Super Bowl 54 Preview

Below is a podcast for Arizona State University’s Blaze Radio that features me and some friends previewing Sunday’s game.  Give it a listen below.

There has never really been a Super Bowl shootout.

Since 2000, the games that most fit that description was Super Bowl 52 between New England and Philadelphia and Super Bowl 47 between Baltimore and San Francisco.  Those were the two closest, high-scoring Super Bowls of the past 20 years.

But neither felt like a true shootout.  Each game featured big leads held by one side – the Eagles were up by about ten points throughout most of the game, with the Patriots playing catchup before taking a 33-32 lead with 9:22 left, and the Ravens slaughtered the 49ers early, as they took a 28-6 lead just after halftime before the power outrage triggered a San Francisco rally that fell short.

And only one of the scores of those games were shootout-like: Philly’s 41 to New England’s 33.  The 34-31 Ravens win over San Francisco doesn’t quite get there.

Before 2000, you have to go way back.  Games that were close and high-scoring were rare.  Steelers-Cowboys in Super Bowl 13 (the 1978-79 season) blips the radar – Pittsburgh beat Dallas 35-31.

But that’s it.  Super Bowls 13, 47 and 52 are the closest thing we got to a Super Bowl shootout, and all have a distinct case against them.

Sunday’s Super Bowl 54 could change that.

Super Bowl 54: San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs (-1.5), 4:30 PM AZ Time

Patrick Mahomes is the scariest player in football.  That doesn’t mean he’s the best – that’s a conversation that’s incredibly hard to have because of positional value.  But there’s no one who feels more unstoppable when he’s cooking than Mahomes in the league.

San Francisco has a great defense.  They finished No.2 overall in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA.  They have a fearsome defensive line, equipped with the runaway Defensive Rookie of the Year and arguably the Defensive Player of the Year in addition to DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, both of whom had massive breakout seasons.   Richard Sherman has been excellent, and they have a bevy of other important role players on the squad (Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner to name a couple).

There are some flaws.  Aside from Sherman, the secondary is weak (the opposite corner and nickel corner have had players rotated in and out frequently).  Secondly, San Francisco runs a cover 3 zone as their base defense.

Zone makes sense for San Francisco and has obviously worked this year.  It doesn’t put as immense of pressure on their right-side corner (Sherman is almost exclusively on the left side, no matter the matchup), and allows their safeties to keep things in front of them at all times.

But zone is a lax coverage.  It leaves holes open everywhere on the field.  It requires excellent tackling skills and execution.

Playing a zone base against Mahomes and this Chiefs offense is absolutely terrifying.

Mahomes should pick it apart.  There really isn’t much to pick with the space a zone allows, especially when considering his arm strength.  In addition, the Chiefs speed across their weapons core could make it even more devastating.  Zone not only allows space but, as mentioned above, requires speed to get to the point of the catch and make tackles.  Kansas City’s receivers – Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, DeMarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman – can all fly and bust through those holes.  They’re too fast for almost any secondary.

San Francisco is going to have to adjust and play more man – a scary shift for the biggest game of the year.  But it’s probably a better bet.  While man coverage comes with its own risks and relies on speed in a different way than zone, it at least makes the Chiefs’ weapons have to work a bit harder to get open.  The 49ers should be more comfortable going down swinging rather than just giving it to Mahomes and Co.  Man coverage at least makes it seem like they’re trying.

San Francisco’s heavy reliance on zone may not matter though if they execute well enough in another facet of their defense: the defensive line.

Despite his underrated running ability and agility, pressure has bothered Mahomes before.  It reduced him a bit against New England in last year’s AFC Championship Game (except later in the game) and has forced into some unlike-Mahomes performances.

San Francisco wrecked havoc against the Packers.  Aaron Rodgers was under constant duress, and Green Bay could get nothing going whatsoever.  They also hardly had the ball, which didn’t help.

The 49ers were also really good against Minnesota up front, but the Vikings offensive line has been a weaknesses for years, and wasn’t much better this season.

At the tackle spots is where San Francisco could see their line’s impact reduced.  Bosa made David Bahktiari look like one of the worst blind-siders in football instead one of the best last week, and a not-totally-1oo-percent Bryan Bulaga didn’t help on the other end as well.

The Chiefs have the best two tackles San Francisco had dealt with this postseason.  Mitchell Schwartz is an All-Pro on one end, and Eric Fisher has steadily rose himself to make that No.1 pick look justifiable – he’s had a nice season and should be considered better than Bulaga given that injury bug two weeks ago.

Kansas City is weaker on the interior, where Buckner and Armstead create their own pass rushing duo in addition to stuffing the run.  No matter what, the line is a lot for the Chiefs to handle.  But on the outside, it’s actually a more favorable matchup than you might think.  Stopping Bosa goes miles.

If the Niners can create some pressure on Mahomes, then they are definitely in this thing.

San Francisco’s execution on the defensive end in the NFC Championship was great.  Their offensive execution was better – as expected from possibly the NFL’s best executed group this season.

Like Mahomes throwing, the 49ers ability to run the ball and continue to do so over and over again can be unstoppable.  It was against Green Bay.

Jimmy Garoppollo threw just eight times agains the Packers.  That was all he needed to.

Every block was sealed.  Every hole was open, and every hole was hit by a 49ers running back two weeks ago.  Raheem Mostert stole the show, but San Francisco has shown the ability to have any back be able to breakout for a massive performance like that.  It’s really a matter of who they want to roll with.

Mostert will likely be the guy.  He’s coming off a ridiculous performance, and is the fastest back they have to test Chiefs linebackers, who aren’t exactly the best group in football.

Kansas City’s run defense was the fourth-worst in the league by DVOA this season, and they gave up an astonishing 4.9 yards per carry this season.  They were truly one of the worst groups in the league.

While it seems improbable that the 49ers could put up a performance like the NFC Championship again, consider how their regular season went.  That’s how they won so many games: running the football down people’s throats and only throwing when they absolutely had to.

It’s execution and coaching that makes this work for San Francisco.  Everything on that end is pristine.  Everything on the defensive side of the ball for the Chiefs is not.

There’s no reason to think that Kansas City should be able to stop them.  The 49ers are going to have to stop themselves, or become aware that Garoppollo maybe isn’t the most equipped quarterback for a shootout and panic.  Despite all of the crafty running schemes and the explosiveness that Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel bring, San Francisco’s offense doesn’t pop like Kansas City’s.

The 49ers could make it even less sexy by not only running constantly by really milking the clock and limiting drives for Mahomes as much as possible.  That was the formula the Colts used when they upset Kansas City in Week 5 – Jacoby Brissett and Indianapolis had the ball for 37:15 in that game, compared to the Chiefs at 22:45.  It felt like Kansas City didn’t have the ball at all, really.

Still, the biggest difference between these two teams – or their offenses – is that “Engage shootout mode” button that Kansas City has and San Francisco lacks.  In game where points seem destine to be scored in bunches and the over seems like an almost sure thing, that matters.  Mahomes matter.  He’s arguably the most talented quarterback of all-time.  Do not bet against that.

Prediction: Chiefs-35 49ers-31

The 2020 NBA All-Star Reserves

It feels weird writing about basketball right now.

It feels weird writing about it without addressing the elephant in the room: the passing of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant Sunday in a helicopter crash.

It feels a bit weird that games have and are still going on.  It feels weird that this column is going to be published without a real tribute or payment of respect to Kobe.

The truth is that it’s not time yet.  The Lakers organization is feeling the same way, evident by Tuesday’s postponment of Clippers-Lakers, one of the biggest games left in the regular season.

The time will come, don’t worry.  For now, here’s part two of the 2020 NBA All-Star Ballot:

Western Conference Reserves:

G Damian Lillard

The Trail Blazers stink, and it’s not Damian Lillard’s fault whatsoever.  He’s averaging 27.9 points, 7.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds a game on a team that’s playing Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony heavy minutes every night.  CJ McCollum’s slow start to the year didn’t help the Blazers in the beginning of the season, nor did brutal performance from Anthony Tolliver and Kent Bazmore (They’re both now gone, if that doesn’t say enough).  The Blazers have been so bad that they have just a 0.8 net rating when someone with the seventh-highest PER in the league is their starting point guard.  When Lillard is on the bench, Portland’s net rating is a ghastly -9.3.

Yet, Portland is somehow just three games back of the playoffs and is currently tenth in the West, despite their roster being totally ravaged by injuries and this year turning quickly into a throwaway one.  As the past three games in which he’s scored 61, 47 and 50 show, Lillard is just trying his best.

G Ja Morant

Ja Morant is the runaway Rookie of the Year so far, unless Zion Williamson somehow ups the already impressive showings he’s had and wills the Pelicans into the playoffs.  It would take a 2016-17 Isaiah Thomas-like run for Zion to enter the conversation.  He’s capable of it, but it seems more likely that next season will be the one in which Zion takes over in.

Because of Morant’s preemptive award and since the Grizzlies are literally the eighth seed in the West right now, he gets a spot.  He’s totally deserving.

Others have taken huge steps forward on this Grizzlies roster (Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke), but Morant right now is the best player on a playoff team as a rookie.  The list of guys who have done that is small.

It’s not just that.  The developmental steps Morant has taken not even one full season into his career have been staggering.  We’re seeing him takeover games for the Grizzlies when needed, and has been not only a facilitator but a creator of offense for them.  He’s a force driving to the rim; no one can control the athleticism and explosiveness.  Defenders won’t want to get in front of that.  He’s also shooting really well from three, and that’s not a small sample size overrating Morant at all.  The rookie is taking 2.3 a game and is sinking 40.5 percent of them.  No one saw that coming from him this year.

Because of the Grizzlies’ success and his stunning development, Morant is absolutely worthy of a spot.

G Chris Paul

There are multiple players who are reasons why Oklahoma City is somehow 28-20 and the seventh seed in the West, so narrowing it to one to represent all was difficult.

Chris Paul is the choice because he’s the most impactful veteran on this team.  Danillo Gallonari has been excellent and has earned himself some trade interest from other teams, but Paul is the commander and leader of this offense.

The Thunder aren’t in the position they are now without CP3.  Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has point guard capabilities, but that’s a heavy load to shelve on a second year player.  CP3’s presence allows SGA to focus on scoring only.

OKC has adults on the court.  Turns out, a solid veteran team can actually mean a good team as well.

F Brandon Ingram

If we stick to Most Improved Player’s typical definition, then Ingram is the runaway winner of the award.  It’s earned him an All-Star spot, too.

The Pelicans were horrible early but then got better as their health improved.  They’re *just* good enough to send someone to Chicago this year.

If anything, Ingram is the reason they’re just good enough.  He’s turned into an efficient scorer who’s hitting almost 40 percent of his threes and has been their No.1 scoring option.  That’s a massive step forward from where he was just a year ago.  It seems as if all the development we’ve wanted to see from him since he got in the league has came all during this season.  Turns out, all that was needed was a chance of scenery.

F Paul George

Twenty six games played makes justifying Paul George over Donovan Mitchell or Devin Booker tough, but a couple things really stick out about the short season George has had.

LA is 19-7 when he plays and it makes sense.  PG is averaging 23.5 points a game, the third-highest mark of his career after last season’s average of 28 (His second highest season average was 23.7, by the way), and it looks like it too.

Despite last year’s numbers, this season has felt different from George.  On nights when he plays and Kawhi Leonard doesn’t (which have been few and far between), George has looked and played like a true No.1 option offensively, a ceiling that seemed questionable for him in previous years.  Occasionally, George has made himself look like the best player on a championship team.

Despite a low field goal percentage, George is taking 9.2 threes a game and sinking 39.5 percent of them.  He’s also averaging six rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.5 steals a game when he’s out there.

His impact is massive… when he plays.

C Rudy Gobert

One key member of the Jazz had to make it despite their early season struggles, and to be nice yet also pay respect toward a good season, it’s Gobert.

His defense has somehow gone up a level this year.  The Jazz are -5 in net rating when he’s off the court, and their defensive rating falls to 107.5 from 103.5.  Opponents are shooting 48.7 percent against him within six feet of the rim – imagine making not even half your layups.

Gobert’s not a high-volume offensive center, evident in his 15.7 points per game.  But the center is grabbing almost as many rebounds as he is scoring points, pulling down 14.5 a game.

Utah’s defense is seventh in defensive rating, and Gobert is the anchor of it all.

C Karl-Anthony Towns

The Timberwolves are very bad and their roster situation and outlook might be even worse.

But Karl-Anthony Towns is balling.  He’s averaging 28.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists while taking 8.8 threes, making 41.2 percent of them (Those stats are all per 36 minutes, by the way).

Also, he’s 7’1.

There were rumors about KAT expanding his game over the offseason – that he was going to shoot more and work on becoming more of a point forward rather than just a big guy.  He’s done both.  The assist numbers would be unparalleled if not for Nikola Jokic.  He’s upped his three point attempts by 3.6 a game, which is something that should’ve happened a long time ago given how deadly he is from that range.

It seems hypocritical to put KAT on an All-Star team when Trae Young won’t be.  They’re having roughly the same impact, and are carrying bad teams.  The Hawks are way worse without Young than the Wolves are without KAT, as KAT’s net off the floor is -4.9, while Young’s is -13.9.

The difference here is expectations and hype.  The Hawks were thought to maybe contend for a playoff spot thanks to what looked like a good draft and Young’s projected step forward.  They’re not even close to that and have no shot now.

Expectations were not nearly that high for Minnesota.  There was no shot of them making the playoffs due to the West’s insane competition.  They’ve defied those to an extent – they hung around early in the season and have recently fell off.  That run had Wolves fan excited for a little while.  The Hawks fans are just disappointed.

Snubs: Donavan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic

Eastern Conference Reserves:

G/F Jaylen Brown

Answer this:

How was Jaylen Brown listed as a guard on the NBA’s official ballot but Jimmy Butler a forward?

Brown would not have been a starter at guard or forward regardless, but Butler would have been at guard easily.

Anyways, the nonsense shouldn’t distract from Brown’s honors.  He’s having a massive season thanks to an uptick in offensive production and continued defensive excellence.

Brown was a question mark offensively coming out of Cal.  The jump-shot wasn’t there, and he lacked aggressiveness.

He’s gotten better every season he’s been in the league, and this year is likely the top of the mountain.  He’s shooting 49.1 percent, the highest of his career.  He’s recovered well from a dip in three point shooting last season, hitting 38.6 percent on his 5.3 attempts a game in 2019-20, up from 34.4 percent.

It’s simple, but Brown is averaging 20 a game.  That’s a seven point surge from last year, and is certainly not bad for a guy whose game on that end was always questioned.

G Ben Simmons

This spot was the hardest decision out of any of the 24 All-Star spots chosen.

Those who were in consideration for the starting spot, which went to Malcolm Brogdon, then got shifted to competition for this spot.

Spencer Dinwiddie was the runner-up and was even the selection for quite a bit of time.  His numbers don’t really pop – 21.2 points a game is a big jump for him, but it makes sense considering the expanded role he’s taken on thanks to Kyrie Irving’s injuries.

What Dinwiddie has done with that expanded role was what garnered him serious consideration, not the numbers.  With the eye test, the Nets just play better when things run through Dinwiddie rather than Irving.  The ball moves.  He’s not a pain to play with.  The Nets just seem more like a basketball team.

But the Nets still aren’t very good, which gives Simmons the edge.  Despite his incredibly frustrating resistance to shoot jump-shots and threes, there’s no denying the impact Simmons has for the Sixers defensively.  He’s the perimeter compliment to Joel Embiid’s rim protection.  He can switch onto anyone.  He can even play some center when Embiid’s not on the floor.

As written last week, the Sixers win with defense, not offense.  It’s a perfect metaphor for Simmons’ skill set and style of play, and the fact that they’re successful with it earns him this spot.

G Bradley Beal

Written about here, Beal has carried the Wizards to being watchable, something that didn’t seem possible before the season.  Beal deserves a spot because he’s beating expectations, not falling short of them.

G/F Jimmy Butler

The Heat were a sneaky Finals contender before the season.  They’ve erased “sneaky” from that title.

Butler is one of the big reasons why.  Ever since the departure of Dwayne Wade from his prime, Miami has lacked a true crunch-time scorer.  Despite not being among the league’s truly elite players, the firepower surrounding him has made Butler serviceable as the best player on a potential Finals team.

Miami’s good with him, but they’re probably just a frisky sixth seed without him.  With his scoring, they should be taken seriously.

F/C Bam Adebayo

It’s the supporting cast that really has Miami where they’re at right now, and Adebayo might be the most important aspect of it.

The potential with him was there in flashes last season.  He played in every game, but mostly came off the bench.  The per-36 numbers mirror this breakout season: 13.7 points, 3.5 assist and 11.2 rebounds in 2018-19 (per 36) vs. 16 points, 4.8 assists and 10.4 rebounds per game in 2019-20.

Adebayo has the chance to be a revolution, even more so than someone like Nikola Jokic or Domantas Sabonis.  Unlike those two, he’s extremely switchable defensively – the guy does not move like a center.  A hope would be for him to convert that into a three point shot; his low free throw percentages make that a stretch, however.

He’s also way more switchable than either of them defensively.

Adebayo has been incredible.  His rim protection and offensive versatility ranks him among the most valuable and fun skill sets in the league.

F Jayson Tatum

Coming into the year, Jayson Tatum was going to have to step up.  He was the makeup for the loss of starpower from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker.

As mentioned above, Jaylen Brown can actually take a bit more credit for making up for the loss.  It’s his offense that’s filled in the gap a bit more than Tatum’s.

Still, Tatum’s numbers have shot up.  He’s averaging 21.5 points a game this year, by far a career high.  Him and Brown are finally hitting the ceiling we once saw for them.

Tatum’s improved dramatically on the defensive end as well – it was not a strength of his out of college or in his rookie year.

The duo of Brown and Tatum draws cautious parallels to George and Leonard in LA.  One is far superior offensively in terms of shot creation and volume, but both are capable off-ball scorers and are lockdown defenders.  That would make for one hell of a Finals matchup.

F/C Domantas Sabonis

If Malcolm Brogdon is the No. 1 reason why Indiana is a legitimate playoff team before the return of Victor Oladipo (happening tonight!), then Domantas Sabonis is the close second.

Sabonis’ numbers would be stupid if Nikola Jokic didn’t exist.  The fourth-year power forward is excelling as a playmaker this season, upping his assist total from 2.9 a game in 2018-19 to 4.6 this year.  A starting position for Sabonis has allowed Indiana to run a Denver-like offense at times, where everything goes through Sabonis and relies on him to create shots for everyone else.

Combine that ability with his 12.8 boards a game and 18.1 points, and Sabonis is an easy All-Star.  This team could be scary if Oladipo comes back close to 100 percent.  Watch out.

Snubs: Spencer Dinwiddie, Devonte Graham, Trae Young, Kyle Lowry

The 2020 NBA All-Star Starters

Time restricted the unveiling of a full All-Star roster, but with the starters being released tonight, we will follow suit.

Western Conference Starters:

G James Harden

James Harden has been underrated this season, in general and in the MVP race.  The debate should be way more open than it is between him and Giannis Antetokounmpo.  The same should have been the case last year.

The advanced analytics and stats people (Who are adorned and should be commenced at the highest level for revolutionizing basketball and having it played smarter) say that pure points is a bad stat.  True, but that’s if you know how to use it right.

Points don’t matter if your team isn’t winning.  They do if a team is.

The Rockets are 26-16, and while might not be as high up in the standings as we expected, should still be considered as contenders.  Harden is averaging 37.1 points per game on that team and is hitting five threes a game for them as well.  You can knock the low shooting percentages and say that a top five player should be better in those categories, but when you factor in Harden’s 37.8 usage rate and the 8.8 minutes a night that he has the ball in his hands (second in the league to Trae Young), then you’ll live with them.

If the season ended today, Harden’s PPG number would rank fifth all-time.  Wilt Chamberlian, who some like to filter out due to the sheer insane yet overrated marks of 50.36, 44.83, 38.39 and 37.6, has the four spots ahead of Harden.  Some might say Harden, if he finishes above 37.09, might have the highest scoring season in NBA history.  Does Giannis really top that?

Harden has hit a bit of a cold streak since the new year (Along with the Rockets themselves, too), but his All-Star spot is still unassailable.  No one even makes another close case.

G Luka Doncic

There was zero doubt that Luka Doncic would take a step forward this season.  No  one knew how grand of one it would be.

It’s been a historic one.  Not only is Doncic putting up one of the best seasons from a 20 or 21-year-old ever, but he’s single-handily dragging a Mavericks roster that isn’t all that good into the playoffs.  Sure, Dwight Powell went from underrated to properly rated before his devastating achilles injury the other night, and bench guys like Seth Curry and Jalen Brunson have allowed the Mavericks to get away with certain funky lineups.  But none of that happens without Doncic having the type of year he is.  Dallas is hanging around 30 wins (Using 82 games as a gauge, not games played this season thus far) without him, especially with the way they’re using the still newly acquired Kristaps Porzingis.

Doncic’s rise has questioned the meaning of two different awards at the same time: MVP and Most Improved Player.  Like others on this list, there’s a case for Doncic to place third in one and win the other – he’s so much better than last year.  Where is that line at?  It’ll be an interesting ballot after the Finals.  But Doncic’s spot, like Harden’s above, is totally unassailable.

F/C Kawhi Leonard

Though he’s only played in 32 games, Kawhi Leonard’s averages of 26.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and five assists on 46.5 percentage shooting is one of the most complete lines in basketball this season.  That’s not even including his 1.9 steals a contest either.  The Clippers are 24-8 when he plays this year, and 5-8 when he doesn’t.  Though there’s been some sputtering from Los Angeles recently in terms of effort, Kawhi’s season is a testament to how necessary and beneficial the load management is. If Leonard wasn’t putting up these numbers, perhaps it’d be a different conversation.  But he is, and because of that, the Clippers should still be considered the title favorites, and load management shouldn’t be such a hot discussion.

F/C LeBron James

It’s an all-LA frontcourt, and everyone is deserving.

Here we can give LeBron James and Anthony Davis equal praise for their accomplishments this year, but it’ll be more fascinating come MVP time.  Who gets put higher on the ballot than who?

Davis might deserve more praise.  Without him, the Lakers have to stretch LeBron to his maximum capabilities as a 35-year-old on a nightly basis.  It’s a 2018 Finals level effort every night from LeBron to get the Lakers to the record they have now without Davis.  The rest of the roster is so bad that even superhero performances from LeBron might not even be enough.

Despite that, LeBron absolutely deserves an All-Star spot.  He’s proved us wrong about being effective at the point guard spot – the dude will likely win the assist title as he’s averaging 11 per night, 1st in the league by a whopping 1.6 dimes.  While the other Laker might be more responsible for the team’s success on this end, LeBron’s defensive engagement has soared this year compared to last – a complete flip from where it had been the past two years.

Giannis Antetokounmpo or Leonard is the best player in the league right now.  But remove ‘right now’ and replace it with overall, and The King still reigns.

F/C Anthony Davis

Like Harden, Davis is probably being underrated in the MVP race.  The third spot should clearly be his.

Davis hasn’t only helped shoulder a load from LeBron, but is the anchor of what is somehow the league’s fifth-best defense by defensive rating, and that rank has fallen a bit, too.

His versatility on both ends has allowed the Lakers to get away with playing Davis next to a traditional center, like JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard.  Defensively, his athleticism allows him to swallow smaller players with those lengthy arms, which ranks third in the league in blocks with 2.6 per game.  He’s also picking 1.5 steals a game, a wild number for a center (You know who is second in the league though?  Andre Drummond!).  That insane length not being wasted down low protecting the rim is invaluable.  Combine that with the buy-in from practically everyone else on the roster, and Davis is the engine behind the NBA’s unlikeliest defensive machine.

Eastern Conference Starters:

G Kemba Walker

Swapping out Kyrie Irving for a lesser-talented player in Kemba Walker shouldn’t have worked.  But accounting for the style of play and happiness that Walker has brought, it makes sense, and the Celtics are title contenders because of it.

Walker might be the second-biggest reason why Boston could make the Finals, but the Eastern Conference starting guards situation aside from and even including him is bleak.  There’s plenty of options, yet everyone option as a starter comes with a big issue or hole.  Walker is the closest to unassailable, but its one of his teammates that is having the slightly bigger impact.  More on that next week.

G Malcolm Brogdon

This was the toughest spot out of any of the ten starters and it wasn’t even close.

It was agonizing.  There were eight candidates and all had a case.

The biggest omission is probably Ben Simmons.  While Simmons has excelled recently in Embiid’s absence thanks to increased floor spacing offensively, he hasn’t subtracted from his season-long dominance defensively.  But he’s still been a liability for the Sixers late in games when Embiid’s been on the floor.  It’s at times tough to get over.

The next closest candidates were Jaylen Brown, Kyle Lowry and Bradley Beal.  Brown got heavy, heavy consideration – the guy is still a stud defensively and has improved immensely scoring the ball and being consistent on the offensive end.  He’s making the contract Boston handed him look more than justifiable.

Lowry was probably overrated in consideration, but while his shooting numbers are majorly down, he’s scoring 5.8 more points a game this year, which helps supplement the loss of Kawhi big time.  When Siakam has been hurt, it’s been Lowry picking up what’s left behind.  For a guy who’s long been criticized for his lack of an offensive game, this season has proved otherwise.  That was essentially the case for him in a starting spot.

Beal is on the worst team out of anyone who made the ballot – starters, reserves, East, West, whatever.  The Wizards aren’t even in consideration for the playoffs and won’t make it.  They stink.

But they’re way better than anyone imagined.  They’re way more fun than anyone imagined, too.  That matters, and Beal is the reason why.  He’s shelving an unbelievable load for the Wizards.

Washington is somehow 11th in offensive rating, and were hanging around much higher than that early in the year.  Beal’s made them watchable.  He’ll be a reserve because of it.

Overall though, Brogdon takes the cake.  He’s moved into the largest role he’s had since Virginia by taking over point guard duties and playing with the highest usage percentage he’s had in his NBA career by a whopping 5.7 percent.

He’s the point guard of a playoff team that hasn’t seen its best player play a minute for them yet.  Without Victor Oladipo, the Pacers were expected to be on the playoff bubble.  Now they’re in Toronto’s camp: one piece away from being title contenders.

The piece may not be Oladipo.  They might need more on top of it.  But with the way Brogdon is playing, it certainly makes that case a lot more viable.

F/C Giannis Antentkoumpo

Likely the front-runner for the MVP award for the second straight season, Giannis has somehow taken another step forward.  He’s also tested the borderline for MIP/MVP thanks to that step forward, alongside Doncic and some others.

Milwaukee’s downfall in last year’s playoffs was their halfcourt offense.  Toronto built a wall in front of Giannis driving to the rim and swallowed the Bucks whole drive and kick offense.  His lack of a jumpshot was totally exposed.

Not surprisingly, he added it.  Giannis is only shooting 32.2 percent from three, but he’s taking 5.1 per game.  At least he’s trying, unlike another very long, athletic Eastern Conference point guard who was mentioned above.

Similar to Zion Williamson at Duke, though his percentages are low, it feels like the three-ball goes in more than it does.  He’s using it extremely effectively, and its having an impact.

Aside from the three pointer, Giannis’ numbers are pure stupid.  He’s averaging 30 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists a game right now on 55 percent shooting from the field.  That’s accounting for a low three point percentage too.  Giannis is shooting 63.4 percent from two and 77.8 percent around the rim.  That’s Shaq-like stuff.

His is the first of three unassailable starting spots on the Eastern Conference team.  For as tough as the guards are, the front-court is quite easy.

F/C Pascal Siakam

Putting Pascal Siakam as a starter is a tough considering he’s only played 33 games, but Leonard in the West only played 34.

Yet, it’s also problematic since Jimmy Butler probably deserves the spot thanks to total number of games played.  But the NBA is mostly to blame here; they decided to label Butler as a forward instead of a guard.

Even though he’s battled injuries, Siakam gets the spot.  The Raptors forward has made two massive leaps in two seasons, and this time it’s keeping Toronto in the playoffs.  Toronto is right on the outside of the title contender tier – they’re just not that good yet.  One trade could swing that (It seems as if Masai Urji is more likely to go that way than to sell, but they’ll likely just stay pat).  Still, the fact that Toronto is one piece away from being a legitimate title contender after losing arguably the best player in the league right now in addition to a key role piece (Danny Green) speaks to how high Siakam has elevated his game.  He’s one more leap away from being the best player on a championship team.  Does he have it in him?

C Joel Embiid

Another player who has missed a ton of time, Joel Embiid, who, even if he gets the starter nod, won’t be able to play thanks to the broken hand he’s currently dealing with, has been the anchor of fourth-best defense in the NBA.  But the defensive rating metric is underrating Philadelphia.

The Sixers rarely win games with offense.  They’re holding teams to just 105.1 points a game, second in the league.  Yet, they’re point differential isn’t impressive at all: +3.3, 10th in the league.  It’s the defense and their talent on that end – the switchability, the stops, the execution – that’s winning them games.

The defensive strategy is working.  Embiid is a huge reason why.  He’s an absolute force on both ends down low, and occasionally looks like the best player in the league on nights when he shows up.  The Sixers are unbeatable when he’s at that level.  But most nights – against lesser competition – the defensive side is what they need, from him, and it’s absolutely been there.

Reserves coming next week…

How The Chiefs and 49ers Got To The Super Bowl

The NFL postseason’s market-corrected Sunday.  In a playoffs full of massive upsets, which included the undisputed best regular season team in the league falling in its first game, the two best teams left advanced to the Super Bowl.

Neither are huge surprises and neither are undeserving.  Had the two other teams won, maybe that statement wouldn’t be true.  But for the Super Bowl, we got the best of what the NFL had left.

The games weren’t very good at all, a complete 180 from last year, where Championship Sunday provided not only two of the best games of the year but two of the best games of the decade.  But hey, whatever it takes to keep Ryan Tannehill or a Packers team that was never very good out of the Super Bowl.

It seemed as if Green Bay never had a chance Sunday.  They looked just like the offensively sputtering, overrated 13-3 team they were against San Francisco, who gashed them for 285 rushing yards compared to just 69 through the air.

The biggest concerns about the 49ers throughout the season was their ability to throw the ball and have a trustworthy quarterback.  Jimmy Garoppolo has alleviated some of those worries, evident in that shootout against the Saints in Week 14.

But San Francisco hasn’t made us have to worry about Garoppolo, though.  The heavy running scheme has completed dominated both Minnesota and Green Bay in the playoffs.  Raheem Mostert had 160 yards and three touchdowns at halftime in the NFC Championship, and finished with 220.  Just 65 of the 49ers rushing yards came from backs other than Mostert.

He was unstoppable, and made Garoppolo irrelevant.  San Francisco had practically every Packer defender blocked at the line of scrimmage, allowing Mostert to average 7.6 yards per rush.

The 49ers had done it all year.  Their execution in the run game – whether it be the backs, the line or the coaching – was better than anyone’s throughout the season.  Sunday, they torched one of the NFL’s most improved defenses, and gave them no hope thanks to a 27-0 halftime lead.

The Niners were just as good on the other side of the ball.  Aaron Rodgers, despite being sacked only three times, was under constant pressure from San Francisco’s defensive line.  Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead dominated a pretty good Packers group and stifled Aaron Jones, who Green Bay relied on heavily this year.

Since Jones rushed for just 56 yards, it forced Green Bay attack through the air.  Davante Adams had a good day overall (A bit of a garbage time rally helped pad Green Bay’s stats and the score), but the lack of weapons aside from Adams loomed large.  No one was open underneath for Rodgers to get the ball to quickly.  Perhaps a shifty slot receiver (Brandon Aiyuk?) would help the Packers massively in the offseason.

San Francisco was the second best team in the league and the best in the NFC all year.  It makes sense that they’re here.  But the masking of Garoppolo and their run-oriented scheme might encounter some once-unlikely problems two weeks from now.

The last team that we expected to halt what has been one of the greatest stretches in NFL history from a running back was the Kansas City Chiefs.  Though an improved defensive unit from last year, Kansas City ranked 28th against the run according to Football Outsiders and allowed 4.9 yards per rush, fourth worst in the NFL.

That group stuffed Derrick Henry, who not only has been the Titans engine through their miracle playoff run but was the best running back in the league over the second half of the season.  Kansas City gave up just 69 yards on 19 carries to the impending free agent, despite falling in a 17-7 hole early in the first half.

Tennessee’s start was half stunning and half expected.  Stunning because for a quarter and a half, it looked as if Ryan Tannehill was really about to pull a Tom Brady or Nick Foles and get his team to the Super Bowl after taking over halfway through the season.  Tannehill was carving the Chiefs secondary – a group which heavily supplemented the unit’s overall improvement – and Henry was chipping away.

Yet, those 10-0 and 17-7 leads felt legit.  Andy Reid was on the other sideline; it was about time for him to lose early again in the playoffs, and even after upset wins of the Patriots and Ravens, doubt was still there.  At Arrowhead, for the first time, they actually started to feel real.

But Kansas City, a week after going down 24-0 at home, had the Titans right where they wanted them.  Patrick Mahomes started using his legs to extend plays, and the Chiefs used their speed on jet sweeps and by simply giving the ball to Tyreek Hill, who finished with two touchdowns on the day.  Kansas City scored 14 points unanswered points going into halftime, seven of which came on this ridiculous rush from Mahomes.

At that point, the game felt over.  It practically was.

Tennessee never led again after Mahomes pulled off what will be an iconic run, especially if Kansas City beats San Francisco on February 2.  Though it came right before halftime, it was the momentum boost the Chiefs needed.  They poured it on after the break.  A seven minutes, eight minute drive on Kansas City’s second possession of the third quarter broke Tennessee’s back, resulting in another touchdown to Hill and putting the Chiefs up two scores.  With Henry stuffed and Kansas City adjusting nicely defensively to combat Tannehill, the Titans had no answers.  The offensive onslaught was just too overwhelming.

Kansas City’s defensive performance sticks out the most, though.  After a couple rough drives early, it contained one of the most dominant forces in the playoffs and ran the Titans out of options.  It’s an outing that makes you wonder whether it could carry over to two weeks from now, where the Chiefs will need it thanks to San Francisco’s similar dominance on the ground.  If it doesn’t, sure, the Chiefs have Mahomes, certainly the more trustworthy quarterback among the two in the big game.  But if the Super Bowl does turn out to be more of a shootout, one key stop could be the biggest difference.

The MLB Nailed Houston, But Jim Crane (And Reality) Is The Hammer

Sign stealing has been, is and always will be a part of baseball.

It starts as early as little league. Kids have to learn signs before they can steal them. As they work their way up through the 12s, 13s, 14s, etc, coaches are communicating the methods of identifying the other team’s signs. They’re telling their kids to pay attention when they’re on second base, and try to notice anything subtle coming from the pitcher.

In high school, everyone is on the hunt for anything they can use to their advantage. Sometimes it’s even two scrubs’ job to be spies. They try all they can to dig up anything.

The coaches are in on it too. You’ll see first and third base coaches creep their way down toward home plate, before the opposing coaching staff asks the ump to move them back up. Then they start slowly creeping down again until the ump catches on again.

So of course it happens in MLB. Major league baseball is hard – really hard.  Guys throw 98 MPH.  It’d be really nice to have some idea of what’s coming.

The Astros certainly did.  It’s likely some other teams certainly did as well.  It’s also likely that every team in MLB “did” too, maybe not with that “certainly” attached though.

Houston ensured they had signs, thanks to an elaborate, multi-year system detailed the past few months by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich.  MLB’s investigation resulted in the suspension of manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow, both of whom were fired about an hour after the penalty was handed down.  In addition, the Astros were fined $5 million and lost their first and second round draft picks over the next two seasons.

MLB’s punishment was shocking and unprecedented.  They couldn’t slap Houston on the wrist – outrage would be fierce, especially for a team that hasn’t exactly made friends the past two months and has seemingly benefitted quite nicely from their cheating.  But it never felt like MLB would go this far.

There had to be a moment when Rob Manfred and others atop the league looked each other in the eye and realized just exactly what they were dealing with.  This was no illegal Apple Watch in the dugout.  Manfred and his investigators knew they were dealing with likely one of the three most reprehensible acts in baseball history, right behind Pete Rose’s gambling and the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.  Manfred and MLB had to go harder rather than softer here.  They did just that, and got away with a whole lot more thanks to the actions of the Astros organization soon after the penalty was handed down.

Luhnow’s career, at 53, could be over.  His statement Monday was odd and somewhat convincing (unfortunately).  Front offices tend to keep their distance from coaches and players.  But at the same time, there is no sport where the trio work closer together on day-to-day basis than baseball, where data nerds up top are producing packets of information for people like Hinch and the players to use.  It seems hard to believe that Luhnow wouldn’t know of the system.  How could a manager like Hinch or every player keep such a secret from the guy who determines whether they’re employed or not?  Then again, Hinch seems to think he could have gotten away with anything throughout this whole thing.

It’s not just this that Luhnow has working against him.  Whether you believe his statement that left everyone out to dry and essentially dared others to present evidence that he knew, it doesn’t make-up for Manfred’s skewering of him in the report released Monday.  The Brandon Taubman incident (Who’s been suspended for life now, an underrated storyline of this report), as Manfred pointed out, is a pipeline down from Luhnow. It reflects so poorly on Luhnow’s ability to appoint not smart people but good people, and his ability to foster a front office culture that people actually enjoy instead of despise.  Luhnow might be among the smartest people in baseball, and even among the most innovative.  But it’s everything else about him that probably sees him meet the end of his line as an executive once his suspension is over.

Hinch is probably worse off.  Luhnow – despite his personal drawbacks – has at least shown that he’s a capable mind aside from cheating with the Astros. He had immense success with the Cardinals that landed him in the gig in Houston. Much has been written about the Astros revolutionary pitching strategy; that starts and ends with Luhnow and the people he’s hired. Despite what seems to be serious personal drawbacks, a consulting job where Luhnow can use his brain and nothing else might be in the future for him.

Hinch is a different story. Not only is he hurt by the fact that managers just don’t really mean that much at all (in a positive way, that is), but by coaching a group of talented players who cheated when they probably didn’t have to (That is, unless the cheating made them great. More on that later…).  Looking at this from a worst case scenario perspective, there’s actually no evidence that Hinch is good at what he does: he had good players who may not even be that good in the first place thanks to this.

Astros owner Jim Crane stepped up to the plate here –trusting an old, white 65-year-old sports team owner to do the right thing in a time of crisis gets you 500-1 odds in Vegas.  He actually did the right thing.

But there’s a chance it wasn’t enough.

Crises cause knee-jerk reactions.  Crane and the ‘Stros went with maybe the only option at the time: promoting from within to replace Luhnow and Hinch.  They made Joe Espada manager and seem likely to elevate Pete Putila to GM, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan.  Crane is running baseball operations in the immediate future until Putila’s promotion becomes official.

But while Espada is certainly ready for the job (He’s been interviewed for multiple managerial openings across baseball) and wasn’t there during the 2017 World Series season, he was there in 2018 when the system still used and then subsequently stopped.

Putila has been with the Astros since 2011 and held his pre-GM role since 2016 (Director of Player Development).  He was in an executive role from the very beginning of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme.

So while Crane made the right call in dismissing Hinch and Luhnow, replacing them with internal candidates – even if both are interim – doesn’t really “clean house.”  It seems hard to believe that Espada and Putila didn’t know of the system – especially Espada, who was in the dugout everyday for that 2018 season.

The bottom line is that it’s not a house cleaning if Espada and Putila remain.  That “culture” that Manfred mentioned in the Luhnow section of the report still exists if those two remain.  If Crane wants to get rid of “the culture”, everyone needs to go.

Everyone.

But that is a hard thing to do.  Crane, because of MLB’s lack of punishment for Astros players (Which is a justifiable decision for multiple reasons… more on that later), can’t just get rid of everyone involved with baseball ops.  Players have value – they won’t just be let go.  There are nerds that sit at computers all day plugging away numbers in the front office that probably didn’t know about what the players were up to and are innocent because of that.

Not all of Crane’s non-doings are his fault.  MLB decided not to punish players and he can’t change that.  They’re still there.  They’re still going to play this season.  They all played last season – and supposedly didn’t cheat.

It doesn’t necessarily make things better for the Astros that MLB found no wrongdoing last season.  It doesn’t make up for the fact that Houston cheated on their way to and in the World Series in 2017 either, though.  The good news is that MLB’s findings in 2019 don’t make things worse – they provide the players some type of buffer from the case of “Cheating made Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman great.”  Houston also made the World Series in 2019 without cheating.  But at the same time, these allegations are hard to dispute as false now.

Perhaps MLB – besides the obvious issues that punishing players comes with (Determining who exactly was involved, as Manfred said, is difficult.  There’s also the MLBPA to deal with.  That could be the biggest reason why no players were suspended.  There would be lawsuits and court dealings and what not.  Everyone should want this to go away as soon as possible.  Punishing players does not make that the case) – is going to let the consequences of the players play themselves out on the field.  We don’t have conclusive evidence that Houston didn’t cheat last year (because of the whistling).  That could be why they finished third in runs scored, third in hits, third in home runs and first in batting average last season.  What if those numbers all plummet?  What if the Astros suck?  That might be the biggest punishment MLB could levy, and it would all be because they did the right thing.

2020 National Championship Preview

LSU and Clemson had completely different experiences in their College Football Playoff Semi-Final game.

The Tigers LSU established their dominance early, and did so in about the most profound and embarrassing way possible.  The No. 1 ranked team in the country didn’t only play like it, but made no other team seem like they were on the same level as them.  LSU laid 49 on Oklahoma in the first half, taking a 35 point lead on the Sooners thanks to Joe Burrow’s seven touchdown passes.

LSU’s first game of the postseason was the type of beatdown where you couldn’t even comprehend what you were witnessing for the wrong reasons.  It reached a point where you felt bad for Oklahoma.

Clemson’s semi-final was the opposite.  Yet, their dominance and their almost underdog-like vibe prevailed.  Clemson battled through injuries and came back from an early 16-0 deficit to eventually win 29-23.  Trevor Lawrence, who powered through being shaken up himself, was magnificent – especially so he had to step up and deliver.

Clemson did the one thing we asked them to: prove themselves.  They did so against what could have been a better team, too.

They’ll need to do it one more time.

The gap between LSU and Clemson, or even Ohio State, isn’t really that big.  Clemson arguably has better weapons – same with the Buckeyes.  Both defenses are substantially better than LSU’s.  And the quarterbacks…

Lawrence has the chance to be a generational guy, at the college level and professional level.  No one is saying that about Burrow.  He’s really good, doesn’t make mistakes and yes, has some similarities to Tom Brady.  Those comparisons are accurate.  But Lawrence has a better arm and has been destined for this for years now.

Justin Fields might be more talented than Burrow as well. His combination of legitimate running ability and a strong arm has the potential to be seriously effective at the next level.  The accuracy is likely the issue with him.  But Fields brings such complexity to the table in the run-pass option with his legs that, in terms of overall talent, he could have the edge over this year’s No.1 pick.

But Burrow was the Heisman winner for a reason this year.  The weekend-to-weekend consistency was there against arguably the hardest schedule in the country.  Burrow didn’t have a better running back or better receivers than Lawrence but it didn’t matter – he made them better.  He didn’t have as good of a defense but that didn’t matter either.  Burrow made up for the difference.  He was that valuable. That performance came against the some of the toughest opponents a team can have in a give season.

Defenses had no answer for him – defenses that were amongst the best in country and rivaled Clemson’s. The No.1 ranked group by Football Outsiders’ defensive FEI let Fields and JK Dobbins have their way with them for a half two weeks ago. Clyde Edwards-Helaire isn’t the back Dobbins is, but Burrow’s ability to absolutely dominate makes up for it. Clemson secondary’s could have a flawless game. Burrow will still drop any pass in.

This game is simple. Both of these teams are so good; they’re practically even. Clemson might be able to score, but there’s no one more trustworthy in a shootout right now than Burrow and LSU.  He’s been so good that it feels as if there’s nothing that can get past him.

This has been LSU’s year thus far.  There’s no reason to think that will change tonight, and if it does, Burrow still goes down having one of the best seasons ever by a college football quarterback.

Prediction: LSU-30 Clemson-24

AFC Wild Card Takeaways + Coaching Hirings

A saving error due to an attempt to write on an airplane without WiFi resulted in the loss of takeaways from the NFC games this past weekend, but it was made up for with some fresh thoughts on the recent head coach hirings throughout the league.

Here are some thoughts from Saturday’s action:

No one deserved to win the between the Texans and Bills

The referees seemed to do all they could to help Houston out and yet they still barely survived in Saturday’s 22-19 win over Buffalo.

It’s been weird to see there not be an outrage with the call at the start of the second half.  Down 13-0, Texans kick return DeAndre Carter fielded the second half kickoff as if it was any other return.  But after he caught, he took a couple steps, then threw the ball to the referee as if he had taken a knee or called a fair catch.  Carter did neither, and the referee got out of the way of the toss, letting the Bills score to go up 20-0 and almost have the game in wraps up three possessions.

Actually, that’s not what happened, according to the referees.  The call was that Carter gave himself up, even though he never did either of the two things that consist of a returner giving himself up (Kneeing and fair catch).

The ESPN crew, including their referee “expert”, said that it’s essentially common sense to forgive Carter’s mistake, and that out of pity the touchdown shouldn’t be counted.

If we’re going to apply common sense to this situation, how about injecting it into Carter?  This is the first round of the playoffs, and you forget to either call fair catch or take a knee?  It’s a spectacular brainfart, but it wasn’t even close to the only one in this game.

Bills fans should be pissed, and the lack of coverage from the media and outrage regarding the call is cowardly.  There’s an argument that Saturday’s call had just as big of an impact on that game as the non-pass interference call that went against the Saints did last January.  If the refs didn’t feel sorry for Carter, Buffalo goes up three possessions, making the comeback a lot harder and burying any confidence left in the Texans.

There is the “Don’t blow a 16-0 lead” counter here, but that’s not as insurmountable a lead.  It’s still two possessions – three is another animal.

The outrage won’t come.  It’s because Buffalo’s a small market.  Because they blew the lead.  Because we tend to feel bad for someone when they do something they didn’t mean to.  Because everyone is tired hearing about bad officiating.  Because there’s been a weird pushback to replay in sports recently, which is there to actually get the call right.

This isn’t soccer, where the officials can use their feelings to affect a game.  That’s most common when it comes to adding extra time to the first half or to the end of games.  There, referees have to gauge how the game is progressing and make a judgement for how much time to add.

No precedent in the NFL exists for a referee to make a call based on momentum or their feelings.  The call before half was a sympathetic one for Carter.  Are we going to let mistakes go without consequences now?

Mistakes without consequences was a common theme for the rest of this game.  After Houston starting throwing the ball to DeAndre Hopkins and DeShaun Watson found escape routes from his constantly collapsing offensive line, everything basically went to hell.  Buffalo, scurrying due to what was now a three point deficit (19-16), decided to go for it on 4th and 27 at the Houston 42 yard line with 1:35 left in the game instead of kicking a 59 yard field goal.  Stephen Hauschka’s career long is 58, and his season long is 51, so this would have been stretching it.  But it probably ranks second on the list of options in this scenario, as punting might have been most viable – the Bills had three timeouts.

The fourth down attempt was disastrous as predicted; Josh Allen took a sack that gave Houston the ball back at Buffalo’s 39.

Somehow, it didn’t matter.  Houston responded with a decision that might not of been dumber, but gave Buffalo a chance to make up for their boneheaded call.  After a drive which gained seven yards and killed little clock, the Texans decided to go for it on 4th and 1 instead of kicking a 47 yard field goal to stretch the lead to six.  A make would have forced Allen and Co. to go down the field and score a touchdown rather than settle for the field goal – an extremely difficult spot for an inexperienced and clearly rattled quarterback.  Instead, Watson QB-sneaked it and ended up short, giving Buffalo the ball back seven yards away from where they handed it to Houston seconds earlier.

The idiocy was not complete.  On the first play of the drive which sparked hope for the Buffalo, Allen took off running once again.  His legs worked much better than his arm did Saturday, as he rushed for 92 yards on nine carries while going 24/46 through the air for just 264.  But this time, Allen tried to turn into a dual threat guy.

This is the type of play you attempt when you’re messing around with some dudes after practice.  You don’t really even attempt it.  You try it and see if there’s any way it could possibly work before realizing that there is likely no possible way.

Allen decided that he would try it in a playoff game.  A playoff game in which he was down three.  With 1:14 left.  A playoff game in which he was attempting to lead a game-tying drive in.  That is when Allen decided to attempt it.

The best part is as soon as Allen whips the ball up and behind him, Dawson Knox (#88) throws his hands in the air like “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?” before chasing it down and miraculously knocking it out of bounds, saving Allen from one of the most embarrassing and inexplicable turnovers in NFL history.

This all comes down to coaching – the 4th and 27 call, Allen’s lateral.  There’s just no excuse for either of those to ever occur in a football game.  The Bills had both happen in a playoff game where their season was on the line within minutes of each.  Sean McDermott did a good job this season, but those two instances were ridiculous.

Had the Bills not tied it up after the lateral (Allen’s scramble before that idiotic decision was the most important play of the drive), perhaps McDermott would be taking more heat.  But Buffalo fought through the adversity and got it to overtime.  A regulation loss would have perhaps been more brutal.

For awhile it felt as if we might need a second overtime quarter (Imagine if we got a whole second half).  Houston’s first drive was dud; so was Buffalo’s.  But like he did in the second half, Watson worked his magic with the Texans second drive of the extra period.  First, he converted a third and 18 after escaping pressure, thanks to the Bills leaving Duke Johnson open on a crosser out of the backfield.

It looks as if Matt Millano (#58) was villain of a blown coverage here.  Instead of taking Johnson out of the backfield, he drifts toward the sideline to help cover Darren Fells (Receiver at the top, #87), who has a man on him already.  Problem is, the corner on Fells dropped way back into no man’s land where no receivers were, leaving Millano to cover Fells in the flat.  Johnson was dealt with a lot of grass as a result.

Four plays later, Watson escaped even more pressure.  This time it was super-human.  And practically won Houston the game.

Watson’s wizardy has cost him at times.  He can take hits he shouldn’t.  He can lose the ball.  But most times it pays off, and on this play, it did so in the most epic fashion.

Had Ka’imi Fairbairn missed the field goal, Houston’s choice to kick right away instead of attempting to score a TD for the win would have been reprehensible.  It was scary in the moment – why would you make things harder for your kicker when  you’re not working against any clock at all?

Houston’s heroics in the second half and overtime were thrilling.  But there’s a chance that none of it comes to fruition if not for the call at the beginning of the second half.  Because of the results of the next game though, there will likely be little talk of it.

We should have seen this coming with New England

It was strange watching the Patriots play on the first weekend of the NFL playoffs.  Somehow things are now even stranger, as New England won’t even be playing in next weekend’s Divisional Round.

As stunning as Tennessee’s 20-13 win in Foxborough was Saturday, it served as an example for not buying in when you know things just aren’t right.

Tom Brady had been playing the worst football of his career throughout the second half of this season.  The Patriots offense suffered through the loss of Josh Gordon, the subtraction by addition in Mohamed Sanu Sr., N’Keal Harry’s rookie inconsistencies and Sony Michel’s one-dimensional presence in the backfield, which all took their toll at the end of the day.  When the playoffs started, we thought they would flip the switch back on.  It turns out the switch never actually existed.

Brady’s now-obvious decline and the Patriots offense not being good can be separate things.  New England could have made the Super Bowl if Brady played better – the Patriots defense was the best in the league and was putting up historic numbers early on.  But an offense that has one legitimate wide receiver (Julian Edelman) isn’t going to work for a quarterback that clearly needs all the help he can get at this point (Brady finished this season averaging 6.6 yards per attempt).

Things got so bad that they couldn’t even muster enough against a team with the 16th ranked defense in DVOA and with Ryan Tannehill as its quarterback.  Based on those two parameters, the Titans are the definition of average.

The Patriots defense should take their fair share of blame.  Derrick Henry was completely unstoppable Saturday, rushing for 182 yards on 34 carries.  Henry’s longest rush was 29 yards, displaying the down-to-down consistency he had throughout the night.  He was Tennessee’s whole offense – Tannehill threw for just 72 yards and a touchdown.  AJ Brown, the Titans’ most feared receiver, had one catch for four yards.  It was Anthony Firkser (Who?) who led the Titans with 23 receiving yards.

New England couldn’t even match that performance.  Perhaps that says a lot about Brady – that Brady isn’t the guy who can take a group of nothings and turn them into somethings anymore.  Perhaps that, for the first time in his career, he actually needs help.  Significant help.

It just wasn’t there Saturday night.


On Dallas’ hiring of Mike McCarthy…

The title on The Ringer’s Robert Mays’ story Monday said it best: The Cowboys Could Have Hired Anyone, and They Picked Mike McCarthy.

Upgrades can be underwhelming.  Both are true regarding the decision that Jerry Jones and Co. made when it comes to their next head coach.  Jason Garrett had to go.  He probably stuck around 2-3 years longer than he should have.  

Few options would have been worse than Garrett coaching the Cowboys next season.  The problem is that Mike McCarthy – while better – isn’t much better than Garrett returning for a tenth full season.

Mike McCarthy is generally a good coach.  He had a sustained period of success in Green Bay for a long time.  He won a Super Bowl.

But the reason McCarthy was ousted with the Packers was because once the talent was depleted, Green Bay fell off – massively.  That shouldn’t really be possible with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.

When top-level talent doesn’t exist, it comes down to scheme and coaching.  Making things easier for players should be a coach’s number one priority in that scenario.  McCarthy’s offensive scheme didn’t do that during his last two seasons in Green Bay.  Dallas’ new head coach runs an offense where elite receivers are necessary.  Pass catchers in his scheme must be sufficient route runners.  They must get open themselves with little help from the scheme in place.

When elite receivers don’t exist – like they didn’t in Green Bay the last two years of McCarthy’s tenure  – things fall apart.  Then Rodgers gets angry.  Then you’re fired.

Dallas has had similar issues with receivers over the past two years, which has contributed greatly to Garrett’s shorten lease with the franchise.  The Amari Cooper trade last season represented a desperation move by the Cowboys to infuse their offense with more potent weapons.  Jason Witten coming out of retirement represents that as well.

This year saw some improvement – Michael Gallup emerged as a legitimate target and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s RPOs saw extensive use early on. Dallas finished second in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, yet finished the season 8-8, missed the playoffs and looked like a group that a defense could get stops against easily during the second half of the season.

Dallas needs to lock up Amari Cooper, re-sign Dak Prescott and try and find one more elite weapon this offseason for McCarthy’s scheme to work.  The Cowboys need this thing to ignite.  McCarthy isn’t exactly the first guy you think of when you’re looking for an explosive offense.  But hey, Marvin Lewis isn’t exactly that guy either.  It could have been worse.

On Carolina’s hiring of Matt Rhule…

There’s no question as to why Baylor’s Matt Rhule drew such high interest from NFL teams.  What the 44-year-old has done at the Big 12 school the past three seasons is stunning.  The Bears won one game in Rhule’s first season.  In his third, they played in Big 12 Championship and Sugar Bowl while being in contention for a College Football Playoff spot for most of the Fall.  

What Rhule did this season though might be more impressive than what he did in between his first and second.  Baylor last year is comparable to Carolina this season: a .500 team stuck in the middle that has boatloads of potential and talent.  It just had to get over the hump.

Rhule got Baylor over that hump – quickly.  The Panthers are hoping Rhule can do the same for them – because no matter who the quarterback is, they’re close.

Rhule’s track record – in addition to his previous relationship with the franchise – also explains why the rumors about him coaching the Giants were so prevalent.  The Giants are in the same state Baylor was when Rhule took over: very bad and rebuilding.  It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Rhule follow the same trajectory he used at Baylor and apply that to the Giants, especially given the sneaky bounty of talent already on that New York roster.

But Carolina jumped the gun and pulled off the upset.  It should pay off for them.

On the Giants hiring of Joe Judge…

The Giants pivoted quickly after losing out on Rhule, who seemed destined to be in the Big Apple before the Panthers snuck in and stole him.  Joe Judge’s name had came up among potential candidates for the Giants job, but his inclusion felt more like a sign of respect or gauge of potential rather than him being an actual contender.

Judge must have killed his interview and really impressed New York.  He’ll hope to be unlike most of the Bill Belichick assistants who go on and get their own teams, though Brian Flores seems to be a home run hire by the Dolphins and should get some votes for a second or third place finish in the Coach of the Year standings.

Special teams coordinators have a stigma because of their unit’s limited impact on the average NFL game, but that decreased impact and limited workload means that more time can be spent elsewhere.  Special teams coordinators are typically involved with both offense and defense on coaching staffs, making them one of the more well-rounded coaches on a given staff.  To be that involved on arguably the best coaching staff in the league is impressive and important, and likely landed Judge the gig.  He has also has experienced under Nick Saban in addition to Bill Belichick.

The only concern is that Judge isn’t a proven offensive coordinator who can develop a quarterback like Daniel Jones.  The Giants took Jones where they did because they believed in him.  He’s their guy, and they should do whatever it takes to make sure that is and stays the case.  Judge may not have been the best option since Jones was majorly splurged on by the Giants.  He still needs a lot of help and work.  Judge may not be the guy to mentor him like that.

2019 Rose And Sugar Bowl Preview

Rose Bowl: No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 8 Wisconsin

There was a wild stretch during the regular season where it really seemed like both Oregon and Wisconsin could be legitimate Playoff contenders. The committee was overselling the Pac-12 schools, desperately trying as hard as they could to squeeze the conference in since it was a total embarrassment last season. Wisconsin had completely transformed itself offensively, almost in an LSU-like way, thanks to Jack Coan’s throwing ability and Jonathan Taylor. It really seemed like two schools who had been always outside the bubble were maybe going to burst in.

The same old occurrences happened. Oregon completely choked their chances away in Tempe against Arizona State, where a freshman quarterback totally outplayed Justin Herbert in primetime. Wisconsin was in great shape until they decided to not score a point the entire second half of the Big Ten Championship Game, blowing leads of 14-0 and 21-7 versus Ohio State.

There’s probably no better runner-up game than the Rose Bowl though. This game has seen a lot of points in the past four years; the only exception was last year’s game between the Buckeyes and Washington.

This year could follow a similar path. These are two very good defenses – ranked ninth (Wisconsin) and 11th (Oregon) in Football Outsiders’ FEI – pitted against offenses that have their ups and downs. They could be reduced to nothing fast.

Herbert and the Ducks offense could be crossed off almost immediately from having a substantial impact in this game. Oregon’s infamous for not showing up when it matters post Marcus Mariota; Herbert could have three interceptions at halftime if he really wanted to some days. Pit that up against the Badgers defense – the second-best group Oregon has faced this year (Utah was first, a game in which Oregon won, but that was much more predicated on the offense not showing up for the Utes) – and the Ducks could be leaning heavily on their D to bail them out.

Wisconsin doesn’t come into this game with the same offensive concerns. Despite’s Oregon’s talented group, the Badgers have lit it up against good units this season. It put up 38 on Michigan State in a shutout, 35 on Michigan, 38 on Minnesota and, as mentioned above, stomped Ohio State in its tracks in the first half of the pair’s second meeting of the season in Indianapolis.

If the Badgers can force Herbert into a bad performance, the Ducks defense will be out there a lot. Wisconsin’s ability to run the ball and wear out opponents creates a tough dynamic for Oregon. And that’s not even considering Coan and the passing game, who can act as just another option for this revamped offense.

Oregon will need Herbert to play like a top ten pick in this game. If he doesn’t, it’s Wisconsin’s to lose.

Prediction: Wisconsin-30 Oregon-17


Sugar Bowl: No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 7 Baylor

The only team to beat the Baylor Bears this season was Oklahoma – who did it twice, both in absurd fashion.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement now, given the Sooners’ embarrassing performance in the College Football Playoff.  Oklahoma was also the best team by far that Baylor played this season.  Now they’re faced with the SEC’s second-or-third best team; a group that likely would have made LSU work more than Oklahoma did.

But despite the glorification of Georgia, they have their own dings.  They’re essentially what LSU was before Joe Burrow showed up: an inefficient offensive team that had trouble doing anything but running the ball and relied on its defense to win games.

Their defense is one of the best in the country  – ranked fourth by FEI.  The team right behind them on that chart though?  Baylor.

Baylor’s schedule might have been a cakewalk, perhaps overrating its defense.  But the Bears do play in the Big 12, where explosive offenses rule the land.  They held Oklahoma to 34 and 30 points in each matchup, a respective number considering their firepower.  Oklahoma State was held to 27, while Texas Tech to 20 and Texas to just 10.

Georgia might have more skill than those Big 12 opponents, but the 39th ranked offense by FEI hasn’t made use of it.  They tend to start slow, and don’t have a quarterback who can carry them when defenses lock up the run game.  Baylor should be able to contain them at least adequately.

Baylor has to get a performance like that or better to have a chance.  The Bears haven’t encountered anything like this Georgia defense all season.  For every powerful Big 12 offense there’s a porous Big 12 defense (Baylor’s the exception to this).  Those defenses are what the Bears offense has been facing all season.

The Bulldogs might be a massive wakeup call for Baylor offense.  A stifling could be the result.

Prediction: Georgia-31  Baylor-14

New Years Day Early Slate Preview

2020 will be the seventh calendar year that this website will be functioning for.  Thanks to everyone who has stuck with it for so long.

Anyways, here are previews for the two Noon/central bowl games today.  Previews for the Rose and Sugar Bowl will go up later today.

Citrus Bowl: No. 14 Michigan vs. No. 13 Alabama

It’s not clear if these two teams being ranked within one spot of each other documents the College Football Playoff committee’s continued overvaluation of Michigan or their strange underestimation of Alabama.

Such a fall for the Crimson Tide feels harsh. With Tua Tagovailoa’s injury, it wasn’t really their fault they’re in this spot.  If their star quarterback had played, perhaps one could punish them more for the Iron Bowl loss.

But backup quarterback Mac Jones has played particularly well in relief for Tua.  He’s a gunslinger; this isn’t someone like Blake Sims. Jones has put up numbers thanks to his loaded receiving core, which is a group that should probably hold more weight amongst the committee.

Perhaps Alabama’s ranking feels low because of how they match up with the teams around them, and their bowl game opponent. The Tide are so much more talented across their entire roster. That has to play into some consideration, rather than just resume and eye test.

That talent difference should be evident in this game, and be a death blow to the committee’s obsession with Michigan, which likely stems from their massive fan base and celebrity head coach (They draw ratings. The committee loves that). Michigan’s defense has been the element keeping them in the spotlight due to its sheer competentence. Without this group, Michigan is probably on the bowl eligibility bubble and is searching for a new head coach.  This is unit is really good, and are amazing compared to the unit on the other side of the ball. The Wolverines D keeps them in and wins this team games. Alabama is their toughest task ever, though.

Last season, Ohio State laid out a beautiful blueprint for how to defeat this defense. In that showdown at the Big House, Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes took advantage of the Wolverines man-heavy defensive scheme by attacking with short-range passing. They beat them with pure speed and scheme of their own. Ohio State ran slants the entire first quarter, and jumped out to an early 21-6 lead by doing so. It forced Michigan’s defensive backs to run hard and play press almost every down, tiring them out and causing a slippage in performance.

The Crimson Tide can learn greatly from that game, and possibly use it to their advantage as well. Alabama has two of the fastest players in the country in Henry Ruggs lll and Jaylen Waddle, alongside Jerry Judy, who’s so good at everything that his speed is underrated.

Playing man-to-man against those guys is terrifying. But Michigan’s defensive backs are so skilled that those concerns have never manifested except for that one game last year. That was just one really bad game.

Heavily relying on your secondary though is dangerous, especially in a game like this where Michigan’s offense – that’s had immense struggles – is going up against one of the best defenses in the country.

The matchup between Michigan’s offense and an SEC defense has the potential to be hysterically bad. The Wolverines have had such excruciating strings of non-production with the ball this season that it’s been hard to watch. For an offensive-minded coach like Jim Harbaugh to be in charge of an offense like this has been embarrassing at times.

It’s hard to see how Shea Patterson and Co. has a chance against the Tide’s stout front, which means that their talented secondary has little margin for error against the best receiver group in the country.

Even if the Tide can’t capitalize as frequently as Ohio State did a year ago, it won’t mean that they won’t have any success. If Bama’s defense pitches the performance they’re capable of, then one or two big plays from the Tide’s offense is all that should be needed for Alabama to get a victory.

Prediction: Alabama-27 Michigan-13

Outback Bowl: No. 18 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Auburn

For most of the season, it seemed as if both of these teams would be playing in a New Years Six bowl, but a fall from grace for the Golden Gophers and the Tigers coming to the reality of starting a freshman quarterback led to these two teams squaring off against each other in what is a game that could see quite a bit points.

Atop their ceilings, these are two powerful offenses. When Bo Nix is having a good game, Auburn becomes very scary thanks to their top five defense on the other end of the field. Minnesota, on the other hand, needs their secondary to be consistent and not blow coverages at critical times – there’s just too much talent back there for that to continually be the case.

If the Golden Gophers can force Nix – who has a knack for really bad decisions at times – to be uncomfortable in the pocket, then this game becomes a battle between the Minnesota receivers and the Auburn secondary.

The wide-out group in Minneapolis is scary. There’s two first round talents lurking there in Tyler Johnson (who won’t sneak into the first round in April but would in any other draft thanks to this year’s insane class) and Rashod Bateman (A likely first rounder in 2021). Throw in Chris Autman-Bell and the strong-armed Tanner Morgan and the Gophers become a lot to handle.

But Auburn is the No. 12 team in the country, and that’s with playing the second-hardest schedule in college football. The Tigers faced and shut down powerhouse SEC offenses, among them LSU, Georgia and Florida. Auburn lost all three of those games, but they gave up less than 24 points in each of them. Defense has kept the Tigers in every game this year, and practically every game has been one they may not have had any business winning.

The Tigers might be the most battle-tested team in the land. Yet, they can succumb fast if it’s not the right day. Nix was horrible in practically every big game Auburn played in this year. Oregon in Week 1 was the outlier – where he led a huge – but his numbers were still quite ugly after that game.

Minnesota’s group isn’t as good as some of the defenses Nix has had to deal with this season. They’re 37th in Football Outsiders’ Defensive FEI, but are top 20 in turnover rate, which could play a big factor due to Nix’s decision making issues.

Though the stakes aren’t nearly as high and the opponent isn’t nearly as talented, this game is set up similarly to the Iron Bowl. Auburn still has a freshman quarterback who can be an absolute loose cannon going up against a good defense in a big game. Their defense is matched up with a powerful, multidimensional offense with big, highly-skilled receivers. And it’s a huge game. Two top 20 teams. New Years Day. The spotlight is on.

All of that could result in defense getting thrown completely out the window, like it was in that Auburn-Alabama shootout in November. If that’s the case, it’s probably best to go with who you trust more at quarterback. Nix has shown us all season that we shouldn’t trust him.

Prediction: Minnesota-42 Auburn-38