Wednesday, January 1, 2014
JIM LANG NEW YEAR'S BLOG
ASSESSING THINGS AT YEAR'S-END
Because of the league's 18 game regular season, CFL coaches and players constantly preach the theory that winning the Grey Cup is a marathon; not a sprint. Look no further than the 2013 Grey Cup Champion Saskatchewan Roughriders.
In September the Riders lost four games in a row and some doubt began to build around the league about their chances of running the table in the post-season. But as the cold winds started to blow across the prairies the Riders hit their stride.
What nobody knew, likely not even some of his own teammates, was what running back Kory Sheets was going to do in the post-season. Sheets ran for a staggering 177 yards in the West Final before putting on a record setting performance in the Grey Cup. Sheets then obliterated the CFL record book as he shredded the Hamilton defence to the tune of 197 yards. That superb performance led the Riders to another Grey Cup title and the honour of being named the team of the year by Canadian Press. At the same time Corey Chamblin's place in the pantheon of great Riders coaches was forever etched in stone after the magic that was the 2013 season.
The NFL has gone to great lengths to turn the sport into a glorified video game. Defenders draw 15 yard penalties if they even breathe on a quarterback. Safeties have about a 12 inch area on a receiver's body that they are allowed to hit. But despite all of Roger Goodell's efforts to take the violence out of the game, the NFL is still ruled by brute force.
The two best teams in the NFC in 2013, the 49ers and the Seahawks, are two of the most physical teams in the league. Both teams play a punishing brand of defence. Both teams rely on their smash-mouth power running game. Both teams would rather engage in a bloody street fight than a track meet.
As the season comes to a close and with the playoffs looming on the horizon those teams that can run the ball and play strong defence will be awfully tough to beat in the post-season; especially if the games are played outdoors in foul weather. With this year's Super Bowl being held outside at MetLife stadium in New Jersey dealing with the elements will be essential for any team that has designs on winning it all.
Meanwhile in the AFC Peyton Manning rewrote the record book for NFL quarterbacks. I am not sure we will ever see another quarterback throw 50 touchdowns in a single season. Let alone the 55 that Manning tossed this year.
All of this leads us to the upcoming Wild Card weekend.
The Chiefs stumbled down the stretch and will now have to travel to Indy to beat Andrew Luck and the Colts. If the Chiefs lose, Andy Reid will be soundly criticized for resting so many of his starters in their final regular season game. At the same time Luck and the Colts come into this game knowing that they beat the 49ers, Seahawks, Broncos and the Chiefs this season. Former Riders defender Jerrell Freeman led the Colts with 126 tackles this season.
The Chargers hung on to beat the aforementioned Chiefs in their regular season finale and will now have to take a trip to Cincinnati and take on the Bengals. Marvin Lewis and the Bengals could not have a more perfect match-up to win the franchise's first playoff game since 1990.
In the NFC the Eagles managed to beat the ever-dysfunctional Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC East title. That means they get to host Drew Brees and the Saints at Lincoln Financial Field. Long criticized for their inability to win on the road, this is a watershed game for Brees and the Saints. A win would also go a long way to dispel the belief that the Saints can only win in a dome or a warm weather stadium. The Linc will be a gong show as Chip Kelly's offence tries to beat the Saints in what should be a high scoring game.
The final game of the NFL's Wild Card weekend is the best of the bunch. In his first game back from a broken collar bone Aaron Rodgers burned the Bears defence with a 48 yard game winning touchdown throw to Randall Cobb with only 38 seconds left to play in the fourth quarter. As if the touchdown wasn't dramatic enough the play took place on desperation fourth down play.
Now the Packers get to host the bad-ass San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers are riding a six game winning streak and are peaking at exactly the right point in the season to go on a long playoff run. Basically this game will come down to the 49ers ability to put sustained pressure on Rodgers. Ask the Bears what happens if you go after Rodgers and miss? The Packers big challenge will be stopping the 49ers running game. Despite their win over the Bears Matt Forte shredded the Packers run defence. That won't be easy as the Packers are ranked 25th in the NFL stopping the run. That just puts more pressure on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offence. But if we have learned anything over the last few seasons it is this; if Rodgers is upright in the pocket then the Packers have a chance.
2013 is ending just the way the Chicago Blackhawks like it. The defending Stanley Cup Champions are still the class of the NHL and have the deepest talent of any team in the league.
The biggest change the NHL will see in 2014 is the number of outdoor games. The idea of the Leafs and the Red Wings playing before 110,000 fans at the University of Michigan excites me.
The idea of the Kings playing the Ducks at Dodgers Stadium on January 25th does nothing for me.
There is something magical about the idea of playing outdoors in a stadium on New Year's Day before a huge crowd. But the NHL has taken this magical moment and diluted it in an effort to rake in more hard earned dollars from passionate hockey fans.
As 2013 turns into 2014 the financial prospects for Gary Bettman's NHL have never looked brighter. If he can do something about all of these outdoor games then there won't be too much to complain about. Well, except for the officiating. But every Canadian has a God-given right to bitch and complain about refereeing.
Before anyone can get serious about the trade deadline and the playoffs there is the matter of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Even if Steven Stamkos is medically cleared to play Team Canada will have their work cut for them if they want to repeat as the Gold medalists in men's hockey.
I am not usually one to do this sort of thing, but if P.K. Subban isn't named to the Team Canada roster I might chain myself to the landing gear of the team plane to protest his exclusion.
(Follow Jim on Twitter at @JimLangSports)