THE WEEKEND EDITION
It’s the weekend of Championship Sunday in the NFL, so that’s got our current and historical focus for the weekend. Please check out the following…
There’s also a look at college basketball’s weekend agenda. Coming up is a preview of the Lecomte Stakes, a Derby Prep horse race from Louisiana that beings the Notebook’s coverage of The Road To The Triple Crown. The race starts at about 6:45 PM EST and the preview will be posted by 1 PM EST.
Everybody have a good weekend. I’m personally rooting for New England and San Francisco. What I think with my head is found in the previews.
Friday, January 20
It’s a cold winter day in Wisconsin on this Friday morning and I’m sitting here battling a cold that’s knocked me over almost as badly as Eli Manning and the Giants knocked over the Packers last weekend. Although I can still hold on to things thrown right at me. So the Morning Line will be short today. We’ve got previews of both the AFC Championship Game and NFC Championship Game. And for tomorrow’s weekend edition there will be some of the Notebook’s “modern historical” pieces that will find some of the best Championship Sundays played in the modern era of 1976 forward.
One thing I feel compelled to note that is the Lakers met the Heat last night and LeBron beat Kobe. I didn’t cover this game because I don’t think an East-West game is all that important at this time of year, and when it comes to harping on stories that are overblown in the media…well, there’s a reason God put Stephen A. Smith of ESPN on the earth, so I don’t want to interfere with Smith’s purpose in life.
Another feature that will come up as part of the weekend package will be the Notebook’s foray into horse racing. I spent three years working for a sports marketing firm that sold handicappers’ selections and horse racing was a prominent market (Was the marketing material always honest about the handicappers’ track record? Don’t ask). But one of the fun parts of the racing calendar starts up this weekend and it’s the Derby Prep races, a series of races that go from now until the Kentucky Derby in May. Run each weekend, these races are where entries get the earnings necessary to qualify for the Run For The Roses. I won’t pretend the Notebook’s racing coverage is going to eclipse college basketball in February or anything else, but if you’re someone who’s a sports fan and has wanted to learn a little bit more about the ponies, we’ll have coverage each week starting either later this afternoon or tomorrow morning.
Thursday, January 19
Ed Reed set the cat down amidst the pigeons this week in the hype leading up to the AFC Championship Game. The Baltimore free safety, former Defensive Player of the Year (2001) and likely Hall of Famer called out his quarterback, Joe Flacco, and essentially said the Ravens QB is too tentative and needs to let the ball go more freely. Talk radio is abuzz with whether this means there’s division in the Baltimore locker room and what Reed was trying to accomplish.
I had a chance to listen to the Reed interview and, like most things, the national press blows way up, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. There was no malice in Reed’s tone, and nothing to suggest that this was some sort of Machiavellian move to motivate the quarterback. It sounds like he was asked a question and gave an honest answer.
Reed’s comments sound a lot like John Elway telling Tim Tebow to “let it go”. In both cases you had a quarterback who was playing close to the vest, allowing his defense and running game to do the work for him. At the time of Elway’s comments it had stopped working for Tebow and the Broncos opened it up in a playoff upset of Pittsburgh. In the case of Flacco, the Ravens are surely concerned with how well it will work in in the future. It’s one thing to win a big regular season finale against Cincinnati and then a home playoff game against Houston with your running game and defense. But all phases of the game need to click in Foxboro.
I believe Flacco’s getting a bad rap, which essentially brings me full circle to 2008. He was a rookie, John Harbaugh was a first-year coach and the defense carried the team to the AFC championship game. Living in Baltimore at the time, I told anyone who would listen (the smallest population demographic there is) that while he deserved credit for not making mistakes, he was riding the rest of his team to wins, not leading the way. Now I think he’s catching too much—no pun intended—flak. Flacco authored the single biggest drive of the Baltimore season on a Sunday night in Pittsburgh. After the defense had coughed up a lead and the Ravens were pinned on their own 8, needing to go the distance, the quarterback coolly lead a 92-yard drive for the touchdown that eventually proved to be the difference in winning the AFC North.
Flacco isn’t Tom Brady, but that’s an absurd measuring stick. What he is, is good enough to win on Sunday if the rest of his team plays well. Which is why the quarterback Reed should really worry about is the one on the other side of the field.
Thursday’s Notebook features are a look at the ACC basketball race, with both North Carolina and Duke on ESPN tonight in separate games, and both looking less than dominant. There’s also a report on the NHL’s Northeast Division race where Boston and Ottawa are within a point in the standings.
Wednesday, January 18
The housecleaning at Indianapolis rolled on, as head coach Jim Caldwell was fired, an expected consequence of the 2-14 disaster. I thought it was appropriate for Indy to move on from both Caldwell and Bill Polian in the front office—the fact the team proved to be a complete train wreck without Peyton Manning has to be laid at someone else’s feet. New England won 11 games without Tom Brady in 2008 and that’s not because Brady is less valuable than Manning. The contrasting results are a referendum on the overall organizational skill of the respective front offices.
With the general manager and coach gone there’s only one more piece left in the housecleaning project and that’s Peyton himself. The Colts have said they intend to take Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the draft. While I have no reason to doubt them, the words can be a negotiating posture if they want to trade down. Both Luck and Manning have sounded less than enthusiastic about the whole apprenticeship idea if the Stanford quarterback comes to Indy. So is a trade imminent?
All of the trade talk has focused on what the Colts would want to do. But has anyone thought of what Manning might want? His own wishes are going to be a huge part in this process, and if it were me, I’d be banging down the door trying to force a trade. If you’re 36 years old, do you want to spend your NFL golden years around a team with no talent? If you’re coming off a neck injury to want to risk your health playing around a team that can’t protect its passer or take any pressure off of him? Most important, don’t you want a chance at another Super Bowl ring? To Manning’s critics, the fact he only has one is an indictment. To others, including myself, it’s an indictment of the whole idea that you measure quarterbacks by Super Bowl rings, a measuring stick that puts Peyton on the same plane as Trent Dilfer (2000 Baltimore). Either way, surely Manning wants to win one more and that’s not happening for him in Indianapolis.
Today’s Notebook will take a gaze to the East. We break down six Big East teams that are giving chase to #1 Syracuse, two of whom are playing tonight on national television (Cincy-UConn, 8 PM ET, ESPN2). And in the NBA, we look at surging Philadelphia, struggling Boston and enigmatic New York.
Tuesday, January 17
We’re 48 hours past the most shocking development of the NFL playoffs and that’s Green Bay’s loss to the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon. Between watching the game and digesting media reaction, here are a few thoughts I have for the Packer post-mortem…
*In a paradoxical way, we saw beyond a doubt why Aaron Rodgers deserves the MVP award. Remember the talk that built up for Drew Brees’ candidacy, with the point being that Rodgers had a much better supporting cast. It was argued here that Rodgers made his supporting cast, not vice-versa, and they proved it Sunday with an astonishing display of dropped passes. Rodgers wasn’t at the top of his game, but if we want to give grades, he still turned in a B or B- performance. A championship team can win at home in the conference semi-finals with that kind of game. What we saw was that when Rodgers doesn’t play “A” football, Green Bay does very little else well, and the fact they finished 15-1 means #12 deserves the MVP.
*Who’s to blame for the fact the team doesn’t do anything else well? You can blame the lack of a running game and pass protection on injuries to the line, and that’s fair enough—although at this stage of Chad Clifton’s career I don’t know if that’s a shock. More to the point is where exactly were Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams when this disaster was unfolding? Playmakers have to step up and on defense this trio didn’t.
*I really shouldn’t listen to Skip Bayless on ESPN’s talk radio, but he and his group were pontificating that the first-round bye hurt the Packers because it broke up their rhythm, while the Giants were playing must-win football down the stretch and were in rhythm. Okay, so how do they explain San Francisco beating New Orleans? Or New England beating Denver? Or any of the countless bye teams who’ve won their divisional round games over the years?
*Finally, can we put to bed the myth that Lambeau Field is some kind of playoff elixir for the Packers in January? They’ve now lost four of the last six home playoff games. That unbeaten record that was compiled before 2002 had a heavy dose of the Lombardi years in it, and it’s funny how homefield advantage works a lot better when you have Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor in the backfield and a stacked defense. Homefield advantage is just that—an advantage, and an important one. It’s not an automatic ticket to the next round.
That’s a wrap on the Green Bay Packers for this season. Today, the Notebook will keep its Midwest theme going. The top game of Tuesday night is Michigan-Michigan State on ESPN, so we break down the top four contenders in the Big Ten race, including both the Spartans and Wolverines. And there’s a heated race in the NHL’s Central Division involving Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis. A look at those three is right here.
Monday, January 16
One of the countless silly sports traditions a friend of mine and I have is that when we get the conference championship game matchups in the NFL settled, we’ll go all through all four prospective Super Bowl matchups and focus on what storylines are the best. As the games ended early yesterday evening, here’s what we came up with…
New England-San Francisco
The chalk pick right now, which assumes the two home teams winning. It’s a battle for history. Tom Brady goes to become the third quarterback to have four Super Bowl rings, a feat only achieved by Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana…and has to do it against Montana’s old team. Bill Belichick looks to join Chuck Noll in the pantheon of coaches with four rings. And San Fran? Merely trying to tie the Steelers for the most Super Bowl wins ever with six. No matter what, people in Pittsburgh can’t be happy. And NFL Films will have a field day.
New England-NY Giants
The rematch of the epic 2007 Super Bowl, also brings together the fan bases of Boston and New York, who have a considerable amount of hatred year-round. It’s safe to say 90 percent of the Giant fan base roots for the Yankees over the Mets in baseball. The Bruins and Rangers are in the top spots in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. Celtics-Knicks is a competitive rivalry again. Now we get this matchup to throw a heaping amount of gas on an already blazing fire? Mercy.
Would the Harbaugh family even attend this game or would they choose to avoid the media hordes? If the Harbaugh parents, along with coaches Jim and John thought the hype for their Thanksgiving night game was bad, what’s it going to be for this? This would also be a rematch of a very defensive-oriented regular-season battle—Baltimore won 16-6—which would continue a pattern from college football.
A rematch of the 2000 Super Bowl when the Ravens won their one title, and it’s also a battle between two cities only three hours apart. Baltimore-NY Giants was also the showcase for the 1957 championship game at Yankee Stadium that’s remembered as the one that pushed the NFL into national consciousness (it was the Colts, not the Ravens obviously, but still). Finally we have the city of Baltimore, feeling like the overlooked stepchild on the East Coast, buried underneath New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, trying to win a title against the Big Apple itself.
NBC televises the Super Bowl this year and they have to love these matchups. The Giants-Ravens one is the weakest of the four when it comes to storylines, and even there you’ve still got the nation’s biggest market and you’ve still got all that old footage of the ’57 title game to run. Patriots-Giants would have to be at the top of the list, because the memories of their previous Super Bowl showdown are still so vivid and you have two of the top four markets involved.
We’ll take a more analytical look at Championship Sunday as the week wears on. Today it’s time to talk a little hoops. There’s a huge Big 12 game tonight with Baylor-Kansas (9 PM ET, ESPN) and the Notebook checks in on the elite three teams (including Missouri) of that conference. We stay in the same part of the country for the NBA, and evaluate the early returns from Oklahoma City, Dallas & San Antonio. And as long as that’s the geographic theme of the day, let’s pull a piece out of the museum that recalls what it was like to be a sports fan on the northeast border of Oklahoma in 1985, the year of the Boz and Brett.