Upsets dominate NFL, college games

John Gilbert

The National Football League gets really serious right about now, after all the playoff teams have been designated and the wild cards and favorites are showing their stuff. This weekend will be huge as the field gets pared down toward its Super Bowl finalists.

We in Minnesota have the benefit of being able to watch the playoffs for entertainment value without the living or dying with our beloved – and rudderless – Vikings to worry about. I frankly don’t care who wins the Super Bowl, as much as I care that the Vikings find a coach with a little creativity in his head to point the Vikings in the right direction.

But I found new reason to ace a little last weekend, because I predicted here last week which teams I thought would win.

Having read several “expert” opinions in the media about who should win and who would win, I ignored all of them and went with hunches in every case.

I picked the Los Angeles Rams vs. Arizona Cardinals would be the best game of the first weekend, and I picked the Rams, just because I think Arizona’s Kyler Murray might be the new most-exciting quarterback on the planet, but I would love to see Matthew Stafford solve his own long-standing demons by escaping Detroit and leading the Rams to glory.

I picked Buffalo to ignore the Bill Belichick coaching domination and eliminate the New England Patriots, to prove that Josh Allen and the fantastic Bills defense could win.

I picked Tampa Bay to squat the dreams of the Philadelphia Eagles because on one hand you have the Eagles figuring they could run against Tampa Bay, and on the other hand you have…Tom Brady. And I picked Dallas to defeat the exciting but zany San Francisco 49ers because I think Dak Prescott was back at full-function and could prevail.

Before Monday night’s Rams-Cardinals wrap-up to the first weekend, I was riding high. Buffalos’ crushed New England 47-17 as Allen was 21-25 for 308 yards and five touchdowns as the Bills scored touchdowns on every possession they had in the game. Tampa Bay, the defending Super Bowl champion, won 31-15 against Philadelphia as Brady 29-37 for 271 yards and two touchdowns.

The only guess I missed on was Dallas, as the Cowboys got into a serious hole against the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo won a duel against Prescott in one of the weirdest finishes you will ever see in a normally controlled environment of the NFL.

Garoppolo was 16-25 for 172 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, while the strong-armed Prescott was 23-43 for 254 yards and one touchdown, plus he ran in for a closing touchdown, and had one interception. If that indicates sloppy game, you’re right.

But after falling behind 23-7 through three quarters, the Cowboys made a run at it but couldn’t get past the officials. Literally!

There is a rule that an official must spot the ball, physically handling it before the snap can be made. Dallas stopped Frisco and got one final chance, after closing to 23-17 on a 51-yard field goal and Prescott’s sprint around left end in the fourth quarter. With 14 seconds remaining, Dallas was at the 49ers 41.

Prescott gambled that he had time to run the ball when he saw an opening, and spike it for one last play. He broke up the middle and ran to the 24, then hustled his teammates to get set. They did, but as Prescott went to get set behind the center, the umpire, Ramon George, awkwardly tried to step around Prescott to set the ball’s placement. The two collided, and by the time George got it placed and scrambled awkwardly to get clear, the clock hit 0:00 before Prescott could snap and spike it.

Dallas coach Mike McCarthy protested and said the sideline official assured him the play would be reviewed. “The next thing I know,” McCarthy said, “they’re running off the field.”

It seemed a simple review would have disclosed the absurd comedy of errors, and the officials would say to restore 2 seconds and give the Cowboys their final snap. The game had finally achieved the high drama I had been hoping for, and then the officials simply ended it.

Later, officials said all was correct because the umpire had to touch the ball. But I have never seen an umpire bump a quarterback more than once and actually case the clock to run out by his actions. Wholly unsatisfactory.

In Los Angeles Monday night, the Rams put Stafford in charge and he showed the value of all that experience, jumping ahead 14-0. Then the Rams defense pressured Kyler Murray and he, unfortunately, showed the problem with his lack of experience.

After a disputed play left the Cardinals in jeopardy, Murray was about to get sacked, so he tried to hurl a hook-shot type of pass just to get it out of the end zone – and the Rams intercepted and ran it in for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead. Game, as they say, over!

This weekend, the regular season conference champs get into the action, with Green Bay from the NFC and Tennessee from the AFC shaking the cobwebs loose from their bye weekends. San Francisco is at Green Bay, while the Rams are at Tampa Bay in the NFC semifinals, while the AFC is down to Cincinnati at Tennessee, and Buffalo at Kansas City.

It often comes down to the quarterbacks at this tightening stage of the season, and while Aaron Rodgers makes Green Bay a huge favorite, and Tom Brady does the same for Tampa Bay, the AFC games similarly have Pat Mahomes creating an edge for Kansas City while Ryan Tannahill helps Tennessee to the favorites roles to reach the AFC finals.

However, I have a feeling that it could be a weekend for the upstarts. I’m picking the LA Rams to surprise Tampa Bay, and the Buffalo Bills, who have both a sizzling offense and stifling defense, over Kansas City in another upset. I also have been so impressed with Josh Allen and the Cincinnati Bengals that I am going to pick the Bengals over Tennessee, which has had a great season, but might be one dollop short of Cincinnati in playoff magic.

That leaves the Green Bay Packers as the only favorite I’m sticking with this weekend. Frankly, I don’t think the Packers are the invincible force everyone assumes, and if it was 40 degrees I might pick the 49ers to win.

But San Francisco is erratic enough to give the Packers fits, my guess is it’s going to be bone-chilling cold in northeastern Wisconsin, and Aaron Rodgers will leave Jimmy Garoppolo in his rear-view mirror.

Upsets everywhere

The upset trend struck Minnesota college hockey last weekend, also, when Miami of Ohio got up from Friday night’s 4-1 licking by UMD and surprised the Bulldogs with a tenacious rematch that technically ended in a 2-2 tie, on Kobe Roth’s pulled-goalie equalizer with 1:38 remaining. But Miami got the extra NCHC point by winning a shootout after a fruitless overtime at AMSOIL Arena. But the bigger pair of shockers happened to Minnesota, which fell behind 3-1 and couldn’t make it up in a 3-2 loss for a split against the University of Alaska – a setback that hits the Gophers right in the Pairwise. Even bigger was the stunning Gopher women’s loss to Minnesota State Mankato, which hadn’t beaten Minnesota in 53 consecutive losses – including Friday night’s 7-2 Gopher victory in the series opener at Mankato. The Mavericks blew leads of 3-1 and 4-3 and had to go into overtime before Kelsey King scored the winner with 1:11 left in OT.

MSU Mankato, ranked No. 1 in Division I men’s hockey, was not immune, either, losing 4-2 to Northern Michigan before bouncing back for a split with a 4-1 Saturday victory. St. Thomas, in its first year in D-I, surprised Ferris State with a 4-3 victory Saturday for a split after losing the opener 3-1, meaning the Tommies won their first road victory and gave Rico Blais his 400th career coaching victory. Blais was the longtime coach at Miami, meaning both Miami and its former coach won on Saturday.

The UMD men’s basketball team had its amazing undefeated season snipped at 16 by Upper Iowa in a94-85 game at Fayette, Iowa. Now 16-1, losing at Upper Iowa was no disgrace, because the Peacocks are 16-2 overall and 10-2 in the NSIC.

The UMD women’s hockey team was one of the few that avoided the upset tendency, following up its 8-2 Friday victory with a 3-0 sweeper against Bemidji State. The second game was part of Sophie’s Squad, an organization put together by UMD star Gabbie Hughes, to inspire more openness to discuss mental health, named after Sophie Wieland, a 14-year-old who had been coached in youth hockey by Terry Hughes, Gabbie’s father. Sophie Wieland was a victim of suicide last summer, a tragedy felt deeply by Hughes, who, along with her family, helped organize a movement to increase awareness of mental health among young athletes. Hughes and her family were introduced on the ice at AMSOIL, for the fund-raising effort that raised nearly $7,000 at the game.