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FILE - In this March 13, 2017, file photo, former MLB pitcher and Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Niekro waves to fans after he was introduced before a spring training baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates in Kissimmee, Fla. Niekro, who pitched well into his 40s with a knuckleball that baffled big league hitters for more than two decades, mostly with the Braves, has died after a long fight with cancer, the team announced Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020. He was 81. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Weekend winners

Miami. D'Eriq King returning for a sixth year not only gives the Hurricanes a centerpiece for 2021, it gives them a top-five preseason ranking.

Alvin Kamara and those lucky enough to be in their fantasy Super Bowl in Week 16 and have Kamara on their rosters. Dude had six TDs rushing to tie the all-time single-game mark and almost assuredly won every game in which he was involved in fantasy terms. (Side note: That really would be rotten if we were on the other side of Kamara and a weekend set to be filled with some pressure-filled and financially motivated action was all-but-over on Friday before the kids went to bed.)

Ryan Leaf on Twitter. A great Twitter follow is Super70sSports. Over the weekend, the Twitter account asked followers to name a college player they thought would be a great pro but wasn't. Leaf's response was 'Me.'

JJ Watt. Sure, there are a lot of reasons to be bitter about sports, but the very core of what we need as fans is the reminder that the results and the scores and the outcomes mean as much to the participants as they do to us fans. Here's Watt's postgame rant, and it's a soliloquy we all believe.  

Tom Brady threw for four TDs and more than 300 yards in the first half Saturday as the Bucs secured a playoff spot. Now feels like a good time to remind everyone that a healthy Brady has been to the postseason every year since 2002. Last two seasons without a healthy Brady, Bill Belichich is 0-for-postseasons.

Jacksonville. The Jags won by losing their 14th straight game. Trevor Lawrence come on down, and with the slew of draft capital and the array of young assets, they truly should be celebrating losing the battles but greatly improving their chances at big-picture success.

San Diego Padres. In an offseason in which there have not been many eye-popping moves, the Padres certainly pushed their chips onto the table as an NL contender with the Dodgers and the Braves by adding a bona fide ace in Blake Snell.

 

Weekend losers

UK. Kentucky played, Kentucky lost. Chas' Wildcats are now 1-6, a start so bad it dates back to the 1920s.

Browns bettors. How overwhelmingly one-sided was the train on the Browns against the Jets?  The Browns minus-6.5 had 86 percent of the money and 81 percent of all bets. As for the Browns to just win against the hapless Jets, 93 percent of the bets and a whooping 97 percent of the money on the Browns, who lost outright and now is teetering in a win-or-potentially-miss-the-playoffs scenario in Week 17.

My picks. Yeah, in what's been a season-long funk, did you expect anything different? I had the COVID-ravaged Browns last Friday and the Colts and Rams, each of whom laid down late. Our 1-4 Week 16 showing moves us back to .500 in the NFL on the season. (College bowl picks went 3-2 since Thursday. Our bowl picks are 7-5 overall which is far superior to our regular season showing.) Our NFL picks are now 33-31 against the number.

Falcons fans.TFP ace sports columnist Mark Wiedmer phrased it perfectly in his column in today's TFP. Man, I've been a Falcons follower since Bubba Bean and Haskel Stanback were part of the discussions. Yes, it's been a tortured history that  has crafted an expectation of defeat. But unlike the Bengals or so many of the other franchises that have forever struggled and failed, the Falcons have an innate way of making you believe this time will be different. Sunday was no exception.

Dwayne Haskins. In the aftermath of eschewing the NFL's COVID protocols, Haskins showed up for work Sunday as the quarterback of the Washington Football Team and was simply awful. To tip the scales even further, he refused to show in the postgame news conference Zoom, after being yanked in a game that could have clinched the division for Washington.

 

A white Knuckle Sunday

I feel old today.

Yes, I sometimes have to remind myself that I am 50, which not that long ago seemed ancient.

And yes, the Mrs. 5-at-10 frequently has to remind me to act like I'm 50, since, well, you get the idea.

I mentioned a long-time connection to the Falcons futility above.

Well, I grew up a Dodgers fan, but my summer home as a kid and a teenager was the ballpark, be it the youth fields where I played or the far-from-hallowed grounds known as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

And when we didn't find our way to the stadium, the early days of TBS made the wretched Braves a beloved band of ballplayers for all of the folks with this new-fangled cable thing. (Side note: Our first cable system came with a remote control that was about the size of my computer keyboard with 13 buttons with a lever on the left side that had three slots, so we had spots for 39 channel buttons. Also, is it still a remote control if there's a wire from the controller to the cable box?)

Where were we?

From Hank's 715 to that July 4 marathon with the Mets to Otis Nixon's catch in a 1-0 win over the Pirates to the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal baseball game, my timeline in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium is dotted with memories and milestones.

And they never felt further away than Sunday when I heard the news that Phil Niekro died.

Yes, we as fans form connections with players and programs, with famous faces and franchises. It's inevitable.

It's crushing when a Dale Murphy gets traded. It's extremely painful when we learn that Tiger Woods is a flawed human being. It's ultimately part of the emotional exchange and connection of being a fan.

The connection between the memories of the old stadium and the death of the man known as Nucksie was part of that too. But this made me feel old, because in my mind, the immortalized boys of summer in my memory have two pitchers depending on the level.

For the Wiffle Ball/youth leagues, that pitcher was me.

For the professionals, be it with Skip Carey describing it or watching it with my dad, that pitcher was Phil Niekro.
 
 

This and that

— You know the rules. Here's Paschall on Kirby's bowl run with the Bulldogs and the Vols losing a Friend off the coaching staff.

— Speaking of the National Football League, unless you had Amazon Prime, you were unable to watch the 49ers-Cardinals. Yes, as bad as the TV numbers have been for sporting events in a pandemic, you have to believe that the mainstream TV execs know that if live sports move fully to streaming, well, the cord-cutting will quicken dramatically.

— How's your bowl entry doing? Hope it's good. I will score the entries today and post the numbers Tuesday. Deal? Deal.

— You know how we discussed the importance of shopping around for online betting offers and deals, well FanDuel is dropping a dozy. In a 'Spread the Love' campaign, the online betting giant is moving the spread one point for every 250 bettors who bet on the Bills tonight. The current line is Bills plus-75, so unless the Pats add Alvin Kamara, Davante Adams and Tom Brady before kickoff, well, it's free money. (Max bet of $50.)

— Prayers to those in Nashville impacted by the dreadful events over the weekend, and major thanks to those who made  every heroic effort to minimize the damage and harm.

— And yes, as Intern Scott reminded us last week, no one really wants to hear about anyone else's fantasy team, but the combination of Davante Adams, Jalen Hurts and Jeffrey Wilson — none of whom were on my roster after draft day — we went back-to-back in The Pitch fantasy football league.

 

Today's questions

Weekend winners and losers. Go.

Couple of opened-ended questions as we begin the last week of 2020 — thank goodness.

Which athlete's death effected you the most? Not saying that Niekro's was that for me, but it certainly gave me pause for a person I had never met.

Denzel is 66 today. So there's that.

Rushmore of current working actors, because Denzel's gotta be there right?

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