Saturday Sports: The NFL Playoffs Close In; The Maple Leafs Shake Things Up The second half of the season is where the rubber hits the road with the NFL. So, which teams are for real? Also, having fired their coach, will the Toronoto Maple Leafs finally get their moment?
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Saturday Sports: The NFL Playoffs Close In; The Maple Leafs Shake Things Up

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Saturday Sports: The NFL Playoffs Close In; The Maple Leafs Shake Things Up

Saturday Sports: The NFL Playoffs Close In; The Maple Leafs Shake Things Up

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And talk about methane release. Time to talk sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Just a few games left in the NFL season. Are the Buffalo Bills bound for the playoffs - the Buffalo Bills? An NFL player caught betting on NFL games. And the Toronto Maple Leafs gave their coach the boot, eh, but go on a roll.

Howard Bryant of ESPN, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: We have the usual suspects lined up for the postseason - New England, New Orleans, Seattle. But this year, the Buffalo Bills - they're 9-3 - crushed the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day 26-15.

BRYANT: In Dallas.

SIMON: In Dallas, right.

BRYANT: Yeah.

SIMON: Thanks for reminding me. They haven't won the division since 1995. What's different?

BRYANT: Well, I think what's different is - I think there's a couple of things. One, they've got a good quarterback. Josh Allen is one of these modern read option quarterbacks who can run, throw - he's a big guy. He looks 6'5". And they're playing with some belief. I think that they're - you've got the ageless Frank Gore out there, as well, at running back. And it seems like they're playing with a lot of belief here.

You know, football so much, Scott, is all about injuries and turnovers. You stay healthy, and you protect the ball, you got a chance to win. And there's a big game coming up next month - New England and Buffalo. The Patriots aren't that good this year. They're not as good as they've been. Maybe this is the year that you can do a little bit up in New England and take them out finally.

SIMON: Arizona Cardinals safety Josh Shaw - suddenly every other player in the NFL is named Josh - has been suspended through the entire 2020 season for betting on NFL games. Legal sports betting has exploded over the last few years. Every league wants to tap that revenue stream. How can the NFL suspend a player for betting on games when the NFL enriches itself with people betting on games?

BRYANT: Well, because once again, betting is the poison pill. Whether you're talking about Shoeless Joe Jackson or Pete Rose or Paul Hornung or any - or even Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle - remember; they were - they got...

SIMON: Right. They were...

BRYANT: ...Suspended.

SIMON: ...Right. They were greeters at a...

BRYANT: And they were greeters at a casino in Vegas. This is the thing - the game is supposed to be pure. And the - it's supposed to be unscripted, live entertainment, uninfluenced. However, there's a billion-dollar industry out there. And we're not talking about just gambling and the point spreads that football has made billions of dollars off of for years. But now it's been incorporated into the business model. It's incorporated onto the business partners, whether you're looking at all the websites talking about gambling. It's fantasy, whether it's FanDuel or DraftKings. It's the states now, not just Vegas. But now you've got New Jersey, you've got New York, you've got all of these different states looking at new revenue streams. And there's no way out.

At some point, this was going to be inevitable. We saw the same thing happen last year - or not last year - 10 years ago with Tim Donaghy and the NBA, the referee. And of course, the sports leagues, whether it was the NFL yesterday or whether it was the NBA 10 years ago, the first thing they said was it's an isolated event because they want to make sure that the game is not tainted. But at some point when you bring gambling into your industry, which is what they've done, and they've embraced it, it was only a matter of time before this happened.

SIMON: Toronto Maple Leafs fired their coach 23 games into the season. There's so much talent on that team between Auston Matthews and William Nylander, but they're languishing in fourth place. How do they expect to turn things around? Because the last time they were in the Stanley Cup, the Richard brothers were playing.

BRYANT: (Laughter).

SIMON: And Stan Mikita was on the ice.

BRYANT: That's right, 1967. Well, the way you do it, obviously, you should make that coaching change. Obviously Mike Babcock, there was a lot of emotional warfare going on with that team. And hopefully you bring in Sheldon Keefe - maybe he's not the long-term answer. But certainly you're hoping to get those guys going. You've got Matthews, got Nylander, you've got Mitch Marner. They've got a good team. They were supposed to be Stanley Cup contenders this year, and maybe making that coaching change is going to get them going. We're still not even at the All-Star break; lots of time left.

SIMON: ESPN's Howard Bryant, thanks so much for being with us. Happy Holidays, my friend.

BRYANT: Thank you. You, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATHLEEN EDWARDS SONG, "HOCKEY SKATES")

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