The NFL playoffs is down to its final four teams, and by Sunday night, we’ll know whether Baltimore or New England will be facing Atlanta or San Francisco in the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
These playoffs have been a Rusty’s Last Call ride for Ray Lewis, whose Ravens somewhat improbably have advanced to the AFC championship game. While their opponent, the Patriots, is a perennial postseason favorite, the Ravens (and not, any longer, the Seahawks) are the hot team of this postseason, and it’s becoming difficult to bet against them– ESPN certainly isn’t. Lewis’ last dance may come Saturday. If not, it will come on Super Bowl Sunday.
If it does, Lewis will share the setting sun’s spotlight with one other notable retiree. If the NFC championship game goes according to the seeding, it will be longtime Chief and current Falcon Tony Gonzalez. The tight end, probably best known for popularizing the crossbar dunk TD celebration, says he’s 95% certain he’ll retire after this season, and while his final act has received markedly less than the gyrating, bionic-armed one of Lewis, the attention he has received has taken care to note just how impressive of a career he’s had.
If the NFC championship game follows the hot hand, as it sure seems like it may, Lewis’ possibly outgoing opponent will one whose superstardom has long since burned low. Randy Moss’ days as the league’s most dominant wide receiver are long gone. His days as an albatross– i.e., his days in Oakland and Nashville– seem to be in the past as well. He’s retired once, and he’s rapidly approaching the end of his one-year contract with San Francisco. There hasn’t been any retirement discussion from Moss (this ambiguous retweet aside), or really much discussion of him in the media at all. Moss’ numbers are way down from his peak-production years, though they’re up over his recent disaster years. It’s tough to know whether the 49ers or Moss will want to sign a new contract for next year– he started only two games this year, the fewest of any season in his career– or if this is it. The only sure bet looks to be that, if this Sunday or Super Bowl Sunday really is Moss’ last game, he’ll treat it a little differently than Lewis will handle his.
We’re into the meat of the 2012 football season with heavy games for most teams from here on out. It’s also the time when teams’ reputations for the year become solidified. One such team is Auburn, which fell to 1-6 on the season, 0-5 in conference with a 17-13 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville. Four years ago, I watched these teams play under the lights in the same stadium. In 2008, Auburn was 5-0 and highly ranked, but the game outcome was the same. This year’s win over the TIgers/Plainsmen/Eagles won’t do as much for the Commodores’ strength of schedule, but it does push them to 2-3 in the conference, and it’s an important win to kick off the second half of a schedule that should be easier than the first.
While Vanderbilt took a necessary step in the positive direction Saturday, Michigan State took another step toward a lost season with a 12-10 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor. More on that game later in the week. Back to the SEC for a moment, where the Eastern division is one of the most power concentrated and confusing divisions in the nation. Florida swamped South Carolina, 44-11, to go to 7-0 (6-0), while Georgia escaped Lexington with a 29-24 win over Kentucky. If Florida’s going to lose a game this year, it will be next week when they host Georgia, because the rest of their schedule is soft cake (Missouri, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jacksonville State, and Florida State). In the SEC West, LSU and Texas A&M renewed their rivalry in a compelling game featuring early Aggie control and a Tiger comeback win.
Elsewhere in the top 25, Alabama and Oregon rolled. Two quick notes on Oregon: 1) I’m worried that Florida’s #2 rating in the first BCS, together with their easy finishing schedule, will mean that we don’t get to see Alabama and Oregon in the national championship game, a matchup that feels very compelling and intriguing; and 2) the ALDLAND staff is still waiting on it’s autographed Oregon cheerleader calendar. Jog back to the SEC West, where Mississippi State is the most unheralded undefeated team in the country. After beating MTSU Saturday, though, they’re unlikely to stay that way, finishing with Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. Of course, nothing is more perennially unheralded than the Starkville Dogs, and that schedule only has something to do with it. Most of the rest of the top 25 won, including Clemson, Oregon State, and Stanford in important conference games. The upstart Texas Tech Red Raiders survived in triple overtime to beat TCU, and the very impressive Kansas State beat West Virginia in Morgantown 55-14 in a game in which I’d only somewhat jokingly predicted WVU would score 100 after being embarrassed the week before. Dana Holgorson’s air raid offense appears to be out of jet fuel.
On Sunday, the Vikings continue to mount an increasingly compelling challenge to those who would dismiss them by going to 5-2 with a win over flash in the pan Arizona. RGIII continues to impress despite another close loss, this week to the Giants. The Saints doubled their win total by beating Tampa Bay, and the Raiders came back to beat the ailing Jaguars, who lost Maurice Jones-Drew and Blaine Gabbert, sending out the bat signal for David Garrard (I hope). The Patriots beat the Jets in overtime, although VSL’s Bobby O’Shea, a noted Jets fan, thinks that something is wrong in New England, and I’m inclined to agree. Whether it was the defensive injuries Baltimore suffered last week or Houston’s push to come back from a loss, the Texans returned to 2012 form with a 43-13 win over the Ravens.
In baseball, the World Series is nearly set. The Tigers are in(!), and the Cardinals and Giants are playing a game seven right now, which the Giants are winning 7-0 in the fourth. In other current news, Ndamukong Suh just separated Jay Cutler’s neck from the rest of his body. Bears 10, Lions 0 in the first half.
We find ourselves late on a Monday after another weekend of close games. On Saturday, woefully underachieving Michigan State lost in overtime to Iowa as a result of what one local radio host called the worst coaching he had ever seen in his life, and the man is neither young nor inexperienced in the field. In a real upset, LSU threw a monkey wrench in the SEC East race and beat South Carolina 23-21, Kansas State escaped Ames with a 27-21 win over Iowa State, Notre Dame beat Stanford 20-13 in overtime, and Texas A&M squeaked by Louisiana Tech 59-57. Even the Florida-Vanderbilt game was close into the fourth quarter before the Gators and their quarterback ran away with it. More on that game later this week.
Saturday had its share of blowouts, naturally, and the notable ones included Alabama’s 42-10 win at Missouri, which remains winless in its new conference, Texas Tech’s 49-14 embarrassment of one-time national championship contender West Virginia, still-undefeated Oregon State’s 42-24 win over BYU, and Michigan’s 45-0 muddy execution of Illinois on Wolverine homecoming. Michigan hosts Michigan State in another ALDLAND outing, more on which toward the end of the week.
The NFL had its share of close contests too, including the Lions’ overtime win over hapless Philadelphia, Buffalo’s 19-16 overtime win over Arizona, whose kicker hit a 61-yarder to tie the game but subsequently missed a 30-something yard kick to win the game in the final seconds, the Seahawks 24-23 win over New England, Atlanta’s come-from-behind win over Oakland to become the league’s final undefeated team, Miami’s 17-14 victory over the Rams, and Baltimore’s 31-29 capitalization on the Dallas (ongoing) Disaster. Baltimore payed a long-term price for its win, though, sacrificing defenders Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb at last to the football devil (no, not the commissioner– separate office) in payment for their past defensive successes. Lewis and Webb are out for the season. Other high-flying teams went down in spectacular fashion on Sunday, including San Francisco, 26-3 at the hands of the Giants, and Houston, 42-24 to Green Bay on Sunday night.
In off-field NFL news, Jonathan Vilma, the embattled New Orleans Saint, reportedly will be allowed to play as soon as this weekend, although it isn’t clear if he will. Vilma continues to maintain a defamation suit against Roger Goodell.
In baseball, the final four is set and in motion. Detroit seized a 2-0 lead over the Yankees as the series heads to Detroit with AL strikeout kings Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer yet to pitch for the Tigers. The other road team, St. Louis, has a 1-0 lead in the NLCS battle of the two most recent defending World Series champions, though the Cardinals are down 5-1 in the fourth as I write this.
The NFL conference championship round is set, after Tom Brady’s Patriots and Eli Manning’s Giants brought harsh and decisive ends to special seasons for the Denver Tebows and Green Bay Packers, respectively. In its first home playoff game of the Harbaugh era, the Ravens won a close victory over the Texans thanks, as usual, to their defense, but it was the other Harbaugh whose team played the game of the weekend at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, defeating the Saints in a game that saw twenty-eight points scored in the final four minutes alone, when each touchdown also was a lead-change. While fan favorites and media darlings Green Bay and Denver are out, along with popular championship pick New Orleans, the final four teams offer a lot of excitement. The NFC championship features two teams (SF and NYG) that are peaking right now, and the AFC features a traditional, compelling offense vs. defense matchup (NE and BAL).
The college basketball national picture remains mixed, with Northwestern taking Michigan to overtime and then ending Michigan State’s fifteen-game win streak. Duke, Kentucky, and Georgetown all have shown weaknesses, while Syracuse has maintained a perfect record atop the Big East (ditto for Baylor in the Big XII). Vanderbilt, a top team in preseason rankings, appears to have found its way after falling out of the top 25, although a backloaded schedule means its toughest tests are yet to come.