The Rizzo Incident: Because Simply Losing Isn’t Enough

When you’re a fan of a bad sports team, the things that matter to you become increasingly trivial. In the absence of any actual winning achievement you begin to cling to ideals like “honor”, “royalty”, or “pride”. Once you’ve accepted that your favorite team isn’t going to reward your support with things like playoff games you just hope that they’ll conduct themselves in a manner you can be proud of. It is a loser’s mentality, yes, but a loser that refuses to completely give up whatever hope they may have left. This mentality is on prevalent display a few nights a week at Petco Park, home to the bottom-feeding San Diego Padres.

To be clear, there are definitely worse teams to be attached to besides the Swingin’ Friars and their picturesque stadium in a city with near-perfect weather. Still, the Padres’ management has made a concerted effort to keep this franchise as frustrating as possible. Despite our boys in blue (or brown, or camouflage) not reaching the postseason since I was in the sixth grade, San Diego still loves and supports its Padres in a big way. All we ask in return is that they display a genuine desire to win over the course of nine innings and knock a few dingers every once in a while. They generally oblige us and so we keep dancing up in the cheap seats after a couple of tragically overpriced beers.

Alright, so now you’re wondering what the point is. Why am I sitting here describing to you what it’s like to watch your favorite team lose all the time and just hope they’ll maybe beat the Dodgers every now and then? Funny you should ask, because I really want to stress how winning isn’t nearly as important to us as THE PRIDE OF THE TEAM. Got that? Good, now pay attention. On Monday, June 19, the Padres and Cubs kicked off a home series for the defending champs who had been swept in San Diego earlier this season. In the sixth inning, after a Kris Bryant fly ball, Anthony Rizzo (a former Padre by the way) was heading home when he decided that it might be better to launch himself straight into our beautiful and innocent catcher, Austin Hedges, than to score in what was a closely contested game. Rizzo went knee-first into Hedges, who was completely out of Rizzo’s path to the plate, and crushed him into the ground. Hedges had to leave the game with a thigh contusion and would not be able to return. Here is handy chart to help in case you can’t quite visualize the scenario:

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Although the MLB is known for its numerous and often confusing unwritten rules, there happens to be a pretty clear statute for this sort of scenario. The MLB rule 7.13 states: “a runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher”. Pretty cut and dry if you ask me. So Padres fans were understandably upset on Tuesday when the MLB office inexplicably announced that Rizzo had definitely violated the rule, but would not be punished. Imagine a cop responding to your 911 call and saying, “This guy definitely robbed you, but I’m not going to arrest him”. It was a classic case of a big-name player on a big-name team being favored over the all-but irrelevant club down there on the coast. In his postgame comments, Padres manager Andy Green called out Rizzo for his shady play, calling it a “cheap shot” and an “egregious violation of the rule”. At this point it was obvious what San Diego what have to do. If the league office was going to let Rizzo off the hook and Cubs manager Joe Maddon was going to pretend his player had done nothing wrong then the Padres would have to take matters into their own hands. There was only clear solution: hit Rizzo. He would be the leadoff hitter the next day and it was the perfect opportunity to send a simple yet important message: we’re not going to let you walk all over us.

The next day at work there was a palpable buzz surrounding the game. “Did you see Rizzo last night?” co-workers asked. “We have to hit him, there’s no way we let him off the hook for that”, others asserted. So imagine my surprise when my phone buzzed with an update from the ESPN app: Rizzo homered to center. Cubs lead the Padres 1-0 in the top of the 1st. Wait, what?! So not only did we let him off the hook, but we laid some ham across the plate for him to smash into oblivion? I couldn’t believe it. I immediately started to receive texts from friends all disgusted that our team had seemingly laid down and accepted Rizzo’s disrespect. Remember earlier when I spent a whole page explaining that we deal with our team’s numerous, numerous losses by taking pride in the attitude of the club? When Green commented on Tuesday that he “didn’t want the team to retaliate” was as fans were left with neither. And why shouldn’t we retaliate, Andy? Hedges is a key player in the core of a young, rising team. The man’s on billboards all over the city. I got a pocket schedule the other day and guess whose ruggedly handsome face was on the front cover? THE MAN WALKS OUT TO CARELESS WHISPER, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

The Padres failure to stand up for Hedges, and themselves, left many a fan asking themselves this question: If the team doesn’t win and the team doesn’t have a fighting spirit, then what am I supporting? It’s a question that I’ve spent the past week asking myself as well and, to be honest, I’ve failed to come up with an answer. Andy Green successfully implored a city used to losing to buy into his vision of a playoff contender and now, with one decision, he may have torn it all down. The Rizzo incident was washed out of the news cycle by Wednesday night, but the anger and confusion it caused in the hearts of Padres fans will linger for a long time to come.

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LeBron faces his Bizzaro and Other Reasons to Watch the NBA Playoffs

The NBA Playoffs have officially arrived. That sentence was supremely liberating and refreshing to type because this is the time of year in North American sports where fans are forced to pretend to like games they usually glance over at on silent televisions in the back of the bar. The NHL Playoffs have also commenced, but nobody just sort of watches hockey. Either you grew up playing hockey and love it to death or you’re confused as to what a “period” is and why there are only three of them. Baseball has also made its triumphant return to primetime programming. While I will concede that “America’s Pastime” has captured my attention in recent years and is certainly a fun game once you take the time to understand it, the MLB season consists of 162 games. It’s tough for me to care about a week one loss in the NFL and those guys only get 16 games before the postseason kicks off, so when I’m at the bar and see the Mets and Marlins playing game 8 out of 162 it’s tough to be interested when I could be following Sports Jeopardy! on the other screen. For the percentage of you that enjoy soccer, I’m an Arsenal fan and the Premier League will not be mentioned in this column again.

The point here is that the NBA Playoffs, beautiful and chaotic and occasionally dumbfounding as they are, have arrived just in the nick of time to save us from hastily googling hockey highlights before that one die-hard Bruins fan in your office makes his way to your desk to ask if you saw Brad Marchand’s saves last night. The NBA is perfect for casual onlookers and hoopheads alike because anybody can turn on the TV after dinner and be mesmerized by Kawhi’s slow-anaconda-squeeze style of defense and subsequent offensive explosions. The intense fun of the playoffs can be enjoyed without any context, yet remains exciting even when you’ve been there for blowouts and DNP-rest fiascos. Before Cavs and Pacers tip off we’re going to rank the best matchups you should be going out of your way to watch based on how potentially fun, violent, and closely contested that series might turn out to be.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook

  1. OKC Thunder (6) vs Houston Rockets (3)

The Rockets-Thunder matchup will definitely be the most fun, mostly because Russell Westbrook will be involved. In case you weren’t aware, Westbrook just pulled off a season in which he averaged 30 points, 11 assists, and 10 points for an entire season with several 50 point, insanely clutch game-winning shot performances mixed in just for fun. Russ has been must-see-tv all season long, but we should all be bracing ourselves for his inevitable transformation from terrifying force of nature to pure energy — similar to when Electro just becomes electricity itself in Amazing Spider-Man 2. Also driving Westbrook’s ascension will be the fact that James Harden, his former teammate and widely acknowledged rival for the MVP trophy, will also be on the court.

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(Above: Russell Westbrook prepares for the 2017 NBA Finals)

Now, the MVP fight unfortunately loses some of its luster because the NBA – a league that is usually self-aware and actively dedicated to being the most fun- decided to announce all of its regular season awards at a ceremony in June. That’s right, awards based on the regular season which have already been voted on and balloted as of this week will not be revealed to us until after the Finals. Apparently Adam Silver has been reading “How to Make the People Hate Your League by Roger Goodell” in his spare time. A few years ago the NFL decided to reveal all of their awards at a ceremony where they hire some poor, popular comedian to deliver an opening monologue where they try to roast players who have just lost the most important games of their entire lives and make light of the NFL’s issues. Here’s the problem – there’s nothing funny about domestic violence, CTE-related deaths, and all of the other things Goodell tries to pretend aren’t happening in the league he has for some reason been trusted with. Anyway, the point is we’ve been robbed of the opportunity to hear that James Harden won the MVP right around Game 3 of this series with the Thunder 2-1 and watch Westbrook decapitate him at half-court for the four games as the Thunder advance 4-1.

MVP announcement or not, this series will be insanely fun to watch on a nightly basis. Underrated storylines here are the likelihood that Westbrook and second-best Rocket/NBA version of a hockey goon Patrick Beverley will most likely get into a fight. Most NBA fights are just a lot of pushing and shoving, but these are two guys that will most certainly be throwing punches. Russell Westbrook once sustained a dent in his face – A DENT IN HIS FACE – and just kept playing basketball. Set your DVR.

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  1. Portland Trail Blazers (8) vs Golden State Warriors (1)

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “Really? You want me to watch the Blazers get steamrolled by the Death Star Warriors? I’d rather watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory or some other dumb and boring show”. Hear me out, people. In basketball more than any other sport the outcome of a game, and ultimately a series, can be legitimately affected by pure and beautiful hatred. Hatred is the undefeated most interesting component of sports in any context. I will unashamedly watch a game between any two teams in any sport, no matter how terrible or irrelevant they may be, if I’m aware that they genuinely hate each other.

Hate in today’s NBA takes on a different role between teams because everyone in the Western Conference absolutely hates the Warriors and the entirety of the Eastern Conference has been swinging at Big Brother LeBron, tears in their eyes and a hand on their forehead rendering them completely harmless, since the beginning of time. Hatred between teams doesn’t always manifest the way we want it to – even if the squads can’t stand each other we’re never treated to the all-out brawl at half court that we’re always hoping and praying for. However, since the rise (and fall, depending on who you talk to and how much you care about signature shoes) of one Stephen Curry we’ve been lucky enough to witness a brand new genre of hatred: Fuck Steph, I’m Better Than That Guy. FSIBTTG was cultivated by the seemingly overnight success of the Warriors and Steph in particular in a conference full of extremely talented point guards. “Steph is awesome, sure, but he’s got Draymond and Klay and Iggy! He had to go out and get Kevin Durant!” they scream as their teams inevitably fall powerless to Golden State in the playoffs each year.

Of all the point guards in the West afflicted by FSIBTTG nobody has worse symptoms then Portland’s Damian Lillard. Dame, who has various chips on his shoulder that he rotates depending on whatever team he may be facing that night, believes that every other player in the NBA is stealing the spotlight that is so rightfully his – and none more than Steph Curry. Lillard’s shining moment and largest display of FSIBTTG came last season when, in the first game following All-Star weekend which Lillard hadn’t been invited to, he scored 60 (read: SIXTY) points against the Warriors and spent four quarters embarrassing his defender: Steph Curry. While the Blazers may lose in 5 or even 4 games against the Warriors, you won’t want to miss out on the inevitable Dame Lillard FSIBTTG explosion.

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  1. Indiana Pacers (7) vs Cleveland Cavaliers (2)

When you talk about teams in the East swinging up at LeBron, Indiana has to be the first that comes to mind. As a Heat fan I remember a time when the Pacers came at those LeBron and Wade teams with everything they had and still watched them make the Finals for four years in a row. That was back when Roy Hibbert was still a valid and contributing NBA player and Paul George was making his case as one of the top players in the NBA. In 2017, George is a bona-fide superstar who is probably going to receive a gigantic max contract come next season and the Pacers haven’t been talked about as a legitimate contender in years. So why is this a must-see matchup, then? I’m so glad you asked.

Paul George is almost the Bizarro to LeBron’s Superman. Where LeBron could play for any team and take them to the Finals, making even the lowliest bench players better with his otherworldly talent and leadership, George has toiled and toiled while seeing none of the results. I can only assume the George’s determined recovery from his grotesque leg injury and resurgence to the top of the NBA was fueled by plenty of highlights of his 2012-2015 battles with LeBron and the Heat. As he prepares to face a Cavaliers team that stumbled into the playoffs, relinquishing their #1 seed to the Celtics along the way, the time is now for Paul George to remind everyone why the Pacers were once a feared force in the Eastern Conference. He will, of course, need a little help from whichever four guys will accompany him on the court at any given time, which brings us to our next point…

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(Above: the last time Lance Stephenson was relevant in the NBA)

Besides establishing Paul George as a star, those Pacers-Heat battles brought another figure into the national conscience. That’s right, Lance Stephenson re-signed with the Pacers just in time to make an ass of himself in hopes of throwing off LeBron’s game in the playoffs. Stephenson is best known for blowing in LeBron’s ear during a playoff game, but it is often forgotten that he pestered The King for three years and actually saw some weird version of success. Whenever an opposing player decides they’ve gotten big enough to go at the greatest player since Jordan, James’ only response is to elevate his level of play and humiliate them without directly revealing that he was ever bothered by their insolence in the first place (see: Terry, Jason). However, in Stephenson’s case, LeBron lashed out physically when the constant nagging and aggravation become too much to bear silently, even being goaded into six fouls by Stephenson’s antics. It’s become clear to the NBA world that Lance is about half the player we ever thought he was since his first stint in Indiana, but the Pacers should hope for their sake that he can still get inside LeBron’s head.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics

  1. Chicago Bulls (8) vs Boston Celtics (1)

I have to start this section by saying that now and forevermore I will be actively rooting for the worst possible outcome in life for the Bulls and anyone associated with them. They started this season by taking away my favorite player of all time and franchise legend Dwyane Wade from the Heat then bookended it by narrowly edging those same Heat out of the eighth seed after Miami went 30-11 in the second half of the season. I hate Chicago, but that’s beside the point. The layers of intrigue between these two teams are what make this matchup essential viewing.

Let’s start with the obvious: nine years ago Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics point guard, won the NBA Championship and proudly hung the banner in the TD Garden. Rondo is now tasked with breaking every heart in Boston by knocking the surprise 1-seed Celtics out of the race for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Rondo’s journey since leaving Boston has been checkered and, at times, seemingly at its end, but here he is returning to the city that made him with revenge in mind. There is an urban legend known as “National Television Rajon Rondo” that has been lurking in the NBA shadows for years. Plenty of statistics support the fact that Rondo’s statistics have always elevated when he is playing in front of a national television audience as opposed to a non-televised game or locally aired matchup. I would show you some of those stats, but Cavs-Pacers started 17 minutes ago and it’s a beautiful day outside. We can’t always get what we want. The question currently facing Rondo is whether or not his alter ego can sustain its stellar performance through a series of nationally televised games. I can’t wait to see his answer.

After Rondo, the motivation angle for Chicago gets a little more abstract, so stick with me here. At the NBA’s trade deadline earlier this season it was widely believed that the Celtics would make a push to acquire Jimmy Butler, Chicago’s young star of a shooting guard who spent his season trying to overcome the extreme dysfunction of the Bulls. That trade never happened and Butler was forced to keep running Fred Hoiberg’s terrible plays. I can’t say for certain that Butler felt slighted by Boston’s inaction, but I can say for sure that he now has the opportunity the show the Celtics and their fans exactly why a trade for him should have been their first priority. Jimmy Butler vs Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler vs Jae Crowder are going to be so much fun to watch.

As far as the Celtics go it’s easy to forget that they’re the top seed in their conference because, despite winning 53 games, the Celtics just don’t feel intimidating. That may have something to do with their best playing standing at all of 5 feet and 9 inches. Isaiah Thomas may have spent the season scoring more points than anyone else in the fourth quarter and doing what seemed impossible for the past six years – stealing the 1 seed from LeBron, but his being the face of the Celtics still skews their perception as a team not quite ready to compete with the larger-than-life patriarch of the eastern conference. It remains to be seen if Thomas can lead Boston to victory in physical matches late into April, but for now just have fun watching him work.

There you have it, folks: the basketball you need to see this month. Grizzlies vs Spurs gets an honorable mention because of the Gasol vs Gasol matchup, but neither brother has ever been particularly intimidating or physical and this isn’t exactly the peak of their careers. What really did this series in was the loss of Tony “First Team All Defense!” Allen who was headed for a Thor vs Hulk clash of the titans with Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers have already plotted this year’s spectacular collapse against the Jazz and the Raptors are just suffocatingly uninteresting. Although I would recommend catching a few games of that series just to see Giannis, who led the Bucks in points, assists, rebounds, and blocks this season. The kid’s unreal. The Hawks aren’t scaring anybody and the Wizards will be more fun to watch in the second round. Don’t @ me.

 

The Patriots are Super Bowl Champions and You Can Be a Champion too!

For the fifth time in franchise history the New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions. At the beginning of the season it seemed improbable that I would be able to type that sentence. The Patriots had fallen in the AFC Championship to the Denver Broncos due in large part to a missed Stephen Gostkowski extra point and Roger Goodell’s season-long smear campaign had finally succeeded and seen Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of 2016. It was as low a point as the Patriots had reached in a long time and it led the entire football world to speculate on the downfall of the NFL’s model franchise.

We know what happened next: the combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett went 3-1 until the suspended Brady could return to his team. Once Brady was able to lead the Patriots again he burned down everything that stood in his path, losing only one game (a nail-biter against Seattle) and throwing just two interceptions all season. Brady played like a man on a mission to defend his name against the NFL’s bumbling idiot excuse for a commissioner. At 39 years old Tom Brady was looking to paint one more masterpiece.

The NFL season always feels way too short, doesn’t it? It seems like you’re watching the draft one day and then all of a sudden you’re asking yourself how it’s already Week 7. This is going to make anyone outside of Boston roll their eyes so hard that a few of those pupils may not come down, but the season feels even shorter for Patriots fans. Since 2001 when they won their first Super Bowl, New England has only won 10 games or less twice – in 16 years. They won 12 games or more 11 of those 16 years including four seasons with a record of 14-2 and their historic 16-0 campaign in 2007. The trouble with these winning ways is that Pats Nation has become conditioned over the years to expect absolute greatness season after season. We want to see our team play exciting games, but we’re also offended if they win by less than three scores on any given weekend. It’s a dilemma that we’ve been caught in for quite some time now. As a result, there are only a few games that really test our mettle each season and by the time we’re ready to lay it all out for the postseason we have to watch the Texans get blown out. Life’s tough when your team doesn’t have a lot of legitimate competition. Any Patriots fan will tell you that they cherish the few hours in a season where they can actually question the outcome of a game. Super Bowl LI (51) gave us a lot more than we bargained for.

If you’re reading this there’s a good chance that you are a Chargers fan because I’m from San Diego. That means the majority of my readers don’t know what it’s like to wake up on Super Bowl Sunday and have a pit in the bottom of your stomach that says your favorite team could be champions later that day. And yes, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m going full Patriots hubris here. We hold this stuff in to be polite but Roger Goodell pissed us off and we don’t care anymore. Anyway, watching the Patriots play in the Super Bowl is both a privilege and a curse. For a week your nerves are never settled, you keep seeing images of the “Helmet Catch” in your sleep, and perfect strangers on the street go out of their way to inform you that they sincerely hope your team loses by 50 on Sunday. Once the Super Bowl finally arrives you just want to lock yourself in a room alone where you’ll be free to celebrate, agonize, question referees and maybe even cry without judgement. Of course, you can’t watch the game alone because all of your friends want to make sure they are in the room as you watch the Patriots lose so they can immediately make fun of you. They have been waiting all season for your team to stumble, after all. That’s just the life of a Patriots fan on the West Coast. The emotions, hatred, and uncertainty were no different last week and if anything they felt amplified by 10.

[This is an interlude for some emotional blah-blah stuff so feel free to skip it. I’m serious. Don’t waste your time. I’m only writing this part to make sure I get the whole account for future me to remember. You’re going to regret this for the rest of your life] Two years ago when Tom Brady slayed the mighty dragon that was Seattle’s defense I had a girlfriend from Boston who wore one of my jerseys and reassured me that it would be okay even as Jermaine Kearse seemingly made the play of the game and set up a Seahawks victory. I couldn’t help but think about her as I rolled out of bed on Sunday morning dreading the moment when Julio Jones would inevitably make some impossible catch to turn the tide in Atlanta’s favor at the last minute. She and I had watched Super Bowl XLIX (49) in a house full of Seahawks fans, but I never felt like my back was against the wall. Having her by my side was all the support I needed that day. Now, as I prepared to watch Brady and the Pats try for a fifth Super Bowl victory, I realized that I had never felt more alone. Even if they were victorious I wouldn’t have anyone to truly share that joy with, only a bunch of people who would congratulate me despite spending the past three hours hoping to see my team fail. That sobering epiphany really began to take away my excitement for the game until I snapped out of it and ate a piece of pizza for breakfast because there’s no place for such weakness on Super Bowl Sunday. No place at all.

Back in the real world it was finally time for the greatest Sunday of the year and internally I was barely holding on. I’ve never watched a Patriots game I didn’t think they would win, but after reviewing endless stats and highlights for two weeks while writing the Totally Non-Biased 4th and Gyas Super Bowl Preview® it was becoming increasingly difficult to believe Atlanta’s juggernaut of an offense could be stopped. And when I say juggernaut I’m referring to the X-Men character Juggernaut who could not, in fact, be stopped under most circumstances. I started the morning with some flag football to try and take the edge off, but because I was practically boiling inside I had a tough time regulating myself on the field. I finished the game with two and a half tackles – the flag football game – and more trash talk than I had uttered all season. The Falcons were in my head and I couldn’t deny it.

We ended the game at about 2:30 pm (the Super Bowl started at 3:30pm on the west coast) and headed home to change. I put on my 2016 AFC Champions shirt and then my red throwback Julian Edelman jersey which I had donned for every playoff game so far. I’m slightly superstitious as a sports fan so I try not to change up my outfits during the playoffs and haven’t bet on a game featuring one of my favorite teams since 2010. A Patriots logo embroidered hat I bought the day of Super Bowl XLIX topped off my outfit and then I pulled out the secret weapon – a rally towel from that Super Bowl I had received from the Patriots themselves. My phone was already buzzing with “ready to lose?!” texts so I set it to the side and sat down by myself in the corner as the game started. I knew that anything I said could and would be used against me should the Super Bowl not go my team’s way so I resolved to keep all of my commentary and complaints to myself.

In what seemed like only a few minutes the Falcons were up 14-0 and Super Bowl 51 was most certainly not going my team’s way. Anybody in the room could have mistaken me for Bill Belicheck as I focused singularly on the screen and muttered furiously under my breath, gesturing towards different players and areas of the field. Beneath my silence I demanded to know why Malcolm Butler wasn’t shadowing Julio Jones and when New England’s receivers were going to catch a damn ball. A glimmer of hope before halftime was snatched away when Robert Alford took an ill-advised Tom Brady pass 82 yards the other way just as the Patriots were driving towards the end zone. The interception came about because of what was quite possibly Brady’s worst throw all season. I insisted with myself that if the Patriots could score a touchdown before halftime the game would be well within reach; instead they settled for a field goal and pushed my spirit within the point of breaking. I knew that Lady Gaga’s halftime performance would destroy whatever part of my psyche the Falcons hadn’t already got around to so I took a walk to a nearby taco shop.

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As I ate my delicious pollo asado California burrito from La Fuente in Serra Mesa (hey, a free burrito never hurt anybody) I was reminded of one of my favorite Patriots games ever. On a cold, windy Denver night in November 2013, New England faced a 24-0 deficit before defeating Peyton Manning and the Broncos in overtime. The Patriots had fumbled six times before halftime, compared to a paltry pair of turnovers in the game that was currently unfolding, and then hosted an absolute clinic to come back for a victory, led by Tom Brady’s 344 yards and three touchdowns. I watched that game on a couch next to the biggest Broncos fan I know and silently endured his increasing verbal abuse with every Broncos score, commenting only that, “the game isn’t over until it’s over”. I managed to maintain my composure even as Denver faltered and New England fought their way back into the game, finally kicking the game winning field goal in overtime after deciding to give Peyton Manning the ball first because the wind conditions were so harsh. I decided that, unsettling as it may have been that Lady Gaga might have just jumped to her death before our eyes, New England’s fifth championship would be even sweeter once Tom Brady again led the team to an amazing comeback. When I returned to the house to watch the second half, my friend Trevor asked what my score prediction was based on the first half. I half-heartedly replied, “I predicted 31-27 in the blog yesterday”. I exchanged my Edelman jersey for Brady, hoped for the best, and prepared for the second half.

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Some people might call New England’s third quarter performance encouraging given the context, but after another 15-minute period they had allowed yet another Falcons touchdown and managed to score just one of their own, a short pass from Brady to James White. My buddy Kurtis, the real MVP of Super Bowl 51, showed up to the Super Bowl party with five six packs of Ballast Point beer so my gestures and mumbling only intensified as a comeback became less and less likely with every tick of the clock. The odds were stacked a little higher against the Patriots when Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point following our first touchdown of the day. Oddly enough, that was the first time I had felt legitimate hope since right before the pick-six. Have you ever lost a game of Connect Four and then immediately played a few more games? No matter what happens you are definitely not going to let yourself be beaten the way you were that first time. Bill Belicheck, the best coach in the NFL at preparing his team for specific situations that might occur in a game, had seen this movie before. As I mentioned earlier the Patriots might have been playing in their third Super Bowl is as many years were it not for a missed extra point and failed two-point conversion. I knew at that moment that should New England somehow close the spacious gap between themselves and the Falcons they would be prepared for the inevitable two-point situation. My belief in the cyclical nature of sports and the revitalized play of the Patriots defense fumigated the butterflies in my stomach and replaced the dread with certainty. Certainty that if Tom Brady was going to become the only quarterback to win five Super Bowls then an amazing comeback was the only appropriate way for it to happen.

There is always argument surrounding what the key play of any game is and especially when that game is the Super Bowl. Personally, I believe that the most important sequence of Super Bowl 51 occurred with 8:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Patriots had just scored a field goal to cut the Falcons’ lead to a smaller 16 points. After Tevin Coleman picked up nine yards total on first and second down, Matt Ryan dropped back to pass on 3rd and 1 from Atlanta’s 35 yard line. Using a bull rush Dont’a Hightower overtook the lineman assigned to block him and swatted Ryan’s arm just as he was about to throw the ball, crushing him in the process. The ball flew into the air and took a bounce or two before being recovered by New England defensive tackle Alan Branch. I, along with the entire NRG Stadium and New England region, held my breath as the referees reviewed the turnover, but we already knew what the verdict would be: fumble, recovered by the Patriots. Real, unashamed hope began tugging at the edges of my heart as New England drove the ball 25 yards to the endzone and finished the ensuing drive with a six yard Danny Amendola touchdown. A beautifully executed direct snap to James White for the two-point conversion meant that the Patriots had a very real chance at winning this game. I clutched my “We Are All Patriots” rally towel tightly and silently allowed myself to believe that the greatest quarterback of all time had saved his best for last.

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(Pictured: Fumble Bae, sprinkling some hope on Patriots Nation)

The Falcons acted swiftly to extinguish my hope by completing a 39 yard catch-and-run to Devonta Freeman after starting the next drive on their own 10 yard line. This was my nightmare coming true. Even if Tom Brady and the offense could score at will there were just too many weapons to stop Atlanta for a full four quarters. Two plays later Julio Jones made what I thought at the time to be another one of “those catches”. The miraculous catch every team since 2007 has pulled out of their a** in the Super Bowl against the Patriots and one that they had narrowly escaped two years earlier. Yet here we were again watching in jaw-dropped disbelief as the replays showed Julio Jones leaping towards the sideline at full extension, somehow willing his toe to smack the turf as he floated out of bounds and completed another near-impossible catch. I couldn’t decide if Julio or David Tyree would be higher on my list of “Super Bowl villains to disrespect in public should I ever be gifted with the chance”. It was the first time I stood up and said anything out loud all night. Either way the Falcons were now on the Patriots’ 22 yard line and headed straight for a game-sealing score. That is, until Matt Ryan was sacked by Trey Flowers for a loss of 11 yards on 2nd and 11. The defense hadn’t given up quite yet. On the next play Atlanta offensive lineman Jake Matthews locked New England pass rusher Chris Long into a WWE-style chokehold while trying to keep Ryan from being sacked twice in a row. The penalty resulted in the Falcons having no choice but to punt after coming up short on 3rd and 33. It was officially Brady Time.

It’s easy to forget because his team is rarely trailing in the 4th quarter of any game, but Tom Brady is second in the NFL all-time with 39 career 4th quarter comeback wins. Even in his days as a Michigan Wolverine, Brady was known for delivering his best performances with a game on the line, so any Patriots fan or Brady supporter-at-large will tell you that they never doubted Brady would lead his offense from their own 9 yard line, with 3:30 left, to a game-tying touchdown. Two incomplete passes later Brady was staring down 3rd and 10 and I was staring down another can of Sculpin IPA in preparation of what would come when New England failed to gain a first down. My fears were never realized because Captain Comeback himself found AFC Championship hero Chris Hogan for 16 yards and then drilled a sideline pass to rookie revelation Malcolm Mitchell for 11 more, stopping the clock at 2:34 when he was pushed out of bounds. Considering that the Patriots were at one point down 28-3 in this game and showing no signs of offensive cohesion I was convinced that only a miracle could save our chances at a fifth Lombardi Trophy. The miracle at first seemed to be Dont’a Hightower’s forced fumble, and then I thought maybe it was the least-sacked quarterback in the NFL going down for an 11-yard loss when his team was in game-sealing field goal range, but as I and the rest of the world was about to find out, the true miracle had yet to occur.

Over the past decade or so of being a Patriots fan there has always been one catch that I could pick out as my favorite. Against the Jets in (I believe) 2008, Tom Brady launched a long bomb to a streaking Randy Moss down the middle of the field. Moss easily strode past cornerback Darelle Revis and caught the perfectly placed pass in his outstretched hand (that’s right, just one) as he entered the end zone. A thing of true beauty. My new favorite catch was not so much a thing of beauty as it was a spectacle of awe and wonder, a test of faith. With 2:28 left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 51, down by 8 points, Tom Brady attempted to squeeze a pass 23 yards downfield to Julian Edelman between the corner underneath and safety behind him. Edelman would later say that the route was not up to his personal standard, but regardless Robert Alford was able to tip the pass in the air. Edelman dove for the ball along with Atlanta defensive backs Alford, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen, landing in a heap of arms and legs that were able to keep the ball suspended long enough for Edelman to complete the catch. Leaping out of my chair I vigorously brought my arms together in front of my chest, moving them up and down to demonstrate the official signal for a completed catch. “He caught it! He caught it! He caught it! That’s a catch!” I exclaimed while the replay shone a thousand times over on the flat screen in front of me. The FOX broadcast began showing clips of the luckiest play of all time a.k.a. David Tyree’s “helmet catch” from Super Bowl XLII which angered me at first, but then I realized that it meant everything was going to be okay. Watching Edelman’s hands separate momentarily before clutching Brady’s tipped pass inches from the ground reassured me that the hard work had been done. Now all they had to do was finish the job.

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Four plays after Edelman’s amazing catch ripped my heart out of my chest and then slammed it back where it belonged James White plunged into the endzone from a yard away and Brady threw a quick screen to Amendola for the two-point conversion. My friends were freaking out all around me, shouting their disbelief that the Patriots had actually overcome those seemingly insurmountable odds and tied the game at 28, but for me there was only peace now. No longer was even a shadow of a doubt able to creep through my thoughts. I stood up, walked across the living room and into the kitchen, waved my rally towel high in the air and let out a roaring “LET’S GOOOOOOO” the likes of which would have made Tom Brady proud. All the doubt, the pressure, the anxiety, the “sorry man” texts that had been sent way too early, they all poured out of me in that single shout that ensured I would barely be able to speak at work the next day. When the captains of the two teams had to again meet at halftime for the overtime coin toss I felt like a psychic. Head referee Carl Cheffers asked Patriots special teams captain Matt Slater whether they wanted heads or tails, “Heads”, Slater and I replied in unison. The coin was flipped and I announced that it had indeed come up “heads” before Cheffers could even bend over to look. Slater and I declared that New England would elect to receive the ball so in sync that you’d think we rehearsed it. As the Patriots rode Brady’s best drive of the day towards Atlanta’s endzone, I realized that a field goal and one defensive stop would make my prediction of 31-27 accurate to a single point. I quickly shook the desire to be right about something and hoped that our momentum would lead to a game-winning touchdown to keep Atlanta’s offense off of the field. After eight plays that’s exactly what happened when James White dove into the endzone from 2 yards away, cueing the confetti showers that meant New England had won their fifth Super Bowl title.

“LET’S GOOOOOO”, I screamed to anyone who could hear. What else do you say after a game like that? What else could encapsulate the emotions of watching your team overcome a 25-point deficit? What else could save a grown man from the embarrassment of crying in front of his friends? When the Giants beat my Patriots for a second time in 2011 I sank to the ground as the final whistle blew and the ball fell harmlessly near the outstretched arms of Rob Gronkowski who couldn’t even run proper routes because of an injury sustained two weeks earlier. Now, in 2017, as LeGarrette Blount repeated to Brady that he was the “best f***ing ever” on live television I sank to the floor and whispered in disbelief. “We did it”. I covered my face in case tears should come and just exhaled for what felt like the first time in hours. I stood in front of the TV and beamed as Patriots legend Willie McGinest walked the Lombardi Trophy towards the podium where Belicheck, Brady, and owner Robert Kraft were waiting. When he was replaced halfway through with Michael Strahan I demanded angrily, “what the f*** is that guy doing here? He’s the last person we want touching our trophy. First they show the helmet catch while we’re trying to win a Super Bowl, now Strahan is delivering our trophy? Come on, FOX”. None of that mattered when Roger Goodell took the mic to address the NRG Stadium crowd because he was met with the loudest, most absolutely extraordinary chorus of boos I have ever heard in my entire life and I couldn’t have been happier. It was the shining star on every Patriots fans’ tree that night watching Goodell hand the most coveted prize in football over to the man who he had spent so much time and energy slandering over the past two years. The boos continued throughout his entire speech, including mine that put the acoustics of my buddy Michael’s house to the test, until Robert Kraft replaced him and was welcomed by the cheers of a king returning home after a long and arduous campaign away from his people. In his speech Kraft referenced “certain events over the past two years” which only drove the fans lucky enough to see their team win firsthand further into a frenzy. Our moment of vindication had come.

Glancing at my phone, I noticed that my inbox now held fifty (50) unread text messages, most of them premature attempts at pouring salt on my now non-existent wounds. I decided that they could wait until tomorrow. One by one, my friends around the house offered some version of, “man, they deserved it, that game was crazy” or “I still hate the Pats but Brady is definitely the best ever”. I didn’t really care. The feeling was so surreal that I remember wondering if I would be able to take a personal day the following Tuesday in order to watch the parade in person. All I wanted to do was share this moment with someone, anyone, who loved the Patriots as much as I did and had just experienced the same spectrum of high-stress emotions as me. I might have ended up texting that ex-girlfriend from Boston, but that’s a story for a different time. The only thing that mattered was that the Patriots were once again Super Bowl Champions and they couldn’t have made the moment any more spectacular. I sat in front of the tv for a while, opined to nobody in particular that I felt James White deserved to be MVP, and eventually went home as exhausted as if I myself had just played in the Super Bowl. It was a cold night but the silent joy in my chest kept me warm. I had to remember to exhale every few minutes and remind myself that we had really done it, we were really champions.

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The nature of sports is to constantly be in motion towards whatever’s next. It’s reflected in every part of the culture: when football season ends, free agency rumors begin to spread. Everyone wants to know who their team is going to select in the draft. If a legendary player is on his way out, announcing his retirement after a decade or more of service, we immediately seek out his replacement. But this time, just for once, I couldn’t move on from the moment at hand. Instead I chose to spend my free time in the following week watching replay after replay and any behind the scenes or “mic’d up” feature I could find from the Super Bowl. Even though I wonder what the offseason will bring for the Patriots, whether or not Dont’a Hightower will remain with the team, if injury-prone Rob Gronkowski will be wearing a new jersey, if the Patriots will do as I suspect and finally avenge their 18-1 campaign by going undefeated and winning the Super Bowl, but I’m taking a stand for enjoying the moment. One day when the Patriots look more like their teams of the 90’s than the squads of the Belicheck era I’m going to wish this hadn’t taken me so long. So for the time being I’m going to do everything in my power to grab hold of this feeling and squeeze it for everything it’s worth – New England Patriots, Super Bowl 51 Champions.

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Special shoutout to Rain, Mikayla, RJ, Brooke, Caleb, Shane, Estefany, Clifford, Samantha, Jake, Pauly, Stoss, Papa Nick, Samuel Duke Wieland (#AttaBoy!), Bam Bam Gillen, Josh Thomas, Nic, Emily, Sam Burkman, Taylor (shoutout to Tifton), Serg and his jawline, Katie (Tifton in the building again), Heather, Knuckles Deep Nordgren, Caleb, Dylan (nerd), Jeremiah, Topher, Crystal, and my guy Luis for liking this picture where I proclaimed the Patriots as Super Bowl 51 Champions waaay back in September. Your support got me through the tough times. Also, Adam, you always say nobody reads my blog so if you’re reading this just know that although I was courteous enough not to text you when your Falcons fell apart, I have in fact been laughing at you ever since in the back of my mind. Whew, that was a long season, I need a vacation!

Only the Migos can Save You from Tom Brady’s Ascension: Our Super Bowl Preview

It’s finally that time of year, people! When the football world comes together for a single day to see who will be crowned as the best team in the league. When backyard barbecues and flag football games are the only important events on otherwise over-scheduled calendars. We’re talking, of course, about the Super Bowl. The greatest day of the year for football fans all over the world who barely survived the Pro Bowl and are ready for some real football before they have to start helping around the house on Sundays. No matter which team you’re a fan of it seems that everyone is hoping the game will be closely contested after a very mediocre playoff run in which almost every game was a blowout. However, everyone’s got to pick sides eventually when the Patriots are involved. Let’s go through the Official 4th and Gyas Totally Non-Biased Super Bowl Preview to find out who you should be rooting for when the Patriots and Falcons face off on Super Sunday!

LIKEABILITY

Okay, let’s just start with the basics. If you’ve never watched a football game before you sit down for the Super Bowl, you’re probably going to pick a team based on which one you (and those around you) will have an easier time rooting for.

Falcons: With the unfortunate exception of Dwight Howard’s presence, Atlanta’s brand is at an all-time high. ATL-native Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) released one of the year’s most unique and enchanting albums while producing and starring in hit TV show “Atlanta” in the same stroke. Not to mention that also Atlanta-born rap group Migos have taken over the country’s music charts with their hit single Bad and Boujee, which the aforementioned Glover declared as “the best song…ever” while accepting an award at the Golden Globes. The city of Atlanta has also given us Outkast and Bojangle’s biscuits so they jump out to an early lead.

The team itself follows the same standard. When asked about the best quarterbacks in the game in a recent interview with Matt Hasselbeck, Falcons QB Matt Ryan didn’t even bother to mention himself, despite the fact that his team destroyed Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers on their way to being NFC Champions. Ryan is always complimentary of opponents, doesn’t speak out in the media much if at all, and retains an air of great humility. Running back Devonta Freeman is a lot of fun to watch and also looks a smaller version of Jordan Peele (of Key and Peele) with dreads so that’s great. Overall, Atlanta’s got a little bit of everything. There’s Keanu Neal, the rookie safety who leads his team in tackling and keeps his mouth shut, and veteran D-lineman Johnathan Babineaux who has been waiting 11 years to get this team to a Super Bowl. Plus, the Falcons shut up everyone who was hailing Aaron Rodgers as the greatest quarterback of all time because of a few Hail Mary throws and some good games down the stretch, so their points go waaay up for doing us all that favor.

Patriots: In a recent poll done by ESPN, the Patriots were voted as the NFL’s most disliked team. Great place to start. New England’s head man in charge, Bill Belicheck, is cold and standoff-ish, only occasionally playing nice with the media if they ask him about an especially good punter or Ed Reed. Most of the players follow the same formula, giving broad and robotic answers to any and all questions, unwilling to betray the “Patriot Way”. The Patriots also have a habit of trading for or signing players who have worn out their welcome elsewhere and turning them into stars like receiver Michael Floyd who only a few weeks ago was cut by the Arizona Cardinals for being charged with a DUI. Feeling the love yet? Trust me, it gets better.

Outside of their many, many legendary players in the five major sports, New England’s favorite sons are Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon. Affleck recently starred in the dumpster fire of a film that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Damon is set to release a movie about…fighting dragons at the Great Wall of China? But come on guys, remember Good Will Hunting? And you can’t trust anyone who has a bad word to speak against Four Brothers. Outside of their film careers, the three men are all openly and loudly fans of the Patriots. Just like any other Patriots fans, they swear by the genius of Belicheck and the greatness of Tom Brady, Roger Goodell and his idiotic smear campaigns be damned.

Now of course, there’s plenty to like about Boston, the Patriots, and New England’s contribution to the world of culture and media, but that’s the thing about Patriots fans – we don’t care. We love playing the villain. It is our absolute joy to be booed and hissed at by opposing fans because it only reminds us how much better our team is than everyone else’s. I love it when a Bills fan lays into me about how much they hate my team – they’ve only managed to beat the Patriots once or twice in the past 10 years. Oh, and the whole “Patriots are cheaters” thing? We don’t care about that either. We’re convinced that Spygate was a load of crap and Deflategate was just an asinine attempt to defame the greatest quarterback ever, Thomas Edward Brady. In fact, most of us just find it hilarious that Goodell went out if his way to piss Brady off only to watch him be the most successful quarterback ever at his age. Nice going, Commish.

ADVANTAGE: Falcons

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CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY

You can’t turn on ESPN during the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl without hearing about “the role experience will play”. Basically, the idea is that a team has a better chance of winning when it features players who have experience with the large crowd, increased media attention, longer halftime, etc of the Super Bowl. The old adage doesn’t always prove to be necessarily true or important, but it never hurts to have a little bit of prior exposure to the spectacle of the Super Bowl.

Falcons: The last time Atlanta went to the Super Bowl I was only four years old and their biggest star to date was a man by the name of Deion Sanders. The Dirty Birds had the Dirty South all abuzz when they beat out Minnesota to reach their first ever Super Bowl following the 98’ season. However, they lost Super Bowl XXXIII (33) to the Broncos, Deion Sanders added to his collection of rings elsewhere, and I went on to make the honor roll every year of elementary school. As the Falcons finally have another chance to sit atop the NFL throne, they feature only four players with prior Super Bowl experience. The four are a combined 2-3 in those Super Bowls, with veterans Dwight Freeney and Courtney Upshaw winning as Colts and Ravens, respectively. The two men that the Falcons, and the entire state of Georgia, will be looking to for leadership on Sunday, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, will be playing in their first Super Bowl. Atlanta will have to hope that the huge moment isn’t too much for their leading men to handle.

The most notable Super Bowl experience on the team is that of head coach Dan Quinn, who reached the Super Bowl twice as defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks before he was plucked away by Atlanta’s front office. Quinn’s first Super Bowl was a shining moment for him and his “Legion of Boom” defense, an absolute drubbing of Peyton Manning, Peyton Manning’s forehead, and the prolific offense of the Denver Broncos. The next season, Quinn lost to none other than these New England Patriots as Tom Brady beat his defense for four touchdowns on the way to yet another Super Bowl MVP trophy.

Patriots: The Patriots haven’t been to the Super Bowl since way back after the 2014 season. Before that, they were playing in February after the 2011 season following a drought of a whole four years. The point is, nobody has gone to the Super Bowl more than New England since their initial championship victory over the Rams in 2001. This will be quarterback Tom Brady’s record SEVENTH Super Bowl appearance and an NFL-record ninth trip for the franchise. There are currently 22 players on New England’s active roster who have been to at least one Super Bowl, the equivalent of a full offensive and defensive unit. Patriots head coach Bill Belicheck coached (and won) two Super Bowls as defensive coordinator of the New *Jersey Giants in addition to his six appearances and four wins with New England. At this point, you could say the Super Bowl is just another part of Belicheck’s game plan.

ADVANTAGE: Patriots

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Key Matchup

In the NFL where anything can happen and any great team can be brought down at a moment’s notice, matchups are everything. Matchups are the reason a blitz-happy Steelers defense never had a chance against Tom Brady and the Packer’s defense, which is at its worst when covering deep down the field, could have stayed home for the NFC Championship and gotten a much similar result. It will be matchups that ultimately decide this Super Bowl between the NFL’s highest scoring offense and least scored-on defense.

Falcons: The easy answer here is Julio Jones vs Malcolm Butler, but Atlanta’s most important matchup of the day actually starts in the backfield. If Kyle Shanahan wants to score touchdowns against this New England defense he’s going to need running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to have their best game of the season. If Shanahan is smart, which the sheer amount of points Atlanta has scored this year indicate that he is, he will know that he can’t outsmart Matt Patricia by just attacking the secondary on first, second, and third down. Freeman and Coleman will need to succeed in their matchups against New England’s linebackers in order for the Falcons to keep drives alive and put the ball in the endzone.

In Super Bowl XLIX the Patriots’ defense was steamrolled by Seattle back Marshawn Lynch for 102 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground in addition to a 31 yard catch on a wheel route that exposed linebacker Jamie Collins’ struggles in coverage and most likely began the process of Collins being traded to Cleveland earlier this season. While making several trades and mid-season signings in order to shape his defense this season, Bill Belicheck made his intentions for the linebacker corps clear: must be able to cover to the sideline. Besides defensive centerpiece Dont’a Hightower, the New England defense features a rotating linebacker trio of Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Elandon Roberts. Fun fact: Van Noy was acquired mid-season in a trade with the Lions, McClellin was signed in the offseason from Chicago, and Roberts was a sixth round pick by the Patriots in the last draft.

Hightower owns the responsibility of shutting down run plays that come through the middle of the defense, tasked with identifying which gap a back is trying to expose and meeting him there to stop the run before it ever starts. On the occasion that a back is able to reach the edge and get outside of New England’s defensive line it becomes the job of our aforementioned secondary backers to stop a 5-yard gain from turning into 15 or more. Of course, it would be far too easy if Atlanta’s duo only specialized in getting up the sideline in a hurry – they’re also two of the NFL’s best when it comes to catching passes out of the backfield. This is where Shea McClellin specifically comes into play. McClellin, whose athleticism was on display when he jumped over the center and blocked a field goal earlier this season, uses his speed to limit passes within 5-10 yards of the line of scrimmage and stick close to streaking backs should he find himself covering the dreaded wheel route. If Kyle Shanahan wants Matt Ryan to have short passing options when nobody is open downfield he will have to find a way to pull McClellin, Van Noy, and Roberts out of their comfort zones and make New England prove that limiting opposing backs to less than 90 yards all season was more than luck.

Patriots: 3rd down. That’s right; New England’s biggest opponent to watch for isn’t a single player on Atlanta’s roster, but what happens in third down situations. Despite scoring the most points in the NFL this season, the Falcons rank just 11th in the league for third down conversion percentage. Conversely, the Patriots sit just outside the top 5 for defensive third down percentage, allowing first downs on only 36.9% of third down plays this season. If Matt Patricia wants to shut down this fast-paced offense come Sunday he will have to expose their very few weaknesses and struggles on third down are certainly one of them. The caveat here, of course, is that Atlanta’s offense doesn’t find itself in third down situations very often in the first place, but it will up to New England’s defense to make sure that they do in order to get Matt Ryan and Co. off of the field and put the ball back in Tom Brady’s hands.

The third down battle will most likely be decided by the most interesting matchup of the Super Bowl: Atlanta’s receivers versus New England’s defensive backs. I’ll try to keep this short, but I’m an issuing an impending tangent warning just in case because this subject gets me so damn hyped every time I think about it. Unless this year’s Super Bowl will be the first NFL game you ever watch, then you’ve heard of Julio Jones and Malcolm Butler. There has been a lot of media buzz surrounding a tweet by Malcolm Butler expressing a desire to cover Jones while Butler was still in college and watching Julio dominate some poor defensive back on a Sunday evening. That whole “Super Bowl Hero vs Record Breaking Receiver” clash will be exciting and all, but it’s actually the lesser known pieces in this puzzle that I had in mind.

When Julio Jones was forced to miss sit out due to injury several times this season, it seemed as though Atlanta produced some new receiver you’d never heard of to catch 10 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown on a weekly basis. This is a testament to the depth of this Falcons offense, but what gets me jacked faster than chugging a Monster drink is the fact that Atlanta ran into the one defense with the depth in the secondary to match. Does the name Taylor Gabriel mean anything to you? How about Eric Rowe? Still nothing, huh? Well you’ll be pleased to know that what transpires between these two could decide who is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday and who is slinking away through the confetti rain. Gabriel, ranking as anywhere from Matt Ryan’s third to fifth receiving option depending on the play, caught 35 passes for 579 yards and 6 touchdowns this season. Most defenses don’t have the depth to double or triple cover Julio Jones and still have a solid DB to spare for the fourth receiver. Fortunately for the Patriots most defenses aren’t built by Bill Belicheck. This is going to come as a total surprise, but Rowe is another player that New England traded for earlier this season, this time from Philadelphia. Rowe struggled early on to learn the playbook and find his place in the Patriots defense, but now he spends his days making sure that no opposing receiver is forgotten and given the space to burn New England on a crucial third down. The Patriots will be depending on yet another short-tenured veteran to come up big on Super Sunday.

ADVANTAGE: Patriots

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X-Factor

Falcons: Keanu Neal. Remember that name. Neal was Atlanta’s first-round pick out of Florida (17 overall) in the 2016 draft and has come on strong in his rookie season. With 106 tackles and 5 forced fumbles Neal has been a centerpiece of a much improved Falcons defense that used to be known for giving up yards and touchdowns like it was Christmas Eve and they were hitting the home stretch of their delivery route. Neal, along with fellow rookie from UF Brian Poole, played a starring role in Atlanta’s surprising shutdown performances against the Seahawks and Packers on their way to the Super Bowl.

Neal with face his toughest test of the season when he meets Patriots receiver Chris Hogan. Hogan’s role as primary deep threat has only increased with the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski and season-long defense-torching campaign was capped with a nine reception, 180 yards, 2 touchdowns demolition of Pittsburgh’s secondary in the AFC Championship. Neal, one of if not the fastest safety in the NFL, will be tasked with keeping tabs on Hogan in order to make Tom Brady hesitate before throwing the ball deep downfield. Whereas Dan Quinn’s Seattle defenses started at a great pass rush and then fielded a secondary good enough to capitalize on the mistakes of quarterbacks feeling the pressure, this Atlanta unit depends on defensive backs to stall a QB with solid coverage and give the pass rush time to develop.

Keanu Neal and his three rookie counterparts on Atlanta’s defense, linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, along with the aforementioned Poole have passed every test so far in their first NFL season. This Sunday will be their master’s thesis. New England’s ever-evolving and amorphous offense is the perfect labyrinth for these young warriors to get lost in. where the overall speed of this defense is usually an advantage, one misdirection pursued too heavily could easily turn into a 30+ yard touchdown like the flea flicker that found Chris Hogan in the end zone for a second time against the Steelers. Although these rookies have spent the last 18 weeks looking like anything but, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will use plenty of unorthodox formations and plays that might turn their inexperience into key mistakes.

Patriots: To pinpoint an x-factor for the Patriots is a task in itself. Almost every week a different player is liable to have a huge game – three touchdowns, a pair of turnovers, a pass rushing clinic. That’s also exactly what makes them so hard to beat on any given Sunday. It’s like being surrounded by hungry crocodiles. All of them could attack you, a couple of them could make a move, or all but one could saunter off and leave you for dead. Either way, you’re being eaten by a crocodile. That’s why New England’s x-factor for this game is versatility. The bruising running game of LeGarrette Blount, the open-field abilities of Dion Lewis and James White, the shiftiness of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, the field-stretching speed of Chris Hogan and Michael Floyd, everything the Patriots do well will have to make an appearance in order for Tom Brady to be handed his fifth Lombardi Trophy.

The versatility will also need to be featured on defense in order for the Patriots to be victorious on Sunday. Luckily, Belicheck searches for this very characteristic when adding players to the roster. Strong safety Patrick Chung is a perfect example of an ideal Belicheckian defender. Chung regularly stonewalls rush attempts by playing close to the line of scrimmage and using his speed to get around offensive linemen, but he’s also asked to cover speedy receivers in the deep third of the field on a regular basis. Chung, New England’s likely answer for any involvement from Atlanta’s tight ends on Sunday, will play a large role in the success or failure of Belicheck and coordinator Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme. Chung’s veteran savvy should give him an advantage when facing this young Falcons receiving corps that has speed to burn.

ADVANTAGE: Patriots

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What happens if they win?

There are repercussions that we as fans experience after every Super Bowl. Consequences that are tied to the storylines and scenarios that come to life during those glorious three hours after being built up for weeks prior. Last year we all had to pretend that Peyton Manning hadn’t stopped playing football in 2014 after the Broncos defense pulled Carolina apart piece by piece. The year before, Seattle became an eternal sports-joke when they threw the ball from the 1-yard line as opposed to handing it off to Marshawn Lynch. Almost as crazy as when the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Anyway, let’s walk through what the world will look like when either of these teams claims victory in Houston.

Falcons: There he is, Matt Ryan, standing on the podium next to Falcons owner Arthur Blank and some idiot in a suit. Ryan holds up the Lombardi Trophy and the entire city of Atlanta explodes into joyous celebration. The next day, Migos drops a bonus track from their new album “Culture” simply titled “Champions” that immediately climbs to #1 on the country’s charts. It includes the lyric “I’m comin’ for the trophy/these n*ggas can’t stop me/b**ch call me Julio (JULIO!)”. Keanu Neal and Devonta Freeman make a guest appearance on FX’s Atlanta in its second season and Atlanta mascot Freddy the Falcon talks his way into a “Stranger Things” cameo. Every Bojangle’s in Atlanta gives away free biscuits on the Monday following the Super Bowl and a certain semi-semi-professional sportswriter takes a mysteriously convenient personal day from work.

Patriots: Every great sci-fi action movie has a scene where the villain gets his hands on some magical gem or relic that imbues him with great power and the sky suddenly becomes dark with swirling clouds and lightning. You know the one. Well, when the aforementioned idiot in a suit is forced to hand Tom Brady his fifth Lombardi trophy that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The sky will become dark and Patriots haters all over the country will cry out in anguish as they realize that they’ve been sitting around all season hoping for New England’s downfall only to be forced to return to their own sad realities where their favorite team missed the playoffs and the light bill is still due. Fox will be forced to cut their audio feed from the podium ceremony when Patriots fans inevitably start the “F*ck you Goodell!” chants while New England residents drink every ounce of Sam Adams beer in a 10-state radius. Tom Brady solidifies his place as the greatest quarterback of all time and Patriots fans stop arguing with other fans altogether, only holding up five fingers as they smugly ignore any loser that tries to badmouth their team. I still take that personal day, though.

ADVANTAGE: Falcons. We always need more Migos.

Final Prediction

I would like to take this time to point out that at the beginning of the playoffs we here at 4th and Gyas predicted the Patriots and Falcons would be facing off in the Super Bowl. Just in case you forgot. If you’d like to read it again it’s right where you left it in the 4th and Gyas Playoff Preview. One more time I’m just pointing out that we were right and all of you who thought the Packers or the Steelers might actually have what it takes to knock off these two juggernauts. I mean, some you guys even thought the Cowboys would make it to the Super Bowl. So just take a moment and reflect on how much more I know about football than you. Let’s proceed.

There hasn’t been a low-scoring Super Bowl in five years and I don’t think the Patriots and Falcons are looking to return to that trend. These teams will come out firing and it may take their respective defenses a while to settle into the game plan. You should expect points early on in this game. The key for the Patriots will be their ability to create turnovers on defense. The turnover battle is always essential, but with an offense as potent as Atlanta’s it will be paramount for New England to take the ball away at least once before halftime. The Falcons and their improved offensive line will need to keep the Patriots pass rush at bay and allow Matt Ryan time to exploit his second and third options should Julio Jones be unavailable. Ultimately I think the Atlanta defense will be at a disadvantage – their speed-filled zone heavy defense is very similar to Pittsburgh, and you can ask Mike Tomlin how much success they had in stopping Brady. The Super Bowl always blesses us with a few amazing and completely unpredictable moments so I won’t try and get too specific, but I see the experience of the Patriots guiding them through to a fifth Lombardi.

Patriots 31, Falcons 27

#MattVP and Other Truths in a Mostly Objective Conference Championship Preview

We had to wait a week and a half for it, but the fun is finally back in the playoffs. This past weekend delivered big hits, Andy Reid clock management clock mishaps, and an instant classic at JerryWorld. I was minutes away from going 4-0 in my predictions for the Divisional Round until the Chiefs and Cowboys were undone by key mistakes. It was business as usual for the Patriots once they shook out some playoff butterflies against the Texans and Atlanta proved that they’re no gimmick by pounding Seattle, both offensively and defensively. Before we preview the shootout-promising conference championship matchups, let’s take a look at what spelled defeat for the teams who saw their seasons end during the Divisional Round.

  • Falcons vs Seahawks: I expected Atlanta to score about 40 points, but what really impressed me about the Falcon’s 36-20 win over the Seahawks was the effort of their young defense, highlighted by rookie safety Brian Poole’s crushing hit on Russell Wilson. In the end there wasn’t one moment or matchup that you could isolate from this game and hold up as the key to victory for Atlanta. Seattle simply could not find a way to put out all of the fires that the Falcons were lighting simultaneously on offense, and they seemed to be caught off guard by Atlanta’s overwhelming pass rush.
  • Patriots vs Texans: Nobody in their right mind outside the Republic of Texas thought the Texans had a chance to unseat the Patriots on Saturday night. It seemed as though it might be closer than expected when the Patriots made some uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half, but in reality the result was never in question. A weak secondary and inability to contain New England’s downfield passing betrayed a stellar effort from Jadeveon Clowney and the Houston pass rush. They key moment that meant doom for this Texans team was two weeks ago when they beat the Raiders on Wild Card Weekend. Find yourself a quarterback, Houston.
  • Cowboys vs Packers: It may need some time to breathe, but Sunday’s matchup in Dallas was one of the greatest playoff games I’ve ever seen. It seemed like the pressure of the playoffs had gotten to Dallas’s young stars during the bye week as they found themselves in 21-3 hole. It was then up to Dak, Zeke, and some old guy named Dez to take over the game and bring Dallas’s Super Bowl dream back to life, and boy did they ever. Their determined effort only made Green Bay’s game-winning touchdown as time expired that much more excruciating for Dallas fans. After battling with the Packers for four quarters, the Cowboys found themselves with the ball on their own 25-yard line, down 31-28 with 1:33 left in the game. Dak Prescott immediately found Terrance Williams in the middle of the field for 24 yards. Right after, Prescott hit Jason Witten for 11 yards and another first down as Dallas drove towards the end zone. Then, inexplicably, with 50 seconds left and a timeout to burn with a chance to take the lead, Prescott spiked the ball on Green Bay’s 40-yard line. On 2nd and 10 Cole Beasley gained seven yards, but Prescott’s third down pass was batted down at the line forcing Dallas to tie the game with a field goal. The spike wasted a down that Dallas certainly could have used and wasn’t necessary by any means. If they elect to throw and the pass falls incomplete, the clock would stop anyway. Plus, you’re on your opponent’s 40 with just under a minute left and all of the momentum in your favor. Isn’t that an ideal situation? If you want to stop the clock and play for the tie I would imagine the best time for that is after you’ve already tried to score. Subsequently, Rodgers drove the Packers down the field for a game-winning field goal. In a season when it seemed that Jason Garret had exorcised his well-documented clock management demons, they reared their ugly heads once more at the worst possible moment for Dallas and its hopes of winning the Super Bowl.
  • Chiefs vs Steelers: Late in the fourth quarter of this game Alex Smith led the Chiefs on a 7-minute drive, attempting to close the 8 point gap that separated the Chiefs and the Steelers. Kansas City would score a touchdown, a 1-yard rush by Spencer Ware that put them in position to tie the game with a successful 2-point conversion. The conversion was successful, but a holding penalty was called on KC lineman Eric Fisher which meant the Chiefs would have to try again from the 12-yard line instead of Pittsburgh’s 2. They were unsuccessful on the second attempt and the Steelers were able to gain a first down and then run the clock out for a victory. Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce was quoted after the game saying the ref (who called the holding penalty) “shouldn’t even be allowed to work at f***** Foot Locker”. I found this a bit ironic because Kelce is actually my key factor for Kansas City’s loss. Kelce has been the centerpiece of Kansas City’s offense all season, eclipsing 100 receiving yards six times this season and five times in the last eight weeks of the season. On Sunday Kelce had 5 catches for 77 yards, dropping several key passes downfield when the Chiefs needed him most. Paired with Alex Smith’s inability to get the ball to Tyreek Hill on the many, many times he was wide open 30 or 40 yards down the field it was the Chiefs’ offense that sealed their fate. The defense, which held Pittsburgh’s vaunted offense without a touchdown, did more than their share.

Does anybody else feel like these recaps are getting longer every week? Oh, well. No matter the circumstances, our conference championship matchups have been set and Sunday is set to be a whole lot of fun. We’ve been blessed with four of the NFL’s best quarterbacks making it through to the Conference Championships — two of which have been featured in eight Super Bowls since 2001. Over in the NFC we’ll get a battle between Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan who led the NFL in touchdowns this season so, yeah, you could say it’s a good weekend for football. I’ll apologize in advance for gushing over these two matchups 1,000 words past my welcome; they really are a football fan’s dream come true. Home teams in CAPS)

FALCONS vs Packers, Jan 22, 12:05pm PST

Like their Divisional Round matchup with Seattle, Atlanta will be facing a team this weekend that they saw earlier this season in a game that was decided by less than three points. The first edition of Packers vs Falcons was an instant classic that lived up to the hype surrounding its two star quarterbacks. Rodgers and Ryan threw a combined 7 touchdowns with no interceptions as Atlanta pulled of a 33-32 win.

Of course, Sunday’s NFC Championship won’t quite be a pure re-run – Atlanta’s leading rusher in that October matchup was none other than All-Pro Terron Ward, who rushed 6 times for 46 yards. Just in case the sarcasm isn’t translating, Ward isn’t an All-Pro the same way I’m not being considered for Trump’s cabinet: it was never even a thought in the conversation. Last week Atlanta’s backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 102 yards and a touchdown against Seattle’s stout front seven, adding another 102 yards and touchdown through the air. Freeman and Coleman are the centerpiece of Atlanta’s offense and should be the focal point of Green Bay’s defensive game plan. If Ryan has early success finding receivers down the field and linebackers have to drop into coverage it will open running lanes for Freeman and Coleman, who are liable to break out for a 40-yard romp at any time. Their excellent receiving abilities out of the backfield make the Atlanta offense difficult to stop; even when nobody is open in the secondary Ryan can rely on check downs to Freeman and Coleman to convert on third down and keep the chains moving.

Conversely, Green Bay got just 71 rushing yards out of its main backfield options Ty Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski. Montgomery added two rushing touchdowns, but both were from less than five yards out of the endzone. The offensive workload for the Pack falls squarely on the shoulders of one Aaron Rodgers. That’s not exactly a bad thing seeing as how Rodgers has accounted for 22 of the Packers’ 32 touchdowns since they began “running the table” after a troublesome 4-6 start. Rodgers is on a historic run that had led Green Bay right to the doorstep of Super Bowl 51, but he’ll need help if they’re going to beat the Falcons on Sunday. Rodger’s favorite receiver, Jordy Nelson, may be unavailable as he continues recovering from a rib injury sustained in Green Bay’s Wild Card win over the Giants. Because that wasn’t enough of a blow, breakout receiver Devante Adams may also be unable to participate on Sunday in addition to rookie Geronimo Allison who came up 3 catches for 46 yards last week against Dallas.

Rodgers may be known for maximizing whatever talent he has around him, regardless of injury or absence of stars, but the offense they’ll be trying to keep up with on Sunday isn’t just any group of guys. The Falcons scored 30+ points eleven times in the regular season and poured on 36 against Seattle last week. Stopping this Atlanta juggernaut becomes an even taller task when you consider that Green Bay will most likely be without star defensive back Morgan Burnett again, leaving LaDarius Gunter to be torched play after play by Julio Jones. Gunter shadowed Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant last week and all Bryant did was catch 9 passes for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns, which makes it even more puzzling that Dallas spiked the ball on that last drive instead of throwing the ball, but hey, I’m not an NFL coach. Green Bay’s biggest defensive weakness is definitely the secondary, especially deep down the field, so Matt Ryan and his speedy receivers that love to go deep early and often aren’t exactly an ideal matchup.

Luckily for Green Bay, Atlanta’s defense isn’t exactly the 2012 Seahawks, either. Atlanta has beaten teams this year by scoring a ludicrous amount of points every week and hoping the defense will come up with a key sack or a few turnovers along the way. Although they may not be what anyone would call a “shut down” defense, this unit has solidified over the season and last week’s win over the Seahawks was nothing short of a declaration. We already knew about Vic Beasley, Atlanta’s defensive end/whatever the hell he wants, who led the NFL in sacks for the regular season and has the ability disrupt even the most carefully crafted play. Last Saturday it was Atlanta’s secondary that introduced themselves to America as they limited Russell Wilson and generally bullied Seattle all over the field. Led by young defensive backs Keanu Neal, Jr and Brian Poole, both former Florida Gators, this Falcons defense is playing with the attitude it will need to stop Rodgers later today. Both of these quarterbacks are having seasons for the ages, but ultimately it will come down to who gets the most help from their defense. I see Atlanta sending the Georgia Dome off into the sunset with one last win before they move next door into what I can only assume from pictures is Megatron’s carcass. Just for good measure, I’m officially backing Matt Ryan as MVP. Love you, Nich. #MattVP Atlanta 45, Green Bay 36

New England Patriots vs Pittsburgh Steelers, Jan 22, 3:40pm PST

Alright folks, buckle up those seatbelts. I’ve been writing this thing since Wednesday, but predictably and perfectly on #brand for me, its 9 am on Sunday and I’m scrambling to get it done. This actually works out for you better than you might realize at first because it means I don’t have time to elaborate on the greatness that is the New England Patriots and their indomitable empire. The sacrifices I make for you people. Let’s get to it, shall we?

The Patriots defense has been criticized all year for not having to face good quarterbacks, but the real key to their success has been their ability to stop opposing running backs. The Patriots have not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, heck, they haven’t even allowed a 90-yard rusher and whether or not they can limit Steelers back Le’Veon Bell will have a large impact on this year’s AFC Championship. When the Patriots and Steelers met earlier this season Bell only managed 81 yards on 21 carries and was unable to score any touchdowns. The quarterback in that game, Landry Jones, didn’t have the arm to test the Patriots deep and open running lanes for Bell to exploit. You can bet your bottom dollar (if you even know what that means, cause I’m still waiting for Annie to explain) that Ben Roeslithberger come out of the gate looking for receivers in the deep third of the field to put pressure on New England’s secondary and stop them from loading the box against Bell. Keep your eye on the matchup of Bell vs Patriots middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower who will be tasked with stopping Bell from breaking off long runs through the gut of New England’s defense.

New England will also have to account for Antonio Brown at all times. Brown caught 6 passes for 108 yards last time he saw this Patriots secondary and he’s probably an even bigger outing on his mind today. Brown will be followed by cornerback Malcolm Butler wherever he might line up on the field. You know, like that pizza commercial, but with none of the laughing and smiling. Butler is the undisputed leader of the New England secondary and will try to take Brown out of the game while Logan Ryan patrols whichever side of the field Brown happens to vacate. Safety Patrick Chung will most likely shadow tight end Jesse James who racked up the bulk of his 83 receiving yards against Kansas City on third down when Pittsburgh needed to keep drives going. That will leave free-safety Devin McCourty to stop Roeslithberger from attacking downfield with speedster Eli Rogers. It will be up to auxiliary linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts to ensure that Bell doesn’t turn a five yard gain into a 40-yard romp should he slip past Hightower. The centerpiece of the whole attack, Big Ben Roeslithberger, will be seeing a lot of veteran linebacker-turned-defensive end Rob Ninkovich who will lead New England’s outside pass rush and try to collapse the pocket to keep pressure on the quarterback.

While stopping Roeslithberger and this Steelers offense will be no walk in the park, Pittsburgh’s defense will face the unfortunate task of outsmarting Tom Brady and the Bunch (get it? come on, it’s 9:30. I’m doing my best). This Steelers defense slogged through the regular season without a real identity as a unit, but they and head coach Mike Tomlin have found Nirvana in the blitz, just as it was written by the ancients. The problem for Pittsburgh is that Tom Brady won’t be running naked bootlegs and double reverse flea-flickers on 3rd and 15. Brady is the best quarterback in the league against the blitz thanks to his impeccable pocket presence and ability to deliver in just a couple of seconds. Brady can diagnose a blitz at the line of scrimmage better than almost anyone and once he does, he knows exactly what to do with the ball. Tomlin’s favorite chess pieces, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree, will have to penetrate the center of New England’s offensive line if they want to rattle Brady. If Brady has space to step up in the pocket and avoid the outside pass rush, Pittsburgh will be frustrated all afternoon while he checks down to backs Dion Lewis and James White or exposes a poor matchup and finds Chris Hogan or Julian Edelman deep downfield.

Ultimately, if Pittsburgh wants to beat this Patriots team that is playing in its sixth-straight AFC Championship, they will have to take a note from Houston’s first-half success and go after Brady. Should the 4-time Super Bowl winner remain untouched and be allowed time to pick apart the young Steelers secondary they will have no chance of keeping Brady from his seventh Super Bowl appearance. The difference in this heavy-weight matchup will be league leader in rushing touchdowns LeGarrette Blount. If Blount can pound the Steelers defense consistently and have success on the ground they will be forced to commit linebackers to stopping him and take some of the bite out of their blitz. Pittsburgh will also have to find an answer for Patriots receiver Julian Edelman who set franchise records for postseason catches and yards in a game last week against Houston’s #1 ranked defense. This New England offense is like a horde of zombies. Sure, you can kill a few and hold them off at first, but by the end of the movie you’re huddled in some freezer saying your goodbyes while they bust down the door. If New England can score consistently and keep the pressure on Roeslithberger they can lead him right into a costly mistake or two down the field. Patriots 38, Steelers 27

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m beyond jacked up for what could be the best Conference Championship weekend we’ve seen in years. Remember last season when Carolina used up all of their points one week too early and murdered the Cardinals? Oh no, today we’re talkin’ meaningful fourth quarters, genuine dislike between players, and maybe even overtime! Either way I’m just excited that the Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are going to throw 100 touchdowns to keep my mind off of the fact that there are only three games left in the NFL season. No matter who you’re rooting for today just remember: the Patriots are better than your team and there’s always next year. To the couches!

 

Parents, Have You Talked to Your Kids about Tyreek Hill? It’s Our Divisional Round Preview

Well folks, Wild Card Weekend has come and gone and left us with little to discuss. One of the NFL’s most lopsided wild card rounds in history saw the home teams outscore the visitors 121-45. Yeah, it was really that bad. In an effort to preserve journalistic integrity and swim upstream, if you will, I predicted that a few road teams would find victory by exploiting their opponents’ few weaknesses. That worked out for about two quarters or so, and then reality kicked in and the visiting challengers got thrashed like Loki trying to fight the Hulk.  Before we move on to the exciting matches in store for us this weekend, let’s look at what worked and (mostly) didn’t work last week.

  • Texans vs Raiders: Connor Cook and the Raiders arrived in Houston as underdogs due to Derek Carr’s absence. Jack Del Rio, lauded all season for taking risks in big moments, clammed up like an eighth grader shoved on-stage at the winter talent show. Every Raiders drive in the first three quarters went: run, run, short pass, punt. Not a very inspiring display. In the fourth quarter it seemed like Del Rio finally realized that there was no “next week” to hold out for when he allowed Cook to start throwing down the field. The Raiders, of course, drove down the field and scored a touchdown almost immediately, leaving their fans to wonder if victory was possible had Del Rio showed confidence in Cook from the start.
  • Seahawks vs Lions: This was the one game of the weekend that I predicted correctly, so kudos to me. Despite Zach Zenner’s best efforts the Detroit run game couldn’t challenge Seattle’s defense enough to ease the pass rush off of Matt Stafford. Tight coverage in the secondary and some generous calls in Seattle’s direction (ya know, like the touchdown where the refs ignored a blatant facemask call because the catch just looked so darn cool!) helped the Hawks pull away from Detroit and never look back.
  • Steelers vs Dolphins: For a little while there I was getting excited that I might have correctly called a big upset. Just before halftime, with the score at 14-6, the Dolphins intercepted a deflected pass and began driving for a score. If they were able to go into halftime with a deficit of only one point knowing they would start the third quarter with the ball, I had no doubt that Miami could win. Instead, the Dolphins offensive line forgot how to block and allowed a free rusher to sack Matt Moore, causing a fumble. On the first possession of the second half, Miami again threatened to score before — you guessed it — fumbling once more. After an interception on their next possession, the game was officially over.
  • Packers vs Giants: As I had predicted, the Giants defense was pitching a shutout in the first half of the contest. Green Bay’s run game was non-existent and the receivers couldn’t find any separation in the secondary. With the Giants up 6-0 after some dropped would-be-touchdowns by Odell and the Yacht Boyz, Aaron Rodgers finally got comfortable and produced a touchdown out of thin air, as Rodgers is known to do on occasion. Still, 7-6, not bad at all going into halftime. Not bad until New *Jersey allowed Rodgers to complete a 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Randall Cobb on the last play of the second quarter. At this point defenses have to be dedicating at least a little time to preparing for the hail mary play when facing the Packers, right? We’ve all seen this movie. But still, 14-6 wasn’t a death sentence based on how the Giants defense was playing. No, the play that doomed New *Jersey was Bobby Rainey fielding a kick-off that was heading out of bounds instead of letting it go to put the Giants on the 40 YARD LINE. Instead, they started the following drive on the 3 yard line. The Giants never climbed back into the game and we were gifted with one last Eli-face of the season.

After the generally boring slew of blowouts we were all witness to last weekend, I am especially excited about the divisional matchups. Because I mean, have you ever seen someone get into a fight and just kind of give up after taking a couple of punches to the face? It’s like in the movies when some nerdy…what’s that? You said you saw the Rousey-Nunes fight? Oh, well then you know exactly what I’m talking about! Anyway, there’s a lot to look forward to in the Divisional Round. Each game is a rematch from the regular season, but every team will probably look drastically different from the first time they and their opponents met. Atlanta boasts a better run game than the one Seattle saw, Aaron Rodgers wasn’t absolutely scorching hot when Dak and his team visited Lambeau, Chiefs playmaker Tyreek Hill has emerged in a major way since they took a sound beating from Pittsburgh, and the Patriots will be starting Tom Brady at quarterback as opposed to Jacoby Brissett with an injured thumb so…yeah good luck, Houston. To the breakdowns! (Home teams in CAPS)

FALCONS vs Seahawks, Jan 14, 1:35pm PST

When these two teams met in October, Seattle pulled off the 26-24 victory on the strength of a pass interference no-call in the waning moments of the game as Atlanta was driving for a touchdown. That’s all behind us though and this Falcons team follows a very different structure than it did that day in the Georgia Dome. Atlanta’s running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman rushed for only 50 total yards and 0 touchdowns in that first meeting. Facing a 17-3 deficit at halftime, the Falcons had to climb on Matt Ryan’s back as he exploded for a 21-point outburst in the third quarter. On Saturday the Falcons will seek to establish the ground attack early to alleviate some of the pressure on Ryan. Even without Earl Thomas patrolling the secondary, no team wants to depend on throwing the ball 50 times against Seattle’s defense. As great as Russell Wilson is, the Seahawks will also be looking for the run game to lead their offensive attack. In the first matchup, Christine Michael the Seahawk-turned-Packer rushed for 64 yards and two touchdowns. Last week against Detroit a now-healthy Thomas Rawls broke Seattle’s postseason rushing record with 161 yards and a touchdown for good measure. Seattle’s receivers looked superhuman against a soft and injured Lions defense, but the Hawks will need to find ways to stretch the field without speed-demon Tyler Lockett.

Defensively, Seattle will call on linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner to limit Atlanta’s dynamic backfield duo. Freeman and Coleman both have the ability to get involved in the passing game, so Wright’s range will be tested while Wagner tries to secure the middle of the field. Richard Sherman and Co. will also need to find an answer for Julio Jones, who caught 7 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown last time the two met. Without Thomas covering his back Sherman will likely find himself in plenty of one-on-one coverages against Jones while Deshaun Shead deals with the likes of Taylor Gabriel, Atlanta’s breakout receiver who thrived in Julio’s regular season absence. Russell Wilson will have no choice but to spend most of his day trying to identify pass rusher Vic Beasley, who can line up anywhere along the line and finished the regular season with 15.5 sacks and 6 forced fumbles. If Seattle’s makeshift offensive line can’t protect Wilson they’re about to get very acquainted with Beasley’s ability to take over a game. Ultimately I think Seattle’s shorthanded defense won’t be able to contain Atlanta’s multi-faceted offense in a shootout, although Seahawks pass-rusher Michael Bennett will certainly have his fair share to say about it. Falcons 37, Seahawks 31

PATRIOTS vs Texans, Jan 14, 5:15pm PST

Although this will be Houston’s second time facing New England this season, it will only be their first encounter with Tom Brady. In their earlier matchup, a 27-0 Patriots victory on Thursday Night Football, New England’s starting QB was third-stringer Jacoby Brissett. He threw for a modest 103 yards with no touchdowns while the run game and defense controlled the game. It’s safe to say that the Patriots team they’ll see on Saturday night will be a little different with the return of Brady as well as electric running back Dion Lewis, not to mention the absence of game-changing tight end Rob Gronkowski. Houston won’t be identical either, though, welcoming linebackers and defensive standouts Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing back to the starting lineup after respective bouts with injury.

The return of those aforementioned linebackers makes it less than likely that Patriots back LeGarrette Blount will post another 100+ yard, 2 touchdown game, but you should expect New England to establish the run early in the game. Should they find tough sledding on the ground, the Patriots can attack Houston’s defense seven ways to Sunday with their hydra-like aerial weapons. Where one head is cut off, two grow in its wake. Take away leading receiver Julian Edelman, and all of a sudden Danny Amendola and dash-cam star-turned-Patriot Michael Floyd are working defenders on the sideline. Should Amendola and Floyd have trouble getting open, Brady can attack the seam deep with Chris Hogan. Oh, and don’t forget pass-catching backs James White and Dion Lewis who can run routes out of the backfield like an extra set of receivers. Silly me, I almost forgot to add in Martellus Bennett, New England’s other tight end that can block like a lineman and catch like a wide receiver. Houston safeties Andre Hal and Quintin Demps will certainly have their hands full trying to limit this death-by-a-thousand-cuts offense. Brady won’t even have his favorite rookie target, Malcolm Mitchell, at his disposal on Saturday. Despite Mitchell earning Brady’s trust and contributing four touchdowns this season something tells me the quarterback will be just fine in his NFL-record 32nd postseason game.

The Texans aren’t exactly devoid of talent on offense, either. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who tallied just 4 catches for 56 yards on 8 targets in the last meeting, has the ability to turn any reception into a safety-burning touchdown no matter where he is on the field. Don’t be fooled though, the real key to Houston’s offense is running back Lamar Miller. Miller rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown last week against the Raiders, but will need to find more success in New England if the Texans want to control the clock and keep Brady off of the field. If Houston is going to have a chance at upsetting these Patriots they’ll need the performance of a lifetime from swamp monster/linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney set the tone against Oakland, intercepting Connor Cook’s first pass and giving Houston confidence early on. He’ll need to reach into his bag of tricks once again in order to stop Tom Brady, whose thrown only two (read: 2) interceptions over the entire regular season. I see Houston fighting valiantly, but eventually being swept away by the inexorable tide that is the Patriots’ postseason success. New England hasn’t played in the Wild Card since 2009, and has gone 6-1 in the Divisional Round since 2010. Plus, I didn’t want to say anything, but have you ever seen Brock Osweiler play football? It doesn’t look all that different from me playing football, and I’m a PE teacher with a gut. Patriots 28, Texans 17

COWBOYS vs Packers, Jan 15, 1:40pm PST

When surging rookie QB Dak Prescott led the Cowboys into Lambeau in week 5 it was the perfect marquee matchup to show the country that his success was no fluke. Prescott threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns as the Cowboys went home with a 30-16 victory over the Pack. Not one to be left out of a party, Ezekiel Elliot hung 157 rushing yards on Green Bay’s defense. They looked right at home in one of the NFL’s most historic stadiums. Aaron Rodgers passed for 1 touchdown and 1 interception while receiving a measly 65 yards from then-starting running back Eddie Lacy.

Sunday’s edition of the Packers will look very different from October, starting with the loss of star receiver Jordy Nelson who was injured in the team’s Wild Card victory over the Giants. Rodgers will lean on Randall Cobb and breakout star Devante Adams to fill in the void left by Nelson and his 14 touchdowns. Even without Nelson this Dallas defense is a favorable matchup for Green Bay as it has struggled against the pass all season. Sean Lee and the Cowboys linebackers will make it very hard for late-season signee Christine Michael and converted receiver Ty Montgomery to find any room to run, so Rodgers will have to be at his very best on Sunday. Tight end Jared Cook will be a key factor for Green Bay in this matchup, whether or not he can find space in the middle of the field will dictate how often Rodgers will have to extend plays with his feet in order to find open receivers down the field. The suspension of Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory will make life a little easier for Rodgers, but he will still have to be efficient down the field in order to beat Dallas safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church, who intercepted the Packers signal caller when they saw each other last. Dallas’ defense will also get a boost from the return of Morris Claiborne; the team’s solid cornerback has been out for much of the season.

Julius Peppers and Clay Mathews may have run amok through the Detroit offensive line last week, but they’ll now face the #1 ranked unit in the NFL which will present a completely different set of challenges. Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, and Co. guided the Cowboys run game to an average of 149.8 yards per game, good for second-best in the entire league. Green Bay forced pressure on Eli Manning by holding the Giants run game to just 70 total yards, but don’t expect them to find the same success against Ezekiel Elliot, the NFL’s rushing leader (as a rookie). Dak Prescott is no sitting duck either, rushing for 282 yards and 6 touchdowns of his own this season. If the Dallas duo can assert themselves on the ground and set the tone for the game it will open up plenty of room for Prescott to connect with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and the always-open Cole Beasley in the passing game. Were the game at Lambeau I might think differently, but I feel confident that Dallas’ rookie stars will march on towards rewriting history. Cowboys 33, Packers 28

CHIEFS vs Steelers, Jan 15, 5:20pm PST

Kansas City’s matchup with the Steelers was moved to a later time because of an apparent incoming ice storm which is honestly just completely baffling to me. I was born and raised in San Diego, what the hell is an ice storm? I’ve spent of time in the Midwest during winter-time and never have I encountered an ice storm. The way I see it that’s just next-level commitment from the hosting city to give their team every possible advantage. Arrowhead Stadium has held the league’s record for loudest fans and now they’ve upped their game by somehow controlling the weather and summoning absolutely atrocious conditions in an attempt to slow down Le’Veon Bell and I, for one, respect them for it. People of Kansas City, I tip my cap to you.

When the Chiefs visited Heinz Stadium in October they received a 43-14 drubbing courtesy of a Big Ben masterclass – he threw five touchdowns. Alex Smith added two touchdowns of his own, but not until the fourth quarter when the game was well out of reach. Based on the explosive Pittsburgh offense we saw last week against Miami I wouldn’t say a similar result is impossible, but there are key differences in the Chiefs team that make it very unlikely.

I won’t beat around the bush here, folks, it’s time for us to have the talk. That’s right, we need to sit down together and be honest about Tyreek Hill.  Kansas City’s electrifying swiss army knife did everything under the sun for the team this season. Hill recorded 593 receiving yards, rushed for 267 yards, and added 976 return yards, scoring 9 total touchdowns after coming on strong in the second half of the season. Hill was rewarded for his efforts by being selected to the Pro Bowl and named the return man for the AP’s All-Pro First Team. His ability to score from anywhere on the field on any play makes him a constant threat that defenses have to account for. Oh, and did I mention he runs a 4.2 40 yard dash? The man is an Olypmic sprinter, for goodness sake! And let us not forget about Kansas City’s reality TV star and part-time tight end, Travis Kelce. Kelce has spent the last few years validating all of the people who have compared him to World’s Best Tight End Rob Gronkowski (that’s his full name, don’t blame me). This season Kelce caught 85 passes for 1,125 yards and added 4 touchdowns just for fun. The success that Matt Moore had throwing deep against this Steelers defense, he threw for 289 yards while being sacked five times and committing three turnovers, is a good omen for Alex Smith and his big-play receivers.

Before I hand the Lombardi to the Chiefs before they’ve even taken the field let’s go back to those three turnovers Moore committed last Sunday. Miami couldn’t account for linebacker duo Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree when Pittsburgh brought various blitzes, which happened on just about every other play. Moore’s two fumbles were caused by Shazier and Dupree either barreling unblocked into Miami’s backfield or taking a lineman by surprise so that fellow linebacker Stephon Tuitt could. Shazier and Dupree harassed Moore all day, each recording two quarterback hits and forcing hurried passes many more times. Dupree’s free hit on Moore before halftime nearly knocked the quarterback out of the game (but don’t worry, Moore only missed one play and totally didn’t have a concussion). Shazier also collected an interception by faking a blitz and then hiding in coverage, taking away a pass meant for a receiver streaking towards the sideline.

However, Ben Roeslithberger is no perfect specimen either. His tipped pass-turned-interception in the second quarter almost allowed the Dolphins to climb back within one point of Pittsburgh. Big Ben also had multiple passes either batted down or tipped just out of reach of nearby defenders. He’ll now face the NFL’s leader in turnovers and turnover margin, the opportunistic Chiefs defense that turns tipped passes into touchdowns. Kansas City’s secondary led by All-Pros Eric Berry and Marcus Peters will be a great physical matchup for Antonio Brown and Pittsburgh’s receiving corps. Relentless pass rusher Tamba Hali will chase Ben out of the pocket whenever he should drop back while stalwart nose tackle Dontari Poe will attempt to cancel Le’Veon Bell’s regularly scheduled magic show. This should be a great contest between two evenly-matched teams, but in the end I think Roeslithberger will make a critical mistake that Pittsburgh can’t afford. Chiefs 31, Steelers 24

Wow, I got a little carried with that last game, didn’t I? What can I say, I get to talking about good defense and it just makes me all hot and bothered. Next thing you know its 300 words later and…here we are. Anyway, I hope you feel a little more informed after reading this article, and if you don’t, feel free to let me know very loudly @4thandGyas on Twitter. Now get out there and watch some football!

Breaking News: The Chargers are Headed for L.A. and Dean Spanos is a Garbage Human

There are certain events that will happen in a lifetime that truly feel impossible, even as you witness them. As I’m sure the people of Cleveland and Baltimore can tell you, one of those events is the loss of an NFL franchise. Driving to work this morning I couldn’t escape the outpouring of despair and disbelief by Chargers fans on seemingly every radio station. It was still hard to digest even as I arrived at my office, but the look on my co-worker Chuy’s face said it all. He recently added two twins to his family of four and in his own words, “knowing I’ll never be able to take my son to a Chargers game is what hurts the most. That’s what really gets me”.

For those of you who may not know by now, Owner and Chairman of the San Diego Chargers, Dean Spanos, announced this morning, January 12th 2017 that the team is officially moving and become the LA Chargers. He did this with a letter written to the fans that have supported his franchise for the past 55 years. A letter. On the internet. Not a press conference where he stood up like a man and faced the city he was screwing over, no, he “bolted” in the middle of the night and sent a letter to explain himself. Like some sort of…what’s word I’m looking for…like some sort of COWARD. Unfortunately, fans weren’t even taken by surprise because the Spanos family has never shown any interest in the city besides how much money they could make off of it. Let’s do a quick recap.

The team first mentioned a legitimate possibility of a move in 2015 when the Rams announced that they would be heading back to their LA roots. That was another billionaire, Stan Kroenke, betraying a fan base that had been undeservedly loyal to his second-rate franchise for years and years. Anyway, once the Rams had a stadium plan in place, Spanos made it known that the Chargers could be shacking up with the Rams in Los Angeles on a joint-stadium deal. The hitch was Kroenke’s clear intention to make the Spanos family a tenant rather than a partner. Chargers patriarch Alex Spanos made his fortune through real estate and has never rented anything from anyone, so that deal went right out of the window. It was then proposed that the Chargers and Raiders find some sort of stadium agreement because of Oakland’s precarious stadium situation with the Coliseum, possibly the only stadium in the NFL worse than Qualcomm. Once the Chargers-Raiders stadium plan fell through, the team confirmed they would remain in San Diego for the 2016 season and the guilt trip/blackmail/hostage situation began.

Spanos proceeded to campaign for a new stadium that would be paid for by the city and “hotel taxes on tourists”. If Chargers fans wanted the team to stay they would have to vote yes on Measure C, which would approve Spanos’ downtown waterfront stadium plan. But hold on a second, Forbes listed Alex Spanos’ net worth at $2.4 billion. TWO BILLION DOLLARS. Yet he needed the city to pay for his fancy new stadium because…? Fans were faced the ridiculous decision to vote on a stadium that they would definitely end up paying for at the risk of losing their team should they disapprove. Measure C failed to receive a two-thirds vote and the clock ticking on the team’s decision grew a little louder. All of this of course, ran parallel to the Chargers having their two worst seasons since 2003 as the team blew leads and lost key players to injury week after week.

So here we are, Dean. After threatening for years you’re finally jumping ship because you couldn’t get your greedy hands on taxpayer dollars in a city that’s supported your franchise twice as long as I’ve been alive. When you were division champs every year, the fans were there. When your kicker couldn’t handle the pressure in big moments, the fans were there. When you stopped making the playoffs, it’s been three years since your last trip and a four year hiatus before that, the fans were still there. Tailgating, screaming their heads off, returning every Sunday even as the wins grew fewer and farther between and mediocrity became the norm. The Chargers fans were always there and they always deserved better than what they got from you and your family.

You’ve got your wish now, Dean — a shiny new stadium in a big city with a large sports fan base. Don’t get too excited though, because first you’re headed to Carson and Stubhub Center which the LA Galaxy calls home. You’ll be second fiddle in a stadium that holds just 30,000 people. Based on your 5-11 record this year I’d say you can expect to see maybe half of those seats filled. Once you make it out of purgatory and get the keys to that castle in Inglewood, if Stan even gives you your own key that is, your days of being second-best are long gone. Yes sir, you’ve made it to the big time of the Los Angeles football market! Just one problem, though: the Rams have already been there for a year and at least have a young quarterback that went to Cal to draw interest. The Rams don’t even have as many LA fans as the Raiders who left that city THE YEAR I WAS BORN. Not to mention Josh Rosen and the UCLA Bruins remaining quite a hot ticket, and oh the USC Trojans just won an instant classic in this year’s Rose Bowl. They beat Big Ten champion Penn State in an absolute barn-burner, 52-49. The last time your Chargers scored 50 points was in 1985, Dean. In case you don’t remember, it was only your second year as Chairman of the Board.

That media market feeling cramped yet, Dean? We’re not done. The MLB season overlaps with the NFL for a couple of months, running into September and hosting their postseason in October. LA sure loves their Dodgers, plus they’ve got the Angels and A’s just in case. A seat at Staples Center is LA’s biggest ticket with both the Lakers and Clippers of the NBA playing from October to April. Feeling nervous, Dean? We’re almost there, I promise. The NHL and MLS have both seen steady growth in popularity in recent years, and LA happens to have two teams in each sport – go figure! The Kings (NHL) and Galaxy (MLS) have each won multiple championships in their respective leagues. You haven’t won a championship since 1963 in the AFL, Dean. Even the Ducks and LAFC are easily more interesting than some NFL team that just went 5-11 and oh, by the way LA’s got beaches and scenic hikes and all kinds of celebrities to stalk if you’re into that sort of thing.

So now you’re the 14th or 15th most interesting thing to do in LA and I guess I’m just wondering, who will you turn to when nobody cares about the Chargers, Dean? When the residents of your new city don’t give a damn what are you going to do? Who is going to buy your jerseys and apparel? What will the stadium staff do with all of those leftover churros that nobody’s eating? Those churros get cold and hard so quickly, Dean. I would say that I wish you all the best, but in reality I’m looking forward to watching this venture crash and burn. You could have at least done San Diego of leaving the team’s colors and history behind so that the Chargers could one day play in front of their true fans again. But of course you couldn’t even throw them that bone. Congratulations, Dean, you played yourself. Have fun doing what you do best: having your stadium filled with Raiders fans.