Happy Tuesday, all! We're officially down to eight NFL teams contending for the Super Bowl.
Let's get right to it.
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Good morning to everyone but especially to...
THE LOS ANGELES RAMS
On Jan. 31, 2021, the Rams traded for Matthew Stafford, announcing their intentions to go all-in on a championship. Over the next several months, they doubled down, adding big-name veterans who could contribute immediately.
So far, so good.
The Rams jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and breezed to a 34-11 win over the Cardinals last night in the playoffs.
- Stafford, making his 186th career start (including the postseason), earned his first career playoff win with ease. After throwing eight interceptions over the last four weeks of the regular season, Stafford was turnover-free, threw two touchdown passes and ran for a score as well.
- Odell Beckham Jr. -- a November free-agent addition -- caught one of those touchdowns passes (the other went to Cooper Kupp, because of course it did.) Beckham Jr. also completed a 40-yard pass to Cam Akers.
- Speaking of Akers, he and Sony Michel combined for 113 rushing yards. Five months ago, no one would have expected either would suit up for the Rams this season. But Akers made a miraculous recovery from a torn Achilles suffered in July and Michel was acquired from New England shortly before the regular season started, a move that has proved very valuable.
- Von Miller -- acquired from Denver in November -- had a team-high six total tackles (three for loss) and his first postseason sack since Super Bowl 50 (when he won Super Bowl MVP.)
The Rams have bigger fish to fry, starting next week at the defending-champion Buccaneers. For now, though, the Rams are one step closer to their ultimate goal -- and they got there in impressive fashion.
- Miles Bridges scored a career-high 38 points, including a ridiculous reverse layup, as the Hornets beat the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
And not such a good morning for...
Twenty two minutes and one second. That's all it took for the Cardinals' night to shift from "slow start" to "season over." After Kyler Murray's stunning pick-six, the scoreboard read 21-0. The yardage count read Rams 163, Cardinals -1.
Yes, negative one.
- Sullivan: "Simply put, Arizona failed to show up ... While the Arizona offense couldn't find its footing, the defense wasn't able to stop the bleeding much either. Matthew Stafford was able to throw and rush for a touchdown on back-to-back drives that gave L.A. the 14-0 lead. That type of effort isn't going to get you a win during a random game in Week 6 let alone in the opening round of the playoffs."
Remember when Arizona started the season 7-0? They wound up going just 4-7 after that.
We can point to Murray's injury from earlier this season. We can point to J.J. Watt's injury. We can point to DeAndre Hopkins' injury. But in the end, they're just more excuses for a team that has consistently failed down the stretch under Kliff Kingsbury. Over the last two seasons, the Cardinals are...
- 12-2 in games 1-7, good enough for the best mark in the NFL
- 7-13 after that ... 25th in the NFL
Yikes. Last night proved the epitome of that trend. Murray was erratic and uncomfortable in his playoff debut, and that was before he handed the Rams a touchdown with a truly awful pick-six as he was flung to the ground in his own endzone. David Long Jr.'s three-yard return made it the shortest pick-six in playoff history.
The blowout final score is a surprise. But given Arizona's track record the past two seasons, it's no surprise that the Cardinals are flaming out early, looking closer to pretender than contender.
Not so honorable mention
- Novak Djokovic is already missing the Australian Open, and his status for the other Grand Slams could be in danger if he remains unvaccinated.
- Mike Mayock is out as Raiders GM.
Previewing the divisional round 🏈
The divisional round is set and we already have a preview of it ready for you.
All four games present their own intrigue, but it's hard for anything to top Bills-Chiefs on Sunday night, writes our NFL expert Bryan DeArdo.
- DeArdo: "Divisional round weekend will commence with a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game. It is also between two teams that scored a combined 89 points in wild card wins over New England and Pittsburgh. On Saturday, the Bills became the NFL's first team to not punt, attempt a field goal or commit a turnover while scoring seven touchdowns against the Patriots. On Sunday, the Chiefs scored on six consecutive drives that included five touchdown passes from Patrick Mahomes."
Here's the entire schedule:
- Rams at Buccaneers, 3:05 p.m. ET on NBC
- Bills at Chiefs, 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS and Paramount+
Stay tuned for our picks and predictions of the games later this week.
NBA midseason awards: Plenty of MVP candidates 🏆
We're roughly halfway through the 2021-22 NBA regular season and the frontrunner for MVP remains unclear. But don't take it from me, take it from our eight-person NBA expert panel, which voted for all of the major awards.
Here's how they divvied up the MVP voting:
- Nikola Jokic: 3
- Giannis Antetokounmpo 2
- Stephen Curry: 2
- DeMar DeRozan: 1
I certainly wouldn't complain if Jokic took it home given his play so far. Entering play Monday, Jokic was the only player in the top 10 in points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game. When Jokic is on the floor, the Nuggets outscore their opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions, a rate that would be first in the NBA. When Jokic isn't on the floor, the Nuggets get outscored by 11.7 points per 100 possessions, a rate that would be last in the NBA. It's hard to get more "valuable" than that.
Jamal Murray hasn't played this season and Michael Porter Jr. played just nine games before a back injury. Jokic has carried Denver to a 22-20 record, good for sixth in the Western Conference. He has played just as well as (and, in some areas, better than) he did last year when he, you know, won MVP.
The panel also voted for Rookie of the Year, where Evan Mobley was the only unanimous selection among player awards.
Our latest Bracketology as Gonzaga climbs to No. 1 in AP Poll 🏀
Monday brought two much-anticipated rankings: a new AP Poll and our Jerry Palm's latest Bracketology. Let's start with the new AP Poll, where there was plenty of drama -- well, as much drama as a midseason poll can provide. Gonzaga is your new top team in the nation, with Auburn climbing up to No. 2, tying the program's highest ranking ever.
The Tigers actually received more first-place votes (36 to 25) than Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs got slightly more points overall (1,486 to 1,482), thanks in part to one voter putting Auburn all the way down at No. 9.
Here's the complete top five
- 1. Gonzaga (prev. 2)
- 2. Auburn (prev. 4)
- 3. Arizona (prev. 6)
- 4. Purdue (prev. 7)
- 5. Baylor (prev. 1)
While Auburn may not have reached the top ranking in the AP Poll, they are the No. 1 overall seed in Palm's latest Bracketology. Joining them on the top line are Baylor, Duke and Gonzaga.
I've been really impressed by Auburn. The Tigers have a bonafide superstar in freshman Jabari Smith, who could be the top pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. Then they have a pair of fearless guards in Wendell Green Jr. and K.D. Johnson and a stud big man in Walker Kessler. Eleven players average double-digit minutes. NBA talent plus good guards plus depth is a good equation for deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn checks all those boxes.
What we're watching Tuesday 📺
🏀 No. 5 Baylor at West Virginia, 5 p.m. on ESPN2
🏀 No. 7 Kansas at Oklahoma, 7 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 No. 15 Iowa State at No. 18 Texas Tech, 9 p.m. on ESPNU