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!

NFL Divisional Playoff Round — Follow the QB

The terrible Jacksonville Jaguars and the awful New York Jets will draft one and two in this spring’s NFL draft. Both franchises hired new head coaches this week, taking vastly different approaches as they try to reverse their fortunes.

SportsAttic is taking this opportunity to go on record, saying Jets fans should hope that the upcoming draft plays out as well for their future as the recent head coaching decisions will for these two perennial bottom feeders.

The Jags went for the big splash with Urban Meyer, the revered college coach turned studio talking head. Their prized first pick was certainly a key data point (along with the tens of millions of dollars, of course) in Meyer accepting the J’ville job. It says here, though, that hiring Meyer will go down as the latest in a long string of disastrous moves that have made the Jags the laughingstocks of the league.

The Jets, on the other hand, opted for substance over splash (or inexplicable head-scratcher, the Jets’ other go-to move when bringing in a new coach), tapping former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to become the latest man tasked with turning around the hapless Airplanes. The diehard Niners fans in the SportsAttic network are hailing Saleh as an outstanding selection, so those of us who continue to root on Gang Green will mark this hire as a potential sea change moment for the J-E-T-S, JETS, JETS, JETS here in January of 2021.

What we are really trying to underscore, though, is that the NFL is now, more than ever, a Quarterback League. The QB position figured prominently in both Jacksonville’s and New York’s coaching hires, with the Jags expected to draft can’t-miss QB Trevor Lawrence of Clemson with the first pick in the draft. Meanwhile the Jets decide between remaining committed to Sam Darnold (aka “Poor Sam”) or starting anew with Justin Fields or one of the other college signal-callers lumped into the “not-Trevor Lawrence” category.

SportsAttic Aside: How about sending Darnold and that number two pick to Houston for disgruntled QB Deshaun Watson? Anyone? Anyone?

If one agrees with the premise that in the NFL you live and die by your QB, then you only need to go as far as that statement to get a glimpse into the crystal ball that will bring you the winners of this weekend’s four matchups. And we can thank the Jags and Jets for reminding us of this fundamental truth with their respective coaching hires earlier this week.

(And one more time for good measure — it says here Meyer will go down as a colossal fail, while Saleh’s hire will be hailed as the second greatest moment in Jets history when this story is finished being written.)

So following SportsAttic’s 5-1 opening foray into NFL Playoff prognostication a week ago (okay, we were 3-3 against the spread, but come on already, the Saints and Bucs were barely trying), we return even more confidently this week, with our sure-fire bets to fill out your Conference Championship brackets (home team in ALL CAPS as always):

PACKERS (-6.5) over the Rams — So who ya got, Aaron Rodgers or Jared Goff? Yeah, we could probably stop this one right there. It was a feel good win for the Rams over Seattle a week ago, but the party comes to an end as the Rams head east to the frozen tundra. It seems unlikely that Goff will get anything going offensively for the Rams, even though we aren’t believers in the Green Bay defense either. And as good as the Rams D has been, Aaron Rodgers has been on a different plane than the mere mortals this year, posting the second-highest QB rating (121.5) of all-time (Rodgers also owns the top mark, an astounding 122.5 back in his MVP year of 2011). Look for Aaron Donald and the Rams front to keep things close for a half, but unless Rodgers throws up a couple pick-sixes, it won’t stay that way. Green Bay will host the NFC Championship Game next Sunday at Lambeau. (Packers, 30-13).

Ravens (+3) over the BILLS — If you play the “who ya got” game at the QB position in this one, you may as well flip a coin. Both Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are dynamic, dual-threat QB’s who come into the game playing outstanding football. So if you subscribe to the theory that the two QB’s will offset one another, look to the ground games for the difference in this one. The Ravens (SportsAttic’s pick to win Super Bowl LV) will control both the line of scrimmage and the clock in this one, pounding away with Jackson and backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. The Bills are vulnerable to the run on defense, and will be facing an opposing D with cornerbacks capable of slowing down Buffalo’s superstar wideout, Stefon Diggs. This is the game of the weekend, and may come down to the final possession. In the end, Jackson comes through again in what could become an annual playoff face-off for the two young QB’s. (Ravens, 24-23).

CHIEFS (-10) over the Browns — Let’s see, if we were starting a team from scratch today, who would be our first pick? No, not Baker Mayfield. Maybe the guy calling signals across the field from Mayfield on Sunday? Yeah, probably that guy. This is an awfully fat spread for a divisional playoff game, particularly when you factor in just how good the Browns looked last week in ridding us of the vastly overrated Steelers. But these are the defending champs from Kansas City we are talking about, and Patrick Mahomes and his cadre of offensive weapons will come out rested and firing. No coasting once up a couple of early TD’s for the Chiefs this week, and when the talent differential becomes evident, look for Cleveland to quit. This one could get ugly. (Chiefs, 44-20).

Bucs (+3) over the SAINTS — In January of 1990, 41-year-old George Foreman fought 33-year-old Gerry Cooney in a matchup the publicity folks dubbed “The Preacher versus The Puncher.” Skeptics in the boxing world quickly renamed the bout “The Geezers at Caesars.”* And yes, you know where I’m going with this. For Sunday’s late game we get 42-year-old Drew Brees leading his Saints at home against 43-year-old Tom Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers (that still doesn’t sound right, does it). If we are going to continue riding superiority at the QB position to our expected outcome, this one is nearly as much of a tossup as Allen versus Jackson. Too bad the NFL couldn’t deliver this game to us a few years ago, when Brady and Brees would still have been geezers, but geezers capable of putting a team on their back and carrying them to a win. Sadly, neither of these future Hall of Famers possess that kind of skill any longer, but it feels like Brees has fallen further faster than Brady. Couple that with the fact that the Saints have already waxed the Bucs twice this season, and we will go contrarian and say it can’t happen a third time. This should be an entertaining game loaded with star power, and the significance of a playoff matchup between these legendary quarterbacks (geezers or no) should be lost on no one. Look for a close one in the fourth quarter, but in the end Tommy lives to fight another week. (Bucs, 30-26).

And there you have your NFL Final Four, folks. Enjoy thinking about the QB battles that loom on next week’s horizon after Jackson, Mahomes, Brady and Rodgers advance to the Conference Finals.

Can’t wait.

*Foreman won that fight, knocking out Cooney in the second round. At the time the fight was viewed by most as a money-grab, with Big George and Cooney cashing in on name recognition. However, nearly five years later, Foreman reclaimed the heavyweight title two months shy of his 46th birthday, knocking out undefeated, 27-year-old Michael Moorer. Score one for the geezers.

Traditionalists Be Damned — More Football This Weekend Is A Good Thing

It’s Wild Card Weekend in the NFL, and thanks to the revenue-hungry environment that COVID-19 has thrust upon our nation’s professional sports leagues, we will have two extra playoff games to enjoy over the course of Saturday and Sunday.

I’m an admitted traditionalist when it comes to most things sports-related, but the NFL’s expanded playoff format isn’t going to get me all worked up. For one, there’s been so many changes to the NFL during my lifetime (when I started watching pro football it was a 14-game season, kickoffs took place from the 40, and the goal posts were at the front of the end zone), that I don’t feel any sort of “tradition” tied to how the league runs its postseason tournament.

Besides, we aren’t adding on extra rounds to the tournament, just one more team allowed in from each league combined with one less first-round bye. These changes give us the gift of bonus action over the coming weekend. In fact, not only can I live with it, but I’m excited about the new format, and have already mapped out my weekend viewing plans, arranging any and all familial obligations around kickoff times.

So with all due respect to the folks that aren’t quite done crying about the Eagles shameless tank job last Sunday night, or who want more time spent wondering how the Jets will misstep once again in identifying their next head coach (a Marvin Lewis rumor today –hmmm, not sure that gets the Gang Green faithful striking up the J-E-T-S chant, does it?), we here at SportsAttic are moving steadfastly ahead into the world of January Football.

And what better way to begin the New Year than by dusting off the old SportsAttic Six Pics for the upcoming Wildcard Weekend (home team in ALL CAPS as always)?

Here we go, gridiron fans:

Colts (+6.5) over the BILLS — Things have proceeded far too smoothly for the Bills over these last few weeks as they locked up the AFC East (first division title since 1995!) while barely breaking a sweat, and it may be time to remind them they are still the Buffalo Bills. The Colts boast both a strong run defense and a rejuvenated rushing attack behind rookie Jonathan Taylor, not to mention they are guided by the superior head coach in Frank Reich (no, we still aren’t over Sean McDermott puking all over Buffalo’s last playoff game almost exactly a year ago). This one may come down to which QB makes the fewest mistakes, and that doesn’t bode well for the Colts with the rapidly-deteriorating Philip Rivers under center. Still, six-and-a-half feels like too many points to give for this one. Look for the Bills to advance, but it won’t be easy on the Buffalo faithful. (Bills, 24-20)

Rams (+3.5) over the SEAHAWKS — Rams QB John Wolford, in his NFL debut, ran for a team-high 56 yards last week in their playoff-clinching win over the Cardinals. Who was the last Rams QB to grind out that many yards on the ground, you ask? If you guessed Roman Gabriel back in 1967, you would be correct (how can anyone not be a sucker for a Roman Gabriel tidbit?). If I were a Rams fan, I might just hope L.A. decides to give Jared Goff one more week to heal up, and reloads with Wolford on Saturday. The kid threw for an additional 237 yards a week ago, and generally looked eons more confident than Goff did the last time he was calling the snaps. The Seahawks come into the playoffs on a roll, winning their last four on their way to the division title, and the shocking holes in their defense that were exposed earlier in the season appear to be firmed up. The Seattle offense maintains quick strike ability behind Russell Wilson, and Terrence Metcalf is fun to watch anytime he gets his hands on the ball, but the lack of Seattle’s vaunted 12th-man advantage will matter here. Look for the Rams stout defense paired with Sean McVay’s offensive innovation to do just enough for the upset. (Rams, 20-19)

Buccaneers (-8.5) over WASHINGTON — Talk about just happy to be here. The Don’t-Call-Us-Redskins-Anymores keep texting one another to make sure no one from the NFL offices has called to say it was all a big mistake, and a horrible team like theirs simply can’t be allowed to participate in the NFL Playoffs. The Washington Football Team is in, but it will end here. In no way will that dilute our respect and admiration for everything Alex Smith did to not just get back on the field after nearly losing a leg, but to deliver results in the form of a division title to the success-starved D.C. fans. But look at the weapons on the other side of this matchup, folks. Brady and Gronk and Evans and Jones and and and…this one will be over very early. (Bucs, 37-17).

Ravens (-3.5) over the TITANS — Yes, we are going with another road warrior in the early game on Sunday’s slate. The Ravens (SportsAttic’s Super Bowl LV pick, for those keeping track), were the team everybody in both conferences hoped would fall just short of the playoffs. But here they are, and teams peaking as they head into the playoffs are the most dangerous. Add to that the Ravens’ revenge factor dating to a year ago when the Titans sent top-seeded Baltimore packing in their division round upset, and this one lines up as one hell of a contest. Tennessee shouldn’t be taken lightly, and all the factors that contributed to their upset a year ago remain in play — most importantly the beast of all beasts in their backfield, 2000-yard rusher Derrick Henry. This should be an old-fashioned slugfest, and could ultimately be decided by whoever wins the coin flip kicking off overtime. Here’s saying that the call is heads, and Lamar Jackson passes and runs his way down the field for the winning TD on the first possession of the extra period. (Ravens, 34-28).

SAINTS (-10) over the Bears — Outside of D.C., there isn’t a group of fans happier than Bears fans, over seeing Washington in the playoffs. Because it spares Chicago the scrutiny and disdain that would otherwise be heading in the Bears’ direction for having the audacity to make the playoffs despite being a lousy football team. Does anyone really see Mitchell Trubisky engineering an upset here? How about keeping it close? Me either. Yes, Chicago has some talent on defense, but this is going to be so lopsided that you might even get a Jameis Winston-sighting in garbage time. Drew Brees tunes up for one more (final?) run up the NFL Playoff mountain, while Bears fans can go back to complaining about what an abysmal, waste of a draft pick Trubisky was. (Saints, 41-10).

STEELERS (-6) over the Browns — So the Steelers get to play “for realsies” this week, right? The Browns aren’t as good as their 11 wins would indicate (when was the last time the Browns won 11, you ask? How about 1994, under a guy named Belichick, whose defensive coordinator was a guy named Saban), but the Steelers may be the worst 12-4 team we’ve seen in a long time, too. Yet it won’t matter in Sunday’s late game, as the Steelers come in looking to send a message across the lake and to the rest of their haters around the league, who love pointing at Pittsburgh’s 1-4 finish as proof that they are overrated. In the end, the haters will be proven correct, but not this week, as Baker Mayfield and the Browns still haven’t shaken off the hangover that followed their playoff-clinching celebration last Sunday. (Steelers, 31-20).

And there you have it, pigskin enthusiasts, the SportsAttic Six Picks — as sure a thing as you’ll find when looking to wager your way to unforeseen riches in 2021.

Happy New Year to all!