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Houston, you have yet another problem

Houston called itself “Clutch City” after the Rockets won back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 (vs. the Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing) and 1995 (vs. the Magic, sweeping an Orlando team led by Shaq).

After the last three months, a more appropriate moniker for Houston is “Choke City”.

It began with the Astros. After winning a franchise record 107 games in the regular season, Houston nearly choked in the American League Division Series vs. the Rays, needing a victory in the winner-take-all Game 5 to advance to the American League Championship Series.

The Astros ousted the Yankees in six to move into the World Series for the second time in three years, where Houston would face the Washington Nationals, who were making their first World Series appearance.

Many experts expected the Astros to win the first two games at Minute Maid Park, then go to the nation’s capital and win two of three there.

Instead, Houston lost the first two games at home. The Astros rallied to win the next three in the District of Columbia to gain the series lead, only to choke it away by losing the sixth and seventh games in Texas. It became the first best-of-seven series in any of the three major sports (MLB, NBA, NHL) which use that format where the road team won every game.

Today, the Texans joined the Astros in Houston sports infamy.

Bill O’Brien’s team built a 24-0 lead early in the second quarter of an AFC divisional playoff in Kansas City.

By halftime, the Chiefs led 28-24, as Patrick Mahomes joined Doug Williams as the only quarterbacks to throw four touchdown passes in one quarter of a playoff game. Williams did it in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII, when the Redskins turned a 10-0 deficit vs. the Broncos into a 35-10 halftime bulge. Washington won 42-10, and Williams was the game’s Most Valuable Player.

Kansas City won 51-31 and earned the right to host Tennessee in next Sunday’s AFC championship game.

Green Bay held on to defeat Seattle 28-23 in the NFC, sending the Packers to Santa Clara to face the 49ers for the other spot in Super Bowl LIV in Miami (Gardens) Feb. 2.

A team from Houston has not played in the AFC championship game since 1979, when the Oilers lost to the Steelers for the second consecutive year. Bum Phillips’ team was hurt by the officials making a bad call on a pass to Mike Renfro which was ruled incomplete but was in fact a touchdown, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

Even worse, Houston fans have to watch their former team play in its third AFC championship since relocating to the Volunteer State. The Titans defeated the Jaguars in 1999 before losing to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, but lost to the Raiders in 2002.

Barely an hour after the game ended at ARrowhead, a Houston Chronicle columnist wrote it was time for Texans coach Bill O’Brien to leave, reminding readers of past Houston sports failures. One of them was the famous 1983 NCAA men’s basketball title game, when Jim Valvano’s underdog North Carolina State Wolfpack shocked the mighty Houston Cougars, nicknamed “Phi Slamma Jamma” , when Lorenzo Charles caught Dereck Whittenburg’s airball and slammed it through the net with no time remaining. That Houston team featured two of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players, Clyde Drexler and (H)Akeem Olajuwon.

It wasn’t the first time a team from Kansas City stuck it to a team from Houston.

In 1993, the Oilers hosted the Chiefs in an AFC divisional game. Houston entered on an 11-game winning streak, but Kansas City, led by Joe Montana, prevailed 28-20. Following that loss, the Oilers’ fan support plummeted to subterranean depths, and after the 1996 season, they were on their way to Tennessee.

In 2015, the Astros were up 2-1 on the Royals in an American League Division Series and led Game 4 through seven innings. Kansas City rallied to win that game, won Game 5 in Kansas City, and eventually won the World Series. Houston’s 2017 World Series championship took the sting out of the 2015 setback, but the one in 2019 will be hard to forget, no matter if the Astros win another championship or not.

Despite superstars like Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Chris Paul and James Harden playing for the Rockets in recent years, Houston has not played for an NBA championship since 1995. The window is wide open with the Warriors in free fall, but the Rockets will be severely tested by the two Los Angeles teams in the West, and hopefully Milwaukee if they make it to the Finals.

Approximately 26 hours from now, LSU will either have completed its greatest football season ever, or one of its most disappointing. Hopefully it’s the former. However, I would feel much better about this if the opponent were wearing scarlet and gray instead of orange. Something tells me Dabo is the younger, hipper version of LSU’s former coach–the one in Tuscaloosa, not the one in Lawrence–and has a dynasty going in the the South Carolina uplands.

Saints-Vikings: been there, done that

When I was watching yesterday’s Saints-Vikings game, it reminded me quite a bit of New Orleans’ first postseason game, the 1987 NFC wild card game (there were two wild cards from 1978-89) against Minnesota in the Superdome three days into 1988.

First similarity: the Saints were favored by most of the “experts” who cover professional football. In 1988, the legendary Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder picked the Saints on The NFL Today, as did Pete Axthelm, Tom Jackson and Chris Berman on ESPN’s NFL Gameday. In 2020, nearly all of the Internet writers on ESPN, CBS and Pro Football Focus favored the Black and Gold.

Second, the Saints’ record was nearly identical. The 1987 Saints were 12-3 (their home game vs. the Falcons in week three was canceled by the 1987 players’ strike; games in weeks four, five and six became infamous for their use of replacement players), and the 2019 Saints were 13-3. Both the 1987 and 2019 Saints lost to the 49ers at home. The 1987 loss prompted coach Jim Mora’s “coulda, woulda, shoulda” tirade, which inspired the Saints to embark on a nine-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.

Third, the Saints had to play wild card weekend because the 49ers were ahead of them. In 1987, the 49ers went 13-2, losing only to the Steelers on opening day and the Saints in November. In 2019, the 49ers’ victory over the Saints helped them win a tiebreaker. The 49ers are 13-3 heading into Saturday’s game with Minnesota in Santa Clara.

Fourth, the stakes of the games were similar. In both 1987 and 2019, a Vikings victory in the Big Easy would send them to San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Saints would face a road game in a frigid locale with a win: in 1987, it would be Chicago; this year, it would be Green Bay.

Fifth, the Vikings and Saints did not play in the regular season.

Sixth, a team from Houston won a wild card game at home in overtime the same weekend. In 1987, the Oilers defeated the Seahawks; in 2019, the Texans defeated the Bills. I guess you can add the Seahawks playing on the road after the Saints and Vikings played the same day.

Seventh, the Saints defeated a team from Houston during the regular season at the Superdome. In 1987, it was the Oilers in the 13th game (I was there with my dad and brother); in 2019, it was the Texans in the opener on a Monday night when Wil Lutz made a 58-yard field goal as time expired.

Yes, this year’s game–a 26-20 Vikings victory in overtime–was closer than Minnesota’s 44-10 romp 32 years ago, but this one will be a lot more painful.

In 1987, Saints fans were overjoyed to finally have a winning season and a playoff berth; anything which happened in the postseason would have been lagniappe, as they like to say in New Orleans.

This year, many Saints fans probably had a “Super Bowl or bust” mentality in the wake of what happened in the playoffs of the previous two seasons: the “Minneapolis Miracle” in 2017, when Case Keenum hooked up with Stefon Diggs on the game’s last play for a touchdown after Marcus Williams whiffed on the tackle; and last year’s egregious no-call when the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman ran into Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis.

New Orleans was looking good when it won all five games while Drew Brees recovered from an injured wrist, but home losses to the Falcons and 49ers raised red flags.

Now it’s all over for the Saints. As depressed as much of Louisiana feels this morning, it will pale in comparison with how the Bayou State will feel the morning of January 14 if LSU loses to Clemson.

If history continues to repeat, the Vikings will be playing in Seattle or Green Bay January 19.

Six days after beating the Saints 32 years ago, the Vikings went to San Francisco and rolled over the 49ers 36-24, thanks to 227 yards receiving from Anthony Carter, which was then a playoff record. In the second half, Bill Walsh replaced Joe Montana with Steve Young, touching off a quarterback controversy which dogged the 49ers through much of the 1988 season. Montana ended the controversy by winning four games late that season to help the 49ers clinch the NFC West. San Francisco went on to beat the Vikings and Bears in the playoffs before winning a thrilling Super Bowl vs. the Bengals on Montana’s 8-yard TD pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining.

Mike McCarthy is the new coach of the Cowboys. He’ll now be coaching home games in the same stadium where he led the Packers to victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is going to enter the NFL draft. Players, coaches and fans at the 13 other SEC schools are breathing easier.