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USATSI

It's Friday, so congratulations to you for surviving another week in paradise. All you've got to do is get through the next handful of hours and you've got a beautiful, sports-filled winter weekend on your hands. The headliner this weekend is, of course, the NFL's conference championship games, but there's plenty on the undercard as well. We've also got NBA, NHL, college basketball, golf, soccer and a major UFC event. Take your pick, my friend. 

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Before you slip into your finest pair of weekend sweatpants -- which, if you're like me, you're still wearing from last weekend -- we've still got some business to handle here. I've brought you all the sports knowledge you need as you head into the next couple of days, so spray some Febreeze on those rancid sweats and get over here. We've got sports to discuss.


📰 What you need to know

1. Picks for AFC, NFC championship games 🏈

The next time we meet, we'll know exactly which teams are playing in Super Bowl LV. For now we get to look forward to two promising conference championship games this weekend. Both Bills-Chiefs and Buccaneers-Packers have a lot of intrigue attached to them, so you better go ahead and get that couch ready for Sunday. You may want to pick up some adult diapers in case things get REALLY interesting. 

This seems like a good time for us to get some picks and predictions, and you already know Pete Prisco is our guy for that. Did he go 1-3 and embarrass himself last weekend? Maybe. But we won't bring that up. 

  • Buccaneers vs. Packers (-3): All the talk heading into this one will be Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers, but really it's about Rodgers against the Tampa Bay defense more than anything else. That Bucs defense feasted and made Drew Brees look terrible last weekend, but Rodgers is playing some of the best football of his career, so Prisco likes Green Bay. Pick: Green Bay 27, Tampa Bay 20
  • Bills vs. Chiefs (-3): A lot hinges on whether Patrick Mahomes can go on Sunday after the injury he suffered last week but, assuming Mahomes plays, Prisco thinks it'll be a fun shootout between two great young quarterbacks. Ultimately, he's siding with the defending champs by the slimmest of margins. Pick: Chiefs 31, Bills 30  

Funnily enough, I'm going to ride with the Bills and Buccaneers this weekend. I've been riding the Buffalo bandwagon all year long and, as a Patriots fan, I feel an obligation to root for Brady. With that in mind, it would also be hilarious for the Bills to think they've finally found freedom away from Brady in the AFC East, only to end up staring him down in the Super Bowl.

2. Conference commissioners are anxious over possible midseason shutdown 🏀

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USATSI

I've got some potential bad news for college basketball fans this morning: There could be a season shutdown looming. Don't shoot the messenger, but that news comes from our Matt Norlander, who reported this week that recent COVID-19 rates have conference commissioners nervous over a possible stoppage of the college basketball season (as well as all other winter collegiate sports). 

  • Norlander: "Multiple conference commissioners and athletic directors told CBS Sports in the past week-plus that there is a growing sense of nervousness over the stability of the college basketball season ... With Joe Biden now holding office, high-ranking NCAA officials are in wait-and-see mode about monitoring case counts across the country and bracing for the possibility of federal shutdowns that could impact dozens if not hundreds of schools -- prompting a midseason pause in the process"

It never really even dawned on me that the changing of administrations and federal guidelines could have a major impact on the sports world and various league operations, but it does seem like protocols and containment efforts could get ramped up and more strict in the coming weeks/months. 

It's also important to keep in mind that a lot of students will soon be returning to campuses across the country following winter break, which means potential spikes and outbreaks of the virus at these universities. Even without general student body on campuses since Thanksgiving, college basketball has seen approximately 20% of its games postponed or canceled on a weekly basis due to COVID. It seems like that percentage could certainly grow significantly when students flood back to campus after break.

That's obviously not something any of us want, especially as we're nearing the end of the regular season and getting closer to March Madness, but it makes sense that commissioners would be anxious right now. These are real, reasonable concerns.

3. Conor McGregor returns to Octagon from Fight Island 👊

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We've got a big UFC weekend ahead of us and I hope you brought your floaties and snorkels, because it's time to head back to Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. UFC 257 will see Conor McGregor return to the Octagon to face Dustin Poirier in the main event. Say what you want about McGregor, but he's still very much a draw and there will likely be plenty of eyes fixed to this weekend's event simply because the cocky Irishman is back in business.

McGregor enters the weekend as a big favorite (-330) over Poirier, but there's reason to believe Poirier could in line for an upset. Let's get a quick little breakdown from our Brent Brookhouse:

  • Brookhouse: "One of the biggest questions coming into the fight is how McGregor will handle moving back to lightweight. He has not fought at the weight since being dominated by Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018 and has not won at lightweight since November 2016 ... Returning to lightweight has been just one part of Poirier putting the pieces together to become the fighter he always had the potential to be. Poirier is 6-1 since 2017, the lone loss coming to Nurmagomedov. In that same span, McGregor is 1-1. Poirier's activity and comfort at lightweight may be a boost to his chances in the rematch with McGregor."

Of course, UFC 257 will be about more than just McGregor-Poirier, so you can check out the rest of Brookhouse's breakdowns right here.

4. Our first NHL Power Rankings of the season 🏒

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I've been doing weekly NHL Power Rankings for CBS for a few years now and it's a somewhat challenging task because 1) I think Power Rankings are largely arbitrary, and 2) hockey is a very dumb, random sport that's often difficult to evaluate on a weekly basis. And, as I found out this week, it's even more difficult to put together Power Rankings in the opening week of the season when there was no preseason.

Listen, I'd be lying to you if I said I could confidently rank the 31 NHL teams after one week of play, but that's the job. So, with that in mind, all we can do is take our preconceived notions about all these teams and factor in what little we've seen on the ice so far. Here's the top 10:

  1. Lightning
  2. Golden Knights
  3. Avalanche
  4. Flyers
  5. Maple Leafs
  6. Canadiens
  7. Flames
  8. Capitals
  9. Hurricanes
  10. Blues

You can check out the rest of the rankings (along with a little analysis for each team) right here. And since I'm admittedly a moron who knows next to nothing yet, I at least tried to have some fun with the blurbs. 

I should also mention that my favorite part of doing power rankings every year is the weekly onslaught of angry responses I get from fans mad that I disrespected their team with a low ranking (or ranked some other team too high), so I'll just go ahead and leave my email right here: pete.blackburn@cbsinteractive.com. Looking forward to getting dunked on all weekend long.


📝 Odds & Ends

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📺 What to watch this weekend

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Friday

🏀 Celtics vs. 76ers, 7:30 p.m. | PHI -5 | TV: ESPN

Saturday

👊 UFC 257 | TV: ESPN+ PPV

Sunday

🏈 Buccaneers vs. Packers, 3:05 p.m. | GB -3 | TV: FOX

🏈 Bills vs. Chiefs, 6:40 p.m. | KC -3 | TV: CBS


📝 Top scores from last night

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🏀 Lakers 113, Bucks 106

LeBron James had a season-high 34 points in the win.
💵 Winning wagers: LAL +100, Under (228.5)  

🏒 Lightning 3, Blue Jackets 2 (OT)

Disgruntled CBJ star Pierre-Luc Dubois was benched with 4:36 left in the first period and didn't play for the rest of the game. 
💵 Winning wagers: TBL -162, Under (5.5)

🏀 Indiana 81, No. 4 Iowa 69

The Hawkeyes had a five-game winning streak snapped as they scored a season-low in points.
💵 Winning wagers: IU +450 , Under (150.5)