The Opening Pitch: 'Twas two days before Christmas, and all through The Sporting Blog ...
Let's be clear: No single game in the NFL this season — not Tom Brady's season-opening injury, not the Titans' "statement" win over the Steelers, not the Falcons' clinching a playoff spot to complete a superlative turnaround, not the rotating craziness at the top of AFC East nor the rotating craziness at the top of the NFC East — compares to Sunday's Broncos-Chargers season finale.
The Broncos are on the verge of an epic collapse — it makes the Oilers' infamous January 3, 1993 playoff choke to the Bills look a little skimpy.
With three games left in the season, all the Broncos — comfortably up in the AFC West — had to do was win once. They lost at Carolina; no big deal, that was expected. They still had the struggling Bills coming to Denver in Week 16, right? D'oh!
Meanwhile, a three-game losing streak took the Chargers to 4-8 — and what everyone assumed was a lost season. (After all, no NFL team had ever gone from 4-8 to the playoffs ...) Since then, the Chargers have ripped off three straight wins and done a TON of scoreboard-watching.
The Broncos obliged, and now the two meet in what is a playoff game in everything but official name: Playing at home in prime time with everything to gain, the Chargers should be favored — and the Broncos seem to be headed to the worst choke in NFL history (and the worst in sports since the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS).
It begs a very interesting question: Would you rather be a Lions fan, about to go 0-16, or a Broncos fan, about to find ignominious immortality as chokers?
Truth be told: I would rather be a Lions fan. How bad is it for Broncos fans that even Lions fans find your team pathetic?
Reader K.S. emailed me the following hypothetical (although really, knowing the participants, it's probably more accurately labeled "hypothetical"): "The flex schedule put the Jets/Fins game at 4:15 p.m. ET on Sunday and the Pats/Bills game at 1 p.m., if the Pats win, the Jets are eliminated from playoff contention. The Pats game may be over before the Jets game starts, and Mangini — after seeing his playoff hopes dashed — could intentionally tank the game against the Fins, JUST to keep the Pats out of the playoffs." ... Couldn't you totally see that happening?
Update/Correction: If the Pats win, the Jets can still make the playoffs by winning, combined with a Ravens loss. Take that, conspiracy theorists!
MNF: The Bears are still alive for the playoffs, thanks to two things — (1) that blocked FG at the end of regulation, and (2) that made FG in OT, giving the Bears their third straight win (second straight in OT). The ridiculously cold temps only made the result more epic.
The NFC North is clear-cut: If the Bears beat the Texans in Houston and the Vikings lose in Minneapolis to the Giants, the Bears win the division. Otherwise, the Vikings win the division (although the Bears, with a win, would have a shot at the Wild Card, with tons of help).
I am torn about the Cowboys: On the one hand, their entry in the playoffs does make things more interesting. On the other, the Cowboys lead the pantheon of schadenfreude — with Brett Favre and the Patriots — for missing the playoffs and triggering team turmoil.
Rod Marinelli does not accept Rob Parker's apology for asking — awkwardly, to put it mildly — if the Lions coach could fairly evaluate his defensive coordinator if the guy is his son-in-law. Though you won't see it in the standings, it becomes Marinelli's one win of the season.
Is the Titans' defiling a Terrible Towel a big deal? Jeff Fisher doesn't think so and neither do I. It's not the American flag; it's the symbol of your opponent across the field, one who you are dominating. Is it tacky? Perhaps. Did they earn the right to do it? Totally.
Oh, Plaxico: You're the gift that keeps on giving. Read it to believe it.
How much would you pay to watch a video clip of Brady Quinn getting smacked? (Can't the KSK guys do a dramatic re-enactment or something?)
CFB Bowl Mania! Want to watch the best match-up of the bowl season? It's tonight's Poinsettia — Boise State vs. TCU, featuring two of the Top 10 teams in the country — and two of the Top 3 non-BCS teams. Boise's innovative offense vs. TCU's sick D: Winner gets a place in the season's final Top 10.
Looking ahead: Notre Dame-Hawaii is the anti-Poinsettia, perhaps the worst bowl game of the season. ... With all that Detroit has to worry about these days, is anyone bothering to pay attention to the Central Michigan-Florida Atlantic Motor City Bowl? ... Saturday is a lineup of "Hey, didn't you used to be relevant?": West Virginia (vs. North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care); FSU-Wisconsin (Champs Sports); Miami-California (Emerald).
NBA Instant History: The NBA has come to own December 25 in the same way the NFL owns Thanksgiving and college football owns New Year's Day (and the way the NHL wants a piece of January 1, too). Thursday's games are perhaps the best the league has ever had on a Christmas Day:
— Hornets-Magic lead off, featuring the NBA's best young big (Dwight Howard) vs. its best young guard (Chris Paul). Magic PG Jameer Nelson is no slouch; he just won NBA Player of the Week and Orlando is riding a five-game win streak.
— A traditional rivalry, Spurs-Suns (featuring Shaq vs. Duncan and Nash vs. Parker, with both teams trying to showcase that they remain relevant as NBA powers). Plus: Will Shaq tweet from the game?
— The marquee event, Celtics-Lakers, a Finals foreshadowing. If the Celtics beat the 76ers tonight, Boston would be riding a franchise-best 19-game win streak and an NBA-best 27-2 start to the season.
— As a nightcap, LeBron vs. the Wiz, the Cavs' nemesis (plus, Washington is so bad that they have every reason to treat this game as their NBA Finals).
CBB Last Night: Why are NBA scouts watching Oklahoma beat Rice? For Blake Griffin (27 and 11) obviously, but also for freshman Willie Warren (season-high 31 pts, including 4-for-9 3-pt). ... Player of the Night: Baylor's Curtis Jerrells (17 pts, 11 reb, 10 ast) in a win against Hartford. ... Speaking of 3s, Syracuse's Andy Rautins more than made up for the suspended Eric Devendorf, canning a ‘Cuse-record-tying nine 3-pointers. ... And speaking of freshmen, how about Al-Farouq Aminu of No. 6 Wake Forest. AFA had 21 and 12 in Wake's win over East Carolina last night; he is averaging 12 and 9 for the season. ... More frosh goodness: Ohio State's B.J. Mullens (19 and 8) in a landslide win against UNC-Asheville. ...
Looking ahead: It's a slow week for big games, but it doesn't get much more tense than the Illinois-Missouri "Bragging Rights" rivalry, tonight in St. Louis; the winner should enter the Top 25 next week.
MLB Hot Stove: The Yankees don't buy that Web report that they are about to sign Manny Ramirez (and I guess they would know). Meanwhile, if the Angels are out of the Teixeira bidding and the Red Sox "aren't a factor," then does that leave the Nationals as the Big Tex winner? They need the franchise cornerstone, but they are going to pay a heavy price for it. (I'm sorry: What happened to learning something from the Rays?)
The Last Word: No Wake-Up Call for the rest of the week, due to the holiday. But things will be churning over at DanShanoff.com, so be sure to stop by and check things out or leave a comment on your favorite story line of the day. I will see you back here Monday morning.
Dan Shanoff writes The Wake-Up Call every weekday morning for SportingNews.com and blogs daily at DanShanoff.com. Got any comments, questions or feedback? Email Dan at shanofftsn-[at]-gmail-[dot]-com.
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