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

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