Last Saturday night, January 16, 2016, the Arizona Cardinals defeated the Green Bay Packers 26-20 in Overtime to conclude a wild and thrilling Divisional Round playoff game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ. With the Cardinals ahead 20-13 and only 55 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter, the Packers faced a 4th down-and-20 situation from their own 4-yard line. Packer QB Aaron Rodgers, building a future Hall of Fame resume full of improbable heroics, took the snap and rolled away from the Cardinal pass rush — deep into his end zone. Facing playoff extinction, Rodgers found WR Jeff Janis in a seam of the Arizona defense for a 60-yard gain to keep the game alive. Struggling to quickly reset themselves inside Cardinal territory, the Packers incurred an illegal procedure penalty while Rodgers threw a deep, but incomplete pass also intended for Janis. This set up one dramatic final play for Rodgers and the Packers — who had executed a game-winning, walk-off “Hail Mary” TD pass to defeat the Detroit Lions in a Week 13 Thursday Night Football game.
Rodgers took the final snap of regulation and again rolled away from the Arizona rush, but different from the regular season Detroit game, he threw an off-balance pass while moving to his left – a simply impossible pass for nearly every athlete and QB on the planet. Not for Rodgers, who while also wearing #12, serves as the 21st century version of Dallas Cowboy Hall of Fame QB, Roger Staubach. Hit by an oncoming defender and falling away, Rodgers amazingly had the arm strength and accuracy to again connect with Janis…who was pressed into action due to a lung injury sustained by Packer WR Randall Cobb in the 1st quarter. Janis outplayed Cardinal Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson and DB Rashad Johnson to leap and catch the ball at its apex, somehow retaining just enough control and possession of the football as both he and the two Cardinal defenders fell to the ground in the Arizona end zone. Touchdown Green Bay. Arizona 20, Green Bay 19 – decision pending for Packers’ Head Coach Mike McCarthy.
Rewind 364 days – to Sunday, January 18, 2015. NFC Championship Game at Century Link Field in Seattle, WA. After surrendering a lead of 19-7 in the 4th quarter in another wild playoff game, this thriller marked by conservative Packer play calling in the 4th quarter and a momentum-turning onside kick brilliantly executed by Seattle, the Packers found themselves suddenly trailing the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, 22-19. With 1:19 remaining in the game, Aaron Rodgers rallied the reeling Packers and moved the Green Bay offense inside Seahawk territory, setting up a game-tying 48-yard FG by K Mason Crosby. The game moved into OT with Green Bay and Seattle squared at 22, with the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIX on the line. Seattle won the coin toss, elected to receive, and six plays later, QB Russell Wilson found WR Jermaine Kearse on a skinny-post pattern for a 35-yard, walk-off TD. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers never touched the ball in OT. Season over. Seattle headed to Glendale, AZ with the opportunity to defend its Super Bowl title.
After a 6-0 start to their season in 2015, the Packers battled through injuries and sluggish play, limping home at 10-6. Uncharacteristically, after losing to the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field in the Week 17 season finale, the Packers finished 2nd in the NFC North…earning a Wild Card playoff berth and a trip to Washington. The Packers again struggled to protect Rodgers early in the game – a theme during the last 10 games of the regular season — falling behind Washington, 11-0. Green Bay ran off 24 unanswered points to surge ahead 24-11, receiving some inspired play from WR Davante Adams and contributions from Cobb, WR James Jones and WR Jared Abbrederis. The embattled Packer receiving corps worked hard during the season to build rapport and trust with Rodgers, who found himself at the outset of 2015 without his favorite wideout, WR Jordy Nelson; Nelson sustained a season-ending ACL injury during preseason. The Packers pulled away to defeat Washington, 35-18, although losing Adams for the Divisional Round due to a leg injury sustained in the second half.
…with that as context, let’s go back to last Saturday night in Arizona with Green Bay down a point, 20-19, after the improbable Rodgers-Janis hookup. Five second remaining, time for one more play. I’ll argue here that Green Bay HC Mike McCarthy could have elected to go for the 2-PT conversion…instead of taking the Point After Touchdown, and subsequently placing his playoff destiny once again in the hands of a coin toss and the NFL’s incomplete Overtime system. Consider: the NFL’s 2-PT conversion rate over the last two seasons (2014-2015) is approximately 50%; over a four-year span (2012-2015), the team that receives the kickoff in OT wins at a 51% clip.
We know what happened – the Cardinals won the second of two coin tosses (the first amazingly did not flip), and after WR Larry Fitzgerald put Arizona on his back, the Cardinals were winners and headed to the NFC Championship Game. Once again for Green Bay – for the second straight year – game and season over. Aaron Rodgers, arguably the best QB in the game today, never gets to touch the ball in either game.
The NFL needs to re-look its Overtime system and rules. It’s archaic and time for a change. It’s time to take the next step in the evolution of the Overtime rules – and close the loophole on the 2010 rules modification. Each team should have at least one possession in Overtime. In the case of last weekend’s game, following the Cardinal TD and let’s presume successful PAT, Arizona would have lead the Packers 27-20. Green Bay would then have had the opportunity to possess the ball and answer the Cardinal TD; if they could not, then game over. If Rodgers and the Pack again score a TD – let’s say Janis (7 catches, 145 yards, 2 TD) can once again channel his inner Max McGee (Super Bowl I hero) to find pay dirt on a 4th-and-goal – then we are all square again at 27. THEN…the OT can switch into its “Sudden Death” format. The game does not have to go on interminably in the case of the College Football OT system, but at least each team fairly gets to possess the ball. The NFL and its Rules Competition Committee need to take this on in 2016. It’s a simple and fair way to achieve an optimized outcome.
Championship Game Picks.
AFC: New England over Denver, 31-16. New England’s offensive weapons – QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, and WR Julian Edelman – will place considerable pressure on Denver’s fine defense throughout the game. It will take its toll in the second half, and the Patriots will start to pull away late-3rd quarter. Broncos’ QB Peyton Manning will not be able to stretch the field on New England’s underrated defense…the Broncos will need to run the ball to keep this game with reach, keeping drives moving and Brady and company off the field. They’ll have moderate success, but not enough. The 17th all-time meeting between the two future HOF QBs – Brady and Manning – will be the last. #12 and the Patriots will head to Northern California in two weeks to defend their Super Bowl title against…
NFC: Carolina over Arizona, 30-24. The Panthers will beat the Cardinals to set-up a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Panthers are just too powerful on offense, with their sustained ground attack led by RB Jonathan Stewart and QB Cam Newton…and too powerful on defense, with their strong front seven, led by LBs Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The Cardinals have a puncher’s chance with their talented receiving corps (WRs Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown) and will keep the game in reach. But, in the end, the Panthers’ will take Arizona’s ground game away, forcing the Cardinals to become one-dimensional…and they will be able to disrupt Arizona QB Carson Palmer’s ability to get the ball down field as he tries desperately to complete an inspired comeback.
Pro Football Hall of Fame. On Saturday, February 6th in San Francisco, a 46-member committee will diligently evaluate the candidacy of 15 modern-era candidates, 2 Seniors Committee finalists, and 1 Contributor Finalist. As per the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selection process by-laws, no fewer than 4 candidates will be elected each year…and no more than 8. Let’s take a brief look at the 2016 finalists for induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
Modern-Era Finalists (15). On February 6th, the selection committee will narrow this list first to 10, and then to 5. Once the 5 finalists are determined, committee members will vote on each candidate; 80% of the vote is required for election. This year’s modern-era finalists are:
Morten Andersen; clutch kicker for multiple teams…but notably the Saints and Falcons
Steve Atwater; hard-hitting Denver Broncos’ Safety in the late-80s / early-90s
Don Coryell; St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers Coach…known for his paradigm-shifting, “Air Coryell” offense with the Chargers in the late-70s / early-80s, led by QB Dan Fouts
Terrell Davis; terrific Denver Bronco RB in the late-90s / early-00s…Super Bowl XXXII MVP…short-career is his biggest obstacle in the selection process
Tony Dungy; Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts Coach…won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts…HC for 13 years (1996-2001)…helped rebuild the struggling Bucs into perennial contenders…Colts teams made the playoffs in all 7 years as HC (2002-2008)
Alan Faneca; 6-time first-team All-Pro Guard…a Steeler, through-and-through…Super Bowl Champion with Pittsburgh in SB XL
Brett Favre; Green Bay Packer legend…Super Bowl winning QB in XXXI with the Packers…3-league MVPs…297 consecutive starts at QB, a record. A lock.
Kevin Greene; outstanding pass rusher for the Steelers, Rams, and Panthers…160 career sacks
Marvin Harrison; Peyton Manning’s favorite target with the Indianapolis Colts….Syracuse University grad…only receiver in NFL history with 8-straight 1,000-yard seasons and 10 TDs…won a Super Bowl with the Colts
Joe Jacoby; integral member of Washington’s “Hogs” in the 1980s…Left Tackle who played on 3 Super Bowl winners (XVII, XXII, XXVI)
Edgerrin James; RB for the Colts and Cardinals in the late-90s / early-00s…over 15,000 yards from scrimmage
John Lynch; another hard-hitting Safety and leader on Tampa Bay Buccaneer teams of the 90s and early-00s….Super Bowl champion…and part of a triumvirate on a great defense with HOFs Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp
Terrell Owens; physical, play-making WR with the 49ers of the late-90s / early-00s…Super Bowl appearance with the Eagles, where he caught 11 passes in a losing cause….ranks 6th all-time in receptions, 2nd in yards, and 3rd in TDs…likely to wait a while with some of his controversial off-the-field behavior…but a big-time player on it
Orlando Pace; road-grating Left Tackle for the Rams in the 90s / early-00s…protected Kurt Warner’s blind-side for the “Greatest Show on Turf”….Super Bowl Champion…a peer of Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones….matter of time
Kurt Warner; Super Bowl winning QB for the Rams in 1999 (SB XXXIV)…2-time league MVP…also took the Cardinals to their only SB appearance to date…narrowly lost to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII
Seniors Committee Finalists (2). The Seniors Committee Finalists are determined by a separate panel from the modern-era finalists. The standard for election remains the same – each candidate must obtain at least 80% of the vote from the 46-member committee for enshrinement.
Ken Stabler; the “Snake”…the QB of the Oakland Raiders in the 70s…league MVP in 1974…Super Bowl winning QB in SB X as the Raiders beat the Vikings
Dick Stanfel; Detroit Lions and Washington All-Pro Guard in the 1950s…5-time All-Pro…played on the NFL Champion Detroit Lions of 1952 and 1953…yes, the back-to-back NFL Champion Lions…member of the 1950s All-Decade Team
Contributor Finalist (1). Contributors are also nominated and determined by a separate panel. The contributors also must obtain 80% of the vote from the 46-member committee on February 6th to obtain enshrinement.
Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.; “Mr. D”…San Francisco 49ers owner as the franchise became the Team of the 80s with 4 Super Bowl championships in the decade (XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV)…won another championship as owner in 1994 (XXIX)…5-time Super Bowl Champion owner
Hall of Fame Analysis: I think the Seniors Committee Finalists (Stabler and Stanfel) and Contributor Finalist (DeBartolo) will gain enough votes for enshrinement…all three are very deserving candidates. With the modern-era candidates, Brett Favre is a lock….so only 4 more can potential achieve induction. With that, I see Orlando Pace and Kurt Warner going in from the great St. Louis Rams teams of the late-90s and early-00s….it will be further bittersweet for St. Louis and their fans as the Rams now re-locate to Los Angeles. Tony Dungy may see some resistance based on longevity, but I think he’s in this year…and Kevin Greene breaks through – appropriately for a great pass rusher– to Canton.
Not-Finalists…but should be: The selection process is rigorous, as it should be. But, I like the way Pro Football honors the history of its game and is comparatively inclusive when compared to other Halls of Fame. Some other candidates that I’d like to see either through the modern-era process, or eventually as Seniors Committee nominees: OG Jerry Kramer (1960s Packers), WR Torry Holt (“Big Game”, with the Rams in the 90s/00s), QB Ken Anderson (Cincinnati Bengals 70s/80s), RB Roger Craig (49ers, 80s/early-90s), DL L.C. Greenwood (1970s/1980s Steelers…4 Super Bowl teams), LB Robert Brazile (“Dr. Doom” of the Luv ‘Ya Blue Houston Oilers late-70s/early-80s).
Some who will read this will ask: these guys aren’t in the Hall of Fame? Exactly…and Kramer and L.C. Greenwood are at the top of the list. But, I’ll champion Anderson here. Ken Anderson…#14 for Cincinnati (before Andy Dalton)…was the original “West Coast” offense under Offensive Coordinator Bill Walsh for the Bengal teams of the ’70s. As the rules changed in the late-70s, opening the game up for QB, WRs and offense, Anderson excelled and took the Bengals to Super Bowl XVI, losing to the 49ers, 26-21. Anderson’s numbers may not look quite as good as the QBs of today, but against his peers, they are at the top of the class. Efficient, smart, and talented, I think Ken Anderson is HOF-worthy. Look it up.
Knicks. After winning their second straight OT game on Wednesday night, 118-111 over Utah, the Knicks are 22-22…and only ½ game out of the 8th spot in the improved Eastern Conference, just behind the Boston Celtics. Most close followers of the Knicks expected improvement over last season’s franchise-worst 17-65 campaign, but playoff contention is a pleasant development.
Now more than halfway through the season, the Knicks are playing better team basketball offensively (New York’s scoring is up 8 points a game from 2014-2015), and also, defensively…with the interior presence of C Robin Lopez and the athletic play of F Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks are the only team in the NBA with a better than 80% conversion rate from the Free Throw Line, displaying discipline and attention to detail. Carmelo Anthony is healthier this year – although he’s working through an ankle sprain that forced him to miss games against Brooklyn and Memphis last week – and he trusts his supporting cast. Case in point….Wednesday night’s game against Utah. Carmelo was an efficient 13-of-20 from the field, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists…setting up pivotal 3-pointers late in the game by SG Arron Afflalo and G Langston Galloway.
Yes, Porzingis brings energy and athleticism that the Knicks have not had in a generation. But, even beyond the terrific draft of Porzingis at #4 overall in the ’15 draft, give Phil Jackson credit for upgrading the team’s overall talent base…and you can see it when Derek Fisher goes to his bench. In a more refined 9-player rotation, F Derrick Williams has become a fan favorite with his hustle and skill…Galloway has established himself as a rotation player in the NBA…C Kyle O’Quinn has provided good minutes most of the season and PG Jerian Grant is a longer-term project, but coming along under the tutelage of Fisher and starting PG Jose Calderon.
The Knicks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 119-113 in 2OT on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day…and, although down double-digits early to the Jazz on Wednesday, had the stamina and will to defend their home court against a Utah team battling for the last playoff spot in the Western conference. New York improved its home record at Madison Square Garden to 13-8; they are 7-4 in January.
Closing out this week, the Knicks will play the Los Angeles Clippers (27-14, currently 4th in the Western Conference) at MSG on Friday night (1/22), and then head to Charlotte to play the Hornets (19-23) on Saturday (1/23) in a tough back-to-back. Next week, the Knicks travel to Oklahoma City to play the Thunder (32-12, 3rd in the West) on Tuesday (1/26)…and then Toronto (27-15, 2nd in the East) on Thursday (1/28)…to round out the month, the Knicks will host Phoenix (13-30) on 1/29 and the World Champion Golden State Warriors (39-4, 1st in the West with the league’s best overall record) on 1/31.
Let’s enjoy the ride with the Knicks, but the playoffs are not the end-all, be-all, this season. This season is about development – of Porzingis, Coach Fisher, and the team’s overall talent base. Short-fused trades are not necessary, and will only impede long-term progress. Porzingis has played in all 44 games, and has far exceeded his workload for any season in his young professional career…Fisher will need to continue to be smart with franchise, 7’3” difference-maker. Porzingis getting through a full season healthy, tested, and ready to move forward will go a long way toward defining New York’s season a success.
Hot Stove. Over the last week, the Baltimore Orioles re-signed 1B Chris Davis to a 7-year / $161M contract….solidifying their lineup. The Orioles biggest challenge will be pitching, as SP Wei-Yin Chen recently finalized his 5-year / $80M free agent deal with the Florida Marlins. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals signed former Padre/Diamondback/Yankee SP Ian Kennedy to a 5-year / $70M deal. Defending World Champion Kansas City understands that its window is now, and during the offseason, GM Dayton Moore has aggressively employed his resources to bring back OF Alex Gordon, buy out OF Lorenzo Cain’s final two years of arbitration, and now, add depth to KC’s starting rotation with the acquisition of Kennedy.
On Wednesday, the Detroit Tigers introduced their latest big-name, high-priced signing…former Diamondback/Padre OF Justin Upton; the Tigers signed Upton to a 6-year / $132.75M deal. Upton, 28, was the #1 overall pick of the 2005 MLB Draft. Upton is a .271 career hitter with 190 HRs and 616 RBIs; last season, he hit .251 with 26 HRs and 81 RBIs for San Diego. Upton will join 1B Miguel Cabrera, DH Victor Martinez, and RF J.D. Martinez to provide the middle of the Tiger lineup plenty of power. With new GM Al Avila charting the course, Owner Mike Ilitch continues to pour his resources into the franchise, looking to secure the World Series title that has eluded Detroit over a successful 10-year run that includes 2 AL Pennants (’06 and ’12). Upton’s signing will likely place Detroit’s payroll at over $200M entering the season; the Tigers sit currently at $196M and are above the $189M luxury tax threshold.
Late Wednesday night, the Mets signed free agent left-handed reliever, Antonio Bastardo to a 2-year / $12M contract. Bastardo, 30, has pitched in the majors for 7 years for both the Phillies (2009-2014) and Pirates (2015). Last year for Pittsburgh, Bastardo appeared in 66 games striking out 64 hitters across 57 1/3 innings, posting a 2.98 ERA. Bastardo can get out both left-handed and right-handed hitters; lefties batted only .130 off Bastardo in ’15…righties were marginally better, batting .210 off him. That said, he can be wild at times, averaging over 4 walks per 9 innings during his 6 seasons as a reliever. Bastardo was served a 50 game suspension in 2013 for his involvement with the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal. Bastardo will pair with LHP Jerry Blevins in the Mets bullpen; the Mets re-signed Blevins on a 1-year / $4M after he missed almost all of 2015 with a broken pitching arm.
It continues an offseason of conservative, targeted improvement for the Mets, highlighted by: trading for 2B Neil Walker; re-signing RHP Bartolo Colon; signing SS Asdrubal Cabrera and OF Alejandro De Aza. The Mets still do not appear to have interest in re-signing free agent OF Yoenis Cespedes, who from all accounts, is looking for a 5-7 year deal, exceeding $100M in total value. As of Thursday night, it appeared that the Washington Nationals were in close talks with Cespedes’ camp and looking to add the talented, right-handed power hitter to an already crowded outfield. The Chicago White Sox have also been rumored to be in the hunt for Cespedes.
On Saturday, we are 27 days from Pitchers and Catchers reporting to Spring Training. Next week, we’ll take a look at the Mets in preparation for the Hot Stove show. In the weeks ahead, we’ll look more in depth at the Yankees prior to Spring Training…and then, we’ll breakdown each division as we steam toward Opening Day.
Mike Lalor can be heard talking New York sports on the Spadora on Sports radio program. Visit SpadoraOnSports for details.