The National Football League showed why it is the best professional sports league in the country last weekend.
The opening week of the playoffs featured four great games that were close throughout; with two going to overtime before they were decided. Road teams won three of the four games.
Which means we have four more great games to look forward to watching this weekend when the divisional round is held. The games begin Jan. 11 with the San Francisco 49ers hosting the Minnesota Vikings at 1:30 p.m. on NBC, followed by the Baltimore Ravens hosting the Tennessee Titans at 5:15 p.m. on CBS.
The next day we have the Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans at noon on CBS, followed by the Green Bay Packers hosting the Seattle Seahawks at 3:30 p.m. on Fox.
The oddsmakers don’t think the games this weekend will be as close as they were last weekend.
The Ravens and Chiefs are both 9 ½ point favorites and the 49ers are 7 point favorites to beat Minnesota. All four home teams are favored. That all makes sense.
The Ravens have been the best team in the league for most of the season. Second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson has had a break-through season that should lead to a most valuable player trophy when those awards are handed out next month.
He threw for 3,127 yards and 36 touchdowns this year, while adding 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns rushing.
He averaged 6.85 yards every time he ran the ball and only five running backs gained more yards on the ground than he did all season.
The Ravens have another 1,000-yard rusher in running back Mark Ingram and tight end Mark Andrews has become Jackson’s go-to receiver with 64 catches and 10 touchdowns.
And the Ravens are always good defensively.
They face a Tennessee team on a role under second year coach Mike Vrabel. Vrabel played linebacker for the New England Patriots for eight season, winning three Super Bowls in the time.
Last week, he knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs by holding Tom Brady and company to 13 points.
The Titans turned the corner this year when Vrabel benched quarterback Marcus Mariota after six games. Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback and has led the team to a 7-3 record, but the Tannehill magic will end this week.
Maybe the biggest surprise of last weekend’s game was the Vikings win over the New Orleans Saints. After battling to a 20-20 tie after four quarters, the Vikings took the kickoff in overtime and methodically marched down the field to the game-winning touchdown on a pass from Kirk Cousins to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who may have pushed away the defensive back just before he got the winning pass.
The Saints think they got beat by an uncalled pass interference penalty for the second year in a row.
Whatever. They’re watching the rest of the playoffs at home with the rest of us. The 49ers will be sending Cousins and company home, too, this weekend.
Young quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has the 49ers offensive clicking on all cylinders. Tight end George Kittle is as good as there is in the game and the 49ers use three running backs with equal effects in Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman.
They also play great team defense.
Sunday’s games will see the Chiefs defeat the Houston Texans and an epic battle in Green Bay that will probably be decided by the elements.
It isn’t fair starting a playoff game in Green Bay after sundown in January.
Quarterback Russell Wilson will give the Packers fits and will keep his Seahawks in the game as long as he possibly can, but he can’t beat Aaron Rodgers, the Packers defense and the cold at Lambeau Stadium all my himself.
That will leave us with the Packers and 49ers and Chiefs and Ravens playing Jan. 19 in the conference championship games.
More good football awaits us.
COLLEGE TITLE GAME: It is hard to complain about the current college football playoff system. The two semifinal games Dec. 28 demonstrated that Clemson and Louisiana State were the two best teams in the country and they face each other Jan. 13 in the New Orleans Superdome to decide this year’s championship.
It figures to be a battle between the two quarterbacks, Joe Burrow for LSU and Trevor Lawrence for Clemson.
Burrow shredded Oklahoma’s defense in the semifinal game, kind of like Lawrence did to Alabama in last year’s championship game. Lawrence had the poise to lead the winning touchdown drive against Ohio State in the semifinal game.
LSU is a 5 ½ point favorite, but the bookmakers are expecting a high-scoring affair with the over-under set at 69.5. Take the over. Both teams can score.
HALFWAY HOME: The Lakers and the Clippers are approaching the halfway point on the schedule so we can start to get a handle on how the two teams can expect to do the rest of the season.
The Lakers continue to lead the Western Conference, with the Clippers in fourth place, 4 ½ games behind the Lakers with Denver and Houston at second and third.
As currently constructed, though, I would take the Clippers against the Lakers if the two teams were to meet in the playoffs.
The Clippers are deeper, top to bottom, than the Lakers. After LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers don’t have a reliable third scorer. They keep hoping that player will be Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but both players have struggled with nagging injuries so far.
Kuzma is averaging 12 points a game and Caldwell-Pope is averaging 9.3. The Lakers need someone to come off the bench and put some points on the board.
The Clippers have two players like that: Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.
Williams and Harrell both average more than 19 points a game off the bench for the Clippers.
Quite often, those two are on the court with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley down the stretch of close games.
The Clippers are letting Leonard determine when he plays during back-to-back games. So far, Leonard has missed 10 games. The Clippers are 5-5 in those 10 games.
As the trade deadline approaches, the Lakers are going to want someone who can put the ball I the basket. There should be plenty of shooters on the market, but finding someone who would feel comfortable playing with both James and Davis might be difficult.
So far, the Lakers have done a good job of avoiding losing streaks and injuries. At 35, James isn’t getting any younger and he want to start managing his work load like Leasonard is doing with the Clippers.
As now constituted, the Clippers are better than the Lakers. They have won both head–to-head matchups.
But there are three more month to play before the playoffs begin.
Plenty of time for the Lakers to tweak their roster, find that third scorer they so desperately need and hold on to as much of that Western Conference lead as they can.
The Clippers will keep the pressure on them.