Enjoy it. Because once it is gone, we must resort to our 2nd tier sports of regular season basketball, hockey, and then prepare for Nascar season. It is a long drop-off.
After much debate in my sports mind, I have selected the Saints and the Colts to advance to the Super Bowl. My conviction level is very low because I can also see the Bears and Patriots in the Super Bowl (Super Bowl XX revisited). I just like the Saints story, and want to see them get to the final game.
Saints 27, Bears 20
Colts 31, Patriots 21
Mavs kill Lakers last night …
Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson wavered when asked Thursday afternoon if Josh Howard should be an All-Star.
Jackson acknowledged that Howard was playing at a high level for the NBA's best team. But Jackson, considering the glut of great forwards in the Western Conference, just wasn't ready to punch Howard's ticket to Las Vegas.
"It's a tough call," Jackson said.
Howard made quite a convincing argument hours later in a 114-95 win over the Lakers at American Airlines Center, stuffing the box score to help the Mavericks pay back the only team to beat them since Dec. 13.
He scored 29 points on 12-of-23 shooting. He snatched 11 rebounds. He filled out his line with five assists, two steals and a blocked shot to lead the Mavericks to their 19th win in 20 games.
Howard also did a lot of the valuable dirty work that doesn't show up on the stat sheet. For instance, he hustled back to bust up a two-on-none fast break while the Lakers were still within striking distance in the second quarter.
"He's been a constant in terms of that energy," coach Avery Johnson said. "He plays hard, and he plays smart."
Said Howard, who has let others in the organization do his All-Star politicking: "I just come out and try to spark our team to get going. That's about it."
The Lakers arrived in Dallas in the wee hours of Thursday morning – fresh off a to-the-wire win at San Antonio – as long shots to leave with a win.
Every team is a big underdog as visitors in Dallas these days. The Mavericks are 19-3 with a 12-game winning streak at home. And the Mavericks had incentive for revenge against the Lakers, who ended Dallas' 13-game winning streak Jan. 7 at the Staples Center.
The story from Los Angeles …
The Lakers will have to be happy with a Texas one-step.
It was a tall order to begin with, a 10-gallon hat's worth of talent and trouble awaiting them 24 hours after a successful night in San Antonio. Sure enough, they tumbled against the Dallas Mavericks, hard, 114-95, Thursday at American Airlines Center.
What the Lakers did to the Spurs could not be done a night later against the younger, spryer, man-on-fire Mavericks.
It was interesting for a quarter, not very suspenseful by halftime, and obviously over by the time the team with the league's best record opened a 27-point lead with a few minutes left in the third quarter.
Kobe Bryant was fine — 26 points and five assists — but "the others" were elsewhere, and the Lakers' defense was absent and unaccounted for.
The Mavericks, who lost their first four games of the season, improved to 33-8. The Lakers, well, they got 17 points from Jordan Farmar. And they didn't allow more than 115 points. And they managed to survive another night in surprisingly chilly Texas. And …
"It's very disappointing," said forward Luke Walton, who had eight points. "To get blown out like that is kind of like getting embarrassed. We feel that we're a better team than we were" Thursday.
Dirk is good …
Dirk Nowitzki scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Dallas' win over the Lakers. It was the fourth straight game that Nowitzki had 25 or more points and 10 or more rebounds, the longest such streak in Mavericks history.
Now Vinatieri is on the other team …
This is what everyone in both cities has been either hoping or fearing would happen for 10 months. That the Colts and Patriots would meet Sunday with a Super Bowl trip on the line and that Adam Vinatieri might decide their fates with his gilded instep. The man himself concedes the probability occurred to him.
"You never know what to expect, but I assumed the Patriots were going to be a good team this year, same as I assumed that the Colts were going to be a good team," Vinatieri said this week, as he prepared to do battle with his star-spangled former teammates in Sunday's AFC Championship game in the RCA Dome. "So, if you keep winning, inevitably your crossroads will meet."
This will be the third time they've met in the postseason in the last four years and the first time the Colts haven't had to dread the sight of Vinatieri trotting onto the field to jam 3 more points down their gullets, as he did a record-tying five times in New England's 24-14 victory in 2004 and twice more in the 20-3 decision in 2005.
"When he goes out there, you always feel like he's not going to miss," says Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who watched Vinatieri coolly score all 15 points in last Saturday's victory at Baltimore. "That was our whole goal when he was at New England, that you couldn't let him get close enough in a situation where a field goal was going to do it. I don't remember him missing against me in four or five years. It's really the same feeling."
The difference is that this time, Vinatieri's foot literally is inside the other shoe. It's a reverse image, an odd through-the-looking-glass sensation. Everything the Colts once hated about the mild-mannered man from Yankton, S.D. -- primarily his damnable consistency -- is now everything they love.
"Adam is amazing when it comes down to clutch," says Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney. "I don't remember the last time he missed a kick in the playoffs, period. Against us, against other teams. We are blessed to have him."
Especially in January, where every dream for 35 years has come to grief for the Colts. It was a missed field goal -- Mike Vanderjagt's almost comical botch from 46 yards in last year's playoff opener -- that left them with hooves up at home and let the Steelers rumble on to a championship ring.
Vanderjagt might have been the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (86.5 percent), but his postseason wobblies made him expendable. Once the Colts heard Vinatieri was looking for a change of address, and that his agent wasn't merely trying to up the ante for the Patriots, the Colts quickly locked him in for five years at $12 million, with a $3.5 million signing bonus.
NY Times preview of Colts-Pats …
The Patriots defeated the Colts in two consecutive playoff games (they won the divisional game in 2005), but in the past two regular seasons, they have lost to the Colts. In November, the Colts won, 27-20, in Foxborough.
In a twist that turned reputations on their heads, it was the Colts’ defense that befuddled Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was intercepted four times. Marvin Harrison, a nonfactor because of the physical play of Law and safety Rodney Harrison three years ago, caught eight passes for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns. Manning was better able to throw on the run to avoid pressure.
The obvious difference for the Colts: Law is in Kansas City, and Rodney Harrison, a brutal tackler and the soul of the Patriots’ physicality, was injured on the first drive of November’s game and did not return. Harrison, who now has a knee injury, is doubtful for Sunday, leaving James Sanders and Artrell Hawkins as the likely safeties.
Neither Sanders nor Hawkins was with the Patriots for the first conference championship game against the Colts. And Dungy said that only 18 current Colts players took that wrenching walk out of Gillette Stadium that frigid night.
The impact of that seminal game lingers. The Patriots maintain their reputation for brilliant game plans. The Colts are still tagged as postseason underachievers. Defenders must watch their hands. But nothing lasts forever, not even a successful game plan.
“They change up the way they play us,” Dungy said this week about subsequent games against the Patriots. “So I don’t think there’s any particular one way to play us, any blueprint.”
Grossman under the spot-light again …
So why has Bears Coach Lovie Smith stayed with Grossman through all the peaks and valleys this season? Perhaps, it's Smith who should be analyzed.
"You have to understand what they have behind him," former Bears and Saints coach Mike Ditka said. "If they thought they had Joe Namath behind (Grossman), he'd be playing. I'm not knocking the kid behind Rex (Brian Griese), but the coaching staff sees them every day. Nobody knows better than they do.
"Although Brian Griese has been around and is very capable, he's not the whole basket of apples."
An argument can be made that Grossman has been a basket case, with his production curve showing seven games with a passer rating of better than 100 and two games at 0.0 and 1.3.
Grossman was far from perfect in the Bears' 27-24 overtime victory against the Seattle Seahawks, but he played well enough to help Chicago reach Sunday's NFC title game against Brees and the Saints at Soldier Field.
He posted a 76.9 passer rating, higher than Manning (58.3) and Brady (57.6) did in their divisional games, but lower than Brees (96.2).
Manning and the Indianapolis Colts (14-4) host Brady and the New England Patriots (14-4) for the AFC title Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the RCA Dome.
How the Saints put the defense together …
Coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs have cobbled together a defense without stars but with a résumé. The Saints rank 11th in total defense, though they're average against the run and intercepted only 11 passes in the regular season.
Rebuilding the linebacking corps was one of Payton's biggest jobs. The Saints wouldn't be preparing to play the Bears if their three new linebackers hadn't held their own.
Weak-side linebacker Scott Fujita was in Dallas last season, where Payton was the offensive coordinator. Fujita was the Saints' first free-agent signing.
In training camp, the Saints traded with Dallas for outside linebacker Scott Shanle and with Philadelphia for Mark Simoneau to play the middle. Ex-Raider Danny Clark, a University of Illinois product from Hillcrest, was added to provide depth.
"The ability to acquire two linebackers a week before the season starts, and for those guys to step in and play that opening weekend and play as well as they have, along with Fujita, is encouraging," Payton said.
The Saints were also looking for defensive tackles and added Northern Illinois product Hollis Thomas, a former starter in Philadelphia.
The Saints showed signs they would be a surprise team by starting with wins at Cleveland and Green Bay, then going to 3-0 with the nationally televised Monday night victory over Atlanta in the reopening of the Superdome.
"It comes down to guys playing their roles," Fujita said. "It was an interesting off-season at that position. When I got here there was a lot of criticism I was hearing through training camp and preseason games. There were still a lot of moving parts. And that's not an ideal situation when you're trying to build the right 53 guys for the roster.
"And then everything came together for that first game in Cleveland. To have everything go smoothly is a credit to everybody involved."
It hasn't always been smooth. The Saints have a penchant for allowing big plays, a sign their defense can't be considered dominant.
Cornerback Fred Thomas has been targeted by opposing offenses, and no doubt the Bears' Bernard Berrian hopes to run into him. Thomas allowed a 75-yard touchdown pass to Donté Stallworth in last week's playoff win over Philadelphia.
"He understands the importance of consistent play out there," Payton said. "The best thing an experienced corner like Fred can have is a short memory. You've got to get back out there and get back up."
JJT has had enough of Parcells …
Bill Parcells needs to make a decision about whether he wants to coach the Cowboys
by the end of the business day.
Contractually, Parcells has until Feb. 1 to make a decision. But this isn't about what's written on a piece of paper stashed in a file cabinet somewhere at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch training complex. This is about right and wrong.
Parcells owes it to Jerry Jones, who has paid him nearly $20 million over the past four years, to remove the team from limbo. And Parcells owes it to the assistants, whose contracts expire in the next couple of weeks, because they need to find jobs if he's leaving.
Two weeks is long enough.
And if Parcells can't make a decision, then Jerry must do it for him – and fire the future Hall of Fame coach.
Parcells has been arriving at work each morning and putting in a full day before returning to his Irving condo. What's left to think about?
This job is too difficult for Parcells to convince himself to do it. Either he has the energy and stamina to coach or he doesn't. It's no different than players. The game is too painful for guys to convince themselves to play. They either want to play or they don't.
Besides, the 65-year-old Parcells has not earned the right in Dallas to take his time making a decision. This is not about his Hall of Fame résumé or his two Super Bowl championships. This is about his 34-32 record here, zero playoff wins and too many December swoons.
As you read this, the Cowboys are the only team in the NFL without direction. Think about that.
The hapless Oakland Raiders and their delusional owner – Al Davis still thinks the Raiders are synonymous with excellence – have fired Art Shell and started interviewing replacements.
Muir’s NHL Mailbag …
Sara Nicholson of Plano, Texas, thought I gave the Dallas Stars short shrift in my midseason grades: I think a C was pretty harsh. This is a team decimated by injuries that is staying in the playoff hunt with a minor league roster. These guys deserve an A! When they get healthy, they'll be Cup contenders.
I almost gave the Stars a grade of Incomplete, simply because we haven't seen anything approaching a full roster since their 11-2 run to start the season. Since then, they've had plenty of excuses, but when you're playing at a .500 clip, a C is probably an appropriate grade. Remember, I'm going on what is, not what could have been.
It'll be interesting to see how this team will perform when (or if) it gets healthy. They'll certainly be more talented and experienced, but will they play with the same grit and desire that led to that hot start? And where will the scoring come from? Even when healthy, goals aren't easy to come by for this group. They really need a legitimate first-line winger to complement Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen. Whether GM Doug Armstrong finds that guy could be the difference between a Cup run and yet another first-round disappointment.
Blades of Glory
PC Load Letter – language alert
Genius imitation of Rappers