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Examining the NFL playoff picture

Let’s start with the bad news. For fans of the Raiders, Chiefs, Browns, Jaguars, Panthers and Eagles, the next significant date on the NFL calendar is April 25, 2013. Realistically eliminated from playoff contention, those teams and their followers should already be seeking the input of Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay (or in the case of Philly fans, preparing to make the 90-minute jaunt to New York City for a primetime boo-off with Jets fans at Radio City Music Hall next spring). Unfortunately, the 2013 NFL Draft is all those fan bases currently have to look forward to.

Now to the good news. With only six teams whose records have them earmarked for 2013 and beyond, that leaves 25 playoff hopefuls (plus the Jets) as the season hits the home stretch. Not too shabby. Of those, seven have four wins, four have five wins, five have six wins and 10 have at least seven wins. Some are hot, some are hurt, some are hollow, some are inconsistent, some are scary, some are just plain mediocre. In the NFC, there could be a fistful of solid teams that don’t make the playoffs. In the AFC, the Chargers are still very much alive. So there’s that. If I had to pick a Super Bowl matchup today, not one of the three best teams by record would be included. In other words, there are many unknowns with a mere five weeks to go in the regular season.

Since the playoff picture is so murky and out of focus, why don’t we turn this column into a microscope and see if we can’t reduce a bit of the blur? (Be advised: Any Tebows in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear).

AFC

Division winners – New England, Baltimore, Houston, Denver

The Patriots’ closing slate (Houston, San Francisco, Miami twice, at Jacksonville) is certainly no cakewalk, but they are straight rolling and haven’t lost a second-half game since 2009. Winning out will give New England 13 victories. Denver is clicking too, and its schedule (Tampa Bay, at Oakland, at Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City) is manageable. The Broncos should run the table as well and finish with 13 wins. At 10-1, the Texans are the odds-on favorite for the No. 1 overall seed in the conference, but their schedule (at Tennessee, at New England, Indy twice, Minnesota) has potential bumps in the road, and they are fresh off barely escaping five-quarter games against the Jaguars and Lions. Houston looks like the AFC’s third 13-3 team. Since the Broncos lost to the Patriots and Texans and the Texans will have lost to the Patriots (future-perfect tense alert!), the tiebreaker will go: New England, Houston, Denver. That means the Broncos and 9-2 Ravens – who are poised to stumble down the stretch, just wait – will be hosting Wild Card games.

Wild Card teams – Pittsburgh, Indianapolis

The Steelers are in the midst of their first losing streak since 2009 and likely won’t be pulling out of it with a Week 13 matchup in Baltimore that Ben Roethlisberger is unlikely to return for. If Pittsburgh were in the NFC, there would be legitimate cause for concern. But in a top-heavy AFC, the Steelers should be able to rebound from their tailspin and win their last four games (San Diego, at Dallas, Cincinnati, Cleveland). Injuries aside, this is a team that was playing at a high level in reeling off four straight wins against some quality opponents before losing its quarterback. Nine wins will be good for the second Wild Card, and at 7-4, the Colts should be able to squeeze two out of a challenging final five (at Detroit, Tennessee, Houston twice, at Kansas City). Indy will need to continue to protect its turf, which means splitting with the Texans. That’s doable as long as Andrew Luck doesn’t hit the so-called rookie wall.

Outside looking in – Cincinnati, San Diego, Miami

The 6-5 Bengals have come on strong, but despite a 21.3 point average margin of victory during their three-game winning streak, it’s tough to put a lot of stock in it considering they beat the Raiders, Chiefs and the Giants on one of Eli Manning’s personal bye weeks. Cincinnati would need to pull three wins out of a daunting closing slate (at San Diego, Dallas, at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, Baltimore). Can’t see it. As usual, the 4-7 Chargers should be better, but their quarterback and coach are a turnover/blunder machine. However, given San Diego’s proclivity for December surges and a palatable schedule (Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Carolina, at Jets, Oakland), it’s not out of the realm, right? On second thought … yes, yes it is. Six words for the 5-6 Dolphins: twice New England, plus San Francisco. I think that’s six words.

NFC

Division winners – Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, New York

Barring a total collapse, the Falcons will waltz to their second No. 1 seed in the last three years. Whether they do more with it than Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21 remains to be seen. But the road to New Orleans will go through the Georgia Dome. The Bears are a borderline juggernaut with Jay Cutler and hopeless without him. Luckily he’s back, and thanks to San Francisco’s tie, Chicago should be able to secure the second NFC bye with wins in four of its last five (Seattle, at Minnesota, Green Bay, at Arizona, at Detroit). Indeed, the Niners are going to regret drawing with the Rams, as back-to-back road games in New England and Seattle indicate San Francisco will finish 11-4-1 to Chicago’s 12-4. The Giants may win nine, they may win 10. But they will win the NFC East and play Wild Card weekend. Just how they like it.

Wild Card teams – Green Bay, Seattle

For once, I’m going to hate being right. In late September, after The Seattle Job got the real referees back on the job, I wrote that the matter would not be resolved until December and/or January. Well lo and behold, it’s looking more than ever like the Fail Mary will not only cost the Packers the NFC North crown and a first-round bye, but will also end up putting the Seahawks in the playoffs. At 7-4, Green Bay (which closes with Minnesota, Detroit, at Chicago, Tennessee, at Minnesota) could still win the division, but that will likely require going into Chicago and beating the Bears for the season sweep as well as running the table. Since it will probably take 10 wins to earn the second NFC Wild Card, 6-5 Seattle will need to go 4-1 against a slate of Chicago/Buffalo (road) and Arizona/San Francisco/St. Louis (home). The way the Seahawks play at CenturyLink Field and given how well they played the 49ers at Candlestick, a road win in Buffalo appears to be all that’s separating them from 10 wins. And a heap of controversy.

Outside looking in – Tampa Bay, Washington, New Orleans, Dallas, Minnesota

The 5-6 Saints face a murderers’ row (at Atlanta, at Giants, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina) to end the season. While they would be a bona fide “team nobody wants to face,” it appears that 0-4 start will end up dooming the Saints. The Cowboys have traditionally been floppers in December. Sizing up the 6-5 Vikings’ final five games (at Green Bay, Chicago, at St. Louis, at Houston, Green Bay), it’s tough to find even one sure victory. The Redskins are playing splendid football behind Robert Griffin III but are still a year away, which leaves the formidable Bucs (at Denver, Philadelphia, at New Orleans, St. Louis, at Atlanta) as the team that figures to be crying foul should they fall a game or tiebreaker short to the Seahawks.

AFC projections

1. New England (13-3)
2. Houston (13-3)
3. Denver (13-3)
4. Baltimore (11-5)
5. Pittsburgh (10-6)
6. Indianapolis (9-7)

Cincinnati (8-8)
San Diego (8-8)
Miami (7-9)

NFC projections

1. Atlanta (13-3)
2. Chicago (12-4)
3. San Francisco (11-4-1)
4. New York (10-6)
5. Green Bay (11-5)
6. Seattle (10-6)

Tampa Bay (9-7)
New Orleans (8-8)
Washington (8-8)
Dallas (8-8)
Minnesota (7-9)

Good Health Could Mean History for Celtics

The new NBA season is not even two weeks old, yet the Celtics have already drummed up the lion’s share of controversy so far.

To get things started, Rasheed Wallace said Boston could “definitely” make a run at the ’96 Bulls and 72 wins. He made the proclamation before having played a single game with his new squad.

Next — less than 48 hours before Opening Night, no less — Glen Davis broke his thumb punching out one of his old high school buddies. The incident occurred in the street at 4 a.m. after a night probably not spent playing backgammon.

Then, in the fourth game of the season vs. New Orleans, Rajon Rondo scrapped with Chris Paul in the second quarter before talking some smack to him after the game while Paul was in the middle of a conversation with Paul Pierce. That caused CP3 to get visibly heated and attempt to seek Rondo out for an encore. And the question became, could you blame him?

Rondo has a reputation for being a pain in the rear, to put it lightly. He earned that m.o. at Kentucky, and as everyone from Danny Ainge to Kevin Garnett to Kobe Byrant can corroborate, he’s carried it into the league. Trash-talking and contempt-breeding, but also exceptional at what he does, Rondo is pretty much a microcosm of the 2009 Celtics (particularly with Sheed on board and KG in axe-to-grind mode).

When you look up and down the roster, it’s hard not to see a team that — with good health — could make Sheed look prophetic when all is said and done. It’s also a group that will clearly not be making many friends throughout the league this year.

Judging from the first six games of the season, a few things stick out. There’s Rondo himself. The kid made a quantum leap in the playoffs last spring, emerging as the premier point guard of the postseason before the Celtics were eliminated (might that have been the essence of his parting shot for Paul the other night?). He seems to have gotten to the point in his career where he’s determined to dominate games with his passing and defense. Scarier yet, he knows he can do it (look no further than the 26 assists and four steals he piled up while taking a total of 10 shots in a pair of wins over the Cavs and Bulls).

With Rondo and a rock-solid Kendrick Perkins flanking the Big Three, the Celtics boast the best starting five in the NBA, bar none. It’s their bench, though, that will ultimately determine whether they can challenge the ’96 Bulls.

Wallace is Wallace: long and versatile, capable of carrying an offense on any given night he has his stroke. Fellow newcomer Marquis Daniels is a big and strong guard who, in addition to his scoring capabilities, is a two-fold upgrade for the team because he can run point with the second unit and allow Eddie House to move to the two-guard spot and do what he does best: fire away from the perimeter. That’s an eight-man rotation that doesn’t even take into account Davis (who’s on track to return in a month) and Shelden Williams (who’s averaged 7 and 6 getting Big Baby’s minutes).

That depth is what should help the Green overcome their only real weakness, age. It has already, in fact, as the Celtics were able to pull out a 92-90 win in Minnesota in their first of seven road back-to-backs. Playing successive nights in different cities is a tall order for guys like Garnett and Ray Allen, given their NBA odometers. But because they had dispatched of Philadelphia by 31 points the night before, Pierce (31 minutes), Allen (31) and Garnett (23) had the legs to play heavier minutes against the Wolves.

Back to Wallace for a moment. In addition to the depth he adds, an All-Star caliber player coming off the bench, his presence late in games is going to completely alter the defensive strategy opposing coaches employ against the Celtics. In the past, teams could double Garnett, who would be forced to find the open man on the perimeter. That in itself was always a tall order, given how adept Garnett is at finding shooters out of a double team.

But with Sheed on the floor in place of Perkins in crunch time, defenses are going to have play much more straight up against the C’s, who will be able to isolate KG with a trio of shooters surrounding him on the perimeter and Rondo lurking in case of a breakdown. Simply put, it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to defense the Celtics in the closing minutes of tight games.

On the other side, it’s going to be equally hard to score on Boston in close games. Through six games, the Celtics already lead the pack by a landslide in average points allowed (81.5) and are one of three teams holding opponents to 40 percent from the field.

If there is a blueprint for 72 wins, the Celtics have exhibited it thus far. And for what it’s worth, they “only” need to go 66-10 from here on out.

Southside Baller

So I was at a Talib Kweli show at the Museum of Natural History last weekend, and I bumped into an old buddy that I studied abroad with in Paris back in 2003-04. He was a former collegiate athlete who played soccer at Morehouse College, and his story was the first feature I ever put together. Set partly against the backdrop of Paris, the piece never made it into print. Feeling a wave of nostalgia, I decided to dig into the vault and pull out the story. It’s both a window into the life of an interesting guy as well as a case study of my formative years.

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Khalil Um’rani sits in his eighth-floor bedroom, which overlooks the sprawling east side of Paris. A storm is moving in, the jet-black clouds inching closer to the outskirts of the city. However, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris the sun is shining bright.

“More rain out in the banlieue,” Um’rani observes. He huffs. “Whatever, I just go and play soccer, then get the hell out.”

While the thirty-minute trip he takes out to the suburbs of Paris every week may not be a long journey, it is indeed a voyage to a different world. But then again, Um’rani is a voyager. One who happens to be pretty good at a game more global than even Um’rani himself.

 

He grew up on the Southside of Chicago with a passion. He looks like a soccer player, tall and lean, his features sleek. The contrast between his dark skin and light eyes gives off an air of competitiveness. His friends were athletes too, but while they were practicing cross-over dribbles and touchdown-jigs, Um’rani was traveling two hours out to the suburbs of Chicago to play club soccer.

“My friends didn’t even understand where I was coming back from,” Um’rani remembers. “And they definitely didn’t understand what I was doing with these weird white boys.”

Even he may not have been able to answer that question, but Um’rani knew one thing: he wanted to play soccer. Ever since seeing it on television and wishing he had a goal in his backyard, soccer was it for Um’rani. So he went to the only school on the Southside, Hyde Park Elementary, which offered the sport. He was the best. He then tried his hand at youth soccer, scoring 20 goals in an eight-game season. Undisputed.

Club soccer seemed to be the best venue for this talented young player. But that meant dedication, time, and money. And that was just for his parents, Rashad and Deborah.

“Soccer was what he took to,” his father recalls. “It was kind of an oddball hobby, but it was what he wanted to do.”

Um’rani knows that his parents had to make sacrifices in order for him to play, especially when he decided to go out for the city’s most elite club team, the Chicago Magic. Um’rani joined the team in sixth-grade, and continued right through high school. Spending an average of six hours per-day dedicated solely to club soccer, Um’rani honed his self-proclaimed “fast and gritty skills” into a package worthy of competing at the next level.

Sure, he played high school too, starting and scoring 19 goals as a freshman for St. Ignatius College Prep. But in terms of significance, high school soccer was a distant second to club.

“Club soccer is a year-round event,” Um’rani says. “Kids are dropping two, three grand a year to play. All the coaches are professional, and, as opposed to high school, you don’t have to watch your teammates smoking weed before games.”

On the club, it was all business: kids who wanted to be there, kids who wanted to be discovered. Whenever college coaches came to Chicago, they came to see the Magic.

“Recruiting is all in the club leagues,” Um’rani explains. “It doesn’t matter if you score forty goals in a school season, you’re not going to get the looks.”

Um’rani started to get the looks junior year in high school, after the Magic joined forces with Chicago’s other major club, the Sockers, and won Nationals in Florida. A little more than a year later he was headed to Atlanta to play Division II soccer at Morehouse College.

It was there that Um’rani learned valuable lessons. They were not, however, lessons that he wanted to learn. He knew something was wrong when he red-shirted his freshman year, but still appeared in a few games under the names of active players. The team finished 16-3, but because Morehouse is an independent school, it did not receive a bid to the Division II tournament.

The following season, two players left school early to turn pro.

“We won like two games that year,” he recalls. “And we would be taking these long road trips to Alabama, Tennessee, just to get blown out the water. I had never lost like that before. It really makes you feel powerless.”

While Um’rani felt at a loss, he had no idea of what was to come. The previous coach of the team, Dr. Augustine Konneh, had been fired the year before Um’rani arrived amid allegations that he had used ineligible players. The scandal came to a head after Um’rani’s sophomore campaign.

“The NCAA discovered that this guy wasn’t just using ineligible players, he was bringing kids off the streets of Atlanta to play,” Um’rani says.

What resulted was a one-year suspension of the Morehouse program and a student-athlete beginning to appreciate firsthand the flaws of collegiate sports.

“After all this I was just thinking screw-Morehouse soccer,” Um’rani says. “It was evident that soccer and Morehouse were not going in the same direction.”

It was time, Um’rani resolved, to take his own life in a different direction. Having already attended the University of the Antilles in Martinique between his freshman and sophomore year, where he had taken a French culture class, Um’rani decided to study abroad in Paris.

He entered a complete French-immersion program at Paris’s most distinguished University, La Sorbonne. It was in his own quartier, or neighborhood, however, that he made some buddies.

“These kids were as baffled as my boys at home when I told them that soccer was my game,” Um’rani chuckles. “They figured I played le base-ball or le football americain.

They were even more astounded when they saw what this kid from “Sheecago” could do on the field. And he wasn’t even playing his normal position.

“The first time our team, East Paris, assembled for practice the captain came up to me and asked me what I play,” Um’rani recounts. “I told him the best I could that I score the ball. He responded, ‘d’accord, tu peut jouer la défense’. So it was then that I became a defender.”

Um’rani embraced his new role, on a new team, in a new city. From then on every Friday night he would lace up his cleats, and defend like he had never imagined.

His coach, Thomas Jousset, admired Um’rani’s ability to adapt to new situations.

“Khalil became accustomed to our team and style of play very quickly. One must have lots of courage and ability to do something like that,” Jousset believes. “He is very valuable to our team.”

While the evolution of his soccer career had gone hand in hand with the concept of meeting change head on, playing in a foreign league ultimately exposed Um’rani to new cultural experiences that even he couldn’t have fathomed. He remembers playing one of his first games out in the suburbs of Paris. “Our team had lost two in a row, so the guys were already on edge,” Um’rani recalls. “Around the 20th minute of the first half, our libero, or last defender, missed a tackle and the other team scored an easy goal.

“Needless to say everyone was pissed off, but I was astounded to watch as this one kid on my team goes up to the kid who had missed the tackle, and punches him in the face.”

Apparently Um’rani wasn’t the only baffled observer on the field, as one of the few fans hesitantly approached Um’rani with a simple question: Where are you guys from? Um’rani answered that they were from the east side of Paris. The man nodded, remaining puzzled. Does this kind of thing happen often in Paris?

Paris is very segregated,” Um’rani explains. “People from the suburbs don’t understand the city.”

 

 

Back in his room Um’rani prepares for his next game, watching as the threatening storm clouds hang over the périphérie of Paris. He’s ready to play, but if the game is called, he won’t be discouraged. For Um’rani, soccer is pleasure these days. Granted, the fierce, competitive fire still burns inside him, but his days of doing battle are over.

Now, he is looking toward the future. And for this economics major that has one eye on Wall Street and the other on international markets, the future looks bright. And his father, who didn’t always understand his son’s passion for soccer, believes that it furnished him with solid foundations.

“Overall the soccer was beneficial,” his father says. “But at this point in his life he’s on another level.”

When Um’rani returns from Paris he will head straight to New York, where he is going to intern this summer at a major investment-banking firm.

As for soccer, Um’rani knows it will always be a part of his life. He will forever be a fan of the game he grew up loving, and he hopes that someday he will help cement the sport in his own backyard.

I would like to start an inner city soccer club,” he explains. “That way kids like me who want to play soccer competitively can do so without having to drive two hours every day after school to get a game.”

For this voyager, it would be fitting that his journey ends where it began: on the Southside, with a passion. Except this time it could be an entire generation that benefits from that passion. And why not? Khalil Um’rani already did the hard part as a kid: he challenged and defeated the status quo.

 

 

 

Pedro Afterthought…

What a shame. There will be no epic Pedro-return in the World Series. And now that it has been revealed that he has suffered a torn rotator cuff there may be no Pedro until late next year. But one thing about Pedro is for sure. That tremendous ego of his is matched only by the size of his heart. That’s the reason I fervently believed he would somehow find a way to pitch when needed; the same reason he was immortalized in Boston. And I speak for a nation when I wish him the best.