January 28, 2022

🎉 Happy Friday! You made it.

🏈 Stat du jour: Patrick Mahomes is 3-1 in the playoffs when the Chiefs' in-game win probability dips below 5%. The rest of the NFL in those situations during that time? 1-38.

Today's word count: 1,488 words (6 minutes).

Let's sports...

1 big thing: 🎾 Nadal inches closer

Legend. Photo: William West/AFP via Getty Images

Rafael Nadal beat Matteo Berrettini, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, on Thursday to advance to Sunday's Australian Open final.

Why it matters: Nadal is now one victory away from a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam men's singles title.

  • The No. 6 seed Nadal will face No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev, who beat Stefanos Tsitsipas, 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, in his quest to win back-to-back majors.
  • Sunday's duel between Nadal, 35, and Medvedev, 25, will be a rematch of the grueling 2019 U.S. Open final that Nadal won in five sets.

Wild stat: If Medvedev wins, it would be just the second time since 2004 that the "Big 3" failed to win two straight Grand Slams.

The backdrop: Nadal arrived in Australia after months away from tennis dealing with a foot injury and then a bout with COVID-19. Weeks later, he's in the final — because of course he is.

2. 🏈 AFC preview: Bengals at Chiefs

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photos: Andy Lyons, Jamie Squire, Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Chiefs host the Bengals on Sunday afternoon in what should be an explosive start to the conference championships, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

  • Kickoff: 3pm ET, CBS
  • Lines: KC -7 | O/U 54.5
  • On the call: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo
  • Head-to-head: Cincy won their Week 17 matchup, 34-31, thanks to a second-half comeback capped by a walk-off FG.

QB matchup: Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow have both transformed their franchises' fortunes in a few short years.

  • Before Mahomes became their starter in 2018, the Chiefs had made just one trip to the AFC title game (1993). They've now played in four straight, with two Super Bowl appearances and a ring to boot.
  • Burrow has won more playoff games this month (two) than the Bengals had in the previous 32 years (one). He's the first QB taken No. 1 overall to play in a conference title game within his first two seasons.

Storylines:

  • Juggernaut offenses: The Chiefs (28.2 ppg, fourth in NFL) and Bengals (27.1, seventh) can both score in bunches, though Kansas City (84 points) has far outscored Cincinnati (45) in the playoffs.
  • Protecting Joey B: Burrow was sacked a league-high 51 times this season, and a playoff-record nine times last week. Good news for Bengals fans? The Chiefs had just 31 sacks this year (fourth-fewest).
  • Coaching discrepancy: Andy Reid, 63, has the fifth-most regular-season wins (233) and fourth-most playoff wins (17) in NFL history. Zac Taylor, 38, has coached just 51 total games, playoffs included.
  • Chiefs Kingdom: The Bengals have been practicing with artificial noise to prepare for Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest environments in all of sports.

Go deeper: Mahomes and Burrow are big-time QBs, with small hands (WSJ)

3. 🏈 NFC preview: 49ers at Rams

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire, Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire, Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers, Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Rams host the 49ers in Sunday's nightcap, which is in Los Angeles but could feel like "Levi's South," Jeff writes.

  • Kickoff: 6:30pm ET, Fox
  • Lines: LA -3.5 | O/U 45.5
  • On the call: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman (last game together?)
  • Head-to-head: The 49ers swept the season series by a combined score of 58-34, and they've beaten the Rams six straight times.

WR matchup: The two most dynamic players in this game accomplished things this season that NFL fans have rarely seen.

  • Deebo Samuel is the NFL's most versatile talent, and one of just three players in history with at least 8 rush TD and 1,000 receiving yards in a season (Roger Craig, 1985; Christian McCaffrey, 2019).
  • Think Cooper Kupp enjoyed his first season with Matt Stafford? His 1,947 receiving yards and 145 receptions are second only to Calvin Johnson's 1,964 and Michael Thomas' 149, respectively.

Storylines:

  • Boy wonders: Sean McVay, 36, and Kyle Shanahan, 42, were hired within a month of each other in 2017. Five years later, they'll meet with a (second) trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
  • The QB enigma: In a league dominated by superlative signal-callers, the 49ers got here with ... Jimmy Garoppolo. They traded three first-rounders to draft Trey Lance — will they use him on Sunday?
  • Home away from home: Vivid Seats estimates that 49ers fans will comprise 65% of the crowd at SoFi Stadium, which gets another dress rehearsal ahead of the Super Bowl.
  • Unlikely rushing stars: Aside from Samuel, the most impactful rushers will likely be a sixth-round rookie (Elijah Mitchell) and a guy who tore his Achilles six months ago (Cam Akers).

Go deeper: The intertwined evolutions of Shanahan and McVay (The Ringer)

4. ⚡️ Lightning round

Sunday snack. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

🍗 Wing inflation: Chicken wing prices are soaring, not just in absolute terms, but relative to other parts of the chicken, Axios' Neil Irwin reports.

🏈 Da Bears new coach: The Bears have hired Colts DC Matt Eberflus as their next head coach. Seven vacancies remain.

🏈 Fisher's back: Speaking of coaches, Jeff Fisher has been hired to lead the USFL's Michigan Panthers. Play begins in April.

🏀 Good read: The mysterious fall and harrowing journey of an NBA center (Brian Windhorst, ESPN)

"In his first public comments since the Tokyo Olympics, Aron Baynes details the freak injury that left him unable to walk."

5. 🏀 Revealed: NBA All-Star starters

The Warriors were the only team to produce two starters. Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The NBA All-Star starters were revealed Thursday night, with LeBron James (18th straight appearance) taking up his usual spot and Andrew Wiggins (first appearance) shocking the world.

How it works: The starters are determined by a vote split between the fans (50%), media (25%) and players (25%).

  • West: James (Lakers), Nikola Jokić (Nuggets), Stephen Curry (Warriors), Andrew Wiggins (Warriors), Ja Morant (Grizzlies)
  • East: Kevin Durant (Nets), DeMar DeRozan (Bulls), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Joel Embiid (76ers), Trae Young (Hawks)

What's next: The All-Star reserves will be announced next Thursday. James and Durant — the top vote-getters — will then draft their respective teams ahead of the game on Feb. 20.

6. 🇺🇸 Team USA spotlight: Elana Meyers Taylor

Elana Meyers Taylor poses for a portrait. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

In the lead-up to the Beijing Winter Olympics (Feb. 420), we're profiling 10 members of Team USA.

The Olympian: Among Team USA's 223 Olympians, Meyers Taylor is one of 12 to have already competed in at least three Games. She medaled in all three so far, but is still searching for her first gold.

  • Meyers Taylor is equally impressive off of the track as she is on it. She played pro softball, has a master's and MBA, and hopes to one day be CEO of the USOPC.
  • Power couple: Her husband, Nicholas Taylor, is a long-time member of the men's bobsled team and will be in Beijing as an alternate.

The event: For the first time ever, women have two sled events: two-woman sled (debuted in 2002) and monobob — a one-rider, women-only event making its debut this year.

  • Format: Bobsled events comprise four runs across two days, and the winners are the sleds with the lowest aggregate time.
  • Intrigue: Meyers Taylor won the monobob title at the recent World Cup series. Could this new event deliver her that elusive gold?

ICYMI: Emily Sweeney (luge); John Shuster (curling); Jessie Diggins (cross-country skiing); Alex Ferreira (freestyle skiing)

7. 🇺🇸 America in photos

Team USA
Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Members of Team USA pose for a photo at LAX before departing for Beijing. One week out!

Antonee Robinson
Antonee Robinson celebrated his goal in style. Photo: John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Antonee Robinson's second-half goal lifted the USMNT past El Salvador, 1-0, to maintain second-place (18 points) in World Cup qualifying.

  • Of note: All seven of the previous teams that had 18+ points through nine games went on to qualify for the World Cup.
Torrey Pines
Photo: Ben Jared/PGA Tour via Getty Images

SAN DIEGO — Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and Adam Schenk are tied for the lead through two rounds at the Farmers Insurance Open.

8. 📺 Watchlist: AFCON quarterfinals

Egypt fans celebrate their Round of 16 win. Photo: Ayman Aref/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals are this weekend in Cameroon (beIN Sports).

  • Saturday: Gambia vs. Cameroon (11am ET); Burkina Faso vs. Tunisia (2pm)
  • Sunday: Egypt vs. Morocco (11am); Senegal vs. Equatorial Guinea (2pm)

More to watch:

9. 🥇 Olympics trivia

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The U.S. has won the second-most medals in Winter Olympics history (307).

Answer at the bottom.

10. 📆 1 fun thing: Best sports weekends

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Last weekend was epic, and this one should be, too. Which got us thinking: What are the best sports weekends of the year?

Our top 10:

  1. 🏈 NFL Divisional Round
  2. 🏀 March Madness tip-off
  3. 🏈 NFL Championship Sunday
  4. 🏈 Super Bowl Sunday
  5. ⚾️ Opening Day/Weekend
  6. ⛳️ The Masters
  7. 🏀 Final Four
  8. 🏇 Kentucky Derby
  9. 🦃 Thanksgiving Weekend
  10. 🏈 CFB Championship Weekend

What's your top 10? Reply here.

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "Blows my mind" Baker

Trivia answer: Norway (368 medals)

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