Saturday, January 17, 2015

Long Overdue Championship Weekend Sports Chowdah Update- Nevermore! Patriots Rally Past Ravens, Advance to AFC Title Games; Kung Fu Gripping, Red Sox Sign Pablo Sandoval; Pedro, Big Unit Biggio and Smoltz Heading to Cooperstown; B's Blank Blueshirts; Rondo Heads to Dallas

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS- Heading into the playoffs, the Patriots weren't looking particularly sharp. After thrashing the Miami Dolphins in weeks 15- avenging their season-opening loss and New England won the division in convincing fashion. However, the Patriots barely bested the Jets in the Meadowlands in Week 16 thanks to a 17-16 win over New York and fell to Buffalo by a 17-6 final after starting most of their second-stringers.

After a first round bye, the Patriots were set to host Baltimore after the Ravens upended the AFC North champion Steelers in the first round. This would be the fourth time since the 2009 season that the Ravens and Patriots met in the playoffs, with Baltimore winning two out of the first three matchups.

Early on, it looked as though it appeared the Ravens would add to their all-time playoff lead against the Patriots. Ravens QB Joe Flacco took their first two possessions and marched down the field for two quick TDs to take a 14-0 lead while the Ravens defense held New England to a couple of three-and-outs in the first quarter.

However, late in the first the Patriots put together a good-looking drive that included a 40 yard completion from Brady to Gronkowski and was capped by a 4 yard TD run by Brady on 3rd and goal. New England got on the board with 48 seconds left in the first and it was now a 14-7 game.

Despite increased pressure on the pocket from the Ravens defense, a fired-up Tom Brady managed to find the end zone late in the 2nd quarter on a 15 yard completion to Danny Amendola- with the WR fighting for key extra yardage to get into the end zone to tie the game at 14-14 after Stephen Gostkowski's point-after. However, almost as soon as the momentum was swinging the Patriots way, the Ravens came up with a key pick at mid-field with just over a minute to go in the half. Joe Flacco and company made the most of that thanks to a pass-interference call against Patriots CB Darelle Revis. With only 10 seconds to go, the Ravens quieted the crowd at Foxborough with an 11 yard TD pass from Flacco to TE Owen Daniels to put Baltimore back on top, 21-14.

In the second half, the Ravens managed to get a pass-interference call on 4th and 6 to set them up inside the New England red zone- altho they were pushed further back to the 16. However, Flacco connected with RB Justin Fosett for a 16 yard TD reception and give Baltimore a 28-14 lead and giving New England a bigger hole to climb out of. However, that's exactly what Brady and company did, with the Patriots QB connecting with Gronkowski on a five yard TD pass to make it a 21-28 game with 6:48 to go in the 3rd. After holding the Ravens to a 3 and out, Baltimore was forced to punt and the Patriots were able to start from their own 30.

What happened next could undoubtedly be considered the highlight of the game. After moving the ball to midfield on two quick plays, Brady quickly lateralled the ball to WR Julian Edelman. Edelman then threw the ball to a wide open follow WR Danny Amendola for a 51 yard TD pass to tie the game at 28-28.

On Baltimore's next possession, DB Devin McCourty picked off Flacco at the Ravens 37, giving New England a short field that they were unable to capitalize on. On the Ravens' next possession, they managed to march down the field pretty efficiently, including converting on a 4th and 1 along the way- but were shut out of the end zone, forced to settle for a FG with 10:17 left in the 4th quarter. With the Ravens back on top by a 31-28 score, New England couldn't afford any more three and outs.

Starting on their own 26 yard line with 10:10 remaining in regulation, the Patriots offense managed to get big chunks of yards while burning off some of the clock. With 5:13 left in the game, the Patriots took their first lead of the day on a perfectly thrown 23 yard TD pass from Brady to WR Brandon LaFell, putting the Patriots on top 35-31. Flacco once again put together a solid drive, getting to midfield in time for the 2 minute warning. However, with 1:38 left, Flacco went long from the Patriots 36 yard line only to be picked off in the end zone by Patriots SS Duron Harmon. The Ravens still had a timeout left, which prevented New England from simply kneeling down three times in the victory formation and running out the clock, so Ryan Allen had to punt. The Ravens got the ball back on midfield with just 4 seconds left, giving Baltimore just enough time for a hail-mary pass that the Patriots managed to bat out of the end zone.

The Patriots would only lead for just over five minutes, but it was all they'd need as they go on to win by a 35-31 final in what many are already calling an instant classic.

ELSEWHERE IN THE NFL PLAYOFFS- The New England Patriots will be facing the Indianapolis Colts and starting QB Andrew Luck in the AFC championship game this weekend at Foxborough. As rusty as the Patriots looked in the first quarter, the Broncos looked almost as bad for their entire game after their first round bye. Denver Broncos QB Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos fell to his former team, losing by a 24-13 final at Denver. So demoralizing was the loss that the Broncos fired head coach John Fox within days and many are openly speculating that this may be the end of QB Peyton Manning's career, if not his tenure with the Broncos.

Meanwhile, in what was dubbed 'Ice Bowl II', the Cowboys made their first postseason visit to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI since the 1967 NFL Championship Game. While the temperatures were much more mild than in 1967, like the original title game the Packers ultimately prevailed- although what looked like a 32 yard completion from Cowboys QB Tony Romo to receiver Dez Bryant on 4th and 2 that would've put the ball on the Green Bay 1 yard line was overturned after challenged by Green Bay. The Packers would go on to win by a 26-21 final and will face the Seattle Seahawks in the Pacific Northwest for the NFC title next week. Seattle beat NFC South champions Carolina by a 35-17 final.

ELSEWHERE IN THE NFL- With the end of the regular season, a number of new coaching vacancies and hirings have been announced. On Friday, the Chicago Bears announced that recently-dismissed Denver head coach John Fox would be their new head coach. Meanwhile, former Jets head coach Rex Ryan will be staying within the AFC East as the Buffalo Bills named him their new head coach after Doug Marrone opted out of his contract.

The biggest news came earlier this month when- after weeks of speculation- San Francisco 49ers and head coach Jim Harbuagh parted ways at the end of the regular season. By December 30th, the University of Michigan announced Harbaugh as their head coach, replacing Brady Hoke after a disappointing 2014 campaign.

RED SOX- The Red Sox have been letting no grass grow under their feet in the offseason. After signing Koji Uehara to a two year contract extension, Boston signed free agent 3rd baseman Pablo Sandoval to a five year, $100 million contract. During his 2014 championship run with the San Francisco Giants, Sandoval batted .279 with 16 homers and 73 RBI. The same week as the massive Sandoval deal was announced, Boston announced that one-time prospect Hanley Ramirez was signed to a 4 year deal worth an estimated $80 million.

Another former Red Sox farmhand returning home is Justin Masterson, who Boston signed to a one year contract worth just over $9 million in December. The Red Sox also ended up trading OF Yoenis Cespedes, RHP Alex Wilson and a prospect to the Tigers for starting pitcher Rick Porcello who was 15-13 with a 3.43 ERA with Detroit last year. Within a day of the Porcello deal, the Red Sox also sent starters Rubby De LaRosa and Allen Webster to Arizona in exchange for pitcher Wade Miley.

De LaRosa and Webster weren't the only Red Sox to make their way to the NL West- shortly before Christmas, the Red Sox announced that they had sent 3B Will Middlebrooks to the San Diego Padres in exchange for C Ryan Hanigan.

BASEBALL HALL OF FAME- The 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame inductees have been announced and Red Sox fans can expect a familiar face among the honorees.

Pitchers Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and John Smoltz were first-ballot hall of famers while former Houston Astros 2B Craig Biggio made it to Cooperstown after his 3rd year of eligibility. Martinez, who has an ERA of 2.93 over his 17 year MLB career, has played for the Dodgers, Expos, Red Sox, Mets and Phillies. However, Martinez's career highlights (and lowlights) were in Boston. During the 1999 ALDS, Martinez came into the game in the 4th inning against the Indians and threw five no-hit innings of relief. The 2004 World Series was one of only two World Series appearances for Pedro- he threw a shutout in Game 3 at Busch Stadium against the Cardinals and even drew a walk in one of his at-bats.

Martinez was an 8 time All Star and has three Cy Young trophies to his name and led the AL in strikeout in 1999, 2000 and 2002.

The lanky Randy Johnson- dubbed "Big Unit"- had a slightly longer career, breaking into the bigs with the Expos in 1988 before playing nearly a decade with the Seattle Mariners. After a single season with the Astros, Johnson then signed with the newly-formed Arizona Diamondbacks in their second season and is best known for his performance in the 2001 World Series where he was credited with three wins in the dramatic 7-game series against the Yankees. In the deciding game 7, then-manager Bob Brenly pulled Curt Schilling in the 8th with one away before bringing in Miguel Batista to get out one batter [who happened to be Derek Jeter- NANESB!] and having Johnson- who started Game 6- come in to pitch relief. Johnson got all four batters he faced out and was credited with the win after Mariano Rivera loaded the bases and Luis Gonzales hit a single past a drawn-in Derek Jeter in the bottom of the 9th.

BOSTON BRUINS- Let's face it- it's been a pretty rough couple of weeks for the Bruins, but not too long after the calendar flipped over to 2015, something seems to be clicking for the B's.

On Thursday night, Tukka Rask turned aside all 30 shots he faced while Boston got goals from Bergeron in the first, Krejci in the second and Eriksson in the 3rd to get by the Rangers 3-0 in a nationally televised contest. The win puts the Bruins back in the playoff picture with about a week to go until the NHL's All Star break.

The win over the Rangers is the Bruin's 5th straight (this includes two shutouts) and Boston hopes to keep the momentum going on Saturday when they travel to Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets. Puck is scheduled to drop at 7:00 ET and the game will be televised on NESN.

2014 NHL WINTER CLASSIC- The 2015 NHL Winter Classic has come and gone- taking place at Nationals Park in Washington DC on New Years day with the Capitals hosting the Blackhawks.

The Capitals got out to a pretty quick 2-0 lead with tallies by Eric Fehr and Alex Ovechkin, but thanks to goals by Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad, the Blackhawks were able to tie the contest up at 2-2 in the second. It looked as though the contest would be headed to overtime, but a late penalty on the Blackhawks led to a Caps power play and with 12 seconds left in regulation, Troy Brouwer was able to give Washington a 3-2 lead with a late goal on the man advantage. The Capitals would hang on to win in the remaining 11 seconds of regulation by a final of 3-2.

According to and TSN's Bob McKenzie, Boston is reportedly the front-runner to host the 2016 Winter Classic. Fenway Park was the host for the 2010 Winter Classic where the Bruins hosted the Flyers. However, there has been no official word from the NHL and other venues such as Denver or the Twin Cities are also reportedly under consideration. An announcement from the league is expected by February.

NCAA WOMEN'S VOLLEYBALL- Regrettably, I missed most of the Volleyball season- although I was able to catch some of the finals back in December.

The Brigham Young Cougars women's volleyball team holds the distinction of becoming the first NCAA women's volleyball program to advance to the finals after upending #14 Nebraska and #2 Texas. However the Lady Cougars were swept by defending champions Penn State. This would be the Nittany Lions 2nd consecutive women's volleyball title, giving Penn State an NCAA record total of seven volleyball titles and their sixth in the last eight years.

BYU fell in three sets (21-25, 24-26 and 14-25) to the Nittany Lions at Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Center. Nittany Lion juniors Megan Courtney and Aiyana Whitney led the offense with 11 kills each while senior Nia Grant had nine kills to her credit.

NCAA FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP- With the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl serving as a playoff for the first ever NCAA FBS Championship playoff, the Oregon Ducks made quick work of the Florida State Seminoles on New Year's Day [with Ducks fans and players mocking QB Jameis Winston by chanting "Noooo means Noooo!" to the tune of the Seminoles fight song after the game- NANESB!] after beating FSU by a 59-20 final. The loss was Florida State's first in 29 games- including last year's NCAA Championship game, which was the last under the old system.

Later on that day, the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans would determine who the Ducks faced in the NCAA title game. This one turned out to be much closer, with the Ohio State Buckeyes prevailing over Alabama by a 42-35 final. This set up a Jan 12th meeting between the Ducks and Buckeyes at AT&T stadium in Arlington, TX for all the marbles [for the first time ever, no less- NANESB!]. Early in the matchup that featured Heisman-winning QB Marcus Mariotta against the Buckeye's 3rd string quarterback was going Oregon's way early on, with the Ducks getting out to an early 7-0 lead before Ohio State seemed to find their footing and go on to win by a 42-20 thanks in large part to Ezekiel Elliot's 4TD and 246 yard performance.

NCAA FCS CHAMPIONSHIP- After holding off a late rally by Illinois State, the North Dakota State Bison have won their fourth straight FCS title last weekend. The NDSU Bison were trailing the Redbirds 27-23 late before re-taking the lead on a 5 yard rushing TD from Carson Wentz to give North Dakota State a 29-27 lead. Just to make the final minute of regulation more interesting, the point after attempt was successfully blocked by the Redbirds.

With less than a minute to go, Illinois State was able to put together a drive that got them to midfield, but with just 8 seconds left, Redbirds QB Tre Robertson threw an interception to seal the win for the Bisons.

NBA- It's the end of the era for the Boston Celtics as the last of the Big Three from the 2008 Championship team was traded away to the Dallas Mavericks. In return for Rondo, Dallas will send Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder and Jameer Nelson to the C's and Boston will also receive a conditional first round pick in the 2015 draft and a second round pick in the 2016 draft.

Rondo, who had spent his entire NBA career in a Celtics uniform prior to the December 18th trade, returned to the Garden on January 2nd and had a season best 29 points as the Mavericks cruised to a 119-101 win over the Celtics.

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