Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Balls to the wall with Nall

The Who?

Stop the presses. Break in to American Idol. Update the podcast. Brett Favre is said to be considering retirement. Again. Though it seems like we've been down this road thousands of times, let's play along and suppose that Favre really is done. Where do the Packers go from here? In the first round of last year's draft, Green Bay picked Aaron Rodgers to be their presumptive quarterback of the future -- or, at least, their Chris Weinke of the present -- but there's a big question about whether Rodgers is suited for the role. Not the role of an NFL starting quarterback. Some guys can do the job, some can't, and there's no way to know for sure until they're out there being pile-driven into the carpet. No, the role in question is that of THE GUY WHO REPLACED BRETT FAVRE. In all-caps like that, too.

Regardless of when Favre hangs it up, the next guy to start at quarterback for the Green Bay Packers is probably screwed. NFL history is littered with the corpses of QB careers that could have been something but were beaten to death by the expectations that come with following a legend behind center. Brian Griese is still trying to recover from the trauma of post-Elway Denver. One thing that all of Pittsburgh could agree on about Cliff Stoudt in 1983 was that he was no Terry Bradshaw. For every Steve Young taking over for Joe Montana, there's a Steve Bono taking over for Joe Montana. And has anyone heard from Jim Druckenmiller lately?

Assuming Favre retires, it's pretty clear what the Pack should do: Put in Craig Nall. Nall is the latest in a long, distinguished (if not always distinguishable) line of quarterbacks who collected paychecks on the Green Bay bench but didn't get a sniff of real game action. Some of Favre's backups went on to great things (Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck). Others (Ty Detmer, Jim McMahon) were long past their glory days. Still others (T.J. Rubley, J.T. O'Sullivan) left behind nothing but a few football cards and a jaunty pair of initials. And Doug Pederson redefined anonymity. But what they all have in common is that none ever wrested the starting job -- or even one measly start -- from Favre. None was ever designated his successor. And thus none had to endure the soul-crushing pressure of being the future of the franchise while the past was still very much alive. Now, with Favre hypothetically gone, everyone will be watching Rodgers, waiting to see what he can do -- or can't do. The Rodgers-was-a-wasted-pick talk has been simmering ever since Draft Day, and the Cheeseheads are just itching to turn it up to full boil. Which is why it makes so much sense to give the ball to Nall.

Nall has never been The Chosen One, the anointed successor. He's just the loyal backup -- the guy who shows up on Sunday, puts on a baseball cap and an earphone and doesn't expect to get dirty (except on his knee, when he's called in to run out the clock). If the Packers give him the starting job, no one's going to accuse him of complicity in a conspiracy to run Favre out of Wisconsin. He can go out and play to the best of his ability. And it's a no-lose proposition for Green Bay. If Nall turns out to be a decent quarterback after all, then hot diggity. The Packers can pencil him in for the next few years and see what they can get for Rodgers in trade. But if Nall turns out to be terrible, what will the crowds at Lambeau Field be doing? Demanding that the team play Aaron Rodgers. Suddenly he's not THE GUY WHO REPLACED BRETT FAVRE. He's the guy who replaced the ineffective Craig Nall. Lowercase all the way.

Would the Packers do something like that? Well, first they have to wait -- as they do every year -- for Favre to decide where his head is at. They've made clear they aren't going to force the issue, and they've hired Favre's former valet to coach the team in case he does come back. (If they were determined to force him into retirement, they could have hired Jimmy Johnson, who'd be more than happy to make the decision for him. Instead, they went with what appears to have been the Mornhinweggiest guy available on the open market.)

The advantages of the Nall Option are clear. Are there disadvantages? I suppose there's the chance that any confusion over the quarterback situation could keep Green Bay from competing for a playoff spot next year.

Oh. Oh. Man, do I crack myself up sometimes.

SIDEBAR: When the Pro Football Hall of Fame builds its backup quarterbacks wing, Doug Pederson is a lock to make it in on the first ballot. Over the course of three years, 1996-98, Pederson worked his way from the Packers' third string all the way up to the second string before leaving Green Bay with sugar-plum dreams. In two seasons with Philadelphia and Cleveland, he finally got an opportunity to start, and he made the least of it: 236-of-437 for 2,323 yards, nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions (passer rating: 59.9). But unlike the Jonathan Quinns of the world, who toil in obscurity for years, choke on their big chance and then drop out of the league, Pederson didn't let failure get him down. He capitalized on his strengths and returned to Green Bay for another four years of clipboard duty.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Everyone's so cold to Detroit

It's got a roof. What's your beef?In January 1992, during the run-up to Super Bowl XXVI, Newsweek magazine ran a small item about things for visitors to do in the host city, Minneapolis. If you can deal with the cold, the piece said, "this is a really happening town." As a Minneapolis native, I appreciated that someone was making an effort to find something positive to say about my hometown, rather than just pissing and moaning about the weather for two solid weeks. Others weren't too keen on the idea of a Midwestern Super Bowl, even indoors, and in the years since that game, the NFL title game hasn't been played any farther north than Pasadena, California. That's about to change.

Super Bowl XL will be staged next Sunday at Ford Field in downtown Detroit, Michigan. Take a wild guess what they're saying about the NFL's choice of a game site. By "they," of course, I mean those people traveling to Detroit for the festivities, as opposed to the tens of millions of us who will watch the game on television and thoroughly enjoy it, except for the halftime show, which this year consists of senior citizens wiggling their asses. I think the commentary on ESPN Radio this afternoon summed up the prevailing attitude quite nicely. The host announced he was going to talk about the Super Bowl, then began his riff with "Nothing against Detroit, but ..." and it was immediately obvious where he was headed. Because when a sentence starts "Nothing against X," it's a clear signal that the speaker despises X and is about to rip it to pieces. Sort of like the way the phrase "It's not about the money" means we're going to talk about money. Anyway, the ESPN host continued (and I'm paraphrasing here, because I don't speak Blowhard): "... but what on Earth is the league doing putting its marquee event in Detroit? Super Bowls are meant to be played in warm-weather cities." He then concluded with, "Blah blah blah-blah, blah blah blah." I'm paraphrasing there, too.

What's really frustrating about dealing with "slow" people is that they can't grasp simple concepts. Let's start with the matter of why (on Earth) the Super Bowl is being held in Detroit. This is the kind of low-rent-Seinfeld rhetorical question you hear on talk radio all the time. It's supposed to be thought-provoking -- and I suppose it is, if you're having trouble coming up with your own thoughts. But if you know anything about the way the league operates in the 21st century, it just insults your intelligence. The answer is no big mystery, and anyone who considers himself qualified to bloviate about the matter on sports radio ought to know it.

To grease the wheels of stadium construction, the NFL will often promise a city that if it commits public money to a new facility, it will be rewarded with a Super Bowl. It isn't just Detroit. The NFL has told Kansas City that if it puts a retractable roof on Arrowhead Stadium, it will get a Super Bowl sometime before 2021. Last year, when the Jets were battling for a plot of land on which to build a new stadium in Manhattan, the league tentatively awarded the 2010 Super Bowl to New York to try to tip the scales in the Jets' favor. (That stadium project died for good alongside New York's bid for the 2012 Olympics, so Super Bowl XLIV will be played instead in Miami.) Super Bowl XL is being held in Detroit because having the game there helped the Lions get a new stadium. Was that so complicated? Apparently.

Just for the sake of argument, let's say Detroit hadn't built a new stadium, and yet the league somehow lost its mind and awarded the game to the Motor City anyway. Super Bowl XL would then be played in the junky, funky old Pontiac Silverdome. What would it say about the NFL to have its marquee event staged in such an aging tractor-pull venue? Eh, next to nothing, actually. It's the Super Bowl. They could play it in Anchorage, and it would sell out. Hell, it wouldn't have to sell out, because for the NFL, the numbers that really count aren't the gate receipts; they're the TV ratings. Nielsen estimates that about 90 million people in the United States alone will be watching the Super Bowl on TV. A relative handful, about 70,000 will be watching it live at Ford Field. If Detroit sucks, well, too bad for those people. The rest of us will be watching from home, or sports bars, or prison, or wherever. We couldn't care less where the game's being played. When the site of the game matters to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the audience, it's safe to say the location is irrelevant. They could play it in Anchorage, and we'd still watch. The highest-rated NFL game of all time was Super Bowl XVI, between the 49ers and Bengals. Where was it played? The Pontiac Silverdome.

If having the game in Detroit makes economic sense for the league (if not the host city, but that's another matter) and makes no difference to the fans at home, what's all the fuss about the Super Bowl not being held in a warm-weather city? Consider who goes to the game. It's not your garden-variety fans. It's the people who rent the luxury boxes. It's the people with season tickets for club seats. It's the VP of marketing for one of the league's strategic partners. It's the year's No. 1 salesman among Central Kansas Lincoln/Mercury dealers. It's the star of the new sitcom who's been strategically placed so the network can identify her and put up a promo. And it's guys with radio shows who set up at the media center and broadcast live from there two hours a day.

If I were one of those people, I'd much rather spend the first week of February in Miami or Tampa or San Diego than in Detroit. And if I felt I'd been cheated out of a week of sun and sand, I'd probably grouse about it on my radio program -- or, if I didn't have a radio program, I'd grouse about it to someone who did. And because I wouldn't want to sound selfish or petulant, I'd emphasize that this is about how the Super Bowl is "meant to be played," rather than how I'd prefer to watch it be played. I'd be careful to fret over the damage the league is risking to its reputation, rather than the suntan I'm not going to get. I'd pretend that I'm really just concerned about what's best for the NFL, or for the players, or for the fans, rather than what's best for me me me.

UPDATE, Sunday, Jan. 29: No, I don't have a particular axe to grind with ESPN Radio. It's just what we get here in D.C. In fact, I want to praise the network's Doug Gottlieb. This morning, Gottlieb was doing a bit about how the Super Bowl is better on TV than in person. He could easily have turned it into a 10-minute diss on Detroit, but he didn't. He just shrugged and said, "It's a cold weather city. It is what it is." His one cheap shot -- saying Super Bowl tourists like to see the sights, but in downtown Detroit "the sights are all outlined in chalk." -- was legitimately funny.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

NFC in the Can: Seattle learns
to disbelieve the hype

Are those uniforms blue? Green? Either way, they look like a 33-19 lossIn an interesting twist on the dominant meme of the 2005 NFL season, the Seattle Seahawks and their fans haven't claimed to be disrespected as much as ignored. Their beef -- and to an extent, it's a legitimate one -- is that national sports reporters, headquartered 3,000 miles away on the East Coast, willfully overlooked Seattle's emergence as the NFC's dominant team and instead heaped love and adulation on the fundamentally flawed Chicago Bears because Illinois was as far west as anyone was willing to travel. Now, however, the Seahawks have made the Super Bowl, meaning the sports media establishment no longer has a choice but to venture to the Pacific Northwest. At the moment, they're all at Citibank trying to change dollars into whatever people use for money up there.

The national exposure really got rolling Tuesday with this story from The New York Times, which rather convincingly settles the question of "What's worse than being ignored?" Answer: Being condescended to. The story, nonsensically headlined "A New Breed of Pocket Protector," is built upon the idea that the Seahawks are a team of nerds, by nerds and for nerds. Armed with this hammer, the Times went in search of nails:
  • Team owner Paul Allen made his fortune as the co-founder of Microsoft and, especially damning, wears eyeglasses.
  • Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is bald and wore a sweater last week.
  • Running back Shaun Alexander enjoys chess and cleaned up his house last week.
Yeah, they're geeks, all right. Really, the Times is such an easy, slow-moving target that it's almost unfair to pick on it. But the story is an excellent case study in the kind of treatment the Seahawks have been receiving all year. (On the bright side, at least there were no coffee jokes. And the grunge angle appears to be played out. Finally.) It's too bad, because in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks put on the most impressive display of any team in the conference yet this year, and they proved beyond any doubt why they deserve to be the annual sacrifice on the AFC altar.

The big question leading up to the NFC title game was how Seattle was going to contain Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, who, despite being his team's only remaining weapon, had run circles around the impressive Bears defense the previous week. After the Seahawks had thoroughly stifled Smith, the big question changed to: Just how impressive can the Bears defense really be? We'll find out next year, I guess, because in 2005 the toughest opponent Chicago faced -- the one that finally did it in -- was its own hype.

Hype is a conniving mistress in the NFL. Smart teams that keep her at arm's length make it through the season with their pants still buckled and their wallets still safely in their pockets. Teams foolish enough to cozy up and listen to her acid whispers wake up in late December in a tub full of ice water without kidneys or playoff hopes. How's that for a metaphor?

After they opened the season 1-3, the Bears weren't on anyone's radar as far as being serious contenders for the NFC title. They then won 10 out of their next 11, including eight straight, and the hype machine was howling. The only thing left to be determined was whether the Bears would hold the Colts (speaking of hype) under 10 points in the Super Bowl. So sure were the Bears that 2005 would not see a repeat of 2001's epic, and totally foreseeable, playoff collapse that they sat their starters for the final regular season game and put their postseason fate in the hands of a quarterback with 90 minutes of game experience in the preceding year and a half. As they say in Russia: "Who needs QB able to hit open man when you have defense strong like brick wall?" The Bears believed the hype, and they paid for it against Carolina in the playoffs as Jake Delhomme and Smith played a spirited game of catch while Chicago bumbled, stumbled, fumbled and was ultimately humbled. The only team in the NFC laid lower by hype this year was the Minnesota Vikings, who fell victim to positive press twice -- once at the start of the season and again during their six-game, smoke-and-mirrors winning streak.

The Seahawks did just the opposite of the Bears this season, which is why Seattleites are decked out in "NFC Champions" gear while Chicago has to make do with the division-title stuff. The Seahawks, no strangers to hot buttered disappointment, knew enough to disbelieve the hype because of what happened to them in 2004. Remember? Seattle opened with three straight wins by a combined 65-13, which had everyone looking ahead to the titanic Week 5 collision with the defending champion Patriots. Seattle proceeded to drop three straight, eventually limped into the playoffs at 9-7 and crapped out in the first round. That's guaranteed to hurt -- and guaranteed to stick with you. For all the grumbling about being ignored by the East Coast elites, one thing the Seahawks didn't have to worry about this year was being distracted by all those fawning profiles in The New York Review of Books.

Besides, as Rodney Harrison taught us two years ago, as Tom Brady tried to demonstrate this year, and as Ben Roethlisberger asserted this week when it no longer mattered, perceived disrespect can make you a fiercer player, if not exactly a better human being. So as the postseason got underway this month, the Seattle Seahawks -- winless in the playoffs since beating the Los Angeles Raiders in Ronald Reagan's first term -- stormed out of the tunnel hopped up on motivation and crowd noise, and collided head-first (literally, in Shaun Alexander's case) with, of all people, the Washington Redskins.

The Redskins had nearly committed hypicide themselves earlier in the season as they won their first three by a total of six points, came to believe they were Super Bowl-bound, then crashed back to Earth with a 2-6 run. Unlike the Bears, however, the Redskins got their humble pie down without choking. They ran the table to make the playoffs, and by the time they rolled into Seattle, they were full of confidence. And painkillers. So banged up were the Redskins that the Seahawks beat them by 10 with less than an inspired effort. Seattle played the game like it was afraid of losing, which, frankly, was understandable, considering the history. Fortunately for the boys in blue (or is it green?), Washington played the game like it was losing the feeling in both its arms, and Seattle was on to the next round.

It's amazing what one win will do. A week later, it was a new Seahawks team that stormed the field. The defense was angrier, the coaches were craftier, Alexander was shiftier, the crowd was crazier, Matt Hasselbeck was balder and badder than ever. And they tore the Panthers limb from limb. Final score: Seattle 34, Carolina 14. Let's go to the prop bets:

Interceptions thrown by Delhomme
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 3.
Passing yards for Delhomme
Our prediction: Under 300. Actual outcome: 196.
Passing TDs for Delhomme
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 1.
Receptions by Smith
Our prediction: Under 10. Actual outcome: 5.
Receiving yards for Smith
Our prediction: Over 100. Actual outcome: 33.
Rushing yards for Nick Goings
Our prediction: Under 75. Actual outcome: 2.
Sacks by Seahawks defense
Our prediction: 5. Actual outcome: 2.

The thinking behind these predictions was that Steve Smith could not be stopped, only contained. It seemed reasonable to expect that he would break off at least one long catch-and-run for 50, 60 yards, even if the Seattle defense was on him like a limpet. Yeah, I know. Made sense a week ago, when that historic Bears D was on the case. Not so much now. As it happens, the only person more hounded that Carolina's star receiver was its star(?) quarterback, and Delhomme ended up completing nearly as many passes to Seattle as to Smith.

Interceptions thrown by Hasselbeck
Our prediction: 0. Actual outcome: 0.
Passing yards for Hasselbeck
Our prediction: Under 300. Actual outcome: 219.
Passing TDs for Hasselbeck
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 2.
Rushing yards for Alexander
Our prediction: Under 100. Actual outcome: 132.
Rushing TDs for Alexander
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 2.
Sacks by Carolina defense
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 2.

These predictions were pretty much on the mark as far as Hasselbeck was concerned, but way short of it on Alexander. Seattle was headed downfield all day long, except for that one time when Darrell Jackson caught the ball and ran the wrong way. That was something you don't see every day.

Coin flip winner
Our prediction: Carolina. Actual outcome: Carolina.
First points scored
Our prediction: John Kasay. Actual outcome: Jerramy Stevens.
False start penalties on Carolina
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 1.
Pass interference/illegal contact penalties on Seattle
Our prediction: 3. Actual outcome: 0.
Total points scored by defense/special teams (excluding kicks)
Our prediction: 0. Actual outcome: 6.

OK, so there was one area in which Seattle was unable to contain Smith: on that one punt return. If only Carolina had been able to force the Seahawks to punt more times that it allowed them to score. These were the six special teams points I had expected to be scored in the Steelers-Broncos game. I just misplaced them.

Seattle is the first team to get to the Super Bowl without having to play another division champion in the playoffs. Their wins have come against two wildcard teams: No. 6 seed Washington and No. 5 Carolina. I'm not sure what this means. Perhaps the top teams in the NFC are so evenly matched that there was relatively little difference from the No. 1 seed to No. 6. Or perhaps the NFC has gotten so comically limp that a division title has lost all import -- that it's still Snow White and the 15 Dwarves, except Seattle has taken over the Snow White role from Philadelphia. If it's the former, then maybe the NFC has achieved some kind of parity with the AFC. If the latter, then we can say with certainty that the Seattle Seahawks are the ultimate winners of the 2002 divisional realignment.

Whichever, it's not like the Seahawks chose their path. They played whomever the league sent to Qwest Field, and they won every time. This is an excellent team that has earned its trip to Detroit. I still expect Pittsburgh to win the Super Bowl, but a Seattle victory wouldn't surprise me in the least. They're playing another wildcard, after all.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

AFC in the Can: Pittsburgh being
disrespected like a true champion

Black and gold and red all over Even though I wasn't rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers to make the Super Bowl -- I was definitely not rooting for that -- there's a chance their victory in the AFC Championship Game will bring about something wonderful. It might finally muzzle the nitwits who neither understand nor appreciate the elegance of the NFL playoff system and would prefer it be replaced with a model more along the lines of, say, the everyone's-a-winner National Hockey League. You know their gripe: If Team A wins its division with a 10-6 record, it's guaranteed to play at least one home playoff game. Meanwhile, Team B could finish 12-4 but be forced to go on the road as a wildcard because it came in second in its division to a two-dicked gorilla that went 14-2. Team B, the thinking goes, has been screwed by the system and has no shot at the Super Bowl. This is a weak argument made by weak minds, and the Steelers just blew it away. Pittsburgh not only proved that a wilcard can win three straight road playoff games, it absolutely steamrolled the opposition in doing so.

Let me restate my policy on home playoff games: If you want to play at home, then win your division. Simple as that. Why'd the Steelers have to play three road games? Because they started the season with terrible backup quarterbacks, which cost them at least two games, which cost them the division title. Why'd the Jacksonville Jaguars have to pay on the road in New England, even though their record was better than the Patriots' by two games? Because the Patriots did what it took to win their division while the Jaguars couldn't take care of their own business. It doesn't matter one whit that the 12-4 Jags were stuck behind the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. If Jacksonville had just beaten Indy in the regular season, then the Jaguars would have been home for the playoffs and the Colts would have been the ones getting their asses kicked in Foxboro, again. A wildcard spot, see, is a second chance for a team that couldn't get it done in Weeks 1 through 17. Any team getting a new lease on life has no business haggling over the terms.

What's funny, of course, is that while the pencilnecks were getting worked up over the injustice of it all, the Steelers just taped up their ankles and got ready to go out and kick ass. They knew that they had only themselves to blame for their playoff position. What's more, they understood that if a team isn't tough enough to win three straight on the road, then it doesn't deserve to go to the Super Bowl. That's the least-understood part of the playoff process: Any team that aspires to be called NFL champions should be capable of traveling the toughest road to that goal. The teams that post the best record in the regular season should be able to do it, too; they've just earned a head start with their performance. You didn't hear the Steelers complaining, did you? Well, actually you did, but it wasn't about having to go on the road. To the contrary, the Steelers have for years been such an embarrassment at home in the playoffs that this time around they were all but begging to be kept away from Heinz Field. And look how it worked out for them.

The Steelers haven't been complaining about road games. What they have been complaining about is the same thing every team has been conplaining about this year: Lack of respect. Or, rather, "lack" of "respect." Not satisfied with the praise they've received for making the Super Bowl, the Steelers -- and, of course, their fans -- are sore that people weren't praising them enough before the playoffs started. Here's Ben Roethlisberger, following up his three amazing playoff performances with a dismaying moment of de rigueur petulance:
"Everyone expected us to lose the third game, the second game and this game. No one believed in us but us."
I'm not disputing what Roethlisberger is saying, because for the most part he's right -- "everyone," in the wounded-athlete-ego sense, did expect them to lose at some point here. But holy hell, Big Ben, what have the Steelers done in the past decade to make people think otherwise? Bill Cowher is a fine coach and an impressive hominid, but his tenure in Pittsburgh had been one playoff disaster after another. Prior to 2005, the Steelers had made the playoffs in nine out of Cowher's 13 years and came out losers each time. Five times they had played for the AFC title, and they lost four of those games (and they nearly lost the fifth, too, to a 9-7 Colts team that was just happy to be there). Just last year Roethlisberger and the Steelers finished 15-1 yet were thoroughly demolished by the Patriots in the AFC title game. People tend to remember this stuff, Ben. This year, Pittsburgh opened the playoffs against Cincinnati, who had won the last meeting between the teams and taken the AFC North title. Was it unreasonable for people to think the Bengals might win? Then, having beaten a Bengals team playing without its Pro Bowl quarterback, the Steelers next traveled to Indianapolis, which also had won the last meeting between the teams. Was it preposterous to think the Colts might win that one, too? Then came the 14-3 Denver Broncos, who were unbeaten at home, yadda yadda yadda.

So yes, Ben, coming into the 2005 playoffs, "everyone" expected the Steelers to lose. To expect otherwise would have been to give you and your team credit for something you hadn't done -- to give you respect that you hadn't yet earned. Now we know just how good your team is, being favored to win the Super Bowl and all. Wouldn't you prefer it that way? Wouldn't you rather prove yourself on the field than just be anointed the favorite like a certain team in Indianapolis?

Oh yeah, that team in Indianapolis ...

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is the most polarizing player in the NFL: Many people just love him, but even greater numbers appear to despise him -- often for utterly irrational reasons. Those who hate Manning, in fact, hate him so much that they're willing to denigrate their own teams in their zeal to drag him down. After the Steelers beat the Colts a week ago Sunday, Pittsburgh fans rejoiced not just because their team was still alive in the hunt, but also because Manning had been put in his place. Just like New England fans in 2003 and 2004, Steeler Nation could not bring itself to say: "Manning is a great quarterback, and we absolutely shut him down! We're awesome!" Instead, they declared: "Manning sucks!" Which leads to the obvious question: If he sucks, what does beating him prove?

Anyway, the anti-Peyton crowd has been feasting for more than a week on what Manning said to the media after the heavily favored Colts (listening, Ben?) lost to the Steelers:
"I'm trying to be a good teammate here. Let's just say we had some problems in protection. I'll give Pittsburgh credit for the blitzes and their rush. Those guys rushed. But we did have some protection problems."
If you've spent the past year arguing that Manning is not such a bad guy, as Down and Distance has, this is enough to make you throw up your hands. It's not that he criticized his blockers for letting him get knocked around like David Gest back there. Players commonly lash out in frustration after emotionally draining games. What pushed Manning's comment over the line into toxic territory was the first sentence: "I'm trying to be a good teammate here." With those eight words, Manning signaled that he wasn't just speaking from frustration, that he had thought about what he was going to say, and that he wanted the people watching to know that he was about to shove his offensive line under the team bus.

The bitch of it is, Manning's statement about his lack of protection is as accurate at Roethlisberger's comments on the Steelers' lack of, uh, respect. The Indianapolis line did indeed have trouble protecting Manning. But like Roethlisberger, Manning was coming at his point from the entirely wrong direction. Take away the opening line about trying to be a good teammate, and the spin on his comments would be "Look at how frustrated Peyton is" rather than "Look at what a bad teammate Peyton is." Nothing Manning says is ever going to get the haters into his fan club, but a calculated head shot like that will knock some of the fence-sitters over to the other side. And it won't matter how many aw-shucks MasterCard commercials he makes; once someone turns to the anti-Manning side of the Force, there's no coming back.

But to talk about the Colts at all this week is to play right into the little world of disrespect that Roethlisberger and his teammates have dreamed up, so instead let's direct our full energy to the AFC Championship Game. Final score: Steelers 34, Broncos 17. Let's see how we did on the prop bets we set up last week:

Interceptions thrown by Roethlisberger
Our prediction: 0. Actual outcome: 0.
Passing yards for Roethlisberger
Our prediction: Over 300. Actual outcome: 275.
Passing TDs for Roethlisberger
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 2.
Receptions by Hines Ward
Our prediction: 4. Actual outcome: 5.

It seemed obvious that Denver was going to follow the same game plan that teams have been using against Pittsburgh all year: Stack up against the run and make Roethlisberger beat you. As we saw in Indianapolis in the divisional round, that game plan is a recipe for disaster, as No. 7 is quite capable of tearing you a new one if you bend over for him. I knew Roethlisberger was going to have a big day; what I didn't count on was the Steelers working on a short field most of the afternoon because of Denver turnovers. That's the only reason he didn't top 300 yards. It was also clear that the Steelers were going to spread the ball around, which explains the low catch count for Ward.

Total rushing yards for Pittsburgh
Our prediction: Less than 150. Actual outcome: 90.
Rushing TDs for Jerome Bettis
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 1.
Sacks by Pittsburgh defense
Our prediction: 4. Actual outcome: 3.

With the Denver defense playing run, it naturally follows that Pittsburgh wasn't going to move the ball much on the ground, and they didn't. Of course, they didn't have to, because they were getting all they needed through the air. As it did in Indianapolis, the Steeler defense appeared to spend much of the game in the Denver backfield. Jake Plummer went down only three times, but that was because he was able to repeatedly scramble out of harm's way rather than just bounce up and down like Slinky Legs Manning until someone came to take his head off.

Interceptions thrown by Jake Plummer
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 2.
Passing yards for Plummer
Our prediction: Under 300. Actual outcome: 223.
Passing TDs for Plummer
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 1.
Touchdowns by Jeb Putzier
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 0.
Total Denver rushing yards
Our prediction: Over 150. Actual outcome: 97.
Rushing TDs for Ron Dayne
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 0.
Sacks by Denver defense
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 2.

The predictions for Plummer turned out to be dead-on. The others ... not so much. Thanks in large measure to Plummer turnovers, the Steelers were ahead by three TDs by halftime, so the Broncos were pretty much forced to pack up their running game until September. Forty-one of Denver's 97 rushing yards came on the final drive, when the Steelers were content to let them run all over the field so long as they stayed inbounds. Because the game became a blowout, we never got to see whether Mike Shanahan would try to cross up the Steelers by throwing to Putzier in the red zone for the first time all year. Seeing as how the name Putzier has become synonymous with "benched inside the 20" in football commentary, I was convinced Plummer would be throwing TDs to his big lovable lump of a tight end, provided he got the chance. He didn't get the chance. Dayne didn't, either.

Coin flip winner
Our prediction: Pittsburgh. Actual outcome: Denver.
First points scored
Our prediction: Antwaan Randle El. Actual outcome: Jeff Reed.
False start penalties on Pittburgh
Our prediction: 3. Actual outcome: 1.
Personal fouls on Denver
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 0.
Total points scored by defense/special teams (excluding kicks)
Our prediction: 6. Actual outcome: 0.

One could certainly argue that the Pittsburgh defense was directly responsible for 10 points, but we're being strict constructionists here, so no dice.

On the radio Monday morning, I heard someone say: "Pittsburgh won the game, but Denver made it a rout." I don't know who said it, but it's the most accurate overall summary of the AFC title game. Just as they did against the Colts, the Steelers came out throwing against a defense that was daring them to throw. Just as they did against the Colts, the Steelers took a big early lead. This week, however, the Steelers also refused to let the opponent get close enough to sniff victory. That was obvious when the Broncos all but quit with three minutes to go.

Despite all the talk about Jake The Mistake, Plummer didn't play a horrible game. Yes, he turned the ball over three times (the fumble while being sacked on fourth-and-10 doesn't count), but he kept coming back and trying to make plays. It isn't Plummer's fault that the Broncos defense couldnt stop short passes, intermediate passes or long passes. Plummer wasn't the one playing eight yards off the receiver on third-and-2. Plummer didn't lose it for the Broncos, but he didn't play the game he needed to in order to win. In the end, it doesn't matter. The fact is, the Steelers rolled into Denver and wiped their feet on the home team. The Broncos were both outplayed and outcoached. (Note to Tiki Barber: That's how you're supposed to phrase it.) And the Steelers are going to win the Super Bowl. Happy now, Ben?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Props to the conference championships

We'll dispense with any attempt to predict the winners of the weekend's conference championships and instead focus on proposition bets. Prop bets, a favorite topic of writers stretching to fill space in the two weeks of dead time before the Super Bowl, are wagers tied to events within the game rather than the final score. For example, you could lay money on the question of who will score the first points in the AFC Championship Game in Denver. Your best bets might be Jerome Bettis or Jason Elam. Kimo von Oelhoffen would be a long shot. Or you could bet the over/under on the number of passes thrown by Ben Roethlisberger. Say the O/U is 20. If you think the Steelers are going to dominate, then go with the under. If you think the Broncos will have a 10-point lead at some point, go with the over. My favorite screwed-up prop bet came in Super Bowl XVIII, Redskins vs. Raiders. Who would score the first points? Marcus Allen? John Riggins? Mark Moseley? Try reserve tight end Derrick Jensen, who blocked a punt for a touchdown. This teaches us that prop bets are a stupid waste of time. Herewith, our prop bets:

NFC Championship Game
Carolina at Seattle

Interceptions thrown by Jake Delhomme: 2
Passing yards for Jake Delhomme (O/U = 300): Under
Passing TDs by Jake Delhomme: 2
Receptions by Steve Smith (O/U = 10): Under
Receiving yards by Steve Smith (O/U = 100): Over
Rushing yards by Nick Goings (O/U = 75): Under
Sacks by Panthers defense: 2

Interceptions thrown by Matt Hasselbeck: 0
Passing yards for Matt Hasselbeck (O/U = 300): Under
Passing TDs for Matt Hasselbeck: 1
Rushing yards by Shaun Alexander (O/U = 100): Under
Rushing TDs for Shaun Alexander: 1
Sacks by Seahawks defense: 5

Coin flip winner: Carolina
First points scored by: John Kasay
False start penalties on Carolina: 2
Pass interference/illegal contact penalties on Seattle: 3
Total points scored by defense/special teams (excluding kicks): 0

AFC Championship Game
Pittsburgh at Denver

Interceptions thrown by Ben Roethlisberger: 0
Passing yards for Ben Roethlisberger (O/U = 300): Over
Passing TDs for Ben Roethlisberger: 0
Receptions by Hines Ward: 4
Total Pittsburgh rushing yards (O/U = 150): Under
Rushing TDs for Jerome Bettis: 1
Sacks by Pittsburgh defense: 4

Interceptions thrown by Jake Plummer: 2
Passing yards for Jake Plummer (O/U = 300): Under
Passing TDs for Jake Plummer: 1
Touchdowns by Jeb Putzier: 1
Total Denver rushing yards (O/U = 150): Over
Rushing TDs for Ron Dayne: 1
Sacks by Denver defense: 1

Coin flip winner: Pittsburgh
First points scored by: Antwaan Randle El
False start penalties on Pittsburgh: 3
Personal fouls on Denver: 1
Total points scored by defense/special teams (excluding kicks): 6

Friday, January 20, 2006

The problem with the playoffs

Hello? ... Is anybody here? ...

I've got something I have to get off my chest, even though it lets a lot of the gas out of my bag. Even though it runs contrary to everything we've been told about spectator sports. Even though it will put me on the opposite side of the fence from my man Don Cheadle.

I just can't get into the NFL playoffs.

I love the idea of the playoffs, mind you. "Win or go home." "It all comes down to this." "There's no tomorrow." It all sounds great. And I love poring over playoff data in retrospect: Who made it in? Who got left out? Who was the biggest surprise? Who was the biggest disappointment? But the actual experience of it, the sitting down and the watching of the games ... eh.

I was as surprised and disappointed as anyone to discover that this was the case. God knows I've tried to love the playoffs. I've blocked out whole days on my schedule. I've TiVo'd the games and watched them in the middle of the night to eliminate distractions. I've read the newspapers, watched the preview shows, forced myself to listen to sports radio. All to no avail. The playoffs don't excite me, engage me or enthrall me as much as they enervate me. They bring me less glee than gloom. There are several reasons why.

First among these is the diminution of story lines. Like the rest of America, Down and Distance takes mottos, slogans and catchphrases very seriously -- sees them as only a step below the Holy Gospels, as a matter of fact. And our chief slogan hereabouts is "Football is Theater." Theater is about story lines, and an NFL season is packed with thousands of compelling story lines that overlap, intersect and twist around one another. Take the Steelers-Bengals game in Week 13. Cincinnati's subplots included the team's first serious playoff drive in 15 years, the emergence of Carson Palmer and the antics of Chad Johnson. Steeler subplots included the team having lost two in a row for the first time in more than two years and Ben Roethlisberger's recovery from injury. Subplots unique to the game included the possibility of a changing of the guard in the AFC North and the friendship-cum-rivalry of Palmer and Troy Polamalu. And that's all in one game! Multiply that by 16 games per week (or 14 during the bye period), and then by the 17 weeks of the regular season, and you get enough stories to keep you occupied for months. But as the playoffs start, the number of teams involved is immediately hacked from 32 to 12. That's 20 teams' worth of intrigue, out the window. Every week of the playoffs, more teams drop by the wayside, as do their story lines. The fewer the story lines available, the greater the chance that the ones that are left won't be all that interesting. Remember 2004: Can Manning beat the Patriots this year? We all knew the answer: No. Next question.

The story lines are disappearing, of course, because teams are being eliminated -- finished for the year. There really is no tomorrow, and that's horrible news for a football fan. Some people believe Super Bowl Sunday is the highlight of the NFL season. I couldn't disagree more. For me, the greatest time of the year is the opener, that Thursday night in September when the Super Bowl champ takes the field in a meaningful game for the first time in seven months. There's five months of football and 256 regular season games to be played. Everybody's healthy. Everybody's pumped. Every team has the best shot it will have all year. (Opening Day was one of the few things baseball had traditionally done better than football, but, true to form, Major League Baseball is busy destroying all its traditions in pursuit of another penny on the dollar just as the NFL is fully embracing its own.) So that's another reason I don't love the playoffs: They mean the league will soon go dark. Watching the scouting combine on NFL Network just doesn't do it for me (and yet I still watch).

Some may want to point out that in the postseason, the dregs of the league -- the Texans, the 49ers, the Saints, the Lions -- are no longer clogging up the schedule. Not me. I recoil at that very idea. Watching an awful team trudge bravely down the long, brutal road of the NFL season is one of my favorite things about football. What motivates the great teams? That's obvious: playoff berths, division championships, a shot at the Lombardi Trophy. More interesting is what motivates the pathetic teams. Why does Steve McNair strap it on week after week, knowing that his Titans are in for a pounding? Why is David Carr scrambling to keep the play alive another five seconds when at the end of the game the Texans are still going to be 1-9? That's human drama. And there's no more of it for months. I'm sad about it, OK? Let me cry.

Finally, as the number of teams dwindles, the noise made by fans of the remaining teams escalates. And it's not because they have more to say. People who for the bulk of the regular season watched with detachment -- and, often, disinterest -- suddenly begin speaking of their team in the first person, and with insipid braggadocio: "We went out and kicked a little ass on Sunday." Did you, now? Really brought your A-game, huh? Sports bars in the cities still in contention are suddenly filled with logo gear with the tags still on, worn by people saying things like, "Come on, guy, you can do better than that!" or "Way to go, Number 24!" Few things in sport are as disheartening as the sight of a man who can't name five players on "his" team thumping his chest over their accomplishments (sorry, our accomplishments). Just as the games are supposed to be getting more interesting, the discussion surrounding them gets less so.

If I sound like Scrooge, it's because late January is the saddest time of my year. The game that has sustained me since before the first leaf fell is going into hibernation. There are only three games left. Two are this weekend, and they are the last two that will be staged in stadiums full of fans. Then we wait two weeks for the Super Bowl, played in front of 70,000 shrugging, marginally interested corporate clients. The No. 1 copier salesman in the Mid-Atlantic region? He'll be there. Middle manager of the month from the Pepsi Bottlers Association? He'll be there. Me, I'll be shuttered in my home, counting the minutes till kickoff ... on Sept. 7, 2006.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Down to four

Does anyone sense a pattern here?
  • The Chicago Bears, having locked in a playoff bye and having "nothing to play for," rested their starters in the final game of the regular season. This weekend, the Bears looked out of sync and at times overwhelmed, especially quarterback Rex Grossman, who looked like he'd played only six quarters all year. The Bears lost to the Panthers.
  • The Seattle Seahawks, having locked in a playoff bye and having "nothing to play for," rested their starters in the final game of the regular season. This weekend, the Seahawks looked out of sync and at times overwhelmed, but fortunately they were playing a banged-up Washington team that had won six straight and just didn't have anything left in the tank. The Seahawks hammered out a tough win over the Redskins.
  • The Indianapolis Colts, having locked in a playoff bye and having "nothing to play for," rested their starters in the final two games of the regular season. This weekend, the Colts looked out of sync and overwhelmed, both on offense and defense. The Colts fell behind early and lost to the Steelers.
  • The Denver Broncos, having locked in a playoff bye and having "nothing to play for," nevertheless left their starters in for the bulk of the last regular season game -- and posted a convincing win over the Chargers, a motivated division rival. This weekend, the Broncos were sharp and in control as they rolled past the Patriots.
If the 2005 divisional playoffs have a lasting impact, I hope it's this: Teams that have already wrapped up a bye will learn that three weeks is too long to let their starters sit. Players need to play in game conditions. They can't just switch it on and off. I wrote after the last game of the regular season that the Colts were in serious trouble after blowing off their final tune-up games. I was right. What about New England and Cincinnati? Both those teams also took the final game off, but doing so made more sense: They had to play on Wildcard Weekend. They used Week 17 of the regular season as their bye.

All that said, the biggest story line of the weekend was one we'd been hearing all year: A quarterback who had been knocked out of the playoffs by the same team the past two years suddenly found himself on the doorstep of the Super Bowl after his nemesis lost. The hero of the story isn't Peyton Manning, however, it's Jake Plummer.

Going straight-up, I was 3-1 this week (despite my own advice, I went with the Colts). Picking against the spread, I came out 2-2. Again. As always, a green bullet denotes a correct pick; a red bullet, an incorrect pick:

SEATTLE over Washington
How do you finish a game minus-2 in turnovers and still come out on top? You be so blessed as to draw the Washington Redskins as your opponent. Seattle, playing its first full game since the week before Christmas, tried repeatedly to hand this game to the Redskins, but Washington politely declined to accept. I had Seattle straight up but thought that 9.5 points was a ridiculous spread. Still do. Thanks for nothing, John Hall.

DENVER over New England
This reputation of Mike Shanahan as a play-calling wizard -- where does that come from? In the second quarter, game scoreless, Denver had third-and-inches at the Patriots' 3 yard line. As the Broncos came up to the line, I muttered through gritted teeth: "Patriots have to be expecting a quarterback sneak." I wasn't alone: Even Phil Simms digressed from whatever he was nattering about to predict not only a QB sneak, but a sneak on a quick count. Sure enough, Jake Plummer takes the ball on a quick count and runs head-first into a brick wall. Then, on fourth down, I'm saying: "Just go for the first down. Don't throw into the end zone." Up goes the lazy rainbow fade to Ashley Lelie, incomplete, and New England takes over on downs. When you're on the Patriots' doorstep, you gotta cause some trouble, man! Don't just pee on the mat and slink away. On the next series, once again in New England territory, Plummer threw one of his ill-advised dandies, which Asante Samuel intercepted at the 11. Thing is, the ref ruled Samuel out of bounds, even though he clearly got both feet down inside the paint. Rather than try to hustle to the line and snap the ball before the Patriots could toss the challenge flag, Denver called a timeout. (!!!!!) This was dumb for so many reasons. Here's two: First, it gave New England time to consider a challenge; and second, even if the Pats went ahead and challenged before the next Denver play, the challenge would have created a timeout anyway. On the defense, the Broncos came out blitzing and enjoyed early success. That success tapered off as the Patriots adjusted -- but damned if the Broncos didn't just keep bringing the house on every play. Even as Tom Brady was picking up pass yards in huge chunks, the blue helmets just kept on coming. Whatever turns you on, dude.

In the end, though, it didn't matter, because the defense stiffened when it counted, holding the Pats to two field goals through the first three quarters, forcing turnovers at critical moments and, perhaps most important, not buying into the Tom Brady mystique. The Broncos went ahead and leveled Brady at every opportunity, and though the hits didn't appear to shake him, they showed the Broncos that he was as touchable as any other QB. That kept Brady out of their heads. It's a lesson the Rams, Panthers and Eagles, among others, didn't learn.

Denver won this game, definitely, but something was clearly wrong with the Patriots. Brady, for example, missed several open receivers and threw an easy pick to Champ Bailey. Between his don't-get-no-respect-shtick before the Jacksonville game and his bizarre baiting of the crowd in Denver, you have to wonder where Brady's head was at. Willie McGinest and Larry Izzo nearly came to blows on the sidelines. Troy Brown let a punt bounce off him. Adam Vinatieri pushed a critical field goal wide. It's like the Patriots kept expecting to win -- a reasonable expectation, considering the bling-bling-bling -- and then were surprised when time ran out. Odd.

PITTSBURGH over Indianapolis
You almost don't want to say it because of what Tony Dungy has been through, but this loss lies squarely at the feet of the Colts' coaching staff. Considering that Pittsburgh's run-first approach went exactly nowhere the first time these teams met this year, was there anyone who didn't expect the Steelers to come out throwing on Sunday? But sure enough, there was the Indianapolis defense, crowding the line on play after play, stacked against the run, as Ben Roethlisberger burned them again and again. That's not lack of execution. That's an utter lack of preparation, and that's on the coaches. The Colts offense, meanwhile, was out of sync for the entire first half. I mean, it's almost as if the starters hadn't played in game conditions in a month! That's on the coaches, too. In the second half, the Colts finally got the ship headed in the right direction, but by then it had taken on too much water, and even the refs couldn't bail them out.

When Dungy was the head coach of the Buccaneers, the big knock on him was that as nice a guy as he is, as good of a teacher and a role model as he is, he can't get his teams up for the playoffs. We saw it happen all four years he made the playoffs in Tampa. (The year after he left, remember, Jon Gruden won the Super Bowl with the team Dungy had assembled.) We've now seen it happen all four years in Indianapolis. Everything was lined up for the Colts to win the Super Bowl this year -- the Patriots had already lost, for Pete's sake -- and they showed up Sunday unready and unfocused. What happened to the Dungy family was a tragedy, one that totally puts football in its very small place. But even if it had never happened, Sunday's outcome would have been the same.

CAROLINA over Chicago
Earlier this year, Vikings cornerback Fred Smoot talked trash on Panthers wideout Steve Smith for the entire week leading up to their game. Smith then punked Smoot in such a historic fashion that the natives in the mountains still sing songs about it. Leading up to this game, the Bears weren't shy in pointing out that Smith hadn't "done anything" (that is, scored a touchdown) against Chicago in Week 11, despite 14 catches for 169 yards. Oops. Smith's line Sunday: 12 catches, 218 yards, two touchdowns. No other Panther had more than three catches. Smith was Carolina's only weapon, and everyone knew it, yet he still ran circles around the Bears. You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to stop that Steve Smith, and ... uh, Chicago? Your alarm's going off.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Divisional round

Carolina's win over the Giants last week put the kibosh on a number of hypothetical playoff matchups: Eli Manning vs. Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. Matt Hasselbeck vs. Tim Hasselbeck in the NFC Championship Game. And, coupled with Washington's win over Tampa Bay, Tiki Barber vs. Ronde Barber in the NFC Championship Game. Oh well.

Only seven games left to go. Depressing. I made a large error last week in explaining at length why teams would win before the games were played. Turns out I'm a lot smarter in retrospect. So let's just do the picks quickly and save the talky-talky for the recap. But this time, let's try picking against the spread.

Washington at Seattle (-9.5): Straight up, I'd take the Seahawks, but with the Redskins defense playing as well as it has, I expect Washington to cover. Pick: Redskins.

New England at Denver (-3): I suppose it's ridiculous to pick against the Pats anytime in the playoffs, but if any team has been shrugged off all year, it's Denver. Pick: Broncos.

Pittsburgh at Indianapolis (-9.5): Looks to me like a line set by the action, not by what's likely to happen on the field. Nevertheless, I'll go out on a limb. Pick: Colts.

Carolina at Chicago (-2.5): It won't be very cold. Pick: Panthers. Make this my Already-Regretting-It Lock of the Week.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Hell of Fame

These shoes are made for evaluatin'

There's this white heat burning in the pit of my stomach. It wouldn't be there if I would just quit listening to sports radio. It's eating away my soul. Yet on my way to work Wednesday I went ahead and twisted that damned dial, and -- nibble, nibble -- I lost another small but cherished piece of my eternal self.

On Dan Patrick's show on ESPN radio, the topic of the day was the baseball Hall of Fame. Specifically, why Bruce Sutter was voted into the Hall this year and Goose Gossage was not. A typical topic for sports radio. Patrick thinks Goose should be in. (I think so, too, for what it's worth.) Jeff Blair of the Toronto Globe and Mail, one of the Hall voters, thinks he shouldn't. They went back and forth on it, and it got a little testy. Sports radio "debate" is mostly detestable, manufactured B.S., but I was doing OK up to that point. Then they opened up the phone lines, and my head cracked wide open.

I couldn't tell whether the first caller was pro-Goose or anti-Goose, but it was clear he was anti-Blair. I'm quoting from memory, so it's not word for word, but he said, essentially:
"I heard some writer say, 'These are my criteria.' This writer kept talking about 'his criteria.' The Hall of Fame shouldn't be up to some writer's criteria. There should be Hall of Fame criteria."
I nearly drove off the road, because I was shouting at the top of my voice, "HOW GODDAMN STUPID ARE YOU?"

Let's set aside for a moment the fact that this caller views the ability to write (and, likely, read) as deeply suspicious. What infuriated me about his argument was its stark, even disheartening, ignorance not only of sports, but also of the very nature of democracy. Look, I think we can all agree that not everyone can be in the Hall of Fame. At some point, we have to make a decision on who gets in and who gets left out. That decision has to be in someone's hands. We call those people voters. And voters select their preferred candidates based on their own, personal criteria. Whether the people voting for the Hall of Fame are writers, broadcasters, players, fans or functionally retarded sports radio listeners/callers, their decisions are made based on experience and bias.

Funny enough, this is also how we choose our leaders, from the school board up to the president of the United States. The reasons why I voted for Bush, Kerry or Nader are probably different from yours. I may have made my choice based on terrorism, the war in Iraq or health care. You may have decided based on the economy, the environment or the price of gas. We all applied our own priorities when casting our votes.

In the Hall of Fame voting, one writer may have gone for Sutter because he had more saves than Gossage. Another writer may have preferred Gossage because when the Goose pitched, a save actually meant something, unlike now. Hell, one writer may have voted for Sutter because they preferred his Grizzly Adams look to Gossage's American Chopper mythos. Doesn't matter. This was an election, and in an election a candidate has to appeal to a broad range of voters with a broad range of tastes. Otherwise, you don't get elected. What do you do then? You spend some time building your case and then try again next time around. Worked for Ronald Reagan.

Some would prefer we do way with voting altogether. When Patrick's idiot caller declared that some unspecified "Hall of Fame criteria" should determine who gets in and who doesn't, what he meant was: There shall be no voting. The Hall will set statistical standards, and only those who meet those standards will be eligible. Under this ingenious system, the Hall might set 500 home runs as a standard for first basemen. But that would leave Lou Gehrig out of the Hall of Fame because he caught a nasty bug that ended his career at 493 home runs. Well, we can't have that, so we'd better drop the threshold to 493. In doing so, we've suddenly let in Fred McGriff, who dragged down his entire career by groveling for 500 dingers and yet fell short. At 493. And no, you can't provide exceptions, because who's going to make such a subjective decision? Some writer? In short, this kind of system would eliminate all semblance of choice and make "election" to the Hall of Fame utterly meaningless. Fidel Castro, after all, wins every election because his is the only name on the ballot.

Whether we're talking about the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, you can't make the selection an objective process because there are no objective criteria for "Fame." It's an entirely subjective concept. Regardless of what some moron says on the Dan Patrick show.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Reckless disrespect for the truth

In the immortal words of 2 Live Crew, 'You're not used to people saying things like this. It's called criticism, and not a diss.'

As evidenced by this spot-on piece from ESPN.com's Page 2, I'm not the only one rolling his eyes at the transparent nonsense oozing out of Foxborough, Massachusetts, of late. It seems a growing segment of American sports fans have had it up to here with the New England Patriots' degradation fantasies.

Five years ago, when the Politburo of Conventional Football Wisdom gave the ramshackle Patriots no chance of beating the powerhouse Rams (remember them?), the Pats could legitimately claim that they were being disrespected. That was then. Now the Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowls. Now their quarterback is Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Now, despite an ugly first half of the season, no one dares count them out. No one. For the entire second half of the 2005 regular season, the story was "Here Come the Patriots." Since the playoffs began, the story has been "New England is Here, and It's Firing on All Cylinders." Even discussions of New England's weaknesses all tend to devolve into "Well, but the Patriots just know how to win ... " Diet Pepsi, Coors Light, Visa have spent the whole of 2005 kissing Patriot ass. For the New England Patriots to call themselves "disrespected" at this point doesn't just tax our patience. It insults our intelligence.

And yet they persist with this determination to be victims of a vast conspiracy of disrespect. Oh, how the Patriots and their fans love to dig up the press clippings from Week 9, when New England was 4-4 and just a game ahead of the Dolphins and Bills in the AFC East standings. Frothy with indignation, they point to stories that said the team was "in danger of not making the playoffs" or "hardly as dominant as in the past two years" or "not made up of god-kings delivered whole from the heavens in a flourish of holy trumpets." See? they cry. No one respects us! Woe unto any outsider with the stones to point out that, regardless of how they're playing right now, the Patriots just didn't play very well in the first half of the season. "Of course you'll say that. Just another hater." Show more recent clippings, stories fairly dripping with the juices of Patriot-love (ew), and you'll be telling it to the hand. "We've heard all we need to hear." And indeed they have, because it's clear what this is really about. This isn't about the New England Patriots, two-time defending NFL champions. This is about Boston, a first-class city with a terminal case of second-class syndrome. The Patriots and their fans are obsessed with perceptions of disrespect because that's all they know.

I lived in Cambridge, across the river from Boston, for a summer in the 1990s. It was only a few months, but it was long enough for me to learn a valuable lesson from a fellow named Lou DiIorio, who one day looked at me in my new Red Sox cap and warned: "Kid, if you know what's good for you, if you want to stay healthy, don't get involved with the Sox." His words, whispered across the Living/Arts copy desk of The Boston Globe, changed my life. (Not really.) That summer, I learned something about the Boston sports fan that has only been reinforced as my life drains away. I learned that the core quality, the sine qua non, of the Boston sports fan is the inferiority complex. And it's at its fiercest when it comes to the New York Yankees.

Boston sports fans have spent so many years under the jackboot of Yankee superiority that they've come to wear victimhood like a badge of honor, or at least like a Shriner's fez: It identifies them as a member of the tribe. But they've been wearing this fez for so long that, to stretch a metaphor, the damn thing has dropped down over their eyes and blinded them to reality. The Yankees, as we all know, are Goliath -- so that must mean the Red Sox are David, right? Right? Well, no. The Kansas City Royals are David. But the important thing is that Boston needs the Sox to be David. That's why when the franchise reversed a thousand years of futility to win the World Series in 2004, Red Sox Nation couldn't just wallow in the good vibrations. It had to canonize the Sox as the Little Underdogs That Could -- a ragtag collection of scrappy overachievers who brought down the Evil Empire. It was a dream come true, except for the "true" part. The truth, of course, is that the Red Sox have had the second-highest payroll in baseball for years, and the difference in 2004 was that they actually earned the money. But to point that out is to kill the buzz, man. So we'll just keep that fez pulled low.

Just as the Red Sox feel the need to be David, so do the Patriots. There's a big, big problem, however: The Patriots are already Goliath, and everyone outside the Hub of the Universe appears to know it. I know this pains the Boston sports fan deeply, but it must be said: The New England Patriots have become the New York Yankees. They win the Super Bowl every year. You see their faces everywhere. They're always on national TV (eight games in 2005). The only thing missing is that air of smug superiority that distinguishes Yankee fans. What you get instead with Patriot fans is smug inferiority. It's a paradox, or something: Yankee fans talk like winners even when the team is losing, while Patriot fans talk like losers even when the team is winning.

And that's why we're hearing this "disrespect" jive from the Patriots. The antenna of any Boston team can pick up only certain sounds. You can praise the Patriots all you want. They won't hear it, because their equipment doesn't work on that frequency:

• "You guys have played great these past six weeks!" "You saying we played like crap all the other weeks?"

• "The Pats really poured it on in the fourth quarter, there." "Oh, does that mean they just lollygagged through the first three? Huh?"

• "New England is peaking going into the playoffs." "What, you think they don't play with intensity every week?"

As I said last week, I have no doubt that this junk works. I'm sure the Patriots fire themselves up in the locker room by vowing to spite their critics. But it does make you wonder when -- or whether -- the Pats, the Red Sox or their fans will ever come around to saying, "The pressure is on us to win because we're champions," rather than, "Everybody expects us to lose, so let's go out and prove them wrong." The first statement is something a legend would say. It's what Vince Lombardi or Bill Walsh or (ulp) Casey Stengel would say to challenge his troops. The second is something a politician would say to lower expectations, to make himself a smaller target -- to cushion the blow if he isn't, in fact, a champion. That's what I mean when I call it a loser's tactic.

The Patriots are winners. They ought to act like it.

Monday, January 09, 2006

And then there were eight ...

Just like that, four teams that had scraped and scrapped for four months to make the playoffs are ... done. Finished. The Readers' Digest version of the weekend (correct picks get a green bullet; incorrect picks get a red one):

Washington over Tampa Bay: This game was soul-deadening to watch, and it had nothing to do with the action on the field. In their final broadcast together, the ESPN Sunday night crew did what they do best, which is do everything poorly. They missed calls, they missed plays, they didn't know the rules, they described things that didn't happen on the field. Forget the Sean Taylor spitting penalty, which was a confusing situation to start with (though when you go back and watch it, you can clearly hear Mike Carey say Taylor spit on Michael Pittman). All game long, the chuckleheads in the booth wondered why Bucs QB Chris Simms wasn't going to Joey Galloway more. Perhaps because the Redskins' defense was arranged to let Simms throw to anyone but Galloway? A breathless Paul Maguire set us up for one replay by highlighting the huge "lick" we were going to see one player lay on another, then the replay showed that the players didn't even touch. In the fourth quarter, when Simms went to Edell Sheppard in the end zone, all three idiots continued to scream "touchdown" long after everyone at home had seen the back judge signal incomplete, discuss the call with another official, then signal incomplete again. I watched the game on TiVo and fast-forwarded between plays just so I wouldn't have to listen to these guys with their diarrhea of the mouth. The game? No surprise. Both sides hit hard. Tampa made more mistakes. Washington will lose next week in Seattle.

New England over Jacksonville: This is what it looks like when you put a blowout on a timer. If you're going to hold the Patriots to seven points in the first half, you'd better score 20 of your own because they aren't going to sit around and wait for you to catch up. If you can get Tom Brady off his game, you have to keep him there because he'll come back at you hard the second you quit punching him in the mouth. The Patriots can be beaten, obviously, but you either have to get ahead of them early or match them score for score because once you're down by two possessions, it's over. See? Easy!

Carolina over New York Giants: Now, I was aware that the Giants' linebackers had all died and that their secondary was made up of court-martialed GIs and inmates on work-release. I also knew that Eli Manning was at risk of crumbling like a delicate cookie. I even wrote all this stuff down before the weekend. And yet I still picked New York to win. Sure enough, come game time DeShaun Foster is blowing through the Giants' front seven, Manning is throwing more long passes to the Panthers than to his own guys, and Carolina walks away with the first road shutout in the playoffs in 26 years. I blame the officiating!

Pittsburgh over Cincinnati: Oh, how important can one player be? Those of us who picked the Bengals to win failed to take into account the Steelers' secret weapon: Kimo von Oelhoffen. Congrats on the career-defining play, dude. (The name is German: "Kimo" is an affectionate diminutive for "clumsy but well-meaning," and the Oelhoff, plural "Oelhoffen," were a legendary race noted for their ample corporation.) On the second play from scrimmage, the most promising matchup of the weekend evaporated entirely, and Jon Kitna's jolly moonface suddenly filled my TV screen. How long can a team play on raw emotion? Answer: About a quarter and a half. Looking forward to next week, the biggest thing about this game is that it sends the Patriots to Denver, where I have them as the underdog, rather than to Indianapolis, where I'd have them as the favorite.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Wildcard Weakened ... er, Weekend

During the regular season, I went a whopping 172-84 in picking games straight-up. That's a hair over the magic two-thirds line that separates the experts (me) from the poseurs (not me). Keep that in mind when you use the following playoff predictions as your basis for wagering on the first-round games. Two out of three of these will be right, so the teams I pick will ... lead for 160 of the 240 minutes in the four games?

Washington at Tampa Bay: Since my wife and I stopped subscribing to The Washington Post, I haven't been as plugged in to the D.C. sports zeitgeist as in years past. I try to listen to John Riggins when he's on WTEM, and that's about it, but from what I can tell, the Redskins fan base is doing its best to keep this whole playoffs thing in perspective. One postseason berth in a dozen years will do that to you. I don't get The Tampa Tribune, either, and Lee Roy Selmon isn't taking my calls, so I couldn't tell you what the mood is in Florida. When these two teams met in Week 10, the game was decided by a disputed two-point conversion in the final minute. Immediately after the game, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that Mike Alstott had gotten into the end zone. Now the winds appear to have shifted, and that same wisdom says Alstott didn't get in. In any event, Redskins fans are still pissed, Bucs fans are still defensive, and Tampa Bay QB Chris Simms still struggles in "big games." As much as it pains me, I'll go with Washington. At least one road team has to win this week, and it isn't going to be the warm-weather teams playing in the Northeast. Pick: Redskins.

Jacksonville at New England: Oh, my aching head. For those who are unaware, both the Jaguars and Patriots have gone to the Me-So-Disrespected Card to psych themselves up for this game. Frankly, if there were a way for both teams to lose, I'd be rooting for it. On successive days, I saw Tom Brady declare at a press conference that no one is giving the Patriots the respect they deserve, then Bill Belichick say at a press conference that his team doesn't care what people think of them. A word of advice to the kids out there: If you want to be taken seriously when you say you don't care what other people think, try not to appear so obsessed with what other people think. It's especially grating because I've been saying for weeks that Brady should be a lock for MVP for getting his team through the season on will and arm strength. Now he comes out with this garbage. I don't doubt for a second that the Crybaby Gambit will, in fact, get the Patriots motivated, but in the end it's a loser's tactic. Brady's words can't diminish his accomplishments, but they do diminish him as a person. As for the Jaguars, you knock that sh!t off, too. You haven't beaten anybody of note since October, so of course people are skeptical. Pick: Patriots

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati: Know what's really liberating about no longer having to put my picks up against those of 30 other sites week after week? I can go with the gut and not second-guess. I'm going with Cincinnati here because I want them to win. Oh, and because I think they might win. One and a half out of three ain't bad. Pick: Bengals.

Carolina at New York Giants: Carolina benefited from a schedule packed with NFC North and AFC East rollovers, plus two late games against a Falcons team that was falling apart at just the right time. They picked up 11 wins against a healthy assortment of powderpuffs sprinkled with contenders, but now they have to go into Giants Stadium. People there yell mean things and probably make cracks about NASCAR and bare feet when Southern teams visit. Personal stuff. I don't see it turning out well for Carolina. I know New York is fresh out of linebackers and perilously low on defensive backs. I know Eli Manning cries himself to sleep at night. But the Panthers are down to one offensive weapon, Steve Smith, and everyone knows it. Pick: Giants.

And in case you're wondering: Yes, I do know that Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS disagree with all these picks but Washington-Tampa. Shhhh.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The 10-Win Commandments

But these go to 11, or so they wished

My ears are still ringing from the phony outrage generated by the run-up to the 2004 NFL playoffs, when it appeared that a 7-9 team might make the postseason as an NFC wildcard. When the NFC wildcard slots went instead to two 8-8 stumblebums (Minnesota and St. Louis), the din barely subsided. Fans of slightly less mediocre 9-7 teams from the AFC beat their reedy chests and demanded that the NFL's hugely successful six-teams-per-conference playoff configuration be scrapped so as to prevent any recurrence of this once-in-a-blue-moon travesty. That demand, they rushed to assure us, was rooted in principle rather than their own rooting interest. Ain't it always.

This season, there's a whole new set of complaints. And though the hairshirt is a different color, the cut is the same: "My team didn't make the playoffs, so the system must be flawed." This time around, the leading spokesman for the disgruntled masses(?) is Kansas City Chiefs President Carl Peterson, who believes the playoff field should be expanded from 12 teams to 14 because "it shorts the fans, the franchises and the cities to have teams with successful seasons but still not qualify for the playoffs." And how do we define success? "I don't like it when teams can win 10 games and not make the playoffs."

The Down and Distance research department has compiled the following list of teams that won 10 games this year but did not make the playoffs:
  • Kansas City Chiefs
To be fair (rats!), this is not the first time Peterson has called for the playoffs to be expanded -- but it's certainly the most inopportune time, if he wants to be taken seriously. Even people who might be open to the idea are doing that thing with the eyebrow that makes it obvious they're not buying it.

Going into Sunday's games, the Chiefs needed a win and a Steelers loss to make the playoffs. The Chiefs did their part by beating a Bengals team that had stopped trying before their plane even left Cincinnati, but Pittsburgh wouldn't play along. The Steelers wiped their feet on the Lions to improve to 11-5, claim the final AFC wildcard spot, and send K.C. home with their 10 wins tucked between their legs.

Had the Chiefs finished with 12 wins, they'd have made the playoffs. But they didn't finish with 12 wins, because they blew a 24-7 lead, at home, against the Eagles in Week 4. Had the Chiefs finished with 11 wins, they'd have made the playoffs. But they didn't finish with 11 wins, because they embarrassed themselves in a 14-3 loss to the borderline-awful Buffalo Bills in Week 10. Had they won either of these games, they'd have tied the Steelers at 11-5 and taken the wildcard based on a better record in conference games. Pittsburgh would be done for the year, and Bill Cowher would be at home coming up with adjustments for 2006 (rather than, say, excuses for 2005).

And that's what it always comes down to: You want to make the playoffs? Take care of your own business. Win games against 3-5 chumps like the Bills. Don't play gooey defense on national TV against the Giants. And when 10 wins aren't enough, ask yourself why you couldn't get over the bar. Don't complain that the bar isn't set low enough.

But suppose Peterson gets his wish, and the playoffs expand. That means more 10-win teams in the postseason, right? Let's see. The playoffs went to six teams per conference in 1990. Here are the No. 7 teams from the AFC and NFC since then. Under the Peterson Plan, these are now playoff-caliber teams:

NO. 7

NO. 7

2004Saints 8-8 Jaguars 9-7
2003Vikings 9-7 Dolphins10-6
2002Saints 9-7 Broncos 9-7
2001Redskins 8-8 Seahawks9-7
2000Packers 9-7 Steelers9-7
1999Panthers 9-7 Chiefs 9-7
1998Buccaneers 8-8 Titans 8-8
1997Redskins 8-7-1Jets 9-7
1996Redskins 9-7 Chiefs 9-7
1995Bears 9-7 Seahawks8-8
1994Giants 9-7 Raiders 9-7
1993Eagles 8-8 Dolphins9-7
1992Packers 9-7 Colts 9-7
199149ers 10-6 Dolphins8-8
1990Cowboys 7-9 Seahawks9-7

Remember what a travesty it was last year when two 8-8 teams made the playoffs? The Peterson Plan makes room for seven more, plus one team with eight wins and a tie. Nineteen teams that finished 9-7, which is one good bounce of the ball away from 8-8, also get into the playoffs. Only three 10-6 teams get in, including this year's Chiefs. Unfortunately, they bring a 7-9 team (the 1990 Cowboys) in with them.

Ultimately, the Peterson Plan is a reward for mediocrity. It's social promotion. The NFL, thank goodness, isn't the NBA. It isn't the NHL. You don't get into the NFL playoffs by being slightly better than bad. You don't get into the NFL playoffs by being average. You get into the NFL playoffs by being better than other teams in your division and in your conference. If you can't finish 11-5, if that's what it takes, then you don't deserve to go to the playoffs.

Rose Bowl preevoo

I originally wrote this for TheMirl.com, but it wound up on the cutting-room floor. The question of the week was "Who's going to win the Rose Bowl?"

I was asked the other day, "Who do you like in the Rose Bowl?" And the first thing that popped into my head was: "Not Mack Brown, that's for sure." Which is significant. I never had much of an opinion about the Texas Longhorns, positive or negative, until Brown bitched his way into last year's Rose Bowl. If I'm reading these marketing materials correctly, Texas is supposed to embody the frontier ethos: Ride high in the saddle. Let your guns do the talking. Drink your whiskey without water. Light matches with your teeth. And, as Jim Bowie famously said at the Alamo, "If getting a BCS bid is so important to you, then don't get shut out by Oklahoma." When Brown's team failed to take care of its own business, the coach worked over the voters, complaining, groveling and complaining some more. In Texas they call that "crying like a woman." Or, at least that sounds like the sort of thing they'd say down there.

It worked, and that's how I found myself, oddly, rooting for Michigan, the Longhorns' opponent. I grew up in Minnesota resenting how the Wolverines scaled the heights of college football year after year while the Golden Gophers remained at Smokey Joe Salem's Base Camp with two broken legs. I guess I hated myself as much as Michigan, is what I'm saying. Either way, when a team is so distasteful that it gets me actively rooting for Michigan, you know it's serious business. So I wanted Texas to lose, which of course means they wouldn't. This year, I'm pulling just as hard for Southern Cal.

And that's why Texas is going to win this year's national championship.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Everyone's a winner!

Jim Haslett, you are the weakest link. Goodbye.

The regular season has ended, and now it's time to evaluate the 32 NFL clubs. Doing so is never easy. Crazy things happen over the course of 17 weeks. Teams rise, teams fall, teams win, teams lose. And we at Down and Distance just try to make sense of it all. It's not a hobby so much as a calling. God's work, really.

We can look at the standings. We can look at our exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS. (Say the name. Say it!) We can look hither and yon for clues as to which team is truly the league's best, and yet the truth eludes us for the simple reason that nothing counts -- NOTHING -- except who beat whom on the field of play. I learned this on the World Wide Web.

For example, Seattle beat Indianapolis in Week 16, and thus the Seahawks must be favored to repeat should these teams meet in the Super Bowl. The fact that the Colts didn't play several starters that day does not factor in. Why? Because such considerations are only for the weak. Similarly, should the Seahawks and Giants meet in the playoffs, Seattle must be considered the likely winner. That's because the Seahawks have already beaten the Giants this year. The particulars of that game in Week 12 are irrelevant -- mere trifles for the syphilitic and the feeble-minded. All that matters was two numbers on the scoreboard when the final gun went boom: Home score and Visitor score.

The head-to-head dynamic, though clearly the only sensible way to rank teams, does have its drawbacks. One is that in a given season, any club will play only 13 of the other 31 teams in the league. What do we do when we are trying to compare two teams that have not met? We simply move on to second-degree opponents. Seattle and Kansas City? Well, Seattle beat the Giants, and the Giants beat the Chiefs. Thus Seattle is a better team than Kansas City. If there is no common opponent, we simply move to third-degree opponents: Minnesota beat Cleveland, who beat Tennessee, who beat San Francisco. And so on and so on.

Down and Distance invites you to clip and save the following victory chain. Useful for settling bar disputes, for defusing family quarrels or just as inspirational reading, it is your guide to who is truly better than whom. We start, of course, with the team that has been unfairly labeled the league's worst. As you will see, they actually have beaten every team in the NFL, directly or indirectly. Enjoy, and peace be with you.

Houston beat Cleveland (19-16, in Week 8)
... who beat Chicago (20-10, in Week 5)
... who beat Carolina (13-3, in Week 11)
... who beat Minnesota (38-13, in Week 8)
... who beat Green Bay (23-20 in Week 7)
... who beat Atlanta, 33-25 in Week 10)
... who beat Buffalo (24-16, in Week 3)
... who beat Kansas City (14-3, in Week 10)
... who beat Oakland (27-23 in Week 9)
... who beat Washington, 16-13 in Week 11)
... who beat New York Giants (35-20, in Week 16)
... who beat Denver (24-23, in Week 7)
... who beat New England (28-20, in Week 6)
... who beat New Orleans (24-17, in Week 11)
... who beat New York Jets (21-19, in Week 12)
... who beat Miami (17-7, in Week 2)
... who beat San Diego (23-21, in Week 14)
... who beat Indianapolis (26-17, in Week 15)
... who beat St. Louis (45-28, in Week 6)
... who beat Jacksonville (24-21, in Week 8)
... who beat Seattle (26-14, in Week 1)
... who beat Dallas (13-10, in Week 7)
... who beat Arizona (34-13, in Week 8)
... who beat Philadelphia (27-21, in Week 16)
... who beat San Francisco (42-3, in Week 2)
... who beat Tampa Bay (15-10, in Week 8)
... who beat Detroit (17-13, in Week 4)
... who beat Baltimore (35-17, in Week 5)
... who beat Pittsburgh (16-13, in Week 11)
... who beat Cincinnati (27-13, in Week 7)
... who beat Tennessee (31-23, in Week 6)
... who beat Houston (13-10, in Week 14)

Week 17 recap

Now, I'm hardly an expert on playoff strategy. My only NFL experience was four games as interim head coach of the 5-11 San Diego Chargers in 1998. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder (aloud) about the wisdom of going into the last game of the season fully intending not only to lose, but to have your ass handed to you with Isotoner gloves. I'm not saying I know that being blown out 37-3 isn't the best way to begin a Super Bowl run, but it certainly looks that way from up here in the ivory tower.

As Week 17 landed on us like a heavy lourde, seven teams had locked in their playoff positions: Indianapolis, Denver, Cincinnati, New England, Jacksonville, Seattle and Chicago. It has become fairly common for teams in such a position to play the final game of the regular season at half-speed, as staying healthy for the playoffs takes precedence over putting one more tick mark in the W column. This year's Week 17 shoo-ins followed this strategy to varying degrees:
  • Indianapolis sat most of its starters for nearly the entire game. Had Arizona's Josh McCown not fumbled at the goal line in the closing seconds, the Colts would have gone into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.
  • Denver played its first-team offense for the whole first half and left many of its defensive starters on the field the whole game. The Broncos wrapped up the season with a convincing 23-7 victory over the Chargers and now cruise into the postseason having won four straight and eight of nine.
  • Cincinnati took it easy against a Kansas City team going hell-for-leather trying to make the playoffs. The Bengals lost by five touchdowns.
  • New England, showing as little interest in the No. 3 seed as Cincinnati did, sat pretty much everybody and was almost defiant in its willingness to lose. Yet the Patriots still nearly beat a Miami team that was going all-out.
  • Jacksonville played a lot of second- and third-stringers and still dismantled Tennessee, which checked out about 10 minutes into the game.
  • Seattle, playing in Green Bay, took a dive as soon as Shaun Alexander had his records. With half an effort, the Seahawks could easily have blown the Packers into Lake Michigan, and everyone knew it.
  • Chicago double-checked Kyle Orton and were reassured that he is, in fact, a disaster as the Bears fell behind 27-3 at Minnesota. Just for kicks, they let Jeff Blake play in the fourth quarter, and he promptly went 7-of-8 for 44 yards and a touchdown. Which just confirms that playing Orton this year was a completely needless exercise.
What I took away from the weekend was that the Colts and Bengals are in serious trouble. When Indianapolis next takes the field, in the divisional round, it will have been a month since the Colts last played anything resembling a complete game. You don't take four weeks off and still win a Super Bowl. As for Cincinnati, after being humiliated by the Bills last week, the Bengals needed to demonstrate that they can play sharp, even if for only one series. They didn't do that, so you can pencil them in as losers at home next week. The Bears also could have benefited from a strong showing in defeat, but instead they looked awful and will trust Rex Grossman to get them to the Super Bowl with exactly six quarters of game experience in the past year.

On the other end of the losing-by-design spectrum, neither the Patriots nor the Seahawks tried to win, but both made it clear that they could have won at any moment if they'd bothered to put their starters back in.

All of this just leads up to my buried lede, which is the fact that I went an atrocious 8-8 in my Week 17 picks. It wasn't the worst showing in the pool, but it was close. (Nevertheless, I finished tied for a respectable fifth among the 30 or so folks taking part.) Why'd I do so poorly this week? I had assumed that the Bengals would lay down for the Chiefs, and they did, but I also assumed that the Broncos would take the day off, too. They didn't. The Chargers came into the game with "something to prove" -- and they proved something, all right. I thought there was no way Seattle would lose to Green Bay (wrong) and felt that Chicago had to give Grossman more behind-the-wheel training (wrong). I was wrong about New England, right about Jacksonville and wrong but ultimately right about Indy. I hate it when teams give up on the season, whatever the reason.

Four teams came into Week 17 knowing that a win would put them in the playoffs. I picked all of them to win, and they did: Pittsburgh, Tampa, Carolina and Washington. I also expected the Giants to win on the road in Oakland to lock up the NFC East title and a home playoff game. They did.

Because so many games had no bearing on the playoff picture, giving them an unpredictable anything-goes quality, I've indicated which games mattered in the playoff chase at the time they were played. Thus, St. Louis-Dallas gets a "No," because Dallas had been eliminated earlier in the day, while Cincinnati-Kansas City gets a "yes" because the Chiefs were still in the hunt at kickoff. Get it? Good. Let us never speak of this again.

New York Giants over Oakland: As the game wore on, it became increasingly clear that the Giants desperately needed to win. A loss would have given Washington the inside track for the division title, and the home playoff game that went with it. The Giants, as Saturday's game showed, are nothing special on the road. They let the Raiders stay in this one far, far too long -- and, man, is Eli Manning a jumpy little spud or what? Holy moly. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Tampa Bay over New Orleans: Speaking of letting the other guy hang around too long. You're at home against a team that would probably need its collective gold-painted head examined if it hadn't quit on the season. If Saints QB Todd Bouman doesn't fumble in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers might be holding their final team meeting today. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Carolina over Atlanta: Combined record of the teams the Falcons beat this year: 44-84 (.344). Combined record of the teams the Falcons lost to this year: 82-46 (.641). You could spin this a couple of ways. One way is to say, disingenuously, that the Falcons had a schedule stacked with playoff teams. Another way is to say the Falcons can only beat bad teams and always lose to good ones. Guess which way I'm going. And that business about how the Falcons have 0wn3d the Panthers? Turns out it was just a scheduling quirk. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Indianapolis over Arizona: Ugly. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Kansas City over Cincinnati: Though the Bengals took off their clothes and lay face-down at midfield, the Chiefs should be credited for taking care of business with gusto. Too bad it was too late. I'll always remember this game as a clash between two teams that let the sclerotic Bills ruin their seasons. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Pittsburgh over Detroit: The No. 6 seed never wins anything, and the Steelers always collapse in the postseason, but no team has as much steam in its head going into the playoffs. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Jacksonville over Tennessee: An old-school ass-kicking gives Jacksonville momentum heading into the playoffs. Yet, the inevitable and insipid who-should-be-the-quarterback-in-the-playoffs questions should bleed away a healthy share of that same Big Mo'. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Washington over Philadelphia: Having lived in the D.C. area for eight years, I know enough about the Redskins to know that their fans have been living these past three weeks with a half-formed nightmare floating below the surface of their consciousness. In it, the Redskins blow out Dallas, dominate the Giants, then go into Philadelphia and take a dump in their own pants. And for most of the first half Sunday, that nightmare was punching through into our world. But then the real Mike McMahon stood up, then the real Koy Detmer. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

San Diego over Denver: The Broncos had already locked in their playoff position, and thus had "nothing to play for." The Chargers had already been eliminated but still had two things to motivate them: (1) Pride, and (2) Tiebreaker rules that would have allowed them to knock the rival Chiefs out of the playoffs with a win. Lack of (1) prevented them from making good on (2). Further, we learned from this game that Philip Rivers is just as capable as Drew Brees of fumbling the ball in the end zone. Decision time in San Diego! (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

New England over Miami: If Bill Belichick was going to throw the game anyway, the least he could have done was put Doug Flutie in there for more than a dropkick. Maybe a few series in front of the hometown fans. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Baltimore over Cleveland: Hey, it's Kyle Boller! We've been looking for you, man! Where've you been? Two weeks ago, I picked the Packers to beat the Ravens, and Boller played like Marino. One week ago, I picked the Vikings to beat the Ravens, and Boller played like Elway. Chastened, this week I picked the Ravens to beat the Browns, and Boller played like Bradshaw. Carrie Bradshaw. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Seattle over Green Bay: I don't know whether this was Brett Favre's last game. But Seattle -- led by Favre's former coach and his former backup quarterback -- rolled over less than halfway through, and the Packers still struggled to win. The whole thing reeked of pity, and seeing Favre's stats thrown up on TV as if he'd played lights-out against anyone other than scrubs was just ... sad. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Buffalo over New York Jets: Kelly Holcomb threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, and he fumbled the ball twice. "Everything you can do, J.P. Losman, I can do better." Now Buffalo has a quarterback controversy. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Houston over San Francisco: What's worse than 60 minutes of miserable football between two horrid teams? Seventy-one minutes of miserable football between two horrid teams. David Carr and the Texans have endured their most brutal season yet, but there is one silver lining for Carr (for any quarterback, really): As long as Tony Banks is your backup, your job is safe. We all know whose job isn't safe: Dom Capers'. When you're 2-13, you've got to beat the 3-12 teams. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Chicago over Minnesota: Then again, even if Houston had won, Capers' job wouldn't have been safe. Look at what happened to Minnesota coach Mike Tice after the Vikings "beat" a good team "convincingly." All I'm going to say about Chicago is that the 1985 Bears wrapped up home field advantage weeks before the end of the season, yet they still played their starters and blew out their opponents. The 2005 version just threw out any chance it had at defensive immortality. Down and Distance's 2005 Bears vs. 1985 Bears Season Tracker has been updated here. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Dallas over St. Louis: Once Washington beat Philadelphia, the Cowboys had nothing to play for, and you could tell. They put up a pretty good fight for a bunch of guys who'd just been kicked in the crotch, but still. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

SEASON: 172-84

Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS are the most accurate assessment of team strength available on the Internet, Ethernet, ARPANET, Aqua Net or any other -net. Honed by master mathematicians, lauded by football enthusiasts, the formula behind them predicted 10 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners, and 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the POW-R-'ANKINGS system. Get it? I mean, spaceships go to the moon with wider error margins than this. If Galileo or Copernicus had had science like this on his side, he'd have been Pimp No. 1 for all time. Unlike with other, lesser rating systems, no opinion is involved in formulating these rankings. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. (Key: FIN = Final ranking. W16 = Last week's ranking. PWR = POW-R centigrade score. REC. = Final record. P? = In playoffs?)
1 1 Colts 100.00 14-2 Y
2 2 Seahawks 94.76 13-3 Y
3 5 Broncos 87.56 13-3 Y
4 7 Panthers 86.36 11-5 Y
5 3 Steelers 86.26 11-5 Y
6 8 Giants 76.36 11-5 Y
7 10Jaguars 76.24 12-4 Y
8 6 Chargers 76.09 9-7
9 4 Bears 72.60 11-5 Y
1014Chiefs 69.33 10-6
1111Redskins 68.28 10-6 Y
129 Bengals 66.66 11-5 Y
1313Patriots 60.46 10-6 Y
1416Buccaneers58.35 11-5 Y
1515Cowboys 55.08 9-7
1612Falcons 52.87 8-8
1717Dolphins 50.59 9-7
1821Vikings 39.93 9-7
1918Ravens 39.61 6-10
2019Packers 37.59 4-12
2120Rams 35.51 6-10
2223Cardinals 30.98 5-11
2322Eagles 30.47 6-10
2427Browns 27.32 6-10
2524Raiders 25.77 4-12
2628Bills 23.59 5-11
2725Lions 23.34 5-11
2826Titans 20.22 4-12
2929Jets 15.99 4-12
3031Texans 6.37 2-14
3130Saints 4.59 3-13
323249ers 0.00 4-12

Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): Bears, Bengals, Patriots*. Teams previously eliminated: Texans, Titans, Packers, Saints, 49ers, Jets, Bills, Ravens, Browns, Vikings, Cardinals, Dolphins, Raiders, Lions, Eagles, Rams, Redskins, Steelers, Cowboys, Falcons, Chiefs, Chargers, Buccaneers, Giants, Panthers.

Teams in the Super Bowl championship hunt: Colts, Seahawks, Broncos, Jaguars..

*The Patriots proved in 2001 that they can win the Super Bowl as an 11-5 team, but only one 10-6 team has ever been crowned NFL champion: the 1988 San Francisco 49ers. If any team can match that feat, it's the Patriots. But as it stands, New England has met our criteria for elimination. Sorry.