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Talking to a fellow from Chicago earlier this week, and I asked him if he had watched the NCAA championship game, where Clemson shockingly crushed No. 1 Alabama 44-16, and he said, “No, as soon as the Bears lost, I quit watching football.”
It always has seemed curious to me, an avid sports-watcher, how sports fans can simply tune out great events when their favorite team loses. But after last weekend, I can understand it better. With the Vikings, and the Packers, both sitting out this year’s NFL playoffs, I could still anxiously watch Seattle and Russell Wilson, and Chicago and Mitch Trubisky, carry on.
So much for that.
I make no secret of the fact that I enjoy watching the spontaneous brilliance of quarterback Russell Wilson at Seattle, and his amazing ability to fling pinpoint passes that pull games out of the fire in the closing seconds is second to none. With the Seahawks at Dallas, I looked for a great showdown between Wilson and Cowboy quarterback Dak Prescott.
Granted, it was a game for the ages. Prescott matched Wilson in colorful playmaking. Dallas led 3-0, then the Seahawks got two field goals to take a 5-3 lead in the second quarter, but Prescott got Dallas into position and he threw a TD pass with 0:24 left in the half for a 10-6 Cowboys lead. In the second half, Wilson moved into the red zone and wound up fooling everybody by running in for a 4-yard touchdown and a 14-10 Seattle lead. The Seahawks had lost placekicker Sebastian Janikowski when he pulled his hamstring while missing a 57-yard field goal try at the end of the first half, but Wilson lived up to his normal hype on a fourth and 5 at the Dallas 39. Without their kicker, Wilson calmly threw a sideline pass on the run that Doug Baldwin caught with a toe-drag for 22 yards, keeping alive the drive Wilson finished off himself.
The Cowboys came back again, however, with Ezekiel Elliott scoring from the 1 for a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter. Prescott crashed in himself from the 1 with 2:08 left to apparently clinch it at 24-14. But I didn’t give up on Wilson. Sure enough, he directed a charge downfield featuring a 53-yard pass to Tyler Lockett, who sped to an open space and set up a 7-yard touchdown pass to J.D. McKissic, and a stunning 2-point conversion, to cut the deficit to 24-22.
The loss of their kicker also caused a botched attempt at an onside kick. Punter Michael Dickson gave it a valiant try, drop-kicking the ball, but just a bit too hard. Dallas’s Cole Beasley caught it at the 31 and covered it, and the Cowboys ran out the final minute to win.
That left me only the Bears to pull for. Yeah, I know, they won the Vikings division - but I had predicted exactly that before the season started and a couple weeks in, that everybody thinks the Vikings and Packers would battle to the final whistle, but the Bears, with a rejuvenated and mean defense, and Mitchell Trubisky showing an exciting flair at quarterback, were my pick to beat them both. So I wasn’t going to abandon them now.
But Nick Foles, who seems to win Super Bowls whenever the Eagles give up on him, played a great game and the Eagles and Bears fought a defensive battle in Chicago. Cody Parkey kicked three field goals to keep the Bears in it, and Trubicky threw a 22-yard touchdown pass for a 15-9 Bears lead. But Foles led the Eagles back and in the final minute, he came through on a fourth-down from the 2, and with 56 seconds left, Philly had a 16-15 lead.
But Trubisky brought the Bears within range with some gutsy plays, and with 10 seconds remaining, the Bears lined up for the fourth field goal of the day by Parkey, a former Eagle. The snap, the kick, and it sailed straight through the uprights to win the game for the Bears. But wait! Sure enough, the Eagles coach Doug Pederson summoned the ref to stand by and called time just before the snap. So the game-winning kick was denied, and Parkey got set again.
This time, defensive tackle Treyvon Hester charged hard and leaped, and video replay showed he touched the ball just barely as it launched. The kick looked good, but veered just a bit to the right and hit the left upright. Incredibly, the ball dropped straight down and struck the crossbar. At that point, if it had bounced through, the Bears would have won, but it bounced back, toward the field, and fell harmlessly. Eagles win, 24-22.
It was a great victory for Philadelphia, and Foles, but a terrible ending for the Bears, after such a fantastic last-to-first season. It also ran me out of teams to watch on Wild Card Weekend.
Sure, I’ll tune in and watch Drew Brees work his magic against the Eagles, and it will be interesting to see if Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams can stifle Dallas. I also think the resurgent Indianapolis Colts, led by the all-but-forgotten Andrew Luck, can provide a great game at Kansas City. And those who think New England is an inevitable winner might find that Philip Rivers and the LA Chargers might spring an upset against the perennial favorite Patriots.
So, OK, I’ll probably find a way to watch some of those games this weekend. Maybe most of them. The competitive juices make all these games worth viewing, because nobody knows what might happen. Unfortunately, it just happened to the Seahawks and Bears.
Similarly, the Southeast Conference loyalists who tried to proclaim this year’s Alabama as the greatest college football team in history might pardon our harrumphs after Clemson rose from a very exciting back and forth first quarter - Alabama took a 16-14 lead early in the second quarter - and stunned the Crimson Tide 44-16. The Tigers were ranked No. 2, and were underrated, it turns out, thanks to the usual media barrage in favor of all things SEC. Clemson scored 17 unanswered points to vault from the 16-14 deficit in the second quarter to take a 31-16 halftime lead, and blow out the Tide with 13 more in the third quarter.
You had to love freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who threw for three touchdowns and 347 yards, and how can you not love a coach named Dabo Swinney?
U.S. Juniors Strong Showing for Silver
The U.S. did a great job in the World Junior Championships, although let’s set provincialism aside and give credit where it’s due. The headlines all said the U.S. claimed silver, or the U.S. won silver. No. Finland beat the U.S. 3-2 to win the gold medal, and the loser of the gold medal game gets silver. That’s how it works, and as disappointed as the U.S. players were after the game, they had a great tournament and could have won gold.
After such tournaments it’s always stylish to analyze what happened, and in this case, I would say the first thing that needs to be cleaned up is the officiating. Through the preliminary round, it seemed as thought the refs in Vancouver had to make a controversial call that would favor either Canada or the U.S., and sometimes that meant outrageously bad calls against the Russians, or the Finns, or Sweden.
In the semifinals, a hard pass was blocked by the skate of a Russian winger, left open at the left side of the U.S. goal. He blocked the pass with his skate, which could be seen as him trying to kick in the goal, but as the puck ricocheted off his skate, he quickly and adeptly tipped it with the end of his stick blade as it headed into the net. So it had to be a goal. The officials deliberated long and hard, then disallowed the goal.
A shift or two later, the U.S. broke across center ice and on a pass play entering the zone, it appeared the passer continued into the zone and preceded the puck carrier. No offside call, although between periods they showed video, and it still looked like a blown offside call. Turned out, the U.S. kept attacking on that rush and ultimately scored. So by disallowing the Russian goal and giving the U.S. a goal that might have been offside, the game went from 1-0 Russia to 1-0 U.S. That becomes pivotal when the U.S. wins 3-2 to advance to the gold medal game.
In the final, an apparent U.S. goal was disallowed because it was ruled a U.S. player was in the crease, interfering with the goalie. Looked questionable,. but we’re so used to goal-crashing plays where entering the crease is not only allowed but expected these days, it looks bad. It wound up being a heck of a game, and Finland scored late to win 3-2.
Curious penalty-shot calls, and a flurry of flagrant-looking penalties where the other team got called tarnished the high level of play, in my opinion. Let’s get the refs out of deciding the game, or feeling that they should have such a major influence. The skill level and parity that now covers almost all the junior teams in the world mean only good things ahead for the sport.
More hockey, if you can stand it: You’ve gotta love the Twin Cities media who seize every opportunity to suggest the Minnesota Wild is probably going to miss the playoffs in the NHL. Then they go on the road and win three straight games. Two or three of those little 3-game win streaks and the Wild will be right back in the middle of the playoff hunt.
Similarly, I can’t believe that after Tom Thibodeau was fired as coach and boss of the Timberwolves, Minneapolis columnists heaped all sorts of abuse on him. Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune said the move was long overdue. Really? Then why didn’t you write that before the firing instead of a day after it? Second-guessing works both ways, for coaches and for columnists.