pool you may be a part of, you need to be at least 12-4 heading into the Sweet 16, maybe 11-5 if your Final Four remains intact. So yeah, at 4-12, I may not be officially dead, but let’s just say a mirror has been strategically placed under my nose and local clergy is being summoned to my bedside.

What’s a hoops fan to do from here you ask, his bracket a shambles, but still a couple of weeks of tournament action remaining?

Well, for one, you could do as I did and go enter a new pool that commences with the Sweet 16. For $10 bucks I bought my way into one of those, where eight of us “draft” two of the final 16 teams, and teams advance using a point spread system. If your team wins and covers the spread, you advance. But if you fail to cover (even if your team wins), you are out, and your opponent who owned the loser (but managed to cover the point spread) “steals” your team and advances to the Elite Eight, and so on.

I doubled down on my USC bet in this new pool, giving two points to Oregon this Sunday night. I stayed with the Pac-12 for my second selection taking Oregon State, where I’ll go up against Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean again, this time aided by the 6.5 points the Beavers are getting.

Which begs the question, does God care about point spreads? I’m hoping no, and that way I can advance by stealing Loyola-Chicago (and all 101 years of the good Sister’s karma) when the Ramblers eke out a close one.

Another alternative for the fan looking to keep things fresh, is to root hard against whoever your closest friend with a legitimate chance of winning the pool through the first two rounds happens to be (this is a strategy familiar to Mets fans, typically deployed against the hated Yankees around the middle of August every year). For me in 2021, that means pulling for things to start going wrong for Fairhaven Mike, who’s off to a resounding start in our pool, and appears a lock to come away with the winner-takes-all prize.

But… (and there’s always a “but” when it comes to March Madness, which is part of the experience) if FairHaven Mike suffers a Baylor meltdown at the hands of Villanova this weekend, there will be a slight crack in the door. And such an opening could be exposed by either TechTitan Joe (who’s still wondering how he remains in contention after picking North Carolina to make it to the Final Four) or Bay Area Brian, who has ridden the Oregon State upset bus to a tie for second on our leader board heading into the weekend.

Both TechTitan Joe and BayArea Brian also possess an advantage that up until now has remained secret — FairHaven Mike somehow neglected to pick a winner in his Final Four matchup between Gonzaga and Alabama. A gaffe of this magnitude is the bracket-busting equivalent of Chris Webber calling that timeout he didn’t have back in ’93, costing Michigan’s Fab Five a shot at the title. Ah, the possibilities…

Saturday morning can’t get here fast enough for us hoops fans, and here’s hoping this weekend’s eight games are as exciting and unpredictable as what we’ve seen in the tourney thus far.

March Madness, indeed.

An Idiot’s Guide to the Big Dance

You ever have one of those dreams where you are heading to a final exam, and as you are walking you realize that you haven’t attended any of the classes that semester? Then you remember you’d intended to drop the class, but just never got around to it?

That’s how I’m feeling heading into March Madness this year. The empty brackets are my final exam, and somehow I’ve skipped the entire school year, having barely payed attention to anything related to college hoops. I have no good excuse. The part of my brain assigned to NCAA basketball shut down a year ago, when the tourney was cancelled on account of an oncoming global shitshow. I’ve been unable to jump start it back up ever since.

To my horror, I’ve become that guy in my office I used to ridicule come NCAA Tournament time. You know him, the one who filled out his brackets based on which school had the cooler nickname, or required higher SAT’s for admission.

But it’s March, and the games start in a few days, so ready or not we must fill out our brackets. We’re going in cold, too. No cramming via USA Today’s special March Madness section, or any of the thousands of tournament breakdowns currently available via the internet. Nope, this will be on instinct alone, guided by a lifetime of watching the tournament, along with a cursory awareness of what’s transpired over the past couple of weeks as conference championships were decided and the local tournaments played out.

So what follows are a series of data points, vague indicators, and pure shots in the dark that when strung together fall under the category of throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. Here goes!

We’ll begin out WEST:

*Gonzaga won’t win it all. And that is despite the selection committee’s apparent attempt to give the Bulldogs an easy path to the Final Four (I heard someone on ESPN make that observation on Sunday, so I’m running with it). But really, this is an easy call, since undefeated teams don’t win the Big Dance anymore. Too much depth around the country, plus the target on the back of the jersey that comes with being the number one overall seed (not to mention the fact that Gonzaga isn’t supposed to ever win this thing), will conspire to take out the unbeaten favorites.

*It is perfectly okay to run with personal biases, logic be damned. AtticDaughter1 is a proud USC graduate, and I did one semester of a grad school program at Southern Cal a few years back, so saddle up the bandwagon folks, it’s winning time! Look for a deep run from the Trojans (at least the Sweet 16), and after that, who knows, maybe this is our year?

*Doesn’t it suck when two teams we traditionally like to root for meet up in the first round? We all have our go-to’s that we like to ride every year as we search for that differentiating early upset, and when two of our dark horses randomly collide, early bracket peril is certain to ensue. That’s Oregon versus VCU for me this year. I’ve had success riding both schools to unexpected runs in dances of years past, and would like nothing more than to ride them both again this year. But should I choose the wrong horse in this Round 1 tilt, the price could be blowing up an entire quarter of my bracket. What the hell, give me VCU.

*Am I the only person that didn’t know a school by the name of Grand Canyon existed prior to this year’s tournament?

Then head EAST:

*Karma matters. And for that reason, Michigan will be the first Number 1 seed to go down this March. Isn’t it interesting how in a matter of a few seconds of testosterone-fueled bedlam, Wolverine coach Juwan Howard went from one of the year’s surprise, feel good stories, to a villainous bully? Well he did, which further reinforces the old adage “never threaten to kill your opposing coach.” The hoops gods don’t forget.

*Look for any angle that connects to your favorite pro franchise and make a big bet. For Knicks fans, that’s riding Patrick Ewing and his Hoyas all the way to the Sweet 16 following their surprise Big East Tournament title. And here’s hoping that NCAA security is properly briefed that the big, scowling 7’2 guy heading their way is, indeed, the Georgetown head coach.

*One of the 11-seed, play-in game winners always makes a run (at least it seems that way, or maybe happened once?) once they’ve kicked their way into the main draw. The problem is, this year’s two most likely suspects, Michigan State and UCLA, face one another. This is a bracket conundrum (see Oregon vs VCU above) that will wreak havoc should we misstep. However, look to the hoops gods once again for a clue here. Michigan State selling out on their team name last week, shamelessly adding “Presented by Rocket Mortgage” as a caboose to their long-standing Spartans nickname, makes this selection a simple one. Go Bruins!

*As tired as I am of seeing Iona coach Rick Pitino taking yet another school to the Big Dance, it says here that Alabama will have their hands full after drawing the Gaels in the first round. Look for Bama to survive, but take the points, Iona fans, take the points.

And what about down SOUTH:

*Only the two biggest upsets of Round 1! Look for both to take place in the South Region’s first round:

-Winthrop will take out Villanova (quick, what state is Winthrop located in?)

-and…

-Colgate sends Arkansas packing

(SportsAttic Aside — is there a better feeling in the entire world than when you make a preposterous upset call in the first round and it actually happens?)

Last but not least, what happens in the MIDWEST:

*Look for any connection that will justify claiming a seat on the bandwagon of a top seed, no matter how remote. SportsAttic Nation Resident Sage, Geno the Sawx Fan, has three sons, the oldest of whom happens to be a badass crew man at Illinois. A couple of months back, AtticBro received his very own Illinois Rowing t-shirt in the mail, which means… you betcha — give us the Illini on a glide path to this year’s Final Four!

*Sentimentality is okay. As former residents of the Garden State, we tip our hat to the legions of rabidly faithful hoops fanatics that attended Rutgers University. Back at the Big Dance for the first time in 30 (thirty!) years, the Scarlet Knights will delight their hardcore fans by advancing all the way to the Sweet 16. But then, quicker than you can say “which exit,” the Knights will awaken and recapture their enduring legacy of alumni torment, blowing a double-digit lead in the last five minutes to San Diego State, costing themselves a berth in the Elite Eight.

FINAL FOUR

*USC emerges from the West keeping Cinderella alive, beating Alabama to earn their trip to the finals.

*Illinois outlasts Baylor in a slugfest between Number 1 seeds, setting up a David versus Goliath matchup two days later.

AND THE WINNER IS…

*Illinois’ superior talent and depth proves too much for the Trojans, but since we took USC and the points, everybody wins following a close and entertaining national championship game. (Illini, 82-77)

The New (and Improved) New York Knickerbockers — Real or Mirage?

I am only a couple of words in, and already firmly aware that I may be in the process of casting an enormous jinx upon my favorite basketball team.

But persevere I must.

Because it’s March already. We’ve reached the NBA All Star break. Nearly forty basketball games played. And my New York Knicks are above .500 and occupy the fifth seed (FIVE!) in the Eastern Conference and would qualify as a playoff team were the NBA Playoffs to begin today.

We (yes, to further the hex I brew, I am breaking out a whole lot of “we’s” today) finally have an honest to goodness coach; one that preaches defense and fundamentals. And we actually have young talent on the roster that is exciting and fun to watch. Hell, we even have an All Star!

And perhaps most importantly, since it is the Knicks we speak of, let’s not lose sight of what we haven’t done.

We haven’t traded our young talent and/or draft picks for a short-term fix like Victor Oladipo or Andre Drummond. We aren’t sniffing around Blake Griffin. We passed on Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and James Harden when they were available.

To put it in terms the lifelong diehards can appreciate — we haven’t signed Spencer Haywood, Jim McMillian or Marvin Webster. We haven’t traded for Bob McAdoo, Eddy Curry, Carmelo Anthony, or (gasp) Stephon Marbury.

Last we checked Isiah Thomas was no longer allowed anywhere near the World’s Most Famous Arena. And neither is Big Chief Triangle.

So is the coast clear? Not so fast…

Before declaring a new day has dawned for us long-suffering Knicks fans (last title back in 1973 — I was in second grade for crying out loud), let’s take a look at both sides of this tantalizing coin.

Since it’s the Knicks we are discussing, we’ll begin with the half-empty point of view.

For starters, only a year ago our All Star and best player, Julius Randle, was being roundly booed and ridiculed as a lazy, ball-stopper by the Garden faithful. Randle was the poster child for another last place team, as we slogged through the latest in our interminable string of dreadful, losing seasons.

Our most recent lottery pick, Obi Toppin, is a much bigger project than any of us anticipated on draft night, and other than the occasional fast-break dunk has brought little to the team’s success so far this year. Nor should that surprise, since we seem to be collecting failed lottery picks at the end of our bench, and have for quite some time.

Despite a few surprising wins over top teams, much of the Knicks fast start can be attributed to feasting on the sub-.500 teams around the league. Can we expect that to continue during the season’s second half, or will the law of averages catch up to us?

Will the Knicks be able to handle a full season of Tom Thibodeau’s intensity and heavy workloads? Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett, easily the Knicks’ “Big Two” and most important budding stars, are both among the league leaders in minutes played. We’ve already experienced injuries to starting center Mitchell Robinson and starting point guard Elfrid Payton. While their injuries were not necessarily caused by overuse, losing either Randle or Barrett during the second half would be devastating to any playoff aspirations.

Lastly, James Dolan still owns this team, and we are still the Knicks, two realities that would point to a hole in this franchise so deep that one mildly successful half of a shortened season is unlikely to have filled.

However, there is a half-full view of the New York Knicks that can’t be ignored.

Let’s start with Coach Thibs and our revamped front office. We must give credit where it is due and throw out a hearty “thank you” to top basketball man Leon Rose. His hiring of Tom Thibodeau immediately brought an air of professionalism to what has been nothing short of hoops amateur hour for the past several seasons at MSG. Rose and his sidekick William Wesley (who happens to own one of the great nicknames in the NBA today — Worldwide Wes) have taken several early and necessary steps to rid the Knicks of their stigma as the NBA’s version of Siberia.

In short order, Thibodeau has created an esprit de corps among his youthful charges not seen at The Garden in years, and his defense-first approach and intolerance for selfish play harkens back to the days of Red Holzman. Crank up the MSG organ and get the chants of Dee-fense reverberating off the hardwood floor again. Even with only a couple thousand or so fans in the seats, the positive energy is palpable.

Randle’s story of redemption via hard work and introspection following that difficult first year in New York is a good one, and the type that the hoops-mad New York fans can rally behind. Matching him with the athletic and fast-developing Barrett appears to give us a nucleus around which a winner can be built.

And we have the means to do that, with a deep collection of draft picks over the next couple of years, combined with ample salary cap space. Now it’s on Rose and Worldwide Wes to provide Thibs the pieces needed to pursue long-term excellence while avoiding the big, foolish bets (as much a part of Knicks history as the Willis Reed game in the 1970 Finals) that could cripple our optimism just as we are starting to work up a head of steam.

Rookie Immanuel Quickley looks like an amazing find late in the first-round (a staple of championship organizations is delivering on draft picks outside the lottery — Draymond Green anyone?), and Robinson (like Green, a second-rounder) appears to be a long-term, core piece with an incredibly high ceiling.

Yes, we still have our painful reminders of lottery failures past, but Frank Ntilikina could still learn to contribute with his defense, length and energy on the second unit, and Kevin Knox seems to have somehow maintained trade value around the league. So when Leon and Wes scan the league for trade-deadline opportunities maybe Knox brings us back some value that contributes to a playoff series victory in the spring.

If this were one of those T-charts we draw up on a legal pad, it feels like the “Pros” vastly outweigh the “Cons.” So let’s examine a few “what if” scenarios:

*What if Rose and Wes approach the Rockets before the trade deadline, and rather than making a foolish swap of picks for Oladipo, instead make a run at P.J. Tucker? Could Knox and a second-rounder get that done? A three-and-D guy would fill our biggest hole — shaky outside shooting — that will prove problematic in a short series if left unaddressed. Meanwhile, adding Tucker would also shore up Thibs rotation with a veteran who understands team defense and has a history of winning.

*What if Mitchell Robinson returns as expected at the end of March and picks up where he left off, combining with Nerlens Noel to provide 48 minutes of shot-blocking energy in the pivot?

*What if the Knicks somehow cobble together enough wins to hang onto the five-seed? If the season ended today, we’d be taking on the Celtics in Round One. Think about how much fun that would be for a minute. The Celts are vulnerable this year, and the young, well-coached (am I really describing the Knicks as “well-coached?” Glory be…) Knickerbockers would come into that series with absolutely nothing to lose. There is nothing more dangerous than an athletic, young, up and coming underdog playing with house money come playoff time. Add 5000-10,000 success-starved, hoops lunatics in the stands for the New York home games (are you listening, Governor Cuomo?), and the recipe is there for a first round upset.

*Which could set us up for a conference semifinal against… you guessed it, the Brooklyn Nets. Talk about headline fodder for the New York tabloids, as KD, Kyrie and The Beard take on the Big Apple’s favorite sons. And let’s take this scenario one step further, and say, just for fun, that Thibs whips his young lions into such a frenzy that they go into Barclays Center and steal Game 1, a la Pat Riley and the Knicks of the early-’90’s. Okay, I’m drooling a little…

Sure, a lot has to happen in this season’s second half for these dreams to come true. But for the first time in a very long time, we Knicks fans can dare to dream about such scenarios.

And that’s really all we’ve been asking for since Jeff Van Gundy was last seen roaming our sidelines a couple of decades ago in one of those awful, rumpled suits of his.

Yeah, I know, we are probably a year (or two) away still. But the hope is real and the arrow is pointing up, folks. And we are going on record here at SportsAttic as saying that no hex, jinx, whammy or Starbury can undo the progress being made before our very eyes in 2021.

The Brooklyn Nets and the Plight of the Second-Favorites

Kyrie Irving is a coach-killing, chemistry-poisining, loud mouth. The Beard is a ball-stopping, selfish whiner, who will never take his team to the next level.

KD? Okay, it’s hard not to like Kevin Durant at least a little bit. We liked him a lot in Oklahoma City. A little less when he first arrived in Golden State. And even less than that when he landed in Brooklyn. But hey, he’s KD, so he sort of gets a pass.

So what’s a New York sports fan to do, when it comes to the New York/New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets? After all, they are my second-favorite professional basketball team.

Yes, second-favorite. I am a die-hard New York Knicks fan, which I believe after all these years makes me eligible for some sort of pension benefits through the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization… But I digress.

Because today isn’t about our favorites, it’s about the backup organizations. Those teams we feel good will toward, and will endorse with vigor come playoff time should the favorites be eliminated, but will never occupy that special place in our hearts.

For me, we are talking about MLB’s Oakland A’s, the NFL’s New York Football Giants, and the Brooklyn Nets of The Association when the topic turns to second-favorite teams.

The whole “second-favorite” category doesn’t get much ink these days, left forgotten on the playgrounds of decades past. However, second-favorite was a critically important distinction growing up, when a cool jersey or unexpected playoff run might cause us to blurt out something along the lines of “oh yeah, well, the Steelers are my second-favorite team…” when the legitimacy of our newfound fandom was called into question.

With the Nets most certainly title-contenders this season, I’m having a hard time reconciling my feelings about this team, and whether I can stomach myself rooting for them come playoff time. I’ve always abided by the adage that you root “for the jersey” first and foremost, but even the Brooklyn Nets jersey doesn’t feel like anything I grew up with. I mean, come on — splash of color, anyone?

The Nets are an easy franchise for me, one where my feelings developed organically. Growing up in New Jersey in the early-’70’s, when it came to pro basketball, I rooted for the Knicks in the NBA, and the Nets in the ABA. End of story. When the NBA-ABA merger came along and the Nets moved to New Jersey, they slid easily into the two-hole when it came to my hoops passions, and it was never close (even though by then the Knicks had also fallen on hard times), with Doctor J having been sold to Philly and the Nets trotting out the likes of Bubbles Hawkins, Al Skinner and Wilson Washington on their early NBA rosters.

Occasionally they’d catch lightning in a bottle — like in ’84 when they upset the defending champion Sixers (and Doctor J), in the first round of the playoffs. Or during the Derrick “Whoop de dam do” Coleman/Kenny Anderson/Drazen Petrovic years. There was even the out-of-nowhere, conference championship run of the early-2000’s behind the brilliance of Jason Kidd.

And if the occasional surprise of outstanding play wasn’t enough, there was the whole New Jersey thing. Let’s face it, the state of New Jersey catches a lot of shit, so as a proud resident of the Garden State, it didn’t take much for me to rally behind the locals whenever they mounted any sort of competitive squad.

Then they moved. First to the Prudential Center in Newark, and then over to Brooklyn, adopting the black-and-white uniforms and trying a ham-handed attempt at buying a title with the ill-fated trade for the washed up threesome of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. That disastrous trade was only the most recent instance where poor decisions crippled the core of the Nets franchise, and you couldn’t help but wonder if they’d ever recover.

Yet here they are now. An incredibly wealthy owner making anything possible in the area of superstar acquisition, and a front office that seems to get the joke, benefitting from San Antonio Spurs bloodlines and what feels like (up until recently anyway) a sincere desire to build a winning culture from the ground up.

But then the opportunity to swoop in and create an unbeatable Big Three presented itself, and that same Nets front office threw caution to the wind and once again mortgaged the future in an attempt to bag an NBA title. This year.

Which brings me back to the issue at hand. How do I feel about getting on the Brooklyn bandwagon? The heart test landed in the “root for the jersey” camp. Meaning, whenever I tune in to a Nets game on ESPN or TNT, I find myself pulling for them. So there’s that.

I still can’t stomach Kyrie, but grudgingly marvel at the scope of his jaw-dropping skills. And I can’t help but be impressed by what appears to be a team-first approach coming from James Harden, as he integrates his game into the world of the other two superstars. I’ve always liked Coach Steve Nash, although I find it comical that these Nets approach defense so similarly to how Nash himself played it when he was in the league. And of course there’s KD, who is worth watching any chance we can get, holding our collective breath every time his brittle body hits the hardwood.

The role players? Meh. DeAndre Jordan serves a purpose, and I do appreciate his workmanlike, no nonsense approach. Joe Harris? You need a guy like Harris if you are serious about winning a title. But my two favorite Nets coming into the year, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, were both jettisoned in the Harden trade, and the other guy I liked pre-Corona — Spencer Dinwiddie — is out for the season.

So it’s really a matter of can I ride with the Big Three once the Knicks are eliminated. The answer to that question may lie in the competition that lies between the Nets and their long sought after NBA championship.

In the East it is pretty straight forward. I’ll never root for the Celtics, and I think the 76ers’ Big Two are overrated front-runners, so score those easy wins for the Nets bandwagon. The Bucks? Milwaukee? Really? Yeah, give me KD and the other guys.

In the West, the Lakers at one time could have laid claim to the title of my second-favorite team. I annually rooted hard for them in the ’80’s to take down Larry Bird and the hated Celtics. But I can’t bring myself to root for a LeBron-led team that was gift-wrapped an O’Brien Trophy just a few months back during that farcical, bubble playoff format.

What about the Clippers? I do like Kawhi, but the Clips are kind of like a poor man’s Nets, in that they, too, were a hapless laughingstock that relocated multiple times, and has now evolved into a talented contender. But I have no history there, despite the proximity to my current home, so it is still the Nets. Utah? Denver? Nope. Nope.

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trailblazers would be tough to root against in a series with Brooklyn, except for one fatal flaw — Carmelo Anthony calls the Rose City home these days. Next.

Yup, the Nets remain secure as my second-favorite. I’ll root them on as though Doctor J, Buck Williams, Kenyon Martin and Super John Williamson were still wearing those red, white and blue jerseys, lighting it up out on the Island, or in the swamp at Brendan Byrne Arena.

Second-favorite? Hell yeah. Game on.

And the MVP of Super Bowl LV is…John Elway?

On one side of the field we have the defending NFL champions, led by their young, dynamic, Uber-talented, superstar QB. A gunslinger who completes passes from every arm angle imaginable, sometimes even with his left hand.

The Super Bowl champs are coached by the stereotypical football lifer — heavyset, ruddy cheeks, a prolific mustache. The coach had pushed all the right buttons a season earlier in delivering a Super Bowl title to his football-crazed city for the first time since the early days of the NFL-AFL merger.

The reigning NFL title-holders have advanced within one game of repeating as champions while barely breaking a sweat, winning their two playoff games by nearly 30 points combined. They are immediately installed as the favorites.

On the other side of the ball we have a Wild Card team. One that had to win three road games just to get here. They are led by an aging QB destined for the Hall of Fame one day, who already boasts multiple Super Bowl appearances on his resume.

Sound familiar?

Yes, we are talking about Super Bowl XXXII, played on January the 25th of 1998, following the 1997 NFL season. The Green Bay Packers, coached by Mike Holmgren and led by young Brett Favre, had gone 13-3 in defense of their Super Bowl XXXI title won a year before. It was unimaginable that they could lose to a clearly over-matched opponent.

Especially this opponent. The Denver Broncos. Yes, football fans were going to be subjected to having to watch the Broncos take another old-fashioned ass-whupping on yet another Super Bowl Sunday.

A drubbing like the one back in ’87, when the Giants had pummeled them 39-20. Or the following year, when it was the Redskins turn to take a bat to the Denver piƱata, 42-10. Or two seasons after that, when the 49ers just refused to stop scoring, stomping on the Broncos 55-10.

Question: How many Denver Broncos does it take to change a flat tire? Answer: One. But if it’s a blowout, the whole team shows up. That was the narrative that accompanied the Denver Broncos and John Elway to San Diego back in ’98, as they traveled west for Super Bowl XXXII.

When the Packers took the field that afternoon as 11-point favorites, the only question being debated across the nation was how much of a bloodbath would this one turn out to be. Then a funny thing happened — they played the game.

And there we were, tied at 17 with a couple of minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Broncos and their punching bag of a QB, with that mouth full of horse teeth that always seemed to form a smile despite his constant failings in the biggest of moments, had the ball on the Green Bay 12, staring down a third-and-six.

John Elway dropped back to pass, and finding no one open, tucked the pigskin and took off running on his 37-year-old legs. As he neared the first down marker he launched himself airborne, determined not to fall short of the most important first down of his Hall of Fame career. Three Green Bay defenders converged and took the old QB’s legs right out from under him, sending Elway into the classic “helicopter spin” descent. When Elway landed with a thud on the San Diego turf, the Broncos had first and goal from the Packers four-yard-line.

Two plays later Terrell Davis punched it in from the one, and the inspired Broncos never looked back.

Never before or since has one play so singularly rewritten the script of a player or a franchise. Elway would even return the following year and lead his Broncos to a second consecutive Super Bowl win, easily thumping the Atlanta Falcons, before riding off into the sunset, heading for a future selling cars and making foolish statements from his post in the Denver front office.

Fast forward now to this upcoming Sunday, and a game many of us fans are finding difficult to handicap. Our answer lies twenty-three years ago, alongside an old quarterback with unfinished business, who’d just helicoptered to the turf.

With the image of that old warrior moving the chains fresh in our minds, SportsAttic brings you with absolute certainty, the winning prediction for Super Bowl LV:

Buccaneers (+3) over the Chiefs — True, Tom Brady carries a very different legacy into this one than John Elway did 23 years ago, but the chip on the GOAT’s shoulder is visible all the way from Foxboro. Logic defies here, because if one is applying logic, it is difficult not to end up concluding that the Chiefs won’t just win this game, but will win it big. Patrick Mahomes is that good. And he’s back with a clear head and two healthy feet. He has weapons that just keep coming at you, and he established in Kansas City’s Week 12 win over Brady and the Bucs that he relishes lining up across from that Tampa Bay secondary. All Mahomes did in that prior matchup was throw for 462 yards and three TD’s, with zero picks. Tyreke Hill racked up 269 of those yards and all three scores on the receiving end of things in that one. And it is hard to imagine, after witnessing Hill play at a speed a couple of gears beyond anyone on the Buffalo defense two weeks back, that the Bucs will have a sufficient answer for him this time around. Or an answer for Travis Kelce for that matter. Or Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Or, or, or… Two weeks ago we put out there that the only way Brady and the Bucs stood a chance at upsetting the Packers was by playing the perfect game. And then Brady went out and threw three picks. And won. They’ll need to be more perfect this Sunday, and it is fair to conclude that it is highly unlikely Tampa can survive another three-pick outing from The GOAT. But the Buccaneers do other things well, too, that will wear down Kansas City. In Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II, they have powerful backs that can eat up the clock and keep Mahomes and that scary, quick-strike K.C. offense off the field. On the defensive side of the ball, Tampa Bay boasts the league’s fourth-best pass rush, featuring Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquille Barrett. The Bucs need those two to spend considerable time in the Chiefs backfield for Tampa to have a chance. In fact, the X-factor in this one may end up being whether the Bucs defense can continuously have Patrick Mahomes fleeing the pocket, uncomfortable and threatened. Accomplish that and things can remain close as the game moves into the fourth quarter. Give Mahomes time to find his weapons, and… In other words, the Buccaneer defensive line needs to do to Mahomes what Buffalo could not — put him on the ground over and over again. Ironically, the Tampa Bay D needs to execute on the exact formula the Giants used to knock off Brady and his Patriots in Supes XLII and XLVI. Also ironically, like Elway twenty-three years ago and Eli Manning more recently, Brady is the other quarterback in Super LV. The guess here is that TB12 uses that second-billing for motivation. And being opposed by the reigning Super Bowl MVP? You think Brady doesn’t consider that trophy his personal property at this point in his career? You bet he plans to take it back. So throw away the Week 12 result, folks. Because this one is all about legacy — either burgeoning or last chapter — and for Super Bowl LV, take the QB who already owns six rings. And here’s hoping we get a helicopter moment from him before it’s all over. (Buccaneers, 34-30)

Sad Times for the Baseball Hall of Fame

It’s official! No new inductees this year into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

That piece of good news will fittingly leave this summer’s induction ceremony to Derek Jeter (and some guy from Canada that played for Colorado, I think…) as we begin to restore order to the world of sports following the havoc wrought by the Coronavirus.

The news that no new inductees will be added to The Hall is welcome here at SportsAttic (and not just because our wannabe ballot submitted months back included ZERO names, although we do love nothing more than being vindicated), where annually we rail against those voters who insist on watering down the hallowed HOF by sending in the maximum ten names allowed come hell or high water (hello, Ken Davidoff of the New York Post).

Sitting here in January of 2021, it feels absolutely right that we move away from squabbles over Curt Schilling, and whether an abominable human being should or shouldn’t be enshrined. No more fighting over the desecration of the record books at the hands of the steroid cheats, and whether such scumbaggery should be overlooked in the interest of getting Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens their oversized bronze busts.

Because times are tough in Cooperstown these days, and if there were flags at The Hall, they’d be flying at half mast.

Over the course of the last year, the baseball Hall of Fame has bid adieu to nine members of fine standing. Superstars that those of us of a certain age grew up idolizing. A critical part of the fabric that weaved together a lifetime of passion for bats and balls, green grass, and the smack of horsehide on leather. Passion that runs deep to this day, as evidenced by how seriously many of us baseball fans take things such as Hall of Fame vote counts.

So today we take advantage of this lull in ballot vitriol to pay tribute to those Hall of Fame heroes who’ve passed on since the beginning of 2020.

Be warned, for this is a personal journey through some of my own fondest memories, because that’s really what the Hall of Fame represents to baseball fans. Memories of a time more innocent and less complicated. When we lived and died by the standings, arguing fervently over who would be appearing on Kiner’s Korner that night, laser focused on reciting numbers from the backs of small pieces of cardboard, as though such factoids would forever remain the most critical pieces of information known to man.

Let’s join hands in a moment of silence for:

Henry Aaron — This most recent departure of the man who will always be my true Home Run King, may have cut deepest. Hank Aaron transcended the baseball diamond, his talent, achievement and ability to rise above hate and racism setting an aspirational example for how the world might one day be approached by us all. I was eight years old and living in a suburb of Los Angeles the day Aaron vaulted beyond the immortal Babe Ruth’s 714 round-trippers. Lefty Al Downing* was on the mound for L.A. (Downing also happens to be the answer to one of my favorite baseball trivia questions — see below). Cue to the familiar wrist snap of Hank’s smooth, righty swing. No need back then for the all-or-nothing uppercut so prevalent today, to say nothing of exit velocities, thank you very much. And there was Billy Buckner (who 12 seasons later would deliver the greatest moment of my baseball fan life) scaling the wall in left to no avail. Those two fans running up alongside Aaron as he rounded second, momentarily scaring the heck out of a nation, until we realized they were just there to celebrate like the rest of us, albeit a lot more recklessly. Hank telling us he was just glad it was over after he’d crossed the plate with history on his shoulders. The story of all he endured as he approached Ruth’s record is even more poignant today, and his death last week gave Henry Aaron one more opportunity to send a message to the world about what true class and dignity looks like, at a time when we all could use just such a refresher.

Lou Brock — Nothing against Rickey Henderson, who is also a most deserving Hall of Famer, but because of the time in my life when Lou Brock took his leads off of first base, he remains, in my mind anyway, the greatest base stealer of them all. Back in the summer of 1974, when Brock obliterated Maury Wills’ MLB record with his 118 thefts, it seemed unfathomable to me that such a preposterous total could ever be bested. Brock was the real deal beyond just the base paths, too. He could field, hit, and hit for power, and to this day I’m stunned when his name is occasionally raised as someone undeserving of being in The Hall. In addition to staggering all-time stats, hundreds of stolen bases, and 3000-hit club membership, Brock also contributes to wonderful baseball lore every time the topic of most lopsided baseball trades of all time comes up (Ernie Broglio, kids). Plus, he was the catalyst for two World Series winners, and was a mentor to young Keith Hernandez. Nuff said.

Whitey Ford — In my humble opinion, the two greatest baseball teams of all time were the 1927 Yankees, followed by the 1961 Yankees. And it’a s close one. Mantle and Maris get most of the attention as history looks back on that ’61 team, but somebody had to pitch, too. Enter the Chairman of the Board. Take a look at Whitey Ford’s stats in support of the M&M Boys that season. He went 25-4 and led the league in innings pitched, starting 39 games for the champs. He was the Bombers undisputed ace for nearly two decades, taking the ball in eleven World Series. Unreal. But by the time I came along, none of that mattered. Because Whitey was the guy on the mound every year for Old Timers Day in the Bronx. Usually opposed by Satchel Paige and a squad made up of opposing old time stars, my memory is of Whitey still looking free and easy grooving batting practice heaters with that huge smile on his face. And he always took home the “W” in those Old Timers Day matchups, too, often supported by a homer from his old drinking buddy, The Mick.

Bob Gibson — As a Mets fan who started paying attention to baseball in the early-’70’s, Bob Gibson was the enemy, but an enemy who earned our respect and fear with his talent and dogged competitiveness. Somehow, my most vivid Gibson memory from all those days ago was a commercial spot he did about treating asthma. The idea that this giant of the diamond suffered from asthma and had to take medication for it, somehow made him more human and the game more approachable to me. An indelible imprint that highlights the power of advertising, and it remains with me to this day. And if the asthma story isn’t enough, then just spend a little time thinking about that 1.12 ERA in 1968. And while you’re at it, please tell me how Gibson actually managed to lose nine games that year?

Al Kaline — Mr. Tiger only made the playoffs once while I was watching back in the ’70’s, when Detroit lost in the ALCS to the A’s in 1972. It was a close, three games to two series (Kaline looked like he’d be the hero in Game 1, homering off Rollie Fingers in the top of the 11th to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead, only to see the A’s come back with two in the bottom half of the inning to pull out the win) that kick-started the Oakland dynasty. But two things always stood out for me most about Kaline’s career — first, how the back of his baseball card always reminded us Al went directly to the big leagues at the age of 18, with no stop in the minors. And second, that Kaline’s final base hit was his 3000th. For those of us who admire excellence in perfect symmetry, that was Kaline.

Joe Morgan — Simply put, Joe Morgan was the best all-around player I remember watching during those mid-’70’s years of his prime, especially during his back-to-back MVP seasons of 1975 and 1976. He literally did it all amidst that star-studded Big Red Machine lineup — hitting for average, hitting for power, stealing bases, drawing walks — but mostly it is the arm pump I harken back to, flapping away in eager anticipation while he waited for the pitcher to deliver. It is an indisputable fact that every kid my age found him or herself emulating that lefty pump at one time or another in the street or at the schoolyard, timing the opposing pitcher and considering themselves super cool, during the growing up years of the ’70’s.

Phil Niekro — The first time I saw a knuckleballer it was without question the coolest thing I’d ever seen on a baseball field. Phil Niekro of the Braves had just handcuffed my Mets and piqued my curiosity in the process. Other than one pitch that spun and John Milner deposited into the right field seats, the Mets had no chance. The knuckleball seemed almost unfair, as I watched my blue and orange clad favorites flail away in futility. Adding to my wonder was the pitcher’s unique last name that seven-year-old me found hysterical, and that in the day of blazing fastballs from Seaver and Gibson, Niekro’s knuckler just kind of floated up there. It was an unhittable pitch that, despite countless hours of practice in the backyard, I was never able to master. Unbelievably, Niekro even had a brother in the bigs, and Joe threw the knuckleball as well (slightly less effectively than big brother Phil). It was nearly too much to fathom. Thanks for the awesome memories, Knucksie.

Tom Seaver — Only the greatest to ever don the blue and orange, singularly responsible for lifting an entire franchise from laughingstocks to champions. Tom Terrific. The Franchise. Number 41. Tom and Nancy. Seaver and Koosman. Seaver versus Gibson. Or Jenkins. Or Carlton. Or Marichal.

Don Sutton — Or Sutton. Don Sutton played for a host of teams before hanging up his spikes after an incredible, 23-year career that boasted both consistency and excellence. But for me, Sutton will always be the ace of the 1970’s Los Angeles Dodgers. He was on the hill the first time I attended a game at Dodger Stadium back in 1973, and in addition to the quality start that was pretty much a standard his entire career, I remember Sutton stroking three consecutive singles up the middle, prompting my mom to suggest that perhaps the Astros should counter by stationing a fielder directly on second base (a precursor to today’s shift? Well played, mom!). Most miraculously, though, is that Sutton never took a trip to the disabled list his entire career! No missed starts? Are you kidding me? They don’t make them like Don Sutton anymore.

Superstars and deserving Hall of Famers all. And a reminder to present-day Hall of Fame voters why standards need to be upheld and admission to Cooperstown should be allowed only for the elite — those that transcend the game itself.

They will be missed.

*Name the player on the field when both of Babe Ruth’s home run records were broken?

NFL Conference Championships — Luck of the Quarterback Draw

Whoever it was that first said “I’d rather be lucky than good,” must have had the National Football League in mind.

The NFL is a league that frequently finds ways to exasperate its fans. “No end zone celebrations whatsoever or lose 15 yards,” becomes “end zone celebrations are not only allowed, but encouraged” (especially if they are choreographed ahead of time — oy vey!).

“Is it or isn’t it a catch? Did he break the plane? No kneeling! Wait — kneeling is actually valued and respected. But don’t even think about touching the quarterback.”

We see more flags for pass interference than completions on throws beyond twenty yards. Yeah, if you let it, the NFL can drive you crazy.

But despite all of the paper cuts administered by the No Fun League on a weekly basis, we keep coming back. Because football is easily the most TV-friendly of all the sports we fans choose to entertain ourselves with, and the once a week format allows for buildup, hype and anticipation guaranteed to make even the most staid of observers froth at the mouth as kickoff approaches on any given Sunday.

And at no time is that kind of unabashed anticipation more palpable than during the month-long run-up to the Super Bowl, when the “tournament” plays out. Multiple games of consequence on consecutive weekends, culminating in a two-week celebration of Roman Numerals on the first Sunday of February. Heck, we even look forward to the commercials.

Cool as all that may be, there are some years when the NFL’s good fortune just goes…beyond. And here, in January of 2021, the NFL finds themselves face to face with one of those “beyond” weekends. Think about it.

They get an AFC Championship game that features a couple of superstar QB’s on the rise, who represent all that is bright about the league’s future. For only the second time ever, it’s a conference championship featuring two quarterbacks both 25 or younger (the first such matchup was all the way back in ’79, when Vince Ferragamo and the Rams bested Doug Williams and the Buccaneers), one already a Super Bowl MVP, and the other a contender for league MVP honors this season. Chiefs-Bills on Sunday afternoon is appointment-TV for any fan of the gridiron worth his or her salt.

And as if that afternoon matchup featuring Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen wasn’t enough good fortune, the league actually tops it with their Sunday opener, when two NFL Mount Rushmore icons square off on the legendary frozen tundra of Title Town, USA!

I mean, how lucky must the NFL be to have their cards fall in such a way that a conference championship game between future Hall of Fame QB’s Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers on the hallowed, rock hard grounds of Lambeau Field isn’t even the feature game this Sunday?

Yes, the 2020 NFL season is crescendoing at the perfect moment, putting a positive exclamation point on what’s been a remarkable year in the league’s history. The NFL not only successfully navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and completed a regular season without crippling interruptions, but they even brought us an expanded Wild Card round that gave fans more playoff football to enjoy. And now the NFL selects its Super Bowl participants with two evenly-matched, appropriately-hyped conference championship games pitting the game’s greatest current quarterbacks, young and old, against one another.

SportsAttic emphatically quotes the great Bart Scott, when we say, “Can’t wait!” (Home team in ALL CAPS as always)

PACKERS (-3.5) over the Buccaneers — And so the ride ends for Tom Brady and the Bucs, amidst a snowstorm and freezing temperatures in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The problem for Brady and Tampa Bay is that they are simply overmatched in this one. They’ve ridden Brady’s magic coattails as far as they could, but now they face an opponent that appears stronger in every category. For Tampa Bay to have a chance, they need to play the perfect game. Could it happen? Sure. Brady needs to recreate the Tommy/Gronk chemistry of ten years ago, the defense needs to score points, the offense needs to eat clock and win the battle of the line of scrimmage, and they can’t make any mistakes on either side of the ball. Easy enough, right? The Bucs’ D scored more points than any other team in the league this year, so maybe they catch lightning in a bottle there? Maybe? Brady hasn’t thrown an interception on the road since Week One, an astounding NFL-record streak of 368 passes with no picks. Does he have one more week of flawless accuracy in his right arm? Maybe? The Bucs do have legit horses in the backfield, with Leonard “I hate cold weather” Fournette and Ronald Jones, and apply pressure on the opposing QB better than most. But more than anything, the Bucs rely on Brady to work his wonders. In fact, we may as well refer to Tampa Bay as the Bradys here in 2020/2021, rather than the Buccaneers, because that’s how the world has viewed the franchise this season. However, the guy that will be calling the signals for the home team on Sunday is the far better quarterback right now. Aaron Rodgers became just the sixth QB to pass for 50 touchdowns in a single season this year, and is rolling toward his second league MVP award once the playoffs conclude. Rodgers throws to arguably the league’s best wide receiver in Davante Adams, and look for that duo to hook up for at least two more scores on Sunday. The Pack boasts all kinds of fresh legs at running back that will pound away on the Bucs out of the backfield, and the Green Bay defense will continue to be “good enough.” Tampa has the veteran weapons to hang around for a half, maybe even into the fourth quarter, but in the end look for Brady’s streak of passes without an INT on the road to end, and for the Packers to finally get over the hump and advance back to another Super Bowl. (Packers, 37-27).

Bills (+3) over the CHIEFS — This is a pick based on the assumption that Patrick Mahomes will be off his game just enough for the Bills to come away victorious. That is a big if, of course, but it is difficult for us to imagine that the concussion shot Mahomes took a week ago has completely cleared. Yes, we know the NFL has cleared Mahomes through the league’s concussion protocol, and who are we to question the motivations behind the NFL wanting their poster child back on the field — at all costs? So here comes Mahomes, clear head or not, taking on the D that rendered Lamar Jackson ineffective and ultimately incapacitated a week ago. And then there’s the matter of Mahomes’ bad toe. Don’t think for a second that the bad toe didn’t play into the hit that ultimately KO’d the QB last weekend against Cleveland. Mahomes may not be Lamar Jackson when it comes to the ground game, but his speed is a key ingredient of his greatness, and if he is giving up just half a step favoring the toe on Sunday, it makes him an easier target for the fast and aggressive Buffalo front seven. It says here that Mahomes is watching the end of this one from the home team locker room, while Chad Henne takes the final snaps and K.C. fans ponder what might have been. It won’t help the Chiefs’ cause that Clyde Edwards-Helaire is also less than a hundred percent, as is his backup, Le’Veon Bell. All of which leaves a crack in the door for the team we’ve watched grow and improve week after week this season into an AFC power — the Buffalo Bills. Josh Allen showed us something with his performance against the tough Baltimore defense a week ago, and appears poised to take his position as Mahomes’ foil for the next decade or so (the Peyton Manning to Mahomes’ Tom Brady, anyone?). Buffalo is banged up, too, especially at wide receiver, so Allen will need to step up big time if Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley (both on the Bills injured list this week) can’t find separation against a solid Chiefs secondary. This one is an instinct call — taking the team riding the bigger wave of momentum, with the healthier QB, and the better defense. None of that will matter if Mahomes is Mahomes for sixty minutes, but it says here that won’t happen. And ultimately this one ends with the Chiefs hope for a repeat dashed. (Bills, 31-30).

There you have it — Super Bowl LV on Sunday, February 7th down in Tampa — the Green Bay Packers against the Buffalo Bills.

Can’t wait!