Breaking down the Big Ten tourney teams

March 21, 2013 - Leave a Response
Mr. Belding gives the Big Ten two thumbs up!

Mr. Belding gives the Big Ten two thumbs up!

If you believe the hype, the biggest story of the NBA’s 2012-2013 season – outside of the Milwaukee Bucks still being over .500 in late March – is the Miami Heat’s colossal win streak.

While undoubtedly impressive, the win streak – which stands at 24 as of this writing, second only to the Lakers’ 33-game streak back in 1971-1972 – to me completely strips away whatever little drama there was to be had in this NBA season.

Barring a series of unfortunate injuries, who is going to beat the Heat in the playoffs?

I’ll tell you who: Nobody. We’ll be lucky if either the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals aren’t four-game sweeps.

Even after downing a couple Mountain Dew Kickstarts, I’m getting drowsy just thinking about the rest of the NBA season.

But I don’t need a delicious combination of Mountain Dew, real fruit juice, and the just right amount of kick to be engrossed in the 2013 men’s NCAA basketball tournament.

The way I see it, you could make a not-entirely-ridiculous argument for about 20 teams’ chances to cut down the nets on Monday, April 8, in Atlanta.

And that includes a handful of Big Ten teams.

In fact, the most interesting topic to be explored during this year’s tournament – particularly in the rounds of 64 and 32 – is how dominant the invited Big Ten teams will be.

All season long, college basketball fans have been inundated with the opinion that the Big Ten is far and away the country’s best basketball conference.

Analysts have indicated that Bo Ryan, Thad Matta, Tom Izzo, et al – not to mention their players – will be ecstatic to play teams from other, less talented, less athletic – less good – conferences.

It’s as if playing the likes of South Dakota State and Mississippi is akin to hooping it up with the Flint Tropics or Washington Generals.

I expect the Big Ten teams to rise to the challenge of these heightened expectations.

Sort of.

Let’s look at each of the tourney’s seven Big Ten teams and how far they are each likely to take their dreams of a national championship.

Minnesota (No. 11 seed, South Region). No Big Ten team has been as unpredictable as the Golden Rodents. After starting the season at 15-1 with an who-can-blame-them loss to Duke being its only setback, Goldy went into a vicious tailspin, losing eleven of its final sixteen games. But two of the late-season wins came against then-No. 1 Indiana and the nasty Wisconsin Badgers, showing that Minnesota is capable of beating just about anyone. Well, anyone at home. The Gophers haven’t won away from the friendly confines since January 9. Since they won’t be playing any tournament games at Williams Arena, their championship prospects look bleak at best. But their initial opponent, Pac-12 regular season champ UCLA, is young and injury-riddled. The Gophers will upset the Bruins before being sent back to the still-frigid Twin Cities by the Florida Gators.

Illinois (No. 7 seed, East Region). Unlike the Gophers, the Fighting Illini have largely righted their season since a putrid 1-6 stretch early in conference play. But John Groce’s team did finish the season in a 2-4 slump, and only one of their players, guard Brandon Paul, has been a consistently reliable offensive threat throughout the year. If any Big Ten team is going to go down in the first – sorry, second; can’t forget about those thrilling “first four” games – it looks to be Illinois going up against the deeper Buffaloes of Colorado.

Wisconsin (No. 5 seed, West Region). Of all the Big Ten teams invited to the tournament, the Badgers have the most to complain about. They go to the championship game of supposedly the nation’s toughest conference and end up with a lower seed than either of the teams they vanquished along the way? And they’re rewarded with playing a real tough No. 12 seed – the Rebels of Mississippi – who just won the SEC tournament? Look, we all know that the Badgers can go colder than the ratings for NBC’s Smash, and when that happens, they can lose to anybody. But the play of Ryan Evans in the Big Ten tournament was revelatory, Jared Berggren and Ben Brust continue to hit timely shots, and their defense is as tenacious as my daughter refusing to settle for anything less than the entire bag of neon sour gummy worms. I like Bo Ryan’s team to reach their third-straight Sweet Sixteen before succumbing – barely – to the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Michigan (No. 4 seed, South Region). The Wolverines have been nothing short of awesome most of the year, but their shocking loss to Penn State on February 27 is a cold reminder of the anyone-can-beat-anyone-at-any-time one-and-done finality of the NCAA tournament. Still, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., are one of the best guard combos in the country, and the rest of their starting rotation is young but solid. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re starting tournament play at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. The Wolverines will join Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Kansas.

Michigan State (No. 3 seed, Midwest Region). Like the Wolverines, the Michigan State Spartans get to start tournament play close to home in Auburn Hills. But unlike the favorable seeding given to the Wolverines, the selection committee placed Tom Izzo’s team in the tournament’s toughest bracket. But if any team is up to the challenge, it’s Sparty, who seem to play their best basketball in March as routinely as the post-Weekend Update sketches on Saturday Night Live stink. Look for Michigan State to be one of the Elite Eight teams, a prediction I’d feel better about if not for that surprising three-game dive the Spartans took about a month ago.

Ohio State (No. 2 seed, West Region). There’s not a team in college basketball I’ve been more impressed with lately than the Buckeyes. They’re able to play any style of ball their opponents try to throw at them – I was particularly struck by how they beat the Badgers in the Big Ten conference tourney final by being more physical, more suffocating on defense, and more deliberate on offense than Bucky. But they’ll have to be just the opposite against Iona, a team that puts up the second-most points in the nation. If they get past the running Gaels of Iona – and are you willing to bet they won’t? – I love Ohio State’s chances of landing in their second straight Final Four.

Indiana (No. 1 seed, East Region). What is it about Indiana that leaves me not as impressed as everybody else? Their fans include President Obama, who has picked the Hoosiers to win this year’s championship. I guess it’s because I look at them through Badger red-colored glasses, which – given that Bucky has beaten them 12 straight times – means they are extremely fallible. But no one can deny that Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are awesome ballers or that Tom Crean has done a tremendous job rebuilding this historic program in a breathtakingly short time. I just don’t see this Hoosier story ending on the same upbeat note as the classic Gene Hackman film. Besides, “Bracket” Obama hasn’t picked the correct national champion since 2009. I say Indiana falls to Miami (FL) in the Elite Eight.

My Final Four: Duke, Ohio State, Kansas, Miami (FL)

My Championship Game: Duke vs. Kansas.

My Champion: Kansas. It surprises me too.


Wisconsin Badgers: A “wild and crazy” season

March 13, 2013 - Leave a Response
They brought back Aykroyd and Chase but not Piscopo? What are they thinking?

They brought back Aykroyd and Chase but not Piscopo? What are they thinking?

It was with mixed emotions that I saw Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd reprise their “wild and crazy guys” Festrunk Brothers on last weekend’s star-studded (I guess Aykroyd and Chevy Chase still qualify as stars?) “Saturday Night Live.”

As a huge fan of the original “SNL,” I ate it up. But there’s no doubt the reboot came off a bit clunky: Aykroyd used to be the thin contrast to his late partner John Belushi, but now looks heavier than Belushi ever did, the 67-year-old Martin struggled to read the cue cards, and both performances came off as stiff imitations of their 1970s creations, as if they were doing a parody of themselves.

And it didn’t help any that in the face of the reunited pairing of Andy Samberg and host Justin Timberlake, Martin and Aykroyd were badly upstaged.

(However, It was nice that the studio audience gave the old-timers a very robust reaction, but you have to imagine that many of those cheering had no idea who or what they raising the roof for.)

I had a similarly mixed reaction to the weekend that the Badger men’s basketball team enjoyed: Yes, I was thrilled that Bo Ryan was deservedly named the Big Ten Coach of the Year, and I was also relieved that Michigan (25-6) lost to Indiana (26-5) in the conference’s regular-season finale, a loss that secured Wisconsin a first-round bye in this week’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament.

But I can’t help but feel that the Badgers (21-10) are themselves due to be upstaged, perhaps as early as Friday’s game against either Michigan (likelier) or Penn State (hey, has happened and could again).

Before getting into the Big Ten tournament – which should be terrifically entertaining – let’s take a quick look back on the Badgers’ regular season:

Most valuable player: I’d like to give this to coach Ryan, without whom the Badgers might have flamed out this year after losing guard Josh Gasser to an offseason injury. But taking Bo out of the mix leaves only two real candidates: Senior forward Jared Berggren and junior Ben Brust. Though Berggren led the team in scoring, rebounding, and blocks, I would still give the nod to Brust. With the loss of Gasser, Ryan relied on the junior like CBS relies on the crime procedural: Brust led the team in playing time with 34 minutes a game. He also proved to be a fine defender, and – crucial for a team that shoots from beyond the arc as much as the Badgers – was the team’s best three-point shooter. Brust’s clutch shooting can be summed up in one word: Michigan.

Biggest surprise (positive): The buzz was fairly significant for Sheboygan’s Sam Dekker, with many calling him the greatest home state player to commit to Wisconsin in many years. And, unlike pretty much any program on NBC’s schedule, Dekker delivered the goods, leading the team in both field goal and three-point percentage. When your team’s best shooter is a freshman, the future is bright.

Biggest surprise (negative): I hate to be a hater, but the unsolved mystery of what happened to Ryan Evans would have kept Robert Stack guessing for weeks on end. If Wisconsin was the Big Ten team that was prone to the season’s longest and most painful scoring droughts, then Ryan Evans was the Badgers’ poster child. The best thing about the senior’s shooting woes (under 40 percent for the season with just two made 3-pointers all year) was that his struggles from the floor weren’t as noticeably ugly as his struggles from the free-throw line. Evans’s late-season decision to “jump shoot” his free throws became one of most laughable sights on a basketball court since the days of the Vlade Divac flop. His defense kept him (mostly) out of coach Ryan’s doghouse, but if any Badger needs redemption this postseason, it’s Evans.

Best game: The February 17 showdown between No. 13 Ohio State and No. 20 Wisconsin surprisingly turned into a laugher as the Badgers turned in their best all-around performance of the season, shooting 53 percent while holding the Buckeyes to their lowest point total of the year. At one point in the game’s first half, the Badgers went on an 18-0 run to take a 24-6 lead, in the process looking like the best team in the nation’s best basketball conference. Honorable mention: The January 15 upset at Indiana that legitimized the Badgers as true 2013 contenders.

Best moment: This is the biggest no-brainer since Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor award for “Lincoln”: Ben Brust’s half-court shot against Michigan to force overtime in a February 9 game that the Badgers would eventually win 65-62. Even Bo Ryan was excited by the shot and, as Mike Bruesewitz said at the time, “When he shows some emotion, you’ve done something pretty special.”

Worst game: Any Badger fan who sat through the entire March 7 58-43 loss to Michigan State deserves a personal apology from Bo Ryan and a personal visit from Bucky Badger to the birthday party, bar mitzvah, or debutante ball of his or her choice. Anyone who played a drinking game that night requiring them to take a shot every time the ESPN announcers said “the Badgers haven’t scored since . . .” is still sleeping it off.

Worst moment: Several low points occurred in the Badgers’ 58-53 loss at Minnesota on what was a not-so-sweet Valentine’s Day matchup: Many of them, including Ryan Evans missing five free throws, occurred during an 8:48 second-half/overtime stretch where the Badgers didn’t score a single point. But the worst was Mike Bruesewitz’s baseline violation with 22.6 seconds left, a crucial turnover that allowed the Gophers to tie up the game, which they would win in overtime.

So, with a surprisingly close victory against Big Ten doormat Penn State to close out a surprisingly good season on an alarmingly alarming note that saw the Badgers lose two of their last three games in ugly fashion, what can we expect from Wisconsin in this week’s Big Ten tournament?

First off, it has to be pointed out that the Big Ten tournament has historically had about as many jaw-dropping surprises in it as an episode of “The Wonder Pets.” In its fifteen years of existence, the No. 1 or No. 2 seed has won the conference tournament twelve times. When Iowa won in 2001 as a No. 6 seed, it marked the only year in which a team without an opening-round bye emerged victorious.

So, if history can be counted on, the fact that Wisconsin is off on Thursday is significant.

Or is it?

This year, the Big Ten has not lacked for surprises, a fact that could very well continue into the tournament.

But I doubt it.

A March 2 blowout loss to the Gophers notwithstanding, Penn State is a different team now than it was when it was dropping fourteen straight conference games. Unfortunately for them, they open against Michigan, about the only team in the conference looking for revenge on the Nittany Lions.

Once Michigan has had a taste of revenge by easily toppling Penn State, they will be looking for more, namely against the Badgers, who beat the Wolverines in that thriller in Madison on February 9.

That stunner against Penn State notwithstanding, Michigan has been playing excellent basketball as of late, including March wins against Purdue and Michigan State, two teams that just toppled Wisconsin. Michigan also has Trey Burke, one of the top players in the country, and I’m predicting he does better from the floor than the 8-of-21 he chalked up in Madison. I’m also predicting there will be no miracle shot this time around for Wisconsin and that Michigan will advance.

Looking ahead to the semifinals, I like Indiana to again defeat Michigan, and I see Ohio State squeaking out a win against Michigan State. Finally, despite playing in their home state, I predict Indiana will fall to Ohio State in Sunday’s tournament final. Why? That loss to Wisconsin on February 17 has obviously re-energized the Buckeyes, who have not lost since that game, dispensing of Michigan State and Indiana in the process.

That would give Ohio State its fifth Big Ten tournament title and its third in the last four years.

Sounds predictable? Hey, that’s the Big Ten tournament for you.

Just goes to show that some things, like the inability of the Festrunk brothers to score with the “foxes,” never change.

Are You Ready For Some Football?

August 9, 2012 - Leave a Response

My dog is still afraid to go outside for fear of facing 100-degree heat, but one of the surest signs of fall and eventual cooler weather is already here.

Football is back.

Are you ready for some football?

I don’t mean that in the sense of rah-rah, let’s hit the man cave, pop some punch-top cans of Miller Lite with junior’s epinephrine auto-injector, and watch the Red Zone Channel.

I mean, really, do you care that football’s off-season is over?

I ask because in 2012, the sport of football as a whole has had a worse off-season than it would seem possible for a single sport to have.

The “bounty scandal” has raised concerns about not only a remarkably ugly side of what is at its core a very violent sport, it’s also brought into legitimate question the extent to which the commissioner is able to wield judge and jury power over a business responsible for billions of dollars in annual revenue.

The continued risks and long-term effects of concussions and head injuries all too common in football has resulted in a lawsuit filed against the NFL on behalf of more than 3,000 of its former players.

Kurt Warner, whose journey from grocery store stock boy to Super Bowl MVP made him the embodiment of the NFL dream factory more than any other player in league history, said this spring that because of increased fears of head injuries, he’d rather that his sons not play football.

Preamble to Warner’s comments was the death by suicide of Junior Seau, one of the most dominant linebackers in history. His passing led many to postulate that he was suffering from the same type of concussion-related brain trauma that led Bears safety Dave Duerson to shoot himself in 2011.

The NFL still hasn’t come to terms with the NFL Referees Association, a contract dispute that is forcing the league to resort to “scab” referees, who immediately went to work by botching the coin toss in this week’s annual Hall of Fame game. If this mess continues to linger, fans can count on a dizzying number of head-scratching calls and infuriating game delays as rusty refs effort to implement the sporting world’s most confusing rulebook.
NFL training camps are turning into fight clubs. Over 30 active NFL players have been arrested so far in 2012, with over half of the charges involving drugs and alcohol.

Oh, and Penn State, one of the most storied programs in collegiate football history, was rocked with a horrifying child molestation scandal that will forever tarnish the legacy of the university, its athletic department, and particularly head coach Joe Paterno, who was previously one of the most beloved figures associated with the game on any level.

Football’s reputation has gotten so bad that former players such as Troy Aikman and sportscasters such as Tony Kornheiser have lamented that the sport as fans have known and loved it for so many years is in effect over and that football’s long-running status as the nation’s number one pastime is in danger.

So, I’ll ask it again: Are you ready for some football?

Of course you are.

Look, there can be no argument that football has had a disastrous off-season. And surely if the link between brain damage and playing football continues to get stronger, there will be a negative impact on the sport’s long-term growth.

But there will always be parents willing to let their kids play football. There will always be kids who want to play football. Hey, if my high school friends and I had enough money to start a legitimate-sounding football league in which ball carriers could either be tackled, tasered, or tarted up in women’s lingerie and defenders could be thwarted by the release of killer wasps, we’d get thousands of eager applicants.

Football has a stranglehold on this country’s love and affection and has for decades. My Minnesotan mother couldn’t possibly name more than three active NBA players but I’ll bet she could name three of the four quarterbacks on the Minnesota Vikings’ current roster.

Football games, even preseason ones, are events. Baseball and basketball games, by the very nature of their frequency, are too easily ignored and taken for granted.

And, as always seems to happen, this year’s football season, on both the collegiate and pro levels, bring with it some fascinating storylines for even the most casual fan.

Will Peyton Manning find success with the Denver Broncos? Will Tim Tebow’s exile to the New York Jets signal the end of Mark Sanchez or the end of Tim Tebow? Can Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson bounce back from devastating knee injuries? Can a depleted Penn State program win any games? Can Wisconsin catch lightning in a bottle again with transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien? Can Randy Moss and Terrell Owens torch opposing defenses like it’s 1999? Can Cam Newton do it again? Can Andrew Luck do it at all?

It sounds wildly uncaring, but it will take more than a tragic death, a leader with an insatiable appetite for power, and the most despicable scandal in the history of American institutions of higher education to seriously derail football.

The Packers kick off their preseason schedule Thursday night.

I might not feel as gung-ho about it as some years, but yes, I am ready for some football. Who’s with me?

Super Bowl XLVI: Who Wins?

February 4, 2012 - Leave a Response

In honor of David Letterman, who just this past week celebrated his 30th year in late-night television, here are the Top Ten things you need to know about Super Bowl XLVI happening Sunday night in Indianapolis (hey, Letterman’s from Indiana. See, it all makes sense):

1. It’s all about Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots stud TE, who set NFL single-season tight end records by amassing 1,327 yards and 18 touchdowns this year, has been the most closely watched athlete on either team in the two weeks since the conference championship games. Friday reports had “Gronk” back in practice, a mere 11 days after suffering a sprained left ankle in the Patriots’ win over Baltimore. Most defensive coordinators have not been able to come up with an answer for Gronkowski, including the Giants’ Perry Fewell: In fact, “Gronk” had one of his best games of the year when the Patriots lost to the Giants in November, collecting 8 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. Though Gronkowski’s status for the Super Bowl is still listed as “questionable,” this much seems certain: He will play but will not be at 100 percent. How close he is to 100 percent goes a long way in determining how high-flying the Patriots’ high-flying offense will in fact be.

2. With or without Gronkowski, the Giants have the more explosive offense right now. It seems like heresy to give the edge on big-play offense to the team NOT quarterbacked by Tom Brady, but the Giants have been moving the ball remarkably well since Thanksgiving, averaging over 414 yards a week over their last nine games. Not that there’s been anything wrong with the Patriots’ offense, but they don’t have that explosive, game-changing receiver, particularly if Gronkowski is out or limited. The Giants have Victor Cruz (averaging 18.7 yards per catch), Hakeem Nicks (averaging 15.7 yards per catch), and tight end Jake Ballard (with 15.9 yards per catch), all of whom pose a deeper threat than Gronkowski (14.7 yards per catch), Deion Branch (13.8 yards per catch) or Wes Welker (12.9 yards per catch).

3. If you had to – had to – pick a running game, you’d take New York’s. Neither the Patriots nor Giants have been running anyone over, and in fact the Giants finished dead last in the regular season in rushing offense, with a paltry 89.2 yards a game. (In comparison, the Patriots racked up 110.3 yards per game.) But in the postseason, Ahmad Bradshaw is once again proving his effectiveness, gaining over five yards per rush. Over on the Patriots side, even in a dominant 35-point victory against Denver, the Patriots’ lead rusher, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, was only good for 28 yards on 13 carries. And as any fantasy football player will tell you, rule number one is not to trust any New England Patriots running back.

4. If it’s not all about Rob Gronkowski, then it’s all about the Giants’ pass rush. New York’s defensive front has been causing all sorts of headaches for their opponents recently, and Tom Brady has probably been thinking about Justin Tusk, Osi Umenyiora, Chris Canty, and Jason Pierre-Paul more in the last two weeks than Cookie Monster thinks about cookies. But unlike Cookie Monster’s recent attitude adjustment regarding cookies, the Giants’ defensive front isn’t looking at making Tom Brady a “sometimes food.” They want to gobble him up on every down.

5. If it’s not all about the Giants’ pass rush, it’s all about Tom Brady and Eli Manning. There was a time when comparing Brady to Peyton’s little brother was akin to comparing Dustin Hoffman to Dustin “Screech” Diamond. No more. Not that anyone is questioning the abilities of Brady (although his playoff wins this year are his first since the AFC Championship game following the 2007 season), but Manning is the one that has lately been polishing his Hall of Fame resume: Five playoff road victories. 129 consecutive starts. An NFL-record 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes this year. An undeniable toughness and calmness under pressure. Oh, and he’s beaten Brady two out of the three times they’ve played. Brady is already considered one of the best of all time; if Manning can win his second championship on Sunday, he will have to be included on that list.

6. Madonna won’t disappoint. Last year’s Super Bowl halftime show featuring the Black Eyed Peas, who were booked largely in response from casual fans squawking about too many appearances by rock dinosaurs like The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney, basically sucked. But as one of the few eighties acts with tremendous staying power (U2 being the only act that can really compete), Madonna is a smart choice. She’s not exactly queen of the pop charts anymore, but at least she’s had hits this millennium and she has a back catalog of music that few can compare to. And she’s a fabulous performer. The only smarter choice would have been to invite back Bruce Springsteen. (The Boss does have a new album to plug and will be on the Grammys the following Sunday.)

7. The commercials will. The glut of overhyped Super Bowl commercials are like a typical Saturday Night Live episode: There’s usually a gem in there, but you have to sit through a lot of dull, uninspired material to see it. My advice: Start watching the game on your DVR about a half-hour after it starts so you can zip through the commercials, rewinding only when the Jerry Seinfeld Honda Civic ad comes up. Or, better yet, just watch the Seinfeld ad now online. (It’s hysterical, although David Letterman did the surprise Jay Leno appearance better back in 2010.)

8. It makes no sense why the Patriots are favored. Yes, Bill Belichick’s team has the more impressive legacy. Yes, Tom Brady is the “golden boy.” Yes, the Patriots had the (by far) better regular-season record. But the Giants have the more explosive offense, the more intimidating defense, a clutch kicker, and less injury worries. And they’re simply playing better now than the Patriots.

9. The Giants will win. History will repeat itself. Final score prediction: Giants 34, New England 23.

10. Eli Manning will be named Super Bowl MVP. The younger brother will, at least for a moment, steal the headlines away from his older brother and his ongoing soap opera with the Indianapolis Colts.

Enjoy the game. September’s a long way off.

Goats, Colts, A Fallen Lion, And A Very Rich Prince

January 27, 2012 - Leave a Response

Just because something is interesting doesn’t mean that it’s good.

Case in point: This last week in sports, which was loaded with games and events that many of us couldn’t look away from even if we didn’t necessarily like what we were seeing.

Let’s start with Sunday’s NFL games. By almost all standards, the two games were a pair of the most dramatic, most compelling conference championship contests in recent memory.

But what ultimately made them most memorable wasn’t the toughness of Eli Manning, the tenacity of the 49ers defense, or the surprisingly stout play of New England’s defensive front, headed by tackle Vince Wilfork.

That’s what most of us watch sports – and particularly playoff sports – to see: Contests featuring feats of athletic greatness that are decided by which player or team ultimately makes the most awe-inspiring play.

Instead what we got were goats.

To my eye, San Francisco’s Kyle Williams’s acts of ineptness were both the most sympathetic and the most egregious. He was scary bad all game, from diving for punts to the two critical turnovers that directly led to 10 Giants points, including the game-winning field goal. But in his defense, Williams was filling in for an injured player performing a task he clearly wasn’t comfortable doing.

My compassion for Williams has also increased after it’s been revealed that he has since been the recipient of death threats via social media. One wishes that the reprehensible cowards that send these despicable tweets would have opportunity to say such things to Williams in person, if only so Williams would then have the opportunity to punch said lowlifes in the throat.

Of the other goats, I sadly have to lay more blame for his team’s loss on Baltimore’s Lee Evans for letting Sterling Moore knock that touchdown pass out of his hands than I do on Billy Cundiff for missing the easy chip shot field goal at the end of regulation.

Cundiff gets a bit of a pass from me because he earlier had made two field goals and, had he made that admittedly easy 31-yarder to tie the game, it would have only forced overtime. Evans hangs on to that perfect pass from Flacco and his team flat out wins the game and heads to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

Speaking of Indy, the backbiting between Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay and quarterback Peyton Manning has been another fascinating storyline that has been tough to not follow this week.

But in the end, the power struggle is a sickening case of egotistical millionaires arguing with narcissistic billionaires, with Rob Lowe (who must be at least a thousand-aire) playing the meatiest supporting role he’s had since The West Wing.

Seems to me that Irsay is determined to run Manning out of town, an inconceivable goal given the disastrous impact Manning’s absence this past season had on the Colts.

In a NFL Network special that aired before Manning’s injury, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said that if you take Manning away from the Colts you have a “very below-average ball club.” What once seemed like hyperbole has proven to be instead a gross understatement.

Of course the unknown quantity here is Manning’s health: If Peyton ultimately can’t play football again, then Irsay is 100 percent right for moving on. You just wish that in doing so, he would show a little appreciation for Manning, as he is almost assured of not finding a quarterback of his class in this year’s – or maybe any year’s – NFL draft.

Any conversation about sports and money this week has to include a mention of Prince Fielder, who on Tuesday signed a nine-year contract with the Detroit Tigers worth a breathtaking $214 million.

Fielder’s expected departure from the Brewers is less a blow to Milwaukee’s team and its fans – hey, the man himself even said before the season was over that he was a goner – than it is a painful reminder that baseball, more than the other major sports, has yet to solve the glaring issue of small market vs. big market disparity.

Commissioner Bud Selig is quick to point out that baseball has had an impressively varied group of postseason participants in recent years, but that doesn’t hide the staggering salary disparity between its clubs: In 2011, the Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox all had payrolls north of $160 million, while five teams had payrolls under $50 million.

No one can blame Fielder for taking the most money offered to him, but something is wrong when a small-market team like Milwaukee can be prepared to offer a rumored $120 million for Fielder and still not be considered a serious candidate for his services.

Given that both teams play in the same state, it’s impossible not to compare the Milwaukee Brewers situation in baseball to the Green Bay Packers situation in the NFL. Despite recent successes – which will be tough to maintain following the loss of Fielder and the likely suspension of Ryan Braun – the Brewers have, over their history, been a team of have-nots. The Packers, despite playing in the NFL’s smallest market, have a long history of being the haves.

Not that that fact provides much solace in Wisconsin this NFL postseason.

Finally, the saddest sports news from the past week was undoubtedly the passing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

At a time when Paterno’s life and unparalleled accomplishments in college football should be celebrated, it’s impossible not to feel at the very least conflicted or even somewhat distasteful showing admiration for the man after learning of what he didn’t try harder to prevent from going on under his nose at State College.

However, even the most jaded of us have to admit that Paterno was a man who inspired and improved the lives of countless young people.

But, like Kyle Williams and Billy Cundiff, Paterno is doomed to have his name forever linked to mistakes.

Sadly, unlike Williams and Cundiff, Paterno made mistakes that were not just not good. They were tragic.

Is The Arrow Pointing Down On The Green Bay Packers?

January 18, 2012 - Leave a Response

When my visit to my parents’ home over the recent holidays was coming to a close, I found myself doing the clichéd “look back” before leaving.

If you don’t know what I mean by a “look back,” then just think of the final episode of Three’s Company, when Jack, Janet, and Terri give their apartment one last onceover before leaving it for the final time.

(I’ll give you a moment to dry your eyes after remembering that emotional scene, a scene which is apparently not available anywhere on-line for me to link to.)

My reasons for the “look back” were simple: My parents are getting older and it’s inevitable that at some point they will sell the house I grew up in. So I feel like any time I’m there could be my last.

Now, three days after their shocking defeat in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, I find myself taking a mental “look back” at the Packers 2011 season for a similarly simple reason: We may not see anything like it anytime soon.

Oh, I can already hear the grumbling. Yes, the Packers, despite high-profile vets like Charles Woodson and Donald Driver (who is the subject of much trade talk), are still a very young team. And as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center, the Packers will be competitive. It’s not panic time in Green Bay.

Or is it?

As players and coaches alike said after Sunday’s loss, to be involved in the Green Bay Packers franchise is to be burdened with the highest of expectations.

There is no tolerance in Green Bay for any “we’re making progress” or “three-year rebuilding plan” talk. Despite the awful showing on Sunday against the Giants, fans will be expecting Mike McCarthy and Rodgers to be bringing the Vince Lombardi Trophy back “home” in 2013.
And, unless there are major, unforeseen, and seismic changes in Green Bay, the Packers will be one of the teams most heavily favored to win Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans.

But history is not on their side. Instead, it suggests that the arrow is pointing down on the Packers.

Consider the trajectory the Packers went on in the mid-1990s: Two straight wild-card round victories following the 1993 and 1994 seasons, followed by a divisional round victory after the 1995 season, followed by a Super Bowl championship after the 1996 season. Then there was the Super Bowl loss to Denver, then a wild-card loss the next season, and then two years out of the playoffs.

After “recovering” from the surprisingly smooth Favre-to-Rodgers transition, the Packers found themselves on a similar, but much more accelerated course: A wild-card loss in 2010 followed by a Super Bowl championship in 2011. But just as this Packers team climbed back to the top of the mountain faster than the team of the 1990s did, with Sunday’s loss, they have now fallen much faster as well.

But wait, you say. Super Bowl champs can bounce back after playoff losses. Well, sure. But in the past ten years, only the Patriots and Steelers were able to win additional championships after first failing to defend their title. (The Giants could join that group this season.) Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and New Orleans could not, with only Indianapolis even advancing to the title game again.

But if you say it’s not necessarily relevant to see what other teams have been able to do, then let’s return our focus to this Green Bay Packers team. What changes they will either have to overcome or have to institute in order to put the Title back in Titletown?

Unfortunately, it’s a lot.

The Packers have already lost their respected director of football operations Reggie McKenzie to the Oakland Raiders. As Oakland’s new GM, he might tempt members of the Packers organization to come along with him. One of those most likely to leave is offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who has now interviewed with Miami and Tampa Bay about their head coaching openings. Assistant coaches Winston Moss and Tom Clements have also been rumored to be leaving for supposed greener pastures, and even defensive coordinator Dom Capers, despite his defense’s pitiful performance this year, could be lured away from Green Bay.

Fans may wish “good riddance” to Capers after watching him lead the NFL’s worst defense in 2011. But whether or not Capers (and his toupee) ride out of town, it’s clear to anyone with eyes in their head that some sort of major overhaul – starting with the defensive front, who put as much pressure on Eli Manning on Sunday as a cool breeze puts on the Empire State Building – needs to be made to the Packers’ porous defense.

But even if necessary adjustments are made, be it on the field, in the coaching ranks, or both, change is tough. And it might not work.
That’s the sort of uncertainty facing the Packers in 2012 that wasn’t foreseen last year.

The offensive side of the ball is certainly open to less immediate criticism (Sunday’s game largely notwithstanding), but in addition to Joe Philbin’s future, there are unanswered questions here as well.

Will free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn leave to compete for a starting job elsewhere? It would be a surprise if he doesn’t, given how sought after he will be and how much money will be thrown at his feet. And though his departure will not matter much if Rodgers stays healthy, it could be huge if Rodgers doesn’t.

Will TE Jermichael Finley resign? Packers fans may not want him to return after his untimely drops this season, but the team could do far worse at the position. Despite what some would consider a disappointing season, Finley still finished third among NFL tight ends in touchdowns.

What needs to be done with the running back position? Ryan Grant is almost certainly gone, and James Starks isn’t the answer to this question any more than Tim Tebow is the answer to who the next governor of Wisconsin might be. But what’s clear is that Aaron Rodgers can’t continue to be the team’s best rusher. That’s a formula that’s not going to work long-term.

Oddly enough, the sexiest headline – What will Green Bay do about Donald Driver? – is probably the least concerning to Packers fans. While it will be sad to see him go (and it seems highly likely that he will finish his career with another team), wide receiver continues to be the position where the Packers have the greatest and most impressive depth.

Provided, of course, those receivers can do a better job than they did on Sunday holding on to the ball.

But in the big picture, wide receiver is the area of smallest concern for fans of the green and gold who hope that they won’t “look back” on Sunday’s game as the beginning of the end of the dominant Rodgers era for the Packers.

Quick takes on Sunday’s game: Regardless of what anyone says about the long layoff, the biggest factor that played into the Packers’ sloppiness was the horrible situation that surrounded Joe Philbin. There’s obviously never a good time for that sort of tragedy, but as it happened, the tragedy took the team out of the football world at the worst possible time. Biggest play of the game was not the Hail Mary at the end of the second half or the Bradshaw run that set up that play. In contrary to popular opinion, those plays did not deflate the Packers as they basically dominated the third quarter. The biggest play of the game was the Ryan Grant fumble and subsequent return in the fourth quarter. Still seemed likely that the Packers could come back until that play happened. As had been proven already in the Saints/49ers game and Texans/Ravens game, teams simply don’t win when they give the ball away on multiple occasions. Despite how well Eli Manning played, because of the Packers’ turnovers and dropped passes, I’m more prone to say the Packers lost the game than the Giants won.

NFC Divisional Playoffs: Could The Giants Win?

January 13, 2012 - Leave a Response

I guess you can’t blame Wisconsin sports fans for feeling pessimistic in 2012.

The list of things to grumble about has gotten pretty long in the New Year: The Badgers’ football team lost the Rose Bowl and then a bunch of coaches followed offensive coordinator Paul Chryst out of town. Badger center Peter Konz declared that he’s entering the NFL Draft. The Badgers men’s basketball team fell out of the national rankings. The Brewers decided to re-sign Manny Parra.

And then there’s the unseemly off-field incidents ranging from the curious – UW senior associate athletic director John Chadima’s decision to resign in the face of reported allegations of misconduct – to the tragic – the death of the son of Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.
Things have gotten so bleak that many Packers fans have begun to lose hope, with some of them fearing that Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the New York Giants could be the Pack’s last game of the season.

Really? The Green Bay Packers? The defending Super Bowl champions? The team that toyed with perfection for much of the regular season? The team that led the league in scoring? The team that was second in the league in turnover differential and second in the league for fewest penalty yards? The team that features QB Aaron Rodgers, nearly every pundit’s pick for league MVP?

Well, some would say, it’s also the team with the league’s worst defense. And sure, Aaron Rodgers is terrific, but he’s also been spending valuable playoff preparation time filming lame commercials for an insurance company.

So, should Packers fans be worried? Do the New York football Giants have a playoff run in them to match their Super Bowl championship 2007 season?

Perhaps. Let’s see how the Giants could win:

1. The Giants run the ball successfully. Given the Giants’ (largely unearned) reputation as a ground-and-pound team that move the ball with seasoned backs Ahmed Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, it probably surprises many to learn that the Giants had statistically the worst rushing attack in the league in 2011 with a paltry 89.2 yards per game. However, in walloping the punchless Atlanta Falcons in last week’s Wild Card game, the Giants nearly doubled their season rushing average, gaining 172 yards on the ground with an average of 5.5 yards per carry. If the Giants can repeat that performance, they could pull off the upset.

2. Eli Manning outduels Aaron Rodgers. Don’t laugh. It’s possible. While Rodgers has been off-the-charts spectacular, Eli has had a more than respectable season, actually surpassing Rodgers in yards thrown. The biggest difference between the two (although Rodgers tops Eli in basically every other category): Manning has thrown 16 interceptions, while Rodgers has tossed only six. But Manning’s wideouts are almost as dangerous as Rodgers’s: The group of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, and Jake Ballard combined to catch more passes for more yards than the Packers’ group of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, and Jermichael Finley. Of course the Packers also have James Jones and rookie Randall Cobb. One of them could be a difference-maker Sunday.

3. The Giants get consistent pressure on Rodgers. One of the Giants’ strengths is their defensive line, with standouts like Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Jason Pierre-Paul combining for 17 sacks and five interceptions in their last five games. It’s a great group, and they should be able to get their licks in this Sunday: Rodgers was taken down 36 times this season, and Matt Flynn was sacked three times in the Rodgers-less season finale against Detroit. All told, Rodgers was sacked three or more times in six games this season. It would surprise no one if that number became seven this weekend.

4. The dreaded intangibles. Putting aside the tragic situation that has obviously distracted Joe Philbin over the last several days, there are so-called intangibles that seem to work out in the Giants’ favor. Most obviously is New York seems to be the leading candidate to be the 2012 version of the 2011 Packers: Last year the Packers entered the postseason on a hot streak, going to the home of the No. 1-seeded Atlanta Falcons and blowing them out en route to the Super Bowl. This year the Giants are that hot team with the chance to upend the No. 1 seed. And who could forget the outcome the last time the Giants visited Lambeau in the postseason? But though the Giants have won four of their last five games, the Packers proved last year that beating the Falcons in the postseason was no difficult task. And if either quarterback is going to throw a late-game interception as happened on that frigid January 2008 night, this time it’s unlikely to be the one playing for the Packers.

Prediction: The Giants are a scary team with arguably a more balanced offensive attack and an inarguably better defense. But the Packers have the better playmakers and are much more likely to win Sunday’s turnover battle. Those facts alone should be enough to put Packers fans’ minds at ease. Final score: Green Bay 31, New York Giants 24.

Top 10 2011 Wisconsin Sports Highlights (Part 2 of 2)

December 29, 2011 - Leave a Response

As my mentor Casey Kasem used to say (well, in addition to “you can’t come out of an untempo record with a death dedication”), let’s get back to the countdown:

5. Hilary Knight to Mallory Deluce, Wisconsin Badgers vs. Boston University Terriers, 2011 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four National Championship, March 20, 2011. Though the Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team entered the 2011 National Championship game riding a remarkable 26-game unbeaten streak, the team’s fourth championship in six seasons was anything but secure deep in the game’s third period. While the Badgers had outshot the Terriers by an overwhelming margin, Wisconsin enjoyed just a 2-1 lead with only 3:23 remaining in regulation. That’s when Deluce took a rebound from Knight and sent it soaring past Terrier goalie Kerrin Sperry to give the Badgers a more comfortable 3-1 advantage. Once Carolyne Provost iced the game with an empty-net goal to make the final score 4-1, the team was able to celebrate one of the most impressive if underappreciated Badger seasons in recent memory, as their 37 wins set a record for most wins in a single season in NCAA women’s hockey history.

4. B.J. Raji interception return for touchdown, Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, NFC Championship, January 23, 2011. After destroying the Atlanta Falcons 48-21 in the previous week’s NFC divisional round, the Packers advanced to the NFC Championship, only to find themselves muddied in a defensive battle with their most familiar foe. The Bears were DOA behind Jay Cutler and Todd Collins (the backup replacing Cutler after the starting QB had surprisingly left with a controversial knee injury), but Chicago was suddenly clicking behind third-string signal caller Caleb Hanie, who led the team on a 67-yard TD-scoring drive early in the fourth quarter that put the Bears within 14-7. That score stuck until defensive lineman Raji picked off the first of Hanie’s two interceptions and ran 18 yards with it to put the Packers up 21-7 with just 6 minutes to go. Though the Bears weren’t finished – Hanie threw a 35-yard TD pass to Earl Bennett just 80 seconds later – Raji’s TD proved to be the difference-maker and an all-time highlight in one of the most significant games in the history of the storied Packers/Bears rivalry.

3. Isaiah Lewis runs into punter Brad Nortman, Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan State Spartans, 2011 Big Ten Championship, December 3, 2011. The much-ballyhooed rematch of the regular-season meeting that ended Wisconsin’s national championship hopes was eerily similar to that October 22 shocker: Wisconsin got off to a fast start in both, the Spartans staged a furious rally in both second quarters, Michigan State’s offense once again had its way with Wisconsin’s normally stingy defense (to the tune of a whopping 471 yards), and Montee Ball scored another go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. But the ending this time was very different indeed: Though not quite as dramatic as Kirk Cousins’s Hail Mary to Keith Nichol, it was equally unexpected when, after getting a rare defensive stop and needing only a field goal to tie, Spartans kick returner Keshawn Martin returned a Brad Nortman punt all the way to the Badgers’ 3-yard-line with under two minutes to play. The problem for Michigan State was, safety Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Nortman, giving Wisconsin a new set of downs and allowing them to simply run out the clock and run on to their second straight Rose Bowl.

2. Nyjer Morgan singles home Carlos Gomez, Arizona Diamondbacks at Milwaukee Brewers, NLDS Game 5, October 7, 2011. After jumping out to a 2-0 series lead, many fans assumed that the Brewers’ first postseason series victory since 1982 was a done deal. But two losses in the desert during which Milwaukee’s starting pitching was absolutely shredded by the Diamondbacks made those same fans very nervous for the deciding Game 5 back at Miller Park. Luckily for the Brewers, they had Yovani Gallardo on the mound, and their ace responded with a shutdown 6-inning outing, allowing just a third-inning homer to Justin Upton. Unfortunately for the Brewers, Arizona’s Ian Kennedy was almost as good, giving up just two runs over the same six innings. But with the normally untouchable John Axford entering the game in the top of the ninth, those two runs seemed like enough for the Brewers to start their celebration. Shockingly, the Diamondbacks tagged Axford for three straight hits, tying the score, eventually sending the game to extra innings, and sending the Miller Park faithful to the bathrooms with upset stomachs. But in the bottom of the tenth, Carlos Gomez hit a one-out single off the unfortunately-named J.J. Putz. Gomez then stole second and then came home on a single by Nyjer Morgan to the wildest celebration Miller Park had ever seen.

1. Clay Matthews strips Rashard Mendenhall, Green Bay Packers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XLV, February 6, 2011. Aaron Rodgers was a much-deserved MVP in his first (but probably not last) Super Bowl appearance, throwing for 304 yards and three touchdowns. But he wasn’t even on the field for what proved to be the turning point of the game. Though the Packers were up 21-17, the momentum was firmly on the Steelers side after Pittsburgh had scored 14 unanswered points and held the explosive Packers scoreless for the entire third quarter. At the start of the final quarter, the Steelers had the ball on the Packers’ 33-yard-line and were looking to take their first lead. But in a play that entirely reversed the course of the game, Clay Matthews jarred the ball out of Rashard Mendenhall’s hands, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Desmond Bishop. The rejuvenated Packers went on a quick 55-play drive capped by a Rodgers-to-Jennings touchdown that ultimately proved the game winner, giving the Packers their first championship in fourteen years and putting, for once and for all, the specter of the departed Brett Favre behind them. The entire world now seemed to be Mr. Rodgers’s Neighborhood.

That’s it. Here’s hoping 2012 has as many great sports highlights to choose from. Happy New Year.

Top 10 2011 Wisconsin Sports Highlights (Part 1 of 2)

December 21, 2011 - Leave a Response

No doubt, a lot of lousy events happened in 2011. Steve Carell did not win a much-deserved Emmy for his final season of The Office. “Boston Rob” Mariano came back yet again on Survivor (and, unlike Carell, won). Rick Springfield got arrested for drunk driving, in the process further justifying my teenage decision to purge my collection of his albums (beside the fact that they, you know, sucked). The Oprah Winfrey Network turned down my idea for a show where I turn fashion trash into fashion treasure with my Bedazzler.

But 2011 was no doubt a great year for Wisconsin sports. The Green Bay Packers didn’t lose a game until the 51st weekend of the year. The Milwaukee Brewers won their first playoff series since the days when Men at Work and Dexys Midnight Runners ruled the pop charts. The Wisconsin football Badgers began the year by playing in one Rose Bowl and ended the year preparing to play in another. The Wisconsin women’s ice hockey team won its fourth NCAA championship in five years, finishing the season on an incredible 27-game unbeaten streak.

It’s tough to reduce such a memorable year to just 10 highlights, but that’s why I’m here. Well that, and to wrap presents. Badly. (But seriously, putting a shiny bow on any gift, no matter how shoddily wrapped, forgives any variety of wrapping mishaps. My tip to you this holiday season.)

Let’s get started:

10. Russell Wilson 36-yard TD pass to Jared Abbrederis, Nebraska at Wisconsin, October 1, 2011. Going into their first conference game, the Badgers football team looked unstoppable, having beaten their first four opponents by a combined total of 194-34. But because of the weakness of their non-conference schedule and because Nebraska had started their first season as a member of the Big Ten equally hot, there were concerns. Those concerns seemed to be well-founded for most of the first half, as the Huskers and Badgers battled in a close 14-13 game, with a missed PAT being the sole difference. But following the first of three Taylor Martinez interceptions, Russell Wilson found Jared Abbrederis, who made a beautiful diving catch in the end zone, for the 36-yard go-ahead score. Wisconsin went on to win 48-17, silencing any doubts (at least for the time being) that they were the best in the Big Ten.

9. Jordan Taylor blocks Jacob Pullen shot, Kansas State vs. Wisconsin, March 19, 2011. In the battle of point guards, Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen outplayed the Badgers’ Jordan Taylor all night in this third-round game in the southeast regional of the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Pullen put in 38 points on 13-of-22 shooting while Taylor scored only 12 on a miserable 2-for-16 night. But Taylor was huge in the final minutes, earning a steal, two important free throws, and finally a crucial block on a 3-point attempt by (who else?) Pullen to seal the Badgers’ victory. Taylor would follow up this strong finish with an impressive 22-point effort in the Sweet Sixteen, but unfortunately it would not be enough, as the Badgers would be eliminated with a 61-54 loss to Butler.

8. Tramon Williams intercepts Michael Vick, Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles, January 9, 2011. Many NFL fans assumed the Packers were living on borrowed time when they traveled to Philadelphia for this NFC Wild Card game against the NFC East champion Eagles. After all, the sixth-seeded Packers had basically been in playoff mode for the previous two weeks, they were seemingly outmanned by the cooling-but-still-hot Michael Vick and company, and, oh, Aaron Rodgers had never won a postseason game. Rodgers did just fine, throwing for 180 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. But it looked as if the Eagles would advance when, down 21-16 and driving, Michael Vick found Tramon Williams in the end zone with just 33 seconds left. Only problem for Michael Vick: Williams plays for Green Bay. The Eagles were eliminated, while the Packers’ season continued. More on that later.

7. Ryan Braun seals the NL Central for the Brewers, Florida at Milwaukee, September 23, 2011. Though Braun’s image has been tarnished recently, his 3-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning was probably the most celebrated play during the Brewers’ 2011 regular season. And why not? Sure, the Brewers had a five-game lead on division rival St. Louis with only a week left to play, but the Cardinals never seemed vanquished until Braun hit the eventual game-winner. (Well, and the Cubs beat the Cardinals, a game that finished about 20 minutes after the Brewers game.) Unfortunately, the Cardinals hot streak continued, the Braves completed their collapse, and well, you know how it eventually ended. But forget Disney World, Braun and the Brewers made Miller Park the Happiest Place on Earth back on September 23.

6. Jordan Taylor leads Badgers in furious comeback win, Ohio State at Wisconsin, February 12, 2011. Things were looking bleak for Bucky. Not for the season – Wisconsin (19-5, 9-3 conference) was ranked No. 14 in the country and was assured a 13th straight trip to the NCAA tournament – but certainly in this game. Unbeaten Ohio State was having their way with the Badgers, beating Bucky by 47-32 with 13:21 left in the second half. But led by Taylor (who scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half), Wisconsin went on two stunning runs – a 15-0 run and then a 10-0 run – to win the game 71-67, which kept their home winning streak alive at 17 games and stopped Ohio State’s overall winning streak at 24. Better yet, Wisconsin’s upset of No. 1 Ohio State was the perfect complement to its victory over Ohio State’s football program the previous October, when the football Buckeyes were also ranked No. 1.

Next week: We countdown 2011’s top five Wisconsin sports highlights. Happy holidays.

Who Can Beat The Packers?

December 15, 2011 - Leave a Response

The weekend of December 10 & 11 wasn’t a great one for Wisconsin sports fans.

Oh sure, the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team churned out a predictable if uninspiring win against the UNLV Stallin’ Rebels Saturday afternoon, but the sporting news was otherwise mostly bad: The Wisconsin men’s hockey team failed to win a game in its weekend series against the Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth. The women’s basketball team dropped its second in a row. Montee Ball finished a distant fourth in the Heisman Trophy vote.

Oh, and Ryan Braun tested positive for the dreaded “performance-enhancing drug,” which means he will probably be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2012 season. (If you had to set the over/under on Brewers wins for those first 50 games without Braun and the departing Prince Fielder, where would you put the number? 20? 15?)

The news on Braun was indeed the saddest of all: Even in the unlikely event that Braun, as he believes, can somehow negate the positive test or prove that it was unmistakably fraudulent, the perception of the heretofore extraordinarily popular NL MVP will simply never be the same.

Even Sunday’s blowout Packers victory over the Raiders was somewhat sullied by the injury that wide receiver Greg Jennings suffered to his knee that will likely cause him to miss the remainder of the regular season.   

After winning 19 straight regular-season and postseason games, Packers victories have become about as surprising as David Letterman’s nightly Top 10 Lists: You know they’re coming, but you just don’t know how compelling they’ll be.

At this point, what’s interesting about the Packers streak is not who they’re beating up on, but who could potentially spoil the stretch. After all, no NFL team has ever won more than 21 games in a row (2003-2004 Patriots), so even if the Packers break that streak – and they certainly look like they will, with the shambolic Chiefs, Bears, and Lions coming up – they’re of course bound to lose at some point. And, let’s face it, they’ve certainly looked vulnerable at times in recent victories over San Diego, Tampa Bay, and the New York Giants, three teams that could all end up out of the playoff picture.  

So who could the end the Packers streak? And could it be ended in this year’s postseason? Here’s five (well, six) teams that could potentially spoil the fun in Titletown:

  1. New Orleans Saints. Sure, the Packers have beaten the Saints already this year, way back on September 8, but it was hardly a blowout, with New Orleans’s Mark Ingram getting stuffed on the 1-yard-line after Drew Brees led the Saints on a 79-yard drive with barely over a minute to go in the game. In many ways, the Saints are a mirror image of the Packers: The passing game is fantastic while the defense is suspect. But the Saints have a better all-purpose player in Darren Sproles, and tight end Jimmy Graham and Brees have found a connection that Aaron Rodgers and Packers TE Jermichael Finley have largely lost. Seems like a foregone conclusion that these two teams will meet in the NFC Championship Game, where I would favor the Packers by 7 points.
  2. San Francisco 49ers. Until dropping two of their last three, the 49ers were perhaps the best story in the NFL this year – a former storied franchise returning to prominence after nearly a decade of misery. Even with a likely loss to Pittsburgh Monday night, San Francisco is still probably going to finish the season with an impressive 12-4 record. And the team is doing their damage with defense, allowing a league-low 14 points per game and a league-low 70.5 rushing yards each week. The bad news for the 49ers is that their pass defense is just average, while the Packers pass offense is anything but. More bad news for the 49ers is that their offense has become stagnant: It would be easy to see Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson having their way with Alex Smith and the 49ers offensive line. In the event that the Packers and 49ers meet in the conference championship, San Francisco’s defense could keep things close, but I’d still favor the Packers by 9 points.
  3. Baltimore Ravens / Pittsburgh Steelers. After embarrassing losses to the likes of Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Seattle, Baltimore has emerged as the most dangerous team in the AFC, improving on offense while maintaining an impressive intensity on defense without leader Ray Lewis, who is scheduled to return this week. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is dealing with a surprisingly-average rushing attack and an offensive line that has been so porous that it is finally putting the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in serious jeopardy. That Super Bowl rematch fans and prognosticators have been talking about? I don’t see it. If Baltimore meets the Packers in Indianapolis, I would give the Packers just a 3 point edge. In the unlikely chance that Pittsburgh wins the AFC Championship, the Packers will beat them in the Super Bowl by ten.
  4. Denver Broncos. You laugh, but as long as Tim Tebow continues to breathe air on God’s green Earth, the Broncos have a fighting chance. And I’m only half-joking. If Tebow and the Broncos complete a season-turnaround for the ages, I’m guessing they take the Super Bowl to overtime, where the Packers win on a field goal.
  5. New England Patriots. If there’s such a thing as a quiet 10-3 team, the New England Patriots are it. There’s still a lot to like about the dynastic Pats, but it’s all on the offensive side of the football, where studs Brady, Gronkowski, and Welker reign supreme. Unfortunately for them, their defense is the absolute worst in the league, which is saying something for anyone who has seen any Minnesota Vikings games this year. Even bad teams like the Colts (with Dan Orlovsky!) and the Washington Redskins (with Rex Grossman!) can pile on the yards and points playing the Pats. A Super Bowl showdown with Brady and Rodgers might be NBC’s first choice, but I don’t see the Patriots getting any closer than ten points, and to even get that close, they might have to put up 50. By the end of the third quarter.