Todd: Happy new year!  While the headline may imply we’re taking the New England Patriots 16-year run of success for granted, that cannot be further from the truth.  As I proclaimed in our last column, it’s amazing that in a league designed for parity and small windows of large win totals that the Patriots have not only reached the playoffs the last seven seasons, but have done so without needing to play a game on Wild Card Weekend. 

Of course this run starts with stability in the ownership, the head coach and the quarterback.  But with regards to the current 2016 club and their just-completed 14-2 season, the fifth time in franchise history (all in the Brady/Belichick era) that they’ve won at least 14 regular season games, these Pats head into the postseason as decent favorites to claim another Lombardi trophy.  If it happens, it might go down as the most memorable of all thanks to those possibly conspiring folks in the NFL’s corner office.

Then there are some of the eye-popping stats.  Tom Brady setting a new NFL benchmark for best TD-to-INT ratio (28 TD, 2 INT), accomplishing the feat in just 12 games, thanks to Commissioner Voldemort.  How about Legarrette Blount’s 18 TD?  It’s not only the most rushing touchdowns in a season since Adrian Peterson’s 18 in 2009, but Blount is the first Patriot to ever lead the NFL in rushing TD for a single season (Jim Nance did it twice for the Pats back in 1966 & ’67, but the team played in the AFL way back then).

I’ll get to more on the Pats prior to their Divisional Playoff game next week.  But first, I’ve got a few leftover items to clear off the old hard drive that I didn’t get to in our last column.

First, happy 100th anniversary to the NHL, who will be commemorating the milestone throughout 2017.  The first big event came with the Centennial Classic on New Year’s Day at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, the former home of the Blue Jays baseball team.  If you can believe it, they game was delayed 30 minutes because of sun glare.  Oddly enough, it rained all over this year’s Winter Classic played at the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis last Monday but the teams played right through.

I also want to congratulate Jaomir Jagr of the Florida Panthers for accomplishing something that will likely never happen again in the history of professional sports.  Last month, the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrated the 25th anniversary of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup win, with nearly everyone from that 1991 team coming back to Pittsburgh to celebrate.  Except for the 44-year old Jagr—who was a rookie on that ’91 Penguins team—because he had to play a game that night for the Panthers.  Seriously, how many players miss the 25th anniversary event of their first professional championship because they’re still playing competitively in the same league?

If you’ve read this blog the last few years, you know how much I like to rant about the college football bowl schedule, not only in the crazy amount of bowl games that actually exist but also for some of the sponsors that get behind these games.

This year, my winners for most idiotic college bowl names are the Playstation Fiesta Bowl (adios Tostitos, you’ll be missed), the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl (a strange pairing of fried chicken and tropical beaches) and the National Funding Holiday Bowl (although some years I could have used some national funding to purchase everything on my gift list).  But my grand prize goes to the Dollar General Bowl, which sold sideline seats for $45, considerably more than what the merchandise sells for at the sponsor’s stores.

Speaking of store merchandise and bowl games, how about Arkansas Razorbacks tight end Jeremy Sprinkle and the Belk Bowl?  Belk is a southern department store chain, and part of the swag the bowl sponsor gave to each participating player was a $450 shopping spree at any one of their stores.  But in case you missed it, Sprinkle didn’t play in the Belk Bowl because he was suspended by the team after getting busted for shoplifting shirts and socks at—you guessed it—Belk.  Seriously, I can’t make up a better story if I tried.

Although if I did, perhaps the following insanely ironic occurrence might just top it.  In last month’s Celebration Bowl, Grambling State defeated North Carolina Central 10-9 because after NC Central scored a touchdown with two minutes left, they were penalized for—you might have guessed it—an excessive celebration in the end zone.  The penalty pushed back their game-tying extra point attempt 15 yards to the 25-yard line, where the kick was ultimately blocked.  Again seriously, these events actually happened.

Let’s wrap up this week by bringing it back to the NFL and this weekend’s Wild Card games.  Kicking off the quartet is Oakland at Houston, where rookie Connor Cook will become the first QB in the Super Bowl era to make his first NFL start in a playoff game.  Kind of a shame the Raiders are now down to their third QB after Derek Carr and Matt McGloin go down, although I guess all I have to do is think about that Raiders-Patriots playoff game from 40 years ago and that atrocious call from referee Ben Dreith leading to an Oakland victory, and then I don’t feel so bad.

The Raiders’ offense has gone from fourth gear to reverse since Carr was lost for the season, and I’ll be curious whether Cook can get it back in gear again.  Meanwhile, the Texans will try to become the umpteenth team to try and reach the Super Bowl the year it’s played in their home stadium, and will be going back to the ineffective Brock Osweiler to try and get it done.  This battle of opposing QBs could get real ugly, like first team to score a touchdown wins.  All that said, I’ll take Houston, if only so Vince Wilfork’s potentially final NFL game (he’s considering retiring after the season) and career will come full circle at Gillette Stadium next weekend.

In the other games, Seattle and Pittsburgh should both win at home by double digits.  That leaves us with the last and best game of the weekend, the N.Y. Giants and Green Bay Packers, which many folks think will determine the NFC Champion.  The last two times the Giants have traveled to Lambeau Field in January, Eli Manning came out victorious with some clutch play and the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl against the you-know-whos.  On the other side, the red-hot Pack have won six straight games behind Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown 15 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions during the streak.  If there truly is a league conspiracy to deny the most awkward Super Bowl trophy in history, New York will win to try and set up the final in the Pats-Giants SB Trilogy.

Mike: I think Todd has said it all, so I'm just going to chime in with my first week NFL playoff picks as I get ready for the Patriots in the Super Bowl and The Most Awkward Trophy Presentation of All Time™.

Or maybe Roger Goodell will just skip the postgame festivities, leaving Patriots' fans to ask this immortal question...

OK, first let's deal with the Raiders vs. Houston. It seems just somewhat apt that the Raiders have cruised through the season with the top record, only to see it fall apart at the end. Couldn't happen to a better team! That being said, it's not like Houston is a real playoff team, they are a mess as well, but somebody has to win this...right?

Let's call it Houston 24-Raiders 10. 

OK now on to Pittsburgh vs. Miami. It's nice that Miami gets to to taste the playoffs, but a taste is all they will get. Pittsburgh rolls in this one, 27-12.

In the NFC, Seattle is going to demolish Atlanta 31-14 and Green bay is going to destroy the Giants 41-10.

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