Sunday, January 29, 2017

Only Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson Are Allowed To Know Things

Pictured: Not Coaches, So, Idiots
Tonight, deep into garbage time of the Warriors' confetti bucket job on the Clippers (honestly, NBA, can't we just flex out of blowouts? Grizzlies-Jazz could have used some love, and as the rest of this post shows, less of the ESPN "A" Team would be wonderful), the crew threw it to some writer, who put forth the entire reasonable proposition that Portland's Damian Lillard, the most noted All-Star Game snub from the West, might have been a more deserving pick than the Warrior's Klay Thompson.

The writer, being a writer, cited some facts. Facts, in the manner of statistical, empirical evidence. Facts, in the manner of opinions based on that evidence. Facts, based on the reaction of people close to the Warriors. Relevant facts! As a basis for an argument. I was surprised too, this being ESPN. Anyway, those facts.

a) Thompson's shooting percentages are down. He hasn't been as effective shooting the ball this year as last year. That's kind of important, seeing how Thompson is a shooting guard.

b) That decrease in proficiency is also kind of unexpected, given that Golden State now has Kevin Durant replacing Harrison Barnes, which means that Thompson, well, can't be facing the same kind of defensive attention as he did in 2015-16. It also passes the eye test from the Warrior games that I've watched this year. Dude is more open, and a lot less double teamed.

c) It's difficult at times to measure defensive effectiveness in the NBA. If you play against centers, there just aren't that many who are offensive machines; you just aren't going to have too many games where the guy facing you is a threat to put up 30+ and put you on national television highlights. Defense in the NBA now really is much more of a team experience, with switches and zones, and everyone has to be able to go close out on shooters. I get that it's hard, and for people of A Certain Age who like the world the way it used to be, just counting statistics resonate. So and so scored 20 points; he's a good player. His opposite number scored 30, maybe not so much, but also maybe still, because in scoring 30, maybe he took 30 shots and turned it over a dozen times. You can be a bad player with good counting numbers. You can be a good player with bad counting numbers. Any number of guys have proven this. It's not even a new story.

But here's the thing -- we do have stats now to measure defensive effectiveness. We count deflections along with steals, count shooting percentages when faced by a primary defender, and so on, and so on. These statistics are data, and the thing about data is that it doesn't discriminate.

So if I were to tell you that of the four star Warriors (Durant, Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson), one of the four has a markedly worse defensive rating, based on the number of points scored by the Warriors versus the number of points scored against when they were on the floor... wouldn't that be, well, relevant as to whether they deserve to make the All Star Game?

Especially when that person is Thompson, who we've also established isn't playing as well this year on offense?

Especially when basketball history is rife with guys who have trouble on defense when their shot isn't falling, because that's kind of human nature?

So, having made this sound, reasoned and cogent argument as to why Lillard might be a better pick than Thompson this year, I'd like to point out the following.

1) Dude isn't saying Thompson is *bad*. He's just saying not as deserving.

2) Dude isn't saying that Lillard is better than Thompson for anything more than, well, this year and this moment. Which is what an All Star Game is supposed to reward. It's not a lifetime achievement game, it's the best of this year.

3) Dude isn't even saying that Thompson is bad at defense. Just noting that his numbers are down this year.

Oh, and if you hate numbers? Dude also said that all of this jibes with what THOMPSON'S OWN COACHES ARE SAYING TO HIM, in their attempts to motivate him during yet another long regular season, in a year where anything but a championship means Shinola to the Warriors. (And to be honest, if I were on the Warriors, I'd be bored by basketball pretty often, too. They've pretty much solved it for now.)

If you disagree with this, there are reasonable ways to do it. You can talk about Portland's won-loss record as a way of questioning Lillard's performance. You can wonder about the sample size of 40-odd games. You can talk about how acclimating Durant has likely hurt Thompson most of all, discussed injury situations, or cited how Kerr likes to put Thompson out with the bench guys more than the others, and how the Warrior bench has been unsettled with personnel changes.

There are intellectually honest ways to discuss this. Plenty of them, actually.

Now, how did ABC's announcing team react to this?

Like, well, asshat jocks who Know Things that no one else can know, and weren't ashamed to Pull Rank.

Van Gundy said that the next time a writer told him who was good on defense, he'd pretty much take a crap on his desk. Jackson concurred. Then they spent the next two minutes extolling the virtues of Thompson on defense, DESPITE THE FACT THAT ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE LEARNED GENTRY, Steve Kerr, THE GUY WHO COACHES THOMPSON EVERY DAMNED DAY OF HIS LIFE, isn't satisfied with him on defense right now.

The segment ended with everyone bowing to the wisdom of Van Gundy and Jackson, because They Know Stuff.

I don't know about you, dear reader, but I'm getting well and truly tired of ignorant people thundering that they know more than the people who actually build an argument with facts because They Know Better.

That kind of utter crap needs to be called out in the new political climate each and every time it occurs, because when ignorant people "win" arguments through nothing more than bluster, we all lose. Reality on reality's terms. PLEASE.

Oh, and one last and final freaking point that even Van Gundy and Jackson would have to concede?


So you aren't coaches, either.

And when you were coaches, you didn't win squat. Jackson was, of course, the last coach to keep Curry from being an MVP, and the Warriors from being champions and monsters. Van Gundy's best claim to fame is that he's willing to be scrappy while losing, and that he's got a brother who has also never won a title.

Which means, by your own logic, you can't know anything either.

So why are you employed by ESPN, especially when it's your job to know and learn about basketball, and you are utterly unwilling to learn anything that contradicts what you already think?

Thank God these men aren't in politics, or medicine, or law, or anything else where The Stupid does more than irritate...

Friday, January 27, 2017

FTT Off-Topic: A Brief Note To My 14 Year Old Musical Self

Also, That Belt's Gotta Go
Not sports, move along or don't.

Hey, me? I've been thinking about you some this past few weeks, what with the Facebook meme of people talking about their teenage albums, and how, um, I'm not going to share all of mine. Mostly because, yeah, you were *way* too much into The Doors.

I get it, I get it -- the times you grew up in were not rife with guys who, well, sang like guys. Which is pretty much the only way you can sing, or want to, and you want to -- don't worry, that's going to happen, though in ways you're going to regret -- and short of being the only 14 year-old in the greater Philadelphia area who is somehow hip to the Replacements and Husker Du, you're pretty much screwed in your era. (Just wait out Michael Jackson, who is in fact a kid-touching creep that you'll be happy to avoid. Prince will save you.)

But, um, you do get that lyrics like "They've got the guns, but we've got the numbers" just aren't going to be something you want to get behind in a few decades, right? Here's a fun fact: guns beat numbers. Especially when they've got *good* guns. "Gonna win, we're taking over"? Look, Jim was a fine symbol of Not Happy at a time that really needed it, but he could barely make it to the gig and remain clothed. He's not taking over anything. And you knew this all the way, since it's not as if the sum'bitch wasn't already a decade in the ground when you got into him. (Spoiler alert: the death wasn't faked. He dead.)

So, maybe open up the listening pool a bit more than memorizing all of the lines in "Celebration of the Lizard." Poem is 15 freaking minutes long, dude, and trust me -- it never, ever, got you any. Probably *prevented* it, actually. If you must memorize some crazy long poem, and honestly, you don't -- there's going to be an Internet that will make all of that even more pointless than it already is -- go for Shakespeare. Or Byron. Or something from, gasp, Not A White Guy. You really should go for as much Not A White Guy as you can, honestly. It'd make much of your future so much easier.

Anyway, a few more quick points before I take off. I know you love Pink Floyd and think Really Deep And Dark Thoughts about that; those will fade, but it won't be so bad, because the albums hold up. You can steer out of that Prog Rock skid any time you like, honest, and while I'm proud of you for not hating Rap nearly as long as everyone else in your world, try to be a bit quicker on the draw there, too. Those Dire Straits albums are fine, and the sooner you realize that the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen aren't responsible for their radio overplay, the better. Same for Zeppelin. Honest, you'll get there. That guy Brian Kennedy you met? Stick with him. He'll get you into stuff that lasts.

Oh, and there's going to be this thing called Google, and Amazon, and you should buy shares of it. As much as you can, really. More important than college. (Oh, and apply to more colleges. Sheesh, you were really a mess...)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Super Bowl Pick: The Time Of Empire

Now And Forever
It's the kind of statistic that seems like it shouldn't matter because it's a small sample size, but here it is: Patriots QB and the NFL's Dorian Grey, Tom Brady, has never lost to his Super Bowl opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.

Sure, it's just a 4 game sample size, and the rotation of the NFL means that those losses come once every Olympics, but there it is. Home or road dome, the Pats win. (This also means that Falcons QB and Sudden Vindication of an All-In QB Strategy Matt Ryan has never beaten New England, but that's just 0-2.) You might notice a lot of that sort of thing going around, in re Brady's lifetime record.

There is, of course, many more stats for you to peruse as you consider your pick,and many of these seem incredibly germane; records of favorites, records by conference, trends in the past decade, and so on, and so on. I'm also partial to over-thinking these things, because money is money, and ending the year with a winning SB pick gets you in line to really enjoy the off-season. So let's get into the nitty gritty. 

The argument for New England: Incredible edge in coaching and championship game experience. Defense is playing its best ball of the year. Rushing attack is varied, deep and effective. Best big game QB of the era, and maybe the best big game QB of all time. Timing-based passing attack makes the other team's pass rush mostly theoretical. Pass coverage is among the best of this team's recent history, with coaching bringing up guys who failed elsewhere. Defense tackles well, and they are more stout against the running game than usual. They rarely, if ever, beat themselves.

The argument against: Pass rush is pedestrian at best. Without TE Rob Gronkowski, lacking a true game breaker, and heavily dependent on schemes (err, uncalled OPI). Special teams are mostly ordinary. Wide receivers are, with the moonshot exception of the Chris Hogan Game in the AFC Championship, no one that you have to double team. Fan base doesn't root hard, because they are the most spoiled people on the planet. They rarely, if ever, look as good in this game as they do in the AFC games that lead up to it.

The argument for Atlanta: Most complete offense in pro football, which is a necessity to beating the Patriots, since they usually take away your star and make you do other things. WR Julio Jones has only been stopped by health this year, and he gets a bye week; he is in the absolute prime of his career, and may so good as to even overwhelm the Patriots' scheming ability. HC Dan Quinn has been the best in the NFL this year, especially at getting his offense to not make mistakes in the red zone. QB Matt Ryan with a clean pocket this year has been historically good, and he should have that most of the day. The RBs are the best 1-2 attack in the NFL in many years, and unlike Pittsburgh, they don't suffer much in the event of injury. Secondary WRs make all of the plays, with Mohammed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel providing top-tier performance. Tight ends move the sticks and are reliable. In Vic Beasley Jr., the defense has the best young pass rusher in the game, and the defense is playing its best football of the year, with young LBs doing increasingly better work in coverage.

The argument against: No Super Bowl experience behind Quinn's coordinator work with Seattle, which (a) doesn't really count, and (b) doesn't really inspire, and will be beaten to death in the hype period before the game. Ryan has been exposed in big games in the past. Defense is bend not break, which doesn't work against a Brady offense, because Brady has exceptional patience, and eats young players alive. Special teams are also susceptible to breakdown. If Jones isn't 100%, WRs lose their tier structure and can struggle, because Gabriel isn't anything but a slot, and Sanu will try too hard. Defense in the red zone has been terrible for much of the year, so the recent better work shouldn't be seen as a definitive all clear.

The pick: This game has a 59.5 over under, which is the highest over/under in Super Bowl history, and sounds right in the ballpark to me; the only reason to pick an under is the concept that the scoring drives might not be very quick. Neither of these teams is going to stop the other; what will happen is that penalties and drops will combine to trip up less than a third of drives, and red zone execution will be everything. I'm looking for over 900 yards of total offense, which means that a pick in this game really comes down to a dozen critical plays, rather than, well, what you might historically have done, in regards to line play, momentum, record against common opponents, and so on.

If you pick the Falcons, you are trusting talent over experience, youth over execution, and the team that played in the tougher conference, with the much harder playoff path, against the folks that are, well, always here. If you pick the Patriots, you are rooting for the Empire to do what they do most of the time, and have the comfort of knowing that they rarely, if ever, lose games on their own mistakes... and the Falcons don't fit the profile of teams that beat them in the playoffs.

I have a clear and strong rooting interest in this game, in that this is the 14th time in the last 15 years that a Boston area team is playing for a championship in one of the four major American sports. This isn't just the most spoiled fan base in American history; they are also just the worst, because the New England diaspora means that they have local front runners everywhere, and unlike other fan bases, somehow feel like if they just talk to you about their team long enough, they'll convert you to their cult. (Every other fan base is just happy for themselves, and hangs out with their own kind, because they have a modicum of human decency. Yes, even New York Fan.) This also means that betting lines are skewed in their favor, because the chalk pick is to just take the dynasty and the over, and assume that the game will be, like many things in this country right now, terrible.

I'm an optimist by nature. I believe that I can work out any problem, think my way to new solutions, re-boot my mind with exercise and focus, and so on. Picking the Patriots has overtones of defeat and despair, of giving up on having a watchable game for just the third time in eleven NFL playoff games. If the Patriots win, a certain political figure and human denial of service attack will be happy, and anything that makes that person happy right now is incredibly suspect.

But all of that is beside the point, and makes things more complicated than it needs to be. Teams that are in the Super Bowl for the first time rarely play their best game from the start, rarely have all of their skill players avoid turnovers, and rarely have defenders not try too hard to make plays and commit back-breaking penalties of aggression.

Against the Empire, that gets you field goals instead of touchdowns, sustains drives you might have stopped, and puts you in a panicky early hole. The early stress leads to later stress and bad decisions even if you keep it close. Which winds up leading to coaches that spit the bit on fourth down decisions and play calls. There's a reason why teams turn into idiots when they play the Patriots, and do things like, well, not give the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the goal line.

Which means that the Patriots can win in a blowout, win in a close game, and have enough of a lead to take care of the late cover. My call is for the latter, and my recommendation is for you to watch as little of the pre and post-game as you can. In the time of Empire, profit comes before heart. And in the nature of gambling, it always will.

Patriots 31, Falcons 27

Last week: 1-1

Playoffs: 6-4

Season: 121-144-5

Career: 880-889-54

Past SBs: 4-6

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Brief And Obvious Point About Sports Dynasties, Or How The Patriots Make Me Want To Stop Watching The NFL

When you read the history of baseball, and see all of those Yankee titles piled up in the 1950s, you might miss an obvious point about the decade: it wasn't a good one for the sport. Attendance declined, teams had to move to new cities (some of them fairly haphazardly), and other sports picked up margin, never to relinquish it. If you watched American League baseball in that time, and weren't a Yankee fan, you probably watched less baseball at the end of the decade than you did at the start.

We'll pivot to basketball. The Celtic dynasty of the '60s is something that stunted the NBA's growth for decades, with most of the league turning into Flyover Country between Boston and LA. Sure, other teams popped in from time to time, but the sport didn't really catch on at a national level until transcendent individual talents took command, and even now, building a great team takes longer than any other sport, and requires a superhuman amount of fortune at the draft. Not only do you have to win lotteries, you also need to win them in the right year, then hit on long shot picks for the supplemental players, and then keep everyone healthy. The Association is good now and getting better, but most of that is because it draws on six continents of talent in an unquestioned top league, unlike every other team sport on the planet that isn't soccer. The point: dynasties don't help.

Now, football. Tonight in New England, the Patriots punched their ticket to their I Don't Care How Many Super Bowl appearance, and if you know anyone who was excited to see the game and doesn't have Patriot merchandise in their closet, you are lying. It was the 8th out of 10 NFL playoff games this year that provided zero drama or fourth quarter interest, and it felt about as important as a squash match in the WWE. My Twitter feed was more concerned with Tom Brady's oversized jacket and nasal cleaning practices than any particular play, because that's just how damned deadly dull the game was.

Is there any way to blame the league or New England for this? Probably not, other than I have no idea why teams turn to idiots and butterfingers when they go into that yard. It would also be nice if the refs called fumbles, well, fumbles, or took issue with the rampant OPI on bubble screens, hands to the face and holding on offensive line plays, DPI on their secondary, and so on. I honestly lost count on the penalties that weren't penalties, and stopped caring in the second quarter of this game, and while New England didn't need any of that crap to win, it's still just, well, dispiriting.

But what I can tell you is that, well, I care a hell of a lot less about football now than I used to, and New England is a big reason why. I don't like this team or their fans, and I feel stupid for caring about a sport where they win all the damned time, honestly. The worst year to be a Patriot Fan in the past 15 years would be the best year to be a fan for half of the franchises in the league, and it doesn't matter that they do it with different guys or whatever. I watch sports to not think about things that are far more important and frequently far more depressing, so when sports are equally or more depressing than what I'm trying to escape from, it's just, well, the worst.

Oh, and hearing from the analysts about how historic and majestic and amazing all of this is, when it's the same damned thing, pretty much every year?

Not making my decision to care about football any better, honestly.

So, congrats to the Patriots. Go, Falcons. I'll watch the Super Bowl because I'm a lifer, and have a Not The Patriots team to root for that doesn't sicken me.

But the next 7+ months of No Football?

I'm going to enjoy that.

More than the NFL this year, at least...

Top 10 NFL Conference Championship Ad Questions

Furry Lover
10) Is Century 21 losing a lot of sales to robots?

9) Does anyone look at that sad collection of Burger King gristle and think "meal"?

8) Is the best use of the Internet of Things really to tell me when my milk is going to go bad?

7) Does anyone else notice that the people in the Infinity ads seem to be living in a mansion with an absurd amount of space and amenities?

6) If I eat chicken from Popeye's as a male, will it turn my voice to a more feminine register, and if so, how does that help to sell chicken?

5) What do end of life issues have to do with Care Auto Insurance?

4) If you are drinking fast food coffee, can you really win the day, assuming your day doesn't involve some kind of bathroom contest?

3) Do I really need to know the name of the guy who plays the miniature spokesman for Dr. Pepper?

2) Isn't the more realistic case of Order Envy a half hour later, when the people who didn't go to Taco Bell avoid crippling diarrhea?

1) Can't Hermione just use her witch powers to solve the Beast's problem?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

I Am Robert Covington's Juju

Ro Co Ju Ju
I don't mean to make this blog entirely about my basketball laundry, the ever loving Sixers, honest and for true. But right now, they are just about the most compelling team in the Association, because they keep winning games in ways that they have never done before, and in quantities that seem entirely out of keeping with their standing.

In microcosm, consider tonight's bizarre escape win at home, which I got to see from the top row in the corner of the arena, because the club is just selling tickets like mad right now, and when my friend and I decided to take in the game, we thought we'd just sit in cheap seats and avoid ticket surcharges, because we're old people who have better things to spend money on then, well, ourselves.

Philly didn't play a particularly good game tonight. They shot 36 for 92 from the field with 18 turnovers, and missed 7 of 16 free throws. Rookie center and down-ballot MVP candidate (honest, I think he's somewhere in the 8 to 10 range right now; check out the Sixers' stats with and without him on the floor, especially on defense) Joel Embiid only played 22 minutes due to precautions following a few tumbles, manifesting in a knee contusion that caused the fan base to say their usual prayers whenever the big goof hits the floor. Which is often, because he knows no limits or fear, because the fan base takes care of that for him. Only three guys were in double figures tonight, and the bench shot 7 for 36 (!). Nothing about this game from a numbers standpoint says a win, and yet, well, they won.

How? Robert Covington, again. Portland went up 91-87 with under a minute to play on a couple of Mason Plumlee free throws. Philly's Gerald Henderson, part of the bench brick squad, missed a corner three with a heave that was in no danger of drawing iron. Dario Saric, providing utility despite his own 1 for 12 night, got the board and tipped it out to Covington, who had to fire from 25 to beat the clock. Swish. Just found money luck, the kind of thing that never happens to teams like the Sixers in the past so many years, but seem to be happening a lot now. One point game, Portland timeout with 38.2 left.

Well, Portland still had Damian Lillard, who ended the night with 30 points, and is just the kind of stone cold closer that ends games like this. His back court mate, the very good CJ McCollum, missed a step back from the corner, but the little point guard got the board and took the foul from Henderson to go put the game on a 3-point lead. Lillard hits at near 90% from the line and is clutch as hell, so he was going to make both and turn the game into a heave and pray for overtime situation... but, um, he missed the second. Ersan Ilyasova grabbed the board, and following recent positive historical patterns, Sixers coach Brett Brown didn't call a timeout, preferring to let his players run and try to create in chaos.

Which resulted in a flat-out no-conscious three from Covington from 28 feet away off a TJ McConnell feed with 4.5 seconds left. When Covington let it fly, I said, out loud because there was time enough as the rainbow arced, "Bob, you've got to be kidding me." Boom goes the Rocomite. Sixers led by 1 with 4.5 seconds left, and the crowd is just delirious with I can't believe what I just saw. From a guy who is shooting less than 30% from the arc this year, and just 36.5% overall, and has gotten to just over 5K minutes in his NBA life because he's a defensive ace and willing to work for the NBA equivalent of top ramen, This Is Cray Cray.

Well, um, OK... but the Blazers still have Lillard, and any kind of score with 4.5 seconds left is a heart-breaking loss, rather than a complete escape. Portland also got to the line 28 times in this game, so it's not as if the refs weren't willing to be the story at the close. So that's when the Blazers chose to... inbound the ball to Plumlee, 4 of 14 from the field in this one, to run a screen and go with Alllen Crabbe (a scintillating 1 of 3 for 4 points in 25 minutes), which wound up resulting in a contested piece by Plumlee of Yeah, That's Much Less Worrisome Than Lillard, with Nerlens Noel doing his raptor arms routine to help it go awry. It stayed out, ball game, let's all sing the Clap Your Hands Everybody theme song and raise your cat in the air, and the laundry now has 15 wins for the year, or five more than all of last year.

Oh, and just five games out of the 8th spot now, with increasing evidence that .500 basketball will most assuredly get you there. And sure, the 8th spot just makes you LeBron James' latest speed bag, but at least we'd get to see Embiid on a national stage for Extra Hoop.

As startling as this win was, it was also Damned Lucky, as you might have guessed from the rundown above. The team plays in Atlanta tomorrow without Embiid due to the usual precautionary rest in back to back games, and Atlanta is as hot as they are, and have turned them into putty for the better part of a decade now. I don't give them more than a chance in 20, honestly, of turning this three game winning streak into a four banger.

But next Tuesday, at home against a Clipper team that should be without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? That's another point of Good Luck for a team that seems to have new access to an account of the stuff that's been untouched for years. There's another back to back right after that one with the revenge-minded Bucks in Milwauee, again without Embiid, and then a Friday night game against the terrifying but recently mortal Rockets. This was a game they absolutely had to have to keep the momentum and playoff dream alive, but it's still hard to see how they do more than tread water for the next week.

Until you see finishes like this one, where a 30% brickmaster rains down two game-changing and highly contested threes in 34 seconds, and we're all singing like fools.

There really isn't any more fun season in sports than the Unexpectedly Good one, and the past month has been nothing but that. It's not even a situation where we're ruining anything for the team's long-term success, because the club holds Laker and King pick swaps that make winning on your own damn terms completely OK.

Oh, and RoCo? That's two straight games with me in the house where you hit a last-second game-winner. Send me tickets, friend. Your future earnings will thank me.

Friday, January 20, 2017

NFL Conference Game Picks: End Of Bandwagon

NE Bandwagon, Soon
Last week in the NFL playoffs, we had a Saturday of chalk, then a Sunday where the league finally gave us games that were worth watching. The expectation is that now that we're to the Final Four, both games will be fascinating and exceptional, but the history tells us that what usually happens is one classic, and one blowout.

Which isn't quite how I want to see this weekend, but ignoring history is usually a bad way to spend your money. Especially in football prognostication. Feel free, however, to ignore my less than stellar history at picking games. I mean, if we're going to start paying attention to track records, we might not have a guy occupying the most powerful job in the history of the world who was such a stone chump that he couldn't make money running casinos. And where's the fun in that?

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

Green Bay at ATLANTA (-5)

How to lose a playoff game despite having talent advantages at something like 18 out of 22 starting positions...

a) Put the early play calling on pinpoint execution from your game manager rookie QB who is making his first playoff start, rather than your best-in-class offensive line and rested RB

b) Fail to come up with innovative or unpredictable blitz packages to supplement your lacking pass rush against a QB that's literally carving you to bits, and only has real trouble when faced with immediate pressure

c) Throw away the game with last minute clock management that makes Andy Reid look like a Super Genius (why call time out when you can clock it? you're going to need that timeout to ice the kicker before you lose!), and

d) Fail to cover a crossing route with literally seconds left in regulation, giving said QB all of the chance he needed to make a miracle save against an overtime where you would have had all of the momentum.

Mind you, I'm not bitter that Dallas blew the home game that they worked all year to achieve; it was, actually, a laff riot of the highest possible order, and will be on the short roll of reasons why Cowboys HC Jason Garrett will be unemployed in 12 months, and not successful at the What Were They Thinking final HC job he gets from some desperate AFC outfit later. (After Dallas fails to make the playoffs next year, because free agency is coming for that O-line, and QB Dak Prescott and RB Zeke Elliott aren't getting through their sophomore years unscathed.) But I digress.

The point is that as good as Rodgers is playing right now, the Pack are damned lucky to be here, and the reasons why they are lucky are obvious. The secondary is battered, the defensive line only gets push for so long before they get worn out, and the offense can't take pressure off Rodgers to be perfect, because the running game is supplemental at best. Without a full-speed Jordy Nelson at WR1, the secondary guys have to catch pretty much everything, and while they did that last week in Dallas, counting on it again is unwise.

There's also this: Atlanta has a real live sack monster in Vic Beasley Jr, with 15.5 on the year, and Dallas didn't, once DE Randy Gregory went ham on the drugs again. Those dozen-odd plays where Rodgers dances around like he's three seconds into the future, and breaks the back of the defense? Well, he's still going to have some of those, but not so many as to author 30+ points. And 30+ points is going to be absolutely necessary in a dome setting, against an Atlanta offense that is hitting on all cylinders, and has the patience and intelligence to call actual running plays in the red zone.

I'd like this to be a 34-31 classic, back and forth, amazing game, and that's really the only kind of game that Green Bay can win. But the more likely event is that Rodgers finally doesn't play at an A++ level, the Packer WRs don't make enough plays, and the Falcons get a turnover or two and get more than one score ahead in a game where they rarely even face a difficult third down. It's been a hell of a ride for Green Bay, but there's only so far you can go when you are this dependent on one guy, and don't even have a great coach to help him. (Oh, and thank heavens that Rodgers already has a ring, otherwise he'd be getting nothing but Dan Marino comps by now.)

Falcons 38, Packers 27

PITTSBURGH (+6) at New England

I get why the public is all over the Pats; they've been a blue-chip betting prospect all year at home, and normally when they stumble around a bit in one game, they bring it hard for the next. They also have that famous 1.5 day edge in prep time, motivation from Antonio Brown's desire to corner the market in social media slut shaming, and Brady / Belichick, the Palpatine and Vader of the NFL. Pittsburgh also has had severe issues on scoring well in road games, and the defense has had any number of That Doesn't Look Good moments.

But when you watched the actual games last week, rather than just the final scores, you saw a Patriot team that, had they been facing an actual QB instead of a tall carny and object lesson of why you shouldn't pay too much for a guy that his old team wouldn't extend for, they really could have been in trouble. The offense just isn't as terrifying without TE Rob Gronkowski, especially since the WRs just don't get the same kind of separation down field. The RBs are functional, but Dion Lewis will put it on the carpet, LeGarrette Blount can't do much in the passing game, and James White only works in a handful of sets. The OL is better than the unit that nearly got Brady killed last year in their end in Denver, but not so much. The STs aren't getting scores in back to back weeks. And while the defense has kept teams from scoring all year, they've also done it with suspect secondary numbers and the usual AFC LEast cupcake schedule. I think this is a good Patriots team, not a great one.

As for Pittsburgh... well, the number of games where they've had Brown, LeVeon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger all pulling on the oars at the same time is a fairly small subset, and all of those guys are making this game. The defense is playing its best ball of the year now, which is to say, at the only time of the year that matters. K Chris Boswell was aces to get them here, and I don't think they've played their best game yet. Put them in a neutral setting, and this line is a lot closer. And here's the very dirty secret of Foxborough's fans: they are the most spoiled SOBs on the planet, and when things turn on them, they go away. Fast. Steeler Fan travels, too.

So I like Pittsburgh to not just cover this spread, but to shock the world and just plain win the game. Look for Brown to win his matchup against CB Malcolm Butler with penalties early and separation late, Roethlisberger to move the sticks with all manner of Other Guys, and Bell to close the deal with some of his own magic, which is the football equivalent of when the Harlem Globetrotters just spin the ball in front of their opponents, then blow by them. I have no idea why that works for him and only him, but man alive, does it work. And it's going to be beautiful.

Steelers 31, Patriots 27

Last week: 2-2

Playoffs: 5-3

Season: 120-143-5

Career: 879-888-54

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The best defensive team in the NBA

Block Party
Tonight in South Philly, the Sixers were trying to beat Toronto, pretty much the clear second-best team in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors had won the last 14 games in the series, mostly because they have one of the best five backcourts in the NBA, and for the past five years, the Sixers have employed a collection of circus animals to play guard.

Having led most of the night, we knew how this game was going to end. Toronto would get Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan heated up, the Sixers would turn it over at the offensive end, the refs wouldn't bail them out, and we'd all console ourselves with how hard they tried, and how they were getting closer to getting over the hump.

And then Dario Saric happened.

Dario is the Sixers' second-best rookie so far this year, which is to say, he's a guy that no one is paying much attention to. He started off the year well, hit the rookie wall when his Euro levels of conditioning failed him, and has picked it up recently. But he's 6'-9", has 3-point range, some handle, and cares about defense. He's growing on us, honestly.

Normal Powell tried to get to the rim off a pass, and Saric pretty much ate it; straight up, startling athleticism, just a great play. The ball went to the corner, was retrieved by the Raps, and the Raps' Jared Sullinger, a big that's taller than Saric, took it to the rack and tried to dunk it. Saric pretty much ate that, too, as the crowd erupted in a way that it hasn't, really, in the better part of a decade. Joel Embiid leaped off the bench, the Sixers' descended on Saric en masse like he had just hit a walk-off home run, and suddenly, winning this game seemed much more likely, because it was possible that Toronto, and everyone else who played the Sixers, might never score again.

By the way, that all happened with eight minutes left in the game.

Fast forward to 35 seconds left. The Sixers are holding a four point lead. Lowry is outside of the three-point line, and he's covered by Robert Covington, the Sixers' best wing defender... and RoCo is on him like paint, eventually blocking (!) a 28-foot (!) three point attempt. Lowry collects the loose ball and drives the lane, only to encounter Embiid, who stuffs him at the 6-foot line, collects the ball, and also the foul from Lowry. Just an astounding collection of stops, all in rapid succession, against one of the league's best, who was having a good night to boot. (Oh, and by the way? Embiid had the flu, and still had 20-9-2 in 26 minutes, which is his 10th straight game with 20+ points. Dude is that good.)

with the win, the Sixers move to 14-26, still a half dozen games out of the 8th spot in the East and the chance to get some national TV attention while losing to the Cavaliers, but all of that is really besides the point. They might get there, especially if Ben Simmons really does make his debut after the All-Star Break, and gives them a boost a point guard. (TJ McConnell is totally adorable and the team has been winning with him recently, but he's really not the long-term answer as a starter.)

No, what's important is that this has become a startlingly good defensive team, which is the reason why they are now 7-3 in their last 10. (Even more impressive, it's 7 of their last 8 when Embiid is in the lineup.) Covington is one of the NBA's leaders in steals and deflections, Nerlens Noel has always been a stopper, Embiid can do it all, and as we saw tonight, Saric is joining in the fun. They kept Toronto to 39.5% from the floor tonight, and won despite a -13 margin in turnovers. For a team that used to have absolutely no margin for error, well, now they have one.

Next up is Friday at home against Portland, a game that they'll really need to win, because Embiid won't be around for the Saturday night loss in Atlanta. The week after gives them a Clipper team without Chris Paul or Blake Griffin at home, then another game without Embiid in Milwaukee. Unless they win a game without their stud center, the playoff drive probably is going to be on hold until Simmons returns...

But again, beyond the point. This is now one of the best defensive teams in the Association, and as Memphis has shown for most of the last decade, that's an exotic enough thing to win more games than you might think.

And when you stuff guys all over the floor?

Fun as hell to watch, too.

FTT Off-Topic: Nothing To See Here

Desolation, Sans Drama
Not sports, you know the drill.

A brief note to anyone who might stumble upon these words... you really should do yourself a favor and learn to live without the United States, as you knew it, for a while.

Yes, I know; it's hard, what with our terrifying military, cultural imperialism and corporate hegemony. Even if our government wasn't in the hands of a gerrymandered minority that has managed, through remarkable persistence, a mostly compliant media and an utter lack of morality, to seize control of every branch of government. The guy who will occupy the office will also do everything in his power to not be ignored, because he's the worst embodiment of child; the kind that got everything he ever wanted, is still not happy, and is convinced that he deserves more.

Your only course for sanity will be to find other things to occupy your time. Some will protest, others will run for office, others will try to exact greater control over their local area; all are fine acts to save off madness, and all have only the good that you give them. Personally, I'd focus on donations of time and money to non-governmental agencies or good corporate actors to do the work that the U.S. should, and would have been better at. But your mileage may vary.

If that's not really your thing, create art, make music, write books; these are always better in times of crisis, kind of like how air pollution makes for better sunsets. It's not an equal trade off, but Green Day's "American Idiot" is a great record. No sane person would trade off the Iraq War for it, but it's a great record.

As for the folks who live here, and are either culpable for this disaster, will pretend that they aren't later, or have resisted it and will now live with the same pain and degradation, only without any kind of illusionary break-in period... well, I'm not really sure what to say to all of us. Mostly because I don't think anyone in the nation has the ability to speak to all of us, and be heard, because we really aren't one nation. We probably never were, given the way we've handled non-whites and non-straight males, but it's become even more apparent now.

There is no major city in the United States where a majority of the populace voted for the man who will occupy the office of President. There is no rural area that didn't vote for him. We have no blue states or red states or toss-up states; we have pockets of people who are either minorities or want to live in a world with them routinely. There are more of these people, but that doesn't matter. They didn't get what they wanted, and might never again, because democracies are actually fragile things, and once you cross the event horizon away from one, walking back isn't assured. This is not new; it's just more pronounced now.

We also have the greatest capacity in human history to destroy life, and we've put it in the hands of a man who rarely sleeps, fights with literally hundreds of people on social media, and has had over a dozen women accuse him of sexual assault.

This is not the hallmark of a country where the citizens feel any kind of, well, kinship with one another. This is, rather, the hallmark of people who just want them to hurt like they do.

So, at the risk of sounding unhinged? Well, I like to consider a broader perspective on many things, and go wider. I look out at the universe, and how much more we know about it now, with so many stars and exo-planets proven, and so many more coming every day.

All of those worlds, and yet none of them, to date, showing any sign of sentient life, of expression, of existence. We've been scanning and listening for over half a century now, and to the best of our knowledge, we are alone, have always been alone, and will always be alone.

Which, if you want to consider things from a fatalistic standpoint, might meant that civilizations can only get so far, before venality combines with technology to wipe the slate clean.

All of which seems crazy and over the top, especially for a figure that has been the fuel for comedic ridicule for my entire adult life...

Until you remember the nukes, and the cold, dead stars.

And how the planet is getting hotter every year, and how facts are going to be ignored, because they don't fit in the worldview of the child king.

Best, really, to ignore him, and think about, well, anything else. While we can.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Top 10 NFL Final 8 Ad Questions

Bud Out
10) Forget being able to walk on the ceiling and defy gravity, can I simply walk in a straight line without AirBuds falling out?

9) Does Bill Cowher narrate people's lives often, and if so, can't he stop?

8) If I drive a Jeep, do I have to use it to kill skiers?

7) Are Pepsi drinkers prone to absurd fits of delusion, or does drinking Pepsi causes fits of delusion?

6) Why is Watson hanging out with little kids, and can't anything be done to stop it?

5) Has anyone told car makers that driving through huge gobs of snow might not be the be-all and end-all of a buying decision?

4) Does everything that consumes Mountain Dew get eaten, and if so, how does that sell soda?

3) Can I drink fast food coffee without engaging in weak cosplay?

2) What does car insurance have to do with undercover surveillance?

1) Why does Fox advertise the continued existence and employment of Skip Bayless, when Skip Bayless makes decent people spit?

Friday, January 13, 2017

NFL Final 8 Picks: The Last Good Weekend

And Show Me Football
One of the things that makes the end of the NFL season such a stone drag is that it comes with such an poor withdrawal schedule. Week 17 of the regular is usually meaningless. Wild Card Weekend rarely feels all that meaningful, and most of the time features more than a few blowouts. This weekend has four games that all matter, and three that have actual intrigue, but since half of the teams are coming off byes, you will be lucky to have two of the four contests with actual drama. Next week is just two games, then a bye, then one and boom -- you are done for eight months. I'm not saying this is wrong, given how terrible the game is for the bodies of the people who play it, but after 3+ months of nearly more game than you might want, it all seems sudden and cruel.

Last week, I went 3-1 against the spread, but it hardly seemed like an accomplishment, given how little drama was involved in the games. When the "best" game winds up being a 25-point beatdown, because the road club more or less stops trying halfway through the third quarter... well, that's a bunch of games with fleas.

But that was then, and this is now. The last great weekend of NFL games is upon us, and we all know where we're going to be -- taking a big miss on winter weather by settling into the couch for hours of sweet, sweet caring about things that don't really matter. Plus, we all get to dream of any Super Bowl that isn't Dallas-New England. What's not to love?

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

Seattle at ATLANTA (-4.5)

The slate starts with a game that could really be exceptional. Seattle has been the NFL's best franchise for years now (sorry, New England, but playing in a clown division gets you docked points), but there's a sense that the window is closing, what with the defense starting to lose pieces due to injury, age and free agency, and the offensive line moving to a feast or famine bargain bin situation. While the WRs and TEs have been better than at any point in the Russell Wilson Era, and the QB himself is as effective as ever, they just can't sustain drives with a power and finesse running game any more, and they routinely just fail to get first downs for a quarter or more. When they are at their best, they win, but they just aren't at that level often enough.

Atlanta, if they didn't have a track record of coming up small in big spots like this, would feel like a much more solid favorite. QB Matt Ryan is an MVP candidate, and WR Julio Jones is the conference's best by a pretty wide margin. They can run the ball with multiple backs, they benefit from a solid home dome field advantage, and for the first time in decades, they have a pass rush. They nearly beat Seattle in Seattle, in a game where Wilson and the refs allowed the home team to escape, and the Seahawks haven't been the same club on the road for years now.

So if you are taking the underdog, you are doing so because you think Wilson will be magical, that Ryan will come up small, that the Seattle defense will force turnovers, and that CB Richard Sherman can shut down Jones all over the field, without the other Falcon wideouts picking up the slack. That's all plausible, but you have to ignore the extra week of rest, the home field, the earlier game, and the failures that Seattle had to play this game on the road in the first place.

To me, it's all too much. I like the Falcons to come out to a big early lead, Seattle to come back, but the Falcons to win and cover at the close. Excellent game, though, and I wish the spread was tighter.

Falcons 27, Seahawks 20

Houston at NEW ENGLAND (-16)

The single game this weekend that no one really needs to watch is in the evening, where a guy who lost his QB1 job on lack of merit gets to go play the dominant #1 seed, at home, off a bye. I honestly don't know if there is a line that I'd take the Texans to cover, even with a highly ranked and regarded defense... because there just isn't enough here. At all.

Sure, any team can be beat, and if RB Lamar Miller goes for 200+ yards while LB Javedon Clowney has 4+ sacks, and maybe QB Brock Osweiler has the game of his life, Houston can stay in the picture long enough to make a back door cover and flop sweat happen for the home team. It's not as if New England hasn't ever crapped the bed at home against a physical team in the playoffs before. Part of the fun of being the only franchise in your division that hasn't perfected the art of setting your dumpster on fire is that you only have to win a handful of actually difficult games to get to the Super Bowl, but the downside of that is that you can be exposed as a fraud at any time.

The biggest problem with Houston shocking the world? Osweiler. He's terrible, and so bad that he actually drags the rest of what might be a competent offense down with him. WR DeAndre Hopkins is a true stud, but Oswiler negates him. Miller got 31 carries against a middling Raider defense that was playing from a deep hole all night long, but the defense had so little to worry about from the QB, he only got 73 yards from it... and if you take away the long of 19, it's 30 for 54. Gahhh.

Anyway, expect Osweiler to turn it over and/or not sustain drives, and the Patriots to wear the Texans out with short ball control passing, their usual litany of uncalled OPI, and more effective than expected running from LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. Oh, and they have that Tom Brady guy too, at home. Unless there's some kind of weather disaster or act of God (are you there, God? Feel free to remind us all of your presence by making the Massholes weep), I'm looking for a cover by the end of the first half, the starters off the field in the fourth quarter, and very few people watching the whole game, especially when it means that you are spending your Saturday night with Phil Simms and Jeeeeeeeeemmmmm Nantz. Honestly, just take a miss on it. It must be nice to only have to win two tough games a year to win a Super Bowl.

Patriots 38, Texans 17

Pittsburgh at KANSAS CITY (-1)

An outstanding matchup between two teams that really could prevent the Patriot Horror, but if they were to combine squads, this would be the best outfit in football. Pittsburgh's offense has the best WR and RB in the business in Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell, and QB Ben Roethlisberger has been to the mountaintop before. The KC defense has been the best in the conference for the second half of the season, and the home field is among the best in sports. Should be a hell of a game, honestly.

So why am I going for the home team? I just don't think the Pittsburgh defense is up to the task, and when you give KC HC Andy Reid a bye week, he's pretty airtight. The Chiefs will move the ball often enough to wear the road team down, and if the game is close enough to be swayed by special teams, pure burner Tyreek Hill is the best in the business right now. It also doesn't help the road team that Roethlisberger hasn't been good away from Heinz Field for years now. But if any RB and WR can overcome all of that, it's Brown and Bell. Hell of a game.

Chiefs 27, Steelers 24

Green Bay at DALLAS (-5)

I really, honestly, wanted to take Green Bay here... but then WR Jordy Nelson got hurt in the game last week, and the Packer offense without their only actually plus WR is just a little too hairy for me to go with them. (The latest is that Nelson might try to play, despite rib injuries, by donning a Kevlar vest. Which is to say, even if he does take the field, he's going to be incredibly compromised.)

It's still a very near thing, because WR Randall Cobb might be 100% for the first time in forever and QB Aaron Rodgers against a mediocre defense is tasty as hell. I also think Dallas can be had, because QB Dak Prescott has never been in a playoff before and strikes me as, at heart, a game manager type that isn't going to play his best when all of the money is on the table...

And yet, there's just the rest of it. Packer HC Mike McCarthy eats paste pretty often. The Packer ground game is lacking. Their secondary is being held together with wire and gristle. Dallas has the best offensive line in football and the best RB, so they might not need Prescott to do much at all, honestly. They've never had much of a home field advantage, but they've also spent years in the wilderness before having so much line up their way, and home fields can happen with a quickness.

I don't like their defense, especially with talented dirtbag DE Randy Gregory picking up another suspension and hurting a nascent pass rush, but as good as Rodgers is, the Packer offense can take quarters off. If Dallas gets out to a big lead and just feeds the rested and ready RB Zeke Elliott, well, Rodgers' career has a lot of beatdown losses where it looks like he cuts his chute halfway through.

As a fan, I want the Pack to win, and Rodgers can win anywhere, at any time. But if you were to rank all 22 starters on both sides, it's probably something like 16-6 to Dallas on talent. On the road, off a bye, bad coach, WR1 compromised? Dallas might just blow them out, and even if they don't, piling up enough early points to prevent the comeback is also on the table.

It's all just too much to bet the Pack. Maybe not too much to hope for, but too much to bet.

Cowboys 27, Packers 20

Last week: 3-1

Season: 118-141-5

Career: 877-886-54

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Wild Card Weekend Ad Questions

Stop Touching The Food
10) Are the deaf kids who use Microsoft playing other football teams that are not only deaf, but ten years younger than them, seeing how as they are wildly bigger than their opponents?

9) Did anyone else find the T-Mobile crawling fees ad more than a little nauseating?

8) Could Chevy lower their prices by not having so many oversized display areas with extra sliding door rooms?

7) Are fat guys with Galaxy Fitbit-like devices just going to kill themselves in February, seeing how getting fit appears to be so insanely daunting?

6) Do all horror movie trailers have to end with a white girl getting dragged off camera?

5) Does Honda employ any humans on their production line, or are showboating robots the only workers?

4) If I don't use Cure auto insurance, will they kill my dad? (Joke's on them, he's already dead.)

3) Is Geico making a political statement about how hard it is to convict white guys, or that only white people are dumb enough to post crime evidence to social media?

2) Are people who fly Southwest likely to die at the hands of a medieval recreation?

1) Is the point of the H&R Block ads that Jon Hamm is a dick, and you should not work for him?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Wild Card Weekend Picks: These Don't Really Matter

Thank You, Bill Murray
The final numbers are in, and the NFL's ratings for the year are down an ominous 10%. It used to be 15%, but the last month has been better, and the value of bandwagon fan bases with national followings (i.e., New England, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Green Bay) all in the hunt can't be overstated. Other than the flush year that LA, SF and Chicago served up, the league couldn't really ask for more from its playoff field.

And yet, I can't help but feel a big old meh coming, especially when three of the eight teams are going to start bad back up QBs. People like to talk about how wonderful the NFL playoffs are, and how every regular season game matters because only 12 of 32 teams get to play extra games, but the reality is that some divisions stink, schedules are strongly unequal, and the Patriots only have to win, like, one hard game a year to go to the Super Bowl. Ratings are off 10%? Why not more?

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

Oakland at HOUSTON (-3.5)

Some part of me wants to take the Raiders here, because a full week of practice for rookie QB Connor Cook, a challenge effort from the Raiders' best in conference offensive line, and the utter vapidness of Texans QB Brock Osweiler are all compelling factors. But in the final analysis, the Raider season ended when QB Derek Carr got hurt, and the Texans' defense will give their pop-gun offense good field position all day and a stress-free environment to work in. We should all find opportunities in life to be so abundant.

Texans 24, Raiders 13

DETROIT (+8) at Seattle

The far better game is at night, where the Lions go to the Pacific Northwest to fight the team that has been the best in the NFC for years, but look to be at the end of the run. Seattle's defense has been special, especially in the secondary, but two out of four starters are out due to injury, and the Lions' offensive game has been surprisingly multi-faceted in the last month. QB Matthew Stafford is good against a blitz, the Seattle OL has been a bargain bin of what the hell, and I think this all winds up in a close game. That the home team will likely win, but cover? Not so much.

Seahawks 24, Lions 20

Miami at PITTSBURGH (-10)

One of only two AFC teams with an actual shot to prevent the Patriots from getting to the Super Bowl Yet Again, the Steelers enter the post-season with health for QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown, and RB LeVeon Bell. That gives them a puncher's chance of winning in a shootout, but they first have to take care of business against the snakebit Marine Mammals, who are using QB2 Matt Moore and RB Jay Ajayi, who has been the NFL's best in the second half of the year. The only problem is that RBs don't win games by themselves, and the Steeler defense has picked it up recently. Lay the points, because the Steelers will have this one wrapped up by the end of the third quarter.

Steelers 31, Dolphins 13

NY Giants at GREEN BAY (-4.5)

The most intriguing game of the weekend ends things late on Sunday, with the Giants going to the Never Frozen Again Tundra to face the run the table Pack. The Giants have more than a chance here, because the Pack is absolutely decimated in the secondary and the Giants have (a) a reasonable defense, and (b) one of the league's best WRs in the temperamental Odell Beckham Jr. But the Giant offense is too one dimensional, Beckham far too prone to freakout and pouting, and QB Aaron Rodgers is just playing at another level right now. Also, the Pack is starting to find enough of a running game. It will be back and forth, but there's a reason why QB Eli Manning is mostly a guy with two sell to Satan runs, and a much larger career of turtling up on pressure and turning it over.

Packers 31, Giants 24

Last week: 9-7

Season to date: 115-138-5

Career: 874-885-54

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Covington Miracle

Big Shot Bob Basks
So tonight, as part of my Christmas gift (thanks, Shooter Mom!), I went to the Sixers-Wolves games down at whatever Bank is Currently Paying Them But Not Me Center, mostly because it promised to be a world-class matchup of young bigs, with the Sixers' Joel Embiid trying to get vengeance on Karl-Anthony Towns. Joining me was frequent blog contributor and all-around excellent guy to see a game with, Tracer Bullet. (Not his real name, but we like to keep things pseudo here on the ol' sports blog, because we haz secret identities and such.)

After some world-class bad for you food, because that's what Philadelphia is for, we made our way upstairs to the responsible seats, just in time to see the home team run out to a 57-point first half and a 15-point lead, which was actually a bit of a downer, in that the lead had been bigger before the end of the second. The ball movement was exceptional, the club didn't fall apart when Embiid went to the bench for either of the Not Joel Guys who are probably destined to be trade chip footnotes to the next good Sixers team, and the continually surprising Ersan Ilyasova kept bailing out possessions, taking charges, and otherwise just making the team look like, well, a team, rather than some kind of science experiment in young bigatood.

When the club ran out to hot start in the third to eventually go up 26 with less than 21 minutes to play, I wondered if the curse of giveaway third quarters was finally going to take a miss for my favorite 25% win team... but then Minnesota started getting Towns involved, Zach Lavine heated up, and the Sixers offense turned into a collection of turnovers, Robert Covington bricks and stagnant movement. Not coincidentally, this all happened with more Jahlil Okaford on the court, but to be fair, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot isn't an NBA player yet, the club was operating with a single quasi-NBA point guard with TJ McConnell (Sergio Rodriguez is hurt, Jarryd Bayless is de facto dead, and Ben Simmons isn't a thing yet), and the club was also without Gerald Henderson (fine) and Richaun Holmes (means more Okafor, which no one really wants any more).

The home team proceeded to pack in the turnovers in the second half, and only scored 23 points in the last 20:34. When Ricky Rubio made a desperate three (in that nearly every Rubio three is desperate, because Ricky Can't Shoot) to tie it up with 1.6 seconds left, the crowd was crushed... not the least of which was because we all know that overtime for the Sixers means Losing Without Embiid, still on the minutes restriction that is part and parcel of a 25% winning team that's still very much In Process. But on the final inbounds play, Minny oversold on the idea that the Sixers would force feed the big man, allowing the frequently booed  Covington, in the midst of a 4 for 14 performance that included a brutal 1 for 9 stretch from the arc, with few of the attempts even drawing iron, to collect a deep inbounds from Also Good Rook Dario Saric under the hoop. One improbable bit of bankery and english later, Big Shot Bob had his 12th and 13th points, and the young Wolves were en route to a deserved, but still desparing, road loss.

The Sixers really only had four players in this game that were worthy of acclaim: Embiid, Ilyasova, Saric and Covington. Which really speaks to how the front court rotation would work if the team was all about winning games, rather than developing talent. I liked some of the work that Nerlens Noel did in this game (8 points, 1 board and no turnovers in 11 minutes), but the Eraser is so gun shy about taking any contested shot right now, the offense is like 4-on-5 with him on the floor, and the less said about Okafor (2 points, 4 boards, 1-3 from the floor in 10 minutes, and just the perfect combination of clueless and disinterested on defensive switches), the better.

What was special in this game was, as always, Embiid. 25/8/3/1/2 on 8 of 20 from the floor, 1 of 3 from the arc, and 8 of 11 from the line, including the fun sadness of watching your 7-footer take technical free throws, because no one else on the team is much better than him at that. I loved his game until he, along with everyone else, played the last 20 minutes as if holding a lead was like holding soap in the shower. You also have to feel good for Covington for shaking off the boos and not letting his masonry work affect his defense; he was the primary on Andrew Wiggins, who was 2 for 15 in this game and clearly bothered by Bob's deflection kung fu. I could have come up with dozens of scenarios for the game-winner, but none of them would have involved Bob Finishing At The Rim; he's plainly terrible at that.

But in the final analysis... any game this team wins is a precious gift, but especially so when they are a pedestrian 7 for 32 from the arc, with 16 turnovers to 19 assists. They hustled on defense, they executed the miracle closing play from a timeout to get the final lead, and they showed what's possible when the ball movement is good. Next up is a road game in Boston with Embiid on Friday, and a much more winnable shot on Sunday against the Nets. And at 9-24, and 4-6 in their last 10, they aren't last in the East anymore! (That'd be Brooklyn.) Heck, a simple 15-game winning streak would put them right back in the playoff hunt.

OK, I kid -- or, perhaps, Kiid. But next year, with maybe a scary Simmons upgrading point play and another couple of strong lottery picks to throw at the remaining holes, continued health for Jo-El, and useful trade returns from Not Jo-El? Well, LeBron's got to get old someday, right?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

This Year's Poker Champion Is...

Eight years in the making
Dave Shimp, who you see on the right, and I'll be honest... I am mostly posting this here so that the guys in my game can see the picture without having to download a big honking picture. But while I'm at it, a small ad for people who are in the area, and want to get into a great home game.

Dave won $1,768 for his troubles, which is a new high. He also had the most points in our history, which tends to happen every year as the game grows in popularity. You gain a point for every tournament you enter, plus one for every player you outlast, and if you win, it's doubled. Dave won 3 out of the 18 events, cashed in a bunch more, and lasted long enough in the big stacks final to take care of his four remaining rivals. I'd be happier for him if I weren't one of the four.

If you are interested, ping me at dmtshooter at gmail dot com (we write it that way to keep the spammers away), and I'll get you the details. Next game is this Friday; you'll be glad you did.

Top 10 NFL Week 17 Ad Questions

Breaking Grande
10) Are Infiniti owners littering forests with trees that will not recover from being cut down?

9) Why are Ford customers so invested in violence for pleasure, and how is "punching work in the face" a good thing?

8) If I buy a Dodge, do I have to drive like an idiot in snow to annoy non-existent Russians?

7) Do Lincoln owners often stand in water and stare at their cars, or is that behavior reserved for stoner actors?

6) Does Peyton Manning know a lot of mascots, and if so, why does he keep inviting them to parties?

5) If you have alligator arms, how do you put on human clothes?

4) Are Target customers really excited about wasting dubiously healthy foods?

3) When the NFL is making safer shoes, has anyone thought about, um, safer helmets?

2) Are people who are interested in skiing in Utah aware that the slopes won't be pristine, for them alone, or populated by haughty blonde models?

1) If Verizon is responsible for abandoning Arianna Grande in the desert, aren't they doing the Lord's work?

Eagles - Cowboys Diary

So Is Winning Your Last Game
> My laptop lost power, which means I lost some earlier notes and had to close with a vengeance after a disastrous middle; feel free to match the Eagle season to that, really

> RB Darren McFadden in for the first run, just to prove that Zeke Elliott is taking the full day off

> S Malcolm Jenkins with the run blitz to set up a long third, which QB Dak Prescott can't convert

> Prescott played two series, got three points, took enough big hits to make Cowboy Fan wince, and made me continue to think he's just a game manager with the easier QB job in the NFL, which is to say I have hope for Silver losing in the playoffs

> The Eagles had a good first drive with lots of throws to TE Zach Ertz and good runs by RB Darren Sproles, which is to say, plays by the only two active Green offensive skill players who belong in the league

> Cursed WR Bust Little Nell Agholor lost a yard on a bubble screen and got hurt, and that was far from his worst game of the year

> Summer WR Fling Paul Turner got an 11 yard catch that showed he's got hands, if nothing else

> QB Tony Romo came in for one series where the Green defense did everything but send him mints and cocoa; two throws at CB Nolan Carroll got them down the field and in, because Carroll hasn't meant a pump fake he hasn't bit on

> Sanchez wih the disaster turnover as LB Jordan Hicks gets the tip and pick; great play by Hicks, all too usual play by the Sanchize

> From the Silver 35, Wentz extends the play, but misses WR Dorial Green-Beckham high; kid has skills but could easily be a turnover machine for some time, honestly

> Sanchez may be hurt, which would take a lot of the entertainment value out of this game

> Bad run, then DG-B doesn't get open or make a play

> Pederson goes for it on 4th and 9 rather than try the long figgie

> From the gun, Wentz misses everything high, and that's just bad; don't even know what the kid was thinking

> Sanchez returns, and Graham stops Morris in the backfield for a loss of 3

> Sanchez runs and slides for a yard, then on 3rd and long, the QB is wiped out by DE Marcus Smith on a sack; Silver committed two other penalties as well, and when the Sanchize is in, the other offensive personnel all go to his level

> P Chris Jones with the 66 yard punt of his life, and that's kind of the season in a nutshell, too

> RB Terrell Watson for 3, then 3 again, and he seems like a better story than player, but to be fair, it's a hell of a story (orphan, learning disabilities, small school, bounced around, etc.)

> 3rd and 5 and keep the ball please is a dump on heavy pressure to Sproles that loses five, and someone might want to let the o-line know that there's no more games after this one, so conserving energy isn't such a great idea

> Whitehead makes 4 guys miss for 5 yards to start Silver in Green territory

> Fox shows everyone on their phones, because this game is that dull

> Hicks picks Sanchez again, and the refs' weirdness with the 2-minute warning became relevant

> Why Sanchez is still in the NFL, I have no idea

> Hicks leads the defense in INTs, because our DBs are that bad

> Wentz to Burton to move the chains, then Sproles gets 2 as Green burns clock

> From the 34, Wentz to Ertz for 4, Green timeout with 1:07 left

> Wentz to Burton, simple and easy, moves the chains again

> From the Silver 19, obvious check down to Sproles doesn't so much, clock burns

> Wentz tries Ertz, DPI not called, 24 seconds left

> 3rd and 10 from the 19, Wentz makes it with his legs and a great Sproles block

> Silver timeout to get Gregory off the field with 14 seconds left, and Green's two timeouts on the board seem silly now

> From the 6, Wentz from the empty set, misses Sproles and probably good that he did

> 10 seconds left, Wentz fires to Ertz, and that was just a case of the defense running into each other, and a perfect safe low throw

> Sturgis curls in the PAT, and it's 10-10

> Squib kick takes 3 seconds off the board, giving Sanchez a chance at three INTs in a half, but Silver takes a knee instead

> Marshall with the wince-inducing somersault return to the Green 23

> Wentz draws offsides, because he does that a lot, then Marshall loses 6 on complete offensive line whiff by G Isaac Seumolo

> Wentz takes a big hit as G Ron Brooks and C Jason Kelce ignore a stunt; T Jason Peters goes off slowly

> 3rd and 16 is a give up down and Green jumps, because why not

> 3rd and 21 is Prelude to Punt, and Marshall gets 12 on effort

> P Donnie Jones gets the bounce, and Silver starts at their 30

> McFadden for 7 on the easy sweep, then a yard up the middle

> 3rd and 2 from the gun for Sanchez is a loft throw in double coverage to WR Cole Beasley; bad idea executed well, and the Eagle DBs blew it

> Carroll with another gift DPI, because he buys every pump fake and then panics

> 7th DPI on Carroll this year

> Whitehead to the Green 5 on poor tackling by S Rodney McLeod

> McFadden gets a yard, then on 3rd and keep it a figgie, it's a Sanchez timeout because he's just that good at clock management

> After timeout, Sanchez runs the clock long, stays upright on Graham's strip sack attempt, then spins outside and misses RB Lance Dunbar at the stripe

> K Dan Bailey angles in the 23 yarder, and Silver leads again, 13-10

> Marshall smoked at the 11, but in his defense, he's not going to stay in the NFL taking knees... or any other way, really

> Rollout and near pick by Wentz on predictable play calling and the Silver secondary not exactly respecting Turner's ability to turn it up and go deep

> Wentz looks off the coverage and connects with DG-B; good hands on the behind throw

> From the Green 26, try DG-B again, and it's a drop rather than a firs down; that's the DG-B story in microcosm

> Wentz to Watson, who slips at the 31 for a 5-yard gain; clearly not touched on replay that Fox doesn't show, but crowd reacts to

> 3rd and keep the ball has the QB throw it away on pressure; after a crazy long segment in the booth, Silver called for the face mask finally, because these refs are that bad

> Wentz to Ertz on Silver's angry blitz for 6, then takes him again to move the sticks

> From the Silver 39, Wentz to Burton for 9, offense picking up tempo

> Wentz to Marshall to move the sticks; throw came out late but defense is gassed

> Wentz to Burton in crazy tight coverage for 6, and the QB is dialed in right now

> An absolutely gorgeous ball and stretch by Wentz to Ertz for the 20 yard touchdown, and the TE gives the ball to celebrity fan Mike Trout, because why not

> Sturgis connects, and it's Green 17, Silver 14 with 20 minutes left

> Meh bubble screen, meh sweep by Morris, leading to 3rd and 6 bubble to Beasley that works because These DBs Stink

> Morris for 1, then 4 on the telegraphed screen

> 3rd and 5 and get off the field against a terrible QB is the finally sack by DE Vinny Curry

> Partial credit to DT Fletcher Cox, who shifted to end and moved the QB into the heat

> Sproles collects on a bounce, rather than let Jones get another amaze balls roll

> Celek collects on a bounce to get 9 yards on a play that was uncalled DPI; good awareness by the veteran TE, but Wentz is daring the pressure too much

> Audible to a run by Marshall for the first, and the defense is still making run plays mostly pointless; 15 minutes left in the 56th straight season without a championship

> From the Green 34, Wentz gets it to Ertz on heavy pressure; screen works to move the chains

> From the Green 47, Wentz underthrows DG-B deep; WR had a step, but the QB was hit when he threw; first incomplete in last 10 throws

> Marshall gets 14 on a sweep, then has his leg yanked by Gregory at the close for what should be a gift 15; instead, it's holding on QB2 Chase Daniel, because these refs really do suck (it was DG-B, who doesn't seem to understand the rules about holding)

> On 2nd and 8, screen to Ertz, who moves the sticks with special violence, and the TE is at his best when games don't matter

> From the Silver 34, Wentz tries WR Bryce Treggs deep, and a better WR collects a pretty ball, but the Eagles don't have better WRs

> Wentz to Ertz for the 11th time today, but it only gets 3

> 3rd and 7 in deep figgie range is Wentz to Ertz, DPI not called, but the throw was outside anyway

> Sturgis from 49 yards away misses, and that's not a small thing; off by about 5 feet

> From the Silver 39, Morris loses a bunch, and he's been a lot worse than McFadden today; Graham with the heat on T Doug Free, who is the weak link in the Silver OL

> Sanchez to TE Gavin Escobar for 7, and on 3rd and 7 and keep the lead, it's a dump to Dunbar, who can't make two men miss for five extra yards

> Jones to Sproles at the Green sideline on the 10, and the Silver P has had a day

> With 10 minutes left, Wentz to Ertz to move the sticks; offense trying to close this out, but the TE runs off afterwards

> From the Green 25, Wentz holds it too long and takes a sack by Gregory, who got cut by Peters, but simply got up and made the play

> 2nd and 18, Wentz to Ertz for the 13th time, gets 8

> 3rd and keep it somehow is Wentz to Turner, who does good work to get 19

> Clock burning nicely, Wentz misses Treggs on a behind throw; so much for clock

> From the Green 44, offsides on Silver helps, then a toss to Watson, who moves the sticks on good blocking; his best run of the day

> From the Silver 43, Marshall for 2ish, then gets 8 and another first down on a good cut; very good drive by the offense brewing

> Marshall again for 3 more, then moves the sticks again on good patience and cutting; kid is fired up

> Watson loses as the drive moves into Minute 7; Silver might just be looking to get out of here, honestly

> Watson for some battering fun for six, then on third and 5, it's Wentz off the hands of Marshall, would have been a walk-in touchdown, but the QB puts too much on it; kill shot missed

> Sturgis on from 33 and connects, Green up 7 with 2:18 to go, just need to stop the Sanchize one more time to avoid a double-digit loss season

> Whitehead to the 21, then Sanchez barely avoiding a Graham sack; the DE keeps beating Free

> Sanchez misses his WR badly, and taps his chest in a well-practiced "My Bad" motion

> 3rd and 10 and maybe force the give up punt is a porny orgy of a sack, as Sanchez avoids it for a while, but finally takes the monster loss at the 2 minute warning

> This feels like a good place to remind the reader that Chip Kelly brought Sanchez to town, and the Chipster looks to be one and done in San Francisco after a 2-win season, so, um, yeah, that was a great hire

> From the Silver 2 on 4th and 29, Dallas punts, and it's blocked by ST Stephen Meanes; Green will start at the Silver 7

> Say this for the squad; they finished the year with effort

> With 99 seconds left, Pederson wants more points, and gives it to Watson for 3 churning yards

> Silver timeout for some reason, then Watson to the 2 up the gut; final Dallas timeout

> Watson again, gets in this time, and it's a feel-good moment for the kids

> Sturgis connects, and the final should be 27-13, assuming no Sanchize Magic

> Watson thanks the line and RB coach Duce Staley, then Sturgis hits the short kick to Whitehead, stopped at his own 25

> Dunbar for 6, then 4 on a dump off as a dribble hops right back into his hands

> Dunbar for 10 is deciding some terrible fantasy league somewhere, then Sanchez avoids pressure and richochets a dump off the RB's pads

> The final play of the year is a dumb little run and fall down, and that's it

> Dallas doesn't win it's 14th of the year, the Eagles win their last two games of the year and go the pretty much predicted 7-9, no one got seriously hurt, and just like last year, we're buying into the Zach Ertz Breakout

> If this isn't the last game Sanchez plays in the NFL, I think we can assume he's got amazing photographs and/or unseemly talents that aren't connected to football

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