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Nobody had to agree with my raving point of view, back near the start of the NFL season. We expected Teddy Bridgewater to return to the lineup soon, and we didn’t suspect Sam Bradshaw, his quarterback replacement, was hurt too badly. That was when an unknown named Case Keenum first entered the consciousness of Vikings followers.
After Keenum finished one game and started the next, I wrote that I was always a fan of Bridgewater, and I greatly admired the job Bradford did last season, so I have nothing against either one of them, but in my mind, Keenum’s intensity and flair made him the man to lead the Vikings often erratic and inconsistent offense. He may have lacked the prestige and PR clips of Bridgewater and Bradshaw, but he supplied an ignition spark that unified the Vikings into a cohesive team. And if he couldn’t do it with his passing and clever play-changing at the line of scrimmage, he’d run for it himself.
Mine was not a universally held opinion. I recall Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan saying the Vikings should rush Bridgewater back in the lineup, because obviously this Keenum guy is a journeyman who will sink back into oblivion and has no chance to lead the Vikings to even a long shot at a Super Bowl appearance. Quite a difference in opinion, wouldn’t you say? The term “journeyman” is a rip, you understand, used when the writer doesn’t think the guy he’s referring to can hold a steady job.
Of course, Jim is a lot closer to the team and its locker room than I am, but I stuck to my guns. I looked up his incredible record at the University of Houston, where he holds more than a dozen NCAA records for generating offense, and I printed that. As the games went on, the Vikings great character emerged, and I attribute that to Case Keenum.
The Vikings earned a bye in the playoffs, and they face an enormous challenge against New Orleans and their incomparable Drew Brees Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis. But you might compare Keenum to Brees, a generation apart. Both are comparatively short at 6-feet in a new era of 6-5 and 6-8 quarterbacks. Brees is the top passer in the NFC, completing 386 of 536 passes for 23 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions; Keenum, who didn’t start the first few games, remember, completed 325 of 421 passes for 22 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.
The Saints come in with a rejuvenated two-pronged rushing attack, and the Vikings counter with similar personnel but different style. The Saints have vastly improved their defense, while the Vikings have the best defense in the NFC, and second only to Jacksonville of the AFC in the entire NFL.
My other favorite trick is to compare team statistics, especially now that the regular season is over. The Saints rank first in offense, with 391 combined rushing-passing yards per game; the Vikings rank sixth in NFC offense, with 356.9 combined yards per game. On defense, the Vikings rank first, allowing an NFL-best 275.9 yards per game; the Saints rank ninth, with 336.5 yards per game allowed.
My idea is that the Vikings defense is finally getting the credit it deserves, and it is good enough and quick enough to harness Brees more than the Saints defense can harness Keenum. I see the Vikings winning 27-19.
And, by the way, Case Keenum should be Most Valuable Player in the league, for what he’s done to inspire and lead the Vikings from where they were to where they are.
I also think Atlanta will go into Philadelphia and beat the Wendt-less Eagles with defense -- say, 17-10. By my formula, the Eagles rank second to New Orleans on offense and Atlanta third (by exactly one total yard!), and on defense Philadelphia ranks second to the Vikings and the Falcons sixth, but Atlanta has come out of a midseason funk, and the Eagles have looked less like favorites since Carson Wendt went down.
On the AFC side, I’m taking Pittsburgh to overrun Jacksonville’s outstanding defense and win 21-17. The Jaguars are first in the AFC in defense, while Pittsburgh is third, but Pittsburgh is second only to New England in offense, while Jacksonville is fifth. Should be a great game, but big Ben Roethlisberger will be the difference.
New England is an easy pick in the other AFC game, because Tom Brady and the Patriots rank first in the whole NFL on offense while Tennessee is only ninth. But beware the possible upset! Tennessee is fifth in defense among AFC teams, but the vaunted Patriots rank a distant 15th — ahead of only an inept Indianapolis outfit! That amazingly porous defense is the primary reason I don’t think New England can win the Super Bowl, but I will guess that Brady and the Patriots will beat upstart Tennessee 30-17. However, I’ve been a fan of Marcus Mariota since he was Oregon’s quarterback. Last Sunday, he and the Titans beat Kansas City 22-21 with a three-touchdown comeback from a 21-3 halftime deficit. Mariota caught his own blocked pass, ran for the goal line, and scored with a diving reach that hit the pylon. Maybe Mariota Magic can strike again?
Gotta Hand It To Alabama
No question, the NCAA football championship had a spectacular ending, and we can bow to Alabama for its 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia Monday night. But spare me the accolades in the all-Southeast Conference final.
All the talking heads on ESPN are praising Alabama for clearly being the best team in the country, but for most of that game, they weren’t even the better team in that game. By my plan, we have a six-team playoff, with one team each from the five major conferences, and a sixth team from outside them. In this case, it would have been Central Florida, which stunned Auburn from the SEC 34-27 in the Peach Bowl to finish as the only undefeated team in the land. Anyhow, you rank the six, with 1 and 2 getting byes, while you play off 3-6 and 4-5, with those winners advancing to play the top two in the semifinals.
The key thing, for fairness nationwide, is to limit each conference to one team, presumably a playoff winner or the regular season winner. Alabama didn’t win its half of the SEC, and didn’t participate in the playoff, where Georgia beat Auburn. And therefore Alabama, which didn’t prove it was the best by winning its conference title, had no business getting a bye into the final four. By my calculation, only one team can win the national title, so why should a team that might be the best in the nation, but was not good enough to win its SEC division, or the SEC playoff, be “invited” to be in the final foursome?
Nevertheless, coach Nick Saban made a startling switch and benched starting quarterback Jalen Hurts with the Crimson Tide trailing 13-0 at halftime. Freshman Tuo Tagovailoa came in and was 14-for-24 passing for three touchdowns and 166 yards to bring Alabama back for a 20-20 tie. Alabama missed a field goal at the end of regulation that could have won it, and in overtime, Alabama’s defense came up with a pivotal sack that forced Georgia to make a long field goal for a 23-20 lead. On its turn, Alabama looked beaten when Tagovailoa was sacked for a 16-yard loss to the 41.
Tagovailoa dropped back, knowing DeVonta Smith was racing up the left sideline, and the left-handed QB looked right, to cause Georgia’s secondary to veer that way, then he launched a perfect 41-yard strike that Smith caught in stride as he reached the end zone for the winning touchdown.
Fantastic move by Saban, fantastic play by the freshman, fantastic victory for Alabama. They just didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs.
Big UMD Weekend
UMD’s women’s hockey team played a nice, cordial game against the Korean women’s Olympic team and won 3-0 last Friday night. ships Anna Klein scored in the first period, Emma Yanko scored in the second, and Mallorie Iozzo scored in the third, and UMD assistant coach Laura Bellamy played all three goalies, Jessica Convery in the first, Hanna Markel in the second, and Catherine Johnson in the third for the shutout.
Sarah Murray, coach of Korea’s first women’s Olympic team, was a defenseman on two of Shannon Miller’s five UMD NCAA championship teams, explained how she got the chance to coach Korea’s team. Her father, Andy Murray, former NHL coach and current coach at Western Michigan, knew Jim Paek, who was the first Korean player to play in the NHL. Paek is now director of South Korean hockey, and will coach South Korea’s host team at the Winter Olympics in South Korea. Through his connection with Andy Murray, and knowing Sarah Murray was going into coaching, he made her the offer.
This weekend, UMD returns to WCHA play with a stiff test as Bemidji State comes to AMSOIL Arena Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Bemidji State is 6-7-1 and UMD 5-8-1 as the two battle for fourth and fifth places.
Meanwhile, UMD’s basketball teams pulled off a sweep last Saturday, with the women beating Bemidji State 66-61, although the Bulldogs took their foot off the gas after building a 17-5 first-quarter lead and had to hang on when the Beavers closed the gap to 64-61 in the closing seconds. Sammy Kozlowski had 23 to lead UMD.
Then the men came out and had to fight through to set the stage for a 9-0 finishing run, lifting the Bulldogs from a 57-53 deficit to a 62-57 victory. Brandon Myer, a red-hot 6-foot-7 sophomore from Superior, could become the first legitimate locally produced UMD basketball star in decades. He scored 21 against Bemidji and Luke Harris added 13 for UMD.