Wednesday, June 4, 2008

You got some 'splainin to do

Yo, I told ya I'd explain the teams on the list. Here's the top ten:

1: 2004 Eagles (13-3, NFC Champions, lost Super Bowl XXXIX, 24-21)
After suffering through three consecutive agonizing NFC Championship Game losses, the Eagles went for broke in '04, acquiring Terrell Owens while signing Jevon Kearse and Jeremiah Trotter. It paid off, as they blazed out of the gates with seven consecutive wins, and were 13-1 before closing out the regular season with two meaningless losses. The Eagles clinched the NFC East title with five games left, and homefield advantage with two weeks left. In the Divisional Playoffs, the Eagles disposed of the Minnesota Vikings, 27-14, in a game that wasn't really as close as the final score would indicate. In the NFC Championship, the Eagles stifled the Atlanta Falcons, 27-10, at a frigid Lincoln Financial Field. The dream season ended with a 24-21 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX, which was the third Super Bowl title in four years for New England. After that, well, things kind of got weird for the Eagles, who have only been back to the playoffs once since then.

2: 1984-85 Flyers (113 points, Wales Conference Champions, lost Stanley Cup Finals in 5)
It was a transitional year for the Flyers, as the iconic Bobby Clarke left the ice to become the team's general manager, while 34-year-old Mike Keenan took his first coaching job. It seemed to rejuvenate a Flyers team that had stagnated under previous coach Bob McCammon, as they stormed out of the gate at 16-4-4. After enduring a midseason slump, the Flyers finished with a flourish, winning 24 of their last 28 games. Keenan won the Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach, while Pelle Lindbergh took home the Vezina as the league's top goalie. Tim Kerr led the offensive attack with 54 goals. The Flyers breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, sweeping the New York Rangers in the first round before knocking off the Islanders in five. The Flyers would advance to the Stanley Cup Finals by defeating the Quebec Nordiques in six games. In the Finals, the Flyers took the opener from Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers, but Edmonton came back to win four straight en route to capturing Lord Stanley's Cup for the second consecutive season. Tragically, we would never get to find out just how far these guys could've gone.

3: 1993 Phillies (97-65, NL Champions, lost World Series in 6)
In 1992, the Phillies finished last in the NL East, their sixth consecutive losing season. Heading into 1993, it didn't seem like things would be much different. But even in spring training, you could tell there was something special about this team, and it carried over into the regular season. The Phils ripped off 17 wins in 22 April games, and despite a midseason rush by the St. Louis Cardinals and a September charge by the Montreal Expos, would hold first place for all but one day during the season. Lenny Dykstra had one of the greatest seasons for a leadoff hitter in baseball history, while all five pitchers in the starting rotation won in double figures. Despite the magical regular season, most people felt the Phils would be no match for the 104-win Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. The Phils won the opener, but things didn't look too promising after Atlanta easily won the next two games. But the Phillies would not be denied, winning three straight to stun the Braves and the baseball world. In the World Series, well, you know. It still seems like a crime that such an unbelievably enjoyable season ended with less than a world championship. Unfortunately, this team was so beloved, just about everyone was blind to the fact that this was going to be a one-shot deal. The disgraceful strike of 1994 wiped out the World Series, but the Phillies were in fourth place and fading fast at the time play was stopped. The team wouldn't finish above .500 again until 2001, and wouldn't reach the playoffs again until 2007.

4: 2000-01 76ers (56-26, Eastern Conference Champions, lost NBA Finals in 5)
Thank Matt Geiger for this one. What? Long story short, Geiger's refusal to waive a 15 percent trade kicker clause in his contract is the only reason Allen Iverson wasn't traded to the Detroit Pistons during the summer of 2000. Iverson carried the load on offense en route to an MVP season, while a gritty cast of blue collar grinders did the dirty work. The Sixers won the first ten games of the season, and their record would eventually swell to 41-14. By that time, All-Star center Theo Ratliff had been lost to a serious wrist injury, so the Sixers rolled the dice, acquiring eventual Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo from the Atlanta Hawks. Injuries would take their toll in the second half of the season, but the Sixers still managed to win 56 games, and were never seriously challenged for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The first round of the playoffs brought the Indiana Pacers, who had eliminated the Sixers in the Conference Semifinals in each of the previous two seasons. The Sixers blew an 18-point lead in the opener, which was won by Indiana thanks to a Reggie Miller three-pointer in the closing seconds. It did not deter the Sixers, who won the next three games to take the best-of-five series. In the Conference Semifinals, the Sixers faced the Toronto Raptors. Iverson poured in 54 points in Game 2 and 52 in Game 5, both victories, but the series wasn't decided until Vince Carter's jumper at the buzzer bounced off the back of the rim, giving the Sixers an 88-87 victory in Game 7. In the Eastern Conference Finals, a banged-up Sixers team was taken to a seventh game by the Milwaukee Bucks. In Game 7, the Sixers overcame a nine-point deficit in the second quarter and pulled away for a 108-91 triumph as a city rejoiced. With the exception of the 1993 Phillies, I don't think the City of Philadelphia has identified more with a team than the 2000-01 76ers. The Sixers faced off against a juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers team in the Finals and shocked the world with a 107-101 overtime win in Game 1. But after close losses in Games 2 and 3, the Sixers simply ran out of gas, and were beaten handily in Games 4 and 5. The franchise tried for several years to reacapute the magic of that squad, but only once has the team managed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs since that 2000-01 run.

5: 1984-85 76ers (58-24, lost Eastern Conference Finals)
Rookie sensation Charles Barkley was added to a team that already included Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Mo Cheeks, and Bobby Jones. The Sixers rolled to a 41-10 start en route to 58 wins, which incredibly, was only good enough for second place in the Atlantic Division, five games behind the Boston Celtics. In the best-of-five first round of the playoffs, the Sixers defeated the Washington Bullets in four games before sweeping the Milwaukee Bucks in the best-of-seven Conference Semifinals. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the playoff run would end in five games against the Celtics, denying the Sixers what would've been a fourth trip to the NBA Finals in six years. In his seven remaining seasons in Philadelphia, Barkley would never again advance this deep into the playoffs. Billy Cunningham stepped down as head coach following this season. Though he was only 42 years old at the time and had won 70 percent of the games he'd coached, Cunningham never returned to the sidelines.

6: 1985-86 Flyers (110 points, Patrick Division Champions, lost Division Semifinals)
It all looked so promising as the Flyers soared to a 15-2-0 start, the last 13 of those wins coming consecutively. But after the tenth win of that streak, the unthinkable happened. On November 10, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Pelle Lindbergh was fatally injured (two friends were also in the car but survived despite suffering serious injuries of their own) in a single-car accident in Somerdale, NJ after a night of drinking with several teammates. He was 26 years old. Bob Froese, Darren Jensen, and Chico Resch tried to fill the void in goal. Tim Kerr lit the lamp 58 times, while Brian Propp tallied a team-high 97 points. An emotionally spent Flyers team slipped somewhat in the second half, but still managed to win the Patrick Division with a 53-23-4 record. Their season would come to an abrupt end in the best-of-five first round of the playoffs, where they were defeated by the New York Rangers, three games to two. Oh, what could've been.

7: 2002 Eagles (12-4, NFC East Champions, lost NFC Championship)
The Eagles had steadily improved in each season under Andy Reid, and looked ready to take the next step after nearly upsetting the St. Louis Rams in the previous season's NFC Championship Game. Things appeared to be going according to plan, but against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 11, Donovan McNabb suffered a fractured fibula, which would force him to miss the remainder of the regular season. Though the Eagles were 7-3 and sitting comfortably atop the NFC East, it appeared as though they would have to scramble just to make the playoffs. Instead, behind Koy Detmer and A.J. Feeley (who became the starter when Detmer dislocated his elbow in a Monday Night win over the San Francisco 49ers the week after McNabb went down), the Eagles kept rolling along. They would not lose again until the final game of the regular season, dropping a 10-7 overtime decison to the New York Giants, the team's only defeat against an NFC opponent in the regular season. The Eagles won the NFC East title with two weeks to spare, and their 11-1 conference record was the tiebreaker they needed to gain homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. In the Divisional Playoffs, the defense muffled the Atlanta Falcons' attack, while a rusty McNabb played well enough to help guide the Eagles to a 20-6 victory. The NFC Championship against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was to be the final football game played at Veterans Stadium, and it looked like destiny was with the Eagles as they scored on their second play from scrimmage a minute into the game. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there, as Tampa Bay shut down the Eagles, winning 27-10. Somewhere, Barry Gardner is still chasing Joe Jurevicius. In all my years of being a fan, few moments were as heartbreaking as Ronde Barber's interception and subsequent touchdown return.

8: 1996-97 Flyers (103 points, Eastern Conference Champions, lost Stanley Cup Finals in 4)
Moving into the CoreStates Center coincided with the Flyers ascent into the's elite class. After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in the abbreviated 1994-95 season, the Flyers finished first overall in the East in '95-96, but were upset in the Conference Semifinals by the Florida Panthers. A groin injury forced Eric Lindros to the sidelines for the first 23 games of the '96-97 season, and the Flyers muddled along in his absence, hovering around the .500 mark. After Lindros returned, the Flyers caught fire, running off a 17-game unbeaten streak at one point. They would spend the remainder of the regular season fighting with the New Jersey Devils for the Atlantic Divsion lead. New Jersey did edge the Flyers out by a single point, but a come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Devils in a seemingly meaningless regular season finale (in which John LeClair scored his 50th goal of the season) seemed to ignite the team heading into the postseason. The Flyers steamrolled their Eastern Conference playoff opponents, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins (Conference Quarterfinals), Buffalo Sabres (Conference Semifinals), and New York Rangers (Conference Finals), all in five games. Their impressive play made them favorites to defeat the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals, but the Flyers lost their mojo in the series. It was a complete disaster that nobody could've seen coming. The Flyers held the lead for a grand total of two minutes in the entire series (LeClair scored the first goal of Game 3, but Steve Yzerman tied the score exactly two minutes later, and the Red Wings routed the Flyers, 6-1). Prior to Game 4, Terry Murray said his team was in a "choking situation," a remark that would ultimately cost Murray his job a week after the Finals ended. Nobody ever said he was wrong, though. As bad as the series was, it didn't hurt so much at the time, because everyone figured it was a learning experience, and the Flyers would make multiple return trips to the Finals. Eleven years later, they still haven't been back.

9: 2003 Eagles (12-4, NFC East Champions, lost NFC Championship)
Moving into Lincoln Financial Field did not appear to agree with the Eagles at first, as they opened their new home with blowout losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who knocked off the Eagles in the previous season's NFC Championship Game) and New England Patriots. Donovan McNabb got off to a horrendous start, which prompted some idiotic remarks by Rush Limbaugh, then suffered a thumb injury which further hindered his performance. Just when it looked like the season was headed in a downward spiral, Brian Westbrook returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown to give the Eagles a stunning 14-10 win over the New York Giants. It evened the team's record at 3-3, and they would not lose again until the season's next-to-last weekend. A rejuvenated McNabb and the three-headed running back monster of Westbrook, Duce Staley, and Correll Buckhalter led the offense, while the defense bent but didn't break despite suffering their share of injuries. A win over the Washington Redskins in the regular season finale clinched both the NFC East and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. In that game, however, Westbrook was lost with a torn triceps, and his absence was felt in the postseason. In the Divisional Playoffs, the Eagles fell behind the Green Bay Packers, 14-0, but rallied to tie before Green Bay went back ahead in the fourth quarter, 17-14. With 1:12 remaining, the Eagles faced a 4th and 26 at their own 25. McNabb connected with Freddie Mitchell for a 28-yard completion, and the Eagles would advance far enough for David Akers to force overtime with a 37-yard field goal. A Brian Dawkins interception in the extra period set up a 31-yard game winner by Akers, sending the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game for the third consecutive year. It would be three consecutive Championship Game losses, as the Carolina Panthers stymied the Eagles, 14-3. On a personal note, I've suffered through a lot of disappointing losses by the four local teams, but this one ranks right up there with Games 4 and 6 of the 1993 World Series. I try not to let sports affect my personal life, but I was in a funk for about a week after that game.

10: 1986-87 Flyers (100 points, Wales Conference Champions, lost Stanley Cup Finals in 7)
After a tragic and ultimately disappointing 1985-86 season, the Flyers bounced back behind brash rookie goalie Ron Hextall, skating to a 31-11-3 start. Injuries to several key players plagued the team in the second half, but the Flyers were still able to finish 46-26-8, and their 100 points were the second-most in the, 14 more than the Patrick Division runner-up Washington Capitals. Hextall won the Vezina Trophy, while Dave Poulin won the Frank Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward. Tim Kerr scored 58 goals for the second consecutive season. With all rounds now a best-of-seven, the Flyers took care of the New York Rangers in six games in the Division Semifinals, then wasted a three games to one lead against the New York Islanders before winning the Division Finals in seven. In the Wales Conference Finals, the Flyers dethroned the defending champion Montreal Canadiens in six games, a series made memorable by brawl prior to what turned out to the the final game. For the second time in three years, the Flyers would have to face the Edmonton Oilers in the Finals. Edmonton won the first two games at home, then split two games in Philadelphia to take a three games to one lead. With a parade route already printed in Edmonton papers, the Flyers crashed the party with a 3-2 win, sending the series back to Philadelphia. The Oilers scored the first two goals in Game 6, and held a 2-1 lead before Brian Propp tied the game with 6:56 left. J.J. Daigneault followed with his only playoff goal as a Flyer 1:24 later, and the 3-2 lead held up, forcing a seventh game. Murray Craven opened the scoring 1:41 into the deciding game, but Mark Messier tied it six minutes later. Jari Kurri put Edmonton ahead to stay with 5:01 remaining in the second period, and Glenn Anderson's tally with 2:24 left sealed the Flyers' fate. Despite coming up short in the Finals, Ron Hextall won the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP. On a personal note, Game 7 of the '87 Finals was the first Flyers game I ever remember watching. Only fitting it would end in heartbreak. Hard to believe it's been 21 years, but it's even harder to believe the Flyers have only been back to the Finals once since then.

So there's the top ten. I'll eventually get around to the rest of them.

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