Happy Friday, everyone! It's Wajih AlBaroudi here in place of Zach Pereles to take you into the weekend.
Good morning to everyone but especially to...
THE NFL UNDERDOGS
Last week's NFL Super Wild Card Weekend proved no team can be counted out when their season is on the line: The Seahawks, Dolphins and Ravens all kept their games closer than expected, while Brian Daboll continued his remarkable turnaround of the Giants with a win at Minnesota and the Jaguars rallied back from a 27-0 deficit to stun the Chargers.
Our NFL experts are predicting the remaining underdogs to excel in the Divisional Round.
Both Pete Prisco and John Breech have the Cowboys upsetting the 49ers, a team that's looked virtually unstoppable over its 11-game winning streak. For Prisco, it comes down to Dallas' QB advantage.
- Prisco: "For the 49ers, it will come down to Brock Purdy against the Dallas pressure. Purdy has been outstanding since taking over as the starter with five games left in the regular season... but this will be the best defense he has faced. The Dallas pass rush can be disruptive, which I think happens here. Prescott will get the better of it between the two quarterbacks in this one as Dallas pulls off the upset. Pick: Cowboys 27, 49ers 26."
Breech was feeling even spicier than Prisco this week, as along with his Cowboys upset pick he also has the Giants and Bengals advancing to their respective conference championship games. Despite injuries to La'el Collins, Alex Cappa and Jonah Williams along Cincinnati's offensive line, Breech thinks Joe Burrow can rise to the occasion and extend his perfect record in January.
- Breech: "The Bengals are 0-3 this year when Burrow gets sacked five or more times, but 13-1 when he's sacked fewer than five times, which means they just need to make sure that the revamped offensive line is functioning well enough so that Burrow doesn't spend the entire game running for his life... Burrow has NEVER lost in the month of January (6-0) in his career, so I feel like I have to roll with him here. Pick: Bengals 27-24 over Bills."
Here's everything else you need to know for Divisional Round weekend:
- Ranking the Divisional Round teams.
- Ranking the eight playoff quarterbacks.
- The two big things the AFC QBs all have in common.
- Trevor Lawrence's unprecedented dominance on Saturdays will be tested.
- A look at the long and storied playoff history between the Giants and Eagles.
- Celtics forward Jayson Tatum exploded for 34 points, 19 rebounds and six assists in an overtime victory over the Warriors.
- Five-star cornerback Cormani McClain committed to Colorado after being pledged to Miami for almost two months.
- UCLA rode a 13-game winning streak into the No. 1 spot on Matt Norlander's college basketball power rankings.
- Saints defensive end Cam Jordan won his appeal against the NFL, which fined him $50,000 for allegedly faking an injury.
- Former Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders announced he's hopping on the Lane Train by transferring to Ole Miss.
And not such a good morning for...
THE GONZAGA BULLDOGS
There are upsets in college basketball, and then there's what happened late last night at The Kennel. Yes, Loyola Marymount took down No. 6 Gonzaga, 68-67, in Spokane, Wash.
LMU was lead by senior guard Cam Shelton, who scored a game-high 27 points in addition to grabbing nine boards. None of those points were bigger than the two that came on Shelton's runner with 14.7 seconds left in regulation that proved to be the game-winner. The Lions also got 15 points off the bench from junior guard Jalin Anderson. Gonzaga star Drew Timme had a team-high 17 points and seven rebounds in the loss.
This result is a true stunner. The kind that, as our Matt Norlander put it, "means streaks and droughts galore got detonated."
- Gonzaga entered the evening with the longest home winning streak in the country. The NCAA recognized it to be 76 games, though the streak was technically 75 in a row at The Kennel, Gonzaga's on-campus home venue. Earlier this season, Gonzaga beat Kentucky at nearby Spokane Arena, contributing +1 to the streak, which is now over.
- The win for Loyola-Marymount marked the first time a visitor beat the Bulldogs at the McCarthey Athletic Center since Saint Mary's, almost five years ago to the day: Jan. 18, 2018.
- Loyola Marymount, who were 16.5-point underdogs, last won at Gonzaga all the way back in 1991. The win also snapped a 25-game overall losing streak to the Zags.
The last time LMU beat a top-10 team came in the 1961 NCAA Tournament against USC, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
With the Zags' run over, Auburn's 28-game home winning streak is now the longest in the country.
Enough about the historical implications, though. What this means right now for the Zags is not great: a Quad 3 loss. It drops Gonzaga from ninth to 14th at KenPom.com.
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Mike Brey to retire as Notre Dame's all-time winningest coach 🏀
It's an end of an era in South Bend. Notre Dame has announced basketball coach Mike Brey will step down after this season, his 23rd with the Fighting Irish.
Though Brey is the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, he said in a statement "it is time for a new voice to lead this group into the future." Who that voice will be remains to be seen, so in the meantime let's take a look back at Brey's near quarter-century tenure with the Fighting Irish:
- Brey's 481-269 record has him well ahead of Digger Phelps (393-197) on Notre Dame's all-time wins list.
- Among active coaches with their current Division I teams, Brey ranks sixth in wins.
- Brey led the Fighting Irish to 13 NCAA Tournaments, just one shy of Phelps' program record.
This season has been a struggle for Brey, as the Fighting Irish are 9-10 and sit only a game above last place in the ACC. It's been the continuation of a steady decline: Notre Dame has missed four of the last five NCAA Tournaments and hasn't reached the Elite Eight since 2016.
While Brey's legacy largely lies in South Bend, he enjoyed significant success in his first head-coaching stint at Delaware. Brey led the Blue Hens to two NCAA Tournaments in his five seasons (1995-2000) with the program.
The MLB team that has improved the most this offseason ⚾
From Aaron Judge returning to the Yankees on a gigantic $360 million deal to the bizarre Carlos Correa saga, it's been a wild MLB offseason. With most of the major moves in the rearview mirror, our MLB experts decided to anoint the teams they deem most improved.
The most popular pick: the Rangers, who seem intent on snapping their six-year playoff drought with the additions of pitchers Jacob DeGrom, Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney. Here's our Dayn Perry's case for Texas:
- Perry: "While there's definitely injury-driven collapse potential with Jacob deGrom and Nathan Eovaldi, there's also a lot of upside. That's the kind of swing Texas needs to be taking with their prior investments in the lineup. I also like the addition of Andrew Heaney at the back end. The rotation was the team's biggest concern coming into the winter, and they attacked it."
The Mets and Cubs were also mentioned in the most improved conversation thanks largely to their free-agent additions of Justin Verlander and Dansby Swanson, respectively. To find out if your team was considered, click here for the full story.
What we're watching this weekend 📺
🏈 Playoff football, obviously. Here's the NFL Divisional Round schedule.
🏒 Senators at Penguins, 7 p.m. on NHL Network
🏀 Heat at Mavericks, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Grizzlies at Lakers, 10 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 No. 14 TCU at No. 2 Kansas, 1 p.m. on CBS
🏀 No. 5 UCLA at No. 11 Arizona, 2 p.m. on ABC
🏒 Maple Leafs at Canadiens, 7 p.m. on NHL Network
🏒 Penguins at Devils, 2 p.m. on NHL Network
🏒 Kings at Blackhawks, 7 p.m. on NHL Network
🏀 Nets at Warriors, 8:30 p.m. on NBA TV