If I'm going to be watching NFL games, then it must be playoff time. This weekend's conference championship games feature a couple of matchups of new powers vs. a couple of old, or at least familiar, faces.
The AFC's championship has a featured storyline: two weeks before the end of the season, the Indy Colts had a perfect record, but they pulled old familiar Peyton Manning in the third quarter. The New York Jets took advantage of the situation, bagged backup QB Scott Painter, and won a game that was critical for them to make the playoffs. Now, having pulled off a couple of upsets, they face the Colts again.
Instead, I'm reminded of the most famous postseason game in history, the game that made the Super Bowl the circus spectacle it is today: the famous Colts-Jets Super Bowl III when Joe Namath and the Jets pulled off the great upset. Colts-Jets Super Bowl rematch can never happen again, since the Colts came over to the AFC, but the Jets have great momentum and look primed to pull off another great upset.
The Jets' top-ranked defense may be the only one with a chance to stop the new New Orleans Saints and their offensive juggernaut. The Minnesota Vikings, with their aged star Brett Favre, will have the chance this week.
The winners of the All-Star voting will be announced this week. The suspense is whether two stars who've lost luster will win spots through the voting that they would otherwise have no chance of making on the merit of their 2009-10 play: Tracy McGrady in the Western Conference and Allen Iverson in the Eastern. Both have been in second place, good for a starting spot, in the positional voting in their respective conferences, which has caused the experts to call for a recall and to get the public out of the process.
At the midway point of the season, there's a scramble for dominance among four teams in the East, and a clear leader (L.A.) with a couple of hungry challengers in the West. In the East, my pick for Conference champ, Cleveland, seems to be getting it together, while defending E.C. champion Orlando is struggling with injuries and poor team chemistry. The Atlanta Hawks have emerged as a real threat, with the potent young combination of Joe Johnson and big men Josh Smith and Al Horford, and the Celtics remain the veteran choice, who may be the odds-on favorite if they go into the playoffs with Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace both healthy and productive.
In the West, it's Can Anybody Stop the Lakers? again. Andrew Bynum has emerged as the top center, as if they needed to improve, while Ron Artest is another, unpredictable factor in their favor. The best hopes for the rest of us are the Denver Nuggets, if they can stay healthy, and the rejuvenated San Antonio Spurs, who have some new weapons to add to Duncan-Parker-Ginobili in shooting guard Roger Mason, beefy rookie DeJuan Blair, and Richard Jefferson, who is beginning to become acclimated to the Spurs' system.
(I refuse to call the English Premier League "Barclays". They didn't pay me for the privilege.)
At just past the midway point, this appears to be the most competitive Premier League season in the 15 years or so that I have followed it closely (before that, there wasn't really enough coverage in the US to follow it). At the top, there is a three-team race--Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal--with all three within a match or so of each other (number of matches played is not exactly the same). Handicapping its eventual outcome is not easy: Chelsea has done best against the other top teams, while Arsenal has shown the most exciting capability (at least when healthy), and Manchester United, of course, has a tradition of making late-season runs. What is different this year is that all three have occasionally been vulnerable on the road against lesser teams. Big games are coming up at the end of January between Arsenal and Man U., followed a week later by one between Chelsea and Arsenal.
Also different this year is the absence of the fourth member of the Big Four, Liverpool, from the top of the table. Liverpool is in a bunch of some five teams a good distance behind the top three and does not appear to be capable of pulling away from them. It's the emergence of those other four--Everton, Aston Villa, Birmingham, and especially well-funded Manchester City--that is the most exciting development for the league as a whole.
I have to say that I am optimistic about Chelsea's chances in the League (and the Champions League, too, for that matter). They have done a good job of holding onto their talent and depth. A good thing, too, because some tampering misdeeds have hampered their ability to pick up anyone during the midyear transfer period. Their 1-2 punch of Drogba and Anelka has been outstanding (Drogba is off in African play for awhile, and star midfielder Michael Essien got hurt there, but we'll be all right for the moment); their defense has been solid if not inspired, and they seem to have recovered the confidence they showed during the Mourinho-coached period under Carlo Ancelotti.
(as ESPN abbreviates it)
I try to follow college basketball, though it's hard to see much continuity beyond the Coaches' personalities. The players go by so fast--at least the best ones, the ones with NBA aspirations.
My loyalties, though, were largely fixed in the '60's: faves are Kentucky, Louisville, Syracuse, and more recently, New Mexico; and peeves are UCLA, North Carolina, and Duke.
It is thus with great pleasure that I have watched UK's Wildcats, which are now the only undefeated major college team left (after Texas lost last night). The infamous John Calipari has come to Lexington and drawn several prized prospects, for one year or for more we shall see. Greatest among them is John Wall, who I feel safe in saying is the best college point guard since Chris Paul (notwithstanding Calipari's penultimate, Derrick Rose, whose admission to Memphis has since been tainted--let's hope Wall's will never be).
I'm just getting acquainted with the teams, and there's a long way to go, so it's hard to say anything about UK's prospects, but it's clear that Wall is a steady hand of the sort that is absolutely critical to winning in the NCAA tournament. He scores--and well--when he needs to; otherwise, he sets up the numerous, talented athletes Calipari's brought in (last year's UK squad didn't make the NCAA field). I try to be agnostic about coaches and their ego shows; my loyalty to the jersey goes above and beyond such things.