Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Playoff Fever...Catch It!

This first weekend of the NFL Playoffs is one of my favorites of any season, trumped only by the Divisional Playoff games coming this weekend. For me, all of the ingredients for excitement are doubly present during these two January weekends: good teams facing desperate, underdogs, knowing that their home field advantage is no guarantee of success; the season-ending finality of the contest; the harder-hitting, the deeper-strategizing, and the magnification of mistakes. Makes for drama in nearly every contest.

Plus it's football nearly eight hours of football on Saturday and Sunday.

This Wild Card Weekend certainly lived up to its billing. I mentioned last week that I wasn't looking forward to the games between St. Louis and Seattle nor Minnesota at Green Bay, on account that none of these teams looked like playoff material in the final weeks of the regular season. Yet still these clashes were competitive and, yes, entertaining. I can see Don Cheadle's next NFL commercial: "One team's 8-8, the other backed into winning a division. But you can't turn off the TV. That's how great the playoffs are: they can make even teams that stink watchable." By the way, if want to see some of those great playoff commercials, I found them here.

So watch I did, and here's what I saw:

St. Louis vs. Seattle

The Rams are suddenly the Bandwagon Pick against the Falcons after Marc "Battle of the" Bulger and company cooly passed all over the Seahawks' defense. The reason for Marc's success was containment of the Seattle pass rush. On his laser strikes to Torry Holt, Kevin Curtis, and Cam Cleeland, Bulger had time to throw against blitzes. Credit Marshall Faulk and his understudy Steven Jackson for part of that. Seattle's defenders clearly couldn't keep up with the Rams' receivers.

An aside: wasn't it nice seeing Ol' Faulk put up more than 50 yards and a touchdown? Might he have more moves left in the tank? Surely some team next year could use a guy with more unused energy than 65-year old Emmitt Smith--who, by the way, had more rushing yardage (937) than anybody in Kansas City, or Oakland and touchdowns (9) than Ahman Green, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns, Tennessee's Chris Brown, and anybody in Detroit or Jacksonville. Think about that before next year's fantasy draft. Credit my boy Tony G. for raising the issue.

Seattle ran the ball less than I thought, given that Shaun "Waaah!" Alexander came within one yard of this season's rushing title. If we've learned nothing from Mike Martz in his Super Bowl loss to New England, we have gleaned that you dance with your date. Or you don't jump horses midstream. Better yet, run what'cha brung. Seattle was pass-oriented on Saturday, which in hindsight wasn't too bad a plan...except that Hasselbeck's passes were dropped at crucial times. What a heartbreaker for Seahawks fans. May I suggest Stick-Um?

New York Jets at San Diego

This game was high on my Gotta See list, in part because here in Maryland the Charger's regular season games were never shown. From afar did I begin to admire Marty Schottenheimer's work with the formerly last-place franchise. The mystique of Drew "Summertime" Brees and the curiously-named LaDainian Tomlinson, coupled with the "where'd that come from?" (aka the "Keisha Knight-Pulliam") pulled by tight end Antonio Gates spiced up an already exciting gaming proposition.

This game provided, for my money, the best action of the weekend. Unlike other games, these teams looked evenly matched, played (relativey) smart football, worked their strenghts, and sent the game into overtime. All in damp, muddy, real-football conditions. My only regret was that I had to listen to the 4th quarter on AM radio on my way home. Every football fanatic should have this experience:

[after commercial]

"SHHZZZ We're back...Marv Albert, John Riggins here at Qualcomm Stadium, the Jets 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Chargers are down by seven with the ball on the New York Jet 2 yard line. FRZZRRRRCC It is fourth down and the game is on the line..."

"Marv, you CHRZZZ think that Schottenheimer needs to go to Gates or Tomlinson here. He just tossed incomplete to Gates on the that third down, so New York knows Brees is looking his way. They've done a great job of SCHZZZZZ Gates until this last drive. Brees has got to get the ball to him or L.T...."

"Brees steps up under center, surveys the defense...the Jets spread, covering San Diego who send Tomlinson out, now in a five wide receiver set...this is for the tie...there's the snap... Brees back to pass, flushed backward from the pocket and SCHZZZZRRR pass ZZZRRRRHHHCHHHZHHHHHHRRRRZZZZZZZZZ endzone! RRHHHHRRHHHRZZZZbyRRRREEZZZZZZRASGKGKJJFRRRRR but FRRZZR there is a flag GRRRRSZZZZZZHHHRRRRRSCHSSHC! BRRRRRCCCCRZZZZZZZ!"

"Boy, what a break for San Diego, Eric Barton has TRCCCZZHHHH feel horrible for SCHHHHZZZZing FFRRRESSDZZZZZ committing such an stupid foul, Marv. Brees had clearly gotten the ball away, and the ref was right there to make the call. He had to make that one. Now the Chargers have GRZREEECHHHHHOOOOWWWW on the FRZZZZRRRREEEECHHH..."

I say that all to say that I never really heard what happened at the end of regulation. Thankfully, I have Comcast's NFL Network On Demand service, so I got to see--and hear--everything the way it really happened. Ah, technology.

Denver at Indianapolis

You had to know this wasn't going to be pretty. Manning, as I wrote last week, has looked as invulnerable as the X-Men's nemesis Juggernaut all season. The Colts were well-rested and playing at home on their track-like indoor turf. Denver's John Lynch added fuel to the Indianapolis rocket when he suggested that the Indy receivers were soft (and probably regretted his comments as Reggie Wayne amassed more yards in the first half than his entire team).

Broncos fans couldn't have expected to win. They may have thought they'd make a game of it, since adding Pro Bowler Champ Bailey and Lynch. Bailey limited Marvin Harrison to about 50 yards and only four catches. I guess that was good. But his team still was humiliated, this year by only eight points less than last year. That ain't progress. As TMQ noted, at this rate the Broncos should be able to win by the year 2010. Keep hope alive, Mile Highers.

One more Bailey note: did you see him get completely pasted by lil' Marvin Harrison during Wayne's Screen Pass of Glory in the 4th quarter? Because he's still respected around Redskins park, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably had his head turned the wrong way and got blindsided. Riiight.

Minnesota at Green Bay

What I thought would be the least interesting game of the weekend surprised me and was both competitive and entertaining. I have no beef with Green Bay as a city, or the LemonPants Packers as a team. I appreciate the Cheesehead’s loyalty and (relative) intelligence. Heck, I like that the Pack are publicly owned and their fight song is pretty fun to sing.

What gets my goat is the deification of He Who Walks On Water, Brett Favre. Sportscasters the world over seem to think that he can do no wrong, extolling his maverick-like courage and determination. Let’s be clear: he will be in the Hall of Fame, he is a savvy quarterback, and he still possesses a rifle arm. Sometimes, like on Sunday, Ol’ Brett sucks (22-33, 216 yards, 1TD/4INTs, 55.4 rating). He is not Thor, Chris Collinsworth. Joe Buck, he cannot summon lightning. And Darryl Johnston, his little illegal flip pass, made when his team really could’ve used the first-and-goal or fourth-and-one inside the five yard line, wasn’t cute, innovative, or keen. It was a cowardly, rookie move that, though excused by the analysts, pushed a sure field goal back another five yards, resulting in the miss.

One play in particular was Exhibit #1 in my case of NFL Favre Deification: Favre passes incomplete to Bubba Franks, who is tackled. Franks rises, and a Vikings defensive end, who apparently didn’t hear the whistle, takes Franks down. A mild scrum ensues. The refs began separating players, and Sir Favre runs up the crowd and begins pushing Vikings players. At this point, the shoving is dying down. One of his own linemen moves Favre back, and he goes around the crowd to confront a Vikings linebacker and hits him in the face, right in front of a referee. It was absolutely clear. Did he get flagged? Did the commentators note how Favre had no business fighting people, and how he pulled a Ron Artest and attacked someone who had nothing to do with the play? Of course not. He’s Brett Favre and he’s playing through personal pain. Sheesh.

Speaking of personal attacks, I admit that I thought effervescent Randy Moss’ clinching-touchdown display pretty funny. I don’t condone it, and wouldn’t recommend anyone try to follow suit in the future. But every time I see the picture of Moss’ moon, I laugh. It wasn’t nice, but it sure hit the nail on the head and unequivocably made his point. Moss better have extra security next time he plays in Wisconsin.

Tune in tomorrow as I present my Playoff Picks. I dunno if you have the time or not, but we have a slate of phenomenal games on tap.

P.S. By the way, the United States is calling off the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Make of that what you will.

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