Matt Kuchar Controversy Sheds New Light On Golf’s Old Problems

Matt Kuchar’s caddie payment controversy is a tale as old as golf. Joe Nicely discusses for The Combine.

I love golf. I love playing it, watching it, talking about it, betting on it, and playing PGA DFS. And like many others that love the sport, I love it maybe a little too much. It’s hard to explain to someone that isn’t a fan of the sport, but suffice it to say, folks have obsessed over golf since the day it was first played. Like many of my fellow golf nuts, I’ve been following this Matt Kuchar caddie controversy on social media over the past couple of months, as with all things golf, maybe a little too much. What started out as a heartwarming, feel-good story has devolved into a publicity nightmare for Kuchar, and to a lesser extent, a bad look for the sport. Golf has a fairly ugly history and deserved reputation of being an exclusive, racist, and elitist sport. And while this Kuchar situation seems minor on the surface, it does drag out and dust off some of golf’s oldest skeletons.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the story, here’s the CliffsNotes version: Matt Kuchar, a successful, longtime player on the PGA Tour, traveled to Mexico in November for the Mayakoba Golf Classic, a ‘swing season’ event, but a legitimate PGA Tour event nonetheless. Kuchar was a late commit to the tournament and his longtime caddie John Wood wasn’t able to make it due to a previously scheduled engagement. In need of a caddie, Kuchar went with the man considered to be the best local caddie available, David Giral Ortiz, or as most know him, ‘El Tucan’. Ortiz caddied at the host club daily and had experience in PGA Tour events (he helped journeyman pro Alex Cjeka log a top-10 finish in the previous year’s Mayakoba Classic). Of course, in true Cinderella fashion, Kuchar goes on to win the Mayakoba Classic with ‘El Tucan’ on the bag. It was the PGA Tour veteran’s first victory in over four years and he took home a massive $1.3 million winner’s check. It was a great story, golf fans loved seeing ‘Kuch’ win and it was made even sweeter by his use of a hometown caddie like ‘El Tucan’. Everyone was happy, until they weren’t.

Things got stirred up in January on Twitter. Former PGA Tour player Tom Gillis responded to a playful Tweet by current Tour caddie Kip Henley with an insinuation that a PGA Tour player had stiffed a caddie by only paying him $3,000 after winning an event in the fall. Twitter did what Twitter does, and it didn’t take long to figure out the player Gillis was referring to was Matt Kuchar. This came as a shock for a couple of reasons…the first being that Kuchar has long been considered one of the ‘good guys’ on the PGA Tour with his ‘aww shucks, golly gee-whiz’ persona and ever-present smile making him a fan favorite over the course of his career. The second reason is that Kuchar has printed money on the golf course. He has racked up over $46 million in career earnings. Yeah…that’s not a typo, $46 MILLION. It would maybe be easier to understand if a scuffling Tour pro went cheap on a bonus, but not a player as accomplished (and rich) as Kuchar. Kuchar was asked about the validity of the allegations on social media concerning his payment to ‘El Tucan’ during the Sony Open (a tournament that he went on to win with regular caddie John Wood on the bag) and responded by saying, “That’s not a story. It’s wasn’t 10 percent. It wasn’t $3,000. It’s not a story.”

To give this thing a little perspective, the typical payment to a regular caddie on the bag for a PGA Tour win is 10% of the prize money. So, in the case of Kuchar’s $1.3 million winner’s check at Mayakoba, his caddie’s take would normally be around $130,000, whereas $3,000 (the alleged amount paid to ‘El Tucan’) would be 0.23% of the winning prize money…less than half of one percent. Now, here’s where things get sticky…regular PGA caddies work extremely hard and they are away from their families most weeks of the year. They incur lots of travel expenses, just like their players. Caddies must also endure lean financial times when their player is struggling and missing cuts. So, the usual bonus money that comes with wins and good finishes is a way of evening things out over the grind of a season or career. ‘El Tucan’ didn’t endure any of these hardships over his four days on Kuchar’s bag, so there’s a legitimate argument that he didn’t “deserve” a full 10% share and I think most reasonable people would acknowledge and understand that reasoning. However, I also think most reasonable people would agree that $3,000 on a $1.3 million win is a ridiculous amount. Some, like the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, would argue that it’s no one’s business.

Both Kuchar and ‘El Tucan’ remained tight-lipped about what the actual payment was, until Ortiz broke his silence by speaking with GOLF.com’s Michael Bamberger earlier this week. You can read that excellent piece here, but ‘Tucan’ details his pre-tournament payment arrangement with Kuchar and how he received payment of $5,000 after the Mayakoba win and nothing more, even though he was expecting a bigger bonus to come at some point. Kuchar recently responded to the claims, in an interview also with Michael Bamberger, and that response has been an unmitigated PR disaster.

“For a guy who makes $200 a day, a $5,000 week is a really big week,” said Kuchar to Bamberger, referring to ‘El Tucan’. That’s my biggest takeaway from Kuchar’s tone-deaf interview. It’s the perfect illustration that despite the PGA Tour’s efforts to “grow the game”, there is still a huge disconnect between golf’s elite and the regular Joe’s that make their lavish lifestyle possible. Kuchar might as well have said, ‘I’m rich a white American, the guy I let carry my bag is a poor Mexican, he should be happy with whatever I decide to give him.’ I would be really interested to know if payment would have been different if Kuchar won the Scottish Open with a local club caddie. Let me be clear, I don’t think Matt Kuchar is a racist, I just believe that he’s completely out of touch, which has been a problem in the world of golf for a long time.

Kuchar’s utter tone-deafness is surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. The PGA had a ‘caucasian clause’ in effect until 1961. The 1990 PGA Championship was held at Shoal Creek, a club with an openly racist founder. The hallowed grounds of Augusta National have long been haunted by their co-founder Clifford Roberts’ statements on white players and black caddies. We could even dive into the PGA Tour’s current treatment of modern-day caddies, who are almost all white, and weren’t even allowed in from a rainstorm at Riviera Country Club just this week.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about Kuchar’s statements is the obvious disconnect between the financial haves and have nots. Golf has always revolved around money. The PGA Tour kept standings according to earnings up until a few years ago when they instituted the FedEx Cup points standings (the winner gets $10 million).While Brandel Chamblee can argue that what Kuchar pays a caddie is no one’s business, my rebuttal would be that discussion about it became fair game the moment he accepted endorsement money to sell products to the public. Other sports can be played by children relatively cheaply, but golf is another matter. Equipment alone (the same equipment that Kuchar and other players make millions to endorse) is ridiculously expensive, and access to courses and the ability to afford greens fees are a huge obstacle to those of meager financial status.

We can’t throw all of golf’s social missteps at Kuchar’s feet, but his monetary faux pas does, and should, bring to light some of the socioeconomic issues that the PGA Tour still struggles with. Many will point to the time and financial support he has given to various charities as a sign that he’s a good guy…and maybe he is. It’s probably never fair to judge a person on one mistake, but the real shame here is Kuchar’s refusal or inability to see that he even made a mistake.

Kuchar asked an open-ended question to close out his interview with Michael Bamberger: “Maybe I missed the boat here. I kind of think I go there [to Mexico City] next week, and win, am I expected to pay him $130,000?” Yes Matt, you did and yes Matt, you are.

*UPDATE: FOLLOWING THE BACKLASH OF HIS COMMENTS, MATT KUCHAR HAS ISSUED A PUBLIC APOLOGY TO DAVID ‘EL TUCAN’ ORTIZ AND HAS COMPENSATED HIM THE AMOUNT HE REQUESTED, $50,000.

 

 

 

 

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Fear The Deer: The Acquisition of Nikola Mirotic Has The Milwaukee Bucks Primed For A Championship Run

While everyone was focused on where Anthony Davis might land at the NBA’s trade deadline, it was a different New Orleans Pelican that may prove to be the best acquisition of them all. Milwaukee’s move to nab Nikola Mirotic from the Pelicans was a microcosm of how this Bucks team operates: under-the-radar and extremely efficient.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is finally getting the hype that he so richly deserves as an MVP candidate, but despite owning the best record in the NBA (yes, better than the Warriors), his team still seems to be somewhat of an afterthought.

The Bucks sit atop the standings, but lag behind their Eastern Conference foes in media buzz. Philadelphia’s star-studded roster and flashy trades are certainly entertaining. The legendary Celtics franchise always demands attention, and between Kyrie Irving’s seemingly constant media sound bites and Boston’s obsession with acquiring Anthony Davis, there is tons of focus on the preseason East favorites. Toronto has become something of a media darling and a splashy move to acquire Marc Gasol from Memphis at the deadline has been well received.

With the majority of the Western Conference standing pat and appearing to accept their inevitable playoff fate of ‘death by Golden State’, the newly Lebron James-less East entered into a bona fide arms race at the trade deadline in an attempt to win a conference that is more wide open than it has been in years. Milwaukee wasn’t expected to be a big player at the trade deadline, and on the surface the Mirotic deal doesn’t scream ‘blockbuster’, but the move makes the team that is already the best squad in the East even more dangerous.

Mirotic is perhaps best known for getting his face wrecked by his then-Chicago Bulls teammate Bobby Portis. Chicago moved Mirotic to New Orleans and the 27-year-old has paired surprisingly well with Anthony Davis over the last season-and-a-half. That part is important, because it signals that he should fit in seamlessly with Giannis in Milwaukee. Mirotic averaged just a shade under 16 points and eight rebounds per game in New Orleans, but the Bucks are bringing Mirotic in to space the floor. He is shooting nearly 37% from the three-point line this season, good enough to force opposing defenses to respect him from deep. This ability to stretch the floor will give the Greek Freak plenty of room to drive and create.

While he’s not known for his defensive prowess, Mirotic will be able to help the Bucks in that regard as well. Brook Lopez is having an amazing season for Milwaukee (even adding a three-point shot to his arsenal), but he is more of a traditional center (big and slow) at the defensive end. Mirotic’s ability to play the five-spot defensively will allow the Bucks to handle pretty much any lineup an opposing team throws at them (think Golden State’s ‘Lineup of Death’), while also creating mismatches in Milwaukee’s favor.

The Bucks are already one of the most flexible teams in the league and Mirotic only adds to their shape-shifting abilities. There aren’t many matchups that Milwaukee has to fear now. They can handle the quickness of the Celtics going small or the size of Joel Embiid and the Sixers. While it’s a bit presumptuous to discuss a matchup with the Warriors, Milwaukee did log a 134-111 win over Golden St. at Oracle Arena earlier this season. Golden State has superior talent to almost every team in the league, as well as the roster to create mismatches and disadvantages on both ends of the floor. However, what Milwaukee has in Giannis a great talent equalizer and the addition of Mirotic rounds out a sneaky-good and surprisingly deep Bucks roster.

First-year Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s impact also can’t go overlooked. He has brought an offensive breath of fresh air with him to Milwaukee and his schemes have allowed the spacing that Giannis needs to flourish. Mirotic is the perfect player to throw into Budenholzer’s bombs-away philosophy and gives Milwaukee another shooter on the floor to help unlock Giannis’ seemingly limitless ceiling.

All we can ever do with sports trades is speculate as to the outcome. While Nikola Mirotic isn’t the same caliber of individual player as Marc Gasol or Tobias Harris, he has the opportunity to make a championship-level impact in Milwaukee.

Where Does Markelle Fultz Go From Here?

The Philadelphia 76ers have officially moved on from their former number-one pick and it might be exactly what Markelle Fultz needed.

When the Philadelphia 76ers traded Markelle Fultz Thursday afternoon it didn’t come as a surprise. Philly’s moves to acquire Jimmy Butler earlier in the season and Tobias Harris at the trade deadline signify that they are all-in on the present. Fultz, the player the Sixers traded up to draft at number one less than two years ago, was supposed to be a huge part of Philly’s future, but as of Thursday the organization’s future plans no longer include the former number-one pick. After a tenure with the 76ers that was borderline bizarre, sometimes heartbreaking, and always frustrating…where does Markelle Fultz go from here?

It’s easy to forget now, but Philly’s aggressive pursuit to move up in the 2017 draft in order to select Markelle Fultz out of the University of Washington was almost universally applauded at the time. This was a Sixers team that was knee deep in “The Process” and Fultz was viewed as a great fit with Philly’s young duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Ironically, one of the main reasons the Sixers felt comfortable pairing Fultz with the jump shot-less Simmons in their backcourt of the future was Fultz’s ability to shoot from outside. He shot just over 41% from behind the 3-point line in college…add in great size for a point guard (6’4″) with lightning-fast speed and it’s easy to see why Fultz was the consensus top pick of the 2017 NBA draft.

The future looked bright for Fultz and the Sixers, but then the unfathomable happened…at some point between the 2017 NBA summer league and the start of training camp, THE NUMBER ONE PICK OF THE DRAFT FORGOT HOW TO SHOOT. ‘Forgot’ might not be the right word to use here, because no one really knows what the right word is. There have been tons of draft busts over the years, but that label doesn’t quite fit Fultz, as his saga is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. There have been thousands of words already typed on this subject, so I’ll spare you a deep dive, but whether due to injury, psychology, or a combination of both…Fultz was no longer able to shoot a jump shot when his rookie campaign kicked off. Numerous doctor visits and sessions with shooting coaches followed. This is the point where it becomes really easy to sympathize with Markelle Fultz, a then 19-year-old kid with the expectations of an entire city and organization on his shoulders, who is suddenly unable to do the one thing he’s been great at his whole life.

While Fultz toiled on the Philly bench during the 2017-18 season, teammates Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons proved themselves to be the real deal. The duo was much better, much faster than anyone truly anticipated, leading the Sixers to 52 wins in the regular season. Philly then knocked out Miami in the first-round of the NBA Playoffs and the team that was all about “The Process” was suddenly about “The Present”. This was all accomplished without Fultz, who appeared in just 14 games as a rookie. After an offseason filled with glimmers of hope and shaky iPhone videos of Fultz’s jumpshot, the Sixers tried to work him into the rotation at the beginning of this season, but it quickly became clear that Fultz still wasn’t the player that the Sixers drafted.

So, after just 20 months and 33 games played, the former no. 1 pick is now a former Philadelphia 76er. Just before this past Thanksgiving, Fultz played his last game for the Sixers and received a new medical diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome shortly thereafter. The acquisition of Jimmy Butler earlier this season signaled that Philly was accelerating their championship timetable and the Tobias Harris trade earlier this week kicked it into hyper drive. Fultz and his issues were no longer a luxury the organization could afford and the Sixers sent him to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons and two draft picks. The move killed two birds with one stone for Philly, creating the financial room to attempt to retain both Harris and Butler after this season, while also washing their hands of the scrutiny the Fultz situation brought.

Orlando is a beautiful city, but it’s the closest thing the NBA has to Siberia. It also might be exactly what Markelle Fultz needs right now. He can rehab and work on his game with little media scrutiny in Orlando. He also won’t be carrying the hopes and dreams of a franchise on his shoulders. The Magic are in perma-rebuild mode and it’s the perfect situation for Fulz. It’s easy to forget that this kid is still just 20-years-old. His short time in Philly wasn’t without brief glimpses of his elite talent. In his rookie season he became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double at just 19-years-old and he did it without being able to shoot a jumper! Things might never improve for him in Orlando, the place where talent goes to be forgotten about, but maybe being forgotten about for a little while is just what Markelle Fultz needs.

 

 

 

 

Five Things: Super Bowl LIII

Joe Nicely discusses his ‘Five Things’ for Super Bowl LIII

Welcome to the Super Bowl LIII edition of Five Things! You can probably guess from the title that I’m going to discuss five things worth keeping an eye on during Sunday’s big game. The wait for the Super Bowl has been long enough, so let’s dive in!

 

1. Bill Belichick’s Genius vs. Sean McVay’s Genius

What we’ve got ourselves here is a real “genius off” between these two coaches. There’s a definite Darth Vader (Belichick) vs. Luke Skywalker (McVay) vibe going on with these two football Jedi masters. Belichick is 66-years-old and has won five Super Bowls as the head coach of the Patriots, while McVay is only 33 and appearing in his first Super Bowl in just his second season as the Rams head coach. There’s a real “circle of life” feel to this matchup and it’s absolutely perfect. Belichick is the old grizzled veteran trying to win one last championship (though he’d probably tell you he’s nowhere close to finished) and McVay is the insultingly young prodigy that’s trying to prove that he’s ready to take his rightful place as the best. Belichick is a defensive genius, McVay is an offensive genius…it’s all straight from a Hollywood script.

 

2. Tom Brady vs. Aaron Donald & Ndamukong Suh

Speaking of Hollywood, let’s talk about the QB that looks like he walked straight out of central casting. Tom Brady has already cemented his legacy as one of, if not the best, quarterback of all time. Brady will face one his biggest Super Bowl challenges yet in the form of L.A.’s menacing duo; Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Donald is the most dominant defensive player in the NFL, he logged 20.5 sacks this season and wreaks havoc on opposing offenses. We know that Bill Belichick is terrific at scheming an opposing team’s best player out of the game…enter Ndamukong Suh. Once considered “the next great defensive linemen”, Suh has gradually turned into a mercenary, that’s really good instead of great, and willing to play for the highest bidder from year-to-year. If Belichick takes one of these guys out of the game, Brady will still have his hands full with the other one.

 

3. Maroon 5 vs. Cultural Backlash

We are in an age where who isn’t doing the Super Bowl halftime show is cause for an uproar*. The performance has somehow turned into a referendum on who does or doesn’t support Colin Kaepernick’s case against the NFL**. In this current political and cultural climate that is so highly influenced by race, the NFL made the absolutely tone-deaf decision to hire perhaps the whitest band ever to perform the halftime show…in Atlanta, the hip-hop capital of the south. So now we have a Maroon 5 backlash brewing, which is a really strange sentence to type when talking about an extremely inoffensive rock band. Adam Levine seems like a decent dude (especially for a celebrity) and probably just wanted to play the Super Bowl because Prince did it once. Should the NFL have went a different direction on the halftime show? Probably. Is it something to get all worked up about? Hell no!

*Give me a fuckin’ break.

**Seriously…give me a fuckin’ break.

 

4. Todd Gurley vs. C.J. Anderson

Yeah, I’m aware that Gurley and Anderson are on the same team, but this is one of the most fascinating situations that I’ve seen in a long time. Gurley was arguably the MVP of the league this year. The dude ran for 1,251 yard, logged 59 catches for 580 yards, and scored 21 touchdowns…a pretty nice little season. During the course of the year, Gurley understandably got nicked up and was rested by the Rams for the last two games of the regular season. L.A. signed free agent RB C.J. Anderson off the street and he’s been a revelation. The human Teddy Ruxpin racked up 297 yards rushing and 2 TDs while filling in for Gurley in the Rams last two regular season games and a funny thing happened on the way to the Super Bowl…the Rams have basically stuck with Anderson over their franchise player. The castaway back has outsnapped, and frankly, outplayed the MVP candidate in the playoffs and it’s not been particularly close: Anderson has 39 carries to Gurley’s 20. The interesting question is will Sean McVay be willing to continue riding Anderson and keep Gurley off the field in the biggest game of the year?

 

5. Tony Romo’s First Super Bowl

With the NFL’s broadcast partners rotating the Super Bowl from year to year, who’s calling the game is usually a minor story. This year is a little different, as we are in the midst of “Romo-Mania”. The former Cowboys QB gave the best playoff performance of his career (on or off the field) in the AFC Championship game. Romo’s enthusiasm for the KC vs. NE game was infectious and he was up to his old “calling out plays before they are ran” tricks. While a cardboard cutout would have been an upgrade over Phil Simms (Well Jeeemmm), Romo has massively exceeded anyone’s expectations. He’s been so sharp when it comes to playcalling, that there are whispers that teams have legitimate interest in him as a coach or coordinator. With Romo’s CBS contract up soon, the popular ex-QB appears to be in a position to command John Madden-type money and a great Super Bowl performance will cement his place as the best in the booth going forward.

Five Things: What To Watch This Weekend

With the Super Bowl over a week away, The Combine’s Joe Nicely offers five ways to get your sports fix this weekend.

Thanks to the NFL’s constant attempt to make itself feel important, we don’t have a Super Bowl to watch until next weekend. Next week we’ll get the ridiculous “Media Day” and non-stop TV coverage of the upcoming big game…basically a week-long NFL commercial. So, what is a football-starved sports fan supposed to watch this weekend? Here are five things that will help tide you over until Super Bowl Sunday.

1. College Basketball: Kentucky vs. Kansas (Sat. 6:00 PM)

We all know that the NCAA basketball regular season is just about jockeying for postseason position. The big boys are trying to play their way into a high seed for the NCAA Tournament in order to make their championship road as easy as possible when March rolls around. The #9-ranked Kansas Jayhawks head to Rupp Arena to face the #8-ranked Kentucky Wildcats this Saturday for what may well be a Final Four preview. This game features two perennial national powerhouse programs that have championship aspirations this season. I really like that it’s at Rupp Arena instead of being one of those chickenshit “neutral court” games. The best thing about college sports is the amazing atmosphere and “Big Blue Nation” will be fired up for this one.

 

2. Men’s Tennis: Australian Open Final – Novak Djokovic vs. Rafa Nadal (Sun. 3:30 AM)

I’m not a big tennis fan, but this is a clash of the titans matchup between Djokovic and Nadal, two of the game’s all-time greats. We’ve been living in what is perhaps the “Golden Age” of the men’s game with these two players and the great Roger Federer constantly battling for supremacy over the last 10-plus years. This will be the 53rd career matchup between Djokovic and Nadal, but just their second meeting at the Australian Open, with their first duel, a five-set marathon in the finals, becoming an instant classic. They have 31(!) combined grand slam titles and Djokovic is trying to win his record-breaking seventh Australian Open title. Both men are still playing at a world-class level, but we have to wonder how many more of these Djokovic/Nadal/Federer grand slam final matchups we will have a chance to watch.

 

3. PGA Golf: Farmers Insurance Open (Sat. and Sun.)

While I don’t watch much tennis, I actually am a big golf fan and this should be a great tournament to watch this weekend. The Farmers has the best field of players we’ve seen in 2019 and is being held at a really fun Torrey Pines golf course that will host its second U.S. Open in a couple of years. Tiger Woods is making his 2019 debut and has won at Torrey eight times in his career. It’s always fun to see the best golfers in the world doing battle on a challenging golf course. Torrey Pines has an amazing par-5 finishing hole that has water in play and always makes for riveting TV. Jason Day won last year’s epic tournament on the SIXTH(!) playoff hole.

 

4. NBA Basketball: Golden State Warriors vs. Boston Celtics (Sat. 8:30 PM)

After a couple of lackluster starts, both of these teams are coming into this possible NBA Finals preview in hot form. Golden State has ran off nine straight wins and is looking like the unbeatable juggernaut we all thought they would be. DeMarcus Cousins made his Warriors debut a few nights ago and makes their starting lineup look even more unfair than it already did. It seems like a different player leads the Warriors to victory every night. The Celtics got off to a sluggish start this season and the mediocre play lasted a lot longer than anyone thought possible. Boston appears to have things heading in the right direction, winning seven of their last 10 and five straight. Kyrie Irving is a one-man whirlwind and Boston is one of the few teams with roster talent that is in the same ballpark as the Warriors.

 

5. NFL Football: Pro Bowl (Sun. 3:00 PM)

I don’t watch the NFL Pro Bowl. It’s undoubtedly the worst All-Star game in any of the major sports, but yet the NFL refuses to let it die the death it deserves. Major League Baseball can give us amazing hitter vs. pitcher matchups and I’m always down to watch NBA players team up and do some awesome dunks…but football just isn’t a sport that lends itself to an exhibition game. NFL players don’t have guaranteed contracts and you can’t blame them for not wanting to play in this game. About the only thing that makes this farce watchable is the fact that you can bet on it. Do yourself a favor and take the Over…you have to be a little dead inside to bet the Under in the Pro Bowl.

 

 

Five Things: NFL Conference Championship Games

Joe Nicely examines five things to keep an eye on in Sunday’s NFL Conference Championship games.

What’s up Combiners? We’ve got a pretty damn exciting Conference Championship Sunday coming up. For the first time in a long time, it feels like we are actually getting to see the four best teams fighting for trips to the Super Bowl. There is a common theme this year, as all four teams have great QBs that direct high-powered offenses. Let’s take a look at five things to keep an eye on this weekend.

1. The Saints Run D vs. The Rams Rushing Attack

In the words of the great Gorilla Monsoon, this is a true “unstoppable force vs. immovable object” matchup. We don’t normally think of the Saints as a defensive team, but as the season has progressed, that’s surprisingly what New Orleans has morphed into. Beginning in Week 10 of the regular season, the Saints defense had an amazing six-game stretch where the held opponents to just over 12 points per game! The New Orleans run defense has been nearly unbreachable and finished the season ranked second in the league in yards allowed per carry.

On the other side of this matchup is a downright dominant Rams offensive line. Linemen are the unsung heroes of the NFL and this unit has shined throughout the season. We all know that Todd Gurley is a generational talent, but this line has helped C.J. Freakin’ Anderson rush for 422 yards and four TDs over L.A.’s last three games.

The battle at the line of scrimmage may very well determine the outcome of this game. New Orleans won round one, holding Gurley to just 68 yards rushing when these teams met in Week 9 of the regular season. If the Saints can contain Gurley (and Anderson) again, they might be marching to another Super Bowl appearance.

2. Bill Belichick vs. Patrick Mahomes

It’s probably not fair to boil any matchup down to a head coach vs. a single player, but this will be an interesting chess match between these two. Belichick obviously has numerous strengths as a head coach, but perhaps his best quality is his ability to take away an opponents best player. In Sunday’s AFC Championship game, he will need to figure out a way to slow down KC’s Patrick Mahomes.

Mahomes has been a revelation this season and has played at an MVP level. He can make throws that boggle the mind. His arm is so amazing that his very high football IQ is often forgotten about, but his ability to read and process information will be put to the test by the defensive looks that Belichick throws at him this Sunday. He shredded the Pats when these teams met in Week 6 of the regular season, throwing for 352 yards and four TDs in a loss at Foxboro.

This is nearly as much about Andy Reid’s ability to adapt as it is Mahomes’ play. The offense that Reid has imagined for years has become a fully-formed entity this season. He took a major chance by letting Alex Smith walk and Mahomes has repaid his belief in spades.

3. Marcus Peters vs. Sean Payton

This is a situation that you will hear the media talking about in the lead-up to this game. There were some strong emotions flowing from both L.A.’s Marcus Peters and New Orleans coach Sean Payton after the first meeting between these squads back in Week 9. Peters was absolutely TORCHED by Saints WR Michael Thomas, to the tune of 12 catches for 211 yards and a TD. Payton decided to add a little insult to injury after the game and Peters…didn’t take it well.

While the matchup against Peters and Thomas is highly anticipated, it’s one we won’t actually see much of on the field. L.A.’s veteran CB Aqib Talib was injured the first time these teams squared off, but will be ready to go this Sunday. The Rams will try to get Talib on Thomas as often as possible in this one in an attempt to avoid the Peters vs. Thomas matchup.

4. Kansas City & New England Offenses vs. The Weather

Earlier in the week the expected game-time temperature in Arrowhead Stadium was around -5 degrees with snow. The forecast has improved throughout the week and the game-time forecast is now for a “balmy” 20 degrees.

We all know how weird the weather can be, so we probably won’t know exactly what type of conditions these teams will be facing until the game starts. This is an interesting story line to keep an eye on. Both of these teams are known for their explosive offenses and frigid weather could impact this game in a major way.

These units do most of their damage through the air, but both have ground games that can be effective. Rookie Sony Michel gives New England a legitimate between-the-tackles threat that they’ve lacked over the past couple of years and Kareem Hunt’s replacement Damien Williams has played very well for the Chiefs. It could come down to which team adapts to the weather best.

5. Rob Gronkowski vs. Time

New England’s Rob Gronkowski is one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the position. However, years of injuries have taken their toll and Gronk is currently just a shell of his former self and it’s not hard to notice that he’s laboring out on the field this year.

Despite his reduced explosiveness, Gronk is still a huge wild card heading into this matchup. KC has been destroyed by opposing TEs and allowed the most touchdowns in the league to the position this season. Gronkowski himself racked up 97 yards receiving against the Chiefs back when these teams met in Week 6.

So, even though I’m pretty sure that Gronk is being held together with popsicle sticks and duct tape at this point, he could still have a huge impact in this game. He’s had a string of difficult matchups, but this will be Gronk’s most favorable spot since he went for 107 yards and a TD against the Miami Dolphins in Week 14.

It will be interesting to see if Gronkowski has enough gas left in the tank to help the Patriots reach one more Super Bowl. At the very least, he’s a huge X-factor in this matchup.

NFL Christmas Wish List: NFC Edition

Joe Nicely dives into what should be on each NFC team’s Holiday Wish List.

Happy Holidays! Thanks for joining me here at The Combine! You hopefully had a few presents under the tree this year and, just like you, your favorite NFL team probably has some wants and needs on their Christmas wish list. Let’s check out what each NFL team should be asking for this year!

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: The Bears have had a wonderful Christmas this year, having won the division championship for the first time since 2010. Chicago has received a couple of huge gifts already this season, in the form of first-year head coach Matt Nagy and superstar linebacker Khalil Mack. The Bears would love to receive another gift as they head into Week 17…they need a win and a Rams loss to clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikes have a simple Christmas wish, they need a win against the aforementioned Chicago Bears in Week 17 to sneak into the playoffs. The Vikings headed into the season with lots of hype, but have disappointed to this point. Kirk Cousins and crew can still salvage the season with a win over the Bears. As we all know, anything can happen in the playoffs, but Minnesota needs a little holiday magic to get in the tournament.

Green Bay Packers: It has been a rough year for the Pack. Green Bay will be sitting at home staring at the fireplace when the postseason rolls around. Aaron Rodgers and company have a new coach at the top of their wish list. Things ended rather abruptly with longtime coach Mike McCarthy and the cheese heads would do well to ask Santa for a home run hire this offseason. While Rodgers himself is probably still wishing for the return of Jordy Nelson.

Detroit Lions: Things got off to a rocky start in Motown under first-year head coach Matt Patricia. He did improve Detroit’s perpetually poor defense, but Matt Stafford and the usually-dependable offense pulled a baffling disappearing act over the second-half of the season. I don’t know if Santa will bring Golden Tate back, but the Lions need some major help at receiver and should also pray for the health of rookie RB Kerryon Johnson, who flashed some superstar potential in his limited playing time this season.

 

NFC SOUTH

New Orleans Saints: After a heartbreaking loss to Minnesota in the playoffs last year, the Saints have come back with a vengeance in 2018. New Orleans has almost everything a team could want; a hall of fame QB, talented offensive players, and a defense that can hold its own. The Saints have already secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The only thing they can ask Santa for is a second Super Bowl win.

Atlanta Falcons: You have to wonder how many more lost seasons Atlanta will suffer through. With Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in their prime, the Falcons need to win now. The organization will be sending up prayers for a healthy 2019, as they struggled with a ridiculous amount of injuries this season. Head coach Dan Quinn would be wise to put a new offensive coordinator on his wish list with Steve Sarkisian continuing to flounder in his second year on the job.

Carolina Panthers: The Panthers will obviously be praying for quarterback Cam Newton’s shoulder this holiday season. Newton has labored to throw the ball downfield for much of the season and was shutdown for Carolina’s last two games. If Carolina let Cam make this wish, I’m sure we would see an upgraded offensive line before the kickoff of the 2019 season. Newton has been stuck behind a leaky o-line for most of his career and needs jolly old Saint Nick to send some pass blockers to Charlotte.

Tampa Bay Bucs: Similar to Tennessee and Miami in the AFC, Tampa Bay needs some clarity at the QB position. The organization faces a crucial decision in the upcoming offseason. The Bucs must decide if Jameis Winston is their quarterback of the future or if it’s time to cut ties with a player that has been slightly above average on the field, but has displayed horrible decision making off it. Tampa must also decide what to do with head coach Dirk Koetter, who has underachieved since getting the top job.

 

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys: Some wishes have worked out well for Jerry Jones and the ‘Boys. High-risk, high-reward draft picks Jaylen Smith and Randy Gregory are finally paying off and a mega-trade for Amari Cooper is looking much better than it did two months ago. What the Cowboys do need is some postseason momentum. Dallas hasn’t logged a win in the playoffs since the 2014 Wild Card round. They should ask Santa for a long overdue playoff win.

Philadelphia Eagles: Philly might have used up all their holiday mojo last season, when the long-suffering franchise won its first world championship of the Super Bowl era. That drought was ended by backup QB Nick Foles, who has the Eagles on the verge of a playoff appearance since once again stepping in for the injured Carson Wentz. While Wentz is the more talented player, perhaps the Eagles should wish for a extra-long recovery time that leaves Foles in the lineup well into 2019.

Washington Redskins: Shewww…where should I start? Though he catches tons of flack, head coach Jay Gruden has actually done a respectable job since taking the reigns of this dumpster fire. Washington fans should ask Santa for owner Daniel Snyder to sell the team. The revolving door of general managers, along with Snyder’s own ridiculous methods, have made it almost impossible for the ‘Skins to have any level sustainable success on the field.

New York Giants: The Giants need to take a page from the cowardly lion’s playbook and ask for some courage. There comes a time in every child’s life when they have to part with their favorite “blankie” and the Giants must find the courage to part with theirs…quarterback Eli Manning. With electric young players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley, the Giants need to embrace a youth movement and let their Super Bowl hero ride off into the sunset.

 

NFC WEST

Los Angeles Rams: In a season that’s been mostly smooth sailing, the high-flying Rams have hit a bit of turbulence over the last few weeks. Road losses the Saints and Bears are nothing to be ashamed of, but a home loss to the Nick Foles-led Eagles and an injury to franchise RB Todd Gurley have to be raising Sean McVay’s blood pressure. The loss of Cooper Kupp has hurt this offense and a defensive unit that everyone thought would come around hasn’t yet. The Rams hope to find a healthy Gurley and some defensive cohesion in their stocking.

Seattle Seahawks: Coach Pete Carroll has the Seahawks heading into Week 17 at 9-6, but this season might the most impressive accomplishment of his career. Seattle is in the playoffs, but should have asked Santa for home-field in the postseason. The Seahawks style of play doesn’t travel as well as some and they face a road contest either at Dallas or Chicago, depending on Week 17 results. Neither will be easy, but we’ve seen Russell Wilson pull off holiday miracles before.

San Fransisco 49ers: After a splashy offseason, the Niners’ regular season was pretty much over as soon as it began. Franchise QB Jimmy Garoppolo went down in Week 3 with a season-ending injury and RB Jerick McKinnon never even made it to Week 1 after signing a huge free agent deal with the Niners. The organization seems to be in good hands with GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, but they sure could use some holiday help with their injury issues as they head into 2019.

Arizona Cardinals: For a team that was regularly competing for the postseason under coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals have looked like an expansion team this season. First-year head coach Steve Wilks might not get a second year and the Cardinals seem to be either extremely young or extremely old at almost every position, with only misused RB David Johnson truly in his prime. Arizona might want to ask Santa to bring Bruce Arians out of retirement in hopes of rejuvenating this lifeless team.