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Imran’s eight: top plays and performances of January

As the first month of 2002 draws to a close, here are the top eight plays and performances of college and professional sports. These choices have been studied, evaluated and carefully selected: let the fun begin.

8. Say what you want about Kurt Warner having the best team in the NFL surrounding him to make him look all that much better, but I say he deserves all the recognition and more. When you try to put other great quarterbacks around the NFL (Kordell Stewart, Rick Gannon, Jeff Garcia) in his position, you just don’t see the same results as a 14-2 record and one of the most potent offenses the league has ever seen. He has the highest QB rating in the NFL, he passed for 4,830 yards, completed 68.7 percent of his throws and threw for a league-best 36 touchdowns. The Most Valuable Player of the NFL. Enough said.

7. Think about playing against the best athletes in the world every night and how hard it is to average double figures in the NBA. Well that’s why when Allen Iverson scored not 20 or 30 or 40, but 58 points two weeks ago, I had to recognize his performance. Not only was it his career high, but he’s 6-foot-nothin’. Granted he hoists up 30 shots a game more often then not, and on that night his elbow had to be hurting because he launched up 42 and hit 50 percent of those (21 total for those non-mathematicians). The NBA’s best point total so far this season, and props go to “the Answer.”

6. Jerry Rice, the best wide receiver the NFL has ever seen. He’s not a 49-er any more, but he’s still Jerry Rice. He runs the crispest, cleanest routes you’ll see and has the stickiest damn hands around. This postseason Rice showed he still had game. He gathered 13 receptions for 231 yards to lead all receivers into the final week of the postseason, including a 47-yard reception and a touchdown. The longer this guy plays, the less realistic it is for any receiver to ever think about breaking his records.

5. Yes, as Michael Jordan once said, “dunking is such an overpowering way to score a basket, even though it’s only worth two points, it feels like six.” So if you don’t know, it’s not just guys who bring this power any more. Michelle Snow, a 6-foot-5 center who plays for Tennessee has made it her business to throw down in games. She had a wicked two-hander last season on a breakaway and even hung on the rim for a technical. About three weeks ago, she went for finesse when she dunked off of one foot with one hand.

4. We’ve gotta’ hand it to back-up quarterbacks once in a while. This is a job that requires you to be ready at any moment to step in, or not play for, say, four months. So it’s the AFC Championship and Drew Bledsoe is called on to take his team to victory after Patriots’ starter Tom Grady goes down with a hard hit. Bledsoe hits his first three passes in a row, the third one for a touchdown, and ends up going 10-21 for 102 yards, a touchdown and the 24-17 upset of the Steelers. Starter for the Super Bowl: undecided, but way to go Drew.

3. You might have thought I’d leave them out, yes, the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks went from being out of the top 10, and then being tossed around in the top 10 with no respect to being left at number four going into the BCS Bowl picture. Sent to play in the Fiesta Bowl, the Ducks romped all over helpless, then number two ranked, Colorado 38-16. Oregon finished second in the rankings to end the season. Well done.

2. Florida State. Duke is the best college team in the nation; people were saying they couldn’t be beat, that theirs would be an undefeated season. But Duke was beaten, 77-76, by a team not even in the top 25. Florida State gets the call for “upset of the month.”

1. Back to football it is. The St. Louis Rams finished up the regular season this month with a stellar record of 14-2. They have arguably one of the best offenses the NFL has seen. With MVP Kurt Warner at the helm as quarterback and MVP runner-up Marshall Faulk playing beside him, they bring some of the best offense in football. The Rams present all that, and have too many of the best hands around to catch Warner’s passes, with Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim, Yo Murphy and Ricky Proehl. It’s not likely that we’ll see this team losing any time soon.