Friday, January 16, 2015

AFC and NFC Championship Previews

These appear as part of coverage of the NFL Playoffs:

AFC Championship Preview:  INDvsNE

Indianapolis Colts (13-5) at New England Patriots (13-4) - Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson

*Keys to the game: Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he sees no weakness in Colts QB Andrew Luck's game right now, but there is one obvious advantage tilting the scales toward the Patriots besides home-field advantage -- Tom Brady is going to his fourth consecutive AFC

Championship Game and holds the NFL record with 19 playoff wins. Luck has two, both coming in these playoffs. Belichick is known to unveil a new wrinkle or three as the stakes elevate -- right, John Harbaugh? -- but he might be wiser sticking with what worked in New England's 42-20 win at Indy earlier this season. That was riding the running game, and since-buried Jonas Gray, to eat the clock and give Luck the rightful impression that he needed to hustle to keep the Colts close.

Brady and Co. put up a season-high 28 points in the second half of that game, but the quarterback played more of a bit part than usual. The Patriots have averaged nearly 40 rushing attempts, 200 yards and four ground scores in three previous blowout wins over Andrew Luck's Colts.

Three of Indy's final four opponents of the season ran the ball 32 times or more. For the Colts to counter, they'll need to take the Patriots out of their comfortable Sunday evening stroll, putting up points early and often. Luck and the Colts are not known for shifting into higher gears in the first quarter -- they have just seven points in two playoff games after averaging 6.7 points in the first quarter in 16 regular-season games.

The best option for quick points is WR T.Y. Hilton, who irritated the Denver Broncos into penalties and mental cramps last week. However, Hilton will be shadowed again by CB Darrelle Revis, who helped limit Hilton to three catches for 24 yards in November.

*Matchup to watch: Colts RB Daniel Herron vs. Patriots run defense. New England was chopped up by Justin Forsett and the Ravens last week. The Patriots play bend-don't-break and will count on their front seven to contain Herron, who did not touch the ball in the Nov. 16 meeting. Colts running backs combined for 13 carries and four yards in the previous meeting.

*Player spotlight: Patriots C Brian Stork. The only player not to practice for the team at midweek, Stork has a right knee injury that took him out of last week's divisional playoff game. The rookie fourth-round pick was given plenty of praise and credit for helping to solidify an offensive line that struggled mightily in the first month of the season. RG Ryan Wendell, who is light and easily moved, would bump inside to the center spot, where he started the previous two seasons, while inconsistent backup Josh Kline likely would play right guard if Stork sits.

*Fast facts: The Colts have a 2-7 record at Gillette Stadium and a 12-25 overall road record against the Patriots. ... New England is third in the NFL with 422 yards in the playoffs. The Colts are averaging 423 in two wins this postseason. ... This is the 11th AFC title game for the Patriots, who are 7-3. ... The Patriots would tie the Cowboys and Steelers with their eighth Super Bowl appearance with a win Sunday.

It would not be a surprise to see Belichick and Brady call for the changeup and come out gunning to set up the run. For the Colts to be in the game into the fourth quarter, Luck must throw strikes all game long and continue his MVP-caliber effort by stacking sixes with the Patriots.

****The pick: Patriots 35-27

NFC Championship Preview: GBvsSEA

Green Bay Packers (13-4) at Seattle Seahawks (13-4) -- Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, at CenturyLink Field, Seattle -- TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers

*Keys to the game: It's easy to dismiss the Packers' 36-16 loss in Seattle to open the 2014 season as being more than four months ago, when both were far different teams than the versions that will do battle Sunday. But for Green Bay, the demons of that primetime drubbing could quickly resurface with a slow start. The Packers played scared offensively in Week 1, including not a single target against Pro Bowl CB Richard Sherman.

QB Aaron Rodgers enters the rematch coming off an impressive second-half performance against Dallas on a strained left calf. How well he can move will be critical because the Cowboys proved Rodgers is an entirely different animal when hemmed in the pocket. Seattle plays fast and aggressive at home, and any lack of mobility will be blood in the water. The counter is Eddie Lacy, who plowed his way to 101 yards on 19 carries against Dallas.

Seattle's third-ranked run defense can be hit up the middle -- Carolina's Jonathan Stewart averaged 5.4 yards per carry last week -- and chewing off positive yardage on first and second down will set Rodgers up to attack the Seahawks in manageable passing situations. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson's 109.6 passer rating in five playoff games is the highest in NFL history, and the bouts of inaccuracy he suffered through during midseason have largely disappeared during the team's seven-game winning streak. He is running the zone read well with RB Marshawn Lynch, who ripped off 110 yards on 20 carries in Week 1. Green Bay struggled with DeMarco Murray last week (123 yards on 25 carries) and if Lynch gets untracked early it plays directly into Wilson's hands at home. For as pedestrian as the Seahawks offense often appears, Wilson does strike quickly against man coverage, particularly down the seam. The Packers racked up four sacks and eight QB hits last week and stopping the run to take advantage of Seattle's pass protection issues is imperative.

*Matchup to watch -- Packers WR Randall Cobb vs. Seahawks CB Jeremy Lane: With Sherman and Byron Maxwell patrolling the outside, Cobb was targeted nine times with six catches in Week 1 -- when Lane was sidelined by a groin injury.

*Player spotlight -- Seahawks WR Jermaine Kearse: After a modest 38 receptions during the regular season, Kearse exploded for three catches for 129 yards including a 63-yard touchdown last week. He has a touchdown in three consecutive playoff games.

*Fast facts: The Packers have won both previous playoff meetings (2003, 2007). ... The Seahawks have an eight-game postseason home winning streak. ... Green Bay's .620 all-time playoff winning percentage (31-19) is the highest in NFL history.

The Seahawks are 25-2 at home the past two seasons, including a Week 1 thumping of the Packers. Lacy can set the table for Rodgers and Green Bay can move the ball against Seattle's top-ranked defense. But Rodgers not firing on all cylinders robs Green Bay of the 100 percent horsepower it needs to upset the defending champs on the road.

*** The pick: Seahawks 27-20

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas 2014: A kid, some peaches and a lesson learned

On nearly every Christmas Eve since this post in 2007, I've passed along one of my favorite newspaper columns as a message of peace and goodwill and looking ahead to - hopefully - to a good year ahead. For those who want to read that column, penned by the late Shelby Strother, it is here -

This Christmas, I found a very different story to post.  I let the column speak for itself.

Merry Christmas,



This story recently appeared in the LA Times:

On a long ago Christmas Eve, an editor understood what we were supposed to do

Written by Al Martinez on December 25, 1986

It happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. ReckI was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.

It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas. We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep. I remember it was about 11 o'clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day's editions.

Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you're young and fast and never get tired. Then the telephone rang.

It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he'd had a few under his belt. Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn't tell Al what he ought to or ought not to do.

He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom. But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.

We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.

"What's up?" he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.

He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.

I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one.

Al listened for a moment and then said, "How long's he got?"

"Not long," I said. "His doctor says maybe a day or two."

There was a long silence and then Al said, "Get the kid his peaches."

"I've called all over," I said. "None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They're just plain out of season. It's winter."

"Not everywhere. Call Australia."

"Al," I began to argue, "it's after 11 and I have no idea . . . . "

"Call Australia," he said, and then hung up.

If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.

I don't quite remember whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas day.

There was only one problem. Customs wouldn't clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.

Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the Secretary of Agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.

It's close to midnight," I argued. "His office is closed."

"Take this number down," Reck said. "It's his home. Tell him I told you to call."

It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.

I made the call. The secretary said he'd have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.

"All right," Reck said on his third and final call to me, "now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy's house."

He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand. By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.

"Al," I said, "if I don't start writing this now I'll never get the story in the paper."

I won't forget this moment.

"I didn't say get the story," Reck replied gently. "I said get the kid his peaches."

If there is a flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and effect our futures, that was mine.

Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.

I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.

The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I've learned since.

I wanted you to know that this Christmas Day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dr. J Re-signs

This item appears in the Sports Biz section of Digital Sports Desk (dot) com ...

The great Julius "Dr. J" Erving Re-Signs

The Anthem Media Group Inc. announced they have signed Julius "Dr. J." Erving.

No, the good Doctor is not returning to play. Instead, the NBA Hall of Famer signed on to join the fledgling media company as a shareholder and brand ambassador for its FNTSY Network. 

Erving’s Dr. J Enterprises and his team will work with all of Anthem’s assets, including FNTSY Sports Network and, to provide strategic and operational support to increase distribution and awareness, while building strategic partnerships with leagues, advertisers, marketing partners and publishers.

“As we continue to grow, we’re proud to welcome such a renowned and respected member of the sports and business world to our team,” said Leonard Asper, CEO of Anthem Media Group Inc. “Julius’ work as a player and goodwill ambassador for basketball are well documented, but his work helping identify and grow emerging businesses is just as impressive, and we think his level of expertise on both fronts will be invaluable.”

“I am looking forward to helping Anthem grow its media brands,” said Mr. Erving. “Fantasy sports has become so mainstream and such a regular part of the daily conversation that I believe we can have tremendous success expanding the network. In addition, the growing interest in combat sports from  boxing to mixed martial arts augurs well for the success of Fight Network.”

“We are thrilled to be working with Mr. Erving and his team on building out the FNTSY Sports Network and all of the Anthem properties,” said Louis Maione, Chief Strategy Officer for FNTSY Sports Network. “This will allow us to build meaningful partnerships across a wide spectrum of the media and sports industries.”

Barry Bookhard, COO of Dr. J Enterprises, also said: “For over 40 years, we have built a  vast array of relationships with sports leagues, major brands and traditional and new media companies all of which we are excited to leverage to help make this partnership a great success.”

Widely regarded as one of the most spectacular basketball players ever, Erving won three championships, four MVP awards and three scoring titles. He’s also well-known for slam dunking from the free throw line in Slam Dunk contests. He was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time team and inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. His ability on the court was matched with his skills as a spokesman and negotiator when he helped  legitimize the now-defunct American Basketball Association (ABA) and its subsequent merger with the National Basketball Association (NBA) after the 1976 season.

FNTSY Sports Network launched in March 2014 and is the world’s first-ever television network specifically targeted 24/7 towards the more than 40 million people who play fantasy sports annually and on a daily basis. It includes live studio programming, call-in shows, panels, celebrity and expert drafts, reality programming and on-site commentary from sports venues, as well as short-form programming from the experts around the country.