Yankees vs Astros
The New York Yankees limped into the postseason, losing seven of their final ten games, with the team’s top players, including Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann failing to get hits and score runs towards the end of the season. But there was a glimmer of hope that The Pinstripers could pull off a victory over the Houston Astros in the AL wild card game in the Bronx last night. Yes, Astros starter Dallas Keuchel may have shutout the Yankees in two regular season starts this season, but last night the AL Cy Young Award contender was making his first-ever playoff appearance, which was sure to give him the jitters, not to mention he was pitching on three days’ rest for the first time in his career. But the small glimmer of hope Yankees’ fans held onto was quickly extinguished as Keuchel pitched six scoreless frames, giving up 3 hits and striking out seven. Houston’s bullpen then came into the game and pitched a combined three hitless innings.
There are only three games left in this NFL season, which on the surface is a sad thing (how did this season go by so fast??!?), but luckily for football fans, the two games this weekend are setting up to be a couple fantastic match-ups. The four remaining teams in the postseason – the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers – each finished with 12 or more wins and are considered by football experts to truly be the four best teams in the NFL this season.
While being the best team is obviously important to having a awesome conference championship weekend, it's all the additional story-lines and rivalries that are setting this weekend up to be one of the greatest weekends of football in memory.
Brady vs. Manning
For the past decade, the debate has raged on across the NFL – who is better: Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? Whichever side you choose, there are plenty of good reasons why you are right. Manning has the huge numbers and more MVP awards; Brady has more championship rings and the most playoff wins in league history. I fall on the side of Tom Brady, although I am extremely biased due to the fact that I am a Patriots fan. However, for many people, this weekend's game between the Broncos and Patriots is the line drawn in the sand; whoever wins the game is the better quarterback and perhaps the greatest of all-time. Of course, that may be going a little overboard, but it has thrown gasoline on the fire of this QB rivalry, which is only adding to the anticipation of the game.
In one night, the Los Angeles Lakers went from teetering on the brink of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005, to beating the Houston Rockets, leapfrogging them in the standings and clinching the seventh seed. NBA basketball as its best.
The Western Conference playoff teams are now set and, unlike the Eastern Conference where the Heat are far and away the favorites, the West has more teams that have a legitimate shot at going to the NBA Finals. Here is how I view the eight playoff teams out West:
Contenders: Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs
The Oklahoma City Thunder dominated their way through Western Conference in 2012 before losing to the Miami Heat in the Finals. This year could be more of the same. Kevin Durant is the best player in the NBA not named LeBron and he will not slow down in the postseason. If point guard Russell Westbrook can play up to his ability, the Thunder will be tough to take down again in 2013.
While the Thunder may be favorites, the Spurs also have a claim as contenders. Veteran leaders Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have been great all season, playing "Spurs" basketball that coach Gregg Popovich has built over the years. While San Antonio does not have the superstar players that OKC has, they may be the better team at playing as a collective unit.
Challengers: Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies
All season long, the Denver Nuggets have been one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NBA. The Nuggets are the forgotten team of the Andrew Bynum trade, but that trade landed them Andre Iguodala, who has been great for Denver all season. No team scored more points than the Nuggets and if they can carry their scoring ability into the postseason, they can beat anyone in the league.
It seemed like the NBA regular season just began yesterday, but it's now time to turn the page and look forward to the second season, the 2013 NBA Playoffs. With the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz still battling for the final spot in the Western Conference, today we will preview the LeBron James Conference... *cough*... I mean the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Contenders: Miami Heat
Like I said in the title of this post, and eluded to in the previous paragraph, the NBA's Eastern Conference has been dominated by LeBron James and the defending champion Miami Heat. The Heat finished atop the standings by a dominating 12 games, finishing 65-16, which included a 27-game winning streak. LeBron James has been by far the best basketball player on the planet and will undoubtedly win his fourth NBA Most Valuable Player Award. It's hard to imagine this Heat team, which many feel is better than last year's championship team, not going back to the NBA Finals to defend their crown.
Challengers: New York Knicks, Boston Celtics
I almost put the Knicks in the contender category due to their recent play, but I don't see how they could possibly beat the Heat. For even a glimmer of a shot, it would take a monster effort from Carmelo Anthony, who will be matched up with LeBron. The X-factor for the Knicks is their three-point shooting; during the regular season, the Knicks took and made more three pointers than any other team in the league. When they catch fire they are tough to beat.
While the NBA's Eastern Conference teams are still battling it out to see who will play in their conference finals, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder made quick work in their second round series, setting the stage for a Spurs-Thunder Western Conference Finals match-up.
It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that these are the two teams in the west left standing, as they were the two best teams in the regular season and by far the two best in the postseason. The Spurs have yet to lose in these playoffs, sweeping both of their series, and they have now won a combined 18 games in a row behind veterans Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. The Thunder are playing in their second straight Western Conference Finals, losing last year to the eventual NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. The team features scoring champion Kevin Durant as well as Sixth Man of the Year Award winner James Harden.