Monday Morning Update: January 23, 2017

A down south beatdown, a historic loss in La La Land, and a new coach (and a points streak!) in Brooklyn

  1. Matt Ryan proves the doubters  me wrong

When you talk and write about sports, you plant plenty of flags in the ground. And for a long time, one of my highest flying flags was the “Matt Ryan is Overrated” banner.

I’m surprised, and I’m almost hesitant to say this, but fair is fair: Ryan proved me, and his many other naysayers, wrong over the past two weeks, and really, over the entire season.

There was a lot of talk by Joe Buck and Troy Aikman about Ryan’s MVP candidacy, and I reflexively took issue with it. But it was difficult to deny that he looked like one of, if not the, best passer even (and especially) compared to the presumed holder of that title, Rodgers. Ryan was surgical, and while he was helped out by the Packers complete lack of ability to capitalize, his record at the end of the contest was spotless. The Packers defense may not be too much to contend with, but the Falcons offense looked unstoppable, as it did against the vaunted Seahawk defense the week before.

The really impressive part is just how typical this performance was, at least this season. All said and done, Ryan probably deserves to be MVP in almost any season, but perhaps we’ll have the answers in a couple of weeks…

2. Julio Jones is not a normal human being

I like to say that Odell Beckham Jr. is the most talented and explosive wide receiver in the pros, and I still mostly feel that way. There’s certainly some evidence to support that theory.

But, all that being said, I’ve never seen a receiver embarrass a defense as badly as Julio Jones did the Packers defense. The most terrifying part of this play is that the Packers D held him on this play, and still could do nothing to even slow him down.

Jones has just about every ounce of explosiveness that my boy Beckham does, but on a much larger frame, Come playoff time, that size gives him a huge advantage over his opponents. He used his combination of those two traits to wreck havoc on the Packers throughout the game, but the show he put on in the third quarter on just a single pass was perhaps the most impressive play by any receiver this season.

3. Gone missing: the Packers’ mojo

Maybe the Packers’ luck ran out. Maybe the illness that reportedly infected the locker room or the travel troubles threw them off their game. Whatever the reason, the Packers have no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

The Falcons are no doubt a very talented team and by all indications yesterday, the more talented team in the contest. But Green Bay looked flat from the opening snap in the Georgia Dome, as if all the confidence they had after Rodger’s yearly rant, the swagger that powered their running of the table, had been sucked out of their bodies.

While there were few silver linings for the Packers, there was one bright spot: if it wasn’t already clear, the Packers need a find a way to upgrade their defense uring the summer. Perhaps they can take some cues from the team they beat in the Wild Card round.

4. More of the same from the kings of the AFC

Was there any other way this was going to end? The Patriots seemed destined to go to the Super Bowl this year. They came heartbreakingly close last year, actually suffered the effects of the Deflategate punishment to kick this season off, and have been as defiant as ever in the games since.

But really, the biggest reason we’ve come to expect the Pats to be in the games that matter is because of the three B’s: Bob (Kraft), Bill Belichick and (Tom) Brady. While everyone else, from coordinators to receivers to corners to linebackers have come in and out of Foxboro, those three have remained, and it’s almost impossible to picture them playing in any other jersey. In fact, it’s almost impossible, especially for people of my general age, to remember football without the big bad Patriots looming in every postseason.

But, Brady is 40 and Belichick is 65. Sooner or later, as impossible as it seems, this is going to end. Some have speculated that Brady will eventually be deal the same hand that Vince Wilfork and so many others were dealt, but even if he does play every snap of his career with New England, as I still believe he will, there are only so many times he’ll do this.

Brady, as he almost always seems to be, was all but perfect last night, guiding the Patriots to a double-digit win at home over a talented Steelers team. And while I have a true distaste for the Patriots, it’s always been colored with deep respect, and I felt more of the latter than the former as I watched the Patriots finish their road to Houston.

We’re watching the best coach-player duo we’ve ever seen, and there’s really very little to argue against that idea. Even if they are arrogant, sneaky, shifty and often bitter despite their immense success, Belichick, Brady and Kraft have guided what was once a comic punchline in the NFL to the greatest organization the sport has ever seen, on par with franchises like the Yankees in the MLB, the Blackhawks in the NHL, and the Lakers and Celtics in the NBA.

One for the thumb would write a pretty fantastic ending, but thankfully, it doesn’t seem like the story is finished quite yet.

5. Hogan’s (a) hero

When it’s written down on the page and probably turned into a movie, Chris Hogan’s story won’t start with him as a New England Patriot, but it may end that way.

Hogan first competed at a near-top athletic level as a college lacrosse player for Penn University, and he’s now having a sizable impact for perhaps football’s greatest dynasty. I’m sure not many people in his life, and probably not even Hogan himself, ever saw this coming while he wielded a lacrosse stick. I doubt they even saw it coming when he first broke into the league with the lowly Buffalo Bills.

Hogan’s rise has been so unexpected, his brother even joined in the disbelief on Twitter when Hogan first brought in a TD pass earlier this year, but to the delight of football fans everywhere. Now he’s reeling in a pair of those scores in the biggest game of the year to this point. Now that’s a story that sounds straight out of Hollywood.

There are plenty of reasons’ to dislike the Bill Belichick Patriots, but one of the reasons to enjoy watching the team is his ability to take unknown players and turn them into major contributors. Hogan is just the latest, and perhaps, the best of his tricks.

6. Big Ben’s beginners’ luck?

So it seems that Chris Hogan’s story will likely have a happy ending. But what about one of his opponents in the AFC Championship game, Ben Rothelisburger.

Big Ben had a big impact, winning the Superbowl in his first and fourth season and getting back to the big game in his sixth. In the six years that have followed, however, Big Ben and the Steels have failed to find their way to the big game. In fact, this was the first time the team has reached the Conference Championship.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of red-blooded American males and even 90 percent of NFL QB’s would kill to get to play in three Superbowls and win two. So this is not to say that Big Ben’s career is a failure.

But you have to wonder how frustrated he is after reaching the mountain top with such frequency early in his career.

7. The Lakers’ Large loss

The Lakers, despite their seemingly constant status as the Association’s villains, have turned into a somewhat likable young team. Nick Young is an ass, but a somewhat lovable one and Russel and Randle are a pair of young players with plenty of potential.

But these are not the Lakers of old, at leat not yet. The team shouldn’t worry too much about losing, seeing as they would probably be best served by keeping their top-3 protected first round pick instead of sacrificing the pick in order to fight for a spot in the meat grinder that will be the Western Conference playoffs. But just because you’re fine with losing more games than you win, doesn’t mean you’re looking to lose in historic fashion.

The Lakers lost by their largest margin ever yesterday to the lowly Mavericks, another team on the outside looking in on the West’s elite. And to make matters worse, more than one media outlet delighted in pointing out that Kobe Bryant outscored the Lakers whole team in this loss, during his 81-point game.

It seems like a throwaway stat, a coincidence, and it mostly is. But it also demonstrates what could become a big issue for this young Lakers’ team—they will constantly be compared to the modern glory days of the Lakers when Larry O’Brien trophies were just a fact of life.

We’ll see if they can stack up…

8. Marvelous Marner and Terrific Toronto

The Leafs are already perhaps the most fun team to watch in the league, with a cavalry of skilled, speedy youngsters like the above Mitch Marner, who undressed Senators’ netminder in what was ultimately a losing effort this weekend.

The Leafs have lost their last two games, so perhaps this thought is ill-timed, but the Leafs will likely be in the playoffs this year, while teams like the Bruins and the Lightning will likely be watching at home (sorry Tim.) And that’s likely to be the start of a new trend, especially where the Leafs and Bruins are concerned.

Granted, the Leafs have some pretty big holes inside their own blue line, with a talented if inconsistent Freddy Anderson and a shaky and thin d-group, at least as they’re currently composed. But as Garth Snow showed us a few years ago, even middle of the road GMs can change their blue line with a move or two, if the cap room and timing are right. Considering that the Leafs have more than enough cap rooms thanks to their wealth of talented low-cost players (who are also highly movable if they decide to improve the D through the trade market) and a star-studded front office, they should have no problem securing their back-end in the near future.

There will surely be false starts along the way (it is Toronto after all) but the Leafs look ready to return to their mantle atop the hockey world.

9. Are the Isles back?

It’s been quite a season for the Islanders. They came in with plenty of new faces and saw some familiar ones walk out the door in the offseason. And the changes did not go smoothly in the first part of the season.

Ultimately, it cost head coach Jack Capuano his job, and gave new head DougWeight a chance to earn a permanent spot behind the bench. The Islanders have rallied around him so far, finding points in three games in quick order, vaulting the Islanders back withing sniffing distance of a playoff spot.

As always with the Islanders, there’s a catch: the points largely haven’t come thanks to a scoring explosion but through heroic efforts from new starting netminder Thomas Greiss. But wins are wins, especially over divisional opponents like the Flyers. At the end of the day, coaches are typically judged on their winning percentage, rather than the way they get there.

So are they back? That remains to be seen, as its far too early to give Weight or the team too much credit. But I will say this about weight so far: the Islanders special teams, his former area of expertise, have been sharp over the past few nights, as few as those have been. And, more importantly, he showed some common sense when starting rookie Anthony Beauvilier instead of the aging vet and late signing Stephen Gionta.

If Weight can keeping prioritizing the young players’ development, he has a chance to succeed in Brooklyn.

 That’ll do it for this edition—have a great week everyone! For more, follow @MurraySportTalk on Twitter.

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