FIRST THOUGHTS: Most memorable Boston/New England sports moments from this past year (and Todd's annual bowl commentary)

Todd: I don’t intend to give the majority of the local sporting world short shrift (Bruins playoff run was certainly memorable, even if it didn’t end in another Stanley Cup victory), but there’s little doubt that the story of the year was the Red Sox worst-to-first finish in winning their third World Series title over the last ten years.  Not only was it a pleasantly surprising turn of events after the debacle of 2012, but especially in light of the Boston Marathon bombings and how the team not only came together as a champion on the field but for their small part off the field in helping to bring the city together in the aftermath of that tragedy.  No other athlete exemplified the ‘Boston Strong’ image more than David Ortiz, whose FCC-exempted rally cry in the days following the marathon and October exploits with the bat served as perfect bookends to the sports year.

Last week I said that I’d discuss the college football bowl games, as the BCS series concludes and is replaced next year by the 4-team playoff fans have been demanding for decades.  But that doesn’t mean we’ll lose all the classic small bowl games like the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the GoDaddy Bowl and my new favorite, the Gator Bowl (I say ‘classic’ games with my tongue firmly planted inside my cheek).  My biggest pet peeve of these games has always been that the sponsors don’t pair up with the traditional bowl names. The AT&T Cotton Bowl?  The Allstate Sugar Bowl?  The Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio?  Last time I checked, Vizio was not the name of a florist.  The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl still gets it right, and I’m even willing to accept Discover sponsoring the Orange Bowl because the color is part of their marketing brand.

Not that I’m making this request, but if the powers that be are going to eliminate old bowl names like the Peach, Citrus, Sun and Independence altogether, then they might as well do away with Cotton, Sugar, Orange and Rose as well, which would allow any sponsor to step in and host the games…it’s probably heading in that direction anyway.

Mike: Most memorable sports story of the year, Todd kind of stole my thunder with the Red Sox, so I'll go in a different direction and say the Boston Marathon.

It was a story that transcended sports, a tragedy that showed the worst and then the best, as thousands jumped in to help the injured in any way they could, with runners finishing the race and continuing to run to the hospital to give blood. It united a region in a way only overcoming a tragedy can, and the Red Sox rallying behind that "Boston Strong" slogan and helping to heal with a World Series win made it a story for the ages.

As for the Bowl Games, I agree with Todd, the names have become a jumbled messy joke. Better to scrap the whole thing and just start over.

SECOND QUARTER: Some final thoughts on Patriots loss in Miami

Todd: How many times could we actually expect the Pats (and by extension, Tom Brady) to continue pulling out games in the final seconds?  That razor thin margin of error was on full display in South Florida last Sunday, as the defense allowed the Dolphins to finish both halves with relatively easy touchdown scoring drives.  Also to blame in part for the fourth quarter TD was the normally reliable Stephen Gostkowski, who much like John Kasay nearly a decade ago, picked the worst time to boot a kickoff out of bounds.  The improved field position allowed Miami to go for it on fourth down, and it was the Pats’ poor defensive positioning that allowed them to convert that play and eventually score the game-winning touchdown.

Other obvious problem the Pats had was their red zone offense, which predictably struggled once again without the presence of Rob Gronkowski (1-for-4 in touchdown efficiency) and led to Brady failing in four tries to find the end zone in the closing minutes, although Danny Amendola came oh-so-close to pulling in that fingertip grab (Gronk would’ve held to that one, although not a fair comparison because his hands are so much freakishly larger than Amendola’s).

Mike: The magic just ran out, pure and simple. The Patriots had been living dangerously for weeks, and it finally caught up to them.

The worst part of it was that they had a chance to control their own destiny for the top seed, and now that's gone by the wayside. They can still hold on to the No. 2 seed and a bye in the first week (something that I think is a key to the Pats' playoff success), but it would have been nice to have that top seed, forcing everyone to come to Foxboro for the playoffs instead of having to (likely) go to Denver.

THIRD QUARTER: Patriots-Ravens preview

Todd: Everything I said when previewing last week’s Dolphins game came true, from the close score to the red zone woes.  I see this week’s game in Baltimore playing out much the same way (the temps might be almost as warm too).

What the Pats have going for them are that most teams that win on Monday Night Football tend to struggle the following week on short rest; Ravens QB Joe Flacco has an ailing ankle which might give the Pats’ pass rushers a better shot at catching him; and the Pats rarely lose back-to-back games.

What is working against them in this AFC Championship game rematch are that many close games come down to kicking, and right now Baltimore’s Justin Tucker is the hottest kicker on the planet, going 6-for-6 last week and finishing that 61-yard game-winner against the Lions.  While Gostkowski has had a great season, he’s coming off one of his worst games between the botched kickoff and a 48-yard miss in Miami last week.

And oh yeah, the last time the Pats lost back-to-back games was Weeks 2 and 3 of last season, with the Week 3 loss coming against…wait for it…the Ravens in Baltimore.  Last year’s 31-30 defeat was on Sunday Night Football, and if it weren’t for NBC’s decision to flex this week’s game out and replace it with Bears-Eagles we could have had a complete instant replay of that game this Sunday.

Unfortunately, I think the cons I’ve reference are probably going to outweigh the pros in what is going to be yet another tough game for the Pats.  Can Brady somehow find a reliable red zone target?  Does Michael Hoomanawanui have any more incredible one-handed catches up his sleeve?  It’ll be another close game, but the Ravens actually need this one a little more than the Pats do and they’re at home (where Flacco’s QB rating is about twenty points higher). Ravens 23, Patriots 20.

Mike: This is a game the Patriots need desperately (as do the Ravens). And because of that, I think they are going to pull out a tough road win here. The Pats remember dropping the AFC title game at home to the Ravens last season, and they will want a measure of revenge for that.

Taking that, and combining it with the fact that this team simply doesn't lost two in a row that often makes me believe that they will find a way to win. Maybe it's my Pats fandom blinding me, or maybe I'm just in the Christmas spirit, but I see a 24-17 win for New England.

FOURTH QUARTER: Other games we like this week

Todd (1-2 last week, 26-16 season): Due to our holiday schedules this is going to be our last column for 2013, so I want to wish our loyal readers a merry Christmas and a happy and safe new year.  As these are our final picks of the regular season, it also means this is Mike’s final week to catch me in our annual head-to-head battle (which we’ll resume during the playoffs).  In that vein I’m taking the jekyll-and-hyde (unbeaten at home, mediocre on road) Bengals over the Vikings, the Panthers over the Saints and in what is likely to be the last game ever played at windy and quasi-venerable Candlestick Park, I’ll take the Forty Niners over the Falcons.

Mike (2-1 last week, 23-18-1 season): I'll take Miami over Buffalo, Denver over Houston and the Seahawks over Arizona.

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