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Saturday Sports: NFL Playoffs Begin

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: The Beard comes to Brooklyn. Two quarterback legends meet in the playoffs this weekend. And a coach with eight Super Bowl rings - remember he won a couple as an assistant coach - says no thanks to presidential bling.

NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us. Morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning. How are you?

SIMON: I'm fine. Thank you, my friend.

A new Big Three in Brooklyn - Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving. All right, this has been tried before with, like, middling success in Miami. What do the Nets have to do to get maximum use out of three major stars and not have them run into each other?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) First, make sure that they are three, in fact, because right now, they are a big two, Scott. Irving - Kyrie Irving has been a mystery. He's gone AWOL. He's expected to miss his sixth-straight game tonight, the first five because of personal reasons, the team said. Tonight he's finishing up a quarantine after violating coronavirus health and safety protocols. The NBA fined him $50,000 for that.

When - if he comes back, what the Nets have to do is make sure the big three, all ball-dominant players who need the ball in their hands, don't play that way. And I think they can. They are smart. They want to win. First-year head coach Steve Nash, a great player in his own right, is smart, and he'll do everything he can do to make sure they, the big three, and all the important supporting players work together to make the Nets the beast of the East.

SIMON: Yeah. Of course, COVID still a factor on team rosters, isn't it?

GOLDMAN: The NBA always knew it was taking a risk outside of a bubble, which it so successfully pulled off last season in Florida. And now that risk has turned into a definite early season problem. Going into today, the NBA had postponed a dozen games just since last Sunday. Players are testing positive, including Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns. His mom died last year from the virus.

This week, the league announced new tightened protocols, basically ordering players to stay at home if you're in your home city, stay in the hotel if you're on the road, wear masks on the bench. The NBA's forging ahead. It's probably emboldened by baseball and football, which didn't play in protective bubbles and weathered the storm. But you do have a sense, Scott, that pro basketball's in a danger zone right now, just like the rest of the country.

SIMON: NFL playoffs this weekend - you have LA versus Aaron Rodgers and a team called the Packers, the Ravens versus those rampaging Buffalo Bills tonight. The marquee game tomorrow, obviously - Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, versus Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints - two great quarterbacks who have a combined age of Morgan Freeman. Drew Brees got a week off last week 'cause he only played against the Bears (laughter).

GOLDMAN: Ouch.

SIMON: What can we expect?

GOLDMAN: Hey, in defense of the great Morgan Freeman, he's 83, Scott. Those guys together are 85. So he's just a spring chicken compared to them (laughter).

SIMON: All right.

GOLDMAN: So this playoff game - this playoff game tomorrow will be the third time the teams have played this season. New Orleans won the first two. It is said in many circles it's hard to beat a team three times in a season, but statistics say it's not so hard. There have been 21 previous times when a team came into the playoffs with a chance for a three-game sweep of an opponent. Fourteen of those 21 times, the sweep happened. I think New Orleans can do it. Their defense is very good. The Saints have a lot of offensive weapons. Brady's great, but I'm going with New Orleans.

SIMON: Bill Belichick declined President Trump's award of a Presidential Medal of Freedom this week. I must note, in sports, it says something about our times when you can't give away a Presidential Medal of Freedom. What do you read into Coach Belichick's decision?

GOLDMAN: He made a statement declining because of the attack on the Capitol. It was a strong statement. But according to pro football talk, his team, the New England Patriots, were very involved in the decision as a way to preserve their reputation and his and to avoid fan complaints, media critiques or even free agents who might not want to sign with the Patriots had he accepted that award.

SIMON: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman, thanks so much for being with us.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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