Nov 30, 2020

Axios Sports

πŸ‘‹ Good morning! Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving weekend. Now, let's sports.

Today's word count: 2,008 words (8 minutes).

1 big thing: 🏈 The NFL season is teetering

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the league over Thanksgiving weekend, and with just five weeks left before the playoffs, the 2020 season is balancing on a knife's edge.

Why it matters: The NFL has sustained its fair share of body blows since kicking off in September, but it's unclear how many more it will take before everything comes crashing down.

The state of play: Across the league, teams are scrambling to simply keep the wheels from falling off.

  • Broncos QB search: After Denver's entire quarterback depth chart was wiped out by contact tracing, it was forced to turn to rookie WR Kendall Hinton, who's spent the whole year on the practice squad and hasn't played QB since 2018 at Wake Forest. He completed just one pass in a 31-3 loss to the Saints.
  • Homeless 49ers: When Santa Clara county bolstered its COVID-19 protocols to ban contact sports, the Niners β€” with home games the next two weeks β€” were left searching for a new stadium. Current frontrunner? Arizona.
  • Tuesday night football: The Ravens are experiencing a full-on outbreak, which pushed Thursday night's game against the Steelers to Sunday, and then to Tuesday. As of Sunday night, 23 Ravens were on the COVID-19 list while a handful of Steelers have begun landing there, as well.

The bottom line: Early-season flexibility allowed the NFL to navigate the Titans' Week 4 outbreak with relative ease, but with bye weeks running out and postponements no longer an option, this season's race to the finish could look more like a limp.

Go deeper: Virus disruptions lead to growing NFL crisis (NYT)

P.S. ... In college football, the Big Ten is working through a similar crisis, as both Wisconsin (2-1) and Ohio St. (4-0) had their games canceled with just two weeks left, threatening their title game eligibility given the conference's six-game requirement.

2. 🏈 NFL Week 12 winners and losers

Tyreek Hill hauls in one of his 13 catches. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Chaos swirled off the field, but on it was just another casual slate of games in the National Football League.

Winners
  • Tyreek Hill fantasy owners: The diminutive speedster had the game of the year, catching 13 passes for 269 yards and 3 TD, good for 57.9 fantasy points.
  • 90's movies fans: In Washington's Thanksgiving Day rout of the Cowboys, they successfully ran "The Annexation of Puerto Rico" straight out of the playbook from 1994's "Little Giants."
  • Double Chinn: Panthers rookie safety Jeremy Chinn became the first player in franchise history to score two defensive touchdowns in the same game when he returned a fumble for a TD ... on two consecutive plays.
  • Folk hero, Go(u)lden boot: Nick Folk nailed a game-winning, 50-yard FG as time expired to beat the Cardinals and keep the Patriots (5-6) playoff hopes alive; Robbie Gould did the same for the Niners (5-6) to take down the Rams.
Panthers kicker Joey Slye after missing the game-winning FG. Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Losers
  • Slye's hook: Panthers kicker Joey Slye badly hooked a 54-yard FG with one second left that would have given Carolina the win over Minnesota. And to think, he could've joined Folk and Gould in the bullet above. What a shame.
  • Double-digit leads: NFL teams have erased double-digit deficits 35 times so far this season β€” the most ever through 12 weeks β€” and Sunday saw two more (Pats and Vikings).
  • The Raiders' ego: A week after nearly completing a season sweep of the Chiefs, Vegas regressed in a big way, getting obliterated by the suddenly resurgent Falcons, 43-6.
  • (Finally) not the Browns: Cleveland's win over the Jags was its eighth this season, meaning for the first time since 2007 the Browns will finish with a non-losing record.

Scoreboard: Packers 41, Bears 25; Texans 41, Lions 25; Washington 41, Cowboys 16; Bills 27, Chargers 17; Patriots 20, Cardinals 17; Dolphins 20, Jets 3; Giants 19, Bengals 17; Titans 45, Colts 26; Browns 27, Jaguars 25; Vikings 28, Panthers 27; Falcons 43, Raiders 6; Saints 31, Broncos 3; Niners 23, Rams 20; Chiefs 27, Bucs 24

Coming up:

  • Tonight: Seahawks at Eagles, 8:15pm ET (ESPN)
  • Tomorrow: Ravens at Steelers, 8pm (NBC)
3. πŸ€ College hoops opening weekend roundup

Jason Preston (with ball) has an incredible story of perseverance. Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

There's no telling how or if the college basketball season will conclude, but it's off to a rollicking start with the help of various bubbles across the country. Let's dive in.

Men's

Top players:

  • Luka Garza: The preseason favorite for player of the year looks the part early, averaging 33.5 points and 9.5 rebounds for the 2-0 Iowa Hawkeyes.
  • Jason Preston: Not quite as heralded as Garza, Ohio's junior point guard's incredible story of perseverance reached new heights in Friday's near upset over No. 8 Illinois, when he dropped 31 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists.

Biggest upsets:

  • San Francisco 61, UVA 60: What is it about these Cavaliers and shocking upsets? The Dons kept it close all game and used a late 8-0 run to down the No. 4 Cavs.
  • Virginia Tech 81, Villanova 73: AP top-five Villanova teams (currently No. 3) had won 26 straight games dating back to 2015 against unranked, non-conference opponents. Enter, the Hokies.
  • Richmond 76, Kentucky 64: One of my favorite annual traditions is when a young Kentucky team loses early before righting the ship by tourney time.
Screenshot: @SyracuseOn247 (Twitter)
Women's

Top players:

  • Tiana Mangakahia: Syracuse's point guard and all-time assist leader hadn't played a competitive game in 615 days after battling breast cancer last year. On Sunday, she returned to the court and filled up the stat sheet (16 pts, 7 reb, 3 ast, 4 stl) in a 50-39 win, staking an early claim to story of the year.
  • Rhyne Howard: The preseason favorite for POY was suspended for Kentucky's first two games for "not upholding the standards of the program." She's eligible to return Thursday against Kansas St.

Biggest blowouts:

4. 😒 Farewell, Diego

Photo: Marcos Brindicci/Getty Images

Diego Maradona, the Argentine soccer legend who spent a too-short life turning the world and pitch into his personal playground, died Wednesday of a heart attack. He was 60.

The big picture: The debate about soccer's GOAT must include, but does not necessarily end with, Maradona. However, when it comes to which player inspired the most passion β€” for both club and country β€” he has no equal.

  • Maradona's unique blend of otherworldly talent and infectious joie de vivre truly made him one of a kind; a real life supernova who burned so bright that it was perhaps unreasonable for us to expect he could sustain it for more than 60 years.

What they're saying: Stars around the globe took to social media to offer their tributes, but for my money, if you're looking for just one thing to read about the brilliant and tortured soul that is Diego Maradona, make it Brian Phillips' piece for The Ringer.

"Talk about taking apart defensesβ€”we watched him almost die in public for 25 years and he still pulled off a sudden death, a trickster to the last minute."
β€” Phillips

πŸŽ₯ Watch: Asif Kapadia's excellent documentary, "Diego Maradona" (HBO)

P.S. ... After scoring Sunday for Barcelona, fellow Argentine Lionel Messi honored Maradona with a jersey reveal. Chills.

5. 🏈 College football's historic weekend

Photo: Hunter Dyke/Mizzou Athletics via Getty Images

Week 13 of this chaotic college football season is in the books, and while conference and playoff implications abound, it was two historic performances that dazzled fans nationwide.

  • Sarah Fuller, Vanderbilt's starting goalie on the women's soccer team, became the first woman to play in a Power Five football game when she kicked off to begin the second half against Missouri on Saturday. The game wasn't pretty, but that hardly mattered. "It’s just so exciting that I can represent the little girls out there," she said after the game.
  • Jaret Patterson, Buffalo's star RB, continued his epic season with an FBS record-tying eight rushing touchdowns (and 409 yards!) in a 70-41 win over Kent State. Through four games, Patterson has now amassed 920 yards and 16 TD for the 4-0 Bulls, who look like the favorites in the MAC.

Elsewhere:

  • Clemson 52, Pittsburgh 17: Trevor Lawrence, playing his first game in five weeks after clearing COVID-19 protocol, picked up right where he left off (26-37, 403 yards, 2 TD).
  • Notre Dame 31, UNC 17: The Irish held one of the nation's top offenses scoreless in the second half, proving they've more than earned their No. 2 ranking.
  • Oregon St. 41, Oregon 38: The Pac-12's slim hope for a CFP berth evaporated after the Beavers took down the Ducks in Friday night's thriller thanks to a go-ahead TD with just 33 seconds left.
  • Alabama 42, Auburn 13: Despite head coach Nick Saban quarantining at home with COVID-19, the top-ranked Tide easily dispatched Auburn in a relatively tame Iron Bowl. (For a less tame version, wait until you reach section 8 of this newsletter.)

Go deeper: Sarah Fuller makes history (NYT)

6. ⚑️ Catch up quick

Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Triller

  • πŸ₯Š Tyson vs. Jones: Boxing legends Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. fought a long-awaited exhibition Saturday night in L.A. Though officially scored a draw, it was clear to everyone watching that Iron Mike β€” whose punches still come hard and fast even at 54 β€” was the winner.
  • ⚽️ MLS playoffs: New England beat Orlando, 3-1, and Columbus beat Nashville, 2-0, to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. Up next: Seattle plays Dallas tomorrow and Sporting KC plays Minnesota on Wednesday to see who'll fill out the Western Conference side of the bracket.
  • 🏎 F1 crash: French driver Romain Grosjean was involved in a horrific, fiery crash during Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix. He miraculously walked away mostly uninjured despite this description from the safety car driver: "In 12 years, I've not seen that much fire and an impact like that."
  • ⛳️ The Match, part III: The third iteration of the charity golf tournament saw Phil Mickelson and Charles Barkley defeat Steph Curry and Peyton Manning on Friday in Arizona. Turns out it's beneficial to have the lone professional golfer on your team.
From L-R: Curry, Manning, Mickelson and Barkley. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images for The Match
7. πŸ‡³πŸ‡± Field trip: Breda, Netherlands

Thanks for choosing Axios Airlines. We'll be traveling to a new destination each morning this month. Sit back and enjoy the flight.

Screenshot: Google Maps
  • Location:Β Rat Verlegh Stadium
  • Coordinates:Β 51.5955Β° N, 4.7509Β° E

Welcome to Rat Verlegh Stadium in the Dutch city Breda, which on Friday hosted the USWNT's 2-0 friendly win over the Netherlands.

  • History repeats: This was the first meeting between the two nations since the 2019 World Cup final, which the U.S. also won, 2-0.
  • Pandemic response: After efficiently flattening the curve back in April, the Netherlands has become one of the hardest-hit European countries during this current wave of the virus.

Match recap: The victory, which came in the team's first game since the pandemic began, was encouraging not only for the side's crisp play after a long layoff, but also for the return of two key players. Full recap.

  • Alex Morgan, who just gave birth in May, shook off some rust to lead the attack as a sub in the second half.
  • Kristie Mewis, meanwhile, completed a long road back to the national team, making her first appearance since March 2014 ... and scoring her first international goal in over seven years!
Kristie Mewis celebrates her first goal with USWNT since 2013. Photo: Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images

The year of Mewis: Kristie and her younger sister, Sam, patrolled the midfield together for the first time since 2014 when their careers took starkly different paths.

  • While Sam has been a regular on the national team since 2016, Kristie fell off their radar until late last year, when she returned from a torn ACL and was given another chance to make the squad.
  • After spending this summer helping the Houston Dash win the NWSL Challenge Cup β€” and living her best life in the postgame celebration β€” Mewis officially got called up to the national team last month and wasted no time in showing them exactly what she can provide.

Go deeper: The year of Kristie Mewis (The Athletic)

8. Nov. 30, 2013: 🏈 The "Kick Six"

Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Seven years ago today, Auburn cornerback Chris Davis etched his name in Iron Bowl history, returning a missed Alabama field goal for a game-winning touchdown as time expired.

The backdrop: The previous season, Auburn played to an atrocious 3-9 record (0-8 SEC), leading to head coach Gene Chizik's ousting.

  • But entering the 2013 Iron Bowl under new head coach Guz Malzahn, Auburn (10-1) and Alabama (11-0) were playing for the right to represent the SEC West in the conference championship.

The play: With one second left and the game tied, 28-28, Alabama turned to freshman kicker Adam Griffith to try a game-winning, 57-yard FG.

  • His kick fell just short, and Davis ran it back 109 yards for the walk-off score.

The aftermath: Auburn got past Missouri in the SEC title game but lost a heartbreaking BCS national championship to Jameis Winston and Florida State.

  • That was the last season before the College Football Playoff began; Auburn has yet to make the CFP field.

Go deeper: Chris Davis cannot outrun his "kick six" fame (The Ringer)

9. πŸ€ College hoops trivia

Gonzaga men's basketball coach, Mark Few. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Gonzaga's season-opening victory over Kansas was Mark Few's 600th win in just his 724th game, making him the third-fastest coach to reach that mark in Division I history.

  • Question: Who are No. 1 and 2 on that list?
  • Hint: They coached their last games 30 years apart (1972, 2002)

Answer at the bottom.

10. πŸŽ₯ Weekend's top plays

Photo: Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  1. ⚽️ Messi honors Maradona
  2. πŸ€ What. A. Slam.
  3. 🏈 McLaurin chasedown!
  4. 🏈 Emery Simmons!
  5. 🏈 Ronald Jones!
  6. πŸ€ Half court buzzer beater!
  7. 🏈 Cheetah!
  8. 🏈 Human bulldozer
  9. ⚽️ Cheeky chip
  10. 🏈 Texans get tricky

Watch all 10.

Talk tomorrow,

Jeff "more like Mark MANY" Tracy

Trivia answer: Adolph Rupp (704 games), Jerry Tarkanian (720 games)