Happy Friday, everyone. We start with some sad news from last night: legendary former college basketball announcer Billy Packer has died at 82. Packer called 34 Final Fours, 27 of which came with CBS.
We have a huge sports weekend in front of us, so let's begin.
Good morning to everyone but especially to...
THE SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES, CINCINNATI BENGALS AND KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Conference championship weekend is here, and I am excited. You should be too. We have four terrific teams vying for two spots in the Super Bowl and storylines abound.
Let's get started with picks. Our John Breech says the numbers won't lie when it comes to the AFC.
- Breech: "Joe Burrow is 3-0 against Patrick Mahomes with all three games being decided by exactly three points and the Bengals are going for their third straight playoff win. Also, Burrow has never lost in January (7-0), he's never lost a road playoff game (3-0) and I think we all know where I'm going with this pick. The pick: Bengals 27-24 over Chiefs"
Oh, and just so you know, John has picked all three previous meetings correctly, too. In the NFC, our Pete Prisco doesn't see things being quite as close. We also have picks from Tyler Sullivan.
I really enjoyed reading our position-by-position analyses -- AFC here and NFC here. It shows how deep and talented these four teams are. That all comes from terrific drafting, savvy roster management, impressive development/coaching and, yes, some luck.
The biggest story of the weekend, undoubtedly, will be the quarterback battle at Arrowhead Stadium. Here's how Cody Benjamin sees that one:
- Benjamin: "Mahomes has the benefit of experience, with five straight AFC title bids and two Super Bowl appearances under his belt. He's also better suited for off-script acrobatics, setting the standard as a big-play artist in and outside of structure. But his high ankle sprain puts a big question mark on his mobility. Burrow, meanwhile... is quickly cementing himself as this generation's Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, showcasing near-flawless vision and touch in crunch time. Call it a dead-even draw."
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the outstanding work our NFL team has produced. Here are more of my favorites.
- The Super Bowl race, betting-wise, is historically wide open.
- The Bengals could join some exclusive company.
- Here's how Mahomes' ankle could impact things.
- Bulletin-board material for the Chiefs... and the Bengals
- Is Jalen Hurts Philadelphia's version of Michael Jordan?
- More potential Brock Purdy history.
- Bold predictions.
- How each team can win it all: Bengals | Chiefs | 49ers | Eagles
- The Astros finally have a GM. The World Series champions hired Braves executive Dana Brown to replace James Click. Brown, who was VP of scouting in Atlanta, helped identify and draft young talents such as Spencer Strider, Michael Harris II, and Vaughn Grissom. Here's everything else you need to know.
- The Cowboys may have parted ways with five staffers, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is sticking around.
And not such a good morning for...
THE UNITED STATES MEN'S NATIONAL TEAM
It's awfully quiet around USMNT headquarters nowadays. On Thursday, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced that sporting director Earnie Stewart and general manager Brian McBride are departing, and president Cindy Parlow Cone said there's a "clean canvas" as the team prepares for the 2026 World Cup, which the United States is co-hosting with Mexico and Canada.
- Stewart, who had been with the USMNT since 2018, is returning to his birth country, the Netherlands, as PSV Eindhoven's technical director. McBride had been with the USMNT since 2020.
- The team is already without a full-time head coach, after Gregg Berhalter's contract expired at the end of 2022. Berhalter is currently being investigated by U.S. Soccer after a feud erupted between him and Gio Reyna (... and Reyna's parents), a result of Reyna's minimal playing time in the 2022 World Cup. Here's a recap.
- Parlow Cone's "clean canvas" comment seems to indicate Berhalter won't return, but she said he's still in contention. Currently, interim coach Anthony Hudson is leading the team.
- The USSF has hired Sportsology Group to help fill the three vacancies.
Perhaps the most surprising part of all of this is that Parlow Cone expects the coaching vacancy to be filled "by the end of the summer." That's an awfully long ways away, though it makes sense that hiring a new sporting director and GM comes first.
Chances to get the team together are rare, and the longer this drags on, the harder it will be to build chemistry and understanding of the new coach's tactics, and the less time the new leaders will have to evaluate the player pool. That's not great, especially given the high expectations for 2026.
Not so honorable mentions
- Luka Doncic sprained his ankle.
- Colts fans started a petition urging the team to not hire Jeff Saturday.
- Things were really bad for the Patriots' offense in 2022.
- Remember that food delivery person who walked onto the court? It was a prank. Boo.
What Jets' hiring of Nathaniel Hackett means for chances of getting Aaron Rodgers 🏈
Nathaniel Hackett's disastrous first (and only ... and not even complete) season as a head coach clearly didn't impact his stock too much. The former Broncos head coach got hired as the Jets' offensive coordinator exactly one month after Denver fired him following a 4-11 tenure in the Mile High City.
- It could be that the Jets willing to give a second chance to a guy who had success as offensive coordinator in Green Bay and, before that, Jacksonville.
- Or it could be step one in a big push for Aaron Rodgers.
Hackett was in Green Bay for Rodgers' consecutive MVPs in 2020 and 2021, after all, and, as we discussed in Wednesday's newsletter, the Packers are expected to at least explore a trade. Our Cody Benjamin says getting Rodgers is the logical next step, and the Jets seem on board to push for some sort of veteran quarterback. Earlier this month, owner Woody Johnson said quarterback was "the missing piece," a stance head coach Robert Saleh reiterated Thursday.
Frank Reich returns to Panthers, this time as head coach 🏈
Things have come full circle for the Panthers: Carolina hired Frank Reich -- the franchise's first-ever starting quarterback back in 1995 -- as its next head coach. It's the first head-coaching vacancy to be filled this offseason.
- Reich, 61, went 40-33-1 in four-plus years with the Colts but was fired midway through the 2022 season after a disappointing 3-5-1 start. He made the playoffs twice.
- Prior to his time in Indianapolis, Reich was the Chargers' (2014-15) and Eagles' (2016-17) offensive coordinator, helping lead Philadelphia to its first Super Bowl title in his last game on staff.
- The Panthers chose Reich over Steve Wilks, the former interim head coach who led Carolina to a 6-6 record after Matt Rhule got fired following a 1-4 start. Wilks' lawyer called out the NFL.
Reich's first order of business will be figuring out quarterback. The Panthers started three different ones -- Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker -- behind center last season, and as a result the team finished near the bottom in most major passing categories. Mayfield was released in December and ended up with the Rams, and Darnold and Walker will both be free agents.
Perhaps that worked in Reich's favor, though, as he's experienced with quarterback change. He had a different Week 1 starter every year in Indianapolis. The Panthers have the No. 9 pick, and all four of our draft experts have them taking a quarterback in their mock drafts.
NBA All-Star starters revealed, and one big name is missing 🏀
The NBA All-Star Game starters are here! The following 10 players were determined by votes from fans (50%), media (25%) and players (25%).
From the Western Conference...
- LeBron James (captain)
- Zion Williamson
- Nikola Jokic
- Luka Doncic
- Stephen Curry
And from the East...
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (captain)
- Jayson Tatum
- Kevin Durant
- Kyrie Irving
- Donovan Mitchell
To me, there's one big name not on there that should be, and our Brad Botkin agrees. As for a more fun note, with James chasing down Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career points record, he tied Abdul-Jabbar's record with his 19th career All-Star Game selection.
What we're watching this weekend 📺
🏀 Grizzlies at Timberwolves, 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 Raptors at Warriors, 10 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 No. 13 Xavier at Creighton, 12:15 p.m. on CBS
🏀 Arkansas at No. 17 Baylor, 4 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Knicks at Nets, 5:30 p.m. on ABC
🏀 No. 10 Texas at No. 4 Tennessee, 6 p.m. on ESPN
⚽ USMNT vs. Colombia, 7:30 p.m. on TNT
🏀 No. 9 Kansas at Kentucky, 8 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Lakers at Celtics, 8:30 p.m. on ABC
🏀 Michigan State at No. 1 Purdue, 12:15 p.m. on CBS
🏀 No. 21 Villanova at No. 5 UConn, 2 p.m. on CBS Sports Network
🏈 49ers at Eagles, 3 p.m. on FOX
🏀 No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 20 NC State, 3 p.m. on ESPN
🏈 Bengals at Chiefs, 6:30 p.m. on CBS