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It's the Rams vs. the Patriots!
[Posted Sunday p.m.]
NBA Quiz: Since Wilt Chamberlain averaged 36.85 points per game in 1963-64, only three NBA players have averaged 35 points a game for an entire season. Name them. Answer below.
NFC Conference Championship
Forever, Los Angeles at New Orleans will be known for an outrageously bad missed call that cost the Saints the game, but for the Super Bowl we all have to move on...except for said Saints fans who are liable to be jumping into the Gulf of Mexico like lemmings tonight.
The fact is the Rams’ defense held the Saints twice early inside the red zone to just two field goals, and while the Saints then took a 13-0 lead with 1:35 left in the first, the Rams came back to cut it to 13-10 at the half, a fake punt / pass completion by Johnny Hekker for a first down leading to 3 points that, while making it just 13-3 at the time, was huge for the Rams confidence. Jared Goff and L.A. would then go 75 plays to cut it to three at the intermission on a Todd Gurley touchdown run.
After the Rams’ three-and-out to open the second half, though, the Saints drove 71 yards for the score to make it 20-10.
But the Rams answered with a 75-yard drive of their own, cutting it to 20-17, then they marched 85 yards, only to settle for a tying field goal, 20-20.
So the Saints and Drew Brees then had 5:03 to play, just needing a field goal for the win, and they drove it 57 yards to the Rams’ 13, Wil Lutz with his third field goal of the game to make it 23-20, 1:41 to play.
But there shouldn’t have been 1:41 left. It should have been more like 0:10 to play in the game, only in the worst call of the season, at the worst possible time, the referees missed a blatant pass interference call on L.A., with a helmet-to-helmet personal foul to boot, and Jared Goff and the Rams had too much time, proceeding to march 45 yards, setting up kicker Greg Zuerlein for a 48-yarder to tie it at 23-23 and send the game into OT.
Then in overtime, Zuerlein, following a Brees interception by John Johnson III, nailed a 57-yarder for the win, a kick that would have been good from 70.
Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton were 6-0 at home in playoff games heading into this one, since the two paired up back in 2006.
But it’s the Rams and 32-year-old coach Sean McVay who are Super Bowl bound, not New Orleans. I mean as Tony Soprano would have said, ‘Whaddya gonna do?’
AFC Conference Championship
The over/under on New England at Kansas City was 56/57, depending on what service you were looking at, and at the half it was all of 14-0 Patriots, the Chiefs having scored at least 26 points in every game this season.
Well the Chiefs opened up the second going 74 yards on four plays, the biggie a 54-yard pass play from Patrick Mahomes to Sammy Watkins, New England up 14-7.
The Pats then kicked a field goal, K.C. drove 75 yards for a touchdown to make it 17-14, and with 9:38 to play, the Chiefs stopped Tom Brady and Co. on a fourth-and-one from the Kansas City 24, when a field goal would have made it 20-14.
K.C. went three-and-out and punted, and at first blush it appeared Julian Edelman muffed it, the Chiefs running in the loose ball for a T.D.
But on further review, and after looking at the replays, Edelman had not touched it, the Pats instead getting the ball at their 28.
So while Chiefs fans bitched, two plays later, Brady threw an interception that, of all people, tipped off Edelman’s hands, K.C. getting the ball at the 23, 7:58 to play! And two plays after that, Mahomes threw a screen pass to Damien Williams that went for 23 and the score, 21-17 K.C.
So Brady gets the ball, 7:45 left, and aided by a bogus roughing the passer call, drives the Pats 75 yards for a score, Sony Michel taking it in from the ten, 24-21 New England, 3:32 left.
But Mahomes, aided by some critical New England penalties, took the Chiefs 68 yards in 1:29, Williams scoring his third touchdown of the quarter, 28-24 K.C.!
After a nice kickoff return for New England, Tom Brady got the ball with 1:57 to play, down four. In his 13th AFC Championship game, would he drive his team for win No. 9?
Yes, of course...the injured, aging warrior, Rob Gronkowski, with a critical 3rd-down reception to the Kansas City four, Rex Burkhead taking it in from there, 31-28 New England and just 0:39 to play.
35 points in the fourth quarter! Amazing.
After the kickoff, 32 seconds left, ball at the K.C. 31. Two plays later, Mahomes had driven the Chiefs to the Patriot 21. After a throw into the end zone, enter kicker Harrison Butker and he drills it from 39! Tied at 31-31. Into overtime we go.
Wow. The 38 points in the fourth quarter are the most ever in a championship game.
Second overtime game of the day. Only one in the Super Bowl era prior.
New England gets the ball in OT and after two clutch Brady to Edelman third-down receptions, Gronk catches one to the K.C. 15. Burkhead runs it down to the five. Burkhead to the two. 2nd and goal. Burkhead gets it again...Touchdown! Brady goes to his ninth Super Bowl!
--Alabama’s Jalen Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, immediately becoming the front-runner to succeed Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. Great move by Hurts, who is a natural for Lincoln Riley’s offense. As a grad transfer, he has one more year of eligibility and can play next fall.
But backup QB Austin Kendall was reluctantly allowed to grad transfer out of Oklahoma and move to West Virginia, the Sooners initially blocking the move, understandably, because they didn’t want to set a precedent with a transfer within the Big 12.
Kendall actually has two years of eligibility left.
--Former Ohio State backup quarterback Tate Martell is enrolling at Miami and it is believed he may be eligible to play next fall, though he’s not a grad transfer and needs more than one semester to graduate from Miami, thus he has to apply for a waiver from the NCAA to play in 2019 and his attorney is saying Martell deserves one because of the change in coach at Ohio State with Urban Meyer stepping down.
I wouldn’t grant the kid relief based on that. He should have to sit out 2019 under existing NCAA rules.
College Basketball Review
We’re going to have a bit of a shakeup in the top ten after some upsets this weekend, as well as some results earlier in the week.
No. 2 Michigan suffered its first loss of the season at Wisconsin (12-6), 64-54, as the Wolverines, in falling to 17-1, committed 16 turnovers.
7 Kansas (15-3) suffered a bad loss at West Virginia (9-9), 65-64, considering this was the Mountaineers’ first conference win in six tries, not exactly coach Bob Huggins’ best squad.
8 Texas Tech (15-3) fell at Baylor (11-6) 73-62.
But 3 Tennessee (16-1) held on to defeat Alabama (11-6) 71-68.
5 Gonzaga moved to 18-2 in whipping Portland (7-13) 89-6.
9 Virginia Tech (15-2) rebounded from its defeat at Virginia earlier in the week with an 87-71 win over Wake Forest (8-9), the Deacs allowing the Hokies to shoot 56.9% from the field (29-51). If you exclude Brandon Childress’ effort (28 points on 7 of 12 shooting from the floor), Wake was 11 of 36.
And my Bar Chat “Pick to Click,” No. 10 Nevada, is now 18-1 after beating Air Force (7-11) 67-52.
But the biggie Saturday was of course undefeated and No. 4 Virginia at No. 1 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke prevailing 72-70 in a terrific contest, both teams shooting well from the field overall (UVA 28-53, Duke 26-51), but the Cavaliers were only 3 of 17 from three, while the Blue Devils shot just 2 of 14 from downtown.
Duke, playing without point guard Tre Jones (out indefinitely with a separated shoulder), rebounded from its loss at home to Syracuse earlier in the week, Zion Williamson (27 points) and RJ Barrett (30) taking over in Jones’ absence.
So in the top four, with Duke, Virginia and Michigan having all lost, who is the new No. 1 in the AP poll? I’m guessing it will still be Duke, but with Tennessee receiving just as many first-place votes.
Regardless, I agree with bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who said earlier this week that he’s never seen such a clear-cut top four seeds in mid-January like we have today.
In other games of note....
12 Kentucky (14-3) prevailed on the road at 14 Auburn (13-4) in an important SEC contest, while we have to talk a little about Murray State’s Ja Morant.
Morant, the Racers’ point guard, has erupted on the scene in this his sophomore season and he’s rocketing up the draft board, now a sure-fire top-five pick.
After a solid freshman campaign (12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists), Morant is averaging 24.3 points and 10.6 assists for the 15-2 Racers, including a terrific 40 point, 11 assist effort in Murray State’s 82-72 win yesterday over SIU-Edwardsville.
The Racers have a recent history of producing solid point guards. It was a number of years ago that I trekked to the place to see Isaiah Canaan when Murray State had its dream season, 31-2 and an AP final ranking of No. 12 in 2011-12. Cameron Payne then followed at the school.
These are obviously kids who in high school flew under the radar in terms of the big programs, but talent is eventually recognized regardless of where you go (which is the case in the baseball world as well).
--The amazing streak of James Harden continued Saturday, as the Rockets (26-19) defeated the Lakers (25-22) in overtime, 138-134, Harden with 48 points, his 19th straight with 30 or more, the longest such streak in NBA history since the days of Wilt Chamberlain.
The game before, Wednesday, in a 145-142 OT loss to Brooklyn, Harden had 58, after going off for 57 on Monday against Memphis.
But in the Wednesday game, Houston hoisted an NBA-record 70 threes, making just 23 (32.9%).
Harden’s scoring average for the season is up to 35.7.
--Golden State’s DeMarcus Cousins made his season debut for the Warriors Friday night in a 112-94 win over the Clippers, Cousins returning after a year-long absence due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. He scored 14 points and hauled in six rebounds in 15 minutes (though he also fouled out).
That’s a helluva first-five for Golden State now, with Green, Durant, Thompson and Curry.
--The Brooklyn Nets at one point this season were 8-18 amid cries for coach Kenny Atkinson’s head.
But shockingly, without a single star (though D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, and super-sixth-man Scott Dinwiddie threaten to become such), the Nets are now 24-23, just playing terrific, inspired basketball, without their best player, Caris LeVert, out since game 14 of the season. Yes, that same coach, Kenny Atkinson, is now getting mention for Coach of the Year. If the Nets can finish .500, he would indeed deserve serious consideration.
--According to Basketball Review, there have been 133 players who have taken more than 2,500 threes in their careers, and 132 of them have a higher shooting percentage than the 30% of Russell Westbrook, who this season is threatening the single-season worst record of 27%, Westbrook currently at .239...just .306 for his career.
--The Knicks faced off against the Wizards in London on Thursday, Washington prevailing 101-100.
But the Knicks were without center Enes Kanter, who stayed home, at management’s urging, because of safety concerns. Kanter, a Turk, is at odds with that country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and there were fears, totally legitimate, that Kanter could be spirited away, or worse, by Turkish agents, if he showed up in Britain, seeing as how Turkey has asked the U.S. government to extradite him.
Kanter was extremely appreciative of the support the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver gave him, Silver saying the league took the death threats against Kanter “very seriously.”
This happens at the same time that fellow Turk, and long-time former NBA player, Hedo Turkoglu, is blasting Kanter, Turkoglu a chief adviser to President Erdogan these days.
Prior to the London game and Kanter’s skipping same, Turkoglu said Kanter had launched a “political smear campaign...against Turkey,” while attributing “importance to himself by covering up the contradictions in his sports career. ...It is obvious that this person’s remarks are irrational and distort the truth.”
This is one ugly, scary, situation. In an interview this week, Kanter admitted he sees exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen in Pennyslvania quite frequently, Erdogan blaming Gulen for a failed 2016 coup.
--A week after the Yankees re-signed lefty Zach Britton, the team came to terms with talented righty Adam Ottavino on a three-year, $27 million contract.
Ottavino is coming off a career year with the Colorado Rockies, 6-4, 2.43 ERA and six saves, 112 strikeouts in 77 2/3.
So Ottavino is added to a bullpen with Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Chad Green and Jonathan Holder. On paper, as Ronald Reagan would have said, ‘Not bad, not bad at all.’
But the Yankees still need a top-line starter, and their fans are restless they haven’t apparently made a serious play on either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. This is the Yankees, after all, not the Mets (cough cough).
Speaking of Manny Machado, his agent, Dan Lozano, slammed a pair of reports from USA TODAY’s Bob Nightengale and ESPN’s Buster Olney that Machado had a seven-year, $175 million offer from the White Sox, which is well under the original rumor of eight years, $240 million from the team.
Lozano argued the two reporters were leaking information from their sources to affect the market and force a low-ball contract.
--The Baseball Hall of Fame vote comes in Tuesday evening, and this one will be interesting.
Mariano Rivera will be a first ballot pick as a potentially unanimous selection. Roy Halladay is another prominent first-timer, along with Andy Pettitte and Todd Helton.
DH Edgar Martinez is in his tenth and final year, having received 70.4 percent last time (75 percent required for enshrinement), so one would think he’ll get it. Mike Mussina is in his sixth year, having picked up 63.5 percent last time, so it certainly looks as if he gets in eventually.
But aside from Mariano, it’s obviously mostly about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both now with only four years left, including this one.
Clemens received 57.3 percent last January, and Bonds 56.4. The early voting (those who have already announced their ballots) has both in the low 70s, but I’ll be very surprised if that is where they end up.
Curt Schilling is another in his seventh year, Schilling at 51.2 percent in 2018, and supposedly doing well in early voting.
--We note the passing of pitcher Eli Grba, 84. Grba threw the first pitch in Los Angeles Angels history back in 1961, going 11-13, 4.25 ERA in that opening season, with eight complete games.
Grba was 28-33 in his five-year career (1959-63), his first two seasons with the Yankees. He was the opening selection of MLB’s first expansion draft in December 1960, tabbed by Angels general manager Fred Haney.
In a 2011 television interview, Grba said, “I’m a trivia question until I die. I’m the first guy that’s ever been drafted – and the first Angel. You know, that’s kind of nice.”
Grba was known as a fiery sort, who also enjoyed a good time. In 1961, in his first visit to Yankee Stadium, Mickey Mantle hit consecutive home runs against him, and Grba circled the mound and shouted insults at Mantle as Mickey rounded the bases.
Unfortunately, alcohol laid waste to what might have been a promising career. But after a bad incident at a rehab facility in 1981, he never drank again.
After leaving the majors in ’63, Grba didn’t return to Angels Stadium in an official capacity until 2011, when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the season in celebration of the Angels’ 50th anniversary.
--48-year-old Phil Mickelson sure turned back the clock this weekend at the Desert Classic in La Quinta, Calif., Mickelson opening with a best-ever 60, followed by a 68 and 66 to take a two-shot lead heading into today’s final round. What was so surprising is that this was his first PGA Tour start since early October, with only the made-for-television event with Tiger Woods in between.
So would he close the deal for career win No. 44?
Nope. Instead, Phil finished a stroke back, along with Adam Hadwin, as 31-year-old unknown Adam Long, in just his sixth PGA Tour event of his career, captured his first win with a birdie on the 18th.
Long is playing with the big boys via his performance on the Web.com Tour in 2018. In his five previous events, including one in 2011, he had made one cut.
And then this, a career changing moment.
Long is a Duke grad, by the way.
--In the Champions’ Tour’s season-opening event in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, 59-year-old Tom Lehman took his 12th title on the 50-and-over circuit with a one-shot win over David Toms, after Toms three-putted the 18th.
Fred Couples played well, finishing T-5, if you’re thinking of him come The Masters, a tradition unlike any other...on CBS.
Liverpool maintained its four-point lead over Manchester City, Liverpool defeating Crystal Palace 4-3 on Saturday, while today, City bested last-place Huddersfield 3-0.
Arsenal had a huge win to stay in the top four hunt, 2-0 over Chelsea at home, while surging Manchester United won its sixth straight league game under new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, 2-1 over Brighton, a remarkable achievement for Solskjaer, though the schedule has been favorable.
As for Tottenham, my Spurs traveled to 19 Fulham, their first game without the great Harry Kane, out until sometime in March with an ankle injury, and in the first half, it looked like this would mark the season’s end for Tottenham, the team down 1-0 and getting outplayed, all Spurs fans figuring in a matter of weeks they would plummet to sixth in the standings.
But then Dele Alli equalized early in the second, and 2:50 into injury time, literally seconds left in the game, Harry Winks headed one in (awful play by the Fulham goalkeeper) for the win that, for now, saved the season.
Standings after 23 of 38
1. Liverpool 60 points
2. Man City 56
3. Tottenham 51
4. Chelsea 47
5. Arsenal 44
6. Man U 44
Alpine World Cup
--Lindsey Vonn made her return to the circuit after her latest knee injury at Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy, this weekend, Vonn finishing 15th and ninth in back-to-back downhills (Austria’s Ramona Siebenhofer winning both).
Vonn for the second time in her career was racing with braces on both knees. With 82 wins, she still needs five more to best Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time record of 86 before she retires after races at Lake Louis, Alberta, next December. So that’s a ton of pressure on the 34-year-old legend.
Vonn’s right knee is permanently damaged from previous crashes, and she’s torn ACLs, sustained fractures near her left knee, broken an ankle, sliced her right thumb and had a concussion, among other things. She feels pain in her knees when she lands long jumps.
I just can’t imagine what she’s gone through to come back once again.
Meanwhile, Mikaela Shiffrin won today’s super-G at Cortina (Vonn with a DNF), her 54th career win, and 11th this season. Remarkable.
But then Vonn, after today’s race, strongly hinted she may have to retire early, the pain being too great.
--On the men’s side, the United States still doesn’t have a podium finish in 23 races this WC season.
17-year-old Amanda Anisimova of New Jersey reached her first career Grand Slam fourth round in upsetting 11-seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus 6-3, 6-2 on Friday.
But then Saturday and Sunday, we had a slew of big upsets, headlined by 14-seed Stefanos Tsitsipas over 3 Roger Federer in four sets.
Maybe this wasn’t as big an upset as it sounds, because as John McEnroe said at courtside after, the match between the 20-year-old Greek sensation and 37-year-old Federer perhaps represented a true changing of the guard similar to when a then-19-year-old Federer upset Pete Sampras, then the game’s ruling player.
So Tsitsipas heads into the quarters along with No. 1 Novak Djokovic, 2 Rafael Nadal and 4 Alexander Zverev.
But on the women’s side, as Serena Williams rolls, 5-seed Sloane Stephens of the U.S. lost to unseeded Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (try saying that three times fast), while American unseeded American Danielle Collins stunned 2-seed Angelique Kerber.
Aussie Ashleigh Barty beat Maria Sharapova to also advance to the women’s quarters, but Anisimova’s run ended at the hands of 8 Petra Kvitova.
No. 1 Simona Halep is among the others in the quarters.
--Manny Pacquiao, 40, refuses to hang it up, winning a unanimous decision on Saturday night in Las Vegas against 29-year-old Adrien Broner (33-4-1, 24 KOs), with Floyd Mayweather in attendance at ringside, fueling speculation there may yet be one more bout between the two.
Mayweather defeated Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs) in a 12-round unanimous decision in May of 2015. But he’s showing no signs of returning to the ring.
--I forgot to note the retirement of NHL player Rick Nash, 34, who scored 437 goals and had 368 assists for 805 points in 1,060 regular-season NHL games. Nash played 15 seasons, nine with Columbus, five-plus with the Rangers and then finished with the Bruins.
Nash also won gold medals playing for Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.
But what is noteworthy is that Nash was forced to retire under advice from doctors that his risk of further brain injury was too great, the winger still suffering from a concussion he suffered last March.
This is sad...and while all the talk and focus is on the NFL for its concussion issues, the NHL has been flying under the radar in this regard. It’s a huge labor issue that could result in another lockout/strike, the players demanding a compensation pool like the NFL has for post-playing days treatment.
--The sport of NASCAR lost a great this week, Glen Wood, the legendary patriarch of the famed Wood Brothers Racing team who had been the oldest living member of the sport’s Hall of Fame. Wood died Friday at 93.
Wood Brothers is the longest continuous Cup team in NASCAR and has weathered lean years over seven decades, only to find a way to keep going.
But it was the Wood Brothers, Glen founding the team with younger brother Leonard in 1953, who were credited with revolutionizing pit stops from routine service calls into carefully orchestrated strategic events that can win or lose races.
They were so good, Ford asked the team to take care of the pit stops for Jim Clark’s 1965 winning car at the Indy 500.
In 1998, when NASCAR came up with its 50 greatest drivers, 20 had once raced a Wood Brothers car, including Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson and Bill Elliott.
--Steve G., longtime USC Trojans fan, now living in Mexico, first broke the news to me the school’s famous Song Girls cheerleaders had been removed from being on the sidelines of USC home basketball games by athletic director Lynn Swann. Swann may have been a legend at the school, and an NFL Hall of Famer, but he’s been an unmitigated disaster as AD, witness not just the state of the Trojan football program, but athletics overall at the school.
The decision to remove the white-clad sweater girls was made last November, but it didn’t take effect until December, and the Los Angeles Times had a huge story on the decision the other day that led to Swann and the school coming under fire from alumni and supporters.
Instead of the Song Girls performing during home games, the Trojan Dance Force – a dance and hip-hop group created in 1994 – is the sole performing act supporting men’s and women’s basketball. In a statement to The Times, USC cited busy scheduling as its primary reason for removing the Song Girls, along with “space issues.”
The timing of the decision was curious, Swann already under the microscope for retaining football coach Clay Helton despite an outcry from the fan base and boosters wanting Helton fired.
So Lynn Swann goes into the December file for early “Jerk of the Year” consideration.
As I wrote Steve G. when he informed me last week, “Noooooo!” [Steve and I among the millions of men of a certain age who still harken back to actress Edy Williams opening up her coat on national television during a USC-Notre Dame game...but I digress...]
--I forgot to note last time that “Game of Thrones” resumes Sunday, April 14, which makes for a huge day, it also being the Sunday of the final round of The Masters.
--My brother and his wife were in Hawaii last week and preparing to take a little swim off Oahu when they got word of a decomposing whale off the shore. My brother told Cindy, ‘we aren’t even wading in the water with a dead whale out there...could be sharks.’
True story, sports fans. Yes, about then, with surfers still in the water, divers spied Deep Blue, reputedly the world’s biggest great white at 20 feet. One of the divers, Ocean Ramsey, who was seen in multiple media appearances, noted she thought Deep Blue, an estimated 50 years old, was pregnant because of her mammoth size.
--From the BBC: “An Indonesian woman has been mauled to death by a pet crocodile in Sulawesi after she fell into its enclosure.”
The gigantic croc “is thought to have bitten off her arm and most of her abdomen.”
“The reptile has been relocated to a conservation site,” the croc having been kept illegally.
“According to AFP, authorities believe Ms. Tuwo’s body parts may still be inside the 4.4m-long crocodile.”
Top 3 songs for the week 1/24/70: #1 “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” (B.J. Thomas) #2 “Venus” (The Shocking Blue) #3 “I Want You Back” (The Jackson 5)...and...#4 “Someday We’ll Be Together” (Diana Ross & The Supremes) #5 “Whole Lotta Love” (Led Zeppelin) #6 “Leaving On A Jet Plane” (Peter, Paul and Mary) #7 “Don’t Cry Daddy” (Elvis Presley) #8 “Without Love” (Tom Jones) #9 “Jam Up Jelly Tight” (Tommy Roe) #10 “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” (Dionne Warwick)
NBA Quiz Answer: Only three players to average 35 points per game for an entire season since 1963-64....
Rick Barry, 35.58, 1966-67
Michael Jordan, 37.09, 1986-87*
Kobe Bryant, 35.4, 2005-06
*Jordan averaged 34.98 in 1987-88, close but no cigar.
It certainly seems James Harden will be joining the group this season.
Next Bar Chat, Thursday.