Sunday, January 21, 2007

We're down to these two?

Indianapolis 38, New England 34
Straight-up pick: Patriots. Straight-up winner: Colts.
Point spread pick: Patriots (+3). Point spread winner: Colts.

Back in January 2005, in just the second posting on Down and Distance, I prophesied that Peyton Manning would one day beat the New England jinx the same way that Brett Favre beat his Dallas jinx in the mid-'90s: He would conquer his demons by avoiding them. (Favre's Packers were bounced from the playoffs by the Cowboys for three straight years. Then, in 1996, the Cowboys lost to the Panthers in the playoffs, the Packers beat the Panthers, and Green Bay went on to win the Super Bowl.) Turns out I was wrong. When the Colts beat the Pats head to head on Sunday, Manning was following the lead not of Favre, but of Steve Young, whose 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game to the Cowboys after the 1992 and '93 seasons before finally turning the tables in 1994. Regardless, Sunday's AFC Championship Game was the best game of the year and the best NFL game since Super Bowl XXXVIII. Had Tom Brady actually led the Patriots to a touchdown in the final minute, like we all assumed he would, it would have gone down as among the greatest ever. Oh well. Stil a hell of a game. One of the storylines in the past week was that several Patriots were suffering from the flu. Truth, or managing expectations? After the game, I read message board postings from a couple Patriots fans mentioning the flu, and I wonder if there will be more. Imagine what Colts fans would be accused of if they were to suggest thir team lost because players were sick.

Chicago 39, New Orleans 14
Straight-up pick: Bears. Straight-up winner: Bears.
Point spread pick: Bears (-2.5). Point spread winner: Bears.

Shit. You realize what this means, don't you? Jim Belushi, the weakest excuse for a celebrity this country has produced in the past 20, 30 years, will inexplicably get national media face time to fellate his beloved Bears. Jim Belushi is a scumbag, a reprobate, a waste of human skin. He isn't funny, isn't charming, isn't talented. He's coasted for a quarter-century on the name of his dead brother. His entire career is the product of inertia. His movies are awful, but never so awful that people stop giving him roles. His TV series is so banal, so inconsequential, so meaningless that it's patently offensive. He's a failed human being and a disgrace to his family, his city, his country. You expect me to say something about the Bears-Saints game? Please.

Playoff picks performance

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Spurrier vs. Saban: The back-to-school boys

One's a rube and a boob. The other's a scum and a bum.

Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban. Both won major college football's hypothetical national championship, and both were the hottest thing on campus since Pauly Shore (don't act like you don't remember). Both were heavily courted by NFL teams. Both received Oprah-league money to bolt for the pros. And both went scampering back to the college game, their shorts torn and streaked with brown, after two middling-to-dismal seasons on the Sunday sidelines.

Spurrier and Saban arrived in Washington and Miami, respectively, with big aspirations and big talk but tiny little game plans. They were given the keys to beloved franchises, got them up to about 35 mph and then drove them straight off a high, proud cliff, the horn blaring all the way down. It wasn't pretty in either city, but which man did the most damage to his team? Which coach did the most to cripple the organization, humiliate the owner and alienate the fans? We've had three years to evaluate the aftermath of the Spurrier Experiment but just days to gauge the Saban fallout. No matter. At Down and Distance, we make our snap judgments at Internet speed. Let's review:

    Spurrier had famously "won everywhere he'd coached," first with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL, then with, of all teams, Duke, whom he led to the ACC title in 1989. (The ACC of the '80s, however, didn't have Miami, Florida State, Virginia Tech or Boston College. It was a basketball conference first, second and third. And maybe a soccer conference fourth. Winning the ACC football championship back then was like winning the Big Ten swimming title: Hey, good for you, but no one besides the student newspaper and your grandma is going to notice.) From Duke, Spurrier moved on to his alma mater, Florida, where he rebuilt a scandal-tarred program and won five SEC titles, plus the 1996 national championship.
    Saban's propensity for job-hopping gave him the opportunity to enjoy success in all sorts of places -- though that success was frequently of the "shared" variety. And as my great-uncle, The Colonel, used to tell me during calisthenics every day at dawn, shared success is individual failure. Saban was the coach at Toledo when it shared the MAC title in 1990. He was on Bill Belichick's staff in Cleveland in the mid-'90s. Saban then went to Michigan state for five years. The first four years, his teams finished 6-5-1, 6-6, 7-5 and 6-6. In the fifth year, he went 9-2 and immediately bolted for a better job before the Spartans had even played their bowl game. That job was at LSU, where he won two SEC titles and a share of the 2003 national championship (Southern Cal won the AP title). After five years at LSU, that was enough of that, thankyouverymuch, and he once again jumped ship before his team had even played its bowl game.
    •Who did the most damage? The sins a coach commits in his previous life usually have very little practical effect on his next job. Spurrier's relentless baiting of Tennessee while at Florida, for example, didn't affect how he coached with the Redskins. But Saban's sketchy work history opened the Dolphins up to the what-the-hell-did-you-expect variety of ridicule that rained down on them when he packed up for Alabama. So the answer is Saban

    Spurrier climbed aboard a Redskins franchise that had been lying in its own filth for a decade. Operating under the influence of Norv Turner, Washington had made the playoffs just once in the 10 seasons since winning Super Bowl XXVI. In a desperate attempt to demonstrate to everyone in Washington that he really could keep from meddling with the football operation, owner Dan Snyder coaxed Marty Schottenheimer out of retirement and gave him total control of the team, including personnel matters. Schottenheimer, however, soon found that the roster was loaded with uncuttable, overpaid and over-the-hill free agents unimpressed with his old-school, medicine-balls-and-blocking-sleds style (Deion Sanders retired rather than play for him). The 2001 season started with a training-camp revolt over Marty's beloved Oklahoma Drill, and the Redskins lost their first five games. The players finally rolled over and asked Schottenheimer nicely to knock it off with the windsprints and the jumping jacks and the hey-hey-hey, and he dialed it back, and the team finished 8-3 and appeared ready to go on to great things in 2002. Then Snyder heard that Spurrier was looking for an NFL job, and he gladly ate the last four years and $20 million on Marty's contract. Schottenheimer moved on to San Diego, where he coached the Chargers to a 14-2 record this year. Oh sure, Marty has had a lot of trouble in the playoffs over the years, but do you know how we know that? Because his teams make the playoffs.
    Saban joined the Dolphins as they were coming off a 4-12 season, their worst since Don Shula took over as coach in 1970 -- and only the fourth losing season in that stretch. Miami had been looking for the right coach ever since Shula retired after the 1995 season. First, owner Wayne Huizenga lured Jimmy Johnson back to Miami, where he'd had so much success as a college coach with the Hurricanes before going on the build a Super Bowl winner in Dallas. Palpably unhappy working in Shula's shadow, Johnson spat out three progressively better but still mediocre seasons -- 8-8, 9-7, 10-6 -- before trying to quit in 1999. Huizenga persuaded him to stay and encouraged him to bring aboard his old assistant and buddy Dave Wannstedt, who had just been canned by the Bears after six crummy seasons in Chicago. With Wannstedt as his "assistant head coach," a newly re-energized Johnson ... went 9-7 and quit anyway. Wannstedt, who had been hired as a courtesy to Johnson, not for his head coaching acumen, woke up one day and found himself the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Wannstedt enjoyed a couple nifty 11-5 seasons with the team Johnson had put together, but the thing eventually started to come apart. In 2004, the Dolphins started 1-8, and Wannstedt's head had to roll. Interim coach Jim Bates finished the year a decent 3-4 but didn't get a sniff at the top job because Huizenga was in Baton Rouge throwing pebbles at Saban's bedroom window in the middle of the night.
    •Who did the most damage? The Redskins had been spinning their wheels for years and had finally gotten some traction under Schottenheimer. The Dolphins had enjoyed decades of success but had suddenly plunged into the abyss. Despite all the damage Spurrier did, the Redskins were back in the playoffs within two years of his departure. There's nothing that says the Dolphins won't recover just as quickly. But there's nothing right now that says they can, either. Saban

    Spurrier pretended that everybody in the press loved him -- and they responded by loving him for real. When pressed for details about how he was going to beat, say, the Eagles (or "the Green Team," as he memorably called them after one loss), he'd hem and haw and wink and grin and bake up some half-assed cornpone about coaching 'em up and running 'em out there. Fans and reporters, thankful that Schottenheimer wasn't behind the mike threatening to send them to bed without supper any more, ate it up for a good long while. When it eventually came time for Spurrier to go, the media gave him a rhetorical parachute and concluded, "As swell as he was, the old ball coach just didn't have what it takes for the NFL." A lot of coaches on their way out get far worse.
    Saban acted as if everybody in the press hated him -- and he hated them right back. When pressed for inconsequential details like "Who's going to be your quarterback this Sunday?" or "So what's with your agent trying to find you another job?", Saban would roll his eyes and sigh in exasperation and all but demand to know what dipshit gave Rain Man over there a press pass. Saban didn't even bother to mask his contempt for just about everyone except, funny enough, Ricky Williams. Nick Saban likes no one. You? No, Nick Saban doesn't like you, either.
    • Who did the most damage? Saban

    Spurrier inherited a team without a starting quarterback. In 2001, Redskins fans had been treated to the preposterous spectacle of Jeff George trying to run Marty Schottenheimer's offense, an experiment that was abandoned after just two weeks when George was waived, ending his career. The Skins then rode out the season on the weary legs of Tony Banks. That in itself was reason for optimism, as the two previous teams to replace Banks as their starting quarterback had gone on to win the Super Bowl: the Rams (with Trent Green and, ultimately, Kurt Warner) in 1999, and the Ravens (with Trent Dilfer) in 2000. The Redskins didn't have a quarterback named Trent, but they did have one named Sage -- Iowa State alumnus Sage Rosenfels, the QB on Mrs. Down and Distance's dream team, who had been Marty's rather surprising fourth-round pick in his one draft with the team. (Schottenheimer clearly made the pick with an eye toward the future. You just don't do that on Planet Snyder.) Spurrier, of course, cut Rosenfels' ass with a quickness, earning Mrs. Down and Distance's eternal enmity, and brought in two guys who had done wonders in his Fun 'n' Gun system at Florida but next to nothing of consequence in the NFL: Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews. The thinking was that since the "Florida guys" already knew the Fun 'n' Gun, they could hit the ground running. They hit the ground, all right. Hard. Just for kicks, the Redskins went ahead and drafted Patrick Ramsey in the first round(!) in 2002, but Ramsey would get about as fair a shake under Spurrier as he would later get under Joe Gibbs. By 2003, Wuerffel and Matthews were both gone, and the Redskins fielded an ugly two-and-one-quarter-headed monster of Ramsey, Tim Hasselbeck and future NFL Europe legend Gibran Hamdan. Midway through the '03 season, with everything falling down around him, Spurrier tried to lure Wuerffel back to D.C., but Danny, wisely, said no thanks. Everyone except Spurrier, it seems, had given up on Danny Wuerffel -- including Danny Wuerffel.
    Saban also inherited a team without a marquee quarterback. The Dolphins had A.J. Feeley, who had looked good in five games with the Eagles in 2002 and lousy everywhere else ever since, and they had Sage Rosenfels. Rather than give Sage a legitimate shot, Saban went out and got Gus Frerotte, who had been around forever, played for half the teams in the league, even made the Pro Bowl once, but still is remembered mostly for head-butting a concrete wall and injuring his neck in 1997. Frerotte handled the bulk of the QB duties in 2005 but didn't exactly set the league on fire, so in the offseason the Dolphins went shopping for a new guy to call signals. There were three guys available with considerable experience as an NFL starter: Drew Brees, Daunte Culpepper and Joey Harrington. Hedging his bets, Saban signed not one but two of the three. The odd man out, Brees, guided the Saints to the playoffs and will start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl. Culpepper's knee turned out to be too damaged for him to play effectively, and Harrington's psyche was so damaged it's surprising he could play at all. To make room for these two retreads on the roster, Saban cut whom? Sage Rosenfels. Mrs. Down and Distance doesn't even know who Nick Saban is, but rest assured, she despises him by proxy. Gary Kubiak, if you know what's good for you, you'll give Sage the ball in '07.
    •Who did the most damage? In fairness to Saban, there were plenty of people who thought taking Culpepper over Brees was the smart choice. With another year to rehab the knee, Culpepper may still come back strong in 2007. Spurrier's QB decisions, however, were ridiculous. Wuerffel and Matthews were washed up before they ever saw Washington. (Also: To get Wuerffel, a quarterback no one wanted, the Redskins had to work out a trade with Houston. That's because the Texans claimed him from the Bears in the 2002 expansion draft specifically because they knew Spurrier would want him.) Ramsey, meanwhile, is one of the great, unrecognized wasted draft picks of the 21st century. Why take a QB in the first round if you have no intention of playing him? Verdict: Spurrier

    Spurrier kicked off his tenure in Washington with a rootin' tootin' executin' 31-23 victory that had the Fun 'n' Gun on full display. Matthews was 28-of-40 for 327 yards and 3 touchdowns of 17, 26 and 43 yards. Stephen Davis ran for 104 yards. All D.C. was in thrall, hailing the brilliance of Spurrier's hiring. Week 1 of the 2002 season was such a feel-good time in the lives of the Redskins faithful, in fact, that few had the heart to dwell on the fact that the opponent had been the decrepit Arizona Cardinals. Only twice in the next 31 games would the Redskins score as many points as they did that week. The team -- and the city -- came crashing back to earth over the next two weeks with a 37-7 undressing at the hands of the Green Team and a 20-10 loss to the 49ers, who were enjoying their last good season before descending into madness. The Skins rose from the ashes in Week 4 to beat Tennessee 31-14. From there, the roller coaster was off and running: two more wins, two losses, one win and three losses before closing out the season with wins over Houston, an expansion team, and Dallas, which desperately needed a loss to wrap up its third straight 5-11 season under Dave Campo, the coach who famously demonstrated to Jerry Jones that, no, just anyone can't coach this team. The season-ending win, their first over the Cowboys since 1997, gave the Redskins a respectable 7-9 record and had visions of the Super Bowl dancing in the heads of folks from Richmond to Hagerstown. As the team looked forward to 2003, it was decided that the problem wasn't Spurrier's high-powered offense, which was producing a whopping 19 points per game, but the defense, which was allowing 23. So Snyder did what Snyder does and waved seven figures at Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who gladly took the money to move down I-95 for a year while he sent out resumes. 2003 started even more auspiciously with wins over the Jets and Falcons, two playoff teams from the year before (both would turn out to be awful in '03, though). After a close loss to the Giants, the Redskins turned in their finest game of the Spurrier era: a 20-17 victory over the Patriots. It was the last game New England would lose for more than a year. It was the last game Washington would win for more than a month. After starting 3-1, the Redskins finished 2-10. There were a lot of close losses (27-25, 24-23, 24-20, 20-17 and 27-24 to the Saints, whose workaholic coach Spurrier had famously ridiculed) and a few not-so-close losses (35-13, 24-7), and as they piled up, Spurrier looked more and more distracted on the sidelines. In the final weeks, as they were getting blown out 27-0 by Dallas and 31-7 to Philadelphia, he appeared disconnected entirely. When the damage was totaled up, Spurrier's offense had dropped to 18 points per game, and the defense hadn't made any progress. Nobody held that against Lewis -- who can succeed with the Redskins, after all? -- and Marvin was soon gone to Cincinnati. Spurrier? He went golfing.
    Saban also began his NFL tenure with a win, a considerably more impressive 34-10 thrashing of the Denver Broncos, who would go on to finish 13-3 and reach the AFC title game. A 17-7 loss in Week 2 to the Jets, who were still one game away from losing Chad Pennington, was followed by another impressive win, 27-24 over perennial preseason darling Carolina. The Dolphins at that point were 2-1, already halfway to their win total from 2004. Everything was looking up! Then they started losing. To Buffalo, to Tampa Bay, to K.C., to Atlanta. Miami lost six of its next seven, hitting bottom with a 22-0 loss to a Cleveland team on the verge of benching its starting QB. Everything was looking bleak! Then they started winning. Miami reeled off six straight victories to end the season, making the Dolphins a fashionable pick to end New England's AFC East dominance in 2006 -- and maybe even reach the Super Bowl. But look at who they beat in those six games: Oakland, who would finish 4-12; Buffalo (5-11); San Diego (9-7, but falling apart in the homestretch); the Jets (3-13); Tennessee (4-12); and a New England team, gunning for the No. 6 playoff seed, that started its third-string QB and sent Doug Flutie out to kick an extra point. Facts be damned, all anyone saw was a six-game winning streak and a 9-7 record. That, coupled with the addition of Culpepper and his 1.3 functioning knees, had South Florida high on more than just the usual cocaine when the Dolphins appeared in the '06 season opener against the Steelers. Sure, they lost, but come on, it was the defending Super Bowl champions, in Pittsburgh. A loss like that is forgivable. A loss like they suffered the following week, 16-6 to the motley Bills, was not. Nor were the four straight losses they suffered, starting with a 17-15 embarrassment at the hands of the Texans in Week 4. Seven games into the season, the Dolphins were 1-6, that one win a 13-10 squeaker over the Kerry Collins-led Titans. Saban had given up on Culpepper by this point and put the offense in the hands of Harrington and running back Ronnie Brown. Brown's breakout game -- and the signature victory of the Saban-era Dolphins -- came against previously unbeaten Chicago in Week 9. Brown ran for 157 yards on 29 carries, Harrington threw three TDs, and the defense picked off Rex Grossman three times as the Dolphins stunned the Bears, 31-13. Beginning with the Bears game, Miami won five of six to climb back into playoff contention. But the final game of that stretch, a convincing 21-0 thumping of the Patriots, was followed a week later by a 21-0 thumping at the hands of the Bills. Needing to win their final three to have a shot at the postseason, the Dolphins lost all three to end up 6-10, and the city of Miami turned its attention to 2007: Who would be the new coach? Saban had spent weeks denying that he was headed elsewhere, but by Week 17, everyone knew he was lying.
    •Who did the most damage? The entire modern history of the Redskins has been one mediocre/bad season after another. From Gibbs' departure in 1993 until his return in 2004, the Skins were 4-12, 3-13, 6-10, 9-7, 8-7-1, 6-10, 10-6, 8-8, 8-8, 7-9 and 5-11. Spurrier was just keeping with tradition. The Dolphins, however, hadn't had a losing season in 16 years before 2004. Saban got them another one in just two years! Saban

    Spurrier's fading interest in his grand NFL misadventure was evident long before the sand ran out on the 2003 season. Everyone in town knew he was going to be gone, and though there was considerable affection for the old fool, no one was particularly upset about his imminent departure. The only questions were: A) Would he quit, or would Snyder fire him? B) Would he return to the University of Florida, whose program his successor, Ron Zook, was plowing into the ground? C) After putting all his eggs in Spurrier's basket, what the fuck was Snyder going to do now? Three days after the season ended, we had the answer to A: The team announced that Spurrier had resigned. However, when The Washington Post called him on his cellphone out on the golf course, Spurrier, delightfully, denied knowin' anything 'bout no resignation. "We had a little miscommunication there," he told AP. Just one?
    Saban, of course, pulled the ripcord almost as soon as the final whistle sounded on the 2006 season, bolting to Alabama for upwards of $30 million. Less than a week before abandoning ship, he told reporters, "I'm not going be the Alabama coach." That was a lie, but so what? Coaches lie all the time. Especially college coaches, when they're telling somebody's son that he'll get a good education or a starting slot or whatever. The lying isn't so much the problem. This is the problem: "I'm not talking about any of that stuff," Saban huffed when reporters followed up on the news. "And I'd appreciate the courtesy of not being asked." In other words, Saban was chastising the media for being so rude as to catch him in his manly web of lies. Fuck you, Nick Saban. Later, it came out that Saban's agent had been soliciting interest from colleges in the middle of the 2006 season, indicating Saban had every intention of splitting. Fuck you twice, Nick Saban.
    •Who did the most damage? Like you have to ask. Saban

    Spurrier took a year off from coaching and remained in the Washington area while his son finished high school in Northern Virginia. The fact that he didn't jump immediately to another job helped soften local opinion toward him: He hadn't walked out on the Redskins; their parting was by mutual consent. Spurrier's name came up at Florida when the Gators finally made Captain Zook walk the plank, but he soon asked that his name be taken out of consideration after UF's athletic director (allegedly) asked him to send a resume. (His response: Look in your trophy case.) The Florida job went to Urban Meyer, who seems to be doing all right with it. Spurrier eventually took the head coaching job at South Carolina. After nearly drowning in Washington, it's got to be a hell of a relief to be a big fish in a relatively small pond again. As for the Redskins, the day after Spurrier resigned, Snyder's plane was at the airport in Charlotte, and within a week Washington's insane little owner was pulling what absolutely has to be the last fucking rabbit out of his hat: Joe Gibbs was returning to the Redskins. Steve who?
    Saban left the Dolphins for Alabama. Could things possibly get worse for Miami? Yeah, they could get Alabama's crappy coach in return. Mike Shula, son of Dolphins legend Don Shula and the coach Saban is replacing with the Crimson Tide, has reportedly interviewed for the job. Mike Shula went 26-23 in four years at Alabama, raising the question: How did he get to hang around for four years with a record like that? What other winners are they going to interview, David Shula?
    •Who did the most damage? Three years later, Redskins fans can barely remember that anybody besides Gibbs coached the team between 1993 and 2004. The Dolphins, meanwhile, are stuck with an abandoned rebuilding project, their owner has been publicly humiliated, and Miami sports fans who gave Saban the benefit of the doubt for two years woke up to find they had been both lied and condescended to. Unless Huizenga can somehow pry Don Shula's skinny ass out of the steakhouse, this debacle will long linger in the Miami mind. Is there really any question? Saban

Saban 6, Spurrier 1

BE SURE TO CHECK BACK WITH US in January 2009, when we look back on Bobby Petrino's disastrous two-year tenure with the Falcons.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Four on the floor

Indianapolis 15, Baltimore 6
Straight-up pick: Ravens. Straight-up winner: Colts.
Point spread pick: Colts (+4). Point spread winner: Colts.

Last week, unemployed placekicker Mike Vanderjagt sat at his home in ... I don't know, Canada or somewhere ... and watched as the Dallas Cowboys, the team that cut him midway through the season, played the Seattle Seahawks in the wildcard round of the playoffs. As Martin Grammatica, who replaced Vanderjagt as the Cowboys' kicker, lined up to try the go-ahead field goal with a little over a minute left, Vanderjagt thought to himself, "That could have been me out there, in position to be the hero." (OK, I don't know that for a fact, but it stands to reason.) When Tony Romo subsequently fumbled the snap, picked up the ball and made a desperate dash for the goal line, only to be brought down by Seattle defender Jordan Babineaux, whom Grammatica could have blocked but didn't, Vanderjagt thought to himself, "I could have sprung him, and I'd have been the hero, even without making a kick." Then he threw his liquor glass at the TV, but it went wide right

It didn't get any better for Vanderjagt on Saturday, as the Indianapolis Colts, the team that let him go to the Cowboys as a free agent, played the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs. The underdog Colts beat the Ravens on the road thanks to five field goals from another guy who replaced Vanderjagt, Adam Vinatieri. As Vinatieri, who's never been perfect, except when the game is on the line, nailed the fifth to put the game out of reach, CBS cameras caught a jubilant Tony Dungy saying "Money! Money! Money!" It was almost exactly one year ago that Vanderjagt, who was always perfect except when the game was on the line, badly missed the tying FG against the Steelers, and the CBS cameras caught a disgusted Peyton Manning saying "He missed it." It hasn't been a good month to be Mike Vanderjagt. But when has it, really?

I'm talking about kickers because what else can you say about this game? Peyton Manning threw two picks, and would have had four if Ray Lewis' fingers were 2 inches shorter. (Manning has played so poorly in the playoffs that even his fans are dragging out the "stats-are-overrated-and-he-just-wins-games" crutch.) Steve McNair, brought in as the Ravens' QB because Kyle Boller made costly turnovers and couldn't sustain drives, made costly turnovers and couldn't sustain drives. The Ravens, like the Chiefs last week, didn't even test the Colts' pathetic run defense, even when they were down by less than a touchdown. The Ravens had all sorts of self-conscious signage all over the stadium ("18 WILL ALWAYS BE LESS THAN 19") that just highlighted how badly the city needs to get over it. And Dan Dierdorf finished the year the way he began it: Screaming about something. Doesn't really matter what.

New England 24, San Deigo 21
Straight-up pick: Patriots. Straight-up winner: Patriots.
Point spread pick: Patriots (+5). Point spread winner: Patriots.

I have to admit that I was rooting for the Chargers here, just because I prefer my storylines relatively fresh. "Either Manning or Schottenheimer Is Finally Going to Make the Super Bowl" would have been a little trite, but it was thoroughly preferable to yet another week of canned Brady-vs.-Manning hysteria. But that's neither here nor there. Tom Brady engineered another last-minute come-from-tied drive, this time made possible by a heapin' helpin' of San Diego-Style I(nco)mpotence: Phillip Rivers throwing the weirdest Eephus interception in NFL history. Marlon McCree grabbing a critical interception but fumbling it away by dancing in traffic rather than getting his fool ass down to the turf. A head-butting penalty! And much, much more!

I'm a-gonna say something here that relates to Brady but isn't actually about Brady. The fact that Tom Brady is now 12-1 in playoff games does not make him a great quarterback. Tom Brady is 12-1 in playoff games because he's a great quarterback. There's an essential difference, one that your basic TV commentators will never get their heads around. In the week leading up to the divisional round, how many times did we hear one blow-dry or another explain that they were picking the Patriots over the Chargers because "You can't argue with 11-1!" As if 11-1 is some twinkly talisman that Brady and Belichick can wave in their opponents' faces just before game time. As if their victories, year after year, with an ever-changing cast, are the result of magic and mythos rather than preparation and execution. As if they don't beat their opponents, but their opponents beat themselves. (Though Sunday's win was a little of both.) To hype 11-1, or 12-1, or 13-1 as the cause rather than the effect is to marginalize all that Brady and Belichick have accomplished. Going into last season's divisional round, Brady was 10-0 in playoff games, but that didn't keep the Pats from losing to the Broncos. Did Brady lose his fairy dust? No, the Broncos were just better on that field on that day. Because playoff win-loss numbers are descriptive of the past, not predictive of the future. They're evidence of New England's greatness, but they aren't New England's greatness in and of themselves. Dumbass.

New Orleans 27, Philadelphia 24
Straight-up pick: Saints. Straight-up winner: Saints.
Point spread pick: Eagles (+5). Point spread winner: Eagles.

Yes, that woman's shirt really did say "FUCK DA EAGLES." Someone at the network has some explaining to do. Oh, wait, it's Fox. Someone at the network is getting a raise!

There has been plenty to read this weekend about Andy Reid punting the ball from near midfield when his Eagles were trailing 27-24 with just under two minutes left in the game. For the most part, the commentary has centered on Reid's decision to trust that his exhausted defense could get the ball back from a Saints team that had already run up more than 400 yards of offense. But that criticism, while technically sound, doesn't go nearly far enough. In fact, it obscures just how dreadful of a coaching error Reid made.

The scene: The Eagles, with two timeouts and needing a field goal to tie, have 4th down and 10 yards to go from their own 44 yard line. Reid chooses to go for it, and Jeff Garcia completes a pass for an apparent first down, but the play is called back because of a false-starty penalty on the Eagles. The Eagles now have 4th-and-15 from their own 39. There are two options, and three possible outcomes for the play here:
1a) The Eagles can go for it and succeed, in which case they continue driving toward the tying FG or the winning touchdown.

1b) The Eagles can go for it and fail, in which case they will need their defense to hold the Saints without a first down to get the ball back. (If the Saints get a first down, they can simply run out the clock.)

2) The Eagles can punt, in which case they will need their defense to hold the Saints without a first down to get the ball back.
If they choose Option 1, going for it, they at least have a chance of continuing the drive. (And considering the pass that Garcia completed on 4th-and-10, it's a fairly good chance.) And even if they fail, they'll be no worse off than if they had punted. If they choose Option 2, however, they have no chance of continuing the drive. There is a very real upside to going for it. There is no upside to punting. The downside of both options is equal. Going for it here carries no penalty. What was Reid thinking?

Chicago 27, Seattle 24 (OT)
Straight-up pick: Bears. Straight-up winner: Bears.
Point spread pick: Bears (-8.5). Point spread winner: Seahawks.

The question of the week was: Who's going to show up at quarterback for Chicago, Good Rex Grossman, or Bad Rex Grossman? The answer, as it turns out, was More-or-Less Average Rex Grossman. The real question should have been: Which Chicago defense is going to show up? The Monsters of the Midway who held Seattle to 6 points in Week 4, or the Lambs of the Loop who let teams like the Buccaneers, Lions and Packers run all over them in the final weeks of the season. Well, now we have our answer. No one's saying the Bears can't get past the Saints next week, but they'd better hope to pull the Colts in the Super Bowl. Because that shit we saw Sunday ain't gonna fly against Da Pats. (Fuck Da Pats!) Which leads me to contemplate just how much I dread the idea of a Bears-Patriots Super Bowl. Imagine it: two weeks of having to listen to the most self-mythologizing fans west of Pittsburgh debate the most self-hating fans east of Philadelphia. No offense to Pennsylvania, of course.

Playoff picks performance

Friday, January 12, 2007

Never letting go in Baltimore

Obsess over the Colts? Nevermore.

If I'm Steve Bisciotti, owner of the Baltimore Ravens, I'm wondering what the fuck my team has to do to earn a little bit of loyalty and affection in my own damn city. The Ravens won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season. This season they went 13-3, the best record in their 11-year history, and earned a first-round playoff bye. Their defense has returned to nearly the level of dominance seen in 2000, and their offense has been rejuvenated. And yet the storyline for Saturday afternoon's playoff game is, "Baltimore fans in a frenzy as Colts return to town."

Twenty-two years after the Colts left for Indianapolis in the middle of the night, and more than a decade since Baltimore got another team, the Colts still appear to generate more emotion in Charm City than the Ravens do. Even though Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy and the rest of the Colts players and coaches had absolutely nothing to do with the move -- some of them were still in diapers -- it appears that many Baltimoreans will be screaming more loudly for the Colts to lose than for the Ravens to win.

If I'm Bisciotti, I feel like that guy who bends over backward to impress a woman, taking her to the nicest places, giving her gifts, treating her like a queen, but whenever they go out, she won't shut up about her ex-boyfriend. The one who used to hit her. You know, because he loves her so much that I just lose control sometimes, baby.

However, I'm not Bisciotti (which is a shame, because he's both loaded and a pretty cool guy), so I guess it's OK for me to sneer at the football fans of Baltimore for the absurd position in which they now find themselves.

The Colts left Baltimore in 1984 for the same reason any NFL team switches cities: to get a better stadium deal. In Baltimore, the Colts played in Memorial Stadium, which was built in 1950 and named in honor of Americans killed in World Wars I and II. (Today, of course, it would be called Vagisil Park or something.) Colts owner Bob Irsay wanted the city and the state of Maryland to help pay for a new stadium, the city and state said they had other priorities, and, after some interminable will-he-or-won't-he, Irsay packed the team into a fleet of moving vans and lit out for Indianapolis, which had -- hey, look at that! -- a brand new domed stadium. For the next decade-plus, then, Baltimore was able to play the victim card. It was the poor little industrial city that refused to underwrite a new playground for a multimillionaire and was made to pay the ultimate price for sticking to its principles.

The funny thing about principles, though, is that on a crisp Sunday afternoon in autumn, no one wants to sit around and stare at them. Professional football is sexier than civic responsibility, especially for a politician watching from the owner's box. So Baltimore looked to the shores of Lake Erie, where another poor little industrial city (Cleveland) was refusing to underwrite a new playground for another alleged multimillionaire (Browns owner Art Modell). We'll build one for you,Baltimore told Modell. And so it did, and the Browns became the Ravens.

(Cleveland, in turn, would eventually build a new stadium and receive a new set of Browns, but at least it didn't rejoin the NFL by stealing another city's team. And to be fair to Cleveland, Modell was a pig and a liar who didn't deserve a new stadium. In the 1970s, he had promised the city that if he was given complete control of Cleveland Stadium, he would never ask that public money be used to build him a new park. He got control, mismanaged the facility, and ended up desperately in debt. In the final irony, the move to Baltimore -- the move that cost him his reputation and made him one of the most reviled men in sports -- wasn't enough. Modell had to sell the team to Bisciotti to get out from under his own debt.)

Baltimore's double-pump definition of civic responsibility has been repeated several times. Houston refused to build a stadium for Bud Adams, lost the Oilers to Tennessee, then put together a stadium plan to secure an expansion team. St. Louis rejected the Cardinals' stadium efforts, lost the team to Arizona (which didn't get around to building the stadium it had promised for nearly 20 years), then promptly built a stadium to lure the Rams from Los Angeles. It's shitty that it has to be this way, but this is the way it is. Baltimore lost its right to play the victim a decade ago, when it not only took away another city's team, but abandoned the stand it had taken on "principle" in the early 1980s.

Which leads one to suspect that it wasn't an issue of principle at all. When Baltimore said that there was no way in H-E-double-hockey-sticks that it was going to build a football stadium for some wealthy owner -- and when Houston, St. Louis and, to an extent, Cleveland -- said the same thing, they weren't so much taking a stand for civic responsibility. They were bluffing. And they got called on it.

The Baltimore Ravens have a Lombardi Trophy right there in the case. At this point they're probably the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl (which means they're the favorites to win the Super Bowl). The Colts, meanwhile, have known nothing but futility since the move to the Midwest. Whether they finished 1-15 (1991) or 14-2 (2005), the season has always ended in despair for the Indianapolis Colts. Who would you love?

Yeah, he did hit me, but it wasn't hard, and I shouldn't have made him mad. It's my fault, really. Silly. I have to hang up now. He might call.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Wildcard weakened '07

Indianapolis 23, Kansas City 8
Straight-up pick: Colts. Straight-up winner: Colts.
Point spread pick: Colts (-7). Point spread winner: Colts.

After a week of anti-hype about the Colts' functionally retarded run defense, it was only natural that Indy would shut Larry Johnson down completely. Thirty-two yards on 13 carries may not look like much of a stat line for LJ, but after a 416-carry regular season, it may well have saved his life. Months ago, I was warning everyone who would listen that if you want to beat the Colts, you have to take away the big play, resign yourself to giving up the short stuff, and then hang back and wait for them to make mistakes. Someone from Kansas City must have been listening to what I was shouting in front of that Wal-Mart that day, because on Saturday, the Chiefs pursued that very game plan, goading Peyton Manning into throwing three interceptions and a half-dozen hissy fits in the first half. Alas, this strategy has a better chance of success if your own offense doesn't go three-and-out on its first seven possessions. The security guards hauled me away before I could get to that part.

Seattle 21, Dallas 20
Straight-up pick: Cowboys. Straight-up winner: Seahawks.
Point spread pick: Cowboys (+3.5). Point spread winner: Cowboys.

Wait, you're telling me that Martin Grammatica was on the field for a botched field goal, and he wasn't the one to blame? Coming into the game, I expected to see the grotesquely overrated Tony Romo make some more of those poor decisions borne of overconfidence. It's been nothing but a downward spiral since he started dating Bo Bice, so it was inevitable he'd end up the goat. I just never expected it to happen like that. If I'm a Seattle fan, I'm thinking about Jerramy Stevens catching two touchdown passes and wondering: Why can he do it in a wildcard game, but not in the Super Bowl?

New England 37, N.Y. Jets 16
Straight-up pick: Patriots. Straight-up winner: Patriots.
Point spread pick: Jets (+9.5). Point spread winner: Patriots.

It really was much closer than the final score indicates.

Philadelphia 23, N.Y. Giants 20
Straight-up pick: Eagles. Straight-up winner: Eagles.
Point spread pick: Eagles (-7). Point spread winner: Giants.

Koy Detmer doesn't collect starlets' panties. Koy Detmer isn't going to the Pro Bowl based on five good games and buckets of hype. Koy Detmer is no Tony Romo. Koy Detmer caught the long snap and put it down perfectly, and the Eagles are moving to the next round. Eli Manning is kind of like both Tony Romo and Koy Detmer. Romo, because he's been getting worse as the year progresses, and Detmer because he'll never be as good as his own brother.

Playoff picks performance

Saturday, January 06, 2007

America hates you, Joe Theismann

It's true, you knowCome to find out that Tiki Barber has all but signed a four-year, $10 million contract with Disney to work on ABC and ESPN once his (Peter King: "*cough* *cough* *Hall of Fame* *cough*") career with the Giants is over. Because there's no better time than the week before the playoffs begin to try to nail down what cushy job you'll be doing 10 months hence. You really want to get that kind of thing squared away now because you don't know how long this whole trying-to-win-the-Super Bowl thing is going to keep you tied up.

The New York Post, which is about as unimpeachable a source as you're going to find in the 1200 block of Sixth Avenue, reports that Barber will have roles on ABC's Good Morning America and 20/20, where I pray he goes Dr. D on John Stossel's pompous, pillowy, put-upon multimillionaire ass. What Barber will do at ESPN is still in doubt (kick the shit out of Sean Salisbury?), but speculation has him replacing Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football. Which, if that's all they're going to do to Monday Night Football, would be a dreadful mistake. Any new aproach to MNF that doesn't start with giving Joe Theismann's career two hollow-points to the back of its permed head is just killing time.

It's doubtful that Down and Distance has anything noteworthy to add to the immense body of commentary concerning the utter travesty that was the first season of Monday Night Football on ESPN. But if human history has taught us anything (and it hasn't), it's that when good people stay silent, when they choose to look away, when they put their own petty concerns ahead of their fellow men, then evil will flourish. So I will not -- cannot -- stand idly by.

I usually work evenings, but the birth of my son (Hi, Quentin!) kept me home for more than a month, giving me the opportunity to watch Monday Night Football regularly for the first time in years. From the beginning of the season, I had been hearing complaints about how the shift of MNF from ABC to ESPN had been marked by piss-poor announcing, amateurish production values and a wholesale substitution of bells and whistles for, well, football. Still, until I saw the mess for myself, I doubted that the production could be anywhere near as bad as ESPN Sunday Night Football, the slow-motion B.M. that the Worldwide Leader had squeezed out onto the screens of NFL fans for twenty years. No way -- NO WAY -- could the "brain" "trust" in Bristol have assembled a worse announcing team than the ladylike Mike Patrick, the monkeylike Paul Maguire and Theismann, who's both ladylike and monkeylike. Right?

So very wrong.

ESPN at least appeared to get off on the right foot when it announced that the Sunday night crew would not be relocating to Mondays. Unfortunately, instead of disbanding the Keystone Kommentators entirely, the network went with a two-thirds solution. Patrick and Maguire were reassigned to college football, and Theismann was promoted, or whatever you want to call it, to the Monday night booth. Theismann was, by far, the worst of the three. Patrick, for all his bombast and UNBELIEVABLE emphasis on certain, seemingly RANDOM words, was a serviceable play-by-play man. Maguire was really no worse than Brian Baldinger (which is damning with praise so faint you need special instruments to detect it), and for all his arrogance, one thing he had going in his favor was that he spent most of his time telling Theismann -- "Joseph," as he'd say -- to get his head out of his ass.

The only place Theismann has his head more often than up his own ass, of course, was up the ass of whatever poor player had stumbled into his field of vision. When a player screws up on MNF, he does so on national television, and he does so in front off all his fellows, because it's the one game every week that all the players watch. But there's one consolation, and that's that Theismann will be up in the booth making excuses for him. A quarterback throws an interception, and Theismann will say, "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that's the right throw to make." A ball-carrier steps out of bounds when he needs to keep the clock going, and Theismann jumps in immediately with "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he'll be able to cut that back inside." A gimpy-kneed legend tries to molest Suzy Kolber on the air, and Theismann pipes up, "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she'd say yes, and she'd pay his cabfare home."

Worst of all is when Kornheiser has the audacity to raise a question about a player's effort, about a coach's strategy, about ... well, about anything on the field. Because to Theismann, every question that he himself does not raise is a stupid one. Every question is an ignorant one. And that's why he's compelled to answer every question with a spirited defense of the player in question. His defense is usually ludicrious, and one that he spends the rest of the game hedging, if not contradicting altogether. But no biggie -- by Week 16, America was watching with the sound off anyway.

(Theismann would think every question from Mike Tirico was stupid and ignorant, too, except Tirico doesn't ask questions. Doesn't do much of anything, really, except play host for the celebrity cocktail party and kick it downstairs to Suzy. For more on Theismann v. Kornheiser, see Big Daddy Drew's excellent open letter at KSK in August)

So I hope we've established that Theismann is a punk and a candyass. Yes, he has a Super Bowl ring. So what? He didn't win Super Bowl XVII. John Riggins won Super Bowl XVII. Theismann, however, lost Super Bowl XVIII a year later by throwing a pick-six from his own end zone with 7 seconds left in the first half. As we're all fond of saying, Trent Dilfer has a Super Bowl ring, too. Shit, Cliff Stoudt has two. That doesn't mean I want Cliff Stoudt on my TV every Monday night writing romantic poetry to Booger McFarland.

If ESPN is looking to make room for Tiki Barber on MNF, I'd suggest they start by taking a rusty wire hanger and vigorously scraping out the inside of the booth. Failing that, they could just pay Theismann the balance of his contract and tell him that if they ever see him around the ESPN campus again, they're calling the cops.

Other thoughts about MNF that I couldn't be bothered to arrange into column form:

Theismann's banality is all the more striking when compared with the TV work of other quarterbacks, including on his own network. At ESPN, Ron Jaworski is the best film-room guy on television, hands-down, and Steve Young doesn't shame himself behind the desk on Sunday mornings. At Fox, Troy Aikman has not only gotten better every year, he's gotten funnier, ridiculing the network's own programs during on-air promos. Terry Bradshaw is an obnoxious yokel because that's in his job description, but when he lets his guard down, it's clear that both sides of his brain work in tandem. On CBS, Phil Simms is never afraid to talk shit about players, though he does it in that weird high voice of his. Dan Marino has been so committed to improving his TV game that it's scary. And then there's Boomer Esiason, who never won a Super Bowl and takes it out on Marino every week. Any QBs on TV worse than Theismann? Yes: Sean Salisbury.

Tirico shouldn't be in the booth. He looks like what you'd get if you asked a composite sketch artist to draw an African-American George Costanza. He sounds like a carnival barker on 5% helium. He gets excited at all the wrong moments, he lets everybody yammer when they should shut up, and he wouldn't keep Kornheiser and Theismann from rubbing up against Matthew McConaughey's leg.

Kornheiser was worse than useless. Aside from the canned essay he read before each game, he brought nothing. At least Dennis Miller wrote out his jokes beforehand and then tried to shoehorn them into the game. Kornheiser would jot down one talking point per half and just repeat it over and over. During the Panthers-Eagles game in Week 13, the first-half talking point was that it was cold in Philadelphia in early December. As the game got underway, Tony K observed with apparent wonder that some men in the stands had removed their shirts. But it was so cold! It gave you the sense that Kornheiser had not only never been to a cold-weather game; he'd never even watched one on TV. As soon as it gets below 45 degrees, the stands fill up with shirtless fat guys with 80-proof blood. The problem is: Kornheiser's shtick only works if he has someone smarter than him to play off of. On Pardon the Interruption, he has Mike Wilbon. On his radio program, he'd dial up John Feinstein or someone Feinsteiny. On MNF, he's stuck in the box with two undescended testicles.

The maddening thing about ESPN's team being so awful is that on the first Monday night of the season, when MNF had a doubleheader, the backup team -- the "B" team -- was fantastic. Tirico, Theismann and Kornheiser worked the early game, Vikings at Redskins, and were by all accounts awful. I was at the game and so didn't see the broadcast, but when I got home, I watched the second game -- Chargers-Raiders -- on TiVo. Brad Nessler handled the play-by-play, and Jaworski and Dick Vermeil did the color. ESPN could have put these three pros out there every week. Instead we get three monkeys scratching their armpits. Remember when ESPN said it was going to cater to the hardcore sports fan?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Week 17: And that's a wrap

So here we are, another regular season in the books. I went a respectable 10-6 in my picks for Week 17, and finished the year at 154-102, pretty much in the middle of the pack. Well, toward the bottom half of the middle of the pack, really. On the other hand, I finished with the highest score in our survivor pool. You had to pick a team to win each week, but you could only use each team once. If you picked incorrectly, your score went back to 0. I finished with 7. My survivor picks, by week:
1 Seattle Detroit W, 9-6 1
2 Cincinnati Cleveland W, 34-172
3 PhiladelphiaSan FranciscoW, 38-243
4 Atlanta Arizona W, 32-104
5 Chicago Buffalo W, 40-7 5
6 Washington Tennessee L, 22-250
7 JacksonvilleHouston L, 7-27 0
8 N. Y. GiantsTampa Bay W, 17-3 1
9 San Diego Cleveland W, 32-252
10Detroit San FranciscoL, 13-190
11Kansas City Oakland W, 17-131
12IndianapolisPhiladelphia W, 45-212
13New Orleans San FranciscoW, 34-103
14Tennessee Houston W, 26-204
15Baltimore Cleveland W, 27-175
16New England Jacksonville W, 24-216
17N.Y. Jets Oakland W, 23-3 7
I picked five teams to both win and lose: Detroit, Philadelphia, Jacksonville and Tennessee. I was right both times only with Philly and the Titans. I have no idea what that means.

N.Y. Jets 23, Oakland 3: Two AFC teams had the chance to claim wildcard spots simply by winning on Sunday. Both were playing at home, and both were going up against Bay Area All-World Chumps. Denver couldn't take care of business against the 49ers. But the Jets, facing the chumpiest of all chumps, got it done with baseball bats to the knees. Man, could anyone have predicted 10 weeks ago that the Jets would beat out all the other strong AFC contenders for a wildcard spot? I'm sure some reedy football blogger did.

St. Louis 41, Minnesota 21: What else is there to say? Minnesota was once 4-2, with victories over Washington, Carolina and Seattle, all playoff teams in 2005, and a close loss to Chicago. We've since learned that Washington, Carolina and Seattle aren't particularly good this year, and Chicago might be a mirage, too. Still, you could say the Vikes have "come a long way" since then. A team that hasn't gone anywhere, on the other hand, is the Rams. They finished the 2006 season just as they started it: with a win over a team that wasn't nearly as good as it had been made out to be in the preseason. After that opening victory over the Broncos, St. Louis' season consisted of two three-game win streaks against middling-to-lousy teams (Cardinals-Lions-Packers and Raiders-Redskins-Vikings) and, in between, a whole lot of losses to everybody else.

Pittsburgh 23, Cincinnati 17: The beauty of this game was that the Bengals couldn't lock up a playoff spot just by winning. They had to win, and then hope for Kansas City to beat Jacksonville, which wasn't going to be easy, and for San Francisco to win at Denver, which was so remote a possibility as to be ridiculous. Every year you see teams in this situation go out and win their own game, only to watch, dejected, as the teams they need to come through end up losing. But in a fun twist, the Bengals choked, at home, against a division rival that had nothing to play for, then went into the locker room and watched as K.C. held off Jacksonville and the 49ers blew everyone's mind by knocking off the Broncos. And so the Bengals take off the vertical black-and-orange stripes for another offseason and put on the horizontal black-and-white ones.

New England 40, Tennessee 23: Last season, the Patriots went into the final game aware that if they lost, they'd be the No. 4 seed in the playoffs rather than the No. 3. If the seeding had held up, that would have meant games against the paper-tiger Jaguars and the hollow Colts rather than the red-hot Steelers and the Broncos, the one team Bill Belichick can't seem to beat. I'm not saying they took a dive in that game, but they did start Matt Cassel, and they sent out ancient quarterback Doug Flutie to drop-kick a PAT just for giggles. This season, as the Patriots went into the final game, it wasn't clear which seed would be better for them, as the wildcards would be in doubt until Denver played later in the day. So the Patriots went ahead and played to win, starting Tom Brady and all those guys. However, that didn't stop them from giving another Reagan-era QB the opportunity to mess around with history: They sent in Vinny Testaverde (d.o.b. 11/13/1963) to throw a touchdown with less than 2 minutes left, thus giving him a TD pass in 20 straight seasons. Titans fans, of course, claim this was excessive and poor sportsmanship because New England was already up by 10, but you know what? Fuck 'em. They've spent the entire season telling us how Vince Young is this epochal game-breaker who can take a nothing play and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. Well, then I don't blame the Pats for trying to extend the lead to three scores.

Kansas City 35, Jacksonville 30: Instead of just calling the game as it unfolds in front of them, some announcers insist on concocting "story lines" and flogging them repeatedly regardless of what's going on down on the grass. (This was why you had Chris Collinsworth on NFL Network cooing in clueless awe Saturday as Eli Manning found the occasional acorn against one of the league's worst pass defenses.) In the Jaguars-Chiefs game, CBS's Gus Johnson decided in the third quarter that the story line was going to be Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio's ("gutsy") decision to bench quarterback David Garrard for third-stringer Quinn Gray. Don't get me wrong: Gray played well. But that doesn't excuse Johnson's full-throated exclamation, "WHERE IS BARBRA STREISAND, BECAUSE I THINK A STAR HAS BEEN BORN!" First of all, it's interesting that Johnson would reference the Streisand remake of A Star Is Born rather than the clearly superior and far more enduring Judy Garland version. Of course, neither would have been the sort of reference you'd expect your typical NFL viewer to appreciate, even if they understood it, and I'm sure Steve Tasker was getting pretty fidgety next to Johnson in the booth. Regardless, Johnson, who confessed that he has long been a Quinn Gray fan, banged this drum for the rest of the game. Which means he had no psychic space left over to discuss how Gray fits into Jacksonville's abysmal QB management. Remember, Del Rio let it be known earlier in the year that he preferred Garrard to Byron Leftwich, based on Garrard's "production" (that is, wins that occurred on Garrard's watch, regardless of his role in them). Pretty soon, though, the rest of the league had assembled a book on Garrard and began taking him apart piece by piece (culminating in the disaster in Nashville). So Del Rio tossed Garrard overboard and ran Gray out there against K.C. Now what had been a run-of-the-mill, two-way QB controversy is now a three-way. Was it the right move to go to Gray? I'm not saying it wasn't. But Gus Johnson wasn't saying anything except that Quinn Gray is the CUTEST boy in the WHOLE SCHOOL. In a secondary story, Kansas City won and advanced to the playoffs.

Houston 14, Cleveland 6: Coming into the weekend, this was the only game in which both teams had already been eliminated from playoff contention, so you can imagine why CBS broadcast it to about as close to zero percent of the country as it could without violating the terms of its contract. Each team's schedule each year is determined by formula and includes games against the other teams in the conference who finished in the same place in their divisions. That means first-place teams play first-place teams and, for the purposes of our discussion here, last-place teams play last-place teams. The Browns, playing in the stacked AFC North, and the Texans, playing in the suddenly stacked AFC South, will probably get quite familiar with each other in the coming years.

San Diego 27, Arizona 20
Baltimore 19, Buffalo 7
Imagine that: Two teams with the top playoff seeds still playing to win on the last weekend of the season. The Chargers, who had already clinched a first-round bye but needed to stay ahead of the Ravens for home field, saw both Philip Rivers and LaDanian Tomlinson leave the game with injuries. Some idiot somewhere will say one or both shouldn't have played -- it was the Cardinals, after all. But playing them and getting them dinged is still better than letting them sit for this game, then letting them sit for two more weeks while their fire dies out, then getting humiliated in the playoffs. (For more, see the Carolina-New Orleans game below.) In Baltimore, meanwhile, don't let that game-clinching interception by Samari Rolle fool you. He smelled of toast for most of the game, and the Colts will be throwing at him all day in the divisional round of the playoffs. Assuming the Colts make it that far, which may be assuming a lot.

Indianapolis 27, Miami 22: Last year the Colts finally won home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, only to spit up all over themselves in the first game. So this year it's back to the wildcard round with them. This game was too close for too long for Indianapolis fans to feel good about it (Cleo Lemon! Cleo Lemon!), but for once we got through Week 17 without having to endure the Jim Sorgi Explosion.

Philadelphia 24, Atlanta 17: OK, when a team sends out its third-string quarterback against you? And that quarterback didn't even know he was going to play until the game had already started? And then that QB throws three TD passes to backup receivers? And you lose the game? Yeah, that's going to cost you.

N.Y. Giants 34, Washington 28: One moron in the stands for Saturday's game held up a sign that proclaimed of Tiki Barber, who was playing the final regular season game of his career, "You will be missed but not forgotten." Huh? By definition, if you are missed, you are not forgotten, and if you are forgotten, you cannot be missed. Some dumbass with a Magic Marker thinks he's a poet, and NFL Network puts him on national television. OK, it was great to see Barber have such a monster performance (23 rushes, 234 yards, 3 TDs) in his final regular season game, but as I watched him run around and over the Keystone Skins, I could already hear Sports Illustrated's designated Tiki-fluffer, Peter King, chiseling this game into a cornerstone of his one-man campaign to sneak Barber into the Hall of Fame. Whenever King makes his case, which is often, he comes at it from a different direction, but each time, it comes down to this: Barber plays in New York, and he plays well, therefore he deserves to be in Canton. Fine, Pete. Barber gets into the Hall when Ricky Watters, who has more yards and more touchdowns in just as many seasons, plus a Super Bowl ring, gets in. Actually, no, scratch that. I'd take Watters before I'd take Barber. Why? Because my standard for the Hall of Fame is that when you walk away from the game, you do it with nothing to prove. Barber is retiring as the 17th-leading rusher in NFL history. You have to respect that. And he's leaving while he's still in top form and still has his health. You really have to respect that. He's seen Jerome Bettis essentially crippled at age 36 and has decided that's not for him. But Bettis is going into the Hall because he gave it everything he had. Even if he hadn't earned a Super Bowl ring, he'd still go in, because he left it all out there on the field. Two more good seasons could get Barber to No. 7 on the all-time rushing list, and three more could get him to No. 4. If he wants to be in the Hall as the equal of Emmitt and Sweetness and Barry Sanders, he needs to prove he's their equal on the field. Hey, what about Barry Sanders? Didn't he retire before he was "done," too? Yes, but he did so as the No. 2 rusher, and it was clear that with just one more average season, he would be No. 1. Everyone knew it; everyone acknowledged it. Sanders had nothing left to prove. A Super Bowl ring? With Detroit? It was never gonna happen, and everyone knew and acknowledged that, too. But the Giants have every opportunity in the next few years to compete for a ring, provided a few characters get their heads screwed on right. Barber is passing on the opportunity. Again, he's doing it for his health, and there is nothing objectionable about that. But a Hall of Famer doesn't just give up on the Super Bowl dream. If he doesn't have the ring, he has to be dragged off the field, completely used up. Think Dan Marino. Think Warren Moon. Think Bettis, who got his championship only after he had made the decision to retire. So no, while we all wish Barber well, he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. Now, let's talk about the actual game: There was nothing here to make you think the Giants are going anywhere but down in flames in the playoffs. Moving on ...

Seattle 23, Tampa Bay 7: While the meek were inheriting the Earth in Dallas and Denver, they were up to their same, sad old tricks down in Tampa. You just knew that at least one playoff contender would trip over a doormat this week, and I picked the Bucs with the assumption that Seattle was pretty much the worst the NFC had to offer. The only difference between Seattle and an 8-8 team is ... well, a 23-7 victory over Tampa Bay.

Detroit 39, Dallas 31: If I'm Lions general manager Matt Millen, I'm up in my luxury box wearing my big clown coat and thundering in impotent rage that my team went and won this game, thus depriving me of the chance to squander the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft. Since Millen took over the Lions in 2001, he's pissed away the No. 2 overall pick (Collarbone Rogers in 2003) and the No. 3 overall pick (Joey Harrington, who lives on in Honolulu blue here, in 2002), but never has he had the chance to work his magic with the No. 1 (unless he's advising the Texans on the side). Lions fans who had dreamed that Brady Quinn or some kind of top-flight quarterback would be coming to Detroit can find solace in knowing that Millen would have done something weird with the top pick anyway.

San Francisco 26, Denver 23 (OT): Denver choked away a playoff spot, but within hours, it didn't seem like such a big deal anymore.

Carolina 31, New Orleans 21: It was a shame to see the Saints pull their starters out of the game before the first quarter had even ended. They'd had such a fantastic run in 2006, and it was a pity that their season should end that way. Yes, they'll host a playoff game at the Superdome in two weeks. But one thing we've learned about Week 17 in the past few years is: Teams that lack recent playoff success must play to win in the final game of the season, especially if they have a first-round bye. Three weeks is too long for most players to go without seeing any meaningful action. They lose focus, they aren't as sharp. They puff themselves up, and then when it's go time, they're flat. Want examples? Chicago, 2005 (threw final game, lost at home in playoffs). Indianapolis, 2005 (threw final two games, lost at home in playoffs). Pittsburgh, 2004 (tried to throw final game, barely beat Jets at home in playoffs, then lost at home). Compare these with the 2003 and 2004 Patriots, who absolutely killed their final opponents, and last year's Steelers, who had been playing full-tilt for six weeks before ass-kicking the Colts and Broncos en route to the Super Bowl. Sometimes you can throw your last game and succeed -- but only if you've been to the elite level before. The Saints haven't been anywhere in years. When they're getting rolled by the Eagles in two weeks, I'll be smoking a fat cigar and laffing my fatter ass off.

Green Bay 26, Chicago 7: Then there's the Chicago Bears. Whereas the Saints' starters played for only a quarter, but played well, the Bears starters played for a full half, and looked horrible. The offense is back where it was in 2005, the defense has fallen apart, even Devin Hester is gimpy. If Rex Grossman is looking for consolation after going 2-of-12 for 33 yards, no TDs and 3 interceptions, it's that Brian Griese wasn't all that better (5-of-15, 124 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) and Kyle Orton is still the No. 3, so it's not like they've got Vince Young ready to take his job away. The Packers, meanwhile, played like a team fighting for its playoff life. At about 2:30 p.m. ET, the DirecTV Sunday Snap channel put up a graphic that declared: "Green Bay can clinch a wildcard berth with a win + ARI win + DET win + MIA win + MIN win + SF win + CAR loss + HOU loss + TB loss." So the Packers' hopes rested on the outcome of nine games involving 18 teams, or more than half the league. Alas, Detroit, San Francisco and Tampa Bay did their part, but Arizona, Miami, Minnesota, Carolina and Houston did not. By game time, the Packers had nothing to play for, although I guess there was something about this being an emotional game for their quarterback. I didn't catch all of it. Like, he's from Chicago, maybe? Or was close friends with Gerald Ford? Whatever it was, he was all choked up afterwards.

SEASON: 154-102
(2005 for the season: 172-84)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS have wrapped up their second year with Baltimore overtaking Chicago at the wire. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. 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. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: FIN = final ranking. W16 = last week's ranking. POW = KAPOW-ER centigrade score. P? = team in playoffs?)
1 2 Ravens 100.0013-3Y
2 1 Bears 96.3213-3Y
3 4 Patriots 93.9512-4Y
4 3 Chargers 93.9214-2Y
5 5 Jaguars 79.42 8-8
6 6 Saints 75.0110-6Y
7 7 Cowboys 70.52 9-7Y
8 8 Eagles 70.4610-6Y
9 9 Colts 68.5812-4Y
1010Bengals 64.36 8-8
1111Steelers 63.90 8-8
12t14Jets 60.1610-6Y
1313Chiefs 58.56 9-7Y
1412Broncos 58.18 9-7
1517Seahawks 52.98 9-7Y
1616Giants 52.83 8-8Y
17t14Bills 51.46 7-9
1820Rams 51.34 8-8
1918Dolphins 47.426-10
2021Falcons 44.81 7-9
2122Panthers 44.35 8-8
2219Vikings 42.186-10
2326Packers 38.27 8-8
2424Redskins 37.685-11
2523Titans 37.03 8-8
2727Lions 32.493-13
2828Texans 28.496-10
292949ers 27.80 7-9
3030Browns 21.476-10
3131Bucs 12.654-12
3232Raiders 0.002-14
Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): None. Teams previously eliminated: Raiders, Titans, Lions, Dolphins, Cardinals, Redskins, Browns, Bills, Texans, Buccaneers, 49ers, Steelers, Packers, Bengals, Vikings, Rams, Jets, Eagles, Falcons, Jaguars, Giants, Panthers, Chiefs, Broncos, Cowboys, Seahawks, Saints.

Teams still eligible for Super Bowl championship consideration: Chargers, Ravens, Bears, Colts, Patriots.

Notes about the final rankings
Be aware that the KA-POWER RANKINGS system considers the year in totality, just as the NFL playoff system does. The Tennessee Titans, for example, weren't just handed a playoff spot because they played so well in the second half of the season. They started 0-5; that's what's keeping them home in January -- and what's keeping them at No. 25 in these rankings. (Because you were wondering, going just on the final 11 games of the season, the Titans would rank at No. 15 with a centigrade score of 54.14. Still pretty low for an 8-3 team, huh? Well, consider: Those eight wins came by 3, 6, 18, 3, 3, 6, 7 and 1 points, for a total of 47. The three losses were by 30, 1, and 17 points, for a total of 48. Tennessee's resurgence was one of this year's remarkable stories, but they could have easily gone 6-10, 5-11, even 4-12.)

If there were one more week in the season, the top four teams in the rankings might well get shuffled again; they're that close. The big story at the top is the fall of the Bears, who had sat in the top spot since Week 4. Their slide reflects mostly the collapse of the defense. The Bears gave up at least 21 points in each of their last four games, compared with only twice in their first 12.

There are four teams that did not make the playoffs that finished higher in the rankings than teams that did. The Jaguars this year were a case study in inconsistency. One week they'd dominate a good team (41-0 over the Jets, 37-7 over the later-season Titans, 44-17 over the Colts). The next, they'd eke out a nail-biter over another good team (24-17 over the Cowboys, 9-0 over the Steelers, 13-6 over the Eagles). And the next they'd lay an egg against a clearly inferior opponent (36-30 to the Redskins, 27-7 to the Texans, 27-24 to the Bills). They're higher in the rankings than every team they beat, except New England. Of course, they're higher than every team they lost to, too. Statistically, the Bengals and Steelers are interchangeable, and they're right where they belong. The Jets aren't as strong a team, but they had a far easier schedule. The Broncos are indeed better than the Seahawks and the Giants, which isn't saying much.

We'll see in February how well the KA-POWER RANKINGS system holds up this year, but in the meantime, all shall hail!