Sunday, November 30, 2014

NFL Playoff Picture after Week 13


I posted this before the Dolphins beat the Jets on Monday night, giving Miami the win, almost prematurely, mainly to show that a Miami win would put them into the playoff picture as the 6th seed. Which it did. I didn't see anyone else mentioning this, because there are so many teams in front of them, but NFL tiebreakers work in wondrous ways.

NFC

Ari 7-1     Ari 8-1    Ari 9-1    Ari 9-2    Ari  9-3
Det 6-2     Det 7-2    Det 7-3    GB  8-3    GB   9-3
Phi 6-2     Phi 7-2    Phi 7-3    Phi 8-3    Phi  9-3
NO  4-4     NO  4-5    Atl 4-6    Atl 4-7    Atl  5-7
Dal 6-2     Sea 6-3    GB  7-3    Dal 8-3    Sea  8-4
Sea 5-3     Dal 6-3    Dal 7-3    Sea 7-4    Det  8-4 
--------    --------   --------   --------   ---------
GB  5-3     GB  6-3    SF  6-4    Det 7-4    Dal  8-4
SF  4-4     SF  5-4    Sea 6-4    SF  7-4    SF   7-5
Car 3-4-1              NO  4-6    NO  4-7    NO   5-7

Philly has lost to both Arizona and Green Bay, while the Cardinals take the top spot because of a better conference record than the Pack. Dallas has a 5-4 conference record, worse than the 6-2 sported by Seattle and Detroit so no playoffs for the Cowboys after their Thanksgiving thumping; the Seahawks get the 5th seed based on a better record than the Lions in common games. Chicago, Minnesota, and St. Louis are all 5-7 as well, but they are not making the playoffs so they are not in this list.

AFC

NE  6-2     NE  7-2    NE  8-2    NE  9-2    NE   9-3 
Den 6-2     Den 7-2    Den 7-3    Den 8-3    Den  9-3
Cin 5-2-1   Pit 6-3    Cin 6-3-1  Cin 7-3-1  Cin  8-3-1
Ind 5-3     Ind 6-3    Ind 6-4    Ind 7-4    Ind  8-4
KC  5-3     KC  6-3    KC  7-3    KC  7-4    SD   8-4
SD  5-3     Cle 6-3    Mia 6-4    SD  7-4    Mia  7-5
--------    --------   ---------  ---------  ----------
Buf 5-3     Cin 5-3-1  SD  6-4    Bal 7-4    KC   7-5
Mia 5-3     SD  5-4    Bal 6-4    Pit 7-4    Buf  7-5
Bal 5-3     Buf 5-4    Pit 6-4    Cle 7-4    Bal  7-5
Pit 5-3     Mia 5-4    Cle 6-4    Mia 6-5    Pit  7-5
Cle 5-3     Bal 5-4    Hou 5-5    Buf 6-5    Cle  7-5
Hou 4-4     Hou 4-5    Buf 5-5    Hou 5-6    Hou  6-6

So Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland all lost, giving Miami the chance to jump into the playoffs. Which they will if they beat the Jets. Why? They have a better division record than Buffalo (so they get the second spot in the East), and a better conference record than both KC and Baltimore (who travel to Miami next week). The Ravens take the second North spot because of a better head-to-head record against Pittsburgh and Cleveland. With Miami out of the picture, the next tiebreaker involves the Bills, and KC has the better conference record than they do, while the Bills are better than the Ravens. Pittsburgh beat Cleveland to gain that coveted 10th spot. Still 12 of 16 teams competing for six spots.

Best,

Sean

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving in Tampa


After taking it easy for the last couple of weeks to recover from my whirlwind London trip, I'm back on the road this weekend, escaping the cold in NYC for a couple of days of warmth in the Sunshine State. This trip was not on the radar until just a few days ago when the weekend freed up for me and I was able to find a cheap last-minute flight to Orlando.

Unfortunately, I have to work Friday, so I won't be able to see the UCF vs. USF football game that afternoon, but I will see both of their basketball teams, as well as revisit Raymond James Stadium. My hometown Ottawa Senators are visiting the Lightning as well, so I'll get three sports and four games in just two days.

The full schedule:

Sat Nov 29  Jacksonville Dolphins at USF Bulls 2:00
Sat Nov 29  Ottawa Senators at Tampa Bay Lightning 7:00
Sun Nov 30  Cincinnati Bengals at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1:00
Sun Nov 30  Bethune-Cookman Wildcats at UCF Knights 6:00

I originally was thinking of seeing Giants at Jaguars to check out the renovations at Everbank Field, but why drive all that way when I can watch the biggest interconference mismatch in history with the Bengals at Bucs. The AFC North is 10-1-1 against the NFC South, leading many to argue that the champion of the NFC South should not make the playoffs. The CFL has a crossover system in place that saw the BC Lions take the place of the Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Conference playoffs this season; maybe the worst non-playoff team in the AFC North should get the 4th seed in the NFC instead of the Saints or Falcons (or even Panthers0? Regardless, I can't pass up a chance to watch the train wreck that is the NFC South. It will be another fast trip, but as always, check back for recaps of the experience.

Best,

Sean

Monday, November 24, 2014

NFL Playoff Picture after Week 12


With the bye weeks complete, I am now just posting the playoff picture after every week, using ESPN's playoff standings. It is interesting to see how teams move up and down week-to-week, so I am keeping the previous standings in for reference purposes.

NFC

Ari 7-1     Ari 8-1    Ari 9-1    Ari 9-2
Det 6-2     Det 7-2    Det 7-3    GB  8-3
Phi 6-2     Phi 7-2    Phi 7-3    Phi 8-3
NO  4-4     NO  4-5    Atl 4-6    Atl 4-7
Dal 6-2     Sea 6-3    GB  7-3    Dal 8-3
Sea 5-3     Dal 6-3    Dal 7-3    Sea 7-4
--------    --------   --------   --------
GB  5-3     GB  6-3    SF  6-4    Det 7-4
SF  4-4     SF  5-4    Sea 6-4    SF  7-4
Car 3-4-1              NO  4-6    NO  4-7  

Philadelphia has a better division record than Dallas, so they get the division title. Green Bay defeated the Eagles already, so they receive the second bye. Seattle's 1-1 division record is better than San Francisco's at 1-2, but that will obviously change on Thanksgiving. Seattle and Detroit have identical 5-2 conference records; the next tiebreaker is common games and Seattle takes that for the final playoff spot.

AFC

NE  6-2     NE  7-2    NE  8-2    NE  9-2 
Den 6-2     Den 7-2    Den 7-3    Den 8-3
Cin 5-2-1   Pit 6-3    Cin 6-3-1  Cin 7-3-1
Ind 5-3     Ind 6-3    Ind 6-4    Ind 7-4
KC  5-3     KC  6-3    KC  7-3    KC  7-4
SD  5-3     Cle 6-3    Mia 6-4    SD  7-4
--------    --------   ---------  ---------
Buf 5-3     Cin 5-3-1  SD  6-4    Bal 7-4
Mia 5-3     SD  5-4    Bal 6-4    Pit 7-4
Bal 5-3     Buf 5-4    Pit 6-4    Cle 7-4
Pit 5-3     Mia 5-4    Cle 6-4    Mia 6-5
Cle 5-3     Bal 5-4    Hou 5-5    Buf 6-5
Hou 4-4     Hou 4-5    Buf 5-5    Hou 5-6

Five teams at 7-4 fighting for two spots. Baltimore has a better head-to-head record against Pittsburgh and Cleveland, while Kansas City beat San Diego this season, so the first tiebreaker is between the Ravens and Chiefs, which goes to KC who has a better conference record (5-3 vs 3-4). The next tiebreaker is between San Diego and Baltimore and again the Ravens poor record in AFC games hurts them giving San Diego the final spot.

Looking back three games ago, Detroit and New Orleans have fallen out, replaced by Green Bay and Atlanta, while the AFC is back to seeing the 2013 playoff participants again.

Best,

Sean

Friday, November 21, 2014

2K Classic (NCAA Basketball) - November 20, 2014


Madison Square Garden has become my favourite venue because it lies midway between my office and home, allowing me to occasionally stop by on my evening commute. Even better, the StubHub office is just a few blocks away, which means that I can pop in there and perhaps find a bargain for the game that evening. Years ago, I criticized StubHub and other resellers for being overpriced, but that is no longer the case. Still, Rangers tickets rarely fall into my acceptable price range (and I'm not even bothering with the Knicks this season), but on occasion there is another event that catches my attention but not that of other sports fans.



Such was the case on Thursday when the 2K Classic was held, featuring two top-25 teams in Texas and Syracuse as well as Iowa and Cal. Tip off for the first matchup featuring the Longhorns and Hawkeyes was scheduled for 7, and at 6:30, tickets were down to $4 on StubHub. Yes, four dollars for two games. New Yorkers don't seem interested in college hoops when a local team is not playing, all the better for me. Despite the nearly free prices, I decided upon a ticket in the Club Platinum area for $27 (face was a ridiculous $170) as it would be the only chance I would ever have to sit in this area.



I was able to enter via the special club entrance, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that saved me about ten seconds. Again, crowds were not fighting to get in here. The above shot is from the special club area above the main lobby. You might ask why this is the best I could do. Turns out the "Club" in Club Platinum is pretty meaningless, I took another escalator up and wound up on the lower concourse with the rest of the hoi-polloi. Well, at least my seat was pretty good.



Texas came in ranked 10th in the nation but were flat in the first half, allowing a poor-shooting Iowa team to take a 27-15 lead late in the period. Aaron White (with the ball above, running past Myles Turner, the #2 high school prospect this past off-season) was the top scorer with 11, but Turner turned the tide with this three-pointer and the half ended with the Longhorns down 30-24.



That was as close as Iowa would get. Well, not really, but they were out of it just three minutes into the second half as Texas senior Jonathan Holmes potted 11 points as the Longhorns outscored the Hawkeyes 18-7 before the first media timeout. Iowa never really threatened again as Texas ran away with the game 71-57. The big news was an injury to Isaiah Taylor, Texas' sophomore guard who was taken out by a flagrant foul on a drive in the lane late in the game. As a scout near me said "10 points up, 2 minutes to go, no reason to do that." In other words, Taylor was trying to showoff on national TV. He is out 4-6 weeks, so he should be back in time for conference play.



The second game featured #23 Syracuse against Cal, another orange vs white battle. I don't have any true allegiance in college basketball, but growing up in Ottawa, Syracuse was the nearest big school and so I was kind of pulling for them. It was certainly cool to see Jim Boeheim (above) in the flesh for the first time. The Orange were led by Rakeem Christmas (#25 naturally, below), who completed his degree in 3 years. Yes, some are students before athletes.



The game was close through the first half, tied at 17 with five minutes left. Unfortunately, my lifelong jinx continues as Cal ended the half on a 17-5 run that pretty much ended the game. At his point, I decided to leave. College basketball is a great game but having media timeouts every four minutes just kills the flow and makes the games last so much longer. Despite a 7:00 pm scheduled tip for the first game, it was well past 10:30 when the first half of the second contest ended. Still not sure how those who work can stay up so late for these games. I got home around 11:15 and saw the last few minutes on ESPN2 as Cal held on for a 73-59 upset.

Notes

Both games ended with 14 point differentials.

Texas beat Cal 71-55 on Friday to win the 2K Classic "title".

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Toronto Marlies 2 at Lehigh Valley Phantoms 3 (AHL) - November 15, 2014


After watching a bad football game, Eddie and I zoomed over to Allentown to catch the second game of our two-sport, two-state doubleheader. The Toronto Marlies were visiting the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, a new entrant in the AHL this season. The peripatetic Phantoms, affiliate of the Flyers, are in their third city, having started in Philadelphia (I saw a playoff tilt there in 2008) before moving to Glens Falls to play as the Adirondack Phantoms from 2009-2014. Glens Falls is not particularly convenient to Philadelphia, so the team moved to Allentown to play in the brand new PPL Center starting this season. Adirondack still has a team, however, as the Abbotsford Heat moved there to become the Flames.



The arena was opened in September of this year and is located in the southeast quadrant of downtown at the corner of 7th Street and Hamilton. There is street parking available if you get there early enough, otherwise $6 will get you a spot in a nearby elevated parking structure. The area surrounding the rink is already built up with several bars and restaurants, including a Chickie's and Pete's in the building itself, and local brewer Fegley's Allentown Brewworks across the street. Try to stop in there before or after the game; it is one of the better spots I have seen on my travels.



We arrived about 20 minutes before puck drop and bought the cheapest available tickets which were standing room at $19. I heard there were cheaper options available earlier in the day, but have seen no proof of that on the Phantoms website. There are several standing areas along the lower concourse, and although they announced a sellout, there were a few empty seats in some of the end sections such as 119 and 120. The shot below (taken during the intermission) shows the two levels of suites along with a club area that is completely closed to non-ticket holders, so you cannot tour the entire lower concourse. I saw several people turned back, quite annoyed as they had to walk back through the narrow concourse to reach their seats that are just on the other side of the club section. I hate it when minor league sports try to act like they belong to the major leagues; I hope that when the novelty wears off, the club area will become open to all fans.



As you can see below, the concourse is not that wide as a result of the small footprint and during intermissions, it gets crowded in areas. As well, they seem to have neglected to put in enough toilets as the lineups for the men's were ridiculous. Considering this is the most expensive minor league rink ever built, it seems like they spent the money on looking nice rather than being practical.



After spending the first period standing in a few different areas, we moved upstairs to meet Gary and King from Royalty Tours. Gary told me he was in section 210, row 10, right behind the net. These are actually folding chairs above the seating bowl with a lot of room and are a good place to spend the game away from the rest of the crowd, with a good view of the entire ice surface (below). Turns out Gary had mistyped and was actually in section 201, so Eddie and I spent most of the rest of the game sitting in unclaimed seats in Section 210, a bit of good luck.



Right behind us were several banners, including this one from their championship ten years ago.



Overall, the new arena is very impressive and a great addition to the league. But they made a few mistakes along the way, and I hope that those get rectified over the next couple of seasons to make PPL Center a top destination in the AHL.

The Game

This was my first Marlies road game, and I was pretty excited to see them. Both teams came in at 5-6-1 and well out of the early playoff picture (Lehigh Valley is in the Eastern Conference while Toronto remains in the West). Christopher Gibson (below), a feisty Finn in only his second pro year, got the start for the Marlies while Rob Zepp, a veteran returning from eight seasons in Berlin, manned the cage for the Phantoms.



The Marlies scored just five minutes in when Troy Bodie, who spent 47 games with the Maple Leafs last season, came out from behind the net and beat Zepp from a sharp angle. The Phantoms replied with two goals in under a minute, the first from Scott Laughton who converted a beautiful backhand pass from Taylor Leier just 5 seconds before the midpoint of the period, and then Nick Cousins finished a two-on-one that was the result of some great checking by Steven Delisle.



That was all the scoring until the third. With the Phantoms shorthanded, Greg McKegg (#9 above, who spent all of one game with the big club last season) tied the game on a wicked rising shot from the slot. With overtime looming, the referees realized that they had a hot date or something, as they quickly sentenced the Marlies to two penalties within 18 seconds of each other. It took Lehigh Valley 47 seconds on the 5-on-3 to take the lead as a shot from the point by Brandon Manning snuck through Gibson (below).



The Marlies killed off the rest of the penalty, and were then rewarded with a 5-on-3 of their own, though the second penalty came with just 93 seconds left in the game. With Gibson on the bench, Toronto enjoyed a 6-on-3 advantage in skaters, but still spent most of the time passing the puck around in the Phantoms zone, unable or unwilling to take a shot. Despite my repeated calls to "Shoooooooooooooot", they played hot potato until it was too late. Zepp stopped the only meaningful chance they had as the game ended 3-2 in favour of the home team. The players scuffled after the final whistle and former Leaf Jay Rosehill, now toiling for Lehigh Valley, was awarded a misconduct, which means nothing after the game is over.



This was a decent game, some good chances for both clubs and it went down to the wire. I get depressed when I attend Leafs and Jays games on the road and they lose, but no such emotions spoil a Marlies loss; I am just happy I added venue 513 to my count. I hope to be back for a weekend set sometime, the AHL has a lot of Friday-Saturday games and Allentown has a couple of attractions that make is a worthwhile weekend destination.

Best,

Sean

Monday, November 17, 2014

Davidson Wildcats 7 at Marist Red Foxes 38 (NCAA Football, Pioneer League) - November 15, 2014


Now that hockey season is well underway, I hope to make a dent in my AHL venue count over the next couple of years. I am within a few hours of several rinks here in the Northeast but that requires a rental car, not always a cheap option in New York City. This past weekend though, my friend Eddie told me he would driving to Allentown, home of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. I was interested as the Toronto Marlies would be visiting. There was one catch. I would have to go to Marist football in the afternoon first.

Marist College is in Poughkeepsie, NY, about two hours north of NYC. It can take time to get there as there is no direct highway route, but the drive is quite pleasant in the fall, with the leaves turning and some quiet towns along the way. The campus lies along the Hudson River, providing a lovely backdrop should you have time to tour. Get there early though, as the parking lot near the stadium fills up and you'll be sent to the far reaches of the campus to find a spot.



The Red Foxes are part of the Pioneer Football League in the FCS and play in Tenney Stadium at Leonidoff Field, a small facility with a single seating area that you can see above. All seats here have chair backs and cost $10, but they sell $8 lawn seats as general admission, which allow you to wander around the field and stand quite close to the action, as you can see below.



A single concession stand offers hot dogs and sausages with peppers, while the band keeps a selection of food behind the south end zone that fans are probably not supposed to pilfer, but that didn't stop Eddie and me from grabbing a couple of donuts. After all, we needed to rejuvenate for the long walk back to the car.



The visitors were Davidson, most famous as a basketball school (Steph Curry starred here from 2006-09), but they are terrible at football, coming in at 1-9 with their only win over the College of Faith, an independent institution that isn't even part of the NAIA, not to mention the NCAA. Davidson were ranked 124th of the 124 teams in the FCS, making them the worst team in Division I. Marist were 3-7 (ranked 102nd), so a battle of titans was not on the cards. Marist led 14-0 after one quarter on two touchdown runs by Wale Onakoya, and then put the game away in the second with a 47-yard pass from Ed Achziger (#12 below) to Armani Martin (above, appearing to pray in the end zone).



Two more touchdowns made it 35-0 at the half, and I really didn't pay much attention the rest of the way, but Marist held on for the 38-7 win.



There were 18 punts in the game, which is all you really need to know about this one. Ah, the things I endure to see a Toronto team on the road.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, November 16, 2014

NFL Playoff Picture after 10 Games


Week 11 was crazy, with Denver and Seattle both losing on the road in Missouri, and Atlanta taking over the NFC South lead with a 4-6 record, making me look foolish for ignoring them the last two weeks. Only Pittsburgh and Carolina have played 11 games, which doesn't impact the schedule now as Pittsburgh plays on Monday night and Carolina are 3-7-1. Here are the playoff standings after 10 games:

NFC

Ari 7-1     Ari 8-1    Ari 9-1
Det 6-2     Det 7-2    Det 7-3
Phi 6-2     Phi 7-2    Phi 7-3
NO  4-4     NO  4-5    Atl 4-6
Dal 6-2     Sea 6-3    GB  7-3
Sea 5-3     Dal 6-3    Dal 7-3
--------    --------   --------
GB  5-3     GB  6-3    SF  6-4
SF  4-4     SF  5-4    Sea 6-4
Car 3-4-1              NO  4-6

Detroit beat Green Bay in Week 3 to take the title (they meet again at Lambeau in the final week) and get the second overall seed due to a better conference record than the Eagles. Philadelphia has a better divisional record than Dallas so they get the NFC East. Atlanta beat New Orleans in overtime back in Week 1 to claim the NFC South (they play at the SuperDome in Week 16).  The Cowboys lose to Green Bay because of a poorer conference record. San Francisco and Seattle still have to play each other twice; if they split, both could be on the outside of the playoffs at the end of the season.

AFC

NE  6-2     NE  7-2    NE  8-2 
Den 6-2     Den 7-2    Den 7-3
Cin 5-2-1   Pit 6-3    Cin 6-3-1
Ind 5-3     Ind 6-3    Ind 6-4
KC  5-3     KC  6-3    KC  7-3
SD  5-3     Cle 6-3    Mia 6-4
--------    --------   ---------
Buf 5-3     Cin 5-3-1  SD  6-4
Mia 5-3     SD  5-4    Bal 6-4
Bal 5-3     Buf 5-4    Pit 6-4
Pit 5-3     Mia 5-4    Cle 6-4
Cle 5-3     Bal 5-4    Hou 5-5
Hou 4-4     Hou 4-5    Buf 5-5

Denver beat KC back in Week 3 so they are the AFC West leaders. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland are all 6-4 for second place in the AFC North, but Baltimore is 2-1 head-to-head versus the other two, so the Ravens enter the running for the sixth and final seed with Miami and San Diego. The Dolphins win with a better conference record (5-2, Chargers at 5-3, Baltimore at 3-4). A really crazy final six weeks is coming up.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, November 13, 2014

NFL Playoff Picture after 9 Games


Week 10 is in the books, so it is time to look at the playoff picture after 9 games. I'm including the records after 8 games for comparison:

NFC

Ari 7-1     Ari 8-1
Det 6-2     Det 7-2
Phi 6-2     Phi 7-2 
NO  4-4     NO  4-5
Dal 6-2     Sea 6-3
Sea 5-3     Dal 6-3
--------    --------
GB  5-3     GB  6-3
SF  4-4     SF  5-4
Car 3-4-1

Detroit gets the second seed due to a better conference record, the same reason that Seattle (4-2) beats Dallas and Green Bay at 4-3. The Cowboys take the final spot because their strength of victory is better than the Packers. The six playoff teams should come from these eight clubs, although Carolina (3-5-1 after 9 games) still has an outside shot at beating New Orleans for the NFL South title.

AFC

NE  6-2     NE  7-2 
Den 6-2     Den 7-2
Cin 5-2-1   Pit 6-3
Ind 5-3     Ind 6-3
KC  5-3     KC  6-3
SD  5-3     Cle 6-3
--------    --------
Buf 5-3     Cin 5-3-1
Mia 5-3     SD  5-4
Bal 5-3     Buf 5-4
Pit 5-3     Mia 5-4
Cle 5-3     Bal 5-4
Hou 4-4     Hou 4-5

Pittsburgh takes the AFC Central over Cleveland based on record in common games (they split the season series and both have 2-2 divisional records). New England takes top seed as they defeated Denver in Week 9, while Pittsburgh hammered Indy in Week 8 so they get the third seed. Kansas City's conference record is better than the Browns′ so the Chiefs get a playoff rematch with the Colts while Cleveland sneaks into the playoffs by a half-game in front of Cincinnati.

Only 6 teams are left with byes: Dallas, Jacksonville, New York, and Baltimore this weekend, and Pittsburgh and Carolina next. After that, I will return to using ESPN's playoff picture for the rest of the season.

Seeded Playoff?

Note that the Saints are 4-5 yet a playoff team. This led Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN's TMQ, to write his annual "The NFL needs to have a seeded playoff" column. Ignoring the fact that the season has just passed the halfway point making the timing of his column a bit silly, Easterbrook's contention that divisions are OK for scheduling but not for seeding is misguided. If you want a seeded playoff, then you should have a perfectly balanced schedule. The NFL has a mostly balanced schedule within each division (14 of 16 common games) so a division championship is meaningful, even if the top club is weak.

Of course, a balanced schedule is not possible within each conference, which leads to situations that we see now (and in 2008, when New England at 11-5 missed the playoffs while the 8-8 Chargers got in). Yes, the NFC South is weak this year, getting beaten up by the other NFC divisions (4-12) and the AFC North (1-7-1). But this doesn't mean that they should not be represented in the playoffs. Other teams have easier schedules: Easterbrook notes that the all four AFC North teams are at least two games above .500, partially because they are pounding the NFC South (not to mention the anemic AFC South). According to him, at least one good team from the AFC North will miss the playoffs, but then again, other good teams in the AFC will miss the playoffs because they play stronger conferences! With such a short season and unbalanced schedules, the teams with the top six win-loss records in each conference are not necessarily the six "best" teams. Are all four AFC North clubs truly strong or just beneficiaries of fortunate scheduling? None of them have impressed on a regular basis (Cleveland lost to Jacksonville, Pittsburgh lost to the Jets, Cincinnati could not beat Carolina, and Baltimore is in last place), so I'll go with the latter theory. In general, any playoff system with an unbalanced schedule is unfair but punishing division champions for being in a weak division is not the solution.

One potential fix: add a team to each conference, eliminate interconference games, and have each club play 16 games, one against each team in their conference. Perfectly balanced schedule, and the top six clubs in each conference make the playoffs, with the Super Bowl the only AFC vs. NFC meeting of the season. Would that appeal to anyone? Probably not, so the NFL will fix the situation by adding a 7th playoff team in each conference.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ATP World Finals - November 10, 2014


My last day in England was spent catching up on sleep before I headed over to the O2 Arena, where the ATP Finals were underway. This is the tournament where the top eight men in the world rankings play in a round robin (two groups of four) for six days with the top two in each group making the semifinals. A doubles tournament is also held at the same time and each day during the round robin features two separate admission sessions with one doubles and one singles match. Tickets are not cheap, with the least expensive at the door costing 42 quid.



The O2 Arena is inside a large entertainment complex on the site of the Millennium Dome, now known as The O2. It is more of a concert facility than a sports arena, but it has held the ATP final since 2009. Located next to the North Greenwich tube station in east London, The O2 has its own neighborhood, with dozens of restaurants including TGI Fridays and Five Guys for those who miss American food.



On this day, the doubles match featured top seeds Bob and Mike Bryan (USA) vs. Łukasz Kubot of Poland and Robert Lindstedt from Sweden, 8th in the world. In a minor upset, the underdogs won in straight sets. I really didn't care much as the rules are slightly different (there is no advantage at deuce; the next point wins) and really, who watches doubles tennis?



After a short break, it was time for the singles match, with top-ranked Novak Djokovic (above) taking on 9th overall Marin Cilic (below), the US Open winner who was added to the program when third-ranked Rafael Nadal withdrew.



I had missed Djokovic when I attended the US Open last year so was happy to get the chance to see him here. Although in the end, I barely saw him as he dominated Cilic, who held serve in the first game of the match before losing six in a row. The second set was more of the same as Djokovic needed just 56 minutes to dispense of the ninth-best player in the world 6-1, 6-1. Amazing to watch just how much better Djokovic is; he played nearly flawless tennis while Cilic made several unforced errors.



In all my years of attending sport, I don't think I've ever attended a match with such little value for the price paid. I don't mean that I didn't enjoy it; certainly seeing the best player in the world at his peak is unforgettable, but at $65, it was a lot of money for just 56 minutes. Yes, there was that doubles match, but I wouldn't have gone if that was the only thing on offer. A day pass in the early days at the US Open is about the same and gives you twelve hours of tennis, a bargain compared to this event.



Notes

The entire tournament saw mostly one-sided matches in the round robin. Djokovic and #2 Roger Federer advanced to the finals with three-set wins in their respective semi-finals, but Federer withdrew from the final due to injury, giving Djokovic the title in a walkover. The Bryan brothers also overcame their early loss to win the doubles championship in a match that required a tiebreak after they split the first two sets with 7th-seeded Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo.

Best,

Sean


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dallas Cowboys 31 vs Jacksonville Jaguars 17 - November 9, 2014


The main reason I was in London last weekend was to check out the NFL Wembley experience. There were three games as part of the International Series this season, but the only one that worked well with my schedule was the last one, featuring the Cowboys and Jaguars, a likely stinker. There has yet to be a game in London where both teams were above .500, so stinkers are pretty much the order of business here. At least one team promised to play well.



Anyway, the EPL match at White Hart Lane finished around 3:30 but it took me nearly an hour to get to Seven Sisters tube station as traffic was slow and buses were being diverted. One thing to know about London is that before and after a sporting event, roads surrounding the stadium are shut down, which renders any planning via Google Maps quite useless.I ended up walking about 20 minutes to catch a bus to Seven Sisters, where l hopped on the Victoria Line to King's Cross from where the Metropolitan Line brought me to Wembley Park about an hour before the 6:00 kickoff.



As you exit the tube station, Wembley stands majestically in front of you, the highlight being its arch which was lit in red this evening (above). The approach is known as Olympic Way; it was filled with attractions and sponsor tents. The crowds corning off the train were huge but things moved smoothly. Wembley holds around 90,000 fans normally, but capacity is reduced to 86,000 for the NFL. Still,  that's more than any regular NFL venue can hold except the Cowboys own stadium in Arlington, which can accommodate 105,121 including standing room.



The stadium is a full kilometre in outer circumference and as it was getting late, I decided to skip the usual walkaround and head straight in. As is custom in England, you must enter through the gate specified on your ticket even though you can wander about freely once inside. The concourse here is huge and more than enough for the crowd. The stadium is well designed, if a bit sterile in spots, and there are fences every so often that would be locked if this was a soccer game to keep opposing fans apart.



I do like the historic touches along the upper walls that list historic events that occurred here and its predecessor, which was torn down in 2003. I happened to notice West Ham's 1965 Cup Winners Cup championship as soon as I entered (below).



Concessions at Wembley are plentiful with good variety, though a bit overpriced as you might expect. As usual when visiting an English sports ground, I recommend that you have a pie. At £5, the beef and ale variety was a tasty bargain considering hot dogs were an extra pound.

There was an obnoxious pregame show with some famous person singing loudly, so I stayed on the concourse enjoying my pie until the nonsense had ended. When I finally entered the seating bowl just a few minutes before kickoff, l was happy to see that l had lucked out with my ticket. It was in the lower level end zone where l happen to enjoy sitting and turned out to be in row 31, the first row above a walkway that bisects the lower bowl. Fans were not allowed along this walkway during the game, so I had an unencumbered view of the proceedings from start to finish.



Fans were given a plastic bag to hold up during the pregame ceremonies, mine was red while some others were white and black. When held up together they formed giant poppies in honour of Remembrance Sunday. We also received Jaguars flags which we were supposed to hold up when the team appeared on the field. With Jacksonville in the midst of a four year run of having an annual London game, they are the de facto home team and a surprising number of locals were supporting them. Given English soccer's recent run of failure, the fans are accustomed to finishing out of the playoffs, so Jacksonville suits them quite well.



The other bit of good news was that Tony Romo (above) had recovered from the back injury he had sustained two weeks prior, although this did mean that the game would not be very close. No need to recap it here, but it was great to see Romo and Dez Bryant (dropping a TD pass below) connect on a few occasions while DeMarco Murray finished with exactly 100 yards on the ground; the Cowboys are a good team when firing on all cylinders and fun to watch.



The final was 31-17, but the scoreline was closer than it should have been as the Jaguars added a late touchdown. Not the most exciting game, but the fans in London didn't seem to mind, staying until the end and cheering throughout.



I don't know how long this NFL experiment can continue (there are three more crap games next season including Buffalo vs. Jacksonville) but so far, it has been a resounding success. I don't want a full-time franchise in London, as I think the logistics would be tough to manage week-to-week, but having an annual series works well. I might even revisit next year as the games all take place during the Rugby World Cup.



Notes

Every NFL team was represented by at least one fan. In fact, as I wandered around outside, I noticed jerseys for all clubs except St. Louis and Tennessee. Soon after I entered the stadium, a man with an old Rams jersey wandered by, leaving the Titans as the sole unrepresented team. I didn't expect to see anyone in that unique light blue colour scheme inside the seating bowl, but as usual I was wrong. Just a few rows in front of me sat a guy sporting a Kendall Wright jersey, thus ensuring that all 32 teams have fans in England.

After the game, I stopped by a pub near my hotel, the Kings Arms in Ealing. As I sat there nursing my beer, a gentleman in a Bills jersey sidled up to the bar. I asked him why he had chosen to support the club with the longest playoff drought in the sport and he responded that they reminded him of the English football team he supports, Everton. Blue uniforms and always blowing the game at the end, he said, only half-joking. Good enough reason. I told him of my 2013 trip to all 32 NFL stadiums and we got to chatting; he eventually invited me to join his mates, a group of about 10 guys who were NFL fans, each supporting a different team. It was great fun to chat with them about sport on both sides of the Atlantic; I learned a lot about the intricacies of fandom in the UK and was impressed with their knowledge of the NFL as a whole.

Too many sports fans in the US are boorish and stupid, knowing little about the game they watch, preferring to insult the other team and its fans with idiotic insults like "You suck". Having seen four events during this all-too-brief weekend, I found the fans in England here to be intelligent and observant, with a passion that goes beyond painting your face and acting like a moron for the camera. Of course, hooliganism is still a problem in Europe, but those are not sports fans, just criminals who use sport as a vehicle for their behaviour. The average fan in the UK appreciates sport for the inherent pleasures in witnessing competition and athletic endeavour rather than following a club purely to boost one's self-esteem at the expense of others.  I look forward to a return visit there next year.

Best,

Sean


Monday, November 10, 2014

Stoke City 2 at Tottenham 1 - November 9, 2014


International soccer leagues (such as UEFA's Champions League) are great for sports road trippers who want to see their clubs play in other countries, but they are terrible for the players, who are forced to travel midweek before returning home for a weekend tilt with little time to rest. Nowhere is this more painful than in the Europa League, UEFA's second-tier tournament that holds its games on Thursday. Teams in England often head to Eastern Europe on Wednesday, play a late game on Thursday, and then return early Friday for a domestic contest on the weekend. Tottenham Hotspur are one of the clubs playing in the Europa League this year and they had a game in Greece on Thursday, forcing their Saturday home match against Stoke City to be moved to Sunday afternoon. This worked out perfectly for me as I was able to visit White Hart Lane for the match before heading to Wembley for the NFL game between the Cowboys and Jaguars, but the players were not so enthusiastic as it turned out.



I was staying in West London, which meant a nearly 90-minute trek to White Hart Lane (above) via the tube and the overground. I arrived at the stadium about 15 minutes before kickoff, but had no time to tour as lineups at the gate were absurdly long and slow. Don't bother trying to enter through any gate other than the one printed on your ticket, like most English soccer venues, you are restricted in what you can see and where you can sit. Once inside, you are advised to find your seat quickly; there really isn't much to see here anyway, a few concessions stands but not much else.



After my experience at Loftus Road the night before, I was surprised at the size of White Hart Lane. My friend Chris, newly arrived in London, joined me and we had seats in the second row of the upper deck facing the north goal (below).



Tottenham had struggled all season after Europa League games and you could immediately see the difference between a tired Spurs side and the rested Stoke players. Just six minutes in, Bojan Krkić grabbed the ball at midfield and raced untouched to the top of the penalty area as the Spurs players backed off. Seeing no need to pass, Bojan rifled a shot past Hugo Lloris into the bottom corner to give Stoke the early lead. The home fans were very unhappy and started booing, tired of their team's poor home performance, but all that served to do was frighten the players even further. It seemed like none of them wanted to touch the ball; their tentative play was almost embarrassing to watch. Meanwhile, Stoke began to kill time whenever possible, leading to a yellow card for keeper Asmir Begović (below).



The time-killing tactic really wasn't necessary as Stoke added another in the 35th minute when Ryan Shawcross headed to Mame Biram Diouf down the right side. Diouf found an unmarked Jonathan Walters in the box and Walters made no mistake volleying home a perfect cross essentially ending things.



Tottenham did score midway through the second half when Nacer Chadli drilled a shot into the top of the net from a sharp angle, but the cheers from the home fans were relatively muted; they knew it was merely window dressing. Tottenham brought Emmanuel Abedayor onto the pitch, but he was largely ineffective, with his late header falling wide as Spurs fell 2-1. This match was a relative downer after the thriller between Man City and QPR; I found that the Spurs lack of energy fed back to the fans, even those who are not followers of the club such as myself.



Notes

All three goals were scored in the net we were facing, a small consolation for what was a tepid affair.

I have now seen 4 EPL games and yet to witness a home victory. This was the second time I have seen Stoke on the road, they beat Fulham 1-0 back in 2010, my last time in England.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Manchester City 2 at QPR 2 - November 8, 2014


I'm back home after a whirlwind trip to London, where I saw four events in three days. First among these was an EPL game at Loftus Road, featuring defending champs Man City against Queens Park Rangers, newly returned to the top division. If you recall, Man City won the title in 2012 with a stunning comeback over QPR on the final day of the season. QPR was relegated for the 2012-13 season but returned to the Premier League with a playoff win earlier this year.



The game was the late one on Saturday, starting at 5:30 local time. I had hoped to see Huddersfield at Fulham in a League Championship match at 3:00 but weather and logistics made this impossible. The two venues re just over three miles apart, but with traffic restrictions both before and after the game, there was no guarantee that I would make it to Loftus Road in time for kickoff, unless I left Craven Cottage early. I was reluctant to do that and with the afternoon characterized by a series of squalls, decided to get to Loftus Road early instead, giving me time to enjoy the pregame atmosphere.



The nearest tube station is White City on the Central Line; from there it is about five minutes to the stadium. Note that you will have to enter at the turnstile specified on your ticket. English soccer grounds are very constricted, partly to separate home and visiting fans, and so you cannot tour the entire facility. All I can say is that QPR is very small and one of the best places to see a game. My seat was in the Ellerslie Stand and I had to enter via turnstile 1, which is on the far side of the stadium, necessitating a further five minutes in the rain. Outside, you can find programs available for £3 and burgers and other food options for around the same price, though I would recommend the chicken balti pie on the inside for £4.



My ticket was just two rows from the pitch, which affords views such as the one above. Truly incredible to be so close for such a thrilling game. People say soccer is boring but if you saw this one, you would know that such generalizations are not true. QPR lay 19th in the table with just 7 points from 10 matches while Man City was a disappointing 3rd in their title defense at 6-2-2.



You would expect a one-sided game, but QPR came out very strong and netted just 10 minutes in, only for Charlie Austin to be ruled offside, quieting the riotous celebration. On the ensuing free kick, Man City keeper and England international Joe Hart (above) touched the ball twice, delivering it directly to Austin, who scored again, and the fans again went wild prematurely, as this time the goal was disallowed due to a little-known rule that states that a free kick taken in the penalty area must be retaken if the ball does not leave the penalty area after the first touch. Fans were grumbling about that for the next few minutes, but midway through the half Austin finally converted a goal that stood, taking a perfectly timed pass from Eduardo Vargas and beat Hart to the far corner.

Man City were bowed but not broken. Ten minutes later, Eliaquim Mangala lofted a long ball over the QPR defense where Sergio Aguerro took control on the break. He looked to be offside, but the linesman's flag stayed down. As Aguerro dribbled, the ball bounced up onto his arm, a clear case of handball. Yet again the linesman, who had a better view than the referee, declined to make the call. Aguerro made a couple of beautiful moves, leaving QPR defender Steven Caulker sprawling before beating keeper Robert Green. It was a beautiful goal, but it shouldn't have counted and the fans around me exploded in an apocalyptic rage. Several ran down the aisle to the first row to scream at the linesman, where they had to be restrained by security. For the rest of the match, the offending official was insulted every time he ran by my section. Surprisingly, the fans were not cursing outrageously, instead choosing words such as "shocking", "useless", and "wanker". As you probably know, soccer fans sing throughout the game, and one of the more popular refrains on the night was "You're a shit ref". I usually defend the officials, but in this case, they blundered badly.



The second half was a bit tamer, but still a pulsating 45 minutes. Both teams had a number of chances, but it was QPR who capitalized first, when an Austin cross appeared to be headed in by Bobby Zamora. It turned out that it was deflected in off Man City defender Martín Demichelis for an own goal, but it didn't matter on the scoreboard as QPR were just 15 minutes from an upset. Watching the highlights, I spotted myself in the crowd. Really, that's me in the red circle below.



Anyway, Man City turned on the pressure, leading fans around me to declare that they could not take 10 more minutes of their club trying to preserve the lead. They wouldn't have to as questionable refereeing again took center stage. Austin was called for handball just past midfield, although the ball appeared to be hit more on his shoulder and chest. Off the ensuing free kick, Yaya Touré found Aguerro deep with a wonderful through ball and after cheating it down, Aguerro dribbled to leave Green on the grass and put the ball into the net to tie the game again. The last five minutes were anticlimactic and the game ended tied at 2.



Disappointment for the home side but I think that few fans will forget this evening; one of the most exciting sporting events I've ever witnessed live. I'm so tired of hearing fans state how much better it is to watch at home; in truth there is nothing better than being there for something this thrilling. Loftus Road is the smallest ground in the Premier League with capacity at 18,439 and to sit so close for such a match made the entire trip to London worthwhile. If you are ever there during the interminable season, check to see if QPR is home and make your way to Loftus Road for a fantastic football experience.

Best,

Sean