Finally.  College Football’s national championship game means the bloated bowl season is in our rear-view mirror at last.  But it’s two football schools that are stealing the spotlight in college basketball’s most storied conference.  The ACC, despite having teams in ten states ranging from the Florida Keys to the shores of Lake Michigan, is all about the two T’s: tradition and tobacco road.  Certain bluebloods in Durham and Chapel Hill may taunt their second-tier partners in Winston-Salem and Raleigh…but they lord over the rest of their prescribed domain and are rightfully miffed when usurpers from outlying regions enjoy basketball success.  During the 2012-15 peasant overthrow, programs like Miami, Virginia, Florida State and Notre Dame had the nerve to actually win the ACC Tournament.  This year, the Seminoles and Fighting Irish are the early class of the league with a jumbled middle class that has seven teams currently 2-2.  It hasn’t been an easy road to 4-0 for either school:  three of FSU’s four league foes have been ranked while all four Irish wins have been by two-possession affairs at most.  Enjoy your success while you can…pretenders to the crown.  North Carolina plays three of its next four at home while Duke plays their next two in Cameron.  The blue bloods have your scent…and are on your tail.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange giveth, the Orange taketh away.  A ten point loss at Virginia Tech drops SU to 2-2 in the ACC…and unlike last winter when they could write off the 4-5 lurch during Boeheim’s suspension they don’t have a ton of wiggle room for at-large consideration.  I’m thinking a 12-6 conference mark is necessary.  And I’m having trouble getting to 12 wins looking at the upcoming slate.  Saturday is a must-win game against Boston College…as SU has already lost this winter in Chestnut Hill.  After that four of their next six games are against ranked teams.

Saturday’s games:

Noon-

Georgetown (9-8, 1-4 Big East) vs Connecticut (8-9, 2-3 AAC), FOX.  Allen Iverson and Ray Allen it aint.  Both schools began their respective league play with rough stretches and are only now just beginning to dig their way out.  The Hoyas avoided their worst start in Big East play thanks in part to a St. John’s team that shot 5 of 25 in the second half Monday night.  Was that the beginning of a turnaround or an isolated incident?  Big men Bradley Hayes and Jesse Govan will be tested inside by 6-foot-10 Jamaican center Kentan Facey, who’s coming off a season-high 23 points against Temple.

#19 Virginia (12-3, 2-2 ACC) at Clemson (11-5, 1-3), ACC Network.  After a non-conference season of “scoring by committee”, the Cavaliers have been deferring to London Perrantes in league play.  While they’ve also been getting contributions form Marial Shayock and Devon Hall, the senior point guard is the constant on both ends of the floor that coach Tony Bennett leans on.  Ball security will be a priority at Littlejohn Coliseum as the Tigers lead the ACC in turnover margin.  Coach Brad Brownwell’s team has dropped three straight-including the always-agonizing overtime loss at home to North Carolina (don’t even ask when they last won in Chapel Hill).  They also have the added distraction of Monday night’s football game still percolating through campus.

12:30pm-

Richmond (10-6, 4-0 Atlantic 10) at Saint Joseph’s (8-7, 2-2).  The Spiders have bounced back from a lackluster non-conference slate to tie for the league lead with their neighbor VCU.  While they’re not as splashy as the Rams’ “HAVOC”, Chris Mooney’s team is just deadly efficient: tops in the A-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio with a defense that can ice foes for extended stretches (witness GW’s first half drought this past Sunday).   T.J. Cline may lead the team in scoring, rebounding and assists and according to George Washington coach Maurice Joseph is “one of the best point-forwards running the Princeton offense” he’s ever seen.  Bad news for the Hawks.

2pm-

VCU (14-3, 4-0 Atlantic 10) at Davidson (8-7, 1-3).  Despite the Spiders early season start, the A-10 remains the Rams’ roost until further notice.  Four wins with a 16-point average margin of victory.  The best shooting team in the league.  Multiple weapons to support lightning rod JeQuan Lewis, who’s 4th in the conference in assists and 3rd in steals.  While the Wildcats are off to a slow start, they still boast Jack Gibbs (21 points per game while shooting 39% from 3-point range) on the perimeter and Peyton Aldridge (20 points and 7 rebounds per game) inside.

2pm-

Virginia Tech (13-3, 2-2 ACC) vs #20 Notre Dame (15-2, 4-0).  One week after falling to conference co-leader Florida State, the Hokies host the only other team still unblemished in league play.  They’ll need to build off what was a solid offensive night against Syracuse (20 assists on 28 made baskets with only 6 turnovers in the win over the Orange), and come up with a gameplan to neutralize Fighting Irish forward Bonzie Colson (16 points  and a league-leading 10.8 rebounds per game).  Expect both teams to air things out early and often…as the two schools rank 1st and 2nd in the conference from 3-point range.

2pm-

American (4-12, 1-4 Patriot League) vs Army (7-10, 1-4), CSN+.  The Eagles have lost three straight to slide into a last-place tie with…the Black Knights.  If AU falls behind, watch out.  The Eagles are last in the conference at shooting the 3-pointer…while Army is the Patriot League’s best at defending the three.  How important is Sy’eed Nelson this winter?  The freshman has played 204 out of a possible 205 minutes since AU began league play.  They’ll need another big effort from Nelson and fellow freshman Mark Gasperini (19 points in Wednesday’s loss to Boston University) at Bender Arena.

Navy (7-10, 2-3 Patriot League) at Lafayette (6-10, 2-3).  Not all 2-3 conference marks are created equally:  the Midshipmen have won two straight while the Leopards have dropped two in a row by double digits.  Defense and rebounding always travel well- and the Mids lead the Patriot league in rebounding margin while allowing the second fewest points per game.  Lafayette forward Matt Klinewski’s 18 points per game may rank second in the conference in scoring… but the player to watch remains senior guard Nick Lindner (13 points and 5 assists per game while shooting 39% from 3-point range).

 

2:30pm-

George Mason (12-5, 2-2 Atlantic 10) vs St. Louis (4-12, 0-4), NBC Sports Network.  The Patriots picked up a huge road win at St. Joe’s earlier in the week…and face a Billikens team that resides in the conference basement.  Three of St. Louis’ losses in league play have been by double-digits and they rank last in the conference in shooting and scoring.  Even with the Billikens deficiencies, one better believe that with an eight-day break on the horizon coach Dave Paulsen has his team’s attention for this matchup.  Contenders win these games while pretenders let them slip away…

4pm-

Howard (3-13, 0-1 MEAC) at Maryland-Eastern Shore (4-13, 1-1).  After playing two games over the first 13 days of 2017, the Bison will have six games between now and the rest of the month.  While the return of James Daniel III and James Miller has to be encouraging, the lack of success recently (five straight losses with an average margin defeat of 21 points) has to gnaw at the psyche of coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team.  The Hawks provide balance in the form of ranking 306th in Division I in scoring while ranking 308th in points allowed.

6pm-

Maryland (15-2, 3-1 Big Ten) at Illinois (12-5, 2-2), ESPN2.  How have the Terps’ freshman trio of Anthony Cowan, Justin Jackson and Kevin Huerter not hit the midseason wall yet?  Coach Mark Turgeon cautions us and says that it is still early in league play and the spring semester has yet to begin.  He’s also taken precautions by not overworking this team in practice…and keeping this team (especially his freshmen) sharp mentally.  These two teams tangled December 27th in College Park with the Terrapins producing perhaps their best 40-minute effort of the season.  The Illini are 2-0 at home in conference play…perhaps coming off their most impressive win of the year in an 85-69 triumph over Michigan.  While guard Malcolm Hill remains their biggest offensive threat, recent contributions from Maverick Morgan and Kipper Nichols (they score, rebound AND have cool names) will have the coach Turgeon wary.

Sunday-

4:30pm-

George Washington (9-8, 1-3 Atlantic 10) at LaSalle (9-5, 3-1) suffered consecutive losses to the Commonwealth Capital Duo, going scoreless for a seven minute stretch in a loss to Richmond while turning the ball over 17 times in a 30-point loss at VCU.  The Explorers (last in the Atlantic 10 in scoring defense and second-to-last in opponents field goal percentage) might be just what the doctor ordered for the GW offense.  Can they contain sharpshooting junior B.J. Johnson (19 points per game and 42% from 3-point range)?

 

The college basketball world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Grayson Allen learned his lesson and returned to the Duke lineup for their bludgeoning of Georgia Tech.  After being suspended “indefinitely” for his third trip of an opposing player in less than a calendar year, the All-American sure learned his lesson this time.  I mean–even Bobby when taking out Daniel LaRusso’s leg in the All-Valley Karate Tournament was more apologetic (Dutch, a completely different story).  Johnny Lawrence would be proud with how the prized pupil of Durham’s Cobra Kai chapter handled himself in his return.  Just as by announcing the need for back surgery after the loss to Virginia Tech takes the focus off the Blue Devils’ loss in Blacksburg, the return of Grayson Allen after one game away sours those on the fence regarding the Blue Devils.  Just as the coach who publicly chastised an Oregon player in the handshake line after a loss now decides to teach his players “internally”, the phrase “double standard” once again begins and ends with a D.  A big, blue D.

 

Alma Mater Update-

How do you lose to Boston College?  Even though it was on the road, the Eagles don’t even try unless it’s hockey.  They even already have their “we can’t compete because of strict academic standards” speech ready for their eventual defeat.  As underwhelming as the ACC opener was, the win over Miami gave one hope.  At least until they play Pitt at noon Saturday.  It’s going to be one of those bubblicious seasons for SU-made worse because of the broom closet my Alumni Group has elected to watch games at in DC.  While the “Big Country Breakfast” is worthy of its name, one feels like they are in the middle seat on an airplane.  For future reference- use the restroom before tipoff.

Saturday’s games:

Noon-

Georgetown (8-7, 0-3 Big East) vs #18 Butler (13-2, 2-1).  The Hoyas haven’t started 0-4 in conference play since Hall of Fame coach John Thompson, Jr. retired midway through the 1998-99 season.  The Bulldogs are coming off a home win over top-ranked and defending national champ Villanova…so they might be ripe for the picking.  They’re also own the #1 turnover margin in the conference…while the Hoyas rank 9th and if there was a “costly turnover category” one feels they’d be leading that.  At least this game starts at noon instead of 11 a.m. like last week’s morning matinee with Xavier.

1pm-

VCU (12-3, 2-0 Atlantic 10) vs UMass (10-5, 0-2).  We could use the transitive property of basketball and say that because the Rams beat George Mason and the Patriots beat the Minutemen, Virginia Commonwealth is better than Massachusetts.  You could also go the Captain Obvious route and simply realize that VCU is better than UMass.  Just when the A-10 was getting used to a world without Melvin Johnson, freshman Samir Doughty tallies 23 points, 7 rebounds and 9 assists in the Rams’ midweek win over Duquesne.  Meet the new boss…similar to the old boss.

2pm-

#21 Virginia Tech (12-2, 1-1 ACC) at #12 Florida State (14-1, 2-0).  The road will be cruel this winter in the Atlantic Coast Conference…as witnessed by the Hokies in their 104-78 loss at NC State where they allowed the Wolfpack to shoot 64% from the field.  It doesn’t get any easier…as the Seminoles lead the lead in shooting percentage and are second in the ACC in scoring.  Can Buzz Williams cook up a defense that can contain FSU’s Dwayne Bacon (18 points per game and less than a week removed from a game-winning three against Virginia)?

3:15 pm-

Maryland (13-2, 1-1 Big Ten) at Michigan (11-4, 1-1).  The Terps showed their fans the absolute ceiling (25-point thumping of Illinois) and floor (scoreless final 6:02 in a loss to Nebraska) for the upcoming conference season.  The Wolverines have been much more consistent, looking as equally underwhelming in their three-point loss at Iowa as they did in a three-point win at home against Penn State.  The maize and blue are also 13th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin and last in the league at defending the three-pointer.  With #25 Indiana coming to College Park Tuesday, this is a must-win from a standings, confidence and momentum standpoint for Melo Trimble and company.

5pm-

George Mason (11-4, 1-1 Atlantic 10) at St. Bonaventure (9-5, 1-1).  The Patriots held their own in their conference opener against VCU and played well in their victory over UMass…but will this translate to the road?  It’s been said that “defense and rebounding travel”…and Mason (led by Marquise Moore) leads the A-10 in rebounding margin.  The Bonnies boast the highest scoring offense in the conference and hit a league-best 38% of their three-pointers.  Junior Jaylen Adams is the A-10’s top scorer at 23 points per game and likely hasn’t forgotten last winter’s 3-for-16 shooting performance in Fairfax against GMU.

7pm-

Howard (3-12) at Columbia (5-7).  The Bison began MEAC play Wednesday with a 78=66 loss at home to Florida A&M.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that James Daniel played for the first time all season and the nation’s returning leading scorer tallied a team-high 24 points.  There’s more good news in the form of James Miller playing for the first time in eight games–netting 18 points.  Now that coach Kevin Nickelberry has his stars back, he needs to keep them healthy while finding the right combinations with the rest of a roster that’s shown plenty of talent.  This game is the final dress rehearsal for the preseason MEAC favorites.

Sunday-

12pm-

George Washington (9-6, 1-1 Atlantic 10) vs Richmond (8-6, 2-0). After making 11 of 18 three-pointers in their 73-69 win over Davidson Thursday night, the Colonials may find things a little stickier on the perimeter against the Spiders (2nd in the A-10 at defending the three).  GW continues to have issues taking care of the ball:  17 turnovers against the Wildcats didn’t help the school that’s last in the conference in turnover margin (Richmond is fourth-best in the league).  It’s a matchup of versatile big men in Tyler Cavanaugh against T.J. Cline- both average 17 points per game while being their team’s offensive focal point.  Richmond may be unbeaten in league play, but let the record show both of their A-10 wins have come against schools that are 0-2 in the early going.

2pm-

American (4-10, 1-2 Patriot League) at Lehigh (7-7, 1-2).  Both teams are coming off home losses…but the Eagles may be able to build off their 69-60 defeat to conference-leading Bucknell better than the Mountain Hawks in their attempted recovery from blowing an 18-point lead in a loss to Loyola (Md.).  AU freshman Mark Gasperini will have his hands full with two-time Patriot League Player of the Year Tim Kempton (21 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 38% from three-point range).  Sophomore Lonnie Rivera has the hot hand for the Eagles…although the 15 points he scored against the Bison were nine shy of equaling his total during Patriot League play last winter.  Thursday may be an isolated incident.

Navy (5-10, 0-3 Patriot League) vs Colgate (3-13, 1-2).  After dropping their first two conference games by a combined five points, the Midshipmen dropped the ball early and often Thursday against Boston University-turning the ball over 27 times during a 71-53 loss.  Coming into Annapolis is a red-hot freshman by the name of Will Rayman (averaging 22 points per game in conference play) and a team that actually has a better record on the road than on their own campus.  Okay, so 2-7 isn’t that much better than 1-6…but when you’re already ten games under .500 the first weekend in January you have to cook the books in some manner to highlight the possibilities.

8pm-

#11 Virginia (11-3, 1-2 ACC) vs Wake Forest (10-5, 1-2).  How crazy is the Atlantic Coast Conference season after one full week?  Entering Saturday’s games 10 of the 15 schools were 1-1.  The Cavaliers can ill afford to start 1-3 in league play…and they face a Demon Deacons team that is their defensive opposite.  While UVa  leads the conference in scoring defense and opponent’s field goal percentage, Wake ranks 13th in points allowed and 15th in opponent’s shooting.  They also don’t have the offensive weapons Florida State and Pitt possess.  Quietly, junior guard Devon Hall has scored in double figures in each of the Cavaliers’ ACC games…is that a three-game oasis or the start of a trend?

 

PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-the sports department wrote “fantasy pieces” on the next DC area team to win a championship (we all know the correct answer is the Washington Kastles)…and I drew the Wiz.

Do not make vacation plans next spring.  Plan on purchasing red, white and blue shorts for next June’s championship parade.  Or at the very latest a parade in 2018…when those shorts will still be in fashion.  Yes, the Washington Wizards are that close to winning an NBA Championship.

This year’s playoff miss?  Merely a bend in the road as opposed to an end of the road for this young nucleus.  Coach Randy Wittman has to be credited for building a new culture and playoff contender, but he wasn’t the guy to take this team to the next level.  It happens often in the NBA when a Rick Carlisle (2004 Pistons), KC Jones (70’s Bullets) or Avery Johnson (2008 Mavericks) outlives their usefulness…and the next guy gets it done.  Brooks is a proven winner, an sharper tactician and a better communicator than his predecessor and that will help this team reach not only the conference finals for the first time since 1979 but win a title for the first time since 1978.  Has it really been that long?

The Wizards title run begins with point guard John Wall.  The Former #1 draft pick remains the catalyst on both ends of the floor and Brooks will get to the All-Star and make him more vigilant defensively and a better game manager offensively.  Sometimes a different voice spurs a player from very good to great.  Bradley Beal should shake the injury bug after being handcuffed the last few years and flourish.  No longer hampered by not getting along with his coach, Marcin Gortat will show us why this team is paying him 12 million dollars a season.  Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre will benefit from a new coach as well.

The big boost comes this summer in the form of free agent fish.  We all know that the big fish is Kevin Durant…and if the Montrose Christian product elects to return to DC this team will be mentioned in the same breath as the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Even if they don’t land Durant, there are more than a few productive pieces out there that can contribute to the Wall-Beal guided nucleus.

The road to the title is a little easier as the “Washington” means the district and not the state.  The Eastern Conference is a little more manageable than the West…with two teams winning over 50 regular season games this year.  Even though Lebron James and whichever coach he wants at the moment resides in Cleveland (for now), the Cavaliers are getting older.  Toronto?  The Raptors are a couple of free agent defections away from being .500-and don’t think that won’t happen with Canadian taxes and weather coming into play.  A retooled and refocused team plus the right coach doesn’t have that much to leapfrog in order to be playing for a title next June.  And it will be against a Western Conference team battered from three rough rounds.  Sometimes luck and where you live make just enough of a difference.

So buy your lawn chairs for the parade.  Update your wardrobe so your Wizards t-shirt fits.  And by all means get some sunscreen.  Because it will be sunny and hot on the day this team holds its NBA Championship parade.  I’ve even purchased red, white and blue colored lenses for my glasses.  In fact, I’m wearing them now.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM…from October when we were wondering how they could beat the Dodgers in the NLDS.

 

The longest season in professional sports wrapped up last weekend with the Nationals not quite done for 2016.  Instead of last year’s soggy plate of nachos rotting on the September plate, the Nats are headed to the playoffs for the third time in five years.

Five major turning points to the 2016 season:

1- Murph and the Magic Tones.  When the Nats brought in NLCS MVP Daniel Murphy as their main free agent find in the offseason, it had the underwhelming taste of an average cake with so-so frosting.  To get 15 homers and 80 RBI from the second baseman would be nice…but those were also numbers he’d yet to reach in his major league career.  When they started the season the second baseman was batting 5th between Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth (perhaps to keep the righty-lefty-righty thing going).  What followed was completely unforeseen as Murphy went on a tear that would have him flirt with .400 as late as Memorial Day…while driving in a ton of runs as the rest of the Nats lineup fell off a collective cliff.  He made his former team rue the day they let him go…hitting .413 with 9 HR and 21 RBI in 19 games against the Mets.  Murphy set career highs, hitting .347 with 25 HR and 104 RBI before being sidelined in September with a gluteal strain.  Just as his emergence helped lead to a playoff appearance, not being able to play and return to form against the Dodgers might lead to another early exit for the Nats.

2- Roark’s Return to the Rotation.  Last season Tanner Roark was buried in a bullpen role, going 4-7 with an ERA of 4.38.  Jordan Zimmermann’s departure via free agency delivered an opportunity…and Roark bettered his numbers from 2014 (15-10, 138 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.84) by going 16-10 while striking out 172 and posting an ERA of 2.83.  His importance was underscored in a rotation where Stephen Stasburg and Joe Ross were on the shelf for most of the second half of the season…and Gio Gonzalez was consistently uneven throughout the year.  While Max Scherzer (league-best 20 wins and 284 strikeouts) will probably get the Cy Young Award, Roark deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

3- Werth’s Worth More Hitting Second.  After hitting .211 in April while batting primarily 5th or 6th, it looked like the 37-year old was reaching the sad final chapters of his stay in DC.  At the same time, nothing was working in the Nats’ #2 spot of the order:  Anthony Rendon (.236) was not the answer and coupled with Ben Revere’s injury plus slow start the table-setters were not providing Bryce Harper & Daniel Murphy many RBI opportunities.  On Memorial Day, Werth was moved into the #2 spot and went 1 for 4 with a run scored and an RBI.  The veteran stayed and solidified a lineup trying to find itself…and while his .259 is only 8 points higher than everyone else hitting 2nd this year Werth’s run production dwarfs the everybody else hitting 2nd this year ((28 more RBI over 162 games played) .  The move also let Anthony Rendon bat deeper in the order and eventually find his groove (his 52 RBI since the All Star break ranks 5th in the National League).

4- Moving on to Melancon…and Releasing another Reliever.  After choking Bryce Harper in the Nats dugout last September, many thought that Jonathan Papelbon would be gone-and quickly.  To the surprise of many he remained on the roster and was the team’s closer for the first half of the season (not including his trip to the disabled list).  In late July, General Manager Mike Rizzo was looking for a closer.  He found one in Pittsburgh’s Mark Melancon…who quietly saved 17 of 18 opportunities while not attempting to strangle any of his teammates.  Melancon’s addition meant the Nationals no longer had to continue the awkward dance with Papelbon…and they released the potential ticking time bomb two weeks later.  As bad as last year’s deal for Papelbon blew up the bullpen, this year’s deadline deal rescued the relief corps.

5- Leading off at Last.  Ben Revere and Michael A. Taylor both failed to click as leadoff hitters during the first half of the season…and while manager Dusty Baker saw the bat of Trea Turner in AAA Syracuse lighting things up with speed to match, he had no place to play him.  Daniel Murphy was off to his incredible start and Danny Espinosa was exceeding expectations while providing solid defense at shortstop.  However, there was an offensive vacuum in centerfield with Revere and Taylor.  While still in the minors Turner began playing games in in the outfield…and Dusty Baker had his master chess move in place.  Turner turned both the leadoff spot and centerfield positions from liabilities into offensive spark plugs, leading the majors in triples and steals since the All Star Break. The rookie’s defense-learned on the fly-for the most part has been solid.

 

 

PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM- as well as my reports featuring Johnny Holliday who MC’d the final show at Candlestick Park.

August 29, 1966 was originally just another show date for the Beatles at a stadium with bad acoustics amidst death threats.  The final stop on yet another tour for a band that had seemingly been on the road forever.  They played ten songs before calling it a night with “Long Tall Sally”.  John, Paul, George and Ringo then took an armored car to the airport and flew home.  Nobody outside their circle knew then that they’d be leaving their touring days behind.

That night at Candlestick Park in San Francisco now stands as a line of demarcation in the simplified history of the Beatles.  Everything before was mop-tops and matching suits; everything after was facial hair and glasses.  When Capitol released a pair of double albums in 1973, the “Red” album stopped in 1966 and the “Blue” album started with the 1967 release of “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

But perhaps they had already moved beyond their 1964 image as fish-and-chip-eating, happy-go-lucky lads from Liverpool.  In their final show they played just one song from that year-“Paperback Writer”-and performed no songs from their newly released album Revolver.  It wasn’t by choice:  they just couldn’t reproduce studio-embellished songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Yellow Submarine” in a live setting to their liking.  If you listen to their output from 1966, songs like “Taxman” and “For No One” could easily have appeared on “the White Album” or Abbey Road.

What sort of world were the Beatles leaving?  The Asian leg of their tour turned into disaster when they didn’t attend a party held by Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos.  The Fab Four was spit on as they left the country.  Their final tour of the US was in the aftermath of John Lennon’s “Beatles are bigger than Jesus” quote that prompted bonfires of Beatles albums and threats from the KKK.  They couldn’t hear themselves playing over the screams of their fans and were reduced to performing stadium gigs where the acoustics got worse by the city.

Fans would have to settle for the vinyl version of the Beatles from here on out.  Sergeant  Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would turn the world on its ear ten months later.  And while their final few albums would start to resemble four solo acts more than one group of four working together, the band’s non-touring years provided more than a few gems.  The Beatles may not have been bigger than Jesus, but they were definitely bigger than the road.

Did you expect the Redskins season to wrap up any other way?  The Burgundy and Gold are in prime playoff position after their 41-21 win at Chicago…within striking distance of making consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 1990-92.  As in the end of Gibbs I.  As in eight coaching regimes ago.  Special thanks to Tampa Bay and Detroit for losing two straight games as the Skins were able to capitalize this time.

Playoff Picture- Redskins are in with a win plus the Green Bay-Detroit game not ending in a tie.  If that is the case then the Packers win the NFC North and the Lions take the wildcard.  A Skins loss ends the season.  A tie (heaven forbid) means the Burgundy and Gold need a Green Bay loss plus a Tampa Bay loss or tie to play the following weekend.  Take heart…the Buccaneers and Packers if tied for a playoff berth the “strength of victory” tiebreaker would be used to parse two 9-7 teams.

Captain Kirk- the face of the franchise threw for 270 yards and a touchdown while running for two more scores (shades of RG3! not really).  There’s quite a bit of debate surrounding whether or not to pay #8 what he’ll demand…but Cousins has given the franchise stability at a position that has had eight primary QB’s this century. Star Trek Episode Equivalent- “Journey to Babel”.  Spock’s parents show up and there’s a murder mystery aboard the Enterprise…with Kirk making just the right moves while not upstaging anybody else.

Tragedy of Robert III- the former face of the franchise continues to thrive in exile, throwing for 164 yards while running for 42 more in directing Cleveland to their first win of the season.  Sadly he suffered a concussion in the Browns’ victory, and remains a question mark for the season finale against Pittsburgh.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown…or at least the helmet.

Resurrecting the Run-  from 29 yards on the ground against Carolina to 208 against the Bears!  Sadly, these aren’t the Singletary Bears of the 80’s…or even the Butkus Bears of the 60’s.  Still, Robert Kelley pounded out 76 yards on 19 carries while Mack Brown delivered a 61-yard knockout punch in the fourth quarter.

DeSean & Garcon- the duo delivered again, notching nine catches for 208 yards.  On a week where the Skins were without tight end Jordan Reed, those two secondary-smashers were even more important.  This is going to be one tough offseason…

Third and Solid- after going 2-for-12 on the money down against Carolina, the Skins moved the chains on 8 of 13 attempts against Chicago.  That’s not including two penalties against the Bears that moved the marker on third down after the Redskins were stymied.  Kirk Cousins went 6-for-9 with 4 conversions while scrambling for another first down.  They ran three times…moving the chains all three times.  DeSean Jackson was the top target, catching both passes intended for him and moving the marker once.  Cousins’ safe spot?  Short and to the right (3-4 with one conversion).  Yardage breakdown:  3-for-4 on short yardage (including 2-2 on the ground), 3-for-6 on third and medium (4 to 6 yards needed), and 2-for-3 on third and long.  Stat you don’t see:  10 of the 13 attempts needed six yards or less, meaning the gameplan got things done on 1st and 2nd down.

Defense?  I’m all for it- the Skins rank 15th in the NFC in total defense and Saturday saw a season’s worth of highs and lows.  They tallied five interceptions but still coughed up 458 total yards to a bad offense directed by a quarterback who may be taking his next snaps in Canada.  The Bears converted 7-of-10 third downs and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.  One will take the win…but now one wonders what happens when they face a real offense again.

Flying Flags- seven penalties for 73 yards this time (Skins commit the 11th most infractions in the league).  Two were on offense (illegal substitution plus a hold on Brandon Scherff), three were on defense (Bashaud Breeland’s pass interference,  Duke Ihenacho’s horse-collar tackle and Mason Foster’s illegal use of the hands) and two more were on special teams (illegal block by Terrence Garvin and Ty Nsekhe’s “leverage” penalty on an extra point).  Most costly penalty?  Foster’s illegal hands turned a 2nd & 9 at the Bears’ 28 into a 1st & 10 at the 42…jumpstarting a touchdown drive for Chicago.

Dissecting the Division- Dallas takes their 19th NFC East title at 13-2…but they had already wrapped up the division plus home field advantage when the NY Giants lost to Philadelphia.  The Giants are already assured of the #5 seed in the conference, while Philadelphia had locked up last place the previous week.  So for the first time since the 2007 season the Skins don’t finish first or last.  Ricky Bobby has to be smiling somewhere…

East is the Beast- the NFC East takes top division honors with one week remaining…posting a composite mark of 37-22-1.  The AFC West (36-24) takes second while some last-month maneuvering by the AFC North (24-35-1 but 9-6 in December) puts the NFC West (21-37-2 and 5-11 over the last month) in the lowlight spotlight of the league’s most depressing division.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM in September-little did we know at the time that Dak Prescott would be awesome and the Giants would go 8-2 in one-possession games.

How did the world get flipped in such a manner over the last 12 months?  It’s amazing how one year ago the Redskins were viewed as the hot mess of the NFC East compared to the “stable situations” in Dallas, Philadelphia and the New York Giants.  Instead of being picked for another last place finish (there were eight over an eleven year stretch from 2004-14), the 2016 Redskins are a consensus selection not only to win the division but also (heaven forbid) win a playoff game.  Baltic Avenue has suddenly become Park Place.  How on earth did we get here?

For years the rest of the division laughed at the slippery sand the Skins built successive foundations on.  Norv Turner’s demise one year after a playoff berth?  The Schottenheimer experiment?  Spurrier and the signing of every available Florida Gator free agent?  Gibbs 2.0 calling 2 timeouts in a loss to Buffalo?  Zorn’s “Maroon and Black” outfit?  The hits (actually misses) kept on coming before the failed Shanahan & Son regime that featured a brittle quarterback the franchise gave away the house to acquire.  In the meantime, the Giants were winning Super Bowls, the Eagles were at least disappointing their fans on the NFC Championship/Super Bowl stage, and the Cowboys were racking up double-digit victory seasons with which to tease their faithful.  The team that called Fed Ex Field its home delivered nothing but misery for its burgundy and gold jersey wearing crew.

A franchise is nothing if it doesn’t have a strong chain of command.  Whatever you think of the owner, his hire of Bruce Allen at least rid the team of Redskin Rasputin Vinny Cerrato (seriously, I’m still wondering how he was gainfully employed by this franchise for most of the last decade).  And whatever your impression is of what exactly it is Allen does, he provides a buffer between the throne room and coaching office.  Jay Gruden may be the younger brother of a larger-than-life ESPN personality, but despite the fact that he consistently drops his “G’s” in press conferences the hire paid off with an NFC East title last fall.  Scott McCloughan came to Ashburn with a little baggage but a lot of potential as a franchise-builder…and while the roster is still in the process of being reshaped, at least he pronounces his draftees’ names correctly (I still can’t forgive Cerrato for Brian “Orapko”).  That brings us to having a solid quarterbacking situation.

Kirk Cousins enters his second season as the starter…and the Skins boast the only coach-QB combination in the division that returns from 2014.  This all of a sudden is the most stable signal-caller situation in Ashburn since…Mark Rypien in the early 90’s?  Please go ahead and tell me that Brad Johnson was on stable footing with Jeff George brought in as a free agent in 2000…

Normally one wouldn’t be so confident about a 9-7 squad that didn’t beat a playoff team en route to the postseason…but have you seen the rest of the neighborhood?  I mean have you seen it???

Dallas?  Jason Garrett has all of the legitimacy of an Iron Curtain regime…and the quarterback situation there is less than ideal.  For the third time since 2010, injuries have derailed Tony Romo’s season and now we get…rookie Dak Prescott?  Fear not, the same Mark Sanchez that couldn’t beat Trevor Sieman for the starting spot with Denver is waiting in the wings.  QB issues aside, there’s always an arrest around the corner with the Cowboys as well.  Dumpster fire…

New York Giants?  Yes, Eli Manning is back…and the 35 year old actually has played better lately (30 and 35 touchdown seasons after tossing a league-high 27 interceptions in 2013).  And he has his offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo running the whole show now.  Before you start saying Ray Handley, the issues of this team will be on the defensive side of the ball–the Giants allowed the most yards and third most points in the league last fall. Grease fire…

Philadelphia?  Somehow the team that posted back to back 10-6 seasons completely imploded last fall.  After handing all of the personnel power to Chip Kelly only to see the coach dismantle what was a playoff team, the Eagles fired the coach and brought aboard former assistant Doug Pederson to rebuild this wreck.  They’ll start their fifth primary quarterback in five years…with rookie Carson Wentz getting the nod Sunday after playing one quarter in the preseason.  Eagles fans hope the first-round pick will be “locked in”.  Figuratively of course…not like when Wentz found himself trapped in a New Jersey gas station bathroom in the offseason and they needed garden shears to rescue him. Tire fire…