Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 22, 2018

A Bewitching Performance By Team USA

Midway between Boston and the New Hampshire state line, the town of Danvers shares lengthy borders with five surrounding towns and, at its southeastern tip, one of just a few hundred feet with the city of Salem. Danvers is bisected by I-95, U.S. Route 1, and state route 128, three major Massachusetts highways. While less than 30,000 people call the town home, several times that number pass through it every day, hurrying to and from somewhere else on one of those busy arteries. Most of those travelers are at least vaguely aware that the town’s larger and more famous neighbor has the Witch City nickname, the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery, star of the old television sit-com “Bewitched,” and the annual Halloween festival attracting hundreds of thousands of revelers. But few likely know that Danvers, then known as Salem Village, was home to several of the major players and the site of the first precipitating events to the 17th century trials that resulted in the execution of twenty citizens and the conviction of seven more for engaging in witchcraft.

Nineteen of those executions were by hanging, and one was by the gruesome torture of peine forte et dure. The translation from archaic Law French is “hard and forceful punishment,” an accurate if understated description of an accused who refused to confess being gradually crushed beneath a steadily growing pile of heavy stones until they either admitted their guilt or expired. The killings were all public spectacles, attended by hundreds of area residents caught up in the mass hysteria of the moment. The period of the Salem Witch Trials was a dark and dangerous time in the history of colonial America.

More than three centuries later, locals are readying for another display of public frenzy. Happily the basis for this one is decidedly more positive, and it will culminate with a parade rather than a hasty burial in a shallow grave. For Danvers is the hometown of Meghan Duggan, captain of the U.S. women’s national ice hockey team. After a thrilling 3-2 shootout victory over archrival Canada, Duggan and her teammates are coming home from the Winter Olympics wearing gold.

Duggan is one of three 30-year-olds on the national squad, a veteran who stands out on a roster with an average age of just 24. She was a member of the U.S. teams that finished second to Canada at both the 2006 and 2010 games. As the captain she took a leading role in last spring’s dispute between the women’s team and USA Hockey, the country’s governing body for the sport in international competition. After unsuccessfully negotiating salaries and support services for more than a year, Duggan and the women’s team announced on March 15th that they would boycott the World Championships, scheduled to begin just two weeks later. Since the tournament was taking place in Michigan and the women were three-time defending champions, the threat was potentially a massive embarrassment to USA Hockey.

The national team quickly garnered support from players associations in numerous other sports, and just three days before the start of the tournament, USA Hockey and the players came to an agreement on a new four-year contract that gave team members the chance to earn upwards of $70,000 a year. Duggan called the deal a “historic moment in women’s sports.” She and her teammates then swept through the tournament, outscoring their opponents 28-5 and winning their fourth consecutive world title.

But the Olympics have been a source of frustration for the American women. They won gold in 1998, the first year women’s hockey was an Olympic sport. But in the four Olympiads since Team Canada finished first, with Team USA forced to settle for silver medals in 2002, 2010 and 2014, and a bronze in 2006. Two decades after the team’s sole gold medal, and with the championship game scheduled for the 38th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice men’s victory over the heavily favorite Russians at Lake Placid, the members of Team USA were determined to forge a different outcome this year.

The two North American rivals are the dominant teams in international women’s hockey, making their rivalry particularly intense. Grouped together in the round-robin portion of the tournament, Canada won their first meeting 2-1 despite being outshot by Team USA 45-23. As the top two teams in Group A both advanced to the semifinals. There the U.S. defeated Finland and Canada beat Russia by identical 5-0 scores, setting up Thursday’s gold medal grudge match at the Gangneung Hockey Centre.

The Canadians were the aggressors for most of the contest, but forward Hilary Knight gave Team USA the lead on a deflection just before the end of the first period. Just two minutes into the second Canada’s Haley Irwin slipped the puck past U.S. goaltender Maddie Rooney to even the score. Five minutes later Marie-Philip Poulin, the Canadian captain, beat Rooney with a hard shot into the upper corner of the net.

But with time winding down in the final period Monique Lamoureux-Moranda, one-half of the Lamoureux twins from Grand Forks, North Dakota, leveled the score at two. It stayed that way through the rest of regulation and overtime, with the Americans killing a Canadian power play over the final minute and a half.

Then in the shootout both teams netted two of their regulation five chances, sending the gold medal game into a sudden death shootout. First up was Monique’s sister, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson. She skated in on goalie Shannon Szabados, deked right, then left, then right again before sliding the puck past the sprawling Canadian netminder. A minute later Rooney refused to budge before Meghan Agosta, making a stick save on a point-blank shot that sent the American team and its fans into delirium.

In the days and weeks ahead, as the American team members return from Korea, there will be parades and celebrations in hometowns all around the country. Fans will cheer for the gold medal performance, but also for the steely resolve that won these skaters a contract that ensures fair pay, a $20,000 bonus for winning gold, and a commitment by USA Hockey to growing women’s hockey. One of those parades will be in Danvers, where in another age women who acted outside their prescribed roles did so at mortal peril. Whether there are any practicing Wiccans on the national team’s roster is unknown. But what’s clear is that whenever they’ve most needed to be, on the ice or off, the women on our national hockey team have been magical.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 18, 2018

NASCAR Starts With The Demolition 500

From a story in the New York Times at the start of the weekend to much of the commentary during the pre-race coverage on Fox, it’s clear that the season for NASCAR that began with Sunday’s Daytona 500 is one of transition. It happens in every sport; one generation of stars leaves the stage even as a new one steps front and center to seize the spotlight. But for fans of stock car racing the current turnover of stars has been anything but seamless.

In the past two years Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Matt Kenseth, winners of seven Cup Series championships between them, all climbed out of their cars for the final time. They were joined by fan favorite Carl Edwards two seasons ago, and at the end of last season by Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver. Danica Patrick, the only female driver at NASCAR’s Cup Series level, drove her final stock car race at Daytona, and will conclude the “Danica Double” and her racing career by returning to her original circuit for the Indy 500 in May.

All those empty race cars represent opportunities for young drivers to step up from NASCAR’s two developmental series, the Xfinity for stock cars and the Camping World for trucks. It was thus not surprising that ten of the forty drivers that took the green flag to start the 500 – exactly one-quarter of the field – were age 25 or younger.

The problem for NASCAR has been that big names have been leaving the sport at a faster pace than new stars have been emerging. Thus the hope, as chronicled in the Times and articulated by Gordon, now an analyst for Fox Sports, was that this will be the season when one or more of these young drivers start to consistently win races and become familiar to more than just the sport’s most dedicated fans.

There were some positive signs in the days leading up to the 500. Alex Bowman, the 24-year old tabbed by Hendrick Motorsports to take over Dale Junior’s ride in the #88 Chevrolet, won the pole in last weekend’s qualifying. Chase Elliott, who stepped into Gordon’s #24 two years ago when he was just 20, and who Hendrick switched to the #9 car for this season, started in the second row after winning one of Thursday’s two Can-Am duels that are used to set all but the front row for Daytona. And 24-year old Ryan Blaney in Team Penske’s #12 Ford was first across the stripe 118 times, leading more laps than any other driver.

But this year’s Daytona 500 will be remembered not for the exploits of a driver of any age, but rather for the carnage wrought by a few minor tweaks to the rules governing the automobiles themselves. While the sport may be called stock car racing, the romantic notion that the vehicles are souped-up versions of cars that can be purchased at one’s local Chevy, Ford, or Toyota dealer has long been a fantasy. NASCAR imposes precise specifications for every aspect of the cars, so that other than paint schemes and nameplates all the vehicles are virtually identical. This year’s rules package included standardizing the front splitter, eliminating minimum clearance between the road and the car body, and changing the rear quarter panels to composite from sheet metal, which altered the aerodynamics of the vehicles.

As became clear in practice sessions and the Can-Am races, these changes made the cars much harder to handle. For a time on Sunday it looked like the drivers and their crews, all of whom had worked feverishly to gain greater control of the vehicles, might have succeeded. The race was fairly orderly in its early going.

But starting last season NASCAR introduced stage racing, in which each event is divided into segments. That gives drivers the chance to earn points by finishing in the top ten of a stage, rather than just by the final order of finish at the end of the race. But it also means hard driving as each stage nears its end. On Sunday, fierce competition, speeds over 200 miles per hour, and some questionable judgement, combined with hard to handle race cars, resulted in three major wrecks that turned the Daytona 500 into a demolition derby.

The first occurred on lap 60, the final circuit of the race’s first stage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made an aggressive and unwise move to block an attempted pass. The turbulent air around the rear of his car caused Stenhouse to get loose and he slid up the track. He somehow managed to avoid hitting the wall, but the impact on those following Stenhouse was disastrous. Nine cars wound up piling into one another, with damage ranging from troublesome to race-ending. The latter was the case for seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who said “unfortunately, many thought it was the black and white checkered flag and not the green and white checkered flag,” referring to the end of the race versus the end of a stage.

Then late in stage two young Elliott got a big push from Brad Keselowski while running just behind the leader Blaney. But he then tried to block when Keselowski dove below him. Elliott couldn’t control his car and spun into the wall, wrecking six other cars in the process, including Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, and sadly, Patrick. Her last NASCAR ride, in a reunion with the familiar Go Daddy fluorescent green car, ended far earlier than anyone hoped.

Finally, the biggest wreck of all, involving twelve cars, came with the checkered flag in site. Denny Hamlin, leading at the time, moved up the track to block a passing attempt from Kurt Busch, last year’s 500 winner. Busch had to brake, got loose, and spun, sparking chaos and, for that matter, lots of sparks.

After all that, the eventual win by Austin Dillon would have been an afterthought but for the fact he was driving the #3 car. On the twentieth anniversary of Earnhardt Senior’s only Daytona 500 victory, the #3 was first across the line again. That would have been a nice, nostalgic ending, were NASCAR not so desperately hoping this year will be about the future rather than the past.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 15, 2018

The Great Game Returns

Tuesday morning dawned cloudy and cold on the New Hampshire seacoast. On the other side of the gray overcast the sun was rising, but the thermometer struggled to touch 20 degrees. This winter has brought comparatively little snow, so far at least; but the weeks since the solstice have seen more than enough ice, making driving tricky and giving the quaint brick sidewalks of downtown Portsmouth a treacherous red-hued glaze. There have also been extended periods of brutal cold, against which Tuesday’s early morning reading counted as a respite.

Yet the day held far greater promise than the Dickensian notion that a dozen degrees below freezing is cause for relief. Fans venturing out were bundled in layers and the calendar remained unyielding in its insistence that winter still had more than a month to run, but on Tuesday hearts were glad and spirits were high. For in Tampa it was 70 degrees and sunny and even a few degrees warmer in West Palm. In the desert southwest the morning started cool, but with the ironclad promise that temperatures around Phoenix would match those Florida readings by lunch time. On Tuesday, those numbers provided symbolic and comforting assurance that winter will end; for Tuesday was the new beginning.

A beginning, to be certain, that in important ways is very different from what fans have seen for a generation. This year, in the warmth of Florida and Arizona players have begun to assemble not at the usual thirty training camps, but at thirty-one. Of the 166 players who became free agents last November, more than 90 remain unsigned as Spring Training gets underway, far more than in any year since the collusion winter of 1987-88. Given that number the Players Association opted to open its own camp at a facility in Bradenton, Florida, giving its still unemployed members a place to begin working out.

The list of ballplayers without contracts includes stars like pitcher Jake Arrieta and sluggers J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer, but also scores of journeymen, many of whom must be wondering whether their playing careers are suddenly and unexpectedly at an end. Baseball’s economics have shifted at the worst possible time for these players, with advanced metrics now embedded in the decision-making process of every front office. That’s led to a universal reluctance to offer the long-term, nine-figure contracts that have been the staple of free agency for years even as statistical evidence mounted that those deals, with numbers based on prior performance, were paying players in decline. When the Cubs inked right-hander Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal last weekend, it was both the longest and richest contract of the offseason. Yet Darvish’s deal is still some $30 million less than most analysts expected him to garner before the hot stove went stone cold.

Add to this the new pattern of teams tearing down rosters and suffering through multiple 100-loss seasons in order to rebuild farm systems and produce an eventual winner. That process can be dispiriting for those in the stands, but it worked for the Cubs and the Astros, so now nearly a third of all major league franchises are somewhere on that budget-cutting road. Those squads have necessarily opted out of the free agent market, further limiting opportunities for the unsigned players.

Those issues should concern not just the MLBPA but every fan, as should the very real possibility that commissioner Rob Manfred may use the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement to unilaterally impose a pitch clock and limits on mound visits to speed up play, over the objections of the union. A winter of player discontent makes it easy to conclude that baseball’s quarter-century of labor peace is fraying. Whether the relationship between owners and players can be stitched back together before the current CBA expires in 2021 is very much an open question.

But for one day, at least, such grim considerations go to the back of one’s mind. There will be ample time to consider the possibility of future labor strife as the longest season unfolds over the coming months, just as there will be time to contemplate batting slumps and losing streaks. Baseball mirrors life, offering bad as well as good, mixing heartbreak with triumph. At the beginning however, on the first day, hope abounds.

Tuesday brought the moundsmen and their battery mates, as well as a trickle of position players that soon surged into a flood. By the weekend workouts will be in full swing, and a few days later the first contests, between college squads and major league franchises, will get underway. Then early next Friday afternoon, at eight different ballparks spread across the Sunshine State, the call to “play ball” will ring out, to be echoed a few hours later at the seven fields in greater Phoenix, and the exhibition season will begin.

Over the next six weeks rosters will take shape. Prospects will shine, rookies will rise, and aging veterans will work hard for one more year in The Show. As the needs of each team become clear, the list of unsigned free agents will dwindle. And as all that takes place, fans sitting in the sun at the little minor league parks that serve each year as temporary big-league homes, will dream of what the new season might bring.

With both Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the lineup, perhaps the Yankees will set a record for team home runs. With a rotation fortified by the signing of Darvish, perhaps the Cubs will return to the Fall Classic. By pairing the best player in the game in Mike Trout with the prized offseason acquisition of phenom Shohei Ohtani, perhaps the Angels will return to the postseason. In what might be the final year that Bryce Harper wears the curly-W, perhaps the Nationals will finally move beyond the first round of the playoffs. Having come within one game of a title last fall, perhaps the Dodgers will be hungry enough to take the final step. Having finally tasted the sweet champagne of victory for the first time in franchise history, perhaps the Astros are ready to become a dynasty.

Winter will yield to spring, and the games will start to count. The longest season will unfold through summer heat and on into the pennant chase as leaves begin to fall. Along the way many hopes will be dashed, but not all. If in the end the fans of only one team are entitled to a parade, the faithful of many others will enjoy seasons that exceed expectations. And for those who ultimately know only disappointment, there will always be the admonition first popularized in Brooklyn. Ebbets Field is long gone, but a fan strolling through the Crown Heights neighborhood, turning the corner where Sullivan Place meets McKeever Place might still hear the ghosts whispering, “wait till next year.”

The Great Game returns. On Tuesday the familiar clarion call went out. Four words that light the fire of hope and possibility in the heart of every player and every fan – pitchers and catchers report!

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 11, 2018

Do Fake Selections Count As Fake News?

Subscribing to the theory that more is always better, for the second year in a row the NCAA and CBS have jumped the gun on March Madness by staging a made-for-television early look at the top of the bracket for the men’s basketball tournament. Fully one month in advance of Selection Sunday, at a time when most major programs still have half a dozen or so games to play plus all the action of their conference tournaments, selection committee chairperson Bruce Rasmussen revealed the current top sixteen seeds as determined by the ten-person committee in a meeting that ran late into the night on Saturday.

In offering this meaningless sneak peek, the basketball committee has taken a page from the playbook of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which starts issuing weekly rankings in mid-season. In both cases of course, the only ranking that matters is the last one, and for this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament that won’t be revealed for another four Sundays.

That didn’t stop host Greg Gumbel and analysts Seth Davis and Clark Kellogg from treating the announcement by Rasmussen, whose day job is Athletic Director at Creighton University, as breaking news. Gumbel began the show by reminding viewers that when the preview was first done last year, all but one of the sixteen teams named by the committee wound up in the top half of the actual bracket a month later.

What he didn’t say is that the final seeding of those teams varied wildly from the preliminary rankings, with only four of the sixteen squads holding the same position when Selection Sunday came around. That meant the conceit of the preview show, with Rasmussen explaining which of the four regional sites each team will play at based on its seeding and the committee’s guidelines, was pointless. It also paid short shrift to the other fifty-two teams that will ultimately make up the tournament bracket. Surely a few of those will derail the hopes of some of the top sixteen seeds in the first two rounds. The tournament won’t be worthy of its nickname if the bracket remains unblemished right through to the regionals.

Chaos seems especially likely this year, when seeding teams at the start of the tourney will be hard enough, never mind with a month of games still to be played. Competition for the national title looks to be wide open. Several teams are capable of making a run, but every contender has also shown weaknesses, which has resulted in considerable turmoil in the weekly rankings. While just three teams have been number one in the AP Poll – Duke in the early going and Villanova since mid-December, with Michigan State displacing the Wildcats for a single week – the other top spots have been much more fluid. Five different squads have been ranked number two, and eight teams have taken turns as number three. At the other end of the poll, since the collegiate season really got going in late November, the twenty-five teams in the poll have gone unchanged only twice. Otherwise every week at least two or three lower ranked teams have dropped out of the poll. Twice there were four casualties and once five teams fell out of the ranking, replaced by other schools.

The Purdue Boilermakers, given the last of the four number one seeds by the selection committee in Sunday’s preview, are a prime example of this season’s volatility. Purdue was ranked twentieth in the preseason AP Poll, and a few early season wins nudged the school up to eighteenth. Then a pair of losses to then-unranked Tennessee and Western Kentucky sent Purdue right out of the top-25, as one of the five to fall out in that late November upheaval. But the Boilermakers went on a roll, reeling of nineteen straight wins. Purdue quickly reappeared in the AP Poll, beginning a steady climb that capped out at number three, a spot the team has occupied for the last three weeks. That’s sure to change when this week’s poll is released however, because Purdue just lost back-to-back games, to number fourteen Ohio State on Wednesday and to number four Michigan State late Saturday afternoon. While both opponents were ranked and both games went down to the wire, penciling in the Boilermakers as a number one regional seed a few hours later was just another reminder that Sunday’s show didn’t mean much.

The past week has been particularly tumultuous, as teams in the top-25 lost fifteen games to either unranked or lower ranked opponents. In addition to Purdue’s two losses, the week saw number one Villanova upended by St. John’s on Wednesday, four days after the suddenly powerful Red Storm took down Duke. Number two Virginia joined the casualty list on Saturday, falling to in-state rival Virginia Tech at home in overtime, 61-60. Overall on Saturday ranked teams managed a decidedly pedestrian 8-8 record against unranked or lower ranked squads, ensuring yet more shuffling in the next weekly poll.

The NCAA preview show did remind viewers of the different standards used by the selection committee, as compared to the media members who have votes in the AP poll. The latter tend to react to the most recent results, which is why one can count on Purdue dropping from the number three position this week. The selection committee is charged with looking at a team’s entire body of work, with a game in November as relevant as one in the conference tournament a few days before Selection Sunday. This year the committee is also giving increased emphasis to wins away from home, and as always weighing each team’s strength of schedule.

Given the reams of data available to the committee and the unpredictable nature of this college basketball season, the sixteen teams that are given real top seeds a month from now will surely include a few, and perhaps several, whose names were not called during Sunday’s broadcast. Even those that remain on the list are likely to see their place on it scrambled. Which leaves the obvious question, why bother with a preview show? Sometimes more isn’t better, it’s just superfluous.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 8, 2018

The Silly Season, Or Just Plain Stupid?

Once upon a good long time ago, the phrase “golf’s silly season” referred to the months in late autumn and early winter, after the Tour Championship had been played and before the PGA Tour’s new season began with the Tournament of Champions in January. That was the time for a variety of exhibitions and made for TV events, all of which enriched their participants and none of which had any impact on the annual money list, any player’s Tour card, or, once it began in 1986, the Official World Golf Rankings. Ah, the good old days of the Skins Game.

The world of professional golf is very different now. The PGA Tour has a year-round schedule. It begins in early October and, with but a few weeks off for the holidays, runs right up until the following September, with just enough room to squeeze in the Ryder or Presidents Cup, depending on the year. But as the last two weeks have shown golf fans, and as this weekend will reaffirm, that doesn’t mean the sport doesn’t still have a silly season. Those who tune in faithfully to coverage of the weekly tournaments know that the Tour is currently right in the middle of this year’s.

It began two weeks ago, at the Farmers Insurance Open, a venerable PGA Tour stop despite its commercial name honoring the event’s current prime sponsor, having been played in San Diego for more than six decades and at iconic Torrey Pines for a half century. But this year the setting at first seemed too much for the best players in the field at the tournament’s most crucial time. The four golfers at the top of the leader board managed to play the back nine in a collective 6-over par in the final round. Jason Day and Alex Noren both toured the back in 2-over 38, with nary a birdie between them, while Ryan Palmer and J.B. Holmes were each but a single shot better.

Then as the sun prepared to kiss the Pacific Ocean on the western horizon, the play went from lackluster to non-existent thanks to Holmes. A journeyman who has won four times over a twelve-year Tour career, Holmes came to the closing hole two shots out of the lead. The 18th is a 570-yard par-5 with a green guarded by a large pond. It’s reachable in two by a long hitter like Holmes, assuming a well-placed drive. But he failed to execute the necessary tee shot, instead sending his ball into the right rough. Holmes said later that from his lie, with the ball above his feet, he wasn’t certain that a 5-wood was enough club but worried that a 3-wood might fly over the green.

Needing an eagle to tie for the lead, Holmes hesitated, vacillated, dithered and dilly-dallied. As the first to hit his approach Holmes was theoretically allowed sixty seconds to make up his mind and hit a shot. Instead he stood with his caddie for an astonishing four minutes and ten seconds, debating what to do. While he did so playing partners Noren and Palmer were both forced to cool their heels, while the crowds lining the 18th fairway got hotter and hotter, with many spectators eventually booing Holmes.

After all that the new king of slow play decided to lay up with an iron, and did so badly, hooking a shot into the left rough. The drawn out anticlimax brought more jeers from the galleries, on a day in which the final groups needed almost six hours to cover the eighteen holes. The end result was a three-way playoff between Day, Noren, and Palmer. After the latter was eliminated on the first hole of sudden death, Day and Noren played on in the quickly fading light. The playoff eventually ran to six holes, but the last one couldn’t be played until Monday morning, thanks to the tortuous place of play throughout the final round, capped by Holmes’s self-centered performance on the 18th.

Worst of all for anyone concerned about growing the game was that Holmes was unrepentant. After being excoriated on social media by several fellow pros, Holmes defended himself and was essentially given a pass by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who has said he doesn’t see slow play as a problem on Tour. Does he really think six hour rounds will attract new fans to the game?

From San Diego the touring pros made the short trip to Scottsdale and the Waste Management Phoenix Open, better known as the official three-ring circus on each year’s Tour calendar. Since moving to the TPC Scottsdale course in 1987, the Phoenix Open has attracted bigger and bigger crowds. The sprawling property has plenty of room for the infrastructure to support huge numbers of fans. Hundreds of thousands of tickets sold each year have raised millions of dollars for charity, thanks to the hard work and promotion by the Thunderbirds, the local civic group that organizes the tournament. This year more than 700,000 spectators attended, with Saturday’s crowd in excess of 212,000.

While the efforts to bring many thousands of people with relatively little interest in golf out to the course are certainly well-meaning, to keep them entertained the tournament has always promoted a party atmosphere. The center of the festivities has long been the par-3 16th hole, which has gone from being lined along one side by grandstands to being fully surrounded by stands – a veritable golf stadium that seems to grow by several rows of seats every year. Now 20,000 or so spend the day at the 16th, while the beer flows freely. A packed and raucous crowd, tightly packed into a confined space, inebriated and sitting in the desert sun. What could possibly go wrong?

The unsurprising answer is, quite a bit. At one time the crowd at the 16th would cheer wildly for good shots and issue a collective groan for poor ones. The latter turned to outright booing sometime in the past few years, while to be worthy of applause tee shots had to be not merely good but great. This year it seems, a line was crossed. Numerous golfers complained that the taunts leveled at them on the 16th were both profane and personal. But when the Phoenix Open’s organizers don’t merely tolerate but actively encourage a frat party atmosphere, one shouldn’t be surprised when the result is Animal House.  Gary Woodland’s scintillating final round, and his playoff win over Chez Reavie, were afterthoughts.

From Arizona the Tour has returned to California for this week’s stop, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Every weekly event stages a Pro-Am during the early week practice rounds. They’re great fundraisers, as corporate bigwigs gladly pay thousands of dollars to play eighteen with a member of the PGA Tour. But the tournament at Pebble Beach is unique. Begun more than eighty years ago by the entertainer Bing Crosby, the event has always featured amateurs and their professional partners competing not in a single round, but right through the weekend.

Where this otherwise fine idea goes astray is in the television coverage by CBS. This weekend the network will devote an inordinate amount of air time to the hacks, shanks, and yips of any number of high handicap amateurs. Included in the coverage will of course be any amateur who happens to star in a show on CBS. The network’s coverage of this tournament usually feels like one long commercial, and this weekend is unlikely to be different.

The last two weeks should have been about redemptive wins by Day and Woodland.  Instead they’ve been about glacial play and drunken rowdiness, and the weekend ahead promises little relief.  For devoted golf fans, it’s all almost too much to bear. Most sports fans pay little attention to golf until the Masters comes around in April. This year’s nonsense is making them look smart.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 5, 2018

Two Trick Plays Tell The Tale

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, this post is one day late. The regular schedule resumes on Thursday. As always, thanks for reading!

As the Super Bowl morphed into a wild offensive shootout, perhaps the die was cast as the third quarter was ending. That’s when the best commercial of the night aired. It was a spot for the NFL itself, featuring Giants quarterback Eli Manning and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., in a hilarious parody of the final scene from the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing.” Surely when they saw it the citizens of Patriots Nation quailed. For they know that with all that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have accomplished, the two always come up short in the Super Bowl when Eli Manning is around.

For those who scoff at such symbolism, the critical moment arrived a bit later, just as clocks in New England were striking ten on Sunday night. Quarterback Brady led the Patriots offense onto the field with 2:21 left to play in Super Bowl LII and his team trailing the Philadelphia Eagles 38-33. Both offenses had scored freely from the start. The Eagles led by ten points at the half, but the Patriots rallied to claim a one-point lead at 33-32, only to see Nick Foles drive Philadelphia down the field, with a key fourth down conversion pass to Zach Ertz, before he found Ertz again from eleven yards out to put his team back on top.

Time after time over Brady’s career Patriots fans have watched him work his late game magic, most recently just two weeks ago when he rallied New England to victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Conference Championship. Surely TB12 would do so again, claiming a sixth title in eight tries for head coach Belichick and himself.

Still as the Patriots came to the line, one couldn’t help but think back to two plays in the first half. Two plays that were virtually identical in structure but, by the slightest of margins, utterly different in result.

The first of the two came with just over twelve minutes remaining in the second quarter and Philadelphia leading 9-3. Starting from their own 37-yard line, the Patriots quickly drove to the Eagles’ 35. From the shotgun Brady took the snap and handed off to running back James White, who sprinted left. White in turn flipped the ball to Danny Amendola who was coming back to the right side. The play appeared to be a reverse run around the right end. But as attention turned elsewhere Brady had first drifted out of the backfield before running into the right flat. Amendola lofted a pass to his quarterback, who was wide open near the right sideline. It was a decent toss over Brady’s left shoulder, perhaps the slightest bit high. Brady reached up and the football grazed his fingertips before falling to the earth. One play later a fourth down pass went incomplete and New England turned the ball over on downs.

Little more than eleven minutes later by the game clock, the Eagles faced a fourth-and-goal at the Patriots 1-yard line. With the half nearing its end, Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson boldly eschewed taking the virtually certain three points of a chip shot field goal, instead calling his own trick play. After lining up in the shotgun quarterback Nick Foles moved over behind the right tackle. The snap went to running back Corey Clement who sprinted left. Clement in turn handed the ball to Trey Burton who was coming back to the right side. The play appeared to be a reverse run around the right end. But as attention turned elsewhere Foles had raced into the right flat. Burton lofted a pass to his quarterback, who was wide open at the goal line. It was a decent toss to Foles, who had turned around to face the ball. Foles reached up and corralled the football for a touchdown.

It would be wrong to suggest that those two plays decided Super Bowl LII. With both defenses on their heels for virtually the entire contest, there were any number of big plays and plenty of fireworks. But if they did not decide it, their results surely defined this edition of the Big Game.

There was the 40-year old Brady, who just one day earlier became the oldest player to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award when he was voted his third, reaching for but not quite able to grasp the football at a critical moment. A short time later there was Foles, more than a decade younger, easily reaching up and grabbing a touchdown toss. On a daring call by his coach it was a catch that padded his team’s lead by a quarterback who lost the starting job during his first stint wearing an Eagles uniform and then drifted to two other franchises before returning to Philadelphia, always as a backup.

One couldn’t help but remember those two plays, as the Patriots offense came to the line. On first down Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski near the right sideline for eight yards. But on the next play Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham broke around the outside of New England’s offensive line and strip-sacked Brady, and Graham’s teammates pounced on the loose football. The ten o’clock chimes were still echoing, and New England’s quarterback was sitting on the turf, elbows on his knees, the comeback that everyone anticipated over before it could get started.

Somehow the final two minutes of this Super Bowl would include thirteen more plays from scrimmage. There was a Philadelphia field goal and ensuing kickoff, and a last desperate New England drive that ended with a Hail Mary pass from Brady that did not have a Doug Flutie ending. But that was all anticlimax. The result was writ large by the sight of Tom Terrific sitting on the field as the Eagles celebrated their fumble recovery.

What will be forgotten over time is just how well Brady, but for the muffed reception, played in this game. Foles was named the contest’s MVP, but only once in Super Bowl history has a player on the losing team been given that award. By the numbers the New England quarterback was the best player on the field. He threw for a Super Bowl record 505 yards, finishing 28 for 48 with 3 touchdowns, and a quarterback rating of 115.4. The two teams combined to set seventeen Super Bowl records and tie twelve more. Six of the new standards and one of the ties were records for an individual player rather than a coach, a team, or the two teams combined. All seven of those were set by Brady. It was a vintage performance, except for the final score.

That outcome was presaged by the results of those two first half trick plays. Together they reminded fans that in sports, as in life, reputation and overall performance do not guarantee an outcome. The thrill of our games stems in no small part from their unpredictability, and the way in which they can produce unlikely stars.

Or maybe it was Eli.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 1, 2018

More Of The Same For D.C. Football Fans

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post, covering the Super Bowl, will be on Monday. Thanks as always for reading.

If this story was about baseball teams rather than NFL franchises, it’s likely that the general managers in Washington and Kansas City would have just received sharp raps on the knuckles from league headquarters. MLB franchises are strongly discouraged from making major announcements while the World Series is underway. Unlike the Fall Classic the Super Bowl is just one game, but surely in the final run-up to Sunday’s showdown between the Patriots and Eagles commissioner Roger Goodell would have preferred all football-related news to be coming from Minneapolis. Instead two teams that haven’t played in weeks stole the headlines with a blockbuster trade.

In fairness to both Washington and Kansas City, the news that K.C. quarterback Alex Smith is being shipped to D.C. in exchange for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round draft pick wasn’t actually announced by either team. The initial report by Terez Paylor simply cited unnamed sources. Because league rules prohibit any trades from being consummated until the new NFL year begins on March 14, neither franchise can offer public comment until then. Given that Paylor’s byline appears in the Kansas City Star it appears someone on that side of the deal wanted to be sure that with the structure of the trade in place neither front office would have second thoughts over the next six weeks.

When the trade does become official, Kansas City will begin the Patrick Mahomes era, with the 22-year old out of Texas Tech assuming the role of signal-caller in just his second year, and after a single start in K.C.’s meaningless Week 17 game last season. It’s a gamble that head coach Andy Reid was willing to take, largely because it relieves his team of the $17 million salary cap hit that Smith represented for next season. With Kansas City projected to be $9 million over next year’s cap prior to the trade, a more gradual transition from the 33-year old Smith to Mahomes and his cannon of an arm was probably never viable.

It’s the fourth time that Reid, as head coach at Philadelphia and Kansas City, has traded away a starting quarterback. A.J. Feeley stepped into the breach for the Eagles when Donovan McNabb was injured in 2002. A year later Reid shipped Feeley to the Dolphins for a second-round pick. In 2010 he traded McNabb to Washington for a second-round pick. Less than a year later he sent Kevin Kolb to the Cardinals for a draft pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, after Kolb lost the starting job in Philadelphia to Michael Vick. Now as he did with McNabb, Reid has again found a trading partner in Washington. It’s worth noting neither Feeley, McNabb nor Kolb ever performed as well after Reid traded them as they did before; it’s a pattern that should alarm fans in Washington.

The initial reaction to the trade from most of those fans has been less than enthusiastic, because it signals that the long-running melodrama around incumbent Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins will end with him departing. Cousins was a fourth-round pick by Washington in the 2012 draft, a surprising choice at the time given that the team had mortgaged its draft future to obtain Robert Griffin III with that year’s second overall pick just two days earlier. Then head coach Mike Shanahan said he saw Cousins as an insurance policy in case RG3 was injured.

It didn’t take long for that policy to pay out. Cousins first saw action in Week 5 after Griffin was concussed, then again late in the season when Griffin went down with a knee injury that would wind up altering his career trajectory. Cousins, Griffin, Colt McCoy, and even the veteran Rex Grossman all took snaps for Washington over the next two seasons, until Cousins finally emerged as the team’s starter at the beginning of the 2015 season. In that role for the past three years, he has been a fan favorite who never received a lot of love from the front office.

In his first year as Washington’s unquestioned starter Cousins set an NFL record for completion percentage in home games and a team mark for passing yardage. Washington returned to the playoffs but was trampled by Green Bay in the Wild Card round. Unwilling to commit to a long-term contract for Cousins but not wanting him to leave as a free agent, the team’s management used the NFL’s franchise tag option, locking Cousins into a one-year contract at just under $20 million. Then after he made the Pro Bowl in 2016 while the team was missing the playoffs, Washington made Cousins the first quarterback in NFL history to be tagged two years in a row. The second franchise tag meant he played this past year for pocket change short of $24 million.

Now, after paying him almost $47 million since he was drafted, most of it in just the last two seasons, team president Bruce Allen and owner Daniel Snyder have decided that Cousins isn’t worth a long-term commitment that is likely to be in the range of five years and perhaps $120 to $130 million, with $75 to $80 million guaranteed. By itself that’s not surprising as the team has clearly demonstrated its reluctance to sign Cousins to an extended deal. But the solution revealed this week is to trade for Smith, a quarterback who is statistically quite similar but four years older, and then give him a four-year extension reportedly worth $94 million, $71 million of which is guaranteed. That’s less than they would have had to pay Cousins now, but not dramatically so in terms of guaranteed money and probably not less overall on an annual basis had they seriously bargained two seasons ago, factoring in the expense of the two franchise tags.

But while Allen and Snyder clearly never saw Cousins as the team’s long-term solution, neither did they have a Plan B. They didn’t trade for a promising understudy, and since Cousins and Griffin were drafted together in 2012 Washington has taken just one quarterback in the draft. That was Nate Sudfeld in 2016. He’s now in Minneapolis as Nick Foles backup for the Eagles on Sunday.

One shouldn’t feel bad for Kirk Cousins, who will soon ink a rich contract with the Jets or the Browns or the Vikings or the Broncos or the Bills, depending on which pundit one chooses to believe. But one should feel bad for Washington’s fans. Perhaps Alex Smith will thrive in D.C. and carry his new team to playoff glory. And perhaps Andy Reid’s gamble on Patrick Mahomes will go bust, so that in a season or two Allen and Snyder will be hailed for this trade. But the far more likely result for fans in D.C. is that their team has saved a few dollars by replacing one very good but not elite quarterback with another, who will now be paid handsomely as he enters his decline years, offering those who make the trek to FedEx Field more of Dan Snyder’s consistent mediocrity. The one certainty is that they shouldn’t expect those savings to be reflected in the price of their season tickets.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 28, 2018

Back-To-Back Brittany Beats Bahamas Breezes

In the six years since it debuted, the Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic has been awarded pride of place as the kickoff event for the new season of the women’s tour four times, including this weekend. In one sense the scheduling decision is understandable. The tournament is played at the Ocean Club Golf Course on Paradise Island, home to the sprawling Atlantis Resort and just a bridge away from Nassau, the capital of the 700-island archipelago. At a time when most of the United States is locked in the dead of winter, the site makes for picturesque television coverage, with alluring shots of swaying palms, crystal blue waters and gleaming sandy beaches serving as the backdrop to the golf course’s fairways and greens. Add in aerial views of the resort, with its massive Royal Towers main building and 140-acre waterpark dominated by the 6-story Mayan Temple waterslide, and the Golf Channel coverage is guaranteed to be enticing even before a shot is struck.

Despite that visual appeal, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan might want to rethink having the Pure Silk Bahamas serve as the season opener. While the setting is sublime, the tournament itself seems to be jinxed. Despite its setting in paradise, the problem has been the weather.

In its inaugural staging the Ocean Club was inundated by days of heavy rains that rendered much of the course unplayable. The LPGA’s eventual solution was to shorten the tournament from four rounds to three, and the course from 18 holes to 12. That at least allowed the event to meet the Tour’s minimum of 36 holes to be an official event, with the prize money and statistical results all counting in the season long rankings. But it forced players to bounce around the course in hodgepodge fashion. The par-5 closing hole was under water until the final day, when it was finally put into play, replacing the 4th hole, which had been shortened from a par-5 to a par-3 for the first two rounds. Korean Ilhee Lee won the tournament with unusual scores of 41, 43 and 42, 11-under the reduced par on the constricted layout.

Last year the final round was punctuated by strong downpours that blew across the island from time to time. The fiercest of the storms rolled in just as the final group was playing the 18th. Lexi Thompson managed a par in rain that was blowing sideways, resulting in a playoff with fellow American Brittany Lincicome, who had birdied the hole under calm conditions just minutes earlier. The pair went back to the tee after the rain let up, and Lincicome again made birdie to record her seventh LPGA win.

This year the sun was shining, but tropical breezes turned into howling winds. The difficult conditions slowed down the pace of play on Thursday, and the opening round was suspended by darkness with a dozen players still on the course. They finished early Friday and then the second round began, but difficult soon became unplayable as 45-mile-per-hour winds refused to abate. Little more than an hour into second round play, the Tour pulled players off the course when it became impossible to keep balls stationary on the greens.

When it became apparent that there would be no further play on Friday, LPGA officials first announced a plan to begin again very early Saturday morning, with hopes of still playing all four scheduled rounds. The weather forecast soon forced them to abandon that schedule, as the high winds continued into the weekend. Thus, the Pure Silk Bahamas was again reduced to three rounds, but at least this year those added up to 54 holes.

The often-brutal breezes resulted in some highly unusual scores for the best women golfers in the world. Two-time major winner and former world number one Stacy Lewis opened with a 5-over 78 on the par 73 layout. Brittany Lang, the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open champion, was only one shot better. Rising American star Jaye Marie Green was in contention after an opening 71. By the time she finished her second tour of the course with a score ten shots higher, she was right on the cut line. That was six-over par, higher than the cut in any LPGA event last season. There were ten scores of 80 or higher in the first round, and another nine in the second.

But not everyone struggled. Canada’s Brooke Henderson, who at age 20 already has five LPGA wins including the 2016 Women’s PGA Championship, opened with a 5-under 68 to seize the early lead. She remained in contention until late on Sunday, when a double bogey at the 16th followed by a bogey at the 17th ended her hopes. Spain’s Carlota Cigonda fired the round of the tournament in the final round, recording seven birdies and an eagle against a lone dropped shot for an 8-under total of 65. But Cigonda had just slipped in on the cut line, so while her Sunday shot making moved her up the leader board, it couldn’t get her into contention.

The next two best rounds after Cigonda both belonged to the defending champion. After opening with a 1-over 74, Lincicome rebounded with a 67 in her second round, which was evenly divided between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. That 5-under 36-hole total was good enough to move her into the final grouping Sunday afternoon, one behind Amy Yang and two back of leader Shanshan Feng. Those three along with Henderson, Thompson, and Wei-Ling Hsu battled for supremacy at the top of the leader board as the sun westered and shadows lengthened. Midway through the final round five were tied for the lead, then four were knotted at the top a bit later. But over the closing stretch it was Lincicome who separated herself from the pack, with birdies at the 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th sandwiching a crucial par save at the 16th. The resulting 66 was good for a 12-under par total and a two-shot margin over Hsu.

But the wind delays throughout the tournament nearly prevented that result from taking place on Sunday. The final group played the last two holes in quickly gathering darkness. As soon as her birdie putt fell on the 17th, Lincicome ran to the 18th tee to strike her drive into the gloaming, since the rules allow an entire group to finish a hole if one player has begun it in the event of a stoppage due to darkness. Tournament organizers hauled out klieg lights to illuminate the final green, without which the last threesome would certainly have had to come back out Monday morning. The LPGA’s season-long points competition is marketed as the “Race to the CME Globe.” In the chaotic finish to the Tour’s season opener, the final group was literally racing down the last fairway as darkness fell.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 25, 2018

Heroism Defined, 156 Times

The limits of the language and perhaps of imagination cause some words to be used so often or so loosely as to diminish their meaning and impact. We speak of heroes in all our games. The four ballplayers just elected to the Hall of Fame can be called heroes, for when their bronze likenesses go up on the wall in Cooperstown they will have achieved baseball immortality. The weekend after next more than one hundred million viewers will watch the Super Bowl, and whoever is named the game’s MVP will, by fans of the winning team at least, be lauded for his heroic performance.

The concept is as old as language itself, with tales of heroism forming the body of oral epic poems in societies so ancient they predate writing. Down through the ages there are countless stories of those who are admired for their courage, or great achievements, or personal sacrifice in service of a greater good.

But while we freely use the term in writing about sports, the reality is that within the puny context of our modern athletic diversions those we ennoble with the honorific are heroes in only a limited way. Most are heroes for a game, or perhaps a season. Even the immortals can be forgotten. The honorees announced this week will join more than 300 others in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Even ardent fans of the Great Game would be hard pressed to name more than a fraction of that number.

We have been reminded of all that over the past week by an astonishing display of true heroism. In a quiet courtroom in Lansing, Michigan, in proceedings that were originally scheduled to last four days but eventually stretched to seven, 156 young women bared their souls and told their stories, overcoming years of guilt, shame, and self-loathing, to confront Larry Nassar, the long-time doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, who for years used his position as a trusted physician to systematically sexually abuse all of the women giving victim impact statements, and likely many more.

If the hangdog countenance of Nassar seems an unlikely face of pure evil, it only proves that raw malevolence can hide in plain sight. Under the guise of providing physical exams or treating injuries, Nassar assaulted young women and girls, some as young as six. Already in prison after pleading guilty to federal child pornography charges for thousands of explicit images found on his home computer, last November he pled guilty to ten state felony charges of sexually assaulting seven girls. The hearing before Judge Rosemarie Aquilina was to determine Nassar’s sentence on those convictions.

He was hailed as the best doctor in the land for treating the injuries that can befall gymnasts. But among those giving impact statements were also dancers and runners, volleyball and soccer players. Some were instantly recognizable, like Olympic gold medal winners Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, and Gabby Douglas. Far more were unknown but to their family and friends. What all had in common was victimization by a physician who used his position of authority and power to inflict profound emotional wounds on each of them. As the hearing progressed more and more women came forward, and Judge Aquilina allowed each to speak, rebuffing Nassar’s plea to end the proceedings. By the time their stories were told a pattern of serial abuse stretching over two decades had been laid bare.

“’He’s a miracle worker. He can fix anyone or anything.’ Thinking back to these words filling my naïve mind, all I can think about is how this man, someone who held of-so-many high credentials, was the monster who left me with more pain and scars than I came to his office with,” said Jade Capua. “I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting,” said McKayla Maroney. “What kind of doctor can tell a 13-year-old they are done growing by the size of their pubic bone?” asked Arianna Guerrero.

In addition to detailing the horror, the women spoke of how their attempts to unmask Nassar’s evil were rebuffed. Amanda Thomashow testified, “I reported it. Michigan State University, the school I loved and trusted, had the audacity to tell me that I did not understand the difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure.” Jamie Dantzscher told the court, “People didn’t believe me, even people I though were my friends. They called me a liar, a whore, and even accused me of making all this up just to get attention.”

More than anything else, by standing up and speaking out, these young women showed their strength and resolve. It was Raisman, captain of the U.S. women’s gymnastics teams at the last two Olympics who looked at Nassar and said, “Let this sentence strike fear in anyone who thinks it is okay to hurt another person. Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere.”

On Wednesday, the final statement was given by 33-year-old Rachel Denhollander. By being the last to speak, she brought this awful story back to its beginning. For in 2016 it was Denhollander who read a series of investigative reports by journalists at the Indianapolis Star that exposed a pattern by officials of USA Gymnastics of covering up reports of abuse by coaches. Denhollander contacted the Star’s reporters and told them of her experience when she was a 15-year-old club gymnast. It was not abuse at the hands of a coach, but rather by the renowned physician she had been sent to for treatment of a back injury. When the Star broke the Nassar story soon thereafter, it did so based on the accounts of two women. One chose to remain anonymous at the time, so in that initial report Denhollander was Nassar’s only named accuser.

She told the court that Nassar “penetrated me, he groped me, he fondled me. And then he whispered questions about how it felt.” She described her tormentor as “the most dangerous type of abuser. One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome and caring external persona as a deliberate means to assure a steady stream of young children to assault.” Denhollander described the difficulty, years later, of trusting even the delivery room doctors during the births of her three children. Speaking to Nassar’s sentence, she asked simply, “How much is a little girl worth?”

Sentenced to from 40 to 175 years by Judge Aquilina, in addition to his federal sentence of 60 years, Larry Nassar has taken his last breath as a free man. But Nassar’s decades of abuse were enabled by those who employed him and who chose to brush aside or cover up complaints. Already several board members of USA Gymnastics have stepped down, as has the president of Michigan State. The NCAA has launched an investigation of the university, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) has called for a congressional inquiry into USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The accounting is not yet complete. But then as Raisman said, the 156 heroines in that Michigan courtroom aren’t going anywhere.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 21, 2018

With 4th Quarter Magic, The Patriots Advance

From the moment it was revealed, the betting line for Sunday’s AFC Championship game seemed, to this observer at least, to be a case study in irrational exuberance. Perhaps for the oddsmakers, victories in eleven of the last twelve regular season games and a 35-14 dismantling of the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs made it easy to forget how the season began for the New England Patriots. By installing the Pats as 9 ½ point favorites over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC title tilt, the Las Vegas sports books all but assumed that Tom Brady and company would be off to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII in two weeks. But there was a time back in September, during the first four weeks of the then-young NFL season, when the Super Bowl chances for this Pats team seemed very remote.

Before a single regular season down had been played there was rampant talk throughout the region about the possibility of a perfect season. That hyperbole lasted all of three quarters of New England’s first game, at home against Kansas City. The Patriots 27-21 with one period to play on that opening Thursday night. Then the Patriots defense came up empty in crunch time, surrendering three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter, as the visitors rallied for a 42-21 victory. Three weeks and a couple of wins later, New England spent much of the day playing catch up to the Carolina Panthers. While Brady managed to rally his offense several times, in the end the defense again buckled late, and the Panthers prevailed 33-30, with Graham Gano kicking a 48-yard field goal as time expired.

At that point New England was a middling 2-2, with a defensive unit that ranked at or near the bottom of the league in numerous statistical categories. Then the defense got on track, and the Pats rolled off eight straight wins, with no opponent managing more than 17 points during that streak. Both the victories and the defensive efficiency ended with a 27-20 loss at Miami in Week 14, but New England rebounded to close the season with an important road win against the Steelers and a pair of home triumphs over the divisional rivals Bills and Jets.

At 13-3 New England’s record was as good as any team in the league, and just as they were in every single regular season contest and in the first playoff match against the Titans, one would expect the Patriots to be favored at home against the upstart Jaguars. But while Jacksonville might have been an unlikely contestant this late in the postseason – Las Vegas listed the Jaguars at 80-1 to reach the Super Bowl before the season began – after a desultory Wild Card Game against Buffalo the Jaguars showed their mettle last week in Pittsburgh.

There Jacksonville stunned the Steelers and their fans by running up a 28-7 lead through the first twenty-eight minutes of play. Pittsburgh rallied with a touchdown just before halftime, then cut the margin to 28-21 on the opening drive of the second half. But from that point Blake Bortles matched the far more famous Ben Roethlisberger drive for drive and big play for big play, with the underdog Jaguars eventually ending the Steelers season 45-42.

As if that weren’t enough to make a 9 ½ point line (which dropped by only a point in the wake of the mysterious midweek injury to Tom Brady throwing hand) seem high, there was also the presence of Jacksonville’s secret weapon. The Jaguars were just one season removed from going 3-13, and much of the credit for their remarkable turnaround goes to Tom Coughlin. The team’s original coach from 1995 to 2002 was brought back last offseason to head the Jaguars front office. As he had done as coach with both Jacksonville and the New York Giants, Coughlin instilled order, discipline, and a stern ethic of team over self to what had been a laid-back team culture at EverBank Field. But more than that, Coughlin is kryptonite to New England’s superman on the sidelines, head coach Bill Belichick. Coming into Sunday’s game Coughlin teams had faced Belichick squads seven times, with the former holding a 5-2 record in those contests. By far the two biggest wins were when Coughlin’s Giants overcame the odds to down Belichick’s Patriots in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. While Coughlin might be up in the coaches’ box rather than patrolling the sidelines, might some of his magic wear off on Jacksonville head coach Doug Marrone and quarterback Bortles?

For more than three quarters it looked very much like the answer to that question was yes. As in the loss to Kansas City, New England was burned by big plays, with Bortles finding Allen Hurns and Corey Grant for large gains early on. As in the loss to Carolina, the Patriots were being beaten by an efficient quarterback. When he wasn’t passing Bortles handed to ball to Leonard Fournette, who rumbled into the end zone midway through the second quarter to put Jacksonville up 14-3. And as in the loss to Miami, at times New England just looked out of sync, especially when a trick play early in the fourth quarter turned from a long gain into a turnover as Myles Jack stripped the ball from Dion Lewis.

But Jacksonville was forced to punt after that fumble recovery, and with just over twelve minutes remaining the Patriots offense took over at its own 15-yard line. That was when a different kind of magic took hold, a fourth quarter sorcery that Patriots fans have come to rely on. In eight plays Brady marched his offense down the field, converting a 3rd and 18 with a 21-yard completion to Danny Amendola, then finding Phillip Dorsett for 31 yards on the next play. A 9-yard toss and run to Amendola cut the Jacksonville lead to 20-17 with more than half of the final period still to play.

Then Amendola returned a punt 20 yards to the Jacksonville 30, giving Brady a short field with just under five minutes remaining. Five plays later he found Amendola again, this time in the back of the end zone, and New England took its first lead since an early 3-0 advantage.

Just inside the two-minute warning a desperation fourth down heave by Bortles was batted away, and on the following third down play by New England, Lewis got a key block and turned the left corner for 18 yards and the first down that sealed the Patriots 24-20 victory. So, Tom Brady and company are indeed off to Minneapolis for another Super Bowl. It’s their eighth appearance in eighteen seasons and third in the last four. But don’t be fooled by those numbers. Despite what the oddsmakers thought, getting there was anything but easy.

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