Monday, October 28, 2002

Now, that was an October, sports fans.

:: Congratulations to the Anaheim Angels on their victory in the World Series. I've made no secret that I was rooting for the Giants in this Series, but if they had to lose to anyone, I'm glad it was to a franchise that is probably equally-storied in its long quest for postseason glory. The Angels have come close so many times only to never make it all the way, including their agonizing ALCS in 1986 when they were a single strike away from winning the pennant, only to have the Red Sox take it (and then lose to the Mets in the Series). This franchise's love-affair with futility is so storied, in fact, that a fantasy film was made a few years back about it, the subject of which is that it takes actual divine intervention for this team to win. Well, no supernatural antics were needed here. The Angels truly earned their championship, by constantly battling and never giving up. To face a five-run deficit in the seventh inning of Game Six, when the other team can win the Series by closing you out, takes immense character -- which the Angels showed, in spades. (Of course, a bullpen meltdown always helps....more on that presently.)

:: Sometimes, when watching a sporting event, you can just watch the air escaping from a team or competitor, and you know at that moment -- no matter how much time is still left on the clock, no matter what the score at the time of that moment -- that it's over, and the other team or competitor is going to win. Bill Buckner's error in Game Six of the 1986 World Series is one such moment. The game did not end on that play, and the Mets' eventual victory that night did not eliminate the Red Sox, but merely forced Game Seven; however, you could tell that for the Sox it was all over. Another such moment came early in the second half of Super Bowl XXVIII, the last of the Buffalo Bills' four consecutive appearances. Thurman Thomas got the carry, but it was an awkward exchange from Jim Kelly, and Thomas ended up fumbling. The fumble was returned for a Cowboys touchdown. Now, as I said, this was very early in the third quarter -- there were still over twenty-five minutes of football to play -- and after that Cowboys score the game was only tied, 13-13; but you could see the look on the Bills' faces: "Here we go again, this is where it starts, we're about to take our fourth damn loss in a row in this stupid game." Final score: Dallas 30, Buffalo 13. The Bills never even threatened to score again from that point in the game.

Well, another such moment came in Game Six this year, when the Angels rallied from five runs down. They put three runs up in the bottom of the seventh, so the score was still 5-3 Giants, but you just knew the Giants were about to lose, that Robb Nen was about to blow a save, that Troy Percival would come in and nail it down. It was as certain as the Titanic going down when they learn that the first five compartments are breached. It was over. Game Seven? A mere rubber-stamping of a pre-determined result.

:: The Angels also taught us in Game Seven how to deal with Barry Bonds. It turns out that the lesson might have been learned from studying Mark McGuire's 70-home run season in 1998, when despite McGuire's heroics the Cardinals finished with a losing record: the game's finest slugger can't beat you if you always ensure that he's coming to bat with the bases empty. Bonds was 1 for 3 last night, with a single; if he'd gone 3 for 3 and homered each time, and everything else had been the same except for that, the Giants would only have tied the game.

:: A funny cartoon summary of the Series can be read here.

And on to yesterday's NFL action:

:: I said last week that the Detroit Lions, who played my beloved Bills yesterday, were a bad team that could kill you if you overlook them. Well, the Bills did not overlook them, and thus they won -- although not without making it pretty close, courtesy a Travis Henry fumble that put the Lions in perfect position to score the tying touchdown. Luckily, Bills linebacker London Fletcher made the initial hit on the Lions' RB James Stewart on 4th-and-inches, stuffing the play for a loss and killing the Lions' last hope for the day. The Bills defense was actually pretty good yesterday and downright impressive in the second half. I still think they need to get someone who can really rush the passer consistently; they have not had anyone who can do that since Bruce Smith was allowed to leave. (Not that Smith can still bring it like he used to, in his 18th year.) They did pretty well, though, at keeping Lions' QB Joey Harrington confused and contained. Harrington didn't play a bad game, but he did make some bad decisions at inopportune times. (Although one of his bad decisions miraculously turned out great for him: when he threw an ill-advised pass into double coverage in the end zone, the first Bills DB knocked the ball into the air, away from the receiver, at which time the other Bills DB on the play also knocked the ball into the air -- right into the hands of Az-zahir Hakim, the other Lions' receiver on the play, for the touchdown.) The Bills are a robust and surprising 5-3. They may actually have an outside shot at the playoffs. As for the Lions, they are 2-5 now, and I still have to consider them a bad team that can burn you if you're not on your game for them. They are improving, though, and should have some good building blocks for next season.

:: Next up for the Bills are the defending champs. The Patriots are looking stunningly ordinary, losing at home yesterday to Denver for their fourth straight loss, putting their record at 3-4. There will be plenty of motivation to go around in this one: the Pats have to win it if they want to turn their season around; the Bills will want to beat the defending champs; Drew Bledsoe will want to show his old team that they made a mistake in trading him within the division. This one could be a barn-burner by the time it's over.

:: Also re: the Patriots -- can we possibly concede the role that plain, old luck played in their Super Bowl season last year? If Bill Belichick is that amazing of a coach, why have the Patriots been nothing to write home about except for that single year? and if he's that great of a coach, why was his tenure in Cleveland so ordinary?

:: The New Orleans Saints appear to be this year's shoot-em-up team, the team that goes out and scores a ton of points each week while also giving up a lot of points. They're 6-2 after yesterday's shoot-out loss to Atlanta (Falcons 37, Saints 35), and they've scored more points this year than anybody else except for Kansas City; but on the defensive side of the ball they've got some issues. Only seven teams are giving up more points per game than the Saints, and since the start of the 2001 season the Saints have only held four opponents to less than 20 points in a game (and not at all so far this year). Teams that have to win by scoring a lot almost always end up faltering at some point, when they inevitably encounter a defense capable of slowing them down.

:: OK, so Emmitt Smith is the greatest running back of all time, he's a gamer, he played that all-important game years ago against the Giants with a separated shoulder and he gained something like 160 yards that day, he was the key to the Cowboys' three Super Bowl wins in four years, yada yada yada. OK, it's a great achievement. OK, he's one of the top three RBs ever to lace 'em up. But man, did he have to do it all with the Cowboys, who are otherwise known as the Greatest Force For Evil In The Sporting World?

:: I guess Randy Moss decided yesterday that he wanted to play again. Yippee. I still think the Vikes should cut him and just start rebuilding now, as I don't think they're likely to be a good team again for at least two or three years.

:: Tampa Bay started Rob Johnson yesterday. From what I've read and saw on the news, it was vintage Rob: the offense never got anywhere near the end zone, and Rob got hurt when he scrambled. The Bucs won the game, though, via four FGs.

:: My Super Bowl picks: the Steelers were impressive yesterday, beating Baltimore on the road. Of course, the Ravens were without LB Ray Lewis, but still -- they're a good defense, and the Steelers haven't been setting the league on fire, offensively. But the important thing is that they are above .500 now and in sole possession of first place in the AFC North. As for my NFC pick, the Eagles play the Giants tonight. Go Eagles. (Funny thing: you know how your local newspaper, if you're in an NFL city or near one, will print the local team's name in bold type in the standings and in the leader boards? In Syracuse, they only do that in the leader board with NFL players who are Syracuse University alums...which right now means that the only name appearing in bold is that of Eagles QB Donovan McNabb.)

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