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The Loop

These are the best NFL conference championships in years

James Gilbert

These are the best NFL conference championships in years

Do you have complicated feelings about the NFL? Regardless of who you are, up to and including Roger Goodell, the answer is likely "yes." Your worldview doesn't matter, your politics don't matter, your history doesn't matter. Pretty much all that's required is some level of sports fandom, and I'm not even sure of that. The NFL is America's most popular sport, and like America itself, it can be a profoundly weird institution that inspires strong emotions; not all of them great. And yet, here we are in 2021, and by virtue of God knows what, we're on the verge of some insanely riveting conference championships.

On one side, you've got Brady vs. Rodgers, which would be great under any circumstances, but is particularly amazing considering the way Brady hasn't skipped a beat after leaving New England and the cold embrace of Bill Belichick. While the Pats flounder, here's the greatest QB of my lifetime leading yet another team to football's final four just a year removed from exiting a dynasty. Previously, these two guys—both precious old-man QBs, by the way—would only have met in the Super Bowl, but now, perhaps in their final kick at the can, they're going head-to-head at the most famous stadium in the sport, and with any luck it'll be bitterly cold. I cannot wait.

In the AFC, it's tempting to say that a Browns-Bills championship would have been the best result, since both just broke long playoff winning droughts and have basically functioned as punching bags for two decades, but I'd argue that the reality—Chiefs vs. Bills—is even better. You've still got your inspiring underdog story (and in my mind the better of the two...who doesn't love plucky Buffalo, with all their snow and mustaches?), but now they're going up against a juggernaut led by the best player in the sport and a potential once-in-a-generation talent (who is hopefully un-concussed and ready to go). That's a better story by far, and as weird as it would have been to say this even five years ago, Chiefs-Bills is about as good as you could script it.

Christian Petersen

As for comparisons to prior years, there have been some absolute classic championship week match-ups, like New England-Kansas City two years ago, and there have been some good double-feature years, like Indianapolis-New England and Green Bay-Seattle in 2014-15, but in terms of storylines, players, and basically everything else, there just hasn't been anything remotely close to what's in store next week. Reasonable people can disagree on that, I suppose, but it's hard to imagine an argument for any other season in the last 20 years at least.

The NFL must be feeling pretty lucky right now. It's not an easy time to be the country's most popular sport, and they've had to stumble (and sometimes bumble) their way through the last five years. There's no such thing as pure love for the NFL anymore, only love for the sport, nostalgia for the league, and tradition to go with all the complex emotions of modern fandom. But for one weekend, we can strip that all away and spend seven hours enjoying two of the most fascinating games we've ever seen in championship week.

Also this: Championship week is better than the Super Bowl anyway. This is not even a take, it's so obvious. Only fools disagree.

The "He's As Good As We Thought" Player of the Week: Zion Williamson

I have no clue if Zion is going to stay injury-free for any length of time in his NBA career, since he puts ungodly amounts of strength and force on a human body over and over again, but as a Duke homer and a Zion worshipper, I am very very gratified to see how amazing he is as a professional basketball player when he's in shape and healthy. As I'm writing this Sunday night, he has started the Pelicans-Kings game with 18 points on 8-9 from the field, and the best +/- on the floor, in one half. And it's not even that special, by his standards; just like at Duke, he's phenomenally efficient by virtue of the way he scores. With his obscene combination of strength, quickness, and hops, he scores endless "easy" points. Watch this:

I mean, no joke, that is technically an easy basket! Very few other human beings could come anywhere close to executing it, but the fact that he has so many offensive tools is why he puts up stat lines like 8-9. And look what he did a game earlier against the best shot blocker I've ever seen:

Granted, Davis was coming off the ball there, but it just shows how high he can leap, how long he stays in the air, and how strong he is through any contact. I thought this compilation clip from his Christmas performance against the Heat was a great showcase of his unique skills:

Though he can thunder-dunk on command, a lot of Zion's command seems unspectacular on paper, but there's something about watching him exist on a different athletic plane that's never anything but incredible. Long live Zion.

The NBA Stat of the Week: Jokic Insanity

This one came to my attention on Twitter via Digest's own Alex Myers:

I love this tweet because it serves two purposes: First, to highlight how incredible Jokic has been, and second, to put the historical spotlight on the Big O himself. My God, those numbers. Jokic's production is so good that only one other guy has ever done it over the first 12 games, but that guy just obliterated him in every category. Here's to Jokic, and especially, here's to Oscar Robertson.