Friday, December 30, 2011

NFL Picks Week Seventeen: Getting Ready for the Last Year of Earth

Oh yes, people, 2012 is almost here, and if you're one of those people who truly understands the significance of the impending Mayan cataclysm next December then, well, surely there are better things you could be doing with the last 11 1/2 months you've got here than reading this drivel.

But here you are! Thank you for your readership!

So while we wait for the end of days to come, I suppose that means I've got one more year with which to see the last 88 teams on the list, a trek which would be, uh, exhausting to say the least. I don't think I'm going to be able to make those 88 trips before the year is off if I'm going to balance my time between traveling and maintaining a job. Theoretically, I suppose I have enough money saved up to make it through the last year of life without employment, but I'm going to keep my gig and hedge my bets.

You know, just in case the world doesn't end next December.

If it does, though, I did manage to have a pretty decent 2011 as far as taking advantage of my time is concerned. It wasn't quite as busy as 2010, which wound up being a surprisingly hectic year with its international vacation and three cross-country trips in the month of August alone. Some of you may recall that I encompassed all of this in one particularly large entry on December 31, 2010, which recounted the total number of plane flights, airlines and other great things I tallied up over the previous 12 months. Well, we'll get to that list here in a second -- I wouldn't want to deprive of reading my obnoxious bragging -- but first I should talk about my personal sports fortunes over the past 12 months and as I look at them they're, uh, not particularly inspiring.

In fact, 2011 was actually one of the worst years I've had in sports as a fan. Looking at my big four (that's the Giants, Mets, Devils and Knicks if you aren't aware) a grand total of one of them played a postseason game this calendar year and in a bizarre twist of fate that was the Knicks, a team I'm so used to being bad that when they finally started being good this season I was so confused I likened it to when I first realized I was attracted to women and didn't know how to handle it. None of those teams won a playoff game. My college team had an uninspiring Bowl loss and then failed to make the NCAA Tournament yet again. The Chicago Blackhawks squeaked into the playoffs through the back door on the final day of the season, nearly got swept in the first round of the playoffs and then after rallying to force a Game 7, lost in overtime because of an inept giveaway in the defensive zone by journeyman defenseman Chris Campoli. In fact, the two teams I do like that actually had major accomplishments this season (Southampton FC and Geelong FC) don't play in the same hemisphere that I live in and I've never seen them in person.

So yeah. As far as on-field/ice/court accomplishments are concerned, 2011 was not one of the better years that I've had. In fact, it was one of the worst, and it's a far cry from ten years ago when the Mets, Devils and Giants all made their respective championship rounds (and the Knicks actually made the playoffs) in a 12-month span.

On the plus side, 2012 isn't looking half bad so far. The Devils are playing pretty good hockey of late and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. The Knicks, despite their slow start, are likely poised to be one of the top teams in the East this season. The Blackhawks have the best record in the Western Conference. Southampton is off to a great season and appears poised to gain promotion back to the Premier League after a decade-long drought. Geelong, the reigning champions, will be gunning for its four Grand Final win in seven seasons. The Giants, with a win in Sunday night's massive de facto NFC East title game, can snap what has been a more-painful-than-most two-year playoff drought, and finally, the Mets, well, the Mets haven't been forced to fold financially yet. Considering the year they've had off the field, that's a victory in and of itself.

So we'll see what the New Year brings for my sports fortunes, starting with Sunday night -- though I should note that with Northwestern's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas showdown tomorrow afternoon, 2011's chances of improving are not done yet -- but for now, with a grand total of 34 hours left in the year, it's time to take a look back on what happened to me in 2011.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

NFL Picks Week Sixteen: In Which A Friendship Endures Its Greatest Test

See everybody? This is Bert (or Birt to Starbucks baristas). You have seen Bert before in such fantastic moments as the U.S.'s dramatic win over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, the last game ever played at Giants Stadium, our trip to see the Flyers nearly two years ago and, of course, that time we both wore bags over our heads at a Knicks-Cavaliers game because we were too embarrassed to be seen at the Garden. Bert also made a spur of the moment trip with me and our friend Deek to see Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, and he's generally a fun guy -- one who really likes to cut a rug sometimes.

Bert's a good guy. I like Bert. Really I do.

But here's the thing. This Saturday, our friendship which has lasted well more than a decade will be tested in ways it has never been tested before. That is because we will be attending the Giants-Jets game this Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Now, this in and of itself is not a terribly crazy development. Bert and I have been to several football games together, and I have already been to three Giants games this season alone, but here's the catch. I don't know if any of you readers have become aware of this yet, but I happen to really like the New York Football Giants. Like a lot.

This is all well and good, but they are a team that has a tendency to break your heart from time to time, the notable exception of Super Bowl XLII aside. Bert doesn't have a great deal of Giants-related heartbreak, but boy oh boy does he have a lot of Jets-related heartbreak. Bert might follow the Gang Green more intensely than anyone I know does in regards to any team, and his fandom ranges from fear of jinxes, to robust spontaneity as seen in a trip he and I had planned for the AFC Championship Game last year that were botched by my own ability to manage my work schedule, costing me $300 in the process.

So knowing that the Giants and Jets will be facing off this Saturday and that we will be in the crowd together clearly lends itself to some potential anxiety and certainly some disagreement, but that alone isn't a particularly contentious point. We're both mature responsible adults -- sort of -- and we know that in the end we will live and we have, in fact, see the Giants and Jets face off in person before as we did in 2007.

On that day, an unseasonably warm afternoon at the old Giants Stadium, we witnessed Plaxico Burress turning the Jets secondary into his own personal rag doll as Big Blue went on to a 35-24 win over their intracity rival, capped by this pick six by Aaron Ross. Bert was disappointed, sure, and while I was excited about the win, I was also disappointed by the pretty unfortunate behavior by many of the fans there from both side, but it was an odd kind of victory. Not in that it was unenjoyable, but the Giants-Jets rivalry may be the most unnecessarily forced one in the NFL.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

NFL Picks Week Fifteen: So Let Me Talk About Hockey For a Few Minutes

In the midst of all your holiday parties and your fervent non-hockey watching, some of you might have missed last night that the Devils made Scott Niedermayer the third player to have his number raised to the rafters at the Prudential Center. I know to many of you the name probably sounds strange, and even for the die-hard hockey fan, Scott Niedermayer was about as unassuming as a superstar defenseman of his caliber could be, but for a Devils fan who grew up watching the brilliant dynasty that brought home three Cups in nine years, seeing Niedermayer's number retired is an appropriate and special moment.

Yes, Niedermayer left the Devils for the opportunity to win a Cup with his brother in Anaheim, which he did four years after defeating his brother and the Mighty Ducks in seven games for the Devils' last championship, but that move is in many ways not only one that both sides have since said didn't mean to happen, but one that was a rare divorce for New Jersey and a star player that did not involve malice. Everyone seemed to acknowledge that Niedermayer was hoping a move west would bring a championship home for his brother, and actually took less money to do so.

Niedermayer, who is arguably the finest defenseman of his generation, is still always going to be a Devil for many of his fans however. His remarkable coast-to-coast goal against Detroit in the 1995 Final is the stuff of legend in New Jersey, and may have been the singular moment that transformed the organization from Mickey Mouse to NHL dynasty. And perhaps more noteworthy, he is one of just five players who was in uniform for all three of New Jersey's Stanley Cups along with Martin Brodeur, Ken Daneyko, Scott Stevens and Sergei Brylin. Daneyko and Stevens have already had their numbers brought up to the rafters. Brodeur's will join them some day.

To understand Niedermayer's greatness, his use of speed, his smooth skating, his offensive ability and his shut down defense is to understand how the nuances of the game when perfected by one individual can be a remarkable display of hockey brilliance. Niedermayer's amazing career will land him in the hall of fame one day, but even that may not quite do justice to just how good someone who spent most of his career out of the media spotlight was. Niedermayer won four Stanley Cups, the last of which with Anaheim gave him a Cup as a captain as well as a Conn Smythe Trophy, but even that doesn't show just how winning followed him wherever he went. In addition to his Cups and his Conn Smythe, Niedermayer was a Norris Trophy winner and is the only player in hockey history to win every single professional or amateur high level hockey championship in North America. In addition to his Stanley Cups Niedermayer has won a Memorial Cup, a World Junior Championship, an IIHF World Championship, an Olympic gold medal and the rarely played World Cup of Hockey (nee Canada Cup).

The list of accolades is simply astounding, and no coincidence whatsoever.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Girl, Eli's Coming. You Better Hide.

I suppose that after last night's game I could have also given this entry the title of "I'm down with JPP", a common thread running on the twitters last night, but considering that I like Three Dog Night more than Naughty By Nature and that song is far more inappropriate -- and you all know how I'm a stickler for propriety -- I've made my bed and I'm sleeping in it. Also, to put it more finely, Jason Pierre-Paul has never been the object of scorn for not getting angry enough on the sidelines after a missed tackle. He's always been considered an athletic freak who is always a project that needs time to develop -- and has managed to develop much quicker than anticipated with room still to grow.

And don't get me wrong. JPP looks every bit the tremendous stud defensive end GM Jerry Reese envisioned when he was drafted and more. His athleticism is nearly unparalleled among men at his position, he had an almost obscenely good game last night and when he learns how to play the run he may very well be the best defensive end in the League.

But this is about Eli, a player who was dogged by criticism and unreasonable expectations throughout the beginning of his career and even after he led a stunning Super Bowl-winning drive -- perhaps too early because people assumed greatness had arrived when it was still marinating. But now, after his game-winning drive against New England earlier this season, and his near late-game rallies against San Francisco and Green Bay despite having little healthy talent to help him on both sides of the ball, and finally after last night, there can no longer be any doubt.

Eli has arrived -- and he is among the greats in the NFL.

As the Giants trailed Dallas by 12 points with less than four minutes to go last night at Jerry World with their season on the line, Manning led a late touchdown drive in the fourth quarter like he had done so many times before, and then after a tremendous three-and-out forced by JPP and the defense, he did it again. One drive went 80 yards and lasted 2:27. The second went 58 yards and lasted 81 seconds. And that drive might have ended sooner were it not for a dropped touchdown pass by Mario Manningham that was as perfectly thrown between a cornerback and a safety in a clutch situation as any pass could be. On the night he had two touchdowns, one interception off a tipped pass and 400 yards passing.

Friday, December 9, 2011

NFL Picks Week Fourteen: You Know, Nassau Coliseum Is Kind of Fun

Don't get me wrong. Let me state clearly that Nassau Coliseum, for all its history, is not a nice building. It is old, it is crumbling, it feels like the concourses are part of a disused bowling alley from 1987 and it is a woefully inconvenient place to get to if you have no car to take you there. But you know what? Sitting in a seat and watching a game there is really a pretty good time. I won't lie, it helps when stubhub enables you to get seats with a view like this at half the price, but despite the fact that the place is, in many ways, highly decrepit, it's actually a pretty good time. The place has character, it's intimate, and it's kind of cramped in that "just like Fenway Park but without the charm and still somehow good" kind of way.

Don't ask me how it works. It just works.

I've only been there twice now, but I'm starting to like it a little more than I did the first time, though I wouldn't mind it if the pulled pork sandwiches were served a little quicker. I ended up missing most of the second period while waiting for the enormous line of five people to trim down. It did enable me, however, to talk to a charming group of 18-year-olds who decided to call the ice girls "sluts" as I walked by. This led me into a long half-sober dissertation to them about how if they want to go pursue women sexually, how can they criticize women, in principle, for doing the same thing. This stumped them for a half second, but then they eagerly told me that they were "sluts" because they worked for the Islanders, not because they were dressing scantily. This ignores the fact that a) they are wearing outfits required by their job, not by choice and b) it is completely different from their previous argument of, "Yeah, but they're sluts because... you know, look at them, they're sluts."

Once I realized a moment later that they were not yet alive when Wayne's World and Jurassic Park came out I decided the conversation was over and happily took my sandwich back to my seat. This was also after the woman behind me in line asked me if she could have my pickle when I asked them not to put one with my sandwich.

So my point is, the game was really pretty fun, and it had a particularly awesome end when the Blackhawks won in overtime despite blowing a two-goal lead in the second period. That particularly satisfied me of course considering I consider myself something of a Blackhawks fan after working for them (though the Devils are still my team) and living in New York rather than Chicago does not afford me very many opportunities to see the Hawks. This year I am fortunate enough in that they play in all three New York-area arenas during the course of the season, and with the NHL's impending realignment for the 2012-13 season that will continue.

Monday, December 5, 2011

So This Is Like The Opposite Of A Hat Trick Night, Huh?

Some of you who know me may have noticed that a few years ago I started taking note of what I liked to refer to as "Hat Trick Nights". They are an obnoxious concept to be sure, but they're pretty fun, and essentially the idea, which you could probably piece together if you know what a hat trick is, is that on any given date that three teams you root for all win, you have a hat trick night. Bizarrely, I've found that hat trick nights happen both more frequently and less frequently than you expect, though it is easier when you like two different teams in a particular sport as I do in the NHL. The New Jersey Devils are my primary team with no equivocations, but given my brief internship with the Chicago Blackhawks in college, I have a soft spot for team No. 2.

That makes it easier to have a hat trick night in general, but without a doubt, the easiest night to have one is on a Saturday in the month of October or November. Why? Because on any given Saturday during that span I might have the Devils, Blackhawks, Northwestern football, Knicks, Mets or, hell, even Geelong FC or Southampton FC playing. That's a lot of chances to get three wins.

However, I've noticed lately that Hat Trick Nights have been in short supply. The Devils have been a streaky, mediocre outfit, the Mets did not make it to October (again), Northwestern forgot how to win for a solid month of the season and the Knicks, well, I can at least say they didn't lose any games even if they didn't win any either. So despite the fact that Southampton is off to a superb start in the nPower Championship and Geelong won its third Grand Final in five years, this has been a rough season for cumulative victories -- particularly if we choose to limit it to just North America.

But this Sunday something truly special happened -- and by special I mean "awful". This just my have been the denouement of Hat Trick Nights as I know them because while it isn't uncommon for multiple teams I root for to lose in a day, nor unusual for three of them to lose in a day, it is unusual that I have three sports-related events happen to me in one day that all quite so awful.

Allow me to count the ways.

Friday, December 2, 2011

NFL Picks Week Thirteen: All Just A Little Bit Of History Repeating? Maybe?

So, some of you, or more likely, anyone who actually bothers to read this, probably knows that I've been experiencing a bit of angst over the last few weeks. No, not for anything that's actually happening in my life -- that's going along just fine, more or less, even if I haven't made any progress on the whole marriage thing, for which I will apologize to my grandmother when we see this play tonight. No, no, this cause for angst is almost entirely the result of three awfully frustrating weeks for the New York Giants, two of which I got to witness up close in person.

See, after that super duper win over the New England Patriots a month ago, Big Blue was 6-2 and looking like a surefire bet to take the NFC East and possibly challenge a Green Bay team that is the clear class of the League for conference supremacy. Then San Francisco happened. And then Philadelphia happened. And then this week New Orleans happened. Now the Giants basically have to beat the 11-0 Green Bay Packers Sunday afternoon or, come January, absolutely nothing will happen.

So facing the top team in the League when they're undefeated and it's do or die time is pretty much a death sentence, right?

Well.... maybe not. See, Green Bay is just the second defending champion in NFL history to start its title defense with wins in its first 11 games, which has got everyone talking about the prospect of the League's first 19-0 season. The only other team to complete that feat was the 1998 Denver Broncos, and while the Broncos were clearly the best team in the League that season and took a second consecutive Super Bowl title, a funny thing happened in Week 15 on the way to perfection. That week the Broncos came to the Meadowlands to face a New York Giants team that was in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable 8-8 season -- and at one point they were four games under .500 that season.

The Broncos, meanwhile, were coming off the emotional high of saving their perfect season a week earlier with a wild 35-31 win over division rival Kansas City, and facing the Giants seemed a minor quibble on the road to history. After all, the Broncos had John Elway, Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith and Steve Atwater. Ten Broncos would be elected to the Pro Bowl that year. The Giants had Kent Graham, whose biggest claim to fame is sounding like the love child of Superman's alter ego and a delicious breakfast cereal.