Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

Column: Raiders Backstabbing Fans With Move to Vegas

Monday, the NFL owners approved for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas.  The move will take effect once a stadium is built in Sin City, with an earliest realistic ETA of 2020.

By moving, the Raiders franchise is stabbing one of the most vocal and loyal fanbases in sports in the back.

Prior to last year’s AFC playoff appearance, the Raiders franchise had been in a prolonged slump.  After reaching Super Bowl XXXVII–which they lost to Tampa Bay 48-21–the team did not have another winning season until last year’s 12-4 campaign.  While that season ended in a disappointing playoff loss to Houston aided by several key late-season injuries, the future is very bright for coach Jack Del Rio’s team.

Now, as the franchise’s boisterous and devoted fans finally have a solid on-field product to watch, the Raiders executives are abandoning their supporters who have stayed with them through so many rough seasons.

Sure, the Raiders have actually consistently ranked in the bottom half in attendance over the last few years.  But every franchise would suffer at the box office if they were mired in a decade-plus of losing–and few other franchises have the culture and tradition of the Raiders, which they have enjoyed in good seasons and bad.  As the team’s fortunes improved in 2016, attendance did as well.

In addition to on-field struggles, the Raiders have one of the smaller stadiums in the NFL–the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum has a capacity of 63,132.  The Raiders share a market with the San Francisco 49ers, who play across the bay at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara; the Bay Area is by far the smallest two-team market in the NFL (behind New York and Los Angeles).

Combining all factors, the Raiders low statistical attendance makes sense.  However, the stats can’t show the atmosphere created in Oakland, especially in big games (even though there haven’t been many of them there in recent years).

Even as these fans are the ones hurt by the move, they are not actually the reason for it.

It’s no secret that for the team to stay in Oakland long-term, a stadium was necessary.  The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is shared with MLB’s Oakland Athletics and is, quite frankly, seen by many as a dump.

The City of Oakland has dragged its feet for years, but now has a stadium proposal which is realistic and feasible (but expensive).  A stadium plan approved by both the city of Oakland and Alameda County would cost the city $200 million, an investment group led by Raider legend Ronnie Lott $400 million, the Raiders franchise $500 million and the NFL $300 million (the league committed this money to a potential stadium proposal when it turned down the Raiders’ application to relocate to Los Angeles in favor of the Rams and Chargers moving there).

If a plan exists for the Raiders to remain in place, and especially in a place where all their fans and tradition are already established, then why are they so eager to move to Las Vegas and abandon their fans in northern California?

Sure, the NFL is a business, and there is a potential for tons of revenue in a previously untapped market that is also one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S.  But that being said, I’m not completely sold that the move will pay off in the long run.

Las Vegas is certainly a growing market.  Pro sports have stayed away in the past because of the connection the city has with sports gambling, but all four of the major North American pro sports leagues have softened their stance in recent years.  The city acquired an expansion franchise in the NHL that will begin play this fall, and now has convinced the Raiders to move from Oakland.

The city, theoretically, has a large enough population to support an NFL franchise, since it is as large or larger than several existing NFL cities.  But while cities like Green Bay and Buffalo both have well-supported franchises, other cities similar in size to Las Vegas have struggled with fan support; partially for this reason, St. Louis lost their franchise when the Rams moved to Los Angeles last year.

That said, Las Vegas is unlike any other city in America.  In the self-billed “Entertainment Capital of the World,” tourism is the biggest part of the economy.  Sure, the residents of the Las Vegas area would make some permanent fans, but the NFL is surely counting on tourism to provide additional filled seats in the Las Vegas stadium, which will be located just off The Strip.

This is an experiment, as no other NFL franchise will be so reliant on tourists being interested in its games, and one which may work–or may not.  Sure, fans will show up en masse at first, but once the novelty of a Las Vegas team wears off, it’s impossible to know if the visitors will keep heading to the stadium.

It’s telling that the NFL owners, who typically have little tolerance for unnecessary distractions, are moving a team to a city full of them.

As for the immediate future, while the Raiders wait for their Las Vegas home to be built, the Raiders will continue playing at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  Their lease there runs through the 2017 season, with an option for 2018.

The earliest the Las Vegas stadium can be finished is likely 2020, meaning the Raiders would have to find a temporary home for that season, either in the Bay Area (more likely) or the Las Vegas area.  Conventional wisdom would say to play as few lame duck seasons in the Bay Area as possible, but there is not currently an attractive stadium option in Las Vegas to even use temporarily:  UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium has a maximum capacity of 40,000.

The Bay Area has three more likely options for a temporary home in 2019:  Levi’s Stadium (capacity 68,500), which they would share with the 49ers, Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto (cap. 50,000) or California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley (cap. 63,000).  Levi’s Stadium just opened in 2014, while California Memorial Stadium was renovated from 2010-12.

The move to Las Vegas is not the first time the Raiders have forsaken their long-standing fans in Oakland for a move to one of America’s centers of entertainment.  After playing in Oakland from 1960-81, the Raiders moved to Los Angeles in 1982, playing in the City of Angels for 13 seasons before moving back to Oakland after 1994.

Now, history is repeating itself as the Raiders move to Las Vegas.  But this time, even if they return to Oakland in another decade as they did before, the forsaken fans may not.

Column: The NFL Overtime Rule Needs Changing

For years, fans, players, and the media have all wondered when we could see a Super Bowl end in overtime.

Finally, in the game’s 51st edition, it happened.  Then, after just 3:58 elapsed on the game clock, it was over, without the Atlanta Falcons even possessing the football.

The New England Patriots overcame a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to score a game-tying touchdown and conversion with :57 left in regulation, leading to the historic extra period, played under the NFL’s overtime rules.

Those rules gave the Patriots an unfair advantage simply because they won the coin toss.  Unlike college and high school football, in the NFL the team that gets the ball first in overtime can win the game with a touchdown.

The league justifies this by saying both teams are guaranteed to possess the ball unless the first team scores a touchdown by driving all the way down the field after the extra session’s opening kickoff.

And yet, that’s exactly what the Patriots did, going 75 yards in eight plays to score just 3:58 into the overtime period, without the Falcons ever having a possession.

As a result of these rules, the team that wins the coin toss almost always takes the ball, with a few rare exceptions (including, once, the Patriots), because they know their chances to win are enhanced by possessing the ball first.

This doesn’t make sense.  While the rule is better than it used to be–until 2010 the first team to score in any way won, meaning the first team with possession could win with a field goal–it is still preposterous that one team or the other got an advantage in the Super Bowl based on whether a coin landed on heads or tails.

What I would like to see would not be a major overhaul:  the NFL could simply require the team that loses the coin toss to also get a possession.  To use last night’s game as an example, after the Patriots took a lead that would have likely been 35-28 after an extra point, the Falcons would have had a chance to match.  Had they not scored, the game would be over, or if they scored to tie, then the next team to score would win.

While tweeting my discontent with the overtime rule after the game’s conclusion, multiple users replied to me that the Falcons deserved to lose because they led by 25 late in the third quarter and didn’t score over the last quarter and a half.

But that doesn’t change the flaw in the overtime rule.  If the Falcons had won the coin toss and marched down the field and scored, wouldn’t it be right for the Patriots to get a possession after fighting so hard to tie the game and reach overtime?  (That scenario happened to the Packers, last season, as I mentioned here.)

Furthermore, in a hypothetical back-and-forth game that both teams play all 60 minutes at a high level, isn’t it only right that both teams get a possession, instead of one having the ability to win on the first possession because they won a coin toss?

This rule has been a problem for a long time, and I’ve been a critic of it for as long as I’ve been watching pro football.

Now, as football enters its offseason, if the occurrence of one team being robbed of a chance to possess the ball in a historic Super Bowl overtime doesn’t get the league to change the rule, nothing will.

The overtime problem in the NFL has gone on far too long, and now the rule gave one franchise a disadvantage as it tried to win its first Super Bowl title.

It’s long past time for a change.

Column: The Atlanta Sports Curse Remains Alive and Well

Throughout the first three-plus quarters of Super Bowl LI, it appeared the Atlanta Falcons would practically erase the collective stain of Atlanta sports heartbreak with a victory over the mighty New England Patriots to claim the biggest moment in the city’s sporting history short of hosting the Centennial Olympics in 1996.

But after the Falcons fourth-quarter collapse and overtime loss, the curse on Atlanta sports may be stronger than ever.

Cleveland has been the city whose sports were a collective analogy for heartbreak, but now claims the defending NBA champion Cavaliers.  Meanwhile, after an Atlanta team lost a Super Bowl, especially in the way they did, the Big Peach is now the biggest portrayal of the agony of defeat once again–call it Atlanta anguish.

No team has ever led a Super Bowl by 11 or more points and lost.  The Falcons led by 25 before the Patriots’ first touchdown with 2:06 left in the third quarter, and still lost.  The offense was clicking on all cylinders, scoring 28 points on the league’s top-ranked defense in the game’s first 36:29, then failed to scored again.

According to the modern stat of win probability, the Falcons had a 99.6 percent chance to win as late as the 9:00 mark in the fourth, and was still at 85.1 percent at the two-minute warning, before falling to 0.0 moments later once the loss had concluded.

Some will say they did it to themselves, with poor offensive playcalling in the fourth, a key turnover with 8:25 left at their own 25-yard line, and their sudden fourth-quarter inability to stop the Patriots offense.

Others will point to Brady and Patriots, and rightfully so.  They’re the ones who scored two touchdowns and two conversions in the final 5:56, and another touchdown in overtime after winning the coin toss and scoring in just 3:58, giving the Falcons no chance to possess the ball.

But whatever the reason (and it’s really a little of both), the bottomline is that the most heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl history now belongs to Atlanta.  And while none match the magnitude of this super sorrow, the city is no stranger to crushing losses for its teams.

The Braves are 65-75 in the MLB playoffs since moving to Atlanta in 1966, including 11-18 in the World Series, winning only one of their five World Series appearances.  They have won just 12 of their 30 playoff series–and just 9 of 27 when you take out the lone championship run–and are 10-23 in a stretch of eight straight series losses dating back to the 2001 NLCS.

A team that has essentially been a perennial playoff team (the last couple years notwithstanding) hasn’t advanced past the NLDS in 16 years.  The losses have come in unique fashion:  utility infielder Chris Burke’s walkoff in 2005, the “Infield Fly Game” in 2012, Juan Uribe’s go-ahead homer after he couldn’t bunt in 2013.

In the 1990’s run of five National League pennants in nine years, the World Series moments are just as crushing, if not more so:  extra inning losses in Games 6-7 in 1991, including Game 7’s famous scoreless tie through nine innings; an extra-inning loss in the 1992 clincher; Jim Leyritz’s unlikely homer in Game 4 in 1996, a game the Braves had led 6-0 in a series they led 2-0 before losing 4-2.

The Hawks are 94-145 in the NBA playoffs since moving to Atlanta in 1968, winning just 16 of their 48 playoff series.  The team has never reached the NBA Finals, going 1-12 in Eastern Conference Finals games (the one win was in their first season in Atlanta).

The Hawks best chances at championships have come when they’ve run into some all-time players and teams in the playoffs.  For instance, they have been swept the last two seasons (and 2009) by a LeBron James-led Cavaliers team, including the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals as the top seed.

Even when the Hawks had the great Dominique Wilkins, they met Larry Bird’s Celtics (1983, 1986, 1988), Isiah Thomas’s Pistons (1986-87, 1991), and Michael Jordan’s Bulls (1993, and 1997 after Wilkins left), losing each of those series with the exception of a 1986 first-round win over the Pistons.

Similarly, the Falcons are 9-13 in the NFL playoffs after last night’s loss, although their history differs from the Braves and Hawks.  While the postseason losses for the Braves and Hawks have been fairly frequent after solid runs of regular season success (including a 14-year division title streak for the Braves), the Falcons are 341-437-6 all-time (.439), with long periods of futility broken by the occasional playoff berth.  Before a three-year playoff streak from 2010-12, the Falcons had never reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

They did reach the Super Bowl in the 1998 season, losing Super Bowl XXXIII to John Elway’s Broncos, but within two years had the worst record in the league.  Top draft pick Michael Vick electrified the franchise, but Vick failed to reach the Super Bowl, coming closest in a 2004 NFC Championship loss, before being released after his dogfighting conviction.

This year Matt Ryan, who was drafted third overall to replace Vick, and the rest of the Falcons realized their full potential.  It looked like the year the Falcons would bring a championship to Atlanta–and then Tom Brady had other ideas.

Ryan was named NFL MVP on Saturday, and I was surprised to read that he was the first non-baseball MVP in the sports history of this city of Wilkins, Vick, and so many others (the Braves have had four MVPs).  24 hours later, Ryan became the eighth straight MVP to lose the Super Bowl.

Many brush off any talk of about any pro sports curse, saying Atlanta is a college sports town.  While college sports are more predominant in Atlanta than maybe any other major American city, the athletic teams at Georgia (located in Athens with a large fanbase in Atlanta) and Georgia Tech (located downtown) have joined in the curse, as they also had a knack for not performing well in big games.

Atlanta does have one pro sports championship, and it was in my lifetime–I was eight months old when the Braves won the 1995 World Series.  And yet, in the shadow of Sunday’s Falcons collapse, that title doesn’t seem to completely eradicate the Atlanta curse.

For one thing, the one championship doesn’t balance out the losses when the losses are so numerous.  And for another, the 1995 Braves title came against the Cleveland Indians, a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1948 which resides in a city whose collective drought ran from 1954 until just last year, in a series that someone had to win (if you know me, you know I’m glad who it was).

I know, each game and each season are independent of each other, and each sport is definitely exclusive from the others.

But you can’t help but think about a curse after watching one city with just one title get its hearts broken as another celebrates its 37th pro sports championship.

Column: The Patriots Run is the Best Ever

After an unprecedented comeback resulted in the first overtime in Super Bowl history, the New England Patriots stunned the Atlanta Falcons to win Super Bowl LI, 34-28.

The Patriots won the fifth championship in their history after trailing 28-3 late in the third quarter, setting a Super Bowl record for the largest comeback, obliterating the previous largest of 10 points.

Like it or not (and honestly, I don’t), the Bill Belichick-coached, Tom Brady-led New England Patriots are in the midst of the best extended stretch in NFL history, stretching back to their first title together during the 2001 season, 15 years ago in Super Bowl XXXVI.

With Sunday’s victory, Belichick won his fifth championship as a head coach, tying George Halas and Vince Lombardi for the most titles in NFL history.  His fifth Super Bowl victory is the most ever, breaking a tie with Chuck Noll, while his seven Super Bowl appearances is also a record.

Brady, who set Super Bowl records for completions (43), attempts (62) and yards (466), was named Super Bowl MVP for a record fourth time, breaking a tied with Joe Montana.  The former sixth-round draft pick is now the winningest quarterback in Super Bowl history after his fifth title, joining only Hall of Fame DE Charles Haley in the five-time champion club (Haley won two with the 49ers and three with the Cowboys).

The Belichick-Brady era Patriots have had a sustained period of excellence over the last decade and a half, and this run may not be over yet.  Although Brady is 39, he is not slowing down–this season his 28-2 touchdown-interception ratio was the best in NFL history.

The Patriots are 196-60 since 2001 in the regular season and 25-9 in the playoffs, which they have qualified for every season in the span except 2002 and 2008, the latter coming after Brady tore his ACL and missed the entire season.  This remarkable stretch is with a franchise that had never won the Super Bowl when Belichick and Brady came to Foxborough.

A clutch late-game performance by the Patriots is not unique to Super Bowl LI, as the team has had to come through in the fourth quarter in all five of their Super Bowl wins, with Brady engineering a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in each win.  Their ability to come through late is incomprable (even considering two late losses to the Giants in Super Bowls), although they’ve gotten some phenomenal breaks in many of these situations as well (as amazing as Julian Edelman’s catch last night was, you can’t tell me it didn’t have at least a little bit of luck involved).

Yes, there have been missteps.  The Patriots guilt is clear in “Spygate” and “Deflategate”, and there have been other micro-scandals reported over the years.  And yet, even after receiving stiff penalties from the NFL for Spygate and Deflategate, the Patriots are still just as good as they have always been in the Belichick-Brady era.

This is not pleasant for me to write.  I have not liked the Patriots since they made me cry at 8 years old when they beat the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and have continued to dislike their empire-like reign on the NFL through their scandals and Super Bowl titles alike.

But at this point, all I can do is tip my cap, because this franchise, however they have done it, has put together the best sustained run of excellence in NFL history.

Column: The Greatest 64 Days in Sports

It’s Super Bowl Sunday.  You’re reading a sports blog, so I don’t have to tell you how big a deal the Super Bowl is American sports, and American culture at-large.

But Super Bowl Sunday, to me, is more than just one big game on one Sunday in February, but is instead the start of the best nine-week period on the sports calendar.

Over the next 64 days, from today until April 9, all five of the sports I closely follow have a major event that fans anticipate for months, in a stretch of the sports calendar that puts the other 301 days of the year to shame.

Football, of course, crowns its professional champion tonight in Super Bowl LI.  Pro football isn’t necessarily my very favorite sport to watch (in fact, I prefer college football over the NFL), but I do still enjoy it, especially during the playoffs and “The Big Game.”

While I do find the Super Bowl to be somewhat overrated, I appreciate the cultural event it has become beyond just a football game.  Everyone is watching, whether for the commercials, the halftime show, or (like me) to see if the Patriots or Falcons hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the game’s conclusion.  The sheer magnitude of the Super Bowl is unlike anything else in sports; on a cultural level in America, no other sporting event even comes close.

Three weeks from today, NASCAR celebrates its own “Super Bowl Sunday” of sorts with the 59th Daytona 500.  Unlike football (and many other “stick and ball sports”), NASCAR’s biggest event doesn’t end its season, but kicks it off, as the Daytona 500 begins the 36-race marathon that is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

An event that rose to prominence in 1979 with Richard Petty’s dramatic win continues to produce thrilling racing, including last year’s photo finish won by Denny Hamlin.  Some (myself included) are more than skeptical about NASCAR’s new race format, but there is still excitement building for the 500, and it will only continue to build during Daytona Speedweeks, the 10 days of events at the World Center of Racing leading up to the race on February 26.

After Daytona, the calendar will turn to March, a word that is synonymous among sports fans with college basketball.  After the 32 conference tournaments over the first two weekends of March, the field of 68 will be set for the NCAA Tournament on March 12, Selection Sunday, and the tournament begins on March 14.

The next three weeks are a flood of the buzzer-beaters, the upsets, and simply the insane basketball that makes us all adore the NCAA Tournament.  Instead of a one-day event, the tournament spans over three weekends, with the teams that play for the championship playing six games by the time the tournament is over.

The championship game is on April 3, the same day as MLB’s Opening Day.  Fans in every sport have season openers, during which they always possess hope for the upcoming season, but this is especially pronounced at the beginning of baseball season.

Teams and fans alike will be set to go after six weeks of Spring Training, as each team begins the demanding schedule of 162 games in six months.

This season, Opening Day will be prefaced by the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial World Cup-style competition held during Spring Training, established in 2006 and most recently won by the Dominican Republic in 2013.  The United States has, surprisingly, never medaled in the event, but has quite possibly their best roster ever entering this year’s edition.

April 3, the Monday that marks the end of the NCAA Tournament and the beginning of baseball season, is also the beginning of Masters week, with the tournament rounds at The Masters beginning on Thursday, April 6.  The creation of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts is the biggest and most dramatic golf tournament of the year, set in the beautiful backdrop of Augusta National Golf Club, full of Georgia pines and perfectly-groomed azaleas, blossoming as spring sets in.

Golf, the ultimate individual’s game, is the only sport I played in high school, and therefore the one which I most identify with the players.  I’ve dreamed of playing in the Masters–and did so in the backyard many times–and now that I realize that’s probably unrealistic, I dream of driving down Magnolia Lane to cover the “tradition unlike any other” (then again, I’d like to cover all of these events some day).  Golf has four major championships, but among them The Masters stands tall.

The Super Bowl may be tonight, but even once the game is over, the fun will just be getting started.  It kicks off this great 64-day period, the most wonderful time of the sports year.

Fast Five: Reasons The Patriots Will Win Super Bowl LI

Tonight, the New England Patriots will meet the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in Houston.

I’ll be honest:  as someone who has lived one-third of Atlanta sports heartbreak (Braves) and who has never liked the Patriots, I’ll be rooting for the Falcons to win tonight.  But objectively, I think the Patriots will win their fifth Super Bowl.

While there are several stats being around favoring the Patriots that are truthfully irrelavant (the team wearing white jerseys has won 11 of the last 12 Super Bowls, the Patriots are 7-2 with referee Carl Cheffers, the Falcons haven’t won a playoff game outside Atlanta since 2002, etc.), here are five legitimate reasons why the Patriots will hoist the Lombardi Trophy tonight:

5. Trends Favor New England

There are several stats that, while based on games in the past, show overall trends that favor the Patriots.  For instance, the Patriots are 12-0 in the playoffs in the Belichick/Brady era against teams they didn’t face in the regular season (compared to 12-9 in rematch games).

The Patriots, who are tonight’s betting favorite, are 15-3 against the spread this season, compared to underdog Atlanta, who is 12-6.

Sunday is Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s first meeting as a head coach against Bill Belichick; previous coaches making their debut vs. Belichick are 3-22.

The Patriots are 16-0 in games Dion Lewis has played since he signed before the 2015 season, while they are 7-0 since losing star tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season to injury.

4. Experience

An experience factor can sometimes be overblown, but it may have legitimately played a role in last year’s Broncos victory over the Panthers.  The Patriots are clearly the more experienced team, with players on the current roster having appeared in Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLII, XLVI, and XLIX.

Patriots QB Tom Brady has appeared in six previous Super Bowls, while the entire Falcons roster has appeared in five previous Super Bowls combined.

Quinn has actually coached in two of the last three Super Bowls before tonight, as Falcons defensive coordinator in Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX, but this just his 35th game as an NFL head coach, finishing his second season with Atlanta.

3. Defense

Both teams enter tonight’s game with a strong offense, but the Patriots clearly have the stronger defense.

Atlanta’s offense is second in total yards (New England is fourth), and has scored the most points per game (33.8) in the NFL.  Meanwhile, the Patriots defense has allowed the least points in the league, while the Falcons rank 27th of the 32 teams.

This Super Bowl is the seventh between the stingiest defense and the highest-scoring offense–in the previous six, the team with the top defense is 5-1.  Perhaps there really is something to the old adage “defense wins championships.”

While these two teams are the top two in the league in the offensive efficiency metric, the Patriots (7th) defensively outrank the Falcons (22nd) by far.  Some will point to the fact the Patriots have played nine games against seven of the league’s nine worst offenses (which may why their defensive efficiency isn’t even higher), but their defense was very strong two weeks ago, holding the explosive Steelers offense to 17 points in the AFC Championship.

2. Tom Brady

While Falcons QB and NFL MVP Matt Ryan has had a phenomenal season in his own right, throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns and a historically good 7-0 touchdown-interception ratio in the playoffs, many (including me) expect Tom Brady to embrace the moment, as he always seems to do, and have the better game.

Brady threw for 3,554 yards and 28 touchdowns this season, even after missing the first four games due to the “Deflategate” suspension, and his 28-2 touchdown-interception ratio is the best for a single season in NFL history.  He’s done this at the age of 39, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down at an age when many players have already been retired for a few years.

In six previous Super Bowls, Brady has thrown 13 touchdowns against four interceptions, averaging 267 yards per game, including 328 against Seattle (and Dan Quinn’s defense) two years ago.  With a win, Brady would become the second-oldest Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and would be the winningest quarterback in Super Bowl history with five titles.  Brady has three previous Super Bowl MVPs, and a fourth would be a record, breaking a tie with Joe Montana.

1. It’s Not Wise to Bet Against The Belichick-Brady Patriots

Since taking the Patriots head coaching job in 2000, Bill Belichick’s team is 201-71 in the regular season (including a 5-11 debut before he got things turned around), and 24-9 in the playoffs with four Super Bowl titles, with every playoff game coming during Brady’s tenure.  The Patriots have basically ruled the NFL since 2001, and if not for two New York Giants upsets of New England in Super Bowls, they would have six titles in the Belichick/Brady era.

Every Super Bowl the Patriots has played has been close, and in they have shown their ability to win the game in the clutch, especially offensively, on the biggest stage in American sports.

This is no disrespect to the Falcons, although they will probably play that card with most of the national media picking against them; this is simply an acknowledgement of the Patriots incomparable ability with Belichick and Brady to win, plain and simple.

I’ve picked against New England before because I wanted them to lose, and I have learned it is usually a mistake to bet against the Patriots.

 

 

Super Bowl LI
New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, FOX
at Houston, Tex. (NRG Stadium)
Patriots:  16-2, def. Pittsburgh 36-17 in AFC Championship
Falcons:  13-5, def. Green Bay 44-21 in NFC Championship
Betting Favorite:  Patriots by 3

Prediction:  Patriots 31, Falcons 27

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record: 79-54-1
Last Week: 1-1
College Overall Record: 67-48
NFL Game of the Week: 12-6-1

Game of the Week: 10-5
Big Game Guarantee: 3-7
Upset of the Week: 4-6
Closer Than the Experts Think: 4-6
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-3
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 5-5
Group of Five Game of the Week: 7-3
Is This Futbol?: 8-2
Is This Basketball?: 8-2
Toilet Bowl: 6-4
Miscellaneous: 5-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.