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Look, it may well be that in a few weeks time we’ll look back nostalgically at this first Sunday in December and think: The Giants were in first place? Really? Was that a hallucination? Had I been drinking? Did I fall and hit my head? Was that really real?
Or the Giants could go to Seattle on Sunday and shock the football world, and do a little more shocking against Cleveland and Baltimore and Arizona, shock their way right into a playoff game at MetLife Stadium on Jan. 9 or 10.
And wouldn’t that be something?
There is nothing better in sports than the team that falls out of the sky, that was expected to do nothing and spent much of a season doing nothing and then … well, falls out of the sky, falls into the playoffs, steps in a little pixie dust and lets that carry them away. We’ve had a few of those around here, even though New York City is rarely afforded the chance to be the underdog.
Here are a look at a few of those teams through the years. And, no, we don’t include the ’69 Mets, who are almost always attached to the word “miracle,” because you can’t win 100 baseball games across the course of a summer and have fallen out of the sky. These teams were different. Such as:
1973 Mets: Now this Mets team, unlike their ’69 cousins, really did fall out of the sky, and what they did really was downright miraculous. They were 13 games under .500 as late as July 31, sat in last place in the NL East as late as Aug. 30 and didn’t reach .500 until Sept. 21, the 154th game of the season.
Yet they won the division (at 82-79), beat the 99-win Reds in the NLCS, then took the defending champion and 94-win Athletics to Game 7 of the World Series before finally running out of magic. And for the last 47 years they have served as the model for all teams that have been written off and still harbor a simple thought: You gotta believe.
1998-99 Knicks: The season was a mess from the start, a labor war cutting the season to 50 manic games, some of which were played back-to-back-to-back, many of which featured out-of-shape and out-of-whack players. The Knicks scuffled from the start, so badly that it was assumed Jeff Van Gundy wouldn’t see the end of the season — and instead GM Ernie Grunfeld got whacked instead.
Even so, Phil Jackson lurked in the background as the 27-23 Knicks made the playoffs on the season’s last day as the eighth seed in the East … and then took out the top-seeded Heat in five remarkable games, the fourth-seeded Hawks in a sweep and then the second-seeded Pacers in six (despite losing Patrick Ewing to a bum Achilles) before the Spurs halted plans for a parade.
2009 Jets: The team started out hot under rookie coach Rex Ryan (3-0), but after a brutal 10-7 loss at home to the Falcons in Week 14 they were 7-7 and Ryan falsely declared them dead in the playoff hunt. They were mathematically alive but had to travel to 14-0 Indianapolis two days after Christmas and fell behind 9-3 at the half …
… and then Weird Stuff happened. The Colts pulled their starters, handing the Jets a win. The next week they beat the Bengals to clinch a berth, then won at Cincinnati a week later in the playoffs, and again at 13-3 San Diego the next week … and actually led the Colts 17-13 in an AFC title game rematch before the magic carpet ride rolled up for good.
1974-75 Islanders: The Isles had gone 41-101-24 in their first two thoroughly inauspicious seasons, but in Year 3, under Al Arbour, they scratched out a 33-25-22 mark and squeezed into the playoffs by beating the Rangers on the last day of the regular season.
Once there they stunned the mighty Rangers, clinching Game 3 of the best-of-three when J.P. Parise scored 11 seconds into overtime. In the next round they became only the second team in the history of North American sports to overcome a 3-0 deficit by stunning the Penguins, and nearly duplicated that trick in the conference finals against the eventual-champ Flyers before Kate Smith showed up in Game 7 and doomed the fairy tale.
Isn’t it funny how Kyrie Irving always winds up being the loudest guy in the room, even when he declares that he’s not going to talk anymore?
You don’t need me to add to the chorus of voices telling you just how splendid “The Queen’s Gambit” is, but I’m going to join the choir anyway. I will also suggest a binge-able series I am late to: “Patriot,” on Amazon Prime, which is highly addictive (hat tip to the peerless Terry O’Quinn). And for the record: I thought “The Undoing” stuck the landing perfectly.
I’ll let the fact the present balance in my William Hill account is $0.07 stand as testimony as to whether you should believe this or not, but here goes anyway: the Jets will beat the Raiders on Sunday.
I really like what I’m seeing from Mike Anderson’s crew in Year 2 at St. John’s, despite the misstep against BYU the other night.
Whack Back at Vac
Frederick Ungaretta: Joe Judge, Mississippi State man, wearing the Ole Miss duds due to a bet he lost with Evan Engram may become a stroke of psychological motivational/emotional genius in boosting Engram’s self-image. I can’t wait to see if he’s now going to take off and fly for this coach. I’m more impressed with Judge every day.
Vac: He does really seem to get all the little stuff absolutely right.
George Corchia: Now that we’re in December, NFL teams are either shooting for a playoff spot or vying for a high draft pick. Say what you will about the weak NFC East teams but they’re actually doing both at the same time!
Vac: That is some sixth-dimensional “Queen’s Gambit”-style chess playing right there!
@aghease: This could be a fun basketball winter all around. The last time the Knicks, Nets and St. John’s all made the playoffs was 1998. Van Gundy had Ewing, Houston and LJ; Calipari had Cassell, Kendall Gill and Kittles; Fraschilla had Felipe Lopez and a freshman named Artest.
@MikeVacc: I’ll sign up for that. Though the playoffs may need to expand to 29 or so to get the Knicks in there.
Alan Hirschberg: The Knicks have so many guys with connections to John Calipari that if they ever do win a championship they’ll have to take down the banner.
Vac: You bring it with some top-shelf Coach Cal humor, you’re going to find a place in the WhackBacks every single time.