January 13, 2023

🎉 Happy Friday! We'll be off Monday for MLK Day. See you back here on Tuesday for a special edition newsletter about my Spain experience.

Today's word count: 1,805 words (7 minutes).

Let's sports...

1 big thing: 🏈 A weekend of rematches

Bracket: Axios Visuals

For just the fifth time since the 1970 merger, the opening round of the NFL playoffs is comprised entirely of rematches from the regular season, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

No. 7 Seahawks at No. 2 49ers (Sat. 4:30pm ET, Fox): Seattle's prize for squeaking into the playoffs is a meeting with the red-hot Niners, who've won 10 straight. Even Pete Carroll doesn't seem optimistic.

  • What happened last time: The 49ers won both matchups by 28 combined points.
  • Lines: Spread: SF -10 | O/U: 42 | Money: SF -475, SEA +380

No. 5 Chargers at No. 4 Jaguars (Sat. 8:15pm, NBC): Young studs Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence have led L.A. and Jacksonville back to the postseason for the first time since 2018 and 2017, respectively.

  • What happened last time: The Jags dominated their Week 3 matchup, 38-10, but that was just 10 days after Herbert broke his ribs.
  • Lines: Spread: LAC -1.5 | O/U: 47.5 | Money: LAC -135, JAX +115

No. 7 Dolphins at No. 2 Bills (Sun. 1pm, CBS): Tua Tagovailoa's absence has resulted in the largest point spread (Buffalo -13.5) in Wild Card weekend history.

  • What happened last time: The Dolphins won the first meeting by two; the Bills won the second meeting by three.
  • Lines: Spread: BUF -13.5 | O/U: 43.5 | Money: BUF -900, MIA +600

No. 6 Giants at No. 3 Vikings (Sun. 4:30pm, Fox): It's hard to imagine this game not being exciting, given these teams combined for an astonishing 24 games decided by one score.

  • What happened last time: A one-score game, of course, with Vikings kicker Greg Joseph nailing a game-winning 61-yarder as time expired in Week 16.
  • Lines: Spread: MIN -3 | O/U: 48 | Money: MIN -165, NYG +140

No. 6 Ravens at No. 3 Bengals (Sun. 8:15pm, NBC): Lamar Jackson (knee) will miss his sixth straight game; Cincinnati has won eight straight, tying a franchise record.

  • What happened last time: They split the season series, with Baltimore winning in Week 5 and Cincy winning in Week 18 to secure home field for this matchup (without a coin flip).
  • Lines: Spread: CIN -9.5 | O/U: 40.5 | Money: CIN -455, BAL +345

No. 5 Cowboys at No. 4 Buccaneers (Mon. 8:15pm, ESPN): Dallas ranked third in sacks this season (54) but may have trouble getting to Tom Brady, who led the league in fastest average time to throw (2.3 seconds).

  • What happened last time: The Bucs won the season-opener, 19-3.
  • Lines: Spread: DAL -2.5 | O/U: 45.5 | Money: DAL -140, TB +118

All betting lines via Caesars Sportsbook

2. 🇪🇸 In photos: My day in the Basque Country

Hello, friends! I'm in northern Spain for Saturday's Basque Derby between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao. I'll share my full experience on Tuesday. For now, here are some highlights from Thursday's portion of the press trip.

San Mames
Photo: Courtesy of LaLiga

We woke up early and drove from our hotel in San Sebastián to Bilbao. Our first stop was San Mamés, home of Athletic Bilbao, one of the founding clubs of LaLiga.

  • The original stadium, nicknamed "The Cathedral," opened in 1913. 100 years later, the current stadium was built in the same place.
  • The architecture is stunning, and the venue has a bit of everything, including a museum and a fine-dining restaurant.
LaLiga photo
Here I am, gazing at the ceiling. Photo: Courtesy of LaLiga

Athletic Bilbao is famous for its Basque-only policy: Tradition dictates that only players native to the Basque Country region can play for them (much more on this in Tuesday's newsletter).

Soccer stadium
Photo: Courtesy of LaLiga

Our next stop was Pamplona, the city famous for the Running of the Bulls. The reason for our visit: El Sadar, home of LaLiga club Osasuna.

  • It's a much smaller venue than San Mamés (23,000 capacity vs. 53,000), but that's part of its charm — and makes it the loudest venue in LaLiga.
  • Of note: Osasuna, Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the only four pro clubs in Spain that aren't corporations. Instead, they're run by club members.
LaLiga crew
Photo: Courtesy of LaLiga

I'm here on behalf of LaLiga, which invited journalists from all over the world. China, Japan, India, Mexico, Egypt, South Africa, Germany, Brazil, Norway, and more — we're all here. I'm proudly repping America by being the only one with a baseball cap.

Coming up: Today's itinerary includes a visit with Real Sociedad, where we'll watch a training session. Then we'll eat pintxos, a culinary symbol of the Basque Country (kind of like tapas). Fill you in on Tuesday. Ciao!!!

3. ⚽️ Thompson makes history as No. 1 pick

Alyssa Thompson with Angel City FC president Julie Uhrman. Photo: Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Angel City FC took 18-year-old forward Alyssa Thompson with the first pick in Thursday's NWSL draft.

Why it matters: Thompson, a senior at Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles, is the first high schooler to be drafted No. 1 overall in NWSL history.

  • Thompson made her USWNT debut in September at age 17 and could be part of the 2023 World Cup roster.
  • Last June, she and her younger sister, Gisele, became the first high-school athletes to sign NIL deals with Nike.

Looking ahead: Once the NWSL season kicks off in March, Thompson will take online classes to finish her senior year and attend in-person when possible, per ESPN.

"I've put in a lot of hard work for this, and I just have to remind myself that I can do this and I'm ready for this. Pressure makes diamonds, so I just hope that I will thrive."
— Thompson, via ESPN

Go deeper: Full draft recap (CBS Sports)

4. ⚡️ Lightning round

Photo: Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

🏒 Seattle's on fire: The Kraken won their seventh straight game on Thursday, beating the juggernaut Bruins, 3-0, to hand Boston its first shutout loss and first regulation home loss of the season.

🏟️ Neutral site: If the Bills and Chiefs meet in the AFC title game, it will be held in Atlanta, the NFL announced Thursday. The decision for a neutral site game was made after Buffalo lost the chance to earn the No. 1 seed due to its canceled game.

🏈 Warren to the Bears: Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner since 2019, has been named president and CEO of the Bears. He's the first Black president in franchise history.

5. ⚾️ The robots are coming

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

All 30 Triple-A ballparks will use the Automated Balls and Strikes System (aka. "robot umps") in 2023, ESPN reports.

Why it matters: An electronic strike zone is inching closer to MLB. Last season, roughly one-third of Triple-A parks used ABS.

Details: The system will be deployed in two different ways.

  • Half of Triple-A games will have all calls determined by an electronic strike zone. Umpires will still be behind the plate — they'll just be relaying the calls rather than making them themselves.
  • The other half of games will be played with an ABS challenge system, allowing players to challenge the umpire's decision on a particular pitch (think: challenging calls in tennis).

State of play: Significant changes are coming to MLB next season, including a pitch clock and limits on defensive shifts. If this Triple-A experiment goes well, an even bigger change — humans no longer calling balls and strikes — could soon be on its way.

6. 🏀 Remember the Alamo(dome)

The Alamodome during the 1999 NBA Finals between the Spurs and Knicks. Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Spurs host the Warriors tonight in the Alamodome, where they last played in 2002, as part of a season-long celebration of their 50th year in San Antonio, Jeff writes.

Why it matters: With 64,387 tickets sold as of Thursday afternoon, it's set to be the biggest crowd ever for a regular-season NBA game, surpassing a 1998 Bulls-Hawks game in the Georgia Dome.

  • For reference, the Bulls lead the league with 20,241 fans per home game this season. Tonight's crowd is going to be huge.
  • Just how huge? The 13-29 Spurs will move from 28th place in home attendance all the way up to 15th on the strength of this game alone.

The backdrop: The 64,000-seat Alamodome opened in 1993, 20 years after the ABA's Dallas Chaparrals moved to San Antonio and renamed themselves the Spurs.

  • But before long, the Spurs and their fans became disenchanted by the poor sight lines and cavernous feel.
  • So in 2002, they moved into the newly built AT&T Center, their current home.

The big picture: The Spurs are stuck in the franchise's first-ever rebuild, set to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season after missing just four times in their previous 46.

  • But tonight, the city is ready to celebrate “Back Home in the Dome,” where they won their first of five championships 24 years ago and birthed one of the sport's greatest dynasties.
  • Of note: Steve Kerr's fingerprints are all over this story. He played for the Bulls in that 1998 game, played for the Spurs during their Alamodome years and coaches tonight's visiting team.

P.S. … Tonight's game has Heat coach Erik Spoelstra thinking even bigger: "We've got to do something outside and pack 100,000 down here in south Florida," he said Thursday. "Let's do that. Make that happen."

7. 🏀 NBA snapshot: Halfway there

Table: Axios Visuals

We've reached the halfway point of the 2022-23 NBA season. How are you feeling about your team?

8. 📺 Watchlist: The Basque Derby

Reale Arena, home of Real Sociedad. Photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

The Basque Derby is Saturday in San Sebastián, Spain (3pm, ESPN+), with Real Sociedad (third place in LaLiga) hosting rival Athletic Bilbao (seventh). I'll be there!

  • State of play: Both clubs are eyeing top-four finishes and their first trips to the Champions League since 2013 and 2014, respectively.
  • By the numbers: There have been 150 Basque Derbies, with Athletic Club winning 60 times, La Real winning 51 times, and 39 draws.

More to watch:

9. 🏈 NFL trivia

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A record five NFL teams enter the playoffs riding winning streaks of at least five games.

  • Question: Can you name all five teams?
  • Hint: Four are in the same conference.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 🏈 1 jersey thing: Top 10 best sellers

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

The top 10 selling NFL jerseys of the 2022 season, per NFL Shop:

  1. Josh Allen
  2. Micah Parsons
  3. Patrick Mahomes
  4. Joe Burrow
  5. CeeDee Lamb
  6. Dak Prescott
  7. Justin Jefferson
  8. Jalen Hurts
  9. Justin Fields
  10. Tom Brady

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "Might not come home" Baker

Trivia answer: 49ers (10-game winning streak), Bengals (8), Bills (7), Chiefs (5), Jaguars (5)

🙏 Have a great day! Follow us for more (@kendallbaker and @jeffreytracy). Friends can sign up here. Thanks to Carolyn DiPaolo for copy edits.