The past year was arguably the greatest year in sports history. The confluence of a magical Super Bowl upset, a one-legged Tiger Woods victory, the most opulent Olympics yet, Michael Phelps’ eight medals, the upstart Rays and the perennially losing Phillies dueling in the World Series, amid a 26-game war of attrition ending in a Celtics NBA championship made for a fantastic year for sports fans. If that weren’t enough, we were blessed with the greatest match of all time played by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon and a March Madness final for the ages. 2008 will surely be a tough act to follow, but 2009 seems ripe with opportunities to impress. Here are some of the headlines and stories to watch in 2009:

The NFL Playoffs

With the playoff matchups set, there are a few key story lines to follow, the first of which is who will survive the bloodbath that is the NFC. While the Giants have truly proven themselves the class of the NFL this year, they struggled in their last four games but in the end won the one that mattered against the Carolina Panthers, thanks to a little luck securing home-field advantage. Aside from the Giants, the NFC was loaded with the Eagles, the Falcons and the Panthers, as well as the Giants-killing Vikings. Now that the Falcons and Vikings are eliminated, there really seems to be very little in the way of the New York Giants or the Panthers.

The AFC on the other hand will most likely come down to the surging San Diego Chargers against the Tennessee Titans, who are a rather flawed team for being 13-3. Miami had a nice run, but not even Bill Parcels was able turn Chad Pennington into a Super Bowl champion, as he threw four interceptions versus the Ravens, who can definitely do some damage throughout the rest of the playoffs, assuming they stay healthy.

Likely Super Bowl headline: Carolina Panthers Destroy Unprepared Tennessee Titans 28-10.

November headline: “After 27 Games, Lions Grab First Win on Thanksgiving” (hey, why not?).

LeBron, The Celts and L.A.

While the season is still very young, these three teams have proven themselves to be in a class far above the rest of the league. LeBron James has built the best home-court record around him, using the limited resources available to him on this Cavs team. Looking toward the summer, if LeBron is able to bring home a ring to Cleveland, we can expect him to re-sign; if not, sports writers are going to have a whole year to discuss who (hint: the Knicks) has the cap room to bring LeBron in, and win a championship or three.

The Celtics meanwhile have been showing signs of infighting in recent losses out west. The Big Three clearly need to rediscover their groove. Don’t expect Doc Rivers to allow his squad to lose any cohesion over the next few months. Boston is looking to return to the finals, and it only appears as if Lebron stands in their way.

Expect L.A. to stay the best of the West. Their only real threats lie in Houston, Denver and San Antonio, but these teams seem to lack the weapons to handle Kobe – who remains on a mission to win a championship sans Shaq. It’s hard to imagine him getting one this year with the strength of the Cavs and the Celts, but the Christmas Day win over the recently ailing Celtics may turn a few heads.

Headline: “Kobe Falls Short as LeBron and Cavs Beat Lakers in Seven Games.”

Story to watch: Will LeBron re-sign or wait ’til the summer of 2010?

Tiger Woods

The last we saw Tiger, he was hobbling around Torrey Pines on one knee, while still beating the rest of the field silly (exception: some 45-year-old guy named Rocco Mediate) with his brilliant putting and excellent course management. Think about it. Very few people understood the excruciating pain that Tiger was in entering the Open, yet he managed to embarrass semi-rival Phil Mickelson on his home course. Then after he and Rocco distanced themselves from the field, they played an additional 19, because 18 wouldn’t do, before Tiger held number 14 above his head.

Well, it’s been more than six months since Tiger’s most glorious championship, and we’ve heard little from Tiger except that his recovery is going well and that he “is going to be better than ever.” That’s a scary thought. This guy managed to win six of the eight tournaments he played in 2008 – on one leg. Imagine what he is going to do when he returns. Yes, his swing may be a little rusty, but he is Tiger.

The two story lines to expect from this one are that Tiger Woods struggles early at the Masters but finds his groove and has a top-five finish and that the 2009 Masters will be the most-watched golf tournament of all time, especially if Tiger is in contention come Sunday.

America’s Pastime

Four months after missing the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, the New York Yankees have become the two-to-one favorites to win not just the American League Pennant, but their 27th World Series. Hank Steinbrenner, in his father’s footsteps, has reminded the world that the Bronx Bombers have no qualms about buying a championship. Having acquired C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and super-slugger Mark Teixiera, the Yankees now boast a dynamic offense shored up by the second-best starting rotation (behind Boston’s Dice-K, John Lester and Josh Beckett). The Tampa Bay Rays, who were the cream of the Major League Baseball crop last season, proving that wins can be farmed and not necessarily bought, will be chasing a playoff spot they would most likely have if they were in any other division. While many high-priced players, especially high-paid Yankees, have fizzled over the years, there seems to be nothing standing in the way of an AL East win and a Pennant.

Not to be outdone by the team from the Bronx, the Mets are hoping to avoid the great September choke by building up their bullpen with the notable addition of Francisco Rodriguez. Having twice lost seemingly insurmountable leads to the Phillies, the Mets have identified their main weakness – relief pitching – and turned it into the strongest in the National League. The defending World Champion Phillies will attempt to relive their glorious run to the postseason and will not face the same competition they had to last year. With Manny Ramirez likely leaving the Dodgers, expect the NL pennant to be decided in the East.

World Series Headline: “Sabathia Breaks Postseason Jinx as Yankees Win Fall Classic in Six”

Other Sports

A year after so many marginal sports were brought to the spotlight, the most obvious story to watch is how quickly they fade from the limelight. While swimming and diving and track and field may be well and alive here at Georgetown, in terms of global popularity, they will be dead and will have to wait another three years for the 2012 Olympics. Michael Phelps will certainly continue to enjoy his fame, as he did following his impressive 2004 Olympic golds, but you really should not expect him to be endorsing much more.

Tennis, as opposed to swimming or track, is a perennial sport with four separate major tournaments. Following last year’s Wimbledon final and Nadal’s subsequent ascension to number one, it looked as if the sport would undergo a renaissance, but the publicity only proved to be a small uptick. While the sport continues to flounder here in the United States, one thing to watch is its global attraction. Tennis has exploded in popularity in China and Eastern Europe. While not a story for 2009, a story for 2019 may be the dominance of these two regions in the game, as the countries develop unbelievable junior development programs.

Some people may say that 2008 was the best sports year of all time, but 2009 may show that there’s always room for improvement.

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