Fast Five: Best athletes to retire before 30

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from the game at age 29.

But while Gronkowski’s announcement came as a shock to the sports world, he’s not the first player at his level to retire young.

Several star athletes have retired before the age of 30; here’s a look at the five best.

As a disclaimer, this list does not include athletes who made a comeback after retiring at age 30, or from sports that a competitor retiring in their 20s is common (i.e. gymnastics).

5. Brandon Roy

Brandon Roy was an All-American at Washington before winning NBA Rookie of the Year in 2007 with the Portland Trail Blazers. He averaged 20.2 points and 5.0 assists per game over his first four seasons with Portland, was twice named All-NBA and made three All-Star appearances. Kobe Bryant once called Roy “the hardest player to guard in the Western Conference,” saying the guard’s game had no weaknesses.

Knee injuries, which had bothered Roy since college, caused limitations during the 2010-11 season before Roy announced in the following offseason that he had been diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition and would retire.

Roy attempted a comeback in the 2012-13 season, but played just five games for the Minnesota Timberwolves before re-injuring his right knee and retiring for good at age 28 in 2013. After the high level of play shown in his first four seasons, Roy’s career is one of the great what-ifs in recent basketball history.

4. Rob Gronkowski

“Gronk,” known not just for his incredible play on the field but for the fun he had both on and off the field, retires as arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history.

Gronkowski’s 79 touchdown receptions in just nine seasons are both a Patriots franchise record and the most by any NFL player since he came into the league, and he led the league with 17 receiving touchdowns in 2011, a rare feat for a tight end. He holds the all-time playoff records for a tight end in receptions (81), receiving yards (1,163) and receiving touchdowns (12), helping lead the Patriots to five Super Bowl appearances and three championships during his tenure.

The only thing Gronkowski has struggled with is injuries, as he hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2011, and perhaps that played a role in his decision to retire. He will turn 30 in May.

3. Justine Henin

Despite a short career, Belgian tennis star Justine Henin won seven grand-slam titles and spent 117 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world.

Her seven grand-slam titles came between 2003-07 and included four French Open titles and two U.S. Opens. She reached the final of all four majors in 2006 and is the only player in history to win consecutive French Open titles without losing a set (2006-07).

Henin retired abruptly and immediately as the sitting World No. 1 in May 2008, citing fatigue. She made a comeback in 2010 and reached the Australian Open final, losing in three sets to Serena Williams, but after reaggravating an elbow injury opted to retire again in January 2011 at age 28.

2. Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones was the greatest amateur golfer of all-time — he never turned professional — and had one of the greatest careers in the history of the game, all accomplished in a short timespan.

By modern standards, Jones won seven major championships — four U.S. Opens and three Open Championships. But by the standards of the day, when the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur were considered as majors, he won 13 major championships.

Jones won what was then considered the Grand Slam — the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, the U.S. Amateur and The British Amateur — in 1930, and retired from competitive golf at age 28 following the feat.

After Jones co-designed Augusta National with Alister McKenzie and co-founding The Masters, Jones did play in the first 15 Masters tournaments, but only on an exhibition basis; his appearances helped attract media attention to the event, helping it become what it is today.

1. Jim Brown

Jim Brown is widely considered one of the greatest NFL players of all-time, yet he walked away from the game while he was still in his prime.

In nine seasons, Brown led the league in rushing yards eight times and in rushing touchdowns five times. He was named NFL MVP in 1957, 1958 and 1965, his first, second and last seasons.

Brown played his final game at age 29 and retired before the 1966 season to pursue an acting career. At the time of his retirement, Brown had the most rushing attempts (2,359), yards (12,312) and touchdowns (106) in NFL history, and he remains the record-holder for most career rushing yards per game (104.3).

Despite his short career, The Sporting News named Brown the greatest NFL player of all-time in 2002. He is not only in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but also in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame after a stellar collegiate career at Syracuse.

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Column: An unexciting Super Bowl Sunday

Super Bowl LII is tonight, but I’m not excited.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still watch — it’s the Super Bowl after all — but I’m the least excited I have ever been on any Super Bowl Sunday since I started watching them 14 years ago.

A big part of the reason dates back to my maiden Super Bowl, the 38th one in 2004, when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers, birthing a distaste for the Patriots that has grown ever since.

The principals from that 2003 team are still around in quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Brady, even at 40, is as good as ever, taking home his third NFL MVP Award at last night’s NFL Honors and continuing to build his case that he may be objectively the best player to ever play the game.

Now, as the Patriots play their third Super Bowl in four years and their eighth in 17, it’s hard for me to be excited about watching the same old thing, especially since they are favored to win another Lombardi Trophy. If they do, they would have won each of those three appearances in the last four years and six of their eight since 2001.

Depending on who from Las Vegas you read, the Patriots are between four- and five-point favorites, although I think they’re even heavier favorites than that, given that they’ve been here before and seem to be able to come back from anything (see: multiple Super Bowl comebacks, this year’s AFC Championship Game, etc.).

They are facing an upstart Philadelphia Eagles team which has come from nowhere to get here. They posted a 13-3 regular season, primarily with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, then won their two NFC playoff games, with backup signal-caller Nick Foles under center after Wentz’s torn ACL cost him the season.

It’s cool to see a team that has been down recently — before this season they had one playoff appearance in the last six years, which ended in the first round — make this run to the Super Bowl.

The Eagles have relished the underdog role this postseason, as without Wentz they were underdogs to both the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.

But neither one of those games were against the mighty Patriots, the “evil empire” if you will, who are in the midst of the greatest sustained run of excellence in NFL history, dating back to Brady’s first season and Belichick’s second in 2001. This run includes a 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

As such, I am mentally preparing myself for the disappointment of another Patriots title tonight, even while hoping that my forecast is incorrect.

Perhaps it will be; eight straight MVPs to play in the Super Bowl have lost, including Brady 10 years ago in the Super Bowl XLII classic against a Giants team that was far heavier underdogs than tonight’s Eagles.

But by expecting Brady to end that trend before the game even starts, I’m hoping to dampen the disappointment level around 10 p.m. tonight when the Patriots are inevitably celebrating, again.

Oh well. It’s almost baseball season.

 

Prediction: Patriots 28, Eagles 20

Fans Week Roundtable, Part II: Sports Heroes and Hysteria

In Part I of my Stiles on Sports Fans Week roundtable discussion with Justin Kenley (Cardinals, Panthers, North Carolina fan), Ryan Pittman (Cubs, Packers, South Carolina fan) and Garrett Black (Clemson fan), we discussed both exciting wins and heartbreaking losses they’ve experienced as fans.

In Part II, I asked more about their fan experiences, including who they admire on the field and the crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.

 

SOS:  Who is your favorite player, and why?

Justin:  For the Panthers it’s hard, but I’ve got to say Luke (Kuechly).  And not even just from that fandom perspective; I just love how he brings it every single play.  The dude is everywhere.  And I guess that’s something that, as a fan, you appreciate a guy going all out.

For the Tar Heels, it’s hard man.  I love me some Marcus Paige, though.  I just love his story.  Kind of a guy that not a lot of people knew, coming out (of high school), and “is he really going to be that good,” and to carry the team the last two years the way he did, that was just, I love Marcus Paige.

And Cardinals, good gosh, if this was six years ago, I would’ve said (Albert) Pujols, without even a wink, definitely.  I don’t know, man, I like so many of them, for different reasons.  There’s very few guys that we’ve had in the last few years that I said, “man, I just don’t like that person.”  If I had to say my top ones, I love Molina (Yadier Molina), because I was a catcher, and I think he’s just amazing at what he does.  I love the way Carp (Matt Carpenter) plays, I love the way Waino (Adam Wainwright) pitches, and then… it’s hard to narrow that one down.

Ryan:  There are three.  Jason Grilli is probably my favorite player of all time.  I met him when I was 10 years old at a baseball camp in Toledo.  He actually taught me how to bunt.  He’s a relief pitcher, and he was a nobody then, and I guess he’s kind of a nobody now, but he’s had some times where he’s been closer with the Pirates, he’s been closer with the Braves, and the occasional game saved for the Blue Jays now.

I met him 12 years ago when he was nobody, and I’ve watched him ascend throughout the major leagues, and he’s almost 40 now and still pitching.  It’s kind of cool to be like, hey, I’ve got his autograph right there.  It’s kind of cool.

Another is Omar Infante.  I just watched him growing up, and he played the same position I did, and he played for the Mud Hens in Toledo.  He played shortstop, then moved to second base; I played shortstop, then moved to second base.  And it was kind of cool.

Carlos Pena is also on that list.  There was one time I called him over to sign his baseball card, and they asked everyone to stand for the national anthem.  He’s holding my pen and my baseball card, and he says “Hold on,” and puts it on the railing, turns to put his hand over his heart for the national anthem, then he grabs the card, signs it, and then runs over to first base to play.  He went from me to first base to start the game, and it was just really cool.

And then he went on the next year, two years later, to hit 40-something home runs for those same Rays that I described earlier, the ’08 Rays, and he became a huge power hitter, and I still remembered that fond memory as a kid.  Kind of changed the way I think about professional athletes.

Garrett:  I’m gonna have to go with Hunter Renfrow.  Not only did he catch the winning touchdown, but he’s got the story and the character to go behind it, and it’s just great to see a former walk-on catch a touchdown and then be vainly tackled by three future draft prospects.

 

SOS:  Who is a “role player” you’ve always liked, and why?

Justin:  Easily Skip Schumaker.  Just a guy that comes, and didn’t matter where he was playing, he was going to bring it, every day.

I’ll never forget in 2013, we went to St. Louis for my graduation present, and the Dodgers were playing, and it was the first time Skip had come back to St. Louis after he got let go, and man, Skip Schumaker, who a lot of people wouldn’t know his name, he got a standing ovation from like 40,000 people in Busch Stadium, and it was awesome.  It was just really, really cool.

If you know the Cardinals, you appreciate what he did.  Because he could play second base, right field, pinch hit.  You knew he was going to do something.

Ryan:  I’ve always been a fan of utility players in baseball.  Currently Ben Zobrist fits that, and I guess there are so many now.  It used to be a lot more rare.

Guys like Martin Prado, who’d play every infield position and every outfield position, and I appreciate that, they might not have a set position that they’re best at, but their bat is valuable enough and their leadership is valuable enough their team can’t take them out.  So they might not have an everyday spot, but they play everyday.

Garrett:  I really have to appreciate Cole Stoudt.  Can we call a backup quarterback a role player?  Because he was never gonna be the guy.

I mean, he was a starting guy, but the expectation was never to win a championship with Cole Stoudt.  But I think he provided leadership to keep the team together, in the Tajh (Boyd) to Deshaun (Watson) handoff, and got hurt just in time for Deshaun to come.  But I think the kind of leadership he provided for the team, in that transition year between Tajh and Deshaun truly taking over, kind of kept that team together.

SOS:  That’s interesting, because that’s not necessarily a popular opinion in Clemson fan circles.

Garrett:  Here’s the thing:  at any other school that wasn’t swimming in quarterback prospects, like Clemson has been lately, Cole Stoudt could’ve started.  I mean, he wasn’t great, and to be fair we kind of got spoiled with Tajh, so we kind of expected we’d get that kind of production, and to be fair we got better later on, but we should’ve known it was going to get worse before it got better.

 

SOS:  Besides your favorite teams’ known archrivals, who is one team you can’t stand?

Justin:  I really don’t like the Reds, but I feel like that falls in that rivalry a little bit.  There’s a couple of NFL teams I don’t like.  Really, the AFC North.  The Ravens, the Bengals, and (my fiance) Courtney would kill me because Courtney is a Bengals fan, but just, the way they play just irks me.  There’s not one team—I hate the Patriots, obviously, but I feel like everybody hates the Patriots, so I feel like that doesn’t really count.

I will say in basketball, I really don’t like Kentucky.  Kentucky just, I love beating Kentucky.  I don’t mind the whole one-and-done movement to an extent, but I kind of hate the way they’ve done it, and I just, I don’t really like Kentucky.

Ryan:  Typically because of fantasy sports, I don’t hate any team, because I need their players.  That’s tricky.

I don’t like the Mets.  I really don’t like the Royals either.   I feel kind of bad saying it, but like the kind of players they had that have now since passed who were frustrating to watch, you know, Yordano Ventura was just annoying… rest in peace.  He was trying to cause fights, and they seemed to be getting into fights with other teams because they didn’t think they were getting the respect they deserved, and I was like, “come on, play the game, earn the respect,” and that was really frustrating recently.  But yeah, the Mets.  The Mets just always beat my team, knocked us out.

Garrett:  Everyone hates Alabama, but we just beat them so I don’t have as much hatred in my heart anymore.  I’m probably going to have to go with Florida State next, although that’s a division rivalry.  It’s hard to hate Pitt (laughs).

I loved beating Ohio State (in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl).  That felt good.  Because everyone was telling us how Urban Meyer’s like the best coach ever, and to be fair, he’s a great coach, but it feels good to topple the big guys.

 

SOS:  Who is one team you wish you had been alive to watch or old enough to remember?

Justin:  I would have loved to seen, and I don’t have a pinpoint year, but I would’ve loved to have seen Stan Musial play for the Cardinals.  Just because he meant so much to my grandpa; I mean, that was my grandpa’s dude.

Ryan:  Actually there’s two.  The Yankees, back when they were with Babe Ruth, and Joe DiMaggio, and those Yankee greats, I’d love to see one of those Yankee teams play.  And then, more recently, but still before me, was the Big Red Machine.  Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan

SOS: Pete Rose

Ryan:  Yeah, I’d love to go back and watch them, because they were a dominant team, but they weren’t in a big city.  They were small market Reds winning games, pretty cool.

Garrett:  ’81 (Clemson), obviously.  That was the other golden era.

 

SOS:  Do you have any strange superstitions when your favorite teams play?

Justin:  If I go to one game, and what I wear works, I wear the same thing again.

Two years ago in the (NFL) playoffs, the first day we went it wasn’t that cold, so I wore my Luke Kuechly jersey, and just a hat or whatever, but then the next game it was really cold, it got colder, and I didn’t care, I just wore the same thing.  We won in this last time, I’ll win in it again.

I’ve never been like a crazy superstitious kind of guy.  I will always, though, if I’m watching my team play, I’m going to wear something of that team.  I will do that, even if it’s just sitting on the couch.

Ryan:  Sometimes, in a game that really matters, in football or baseball playoffs, something like that, if my team is struggling, say, two-thirds of the way through the game, and I’m not wearing any gear of that team, I’ll go track down a Cubs hat or a jersey or a Packers t-shirt, just to see if (it helps), just supporting.  Never the opposite, though.  If I’m wearing gear and they lose, I don’t take it off, but sometimes you’ll get halfway through a game and go, “oh shoot, I’m not supporting my team,” so you do whatever you can to make them get back in business.

Garrett:  I have a mechanical tiger that plays Tiger Rag.  He used to dance, but the wheels broke.  Every time we score any points, I always click his paw and make him play the Tiger Rag song, and while this probably has more to do with Dabo (Swinney) and Deshaun (Watson), it has only been wrong, like, three times in the last four seasons.

SOS:  What do you mean, “it’s only been wrong”?

Garrett:  Like, whenever I hit the button every time when we play, we always win.  Again, that probably has more to do with the players, but I like to think I’m contributing.

 

SOS:  What is a crazy or unique experience you’ve had while watching a game?

Justin:  I remember, it was so funny, because my dad is not a guy to like freak out on TV.  At the game, he’ll freak out and stuff, and yell, but on TV he just doesn’t.  And I vividly remember when Marcus Paige hit that shot (to tie the game) against Villanova last year, the shot that no one will ever remember except Carolina fans, my dad jumped off the couch and just screamed his head off, and was pumped.

And I remember, it was just so funny, because obviously I was caught up in the moment, freaking out, but it was just funny to me, because I was like, “my dad never gets this into it in a game.”

The Seahawks game two years ago in the playoffs (was crazy).  We made that huge run, 15-1, divisional playoffs, and I kid you not, the upper deck where we were sitting at, we did not sit down for the entirety of that game.

Like, we were up at first half, at kickoff, when they came out of the tunnel, and then we sat down at halftime, and then when the clock hit zero we left.  And it was just crazy.  Because like, I’ve been at games where you stand a lot, but just the way that season was rolling, and the electricity in the air, you didn’t want to sit down, and so that was pretty crazy.

I about hit Courtney in the face this year, when Luke Maye hit that shot against Kentucky.  I really did.  I was punching the air, I was going nuts.

I will say, I am really weird about, like—regular season, and I can just sit on my couch and chill, but like, if it’s the playoffs, I bring a chair, and I sit probably as close as me and you to the TV, and I’m in it.  I’m in it.  Because it’s every pitch.

Ryan:  I was at Wrigley Field in 2003 when Barry Bonds, in batting practice, hit a baseball over Sheffield, through a window across the street, and that video’s kind of gone popular now, a cool “I didn’t do it,” you know, that was pretty funny though, just to—I don’t think he even noticed that it was out there, and it was like “did he just…?”  Yeah, he just hit one across the street, through a window.  That stands out.

I seem to have been to a lot of games where Top 10 plays happen on SportsCenter.  You were at one where Andrelton Simmons made that sick play against the Mets that we didn’t see because people (standing in the aisle) blocked us.

SOS:  I kind of saw it.  You were a little more blocked.  The best play I’ve ever seen live.

Ryan:  It’s kind of cool, you see it in person and then the next day it’s #1 on SportsCenter.  I was at a Hawks and 76ers game and a dunk made #1 on SportsCenter, and I was sitting right there watching it.  That’s pretty sweet.

Garrett:  The year of the “Kick Six” in the Iron Bowl, we were sitting in a beach house, and the Iron Bowl was taking a little long to finish that year, so we had the Iron Bowl going on here (on one TV), and the Clemson-(South) Carolina game going on here (on another TV).

And I would much rather see us win and Alabama win—I don’t like Alabama, but I’d rather–I’d trade an Alabama win for a Clemson win, if that makes sense—but I was incredibly ecstatic watching, what’s his name, Chris Davis run that kick, that (missed) field goal back for a touchdown, but then my joy quickly turned into despair when Tajh Boyd proceeded to throw like six interceptions.

 

Tomorrow, Fans Week continues with a look at some of the crazy things I’ve ever heard and seen from fans at sporting events. 

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: Atlanta’s 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.

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

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