Axios Sports

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December 02, 2022

🎉 Happy Friday! This weekend is going to be epic. World Cup knockout stage, college football title games, an A+ NFL slate. Hard to beat!

Today's word count: 1,835 words (7 minutes).

Let's sports...

1 big thing: 🏀 The Celtics are a juggernaut


Jayson Tatum (L), Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. Photo: Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Celtics lead the NBA with a 122.2 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), which would be by far the best of any team since the stat was first recorded in 1973, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

By the numbers: The 2020-21 Nets own the best offensive rating ever (118.3). The 3.9 gap between them and this year's Celtics is the same as the gap between the Nets and the 42nd-best team ever.

State of play: The first-place Celtics (18-4) have won 14 of their last 15 games, scoring 130+ points in three straight — the longest such streak by a Celtics team since 1968.

  • Shooting: Boston leads the NBA from the field (49.8%), charity stripe (85.3%) and three-point range (40.8%), where they're hitting a league-best 17 triples per game.
  • Assists to turnovers: They're averaging the sixth-most assists (27.5) and the sixth-fewest turnovers (12.9).

Between the lines: Interim coach Joe Mazzulla — thrust into the role after Ime Udoka's suspension in September — has rapidly earned buy-in from his players, two of whom are having monster seasons.

  • Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are both averaging career highs in points (Tatum, 31.6; Brown, 26.1), assists (Tatum, 4.5; Brown, 3.5) and FG% (Brown, 50.9%; Tatum, 48.8%).
  • They're one of two duos averaging 25+ points per game (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), and Tatum has emerged as an MVP frontrunner.

The big picture: Boston made the 2022 NBA Finals thanks to a league-best defense. This year, "our offense is so good that it hides some of our defensive flaws," reigning DPOY Marcus Smart told NYT, referencing their bottom-10 defensive rating.

The intrigue: The defense should improve significantly once defensive-minded center Robert Williams III (knee) makes his season debut soon. Once he's back, look out.

2. ⚽️ The World Cup format's cloudy future

Table: Axios Visuals
Table: Axios Visuals

World Cup groups play their final matches simultaneously, and it's not just to create minute-to-minute drama like we saw play out on Thursday in Group E, Jeff and I write.

Why it matters: They do this to avoid another "Disgrace of Gijón." But with expansion on the way, the format's future is uncertain.

Flashback: At the 1982 World Cup, Algeria sat in second place after completing its three-game slate, looking like it may advance in its first-ever appearance.

  • The problem? West Germany and Austria had yet to play their final match at El Molinón Stadium in Gijón, Spain, and they knew a German win by one or two goals would see both advance at Algeria's expense.
  • Germany scored in the 11th minute, and whether through collusion or an unspoken understanding, both teams essentially killed time for the remainder of the game. Final score: 1-0.
  • TV commentators were enraged, urging viewers to switch off the game, and angry fans threw eggs at West German players when they returned to their hotel.

The big picture: Algeria protested the result, but FIFA found no evidence of collusion. They did, however, alter the schedule, which is why groups have played their final matches at the same time at every World Cup since 1986.

Yes, but: The group stage format will change when the World Cup expands to 48 teams in 2026, and whether FIFA sticks with its current plan or not, it won't be as clean as the current 32-team setup.

  • The planned format will feature 16 groups of three — with the top two per group advancing — meaning each group's final game could ostensibly play out like Gijón.
  • Another option could be 12 groups of four, which would avoid a Gijón scenario but reintroduce the imperfect third-place wild card format last seen in 1994.

The bottom line: Hopefully you enjoyed Thursday's chaos, with Spain, Japan, Germany and Costa Rica all jockeying for position simultaneously. At the next World Cup, we may not see anything like it.

🎥 Watch: A match so bad, FIFA had to investigate (YouTube)

3. ⚽️ Pic du jour: A game of millimeters

Japan goal

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

Japan's second goal in their 2-1 win over Spain was the most controversial play of the World Cup so far.

What happened: Kaoru Mitoma raced to save a ball from going out of bounds behind the net and passed to Ao Tanaka, who banged it home.

  • The referee judged that the ball had gone out before the cross and replays seemed to confirm this.
  • But VAR reversed the call and gave Japan the deciding goal, which ultimately sent them through and eliminated Germany.

Another angle: The bird's eye view seems to show the ball is barely in bounds — by millimeters. To be ruled out of play, the entirety of the ball must cross the entirety of the plane of the end line.

Screenshot: @HenryBushnell (Twitter)

P.S. ... Here's a wild stat: Japan beat Spain with just 17.7% of possession, the lowest figure ever recorded in World Cup history.

4. ⚡️ Lightning round

Basketball court

Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

🏀 End of an era: The 24th and final ACC/Big Ten Challenge concluded on Wednesday for the men and Thursday for the women. The annual tradition will be replaced by an ACC/SEC Challenge next fall.

⚽️ NWSL team sales: Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson is putting the club up for sale, and Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler is selling his majority stake in the club, Sportico reports ($). Both men were implicated in the Yates report detailing abuse within the NWSL.

⚾️ $40 million: The Rays signed RHP Zach Eflin to a three-year, $40M deal, the team's largest free agent contract ever. There are now just two teams that have never spent $40M on a free agent: The A's and Pirates.

🏈 Deion watch: Jackson State coach Deion Sanders is reportedly telling recruits that he'll pick a school by Sunday. Colorado, Cincinnati and USF are all believed to be in the mix. He could also stay in Jackson.

5. 🏈 Historic matchup in Chicago

Data: Football Reference; Table: Axios Visuals
Data: Football Reference; Table: Axios Visuals

Bragging rights are on the line in Sunday's Bears-Packers game in Chicago, with the two franchises tied atop the NFL's all-time regular-season wins list, with 786 each, Jeff writes.

Why it matters: If the Packers win, they'll be the first team other than the Bears to own the outright lead since the 1921 Buffalo All-Americans, who had 18 wins at the time.

The big picture: The Bears were one of the NFL's founding members in 1920, and the Packers joined one year later. Chicago jumped out to an early lead in both the overall wins and head-to-head tally, but Green Bay has steadily stormed back.

  • Overall wins (tied 786-786): The Packers have 19 seasons with 10+ wins in the past 30 years, compared to six such seasons for the Bears in that time.
  • Head-to-head (GB leads, 103-94): Chicago won the series in six of the league's first seven decades, but Green Bay has won it in each of the last four, including an active seven-game win streak and a 22-5 regular-season edge with Aaron Rodgers under center.

6. 🏈 The future of championship weekend

Illustration of a football on a red carpet

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The 12-team College Football Playoff will transform the sport when it debuts in 2024, and one of the biggest winners will be conference championship games.

State of play: Only two of the 10 championship games this weekend have CFP stakes: The Pac-12 title game and the Big 12 title game. In a 12-team field, all five Power 5 title games, plus the AAC, would have CFP spots or byes on the line, notes The Athletic's Chris Vannini ($).

The slate: All 10 FBS conferences play title games between tonight and Saturday. Under the 12-team model, this weekend will mean even more than it already does.

7. 🇺🇸 Photos across America

NFL coaches
Photo: Billie Weiss/Getty Images

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Bills beat the Patriots, 24-10, on Thursday night to become the first team to beat the Belichick-era Patriots by double-digits in three straight games.

Steven Stamkos
Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — Steven Stamkos recorded his 1,000th point in the Lightning's 4-1 win over the Flyers, becoming just the 95th player in NHL history — and second member of the Lightning — to reach that mark.

Utah celebration
Photo: Chris Gardner/ Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY — Unranked Utah upset No. 4 Arizona, 81-66, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Rick Majerus, the legendary coach who led the Utes to the 1998 national title game.

8. 📺 Watchlist: The knockout stage

USA fans

American fans in Qatar. Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

The World Cup's knockout stage begins this weekend with a game you might be interested in: USA vs. Netherlands. After weeks of 2pm ET kickoffs, I'm ready to watch this team over breakfast. Feels right.

More to watch:

9. 🌍 Africa trivia

Morocco celebration

Moroccan players celebrating their win on Thursday. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Four African nations — Senegal (advanced), Morocco (advanced), Cameroon and Ghana — are still alive at the World Cup.

  • Question: Rank them by population.
  • Hint: The northernmost country is the biggest.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 🏈 1 big trend: Ravens can't close

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The Ravens lead the AFC North with a 7-4 record. Just imagine where they'd be if they knew how to close out games, Jeff writes.

By the numbers: Baltimore has held at least a two-score lead in all four losses, three of which have featured game-winning scores in the final 15 seconds of regulation.

  • Week 2: Led the Dolphins 35-14 with 12 minutes left, lost 42-38.
  • Week 4: Led the Bills 20-3 just before halftime, lost 23-20.
  • Week 6: Led the Giants 20-10 with six minutes left, lost 24-20.
  • Week 12: Led the Jaguars 19-10 with six minutes left, lost 28-27.

The good news: The Ravens are averaging 25 points per game and this week they play the Broncos, who haven't scored 25 points all season.

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "I love sports" Baker

Trivia answer: Morocco (36.9M population), Ghana (31.1M), Cameroon (26.6M), Senegal (16.7M)

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