What should have been a relaxing week turned out to be one with a lot of sports. I saw an AHL game in San Antonio, zoomed across the frozen southwest to Tucson for a college hockey game, then up to Tempe for the Pac-12 Championship football game. Finally on Sunday, I saw the 28th NFL game on the trip in Glendale. I took a day to relax in Phoenix and am now in California on my way to Oakland for the Raiders game this weekend.
Games Seen: St. Louis 10 at Arizona 30
Miles Driven: 1,544 (16,608 total)
Hours in the Car: 22 (273 total)
New Interstates Driven: 3 (5, 17,19)
States Visited: 4 (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California)
Cardinal and Cardinals
With Oregon blowing a couple of late-season games, Arizona State ended up with the best record in the Pac-12 and the right to host the conference championship game in Tempe this past Saturday. As luck would have it, I would be in the Phoenix area for the NFL game on Sunday, so I decided to stop at Sun Devil Stadium to see #7 Stanford take on #11 ASU.
Of course, Stanford is nicknamed the Cardinal, although not in relation to the bird. So most Phoenix football fans were rooting against the Cardinal one day and for the Cardinals the next.
The game was not sold out so I took the opportunity to move around, as there were plenty of empty seats. It was interesting to see the difference in fan behavior between college and pro. NFL fans are generally passionate but most are not personally invested in the team (Packers' fans being the exception). You see more drunken behavior and security issues at an NFL game where alcohol is widely available and many young men seem more concerned about proving something. At Sun Devil Stadium, I felt that fans were watching the game more closely and taking the success of their school more personally, as most were students or alumni. The gentleman standing next to me immediately started asking me what I thought about the team (boy did I look stupid, since I knew not a single player's name). He made some good observations, things I rarely hear from my neighbors at an NFL game. Despite the Sun Devils not performing particularly well, fans didn't boo as much as you would expect to hear at an NFL game.
The quality of the college game is obviously not as good, with most of these players going on to careers outside of football. Running plays and the read option dominates, but the game still lasts longer, due to some differences in clock stoppage rules and a much lengthier halftime (22 minutes in this case versus 12 in the NFL). I'm glad I saw a college game on the trip, but I won't be a regular fan in the future since I just don't have any personal investment in these teams, unlike the real fans.
I do spend an occasional evening at a local establishment and was quite impressed with a couple of Phoenix-area venues recently, not only for their atmosphere, but also for the skills exhibited by those working behind the bar.
In Tempe, I stopped by Baer's Den on Apache, just south of ASU's campus. It bills itself as a Boston sports bar, and has a number of screens strategically placed so no seat is without some form of sport on TV. There are a number of regulars there, and a great lunch chef from the Philippines who makes some delicious pork adobo. After stopping by for lunch before the game where I was given two free shots of whiskey and a free beer, I decided to pop in afterwards as well. By this time, lovely Lisa was the only bartender. Despite her youth, she was more than capable at mixing drinks quickly, serving everyone in the bar, and talking to the numerous fans seated at the bar. Tempe has an interesting clientele as students mix with more serious drinkers, but Lisa made everyone feel comfortable. If you are in Tempe, you will have your choice of establishments, but give Baer's a shot if you want something that doesn't cater purely to students.
The other spot I found was called Bobby Q, a barbecue place in north Phoenix. This is more of a normal restaurant but it has a small bar area with a few TVs tuned to ESPN. Charming Ciara was the bartender on Monday night, and her performance was more impressive than that of the Chicago Bears. She was essentially the only one working the bar and had to keep about 150 people happy, while simultaneously maintaining conversations with those of us at the bar. This is not a beer place, so most of the drinks were of the mixed variety, but Ciara kept humming along without a hitch. It was fascinating to watch as she took order after order, much like the Cowboys defense gave up first down after first down. Phoenix is not a BBQ town by any means, but if you get a hankering in the desert, Bobby-Q will certainly fill the need, and sit at the bar if you want a fun show.
Playoff Hosting Picture
Indianapolis will definitely be hosting one of the four wild card games on January 3rd or 4th. Cincinnati is 2 games up on Baltimore, so they should get the other AFC game that weekend. As those two games will be on different days and are just two hours apart, a good road trip is possible, especially with the Pacers at home on Saturday evening should the NFL schedule maker oblige.
With Dallas losing on Monday, it looks like Philadelphia will host one NFC wild card game, while Chicago is catching up to Detroit for the other. The Broncos, Patriots, Saints, and Seahawks look set for the second weekend. This is a good time to book hotels that you can cancel, before their rates go up. I'll most likely try to see the Eagles and Patriots games, but then again, I need to save some money for my own Super Bowl run.
St. Louis at Arizona - The Rams are a terrible team in so many respects, at least in the two games I have seen them. They committed 11 penalties (including 3 personal fouls and 1 unsportsmanlike conduct) against the Cardinals and chose to kick on two fourth and short chances. They were never in the game and they aren't going to be in the playoffs either. I have to endure the Rams one more time with them in the trip's finale in Seattle too.
"Our Beer is as Cold as your Ex's Heart"
Seen outside a bar. Drinking and divorce! What a combination!
Quick Stadium Tips
University of Phoenix Stadium - Free parking at Kellis High School is the way to go. Shuttle buses start 2 hours before the game, but if you get there early, you can walk to the stadium (about 30 minutes) and then take the shuttle bus back after the game. Tickets are easily available at the window, but try the official reseller area across the street, where scalpers are forced to stand giving you the chance to view a wide variety of ticket options.
For more tips, check Stadium Journey's entries for each venue in the NFL.
Stadium Rankings So Far
• Heinz Field (Pittsburgh)
• Lambeau Field (Green Bay)
• Sports Authority Field (Denver)
• M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore)
• Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
• Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City)
• AT&T Stadium (Dallas)
The Wild Cards
• FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland)
• Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati)
• Sun Life Stadium (Miami)
• Superdome (New Orleans)
The Middle of the Pack
• Soldier Field (Chicago)
• University of Phoenix Stadium (Arizona)
• LP Field (Tennessee)
• Gillette Stadium (New England)
• Ralph Wilson Stadium (Buffalo)
• Metrodome (Minnesota)
• FedExField (Washington)
• Bank of America Stadium (Carolina)
• Ford Field (Detroit)
A Few Good Points
• Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia)
• Raymond James Stadium (Tampa Bay)
• Reliant Stadium (Houston)
• MetLife Stadium (New York Giants)
Last Place Finishers
• MetLife Stadium (New York Jets)
• Everbank Field (Jacksonville)
• Georgia Dome (Atlanta)
• Edward Jones Dome (St. Louis)
Week 15 Games: Kansas City at Oakland (Sunday afternoon)
I am growing my hair long and a beard to look as crazy as possible for this one. Should be a blast with the most intense fans in the country. Check back next week to see what happened.
Please follow the entire trip on Twitter and Facebook to see what happens over the final month.