A great day for sports on TV -- even without college football -- gives way to a couple more as the playoffs get under way.
What a ridiculously great day New Year’s Day was for watching sports on television, and I say that as a person who watched not a second of college football.
I’m talking about the NHL’s Winter Classic, the Detroit Red Wings-Chicago Blackhawks game played outdoors at Wrigley Field, and the debut of the MLB Network, baseball’s own cable network.
The hockey game was a see-saw affair not wildly affected by the elements, but played in an electric atmosphere in front of a crowd twice as big as a normal NHL gathering. It looks like the league is going to make the outdoor game an annual New Year’s Day tradition, which is just a fabulous idea.
The MLB Network debuted at 6 p.m. EST — wise to wait for the target audience to be fully over its collective hangover, even on the West Coast — with a little speech by commissioner Bud Selig and then an hour of the studio show “Hot Stove,” which was pretty standard issue. We’ll give it some time.
Then MLB showed a kinescope of Don Larsen’s perfect game from the 1956 World Series, minus the missing first inning but plus a studio conversation among Bob Costas, Yogi Berra and Larsen. The broadcast included period commercials, mostly for Gillette razors, which had a special going on during the ’56 Series: You got a razor and a “vest-pocket” version of the Baseball Encyclopedia for a dollar.
Mel Allen and Vin Scully split up the play-by-play, with Allen, the Yankees announcer, taking the first half of the game and then turning it over to the Dodgers’ Scully. Not bad. I’ll write some more about that game next week, when you’re back at work and actually reading.
And yeah, they played five college football exhibition games Thursday, including the BCS Rose and Orange bowls. There were also the Outback, Capital One and Gator bowls.
You remember college football. It used to own New Year’s Day. Now it’s background noise. Of course baseball debuted its new network on Jan. 1. The day’s wide open except for the Winter Classic, which MLB waited out.
How dumb is a business — college football — that doesn’t have to pay its employees, but still manages to get outsmarted and outflanked by the NHL.
We’ll get more good TV over the weekend with the four first-round NFL playoff games.
Atlanta (11-5) at Arizona (9-7)
4:30 p.m. EST, NBC
I’ve been picking the Cardinals to win the NFC West every year since the Coolidge administration, mostly so I’d be right that one year they actually did it. Their championship this season proves one of the indisputable facts about the NFL: Someone has to win the NFC West.
The problem is the Cardinals aren’t a very good team. They swept their six division games, against foes who combined to go 13-35. Outside the NFC West they went 3-7. They were 1-4 against playoff teams, the lone win in Week 2 over the Dolphins, who hadn’t really started to pull themselves together yet.
The Falcons are a pretty good team, with a balanced offense that’s just the thing to beat the Cardinals’ lousy defense. Atlanta’s defense is mediocre, though it’s more vulnerable to the run than to the pass. Guess which thing Kurt Warner’s Cardinals do.
Indianapolis (12-4) at San Diego (8-8)
8 p.m. EST, NBC
The Colts haven’t lost since before Halloween. They started slowly as Peyton Manning shook off the effects of offseason knee surgery, but as the playoffs begin they’re almost the same old Colts. They score a ton of points, and their defense probably isn’t good enough to get them to the Super Bowl. Their running game isn’t as good as it’s been in past years either.
But they should be good enough to get past the Chargers, who won their last four to steal the AFC West with an 8-8 record, and whose defense is worse. The Chargers have the proverbial puncher’s chance thanks to quarterback Philip Rivers and wild-card back and return man Darren Sproles. Then again, the Colts have a pretty good puncher themselves.
Baltimore (11-5) at Miami (11-5)
1 p.m. EST, CBS
The Dolphins pulled themselves together after a 27-13 home loss to the Ravens in Week 7 that dropped them to 2-4. They’ve lost only once since then, to the Patriots.
The Ravens improved from 5-11 to 11-5 in one year, which would look a lot better if it weren’t next to Miami’s improvement from 1-15 to the same record. The Dolphins got to play all the teams from both lousy West divisions, which helped matters, but they’re not frauds. They just don’t figure to be able to do much more against Baltimore’s elite defense than they did in Week 7. The Dolphins started to make their bones early this year with “Wildcat” offense trickery, the sort of thing that doesn’t work against a good, disciplined defense like Baltimore’s.
Philadelphia (9-6-1) at Minnesota (10-6)
4:30 p.m. EST, Fox
The Eagles looked dead in Week 12, when Donovan McNabb was benched at halftime of what became a 36-7 loss to the Ravens. They were 5-5-1 and hadn’t won in three weeks, and even then the win had been over Seattle. Four wins in five games later, the Eagles have joined the Colts, Chargers and Dolphins among the resurrected.
The Vikings are here because of a solid defense and Adrian Peterson. But they’ve missed nose tackle Pat Williams, who broke his shoulder three weeks ago and will try to play Sunday, though he doesn’t figure to be his usual self. McNabb and Brian Westbrook figure to be too much for the Vikes.
Or maybe they don’t, but if I’m going to pick three road teams, I might as well make it a clean sweep.
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