L is for Losers

Joe Posnanski: Let us dispel, once and for all, with this fiction that this was Super Bowl 50. The NFL knows it was not. This was Super Bowl L. For XLIX years, these guys hammered us with their pompous, overbearing, only-good-enough-for-World-Wars-and-”Saw”-movie Roman numerals. Oh, no, plain old Arabic numbers weren’t good enough for the National Football League. The NFL didn’t blink for Super Bowl XXX. They had no problem at all going with Super Bowl size XL. But suddenly, at 50, they’re going back? No. Let us dispel, once and for all, with this fiction that this was Super Bowl 50. This was Super Bowl L.

Michael Schur: It’s XXV minutes before kickoff and you just wrote CIV words on whether we should be using Roman or Arabic numerals. This does not bode well for this piece being a reasonable length. I’ll set the over/under on final word count at MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. 

Yes, well, um, let us dispel, once and for all, with this fiction that this was Super Bowl 50. This was Super Bowl L.

I suppose the NFL went away from their Roman roots because they didn’t want to call a football game “L.” But it would have been proper to do so because essentially this was a battle royale of people seeing who could do the most to lose this game.

First, Aqib Talib was like, “I’ll make us lose!” Then Mike Tolbert was like, “No, let me!” Then his own team accidentally recovered his first fumble so he was like “Give me another chance to lose this game, guys, I know I can do it!” and that time, his fumble was successful (at hurting his team)!

Peyton Manning tried to take command as if he was saying, “Wait a minute. This is my last game. If anyone is going to lose this game, it’s going to be me.”

And then Cam was like, “No way, Sheriff.  I’m the future of the NFL. Let me show you how the next generation loses games, old man!”

And then Doritos was like, “Um, if anyone is going to lose this game it is us with an incredibly weird and disturbing commercial featuring a woman and an ultrasound.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ko7GuDOv4BM%5D

And then the NFL was like, “Oh yeah, Doritos? Watch this. We are going to assert that our league is so powerful and all-knowing we literally create life. And it is going to be creepy.”

In Exhibit 549.32 of how stupid I am, I honestly thought the Super Bowl Babies thing referred to babies born DURING the Super Bowl. In this way, I was almost a Super Bowl baby — I was born one week before Super Bowl I during Baltimore’s victory over Philadelphia in the Playoff Bowl. Only after snapping out of my stupidity fog did I realize that, no, the NFL was honoring those who had unprotected celebration sex because their team won the Super Bowl. Think of how many children out there are living only because Kevin Dyson’s arms weren’t quite long enough! Think of those babies that were inspired by Neil O’Donnell’s interceptions!

Think of all the babies that were born nine months after Tampa Bay … did whatever … to the Raiders? I think? Did Tampa Bay really win a Super Bowl? Even the Tampa Bay Super Bowl Baby parents can’t remember it happening.

Before we get too far in this, I must eat my crow. I thought the Panthers would win big. I thought it, and I wrote it, and for all those Broncos fans who want to gloat, well, I own it. I will let this email from a Broncos fan named Jeff represent the 303: “It’s good to see that an an opinion from a fat, bald, ugly old man such as yourself is worthless. Broncos rule.”

Thanks Jeff! That was definitely worth the time and energy it took to write it!

Yes, well, let us dispel, once and for all …no, wait, truth is I looked at the game from as many angles as I could. I thought the Broncos’ offense stood no chance of moving the ball against the Carolina defense. None. I thought the Panthers would force turnovers like they have all year. And while I have full respect for the Broncos’ defense, I just thought the Panthers and Cam Newton would find ways to throw that defense off balance and move the ball. The only way I could see the Broncos winning was if a bunch of really weird things happened.

The thing I forgot is that this is professional football. And in professional football, weird things happen all the time.

NFL Football is basically nothing but weird things happening. Football should change its name to the Kooky Weird Things Funtime Game! (This would also have the benefit of re-branding, and making people stop associating “football” with bad things like concussions and domestic violence. I mean … it worked for Philip Morris/Altria.)

The first weird thing to happen, I must say, was Jim Nantz saying “Lady Gaga” before the National Anthem. There are words that sound natural for Nantz. “Tradition” works well for him. “Roethlisberger” and “Hello friends” and “Augusta National” all sound just right. But him saying “Gaga” for whatever reason made me laugh for a long time. I think that would actually be a pretty good show: Jim Nantz says funny words.

“Pudding. Oingo Boingo. Zebra Bubble Nebula!”

Joe Montana flipped the coin, which was awesome because it turned the beginning of the Super Bowl into a Papa John’s commercial. Then the Panthers won the toss and deferred because that’s what teams always do these days. But, I will say, as soon as they deferred I thought, “You know, they might have been better off getting the ball.” It seemed to me that the Broncos’ worst fear was falling behind and their best hope was taking an early lead. I wonder if the Broncos wanted the ball and would have gotten it no matter how the coin landed.

Well, the Patriots took the ball two weeks ago, and that didn’t work. I don’t think anything works against Denver’s defense. It’s like, “Do we want to try to move the ball against those 11 Robocop DestructoBots now, or in the second half?”

Getting the ball first worked out perfectly for Denver. With two weeks to prepare, coach Gary Kubiak and Peyton Manning and J.J. Abrams designed an awe-inspiring first drive using CGI and pixie dust. Manning threw an 18-yard pass over the middle to Owen Daniels. He threw a quick six-yard pass out to Emmanuel Sanders. On third down, he looped a 22-yard pass to a wide open Andre Caldwell to move the Broncos into field goal range.

It was beautiful because, as we would find out, Peyton Manning can no longer throw footballs. That pass to Caldwell was the last third down the Broncos would convert for the next 22 hours.

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The Panthers blitzed like 16 guys on the first four plays. They blitzed everyone on the field and then also three guys who just ran off the bench and blitzed, and then there were two practice squad players who also blitzed. And Peyton knew it was going to happen, and Gary Kubiak knew it was going to happen, and they had scripted plays where they accounted for it, and they worked. The Panthers couldn’t quite get to him on those plays, and it seemed like that totally threw them off balance. They all looked whiny. Like they were saying, “But but but but…he can barely throw! Why aren’t we winning?!”

The Broncos led 3-0 and at this point we might as well talk about the most important person in Super Bowl L: Mike Carey. Has there ever been a television character quite as remarkable as Mike Carey?

Mr. Furley in Three’s Company? That’s the only one that comes to mind.

I’d love to see Mike Carey at the Regal Beagle. For years, Carey was an NFL referee — 24 years according to Wikipedia, the go-to source on NFL referees. I have no idea if he was a good referee, but he seemed authoritative. And, get this, Wikipedia says he invented a device called “Cat Tracks” which you slip over your shoes to gain traction on ice.

No way that’s true. That’s Ed Hoculi getting drunk and messing with Carey’s wiki page late at night.

Now, I’m imagining Terry McAuley going to Wikipedia and saying, “I’m going to make Carey a former child star who once won the comedy segment on Star Search.”

Is that also true?! Mike Carey is the Forrest Gump of meaningless events with no historical significance.

Anyway, eight minutes into the game, the Panthers’ Jerricho Cotchery bobbled a pass from Newton. The pass was called incomplete on the field, but the Panthers challenged because the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly states that no pass shall be judged complete or incomplete until reviewed for long enough to show at least one pharmaceutical commercial and one promo for “Two Broke Girls.”

When a play gets reviewed on CBS, they go to Mike Carey to predict what will happen. And, as you know, Mike Carey is always wrong. Always. It happens every episode, like the Coyote falling off the cliff or someone getting killed on “Murder She Wrote.”

And yet CBS keeps him around, and keeps going to him, and he keeps getting everything wrong. It’s like he’s the old CEO of a company who did a lot back in his day, and they still give him a parking spot and an office, and he keeps coming in every day and puttering around and everyone whispers “I know it’s annoying, because he contributes nothing, and he eats all the muffins from the break room, but just let it go. He’s a nice guy.”

Here was the beautiful part of this particular play: Mike Carey WAS NOT wrong.

That’s correct. He was absolutely right. That was a catch, and if it wasn’t then football as a concept is meaningless.

Exactly. On replay, it seemed clear that while Cotchery bobbled the ball around clumsily, the ball never touched the ground. That seems to suggest: Catch. Carey predicted the incomplete call would be overturned. It seemed like that this one time Charlie Brown would kick the football. But Charlie Brown will never kick the football, and the call was not overturned. Even when Mike Carey is right he’s wrong. I’m not sure what happens to the world’s balance if Mike Carey actually predicts a replay correctly.

There is some vast conspiracy, stretching from the Kremlin to the White House to the halls of an Ancient Masonic Temple, involving the Bilderburg Group and Bohemian Grove and the Illuminati, and those involved have decided that Mike Carey can never be right. That’s the only thing that makes sense. That if he gave his opinion on television, and he were ruled correct…governments would crumble, civil wars would erupt…all life on this planet would cease to exist.

The way you know this is true is that the next challenge was on the “sack” of Manning, wherein a defensive player came within four yards of Peyton, and he panicked and fell down, which is a thing that started happening about four games ago. It was ruled not a sack, and the replay showed, unambiguously, that a Panther had touched him (somewhat intimately, actually) on his way down. This was a 100 percent clear call: sack. It was not a vague catch rule situation, or an in-bounds/out-of-bounds call with no good view of a receiver’s feet. It was just a sack. Down by contact.  And they didn’t let Mike Carey weigh in.

I don’t know why they didn’t. This was his chance to redeem himself, to walk off a winner, to end his terribly embarrassing year of getting literally everything wrong by getting something right — something so easy to get right my 7 year-old son said “He touched him!” as we watched the replay. Mike Carey had this one. He must’ve had it. And they did not throw to him for his opinion. My stomach still hurts, thinking about this. I picture him taking deep breaths, ready for the on-air toss, saying to himself, “Easy call, guys. Down by contact!”, knowing that he is going to finish 2015-16 on a real high note. But no. Life is cruel.

The incomplete pass, of course, was a game-changing play. Less than a minute later, Cam Newton — now facing a third and long from his own 15 rather than being somewhere down the field — dropped back toward his own end zone. He was strangely oblivious to Von Miller coming up on his non-blind side. I believe that this is because among Von Miller’s many superpowers is the ability to go into stealth mode. The invisible Miller plowed into Newton, knocked the ball free, and Denver’s Malik Jackson fell on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. That made the score 10-0 Denver.

At this point, something bizarre was coming into focus: Someone had kidnapped Cam Newton and replaced him with Dead Eyed Cam, like the tired plot of some superhero sequel. Yes, of course, we’re giving credit to that amazing Broncos defense. But before that defense even established itself, Cam looked lost. I mean he literally looked lost, like a kid in the mall who wandered out of Gap for Kids and into the food court, drawn by the smell of Auntie Anne’s pretzels, and now can’t find any relatives.

I’m imagining a lost Cam Newton in a mall and getting sad. That’s a sad image! “You lost, little buddy? Well let’s just walk around and see if we can find your family. You’re 6’5 265 so they oughta be able to see you pretty easily.  Actually, can I sit up on your shoulders? That way I’d be able to — yes, good, thanks, now I can see everything! Tell me what your parents look like and I’ll — oops! Now you’re running very fast! I guess you see them…okay…put me down…”

Where was that Cam Newton “Hey, I see my parents” energy? The confidence? The smile? That smile was such a big thing with Cam, it said, “I’m having fun out here. And the reason I’m having fun is because I’m SO much better than you.” That’s what made him the most argued-about athlete in sports this year. He dabbed. He gave footballs to little girls. He took selfies with his teammates. He ran with abandon. He threw downfield. He did it all with that killer smile.

All day on Monday, people around Charlotte wondered: “What happened to Cam’s smile?”

And maybe most importantly, he always looked like the best athlete on the field. When Cam takes shotgun snaps, he doesn’t even really move. He just catches the snap and kind of stands there, calmly, unhurried, like a guy who knows that he is the best athlete on the field. He looks like a 14 year-old playing with kindergarteners. But that play changed everything. It’s not like he suddenly got happy feet, or skittish, the way Denver’s defense made Brady get skittish in the Championship game.  But he just never seemed in control of anything. He looked like he was thinking, “Hey, how’d these kindergarteners get so damn fast?! Quit it!”

Exactly. Brady got happy feet. Cam got very sad feet. That was the part I didn’t get at all; he looked like a guy who psyched himself up for this game by downing a bottle of Five-Hour Apathy and watching a couple of botany documentaries. What gives?

Denver’s defense gives, I think. Or, more accurately, Denver’s defense taketh away.

Cam did perk up a bit at the start of the second quarter, running a couple of times and leading the Panthers down the field. At this point, Aqib Talib deserves special mention. He picked up two personal foul penalties in the first half which, according to a proposed rule, would have meant his immediate expulsion from the game.

Talib is always kind of a problem, in terms of like hot-headedness. But this was a full-on meltdown. Beyond the penalties, he was also getting burned all over the field, no matter whom he was guarding. (He also appeared to jump offsides on the field goal attempt later, though it was marginal.) Aqib Talib has a Super Bowl ring right now, and he’s probably bragging to everyone about how good his defensive unit is, but yikes, what a terrible game. He’s a very lucky guy, playing CB on a team with that front seven.

The second Talib penalty was the worst facemask penalty I’ve seen since Anthony Hopkins bit off that guy’s face in “Silence of the Lambs.” Talib grabbed the facemask of Corey Brown and then sort of hammer-threw Brown out of bounds. Remember our idea for having a sort of tribunal to determine the proper yardage for each NFL penalty? A shaky holding penalty might be a two-yard penalty or maybe just a stern warning. What would that Talib facemask have been worth?

Under our proposed rule, they would’ve given the Panthers eight points, the ball at midfield, an extra timeout, and free Beyonce tickets.

As for the rest of the first half, well, the Panthers had another turnover, a bunch of stupid penalties, some receiver drops and, oh yeah, there was the Denver punt return. That was a gem.

Yes. That is what counts as, by this game’s standards, a “gem.”

The Broncos’ Jordan Norwood raced up to field a punt at the Denver 25. There were two Panthers players there when he caught the ball. Punt returners always fair catch the ball when there are two players there. The reason for this is that frisky punt returners can die. If I was a punt returner for a game next September, I would start waving fair catch NOW.

I do it first thing when I wake up every morning, just on the off chance that later in the day someone will punt to me.

After Norwood caught the ball, he sort of stopped for a second like it was a fair catch. But then he started running. I believe there are two possibilities.

1. Jordan Norwood thought he made a fair catch and then realized that he did not because he didn’t hear the whistle.


2. Jordan Norwood pretended to make a fair catch fool the Panthers?


Um, I said there are two possibilities.

I honestly think he just caught the ball, expected to get popped, didn’t, and took off.  The Panthers clearly assumed it was a fair catch, because how could it not be? But I bet you anything the Panthers were like, well, we can’t just drill him, because it’s obviously a fair catch and also we will be penalized. But good lord, that was weird and ugly and bad.

Yes, well, it worked. I actually think Norwood pulled off the fake, the best fake since Dan Marino faux-spiked it against the Jets that one time. Carolina’s Teddy Williams was right there ready to make the tackle and then, thinking the ball was fair-caught, he backed off. All of the Panthers did. And Norwood ran, 61 yards, the longest punt return in Super Bowl history. How about THAT being the longest punt return in Super Bowl history? That led to a field goal and a 13-7 Broncos lead.

The Panthers, for their part, seemed pretty content to be down by six. On the final drive of the half, Dead Eyed Cam went to the line with all the enthusiasm of someone going to the urologist. The whole Carolina team sloshed around sleepily; what could these guys possibly be thinking?

“What time does the game start?” they were thinking, and also, “This dream we are all having is very realistic, but we’re not playing that well, so we should wake up from the nap we are clearly all taking and get ready for the game.”

I will also say that the punt return thing was the moment I knew the Broncos were going to win. Peyton was already utterly ineffective — he and Kubiak had run out of tricks, just like they did after the first half of the Patriots game — and in order to score even a single other point I felt like they needed turnovers or punt returns or something to give them the shortest field imaginable. They needed weird stuff to happen. So when that weird thing happened, I knew it was curtains for Carolina.

Yes. The half ended with a sack and then, when Panthers coach Ron Rivera was asked how he saw the second half, he said “It will come down to the team that has the ball last.”

Clearly he meant that was the team that would lose.

The Patriots, in the AFC Championship, also looked slow and sluggish against Denver. It might just be that they are that good, and it takes a long time to know what to do. Though it should be noted that was also in Denver, where it was very loud, and they had to go to silent counts, which I don’t think was true of Carolina. I think the Panthers just kind of Reid/McNabbed it.

The Broncos defense is like a great body puncher. They work the body and work the body and then, by the fifth or sixth round, the opponent is thinking, “I think I feel my spleen.”

* * *

Halftime Show summary from my two daughters:

Katie (age 11): “No.”

Elizabeth (age 14) “So much no.”

* * *

OK, talk about your favorite part of Super Bowl L, that crazy end zone technology that CBS introduced to show if a touchdown was scored.

Yes. They — or, I guess, Intel — did the thing I have been clamoring for since I first saw the Hawkeye technology used in tennis. They built a laser wall, with cameras, that allowed us to see a clear and unambiguous plane shooting up from the goal line, and they also had that sort of 180-degree Matrix-style bullet time technology where you can freeze an image and rotate all the way around to see it from every angle.  So they froze the image of Jonathan Stewart jumping over the goal line, and you could see plainly that the ball had crossed the plane.  

If the Intel Laser Wall isn’t instituted in every stadium by opening day 2016, I am going to lose my mind. Because it worked! It was great and it worked. And it made it look like Jonathan Stewart was flying through a giant blue laser wall, and that is awesome. Also, Intel, you can have the term “Laser Wall.” I’m giving that to you. You can have that.

The laser wall was way better than every commercial, except maybe that one with Kevin Hart following around his daughter on a first date. The NFL’s ridiculous “pull out the chains” technology is a big topic between us. They’re STILL measuring first down with chains. No matter how many times you say that, it never stops sounding stupid. Then the Super Bowl comes around and the NFL shows that they are just sitting on the technology for LASER WALLS. The NFL is like a Star Wars prequel using horses and buggies and abacuses

During halftime, you sent me this: “The narrative for me is: there is one way the Broncos can win, and that’s if it’s a bad game. Sloppy and turnover-rich and bad. So far it’s been bad.”

I think there’s a lot to that. This was a bad first half. And it was a bad game. I know Denver fans want to believe this was a mighty defensive struggle, and as we’ve mentioned again and again, the Broncos’ defense is an invincible army of the undead. But it was still a bad game. The Broncos’ offense was terrible. And the Carolina offense was terrible. Newton was wild with some throws, and the Panthers’ receivers dropped throws when Newton was on target.

They dropped a LOT of them. This is getting lost a bit in the post-game narrative because all the focus is on Cam. But: when Newton was bad he was very very bad, and when he was good his receivers sucked eggs. From that opening catch-not-a-catch to the interception in the red zone that went right through Ginn’s hands for what would’ve been first and goal, the receivers deserve a large amount of blame.

Also — and this is true of most great defensive gameplans — it just looked like the Broncos had more players on the field. It’s how Seattle looked two years ago, and how the Ravens looked with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and how Alabama looks sometimes. It’s like, they blitz seven, and you think “Man, someone must be wide open,” and then if the QB can get a pass off, there appears to be seven other guys who have dropped into coverage. It’s a mirage, and a staple of all great defensive teams. They are everywhere.

The Panthers actually ran for 118 yards, which isn’t bad. But Mike Tolbert fumbled twice so those yards were worthless. The offensive line was in retreat. Nobody could hold on to the ball. The Panthers’ play-calling seemed limited and unimaginative.

Honestly, here’s my question: what was the gameplan, for the Panthers? How would you describe their offensive gameplan? Because you know what the Broncos’ plan was: score like 6 points somehow, then let the defense take over. The Broncos probably figured that if they won, the final score would be 6-3. (With the six points coming on 3 safeties.) But what was Carolina’s plan? Did they have one? They must have had one, right?

Dead Eyed Cam was the biggest surprise of this game. But the second-biggest surprise was how uninteresting the Panthers’ offensive gameplan was. Did they try to get Cam out of the pocket? No. Did they design anything to throw the Broncos defense off balance? Well, they tried that one ill-fated wide receiver pass but otherwise: No. Here you have a unique talent at quarterback, the league MVP, the all-time leader for quarterback rushing touchdowns, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound member of the X-Men, and you give him some vanilla, seven-step-drop, throw-the-ball-downfield gameplan? I don’t get it.

Let’s throw in something else that will undoubtedly infuriate Denver fans but must be said: The Broncos were luckier than the Panthers. Yes, of course, this is what losing teams always say. But losing teams are often right: Football has a whole lot of luck in it. Penalties are called or not called. Spots are accurate and inaccurate. Footballs bounce up and kick left and bounce away. In one significant two-play chain in the second half, the Broncos had a penalty flag inexplicably picked up on third down as the Panthers were driving toward the end zone.

A defensive holding call that would’ve given Carolina a first down. A potentially huge call.

Next play, Talib pretty clearly jumped offsides on the Panthers’ field goal attempt. It was not called. Then that field goal attempt by Graham Gano clanked off the right upright and fell away. This kind of stuff happens all the time in football games. Good luck trumps bad.

Ted Ginn complained loudly about defensive PI late in the game, when the game was still within striking distance, and the replay showed he was certainly correct.  I don’t know what was going on, or what the directive was from the league about how to call things, but there were no PI calls in the ENTIRE GAME for either side, and the chances of playing an entire football game with no pass interference are one in 2.9 squintillimillion. There was a marginal holding call on Josh Norman in the end zone on Thomas, during a play in which Peyton launched the ball into the twelfth row of the mezzanine so as not to give up the chance at a certain game-clinching field goal, but I do not believe there were any PI calls. Weird.

Such a great point. This game had basically every penalty EXCEPT pass interference. We as football fans don’t appreciate, I think, just how much NFL referees determine the rhythm and flow of games. The officials either determined that defensive backs could have their way this game or defensive backs played textbook perfect coverage.

But, again, let’s not get too far from the main point. The Broncos were better than the Panthers. After the missed field goal, Manning completed two longish passes — a 25-yarder and 22-yarder to Sanders — to set up a field goal. That gave the Broncos a 16-7 lead.

Of no importance: That was the final score of Super Bowl III.

First thing I thought of. That game still looms so large in NFL history.

You know what I love about that Jets-Colts game in Super Bowl III? They always show that one pass Joe Namath completed to George Sauer for 39 yards, and you get the impression that Namath had some sort of fantastic game. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass in that game and couldn’t punch the Jets into the end zone. The Jets kicked a NINE-yard field goal in that game. Nine.

Namath was 17-29 for like 200 yards. The Jets picked off the Colts four times. Also I just looked it up and the Jets offensive line averaged 255 pounds. Their right tackle was Roger Finnie, who weighed 245. Significantly less than the Panthers’ starting quarterback. Different game.

Yes, different game and yet — hey, I have a connection — Peyton Manning played this game much in the same way that Namath played in Super Bowl III. He controlled the game calling. He threw the ball fewer times than Namath did, endured the sacks and got to walk off the field a hero because his defense was so amazing.

You and I agreed that if you had to pick one play that defined Super Bowl L, at least for the Panthers, it was this one:

(5:57) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass deep middle intended for T.Ginn INTERCEPTED by T.Ward at DEN 10. T.Ward to DEN 14 for 4 yards (M.Tolbert). FUMBLES (M.Tolbert), recovered by DEN-D.Trevathan at DEN 7. D.Trevathan to DEN 7 for no gain (T.Ginn).

For those interested in following along, Newton fired a heat-seeking pass over the middle that seemed to be right to Ted Ginn, but it went through him — perhaps taking Ginn’s right arm along with it — and ended up being caught by Denver’s T.J. Ward. He began running and Carolina’s Mike Tolbert, perhaps wanting to atone for his own fumbles, crashed into Ward forcing a fumble. the ball rolled backward toward the Denver goal line. I’d estimate there were 295 Panthers in position to recover the ball. Instead a ghost named Danny Trevathan fell on it.

Ginn makes a huge mistake. The Broncos benefit. The Broncos then make an even bigger mistake. The Panthers do not benefit. That was the game, in a nutshell.

The Broncos gained 194 total yards. They had four first downs in the first half. They were 1-14 on third down. Factoring in the sacks, they had 104 yards passing. And they won easily. They won easily, because their defense is insane, and because the Panthers committed 12 penalties, and had four turnovers, all of which were either deep in Denver territory (drive-killing) or deep in their own territory (devastating), and because every bounce or call that could’ve gone their way did not.

Two other points we should probably discuss.

First is Peyton Manning. This was his last game, whether he wants it to be or not, and he was essentially helpless. But he got his second Super Bowl ring. He has all the records, he has played in four Super Bowls, his team won two of them. Where does he rank?

I mean, first, second, or third, right? The negatives are: tons of 1-and-outs in the playoffs…his overall playoff record in general isn’t amazing…the terrible pick-6 on the final drive against New Orleans…the beating he took from Seattle two years ago, the lame performance in this game. The positives are literally everything else. I wouldn’t argue with “greatest ever” too much, though I’d still say Brady has him beat, based on the four Super Bowl wins and overall body of work. And I am not in any way biased, and please ignore the TB12 tattoo I have on both of my arms, and the Bill Belichick hoodie I am currently wearing, and the actual tears of joy I am currently shedding because I am watching a GIF of Brady jumping up and down after Malcolm Butler picked off Russell Wilson last year, which plays on my computer in an endless loop.

I say Brady-Manning-Montana. YMMV.

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Sad that I had to look up YMMV. Your Mileage May Vary. My mileage doesn’t vary much, actually. Like you, I think there are three quarterbacks with the best case for best ever — Manning, Brady and Montana — with John Unitas and Otto Graham in there for the old timers. I’m not sure how you separate the three. It probably doesn’t matter because Aaron Rodgers will be the best by the time he retires anyway.

Side-note: if Manning plays another down he’s insane.

Well, we already know he’s insane because he came back this year. I don’t think he plays another down but, honestly, he seems weirdly ticked off that he had to play in that “don’t let Peyton throw” Denver offense, and I could see a 5 percent chance of him hooking up with another team to prove that he can still play big-time football. I hope not. Because he cannot.

Even in this game, hey, his team won, a nice ending. But most of the game watching Peyton Manning try to throw the ball as hard as he can was, well, pretty comical. He had that look on his face after every throw that said, “Ow, I’m really in pain here.”

Yeah, they were not doing him any favors with the extreme close-up slo-mo shows of max exertion. He looked like a guy trying to move a piano across a shag carpet.

Side-note #2: that casual, “totally not in any way a paid advertisement for Budweiser” way that Manning mentioned Budweiser multiple times in the immediate aftermath of the game was lame and stupid, and (worse) Peyton himself I believe owns like two Budweiser distributors, and if Brady had done what Peyton did the world would’ve caught on fire from the heat of the Hot Takes about “what message is Tom Brady sending to our children!?!?!??!?!?”  Just saying.

I believe Brady will be suspended for four games for Manning’s Budweiser mentions.

The second point: We need to come to some theory on what happened to Cam Newton. The Panthers were still down only six with less than three minutes. If Newton was going to snap out of his weird funk, this would be a pretty good time. On third and eight, though, he tried to throw the ball downfield and had it whacked out of his hand by Von Miller. We need to one more time say that Von Miller is an absurdity. He could beat up both Superman and Batman. He’s utterly unblockable.

Here’s how the defensive meeting went, two weeks ago:

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips: So, guys, we’ve watched a lot of film. Cam is a tremendous talent. Ted Ginn has really come into his own, and Stewart and Tolbert give them a powerful backfield punch. What are we thinking?

Von Miller: I’m just gonna run right around the tackle, every time, and hit Cam Newton and strip the ball.

Demarcus Ware: Yeah, and I’ll do the same thing, but from the other side.

Wade Phillips: Sounds good. You guys wanna catch a 3:00 showing of “Carol?”

This is exactly what makes Wade Phillips so great.

Remember when Wade Phillips was the coach of the Cowboys? That was fun.

It really was fun. Jerry Jones desperately wanted to fire him, more or less from Phillips’ second day on the job, but his team kept winning games to foil Jones evil plan. Then finally the Cowboys drafted and signed a defense so bad Phillips couldn’t win and they could finally get rid of him. Wade Phillips’ NFL record is 82-64 and he’s been fired THREE times and been dumped as an interim coach three other times.

Back to Cam. After he fumbled, there was a scramble for the ball and … Newton jumped away from the ball. I’ve watched it two dozen times now, and it is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.

I think he was hallucinating. I think he thought it was a grenade or something. He looked at the ball like it was a dirty diaper.

So bizarre … it just seems that in last couple of minutes of the Super Bowl, down by six points, maybe you jump in there. Cam Newton was absolutely the league MVP. He was one of the most fun and spectacular players I’ve ever seen. But there was something going on in his mind that really makes no sense.

Demoralized, is the word I kept thinking of. Based on his 12-second presser after the game, I’d say that sums it up.

Let us dispel, once and for all, with the fiction that Super Bowl L was a good game. It was a stinker filled with pre-snap penalties, personal fouls, dropped passes, poor passes, fumbles and all sorts of confusion. On the bright side, though, Peyton got his glorious ending (assuming he’s takes it), Von Miller and Demarcus Ware are demigods and, you know, Beyonce.

Beyonce, indeed. Toward the end of that performance, when Beyonce and Bruno Mars were dancing into eternity, there was an amazing shot of Chris Martin in the deep background, and he appeared to be thinking, “Oh, yeah, right…this was a bad idea, to try to hang with these people, on this stage.” I expected him to just walk off and sort of wave, like, “Sorry, everyone. Sorry. I shouldn’t be here. Enjoy the show.”

Which is also how the Panthers probably felt.

Scroll Down For:

    Peter King goes 1-on-1 with Cowboys’ Jason Witten

    Year: 2017
    Runtime: 19:25
    Originally aired on: NBC

    Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has done it all during his 15-year NFL career. The two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards and is third in franchise history in touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer let Peter King of The MMQB and Football Night in America behind the scenes for a look into Witten’s recovery process. The end result is an incredibly rare shot of what it takes for an NFL player to take his body from gameday to gameday and perform at their absolute best week after week.

    Off Script: Jeremy Roenick opens up on career, family

    Jeremy Roenick was as outspoken as he was talented during his 20-year NHL career.

    Now 47 years old and almost a decade out of the league, the NHL on NBC analyst opens up to Kathryn Tappen about trouble with coaches, life after getting traded, close family ties and much more in the debut episode of “Off Script.”

    Once more, with feeling

    NEW YORK — Again and again, over and over, they ask him how he FEELS. Well, this is the question to ask, isn’t it? The bus crawls through New York traffic and takes Jimmie Johnson from office building to office building. People wait inside. Kelly Live waits. Charlie Rose waits. USA Today … Mad Dog Radio … NFL Radio … TMZ. They wait for him on top of the Empire State Building. They wait for him outside the Time Life Building.

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    How does it FEEL to come from nowhere to win your seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie? How does it FEEL to tie the two enduring legends of your sport, “The King,” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt? How does it FEEL to be the best at what you do, to be inside a race car, rushing at the speed of chaos with 39 maniacs around you barely holding on? No, really, break it down for our audience, how does it feel to be you, Jimmie Johnson, championship race-car driver, part-time triathlete, millionaire philanthropist like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, loving husband, adoring father, everybody’s best friend and somehow, still, the nicest guy?

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    “Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

    “Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

    “I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

    We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

    “Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

    “Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

    “I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

    There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

    WATCH: NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards on Dec. 2 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app)

    That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

    Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

    He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

    “Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

    * * *

    Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

    Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

    Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

    As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

    “OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

    Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

    Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

    Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

    Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

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    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

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    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

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    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

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    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

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    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?