October Baseball — Moments, Thoughts and Memories

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Moment

I hate to start here, but there’s really no choice. An old joke goes something like this — “people may occasionally say ‘I don’t like kids,’ but they almost never will say ‘I don’t like your kids.'”

And so it goes with Clayton Kershaw. I hear people say all the time how much they can’t stand the Dodgers. I never hear anyone say they don’t like Clayton Kershaw.

And that’s what made the future Hall of Fame left-hander’s latest October fail so painful to watch last night. The suffering was raw, real and right there, for all of us to witness, when the big lefty threw the two pitches that completely altered the trajectory of this year’s Major League Baseball playoffs. It was an utterly human moment that reminded me why baseball still remains our National Pastime.

Baseball players are (more or less) like the rest of us. They aren’t a foot taller or a hundred pounds of muscle heavier. They play a game most of us have played in one way, shape or form in our lifetime, with rules we understand, and strategy we can all opine on (or second-guess). And it’s that human element that makes those moments that occur on the biggest stages of October baseball so memorable and poignant for those of us who love this game.

The empathy I felt for Kershaw last night, watching him power through such agony from his seat on the bench, pained me deep inside. There was Kershaw, dealing with his epic failure in front of a national television audience. A failure that further cemented his legacy as a pitcher that doesn’t come through when the stakes are highest, and left him knowing that he’d let down his teammates when they needed him most. It pained me as a fellow human being.

Then watching him be his usual standup self in accepting the blame to the hordes of media following the Dodgers’ elimination, only increased my admiration. Best (regular season) left-handed pitcher of his time. Stellar man.

That feeling of connection to the vulnerable, human side of one of the game’s all-time greats got me thinking about other moments, thoughts and memories that make the month of October such a special time for baseball fans.

Thought 

I don’t need an announcement from MLB to know that they’ve removed juiced balls from October play.  All I need are my ears and eyes. I don’t even need an apology after the league made a mockery of so many cherished records that had been set over the last 100 years or so of the sport. But regardless of how angry I am over the sham of juiced balls this season, I’m glad they are gone now. Baseball like it oughta be.

Memory

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On October 3rd, 1971, Bob Robertson captured my imagination as a young baseball fan. It was the first NLCS of my young life, and it seemed to me the Pirates first baseman would hit a home run every time he came to the plate for the rest of my days on the planet. Robertson homered three times in Game 2 of the NLCS against a loaded San Francisco Giants team (Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Bobby Bonds), and the Pirates were on their way to the first of their two World Series titles during the 1970’s (both over the Orioles in seven games, I might add). Bob Robertson — my first October legend.

Memory

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What was it about role players stepping up to October glory in my formative years? On October 14th, 1972 (only a year after I’d decided Bob Robertson was the greatest slugger I’d ever see), Gene Tenace became the first player to homer in his first two World Series at bats, and the A’s were on way to launching a dynasty. Once again, it seemed to 7-year-old me that Tenace had to be the greatest home run hitter of all time.

The Oakland A’s, with their mustaches and bold, green and gold uniforms, became the first team to capture my imagination. Sure, by then I was already a Mets fan forever (which made the 1973 World Series a torturous time in my young life), but those A’s were just so cool. They’d take the Big Red Machine in a classic, seven-game series (without their best player, Reggie Jackson) in ’72, and go on to make their mark as the best team of the decade.

Thought

When did Pedro Martinez turn into the Stay-puffed Marshmallow Man? OMG — wardrobe, order up Mr. Martinez some bigger dress shirts stat! They’re going to cut off circulation to his head when he buttons that top button and ties his tie! Do something!

Thought

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Leaving Kershaw in last night shouldn’t get Dave Roberts fired, but leaving Joe Kelly in sure should. I know 2019 Kenley Jansen wasn’t the lights out closer we’ve seen in years past, but letting Howie Kendrick go deep with the bags full and nobody out, while his closer sat in the pen waiting for the call was inexcusable. I’m half-surprised none of the Dodgers belted Roberts in the mouth when they returned to the bench following the top of the 10th.

Thought

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Does anyone else feel like they are listening to Joe Girardi conducting a job interview when he calls one of these playoff games? I wouldn’t be surprised if before the game starts he scribbles “nice guy” and “relatable” on his palms to remind himself what he’s trying to prove to those clubs hiring out there. That being said, I hope he ends up in the Mets dugout in 2020. If he’s smart though, Girardi should give it a couple of weeks and wait for Roberts to be sent packing, because the Dodgers young talent figures to leave them contenders for years to come.

Thought

If the Rays somehow figure out Gerrit Cole and come back to win Game 5 in Houston (currently trailing 4-1 in the 7th), we may as well just hand the Yankees this year’s World Series title. I mean, an upset or two are always good fun, but leaving us Yankees-haters with the Nats and the Cardinals to choose from in the Senior Circuit simply isn’t fair. And if it’s the Rays against the Yanks in the ALCS? Fight at the back rack for New York. Ugh…when will it end?

Thought

My buddy Geno keeps saying how psyched he is to see a Verlander-Scherzer matchup in the World Series. I agree, because it would mean the Yankees just lost the ALCS.

Moment

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Babe Ruth Day. Yes, I know this didn’t take place in October, but seeing the bigger-than-life slugger suited up in his pinstripes one last time, using a bat for a cane, tears me up every time. I may not like the Yankees, but the baseball fan in me knows they do baseball history better than anyone in the Bronx.

Moment

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Yes, Lou Gehrig Day, too. SportsAttic will now resume Yankees-bashing for the remainder of the 2019 postseason.

Thought

The Astros pen may not cost them Game 5 against the Rays tonight, but it will cause their fans significant pain before this postseason concludes.

Memory

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I was rooting hard for the 1988 Dodgers to get swept. Not only had Orel Hershiser and his gang of over-achievers stolen the NLCS out from under our far superior Mets team, it had become apparent that Kirk Gibson would exploit Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds splitting the New York MVP voters to steal that postseason award as well.

Then Gibson goes and hits that shocking, gimpy, walk-off against Dennis Eckersley, who’d been about as unhittable a reliever as we’d ever seen up until that inning.

Despite that, I challenge any baseball fan worth his salt to deny they’ve mimicked Gibby’s arm-pumping home run trot at least once in the 31 years since that ball cleared the fence.

Thought

How about a hand for Brian Anderson and Ron Darling? How hard must it have been for those two announcers to come up with nine innings of filler after the Cardinals put up their 10-spot on the Braves in the top of the first yesterday. It was painful to watch, but at least we could change the channel. Nice going, boys.

Thought

Is there anything more fun and flat out exhilarating than an elimination game in professional sports? And yes, this applies to all of the major sports, even though today’s post is on baseball. Anything can happen in an elimination game, tension is felt deep in the pit of our stomachs, and memories are waiting to be made.

Moment

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Howard Ehmke is one of my favorite World Series heroes. Ehmke was a 35-year-old (which is like being a 50-year-old today, I think) pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, and started Game 1 of the 1929 World Series.

Ehmke had gone to Athletics’ manager Connie Mack in late-August (after only starting 11 games that season) and told Mack that he felt he had one more great start in his tired right arm. Mack believed the veteran, and told him to shut down his throwing for the entire month of September, and instead spend the time scouting the Athletics’ likely World Series opponent, the Chicago Cubs.

Even though Mack had Game 1 choices in his rotation, such as the future Hall of Famer and 300-game winner Lefty Grove, Mack chose to send Ehmke out for Game 1. The old man set a then-World Series record with 13 strikeouts (including Hall of Fame Cubbies Hack Wilson, Rogers Hornsby and Kiki Cuyler), while leading the A’s to a complete-game, 3-1 victory in front of 50,000+ hostile Cubs fans at Wrigley Field. The A’s would go on to win the series in five games.

Ninety years ago, folks, but we can still relate to a tired old man asking for the ball and one final shot at glory. And we can admire the manager who defied the odds and trusted his gut, believing in a guy who hadn’t thrown a pitch in over a month to start the most important game of the year.

Awesome. Baseball. Moment.

(Future) Moment

Here’s hoping that somewhere in our baseball future (let’s say October of 2023 or 2024), an aging and near-retirement Clayton Kershaw ambles into his managers office and asks for one final World Series start in Dodgers Blue. And rather than staff ace Walker Beuhler getting sent out for Game 1, we see the big lefty taking the hill for one last shot at October glory. Clayton Kershaw’s modern-day, Howard Ehmke moment.

We probably won’t see a complete game or 13 K’s from Kershaw on this future October evening, but how about six shutout innings full of 12-to-6 curve balls and low-90’s fastballs on the corners, leading his team to a Game 1 win? I don’t like the Dodgers, but I’ll sign up for that moment right now.

Thought

As bad as the Nationals pen has been this year, it will be the Cardinals bullpen that blows the NLCS for St. Louis. Carlos Martinez is a walking blown save right now, and I see him giving back two leads as the Nats move on to the franchise’s first World Series appearance.

Besides, at least the Washington starting rotation will give them a puncher’s chance should they end up facing the Bronx Bombers for all the marbles.

Memory and Moment

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Yup, I had to close with Game 6, 1986. Easily my greatest sports memory, and it is hard to believe it was 33 years ago when the Mets overcame that two-run, 10th inning deficit to stage the greatest comeback in World Series history (sorry folks, not even accepting arguments on that statement).

When the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs and it became apparent we’d be playing a Game 7, the level of joy I felt is impossible to capture with mere words.

But if you are a sports fan, I don’t need to capture it for you. You have your own Mookie Wilson moment, and you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Play ball!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bitter Mets Fan’s Guide to the MLB Playoffs

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First of all, let me start by saying that I hate the Minnesota Twins.

Can we all agree that even if the Twins go 120-42 in 2020, we don’t allow them to participate in the playoffs? I mean, c’mon now, it’s bad enough that as a fan of the New York Mets I have to watch the Yankees (and their entitled, banner-counting fans) make the playoffs every year. Can’t a fella even get a semi-competitive playoff series to throw a scare into the Damn Yankees? Nope. Here come the goddamn Twinkies.

Oh sure, I read all the stories about how this year would be different for Minnesota. The Twins set the home run record (kind of like being named the best steroid-aided home run hitter of the 1990’s) and won over 100 games, and now they are going to “slay the dragon.” Yeah, whatever.

And then they send some guy out to start Game 2 with a 4.90 ERA who was driving an Uber six months ago. Yeesh. Cue the slaughter rule. Get these amateurs back to the land of lakes so we can start up the ALCS. At least then we’ll have a legit chance to see the Pinstripes take one on the chin.

But annual playoff pain for us Mets fans does create opportunity when it comes to how we view these 2019 MLB Playoffs. For example, I realized the other day that once the A’s were unceremoniously dismissed by a Tampa Rays team that could easily qualify for witness protection, not one club was left standing this postseason that I can even remotely root for. As I scanned the four playoff games scheduled for this past Friday (a baseball fan’s dream, by the way, no matter where your rooting interests lie), my feelings ranged from deep hatred (hello, New York Yankees) to indifference (hi there, Tampa).

In the National League, I embraced the fact that I absolutely can’t stand each of the four teams vying for spots in this year’s NLCS.

My distaste for the St. Louis Cardinals dates back to the 1980’s, when the despicable White Rat, Whitey Herzog, and his band of speedster banjo hitters somehow stole what should have been a Mets 1985 World Series title out from under us (if only Darryl Strawberry hadn’t dove for that ball in shallow right that summer…that ill-fated dive cost him 20 games and us the division in the process).

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The Dodgers? They absconded with what should have been our 1988 World Series title. Kirk Gibson never gets his shot at immortality if the Mets had only taken care of business that fall, but Orel Hershiser, Mike Scioscia, Doc Gooden and Ron Darling had other ideas, and the next thing I know I have to watch that shameless, camera-craving creep, Tommy Lasorda, declaring himself a manager for the ages, after L.A. took out the Bash Brother A’s in five games.

By the mid-’90’s the divisions had realigned, and now we Mets fans had the Atlanta Braves in our division, just in time to witness one of the most prolonged periods of baseball excellence (with only one championship to show for it — chew on that one, Braves fans) this side of the 1950’s Bronx. On what seemed like a weekly basis, we had Chipper (“LARRRRR-YYYYY”) Jones, John Rocker and the Hall of Fame version of Tom Glavine (important to note that the Tom Glavine we had as a New York Met was not a Hall of Famer) torturing us to no end. Sure, the Mets made it to the 2000 World Series, but only after the Cardinals took out the Braves, clearing the decks for us to lose another World Series that should have been ours (a pox on you, Armando Benitez!).

And of course now the Nationals are today’s nemesis, signing Daniel Murphy just to mess with Mets fans when we deemed Murphy’s 2015 playoff excellence to be an aberration, and let him walk in free agency. So yeah, Dodgers, Cardinals, Braves, Nationals — I hate ’em all.

Which is what has made the past few days so much fun. If there is one benefit to your team not making the playoffs, folks, it’s that the searing pain of playoff futility shifts to the fans of your arch enemies who remain alive.

Case in point — Game 1 of the NLDS between Atlanta and St. Louis the other night. The Braves are seemingly cruising with a 3-0 lead heading into the late innings, but the Cardinals start chipping away. Ultimately they ding overrated closer Mark Melancon (you watch, Braves fans, if you do advance, this guy will rip your heart out in the NLCS), and put the game away by taking a 7-3 lead into the bottom of the 9th (or did they). The crowd shots of Braves fans with those pained looks smacking of a mixture of disbelief and anguish, when just minutes earlier they’d been seen celebrating like the circus was coming to town, brought warmth and happiness to my heart.

But as if Braves-fan-pain wasn’t enough fun, in the bottom of the 9th we found more joy, as Atlanta mounted a comeback of their own behind a couple of homers and closed to within 7-6, no doubt creating much angst for all those Cards fans who had already put this one in the books as a “W.” That St. Louis hung on to the get the final out is really inconsequential in the telling of this story. The true winners were us bitter Mets fans, knowing that the pain of an imploding bullpen (a unique kind of agony Mets fans became intimate with during the 2019 baseball season) had gut punched not one, but two of our most hated rivals.

Then last night we got to witness that same pain and suffering travel west to afflict Dodgers fans. Up one game to none in an NLDS series where Los Angeles has only downside, being such prohibitive favorites, the Dodgers coughed up home field advantage behind another “meh” playoff start from future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw. Now I must admit to being a Kershaw fan, but not so big a fan that I couldn’t delight just a bit in knowing how it has to drive Los Angeles fans crazy beyond reasonable comprehension knowing that the greatest left-hander of his time will take his inability to win in the postseason with him to Cooperstown.

Nats fans didn’t escape the contest unscathed either, despite evening their series at one game apiece. They still had to look on helplessly yet again, as skipper Davey Martinez began to pull his bullpen levers in the late innings, jeopardizing a dominating start by Stephen Strasburg. Not only did Martinez make the puzzling decision to insert ace Max Scherzer, who finished the season with back and arm issues, in the 8th inning to help preserve the Nats two-run lead, he then chose to pull Scherzer after the ace had struck out the side in the 8th, forsaking the dominating Mad Max to instead try his hand with a new Washington arm in the 9th. Talk about tempting fate!

Again, it doesn’t matter that Daniel Hudson closed things out, and now Washington heads back to D.C. with a chance to advance if they hold serve on their home field. What matters to us Mets fans is that no matter which side folks were rooting for last night, they exited the matchup with a few more gray hairs, plus indigestion that would linger long into the night.

Over in the American League? Have I mentioned that I hate the Twins? Only because of how they seem to roll over every year when playing the Yankees in October. And Astros-Rays? This is a mismatch to the nth degree. When they announced the starting lineup for Tampa prior to Game 1, there were only three names I even recognized, and this team somehow won 96 games this year? That would appear to be more of a testament to the tanking going in in Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit, Toronto and Seattle, than to anything particularly special about the Rays.

Houston? Yeah, I don’t like them either. That dates back to the ’86 postseason, when Mike “Scuff” Scott nearly stole another World Series from us. That the Mets actually survived that NLCS (thank you, Jesse Orosco) doesn’t matter. I continue to dislike Houston to this day (but I’ll be rooting for them in the next round to send home the Yanks), but my Astros dislike is run of the mill compared to the enmity I feel toward the National League combatants.

With that painful backdrop now fully laid out for you, here’s a few observations about each Division Series:

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DODGERS vs NATIONALS

*Is it possible that Dave Martinez is actually a worse in-game manager than Dave Roberts? I think he may be! I wonder if the Nats front office is secretly disappointed that their squad got on that incredible midseason roll, making it nearly impossible for them to fire Martinez this offseason? He’s that bad…

*Has a manager ever been fired after 106 regular season wins? If Roberts can’t get the Dodgers out of the NLDS we may have a first on our hands. In fact, anything short of his first World Series title in three tries may force the Dodgers’ hand. Managerial skills needed to succeed in the postseason are far different than those relied on to steer a talented team through the regular season. Good thing Roberts got a ring as a player, this ride’s about to end.

*I like that so many of the Dodgers players have decided against growing a beard. Part of it may be that they are too young to be able to grow one (did you catch that kid Beaty last night? Guessing he’s never even bought a razor), but the whole beard thing is played out. We are at a point now where the clean-shaven look is the more edgy and fresh approach. More Gavin Lux and less Justin Turner please. “Oh, the times, they are a changing’…”

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CARDINALS vs BRAVES

*I can’t help but wonder if St. Louis is appreciative of the fact that the Rays ousted the A’s in the AL Wild Card. If not for that, the Cards would easily win  the “least interesting playoff team” award.

*Can you believe that Ronald Acuna Jr. dared pose on his 9th inning homer the other night, after possibly costing his team a run with his prima donna act on what became a long single a few innings prior? Way to go Freddie Freeman, for publicly taking Acuna to task with his postgame comments.

*Is the Tomahawk Chop racist? I dunno, but it always makes me happy when something bad happens to the Braves that silences their monotonous chant.

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YANKEES vs TWINS

*I have to go back to Harmon Killebrew to think of a Twins player I like. Kirby Puckett? Torii Hunter? Kent Hrbek (“buy a vowel”)? Jack Morris? Joe Mauer? Nah — MLB should have contracted this franchise 20 years ago when such talk was making the rounds.

*Even Aaron Boone won’t be able to manage his way into a loss in this series. The Yanks will score at least 10 runs every game on their way to the sweep.

*To give you an idea how deep this Bombers lineup is, Edwin Encarnacion is an afterthought, and the guy has 414 career home runs.

*Is it petty of me to be glad Luke Voit isn’t sniffing an AB in this series? Yeah, probably, but I can’t stand that guy.

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ASTROS vs RAYS

*The fact that Dick Vitale is a diehard Rays fan is the only thing about Tampa that’s remotely interesting.

*I watch Justin Verlander pitch and can’t help but think “this guys is by far the best starter in the postseason.” Then I see Gerrit Cole take his turn on the hill and think the exact same thing. Scary.

*Travis d’Arnaud hit 15 dingers and knocked in 69 runs as the Rays starting catcher this year. Too bad he wasn’t good enough to stick with the Mets. I wonder if Noah Syndergaard would have been okay pitching to him?

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Eli to New Orleans? Make It Happen!

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What to do if you are the New Orleans Saints?

I sometimes curse the rotten cards us Jets fans have been dealt, never more on display than during this past Monday night’s disaster at home against Cleveland, but Saints fans can’t be feeling too upbeat right about now either.

This is a Saints team that was one egregious official’s blown call away from the Super Bowl last year. And while they may not have come away with the Lombardi Trophy, they damn sure would have been better prepared to stare down Belichick and Brady than what we saw from the just-happy-to-be-there Rams.

So New Orleans stomps into the new season with the proverbial chip on their shoulder. Built to win now, with multiple weapons on an offense featuring a Top 5 superstar at both QB and running back, and a good-enough-to-get-you-there defense. They win their opener in thrilling fashion, further stoking the Super Bowl fire of the loyal fandom, laying the groundwork for a magical ride. And that good karma lasts all the way until…

About midway through Week 2’s contest against their old friends the Rams, when disaster strikes.

You know the dialogue from there. Drew Brees out with a hand injury that will require surgery. Backup Teddy Bridgewater looking ineffective and hopeless in relief. The matchup of the week we had tuned in for turns into a cakewalk for the Rams.

Now the Saints find themselves at 1-1 with Brees heading under the knife. Certainly not what you want to hear when you have an aging franchise icon behind center and a roster designed to win this year. The most optimistic of reports have Brees possibly returning for Week 11, but that’s assuming a speedy, setback-free recovery from a surgically repaired throwing hand for a 40-year-old QB with a lot of miles on his tires.

If you are the Saints front office, can you really roll the dice with Teddy Bridgewater as your field general for the next eight weeks?

Meanwhile back east the inevitable is taking place. Eli Manning is officially being replaced by fresh-faced rookie first-rounder, Daniel Jones. The move was certain to happen sometime this year, and after the complete bed-shitting on both sides of the ball by Big Blue in weeks one and two, you can’t blame Giants coach Pat Shurmur for saying “well, why not pull the bandaid off right now.”

Manning, ever the good soldier, is saying all the professional, classy things you’d expect from the borderline Hall of Famer, but we all know Eli is way too much of a fierce competitor to feel good about this decision, inevitable or not.

Manning has actually put up decent stats in the season’s first two weeks, completing 63% of his passes for 556 yards, with two TD’s and 2 int’s. And while that only garners him a modest 78.7 QB rating, let’s not forget that the Giants offense suits up nary a single talented wideout to throw to in this shell of a professional lineup he’s been charged with leading.

Am I really the only one wondering what Eli might be able to do if surrounded by a strong O-line and actual deep threats at wide receiver? We may never find out, but it seems to me there’s way too much to think about here beyond simply wondering how Eli adjusts to leading the scout team at practice back in New Jersey.

Let’s jump back to New Orleans for a second. If the Saints can really count on Brees returning as starter in time for their Week 11 contest against the Buccaneers, what can they reasonably expect between now and then?

The 2019 NFC appears far more wide open than the AFC, where if we aren’t seeing Patriots-Chiefs facing off for Super Bowl rights in late-January, there will be shock waves felt across the entire league. For New Orleans, there needs to be equal amounts of urgency and triage applied to this critical period of the schedule. While Brees is out, one incremental win may no longer just impact home field advantage throughout the playoffs for New Orleans, but now actually could dictate whether they earn their way into the postseason tournament at all.

This Sunday the Saints travel to Seattle. While the jury remains out on the Seahawks, picturing Teddy B. making his first start in front of Seattle’s still-tough defense while their vaunted 12th man cacophony of rabid fans roar away, can’t feel real good back in the Big Easy. We’re calling Week 3 an “L” for the visitors.

Following their trip to the Pacific Northwest, the Saints will host back to back home games against the Cowboys and Bucs. With Drew Brees, the Cowboys game would still be only a “pick ’em” at best. Without? We are calling this another “L” as the Saints fall to 1-3.

The Bucs? A divisional game against a much-improved Tampa Bay defense courtesy of Arians/Bowles won’t be an easy one either, but we’ll give New Orleans the nod for a desperation home squeaker that gets them to 2-3, with Bridgewater earning his first win as a Saints starter.

Then it is back on the road for the Saints, first to Jacksonville and then on to Chicago. Anyone else noticing a pattern here from the schedule-makers? Yeah, there couldn’t be a worse stretch of games for Brees to be sidelined for, with one tenacious defense after another lining up across from the shell-shocked Saints offense.

Even the Jags, as dysfunctional as they may be, won’t be a layup for the Saints on the road. And Chicago? Another stout D that will be enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of the Brees-less Saints offense. Call these two games a split (at best) for New Orleans, putting them at 3-4 with still no Brees sightings on the horizon.

Week 8 would offer some respite to the reeling Saints, as the Cardinals come to town. So we’ll call that a win heading into their bye, but our most optimistic forecast sends New Orleans into their week off a .500 squad at 4-4 (“optimistic” because that’s assuming they actually beat Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, neither a lock if the Bridgewater we saw in relief of Brees last week hasn’t improved between now and then).

The current thinking regarding a Drew Brees return has him rejoining the huddle for Week 11, which means that coming out of their bye, New Orleans will host division rival Atlanta for the first time this season hoping Bridgewater can keep pace with Matt Ryan and the potent Falcons offense.

Hard to imagine a Ryan-Teddy shootout falling into the “W” column for the Saints. Which means, IF Brees returns and takes back the helm the following week on their road trip to Tampa Bay, he may be tasked with running the table from that point on if New Orleans has any hope of earning a playoff berth.

When you handicap the NFC right now, it is hard not to envision both Dallas and Philly as playoff teams come January. Add the Rams to that list of the elite, plus whoever wins the NFC North (let’s call it Green Bay right now, since rules dictate that someone has to win this division). That leaves the NFC South winner (I’m going with Atlanta) and one more wild card. Under this scenario, a case can be made that no fewer than eight teams have a legitimate shot.

Think about it — Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit all currently believe they can sneak in as a wild card if not as the outright division winner in the North. Carolina, Atlanta and even Tampa Bay (yup, the entire NFC South division) could be viewed as playoff teams depending on how the rest of the season breaks. And out west the 49ers and Seahawks both show the potential to still be lining up in January.

Given this parity, five losses may end up being the over/under for wild card qualification in the NFC. Yup, the same number of losses one could easily project the Saints to be staring at by the time Drew Brees and his surgically-repaired right hand take their next meaningful snap from center.

And that’s why this makes so much sense right now.

Would an admittedly aging and immobile Eli Manning deliver just one more precious victory during this extended Brees injury absence to a Saints team built to win now, in a year where one otherwise avoidable loss could spell no playoffs?

It says here the answer is yes.

And why the heck not, if you are either team?

The Giants will be lucky to get to three wins this year, even if a young Y.A. Tittle were to show up behind center this Sunday. Eli earning his $20 million to run the scout team does nothing to impact the 2019 fortunes for Big Blue beyond the “mentoring” and “good example of professionalism” bullshit the latest articles chronicling his demise speak to incessantly this week.

Dave Gettleman, please listen — Give Eli one final lease on a proud career and trade him to the New Orleans Saints.

What does New Orleans have to lose? In all likelihood they could get Manning for a late-round draft pick next year or even the following. Sure, they’d have to pay him for the balance of the season, but the revenues of one playoff game would easily cover the Eli salary investment, not to mention the benefits of the overwhelming intangibles built into such a trade.

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Ahhhh, the intangibles.

C’mon, am I the only sucker out here for this kind of thing? Eli Manning ending his career suiting up for the New Orleans Saints? The same franchise his dad Archie represented with skill and dignity all those years ago? This is a B-movie storyline begging to become reality, folks.

Give Eli Manning the ball and let’s see what happens. It’s too late to save Teddy Bridgewater from the likely loss coming at him in Seattle this week, but what’s the downside in making the move and inserting Eli the Prodigal Son for Week 4 at home and seeing if the old man (who by the way is actually two years younger than Brees) has anything left in the tank?

If the Saints can convert one Bridgewater Loss into a Manning Win while Brees is in street clothes, not only does that warm the hearts of Saints fans everywhere, it damn well might preserve their playoff hopes and save their season.

And if it turns out that Eli is no more effective in black and gold than what we’ve seen in blue these past couple of years, put Teddy back in there and hope for the best until Brees gets back.

I’m going with the half-full storyline here. Eli plugs into the Saints highly effective offensive system and finds a way to steady the ship with a few wins until Brees’ return. Then we watch Brees lead the Saints from there into the playoffs, as the cameras focus in on a series of priceless sideline conversations between Sean Payton, Brees and Manning deep into the NFC playoffs. Cue screen shots of Archie, Peyton and the rest of the Manning family pumping their fists from their skybox at the Superdome. Sign me the hell up!

It just makes so much sense. Let’s go Saints and Giants — give the football world the potential for a magical story down in the Big Easy in 2019.

Manning at QB-1 for the New Orleans Saints? Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

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NFL Week 2 Musings — Phil or Boomer, The Teddy Bridgewater Era and How ‘Bout Them…

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Even with a few games still going on I’ve seen enough of the NFL’s Week 2 offerings to authoritatively make some bold declarations.

But before I get to that, who else is worn out by these crowded pre-game studio shows? I was glad to see ESPN’s announcement this week that Chris “Boomer” Berman and Tommy Jackson are bringing back  their gold-standard NFL Primetime (even if I will decline to pay the fee to something called ESPN-Plus to watch it), but this good news also got me to thinking (always a dangerous thing).

First of all, it seems to me that there’s really only room for one Boomer when it comes to pregame and postgame NFL shows. And amidst this rogue’s gallery of NFL talking heads, we already have Boomer Esiason on CBS’ pre-game yuck-it-up-fest.

To further complicate matters, CBS’ NFL Today show also includes a second blond, former-New York quarterback in Phil Simms. This was good fun back in the ’90’s, when both QB’s were leading the Giants and Jets on the field every Sunday and regular guests on the Monday talk radio broadcasts. Today it really just adds redundancy to the chaotic noise and saturation of information we all are forced to wade through in attempting to gear up for our Sunday NFL schedule.

Now the easy solution would be to simply jettison Esiason. After all, Simms is the blond, former-QB with the Super Bowl MVP pedigree and the superior insights, and now with ESPN’s Boomer about to make his triumphant return, you could argue that we are well covered in the Boomer-department. But that would be taking the easy way out.

So what if CBS, in a nod to the old, wildly popular, Superstars Competitions of the 1970’s, were to stage a mano-a-mano, survival of the fittest kind of battle between the two retired stars? I’m envisioning ten minutes or so of each Sunday’s pre-game telecast dedicated to a series of skills competitions. You know, week one could be a race — let’s say a 100-yard dash. Imagine the huffing and puffing as Phil and Boomer waddled the distance! Then the following week they arm wrestle. Or maybe attack an obstacle course?

Week three could be hoops-themed — a three-point shooting competition, or a game of horse, or maybe some make-it-take-it, one-on-one game to 11? To add to the fun, CBS could set it up so that the viewers vote for what the following week’s competition would be by texting the network (or better yet, via the CBS NFL Today app — they must have one, no?), selecting between, for example, ping pong, Home Run Derby or Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots on Week Four’s show.

Their fellow broadcasters would select who they believe would win that week’s contest (heck, even Bill Cowher might be able to show a little personality under this format), much as they do with that afternoon’s games, and ultimately the overall winner would be invited back for the 2020 NFL season, with the loser banished forever.

I, for one, would absolutely tune in every week. Give it some thought, CBS. Just sayin’…

Other takeaways, game by game, from Week 2:

*I know “that’s why they play the games,” but can anyone of sound mind and body really envision the Jets staying competitive with the Browns tomorrow night? How is this line only 6.5, even if the Jets are at home? If the line was Cleveland by 35, I’d still be hard pressed to go with the Jets. Get well soon, Sam Darnold.

*I’m looking forward to the battle of the birds tonight. No longer under the haze of a Super Bowl hangover this season, the Eagles appear to me to be legitimate championship contenders. I’d like to think the Falcons are better than what we saw last week, and they still have some of the talent that got them within a hair of their own Super Bowl victory only a couple of years ago, but we’ll know more about that after tonight. Eagles giving a point on the road seems like a sucker bet, but I’m taking it. Eagles by a field goal.

*Well, the Bills are undefeated (I’m amazed my Mac didn’t try to auto-correct that sentence). How psyched were they up in Buffalo when the schedules came out and they saw both New York football teams lined up for them in weeks 1 and 2? The only team to actually play their home games in the state of New York now has Big Apple bragging rights. Hope that helps when the Bills go on to lose 11 of their next 14. And just as an aside, am I the only fan that gets the feeling that Saquon Barkley could line up at any position for the Giants — offense, defense or special teams — and be better than whoever is currently in that role for Big Blue? Yes, even kicker.

*I found myself highly entertained by this week’s Thursday night game. Yup, a sign of early season enthusiasm, for sure, but Christian McCaffrey is a lot of fun to watch. I think I’d actually be able to root for the Panthers if Cam Newton didn’t insist on wearing those ludicrous outfits to the postgame pressers. And nice to see Todd Bowles on the Bucs sideline working with Bruce Arians again, even if the former Jets coach does look like he spent his offseason stress-eating while breaking down film.

*The 49ers are also unbeaten, so I guess those tech-rich bandwagon riders will start to bid up the ticket prices in Silicon Valley again. Are the Niners better than last year? Sure they are. Are they the class of the NFC West? Not so fast, it was only the Bengals. Speaking of Cincy, could Andy Dalton win big on a better team? No, I don’t think so either.

*The two games offered on network television this morning in Southern California were Cowboys-Redskins on Fox and Chargers-Lions on CBS. I started with the Dallas game, as I still can’t help getting into the hype when I see the two NFC East titans facing off. Turns out Chargers-Lions was the much better game. However, that doesn’t mean lots couldn’t be learned from both contests:

-The Washington Football Club is truly bad. Again. Couldn’t happen to a more despicable owner. Hi there, Dan Snyder.

-The Cowboys may be really, really strong, but we won’t know for sure until they play a real team. The Dolphins come to Big D next week. Guess we keep waiting.

-Philip Rivers seems to have adopted a shot-put kind of throwing motion. Uh oh.

-The Lions are once again terrible, but are also unbeaten tonight courtesy of the Chargers’ lack of a kicking game.

*Do the Packers have a defense this year? Sure looks like it. Or maybe Kirk Cousins just sucks. Starting to feel that way, right?

*The AFC South is setting up as a rugby scrum once again this year. That being said, I’ll be rooting for Jacoby Brissett and Indy every week. And I’m really glad Adam Vinatieri’s sudden deterioration didn’t cost the Colts the game. Afraid the legendary kicker’s end is near, though. And the Titans? I guess they forgot they had to play another game this week while they were so busy admonishing us all for overlooking them after the Cleveland blowout last Sunday.

*The Patriots only won 43-0 in Miami this week? Imagine how close it would have been if they hadn’t signed Antonio Brown…is it too early to start up the whole “could the Dolphins beat Clemson” dialogue?

*The Seahawks are another team that’s sitting undefeated, yet we don’t have a clue as to whether they are any good. Yes, they went into Pittsburgh and won a close one. Most years that would be a terrific barometer. Most years. Anybody else feeling double-digit losses steamrolling toward western PA?

*The Ravens? With wins over the Dolphins and now the Cardinals, this undefeated record has a definite Buffalo Bills feel to it. Wake up call heading their way when they head to K.C. next Sunday. And the Cards? Arizona fans should be thanking their lucky stars for last week’s gift-wrapped tie courtesy of the hapless Lions. Maybe the only thing that saves them from 0-16.

*Houston needed help from the officials to avoid falling to 0-2 at home against the Jags. The Texans remain my pick to come out of the NFC South, but man that was close. I love J’ville going for the win at the end, and I wish Leonard Fournette could have punched it in. Guessing that rookie sixth-rounder with the bad porn-stache will lose some of his popularity down south as these losses keep piling up. I can’t imagine what shade of red Tom Coughlin’s face morphed to when that two-pointer came up short.

*We were ready to declare today’s Bears-Broncos matchup as the most snooze-worthy of the weekend. Then they played the final minute of the game and everything changed. Bears kicker plays the hero? Really? Good for him, but Mitch Trubisky, Bears fans? Bring back Bob Avellini, quick. And on the topic of QB’s, did Joe Flacco really win a Super Bowl once? He did? Huh…

*I was super excited when the Raiders jumped out 10-0 on the Chiefs in Oakland this afternoon. Too bad there’s no “four-corners” stall for the NFL. Still, progress and hope for the Silver and Black is good for the NFL. However, I can’t help wondering if Pat Mahomes’ joining Aaron Rodgers on that State Farm commercial somehow diminishes his superpowers.

*Sure, injuries are part of the game, but what a letdown for those of us looking forward to a competitive Rams-Saints game this afternoon. When New Orleans signed Teddy Bridgewater as their backup QB last year I thought it was a brilliant move. Not feeling so brilliant right about now. Maybe the Rams are really good again?

Still so many questions to get answered. Week 3 can’t get here soon enough.

Is Good Health the Only Thing That Can Derail the 2019 Yankees?

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Yup, it’s come to this.

Us Yankees-haters are running out of hope as the calendar turns to September. In April and May there was so much for us to be optimistic about. The injuries were coming fast and furious up in the Bronx, plus they still had Aaron Boone at the helm. Surely such a combination would blow up any chance of a 28th title for the Bombers in 2019.

After all, when we’d last seen Boone, he was mismanaging his pitching staff as though he anticipated receiving a Red Sox World Series share, and with one high-priced Yankees star after another taking their turn on the IL this spring, surely Boone would be exposed by the Yanks lack of organizational depth, not to mention their suspect starting pitching.

Not so fast.

We have to give credit where it’s due here, folks. And Boone, in his second year as Yankees skipper, has proven himself to be far more than just a media-savvy (read, self promoting big mouth, who loves seeing himself on camera), players-manager.

In fact, at the risk of throwing too many compliments his way, Boone has shown an impressive ability to balance the competing demands of being the face of his iconic franchise to the ravenous New York media, with rallying his banged up troops around the “next man up” mentality, never allowing excuses to creep into the clubhouse dialogue, even after losing damn near his entire projected Opening Day lineup at one time or another.

I believe I speak on behalf of many a Mets and Red Sox fan, when I say that having to cope with Luke Voigt morphing from an afterthought on a deadline deal no one even noticed last summer, to Johnny Freaking Mize by October was hard enough, but for an encore, we now have to watch this new, bargain basement Murder’s Row emerge. One made up of names like Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela and the inimitable Mike Ford. Yup, sit down Core Four, and step aside Ruth/Gehrig/Lazzeri — the “MGM Grand” is here (thank God John Sterling hasn’t thought of that one yet). It feels like a bunch of quadruple-A spare parts are now leading the Yankees to what appears to be about 108 regular season wins and home field throughout October. Oy vey…

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Let’s face it fellow Yankees-haters, those vaunted pinstripes have the potential to breathe life into even the most mundane of marginal major leaguers. Gio Urshela? Put him in a Mets uniform tomorrow and he’s Luis Guillorme. Mike Tauchman? He’s a Juan Lagares knock off. Ford? He’s 2018 Dom Smith. But put these guys in pinstripes in 2019, and they rake; they hit walkoffs; they work deep counts; and they provide all the intangibles championship clubs have to have. In other words, they piss all of us Mets fans the hell off.

And I believe that underdog, “next man up” spirit is one of the reasons Yankee fans are so ecstatic about this year’s crew. This team is bludgeoning the rest of the American League, and doing so with little help from stars like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Voit and Didi Gregorius. And it’s not just the no-names getting it done. Arguably their MVP through August has been D.J. LeMahieu, who signed this spring to be a utility infielder, while perhaps the best shortstop in baseball today, Gleyber Torres, is their starting second baseman.

Don’t even get me started on the fact that all this pinstriped magic is occurring  without either their ace, or their perennial All Star setup man, throwing so much as an inning this year. GM Brian Cashman strikes out on finding a starter at the trade deadline? No problem, because in case you hadn’t noticed, Domingo German (Domingo German?) is leading the league in wins. And Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton have all shown signs of getting their acts together just as the summer doldrums give way to fall baseball. Give me an effin’ break already, would ya?

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What’s a Yankee-hater to do?

Well, how about we root for a return to full health up in the Bronx? We’ve all heard the old expression “that’s a good problem to have.” Well, the only chance us haters may have is if we saddle Boonie with a roster full of problems in the form of too many talented riches to sort through, as he begins to turn his attention to potential October lineups.

And that means we begin with Giancarlo Stanton.

Let’s go, baseball gods, get Stanton back on the field, pronto! And while you’re at it, throw Aaron Hicks back out there, too. And let’s keep Voit and Brett Gardner healthy, and…

You get the idea. We need Aaron Boone to make some bad choices that rob the Yanks of their underdog mojo just as the level of competition moves up a weight class during the month of October.

Because if Stanton and Hicks are in there, then Tauchman isn’t. And probably not Gardner, either, because Judge isn’t budging from his place in right field. Yup, I know, we are arguing for a team on pace to lead the AL in wins to add a former MVP to the mix, along with their leadoff man from a year ago. And hoping that by doing so, thus removing the legendary Mike Tauchman from the Yanks lineup, disaster may strike.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the only sliver of hope out there for a pinstripe collapse seems to be a couple of drops of poison falling into this steaming cauldron of positive team chemistry that Boone has concocted over the season’s first five months. A healthy return from Stanton and Hicks could prove to be that poison.

Here’s hoping Stanton’s rust is exposed as he rushes himself back into the lineup. The big guy’s as human as anyone, and it’s got to eat at him that he’s missing out on the feel-good party going on up in the Bronx, especially since he was treated so shabbily by the fans last fall when the Yanks bowed out to Boston.

So Stanton rushes back, over-swinging at a steady diet of breaking balls in an effort to justify his value and secure his spot in the postseason batting order at the expense of one of the heroic nobodies that have captured the affection of the fans. Those very guys that have provided clutch hit after clutch hit, moved along runners, hit the cutoff man, and demonstrated what winning baseball looks like. Yeah, those glue guys will be the ones sitting while Stanton starts out 2 for 37 trying to get his timing back. And then we sit back and we wait. Wait for those impatient Bronx boo-birds to begin to let their opinions be heard.

Meanwhile, returning Hicks to center puts fan fave and elder statesman Gardie (and his tiresome dugout ceiling rat-a-tat-tat routine) in mothballs at the end of the Yankees bench. You think Hicks may be feeling a little heat from that big contract he signed only minutes before wrenching his back during spring training?

If Hicks becomes an easy out at the top of the order and Stanton a K-machine in the middle, the heavy lifting (and accompanying pressure) will fall to Judge and Sanchez, who have been only so-so contributors to this 2019 juggernaut, at least in comparison to their career bests, not to mention fan expectations. That could spell even more K’s in the middle of the Bombers’ order, with the Indians or A’s heading to town for the beginning of the ALDS.

(Okay, I’m starting to get excited now.)

Then the onus is back on Boonie’s shoulders to sort it all out. Will he have the courage to sit the big paycheck guys if their performance lags, and go with the no-names that have seized the imagination of Yankees fans with their team-first play this year? And figuring out who plays will only be part of Boone’s October dilemma. He’s still going to need to up his game in the strategic decision department, when he no longer has the luxury of fattening up against the Orioles, Blue Jays, Tigers and Royals once the postseason commences.

Do Yankees fans really trust Boone’s in-game management prowess to make the right moves when every at-bat matters against the Indians/A’s and then the Astros?

Yes, fellow haters,  we need to embrace this contrarian approach and root for a complete return to health by the Yankees roster. Everyone off the IL. A desperate strategy without question, but right now this Bronx Bombers train appears Canyon of Heroes bound, so no stone can be left unturned.

We must band together in the hope that Boone’s penchant for over-managing, coupled with a short-sighted choice of “big name” over “character guy” will come back to haunt him. Because if not, momentum seems to be building for title number 28, and with the overall youth of this club, 2019 could be the beginning of a Yankees run much like the one that tortured me the entire decade of my 30’s — those dark years between 1995 and 2004.

C’mon Boonie — get your boys back and then blow this all sky high for the rest of us. We are counting on you!

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Yes, I’m Ready For Some Football and Other NFL Musings

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Yes, I’m ready.

I found myself watching the Florida-Miami game last week, rooting for the Canes for no particular reason other than I think they were the underdog, when it occurred to me —

I’m ready for some football.

But I want the pros. Nothing against college football, but I’ve always enjoyed the pro game more. And the fact that I was watching an August college matchup between two teams I’m not particularly fond of tells me we are on the brink. Enough of these farcical exhibition games NFL, bring on the real stuff!

So here’s a quick Top 10 appetizer as SportsAttic takes a zip around the NFL as the season’s first set of games descends upon us:

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  1. Yup, it’s gotta start with a quick acknowledgment of Andrew Luck’s decision to call it a career. In this day of social media and “fake news,” the rumor mill and conspiracy theorists were bound to turn Luck’s retirement announcement into more than it needed to be. Can’t we just applaud Luck’s maturity and guts? There can never be “good” timing for such an announcement, so stop with the whining all you haters. Vontae Davis did the same thing at halftime of a game in progress last year, and was vilified for his decision. Barry Sanders? Jim Brown? If you were a Lions or Browns fan, you were understandably crushed when your star walked away earlier than you were ready for to happen. But this is clearly the player’s decision to make. Give Luck a break for gosh sakes, and wish him well. Andrew Luck is somebody’s kid, and preserving a young man’s long-term well being should be something we can all relate to. Colts fans booing? Both understandable and inexcusable. Move on Indy, and here’s hoping Jacoby Brissett has a big year and the Colts make the playoffs.

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2. I’m seeing 10 wins (including one over the Patriots) and a playoff berth for the 2019 New York Jets. But here’s saying that the most important change to the Airplanes this year won’t prove to be adding Le’Veon Bell, or the year-two maturation and improvement of Sam Darnold, but rather the signing of veteran center Ryan Kalil off the retired list. This guy will make the entire offense better and is worth at least two wins just by showing up.

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3. Could I ever be more of sick of a player than I am of Antonio Brown right now? There’s been a lot of horse’s asses we’ve seen pass through the NFL over the years, but this guy is an all-time, Mount Rushmore-worthy malcontent. I also must admit it makes me happy to know Jon Gruden will have to deal with this creep all season while planning his money-driven exodus from Oakland to Vegas next year.

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4. Who’s our biggest short for the 2019 NFL season? Look no further than last year’s Super Bowl runner ups. Sean McVay may not look like quite the genius he was a year ago when the dust settles on this year’s Los Angeles Rams. I’m seeing 9-7, regression on both sides of the ball, and a second place finish.

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5. Can Patrick Mahomes actually improve on his superhuman performance of a year ago? And if he does, can Andy Reid still find a way to have his Chiefs come up small in the playoffs? Yes. And yes.

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6. Is it mean spirited to hope that both Jerry Jones and Ezekiel Elliott end up losing big in their ridiculous contract stalemate? Here’s hoping the holdout lasts until a few games in, when Jones is forced to cave while looking at a 1-4 Cowboys start. He then overpays the petulant running back to return and save the Cowboys’ season, only to see Elliott tear a hamstring his first game back. Hey, a boy can dream, can’t he?

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7. Somehow I anticipate quite a different negotiation process to take place when it comes time for the Giants to pay Saquon Barkley. In the meantime, we’ll be forced to dream about what this beast will one day accomplish once he’s finally rewarded with a good offensive line to open holes for him.

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8. Can anyone hazard a guess as to what Jimmy Garoppolo shows us this year in San Francisco? Can he be as good as what we saw before the injury in 2017? Or as bad as what we’ve seen during the preseason this year? Yeah, somewhere in between lies the answer, but that is a vast divide.

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9. I sure hope the Falcons make the playoffs this year, or at least continue to take a patient approach in allowing Dan Quinn to hold onto his job as head coach down in Atlanta. The work Quinn does with veterans groups is an example for all, and the type of individual the NFL needs more of.

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10. Yeah, the Browns are going to be scary good, and fun to watch for a long time, aren’t they?

Fire it up, NFL — I’m ready.

 

 

NBA Hierarchy — The Super Teams and The Teams That Picked the Wrong Year to Be Really Good

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SportsAttic is going to save you NBA fans some time today.

There’s an old saying that all you ever need to watch in a basketball game is the final two minutes. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory, when we look ahead to the 2019-20 NBA season, you really won’t need to begin watching until the month of April at the earliest.

The day of tanking for draft picks is colliding with the era of the Super Team, and the big loser is the average NBA fan who enjoys some suspense served over the course of his or her regular season. We’ve got over two months before the first tipoff that matters in the new NBA season, and we can write down with confidence seven of the eight likely Western Conference playoff teams right now.

The Eastern Conference will be more wide open in terms of playoff entrants (my gosh, even the Knicks could sniff a seven or eight seed), but we already know who the four squads most likely to advance to Round 2 are, so let’s just fast forward to April already.

Thus, as a mid-August gift to our loyal NBA-fan followers, we are giving you some time back. Enjoy the pennant races and conclusion of baseball season, and take that leisurely stroll from the diamond right onto the gridiron. Wallow in your Saturdays and Sundays, toggling back and forth between college and the pros all the way through bowl season, the NFL playoffs and this year’s Super Bowl (set for February 2 in Miami, in case you want to mark your calendars and begin planning travel).

You may continue to take your time from there, as pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training and March Madness heats up, because there will be little of interest to pay attention to in the NBA.

Oh sure, you’ll get the made-for-TV Christmas slate to flip to when the third rerun of Christmas Story begins to get monotonous (“Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie!”), and there will be some intrigue for sure around how the ball sharing is going down in Houston, and over who has the edge in the Battle of the Staples Center, but this regular season figures to be nothing but a formality.

There are eleven NBA teams that will matter this year (twelve if you want to add in Dallas, with Luka and Kristaps hopefully teaming up for a European-themed ride to the west’s eight seed), and basically everybody else will be jockeying for draft positions from October through April.

So with that in mind, we’ll now leap forward to who will be worth paying attention to sometime after MLB’s Opening Day next April, with odds affixed to their chances to take home the NBA title when the dust settles in June.

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THE SUPER TEAMS

  1. Los Angeles Lakers: As much as it pains me to say it, I’m afraid a rested-for-the-first-time-in-a-decade LeBron, plus a walk-year Anthony Davis adds up to too much talent for the rest of the league to derail. Full stop. Despite protestations about how impossible it would be to add useful supporting pieces around their two stars, the Lakers dysfunctional front office pulled it off, and Kyle Kuzma (they didn’t move him for a reason, folks), Rajon Rondo, and maybe still an Andre Iguodala waiting in the wings, will be enough for the two superstars with something to prove to ride to another Lakers banner. Odds: 1-2
  2. Los Angeles Clippers: They are really pick 1-A here. Can Kawhi Leonard possibly pick up where he left off last June? His postseason efforts bringing Toronto its first title were nothing short of heroic, earning him MJ comparisons (the most rarefied of NBA air, and gasp, may I add that such comparisons were justified???), and anointing him the title of Best Player In The League Right Now. Well, Kawhi joins a Clippers team with at least as good a coach in Doc Rivers as the one he leaves behind in Toronto, and a supporting cast that put a scare into the Warriors last spring and takes the floor with a defense-first focus every night. And to that they add Paul George? Hmmm. And why aren’t they the pick over their co-tenant Lakers? Well, the problem is George. He just committed to forming a Super Team in Oklahoma, didn’t he? And then he skips town after the Thunder came up small last spring? Yeah, we can blame Russ and his ball dominant ways all we want, but is George a winner? Will it matter since he’s now paired with Kawhi? We’re going to find out, and ultimately that tale will be told in the Western Conference Finals, when the ultimate battle for Los Angeles basketball supremacy (and de facto NBA title) is waged. Odds: 3-2
  3. Houston Rockets: Poor Mike D’Antoni. He thought last year was going to be his year, and then got the soul-crushing Carmelo Anthony Whammy dumped upon him. Even though he cleaned out that stink in short order, the pall was cast, and ultimately cemented when Chris Paul demonstrated, yet again, why he’ll one day retire with zero rings and the disdain of an entire league as his going away present. So what do the Rockets do? They mortgage the future again and create another Super Team, this time teaming up James Harden with Russell Westbrook. Again, hmmm. Didn’t these two guys make a run at a ring once before? And didn’t that run also include a young Kevin Durant? Okay, we can argue that both Russ and James have evolved into alpha dog superstars since their youthful OKC days, but there’s still only going to be one basketball in play. Look for lots of regular season wins and incredible SportsCenter highlights and statistical references. But then expect a tough first-round playoff matchup versus a squad in our next grouping that shakes Houston’s confidence, followed by a second consecutive round two exit. Odds: 6-1

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GREAT TEAMS THAT PICKED THE WRONG YEAR TO BE REALLY GOOD

4. Philadelphia 76ers: I thought about making the Sixers the fourth Super Team in this listing, but they simply aren’t there yet (and maybe never will be). Tons of talent for sure, but something still smells bad to us here, despite the fact that without a last second, miracle heave from Kawhi Leonard, this team could very well be our league champions today. Yeah, the Embiid/Simmons pairing is young, immature and needs to show us all the championship mettle that was so lacking a year ago. Adding Al Horford was a terrific step in the character direction (and taking the rival Celts down a peg was an added bonus to the Horford signing), but you can’t tell me Josh Richardson is an uptick over Jimmy Butler, and losing J.J. Redick’s leadership and three-point marksmanship will be a tough hole to fill. The fact that no Super Teams live in the Eastern Conference leaves a gaping path to the conference finals for Philly, and with that the opportunity to lose in five to the survivor of the Battle for Los Angeles come June. Odds: 5-1

5. Milwaukee Bucks: The lack of Super Teams in the east is a plus for the Bucks, too, but last year was their moment. And when given the chance to step on the neck of the Raptors and seize the east, Giannis and Milwaukee instead pulled their punch and now see their window closing. Bringing back Khris Middleton was the right move, and they are still a tough contender with a respected coach in Mike Budenholzer, Eric Gordon lighting it up in anonymity from the backcourt, as well as some decent depth, but this team isn’t going to win it all. And probably won’t even emerge from the east. Odds: 10-1

6. Golden State Warriors: How excited are the Dubs to play a season with no title expectations?  I’m guessing pretty damn excited. They’ll still roll out Steph, Draymond and Klay (at some point after the All Star break), and by the time the playoffs roll around, this will be the club the Super Teams don’t want to face. Adding Willie Cauley-Stein at center will prove to be much more important than the D’Angelo Russell acquisition, and in a league with no Super Teams, they could actually be a dark horse to ride Steve Kerr’s ball movement system to an unexpected title. But alas, this is just not that year. They’ll still be more fun to watch in a different, team-basketball kind of way then the KD Super Team Warriors of the past few years, as they christen their new, sold out downtown arena, but it is the wrong year for a sixth consecutive title run to come together in the Bay Area. Odds: 15-1

7. Boston Celtics: We are about to find out just how good a coach Brad Stephens is this year in Boston. And we’ll also get to answer the question of whether Kyrie Irving was truly the problem that derailed the 2018-19 Celtics from what had appeared last summer to be a pre-ordained date with the Dubs in the 2019 Finals. Picking up Kemba Walker was a meh/yawn/whatever signing, but one that had to happen in light of the departures of Kyrie and Terry Rozier, but it’s hard to see that making the Celtics much better than the 2018-19 model. Then pile on the surprise Horford departure, and even with Enes Kantor bringing some much needed toughness in the middle, it’s hard to imagine this club taking out the Bucks or Sixers and making it out of the east, despite their considerable depth and talent. Odds: 20-1

8. Portland Trailblazers: How hard must it be to run the Blazers organization? You’re already boxed in, knowing you have two wildly popular superstars that will never be able to get you over the top to a title, because both reside in your backcourt. You thought you had a center who could be the missing link to take you to the next level, but every time you start to feel a bit giddy over that plan coming together, the talented big man ends up in an awkward heap on your hardwood. So you trade for another center, however he’s grossly overpaid and has already proven incapable of elevating good but not great teams. So you head into the season knowing you have improved an already strong team, but that it really doesn’t matter. Because you’ll probably run into Golden State in the playoffs for what feels like the thousandth year in a row, and you will lose and maybe even get swept. Again. It’s enough to make you drown your sorrows at some cool Rose City vineyard while binging on a couple dozen Voodoo Donuts. Odds: 25-1

9. Denver Nuggets: Sorry Nuggets fans, but we are sensing a regression heading our way from this young, athletic squad in 2019-20. Denver thrived under the Western Conference radar and posted a tremendous regular season a year ago. However, they were exposed by Portland in the playoffs, and still have to be a bit shaken as they regroup for the new campaign with essentially the same club returning. Normally that would bode well for a young squad building title momentum, but with everyone else in the west seemingly improving, look for the Nuggets to be a playoff club that is quickly dismissed by one of the Big Three in round one out west. Odds: 30-1

10. Utah Jazz:  Same for you, Jazz fans. This is another Portland story in the making. Yeah, we all loved the Mike Conley pickup until the real stars started to play musical chairs. Donovan Mitchell isn’t a Level 1 superstar either, and though the supporting cast is strong, it’s no match for the rest of the loaded west. They’ll have to be satisfied with 45 wins, a seven seed, and maybe one win in the first round against the Lakers or Clippers before heading home for summer vacation. Odds: 50-1

11. Brooklyn Nets: To borrow from their Brooklyn Dodgers ancestry, “wait til next year.” This team was a feel-good story a year ago, riding a patient organizational plan and true team effort from solid, veteran role players to earn a playoff berth nobody expected. Now there’s expectations, and with KD on the shelf until 2020-21, those fans anticipating immediate contention are likely to be disappointed. Yup, there’s talent here, and if we are all wrong about Kyrie being a me-first, coach-killing, locker room poison, maybe they’ll climb to 50 wins and make a run at the east. But I just don’t see it. Look for improvement by a few games over 2018-19’s 42-win total, and then a first round, upset defeat at the hands of an inferior squad that plays a lot like last year’s Nets. Odds: 35-1

There you have it. In our present-day world of stress-provoking multi-tasking, with never enough hours in the day to even think about being present and woke, you now have been granted some time back to savor over the next eight months of your NBA Fan lives.

Use it wisely, and we’ll see you in April!

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