Sunday, January 30, 2005

We've seen this monkey before

If there really is a set amount of Internet space reserved for football commentary, it’d be a shame to find out that Peyton Manning and the New England Patriots left us maxed out.

Everybody repeat after me: “Manning is 0-7 at Foxboro.”
Second verse, same as the first: “Manning is 0-5 against Tom Brady.”
One, two, three, get loose now: “Manning in 2-10 lifetime against New England.

Them’s the facts. And I’m sure Manning reads them on the ceiling tiles in the dark, dark hours of the morning. And I’m sure they give Belichick, Brady and Bruschi a 10-yard head start every time the Patriots and Colts play. All true, true, true. Cut that meat!

But that’s as far as I’m willing to take it. In the week leading up to the AFC Divisional in Foxboro (and, my God, in the weeks after), the air was thick with the assertion that the Patriots -- Brady in particular -- are Manning’s monkey. If Manning is ever -- ever! –- to be one of the NFL’s great quarterbacks ... then that monkey, he must shake it. If Manning is to wear a ring, he must dig it out of the snows of Foxboro.

Oh, pooh.

New England is Manning’s monkey, sure, but not his white whale. There’s a hard way to slay that beast, and this is how the Colts have wound up with the harpoon in their own ass the past two seasons. But there’s also an easy way to kill the whale, shock the monkey or whatever you want to call it. Are you taking notes, Coach Dungy? Splendid. Because here’s the secret: Let someone else beat the Patriots. Hey, Bill Cowher did it it in the regular season. Jim Bates did it. (Who? Exactly.) Cripes, even Steve Spurrier did it. So it can be done. Wait around awhile, and it’ll happen: New England either loses in the playoffs before it has to face Indianapolis, or it doesn't make the playoffs at all. Then, suddenly, it's Manning's year!

But! But! What about destiny? What about Holmes vs. Moriarty? If Manning gets to the Super Bowl without facing New England, he’ll have achieved nothing. Nothing!

1995. Steve Young had finally chased off Montana’s ghost. Silent, at last, was the Greek chorus that had long intoned, “His career is naught without a Super Bowl trophy!” Young had his ring. Yes, he'd beaten it out of Stan Humphries and the Chargers, but, really, the AFC didn’t have anybody else that year. So leave him alone. Young's triumph left the NFL with two Ahabs at quarterback: John Elway, who had pretty much been given up for dead by then, and Brett Favre.

This is the part where we compare Peyton Manning to Brett Favre. So, you know, it might be a good time to lie down. Especially in Wisconsin.

Those who followed the NFL in the mid-1990s remember that of all the story lines available, none was written and rewritten as often as “Brett Favre Can’t Beat the Cowboys.”

In 1992, Favre took over for the injured Don Majkowski, who at the time was, um, saving Green Bay. The next year, the Favre-led Packers made the playoffs for the first time since 1972. (I’m not counting the 1982 NHL playoffs, and neither should you.) Titletown was atingle! We’re Super Bowl-bound, baby!

1993 season: Packers lose to the Cowboys by 10 in the Divisional round.
Wisconsin says: That’s all right! We’ll get em next year!
1994 season: Packers lose to the Cowboys by 26 in the Divisional round.
Wisconsin says: Next year for sure we get past the Divisional round!
1995 season: Packers lose to the Cowboys in the NFC Championsip game.

If only it were just in the playoffs that Favre got killed by Dallas. Favre vs. the Cowboys at the start of his career:
1993: Dallas 36, Green Bay 14 (regular season)
1993: Dallas 27, Green Bay 17 (playoffs)
1994: Dallas 42, Green Bay 31 (regular season)
1994: Dallas 35, Green Bay 9 (playoffs)
1995: Dallas 34, Green Bay 24 (regular season)
1995: Dallas 38, Green Bay 27 (playoffs)
1996: Dallas 21, Green Bay 6 (regular season)

So in 1996, as the Packers headed into the playoffs, the record on the minds of Packer fans was not their club’s NFC-best 13-3. It was their beloved QB’s performance against the boys with the stars on their hats: 0-7 against Dallas, 0-7 against Troy Aikman. If there was any consolation, it was that Favre was also 0-7 in Texas Stadium, because all the games had been played in Irving. This year, Wisconsin said, if the Cowboys were going to beat the Packers again, they'd have to come to Lambeau Field to do it.

And the rest of the story is legend: The Packers buried the 49ers in the Divisional round, 35-14; blew out the surprising Panthers, 30-14, in the NFC Championship; and walked over the Patriots, 35-21, in Super Bowl XXXI. (Hey, at least someone can beat New England in the postseason!)


And here we circle back to our lesson for the Colts. After the 1996 season, Favre and the Packers got past Dallas in the playoffs in the easiest way possible: They didn’t play Dallas in the playoffs. The Cowboys -- winners of the NFC East, defending Super Bowl champions -- lost to Carolina in the Divisional round. Green Bay went on to win the Super Bowl, Favre became a legend, and the Cowboys’ hold over Brett Favre was finally broken. Right?

In 1997, the year after their own championship season, Favre and the Packers would beat Aikman and the Cowboys. This time, Dallas had to come to Green Bay. This time, Green Bay would exact revenge, 45-17. In other news from the 1997 season, the Cowboys finished 6-10 in their last year under Barry Switzer, their first losing season since 1990.

And since then? Favre is now 2-8 lifetime against Dallas. He is now 0-8 in Texas Stadium. The curse has been lifted! He’s headed to the Hall of Fame!

Payton Manning will not stop hearing how his career is defined by his record against the New England Patriots until -– well, until that one day when suddenly it isn’t.

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