Monday, January 15, 2018

The Minneapolis Miracle

Did that just happen? Was it not a dream?

This is not what happens for the Minnesota Vikings; this is what happens to the Minnesota Vikings. Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson in 1975, the very first "Hail Mary." Losing their fourth Superbowl to John Madden's best Oakland Raiders team ever. 1998—wide left, take a knee, lose in OT. Brett Favre throwing a pick after repeated late hits (uncalled, of course) from the Saints in 2009. Blair Walsh wide left after outplaying a superior Seahawks team in a throwback outdoor winter game in Minnesota.

Yes, all of those things and so many more have happened over the years, and I've been a Minnesota Vikings fan since the winter of 1975, when my dad and grandpa taught me how to understand football. The Vikings were 10-0 at the time, and I watched Fran Tarkenton play quarterback for the first time. I was hooked for life, like I had just mainlined a bad drug.

Over the years, I've become accustomed, as have so many other Vikings fans, to the kind of Nordic stoic fatalism that comes with having your sports fan hearts broken over and over again. While I'm never going to root for the Cubs (I have Cardinals DNA; I'm genetically incapable), I did feel joy for their fan base when they finally won the World Series. I felt the same way for Cleveland when the Cavs won the NBA title. Every fan base deserves at least one championship in a generation. Just one is enough.

Unless you cheer for the Vikings, because until last night, all evidence pointed to one incontrovertible fact: God hates the Vikings. That's why, even up 17-0 at halftime, all I could think about was the missed 49-yard field goal at the end of the first half. Sure enough, by early in the fourth quarter, it was 17-14, then with three minutes left, 21-20. I did what my heart and mind do automatically in these situations: I prepared for the inevitable loss.

Even when the Vikings kicked a long field goal to take a 23-21 lead, there was 1:29 left to go. That was more than enough time for a QB like Drew Brees, a future first-ballot HOFer, to drive them down for the go-ahead field goal. They even faced a fourth-and-ten, but Brees converted easily. By the time the Vikings got the ball back, there were only 25 second left in the game and the season, and not only were they on their own 25-yard line, they started the drive with a false start penalty.

I began to think about how to process the loss. All credit to Drew Brees and Sean Payton, hope the Saints beat the Eagles and then crush the Patriots in the Superbowl. Vikings QB Case Keenum completes a pass to the Vikings 40; they call time out with 19 seconds to go. Did anyone really think we were going to go to the Superbowl with Case Keenum as our QB? Incomplete, second down. This was going to be the biggest playoff deficit—17 points—ever given up, the biggest deficit ever overcome by the Saints. Incomplete, third down, ten seconds left. Get ready for the loss, prepare for the letdown, it's just a game, it's not the end of the world, process the disappointment and let it go...

Did this just happen? Was it not a dream?

I can only describe my reaction as 15 minutes of primal scream therapy. My kids came down the hall to my room to see if I was being murdered. I shouted in joy and celebration until my throat was hoarse. My family called and friends started sending texts of congratulations. I watched replay after replay, sharing the same dumbfounded amazement as the players, coaches, press, and fans who witnessed what will certainly go down as one of the most amazing, improbable, miraculous finishes to any football game in the history of the NFL.

This isn't the end. This was a marvelous, wondrous, miraculous victory, no doubt. But it's just the first step. Unless the Vikings beat the Eagles on the road next week in the NFC Championship, then somehow manage to topple the Patriots (nice job, Jags, but you're not forking winning at Foxboro. Not. Gonna. Happen.), the catch becomes a nice footnote in the endless flow of playoff futility. Nothing short of a Superbowl win in their home stadium can truly end the misery and longing of every true fan of the Purple and Gold.

But this will forever be known as the Minneapolis Miracle. TE Kyle Rudolph said this morning on "Golic and Wingo" on ESPN Radio that the name of the play call was "Heaven." Rudolph said, "You just gotta give it up."

Maybe, just maybe...God has decided to stop hating the Vikings.

Friday, December 15, 2017

NFC Wild Card Contenders...It's Anyone's Game to Win

It's no surprise that in the much-stronger NFC, we can expect the Wild Card race to be much more competitive, and whoever emerges from the fray is much more likely to move on to the Divisional Round, and with the injury to Carson Wentz in Philly, possibly the NFC Championship in...Minnesota? New Orleans? Let's take a look at the scenarios and the probabilities...

Carolina Panthers (9-4, #5 seed)—at home against the Packers and the Bucs, then final week on the road in Atlanta, I predict they will go 2-1 with a meaningless last-week loss to Atlanta, followed by a win in LA over the Rams before the Vikings get their revenge on the Panthers in the divisional round.

Atlanta Falcons (8-5, #6 seed)—their last three games are at the Bucs and at the Saints, then home to the Panthers. If they split with the Bucs and the Saints (they will), that puts them at 9-6, while Carolina will be 11-4. They won't get seeded any higher than sixth, but they might need to win that last game to get into the playoffs. It may or may not be enough. Even if they do win, they're not beating the Saints on the road in the Wild Card round.

Seattle Seahawks (8-5, out of playoffs)—They're hosting the Rams this week and the Cardinals the last week of the season (two wins), so their penultimate game at Dallas will determine whether they can overtake Atlanta for the sixth seed. I hate to see Seattle in the playoffs again, but if I were a betting man, I'd take them over Atlanta at this point in the season. They could beat the Saints on the road, also.

All at 7-6:
Detroit Lions—Bears (win); at Bengals (win); Packers (loss) puts them at 9-7, but if they can beat the Packers at home and sweep the final three games, 10-6 could get them a trip to New Orleans. Don't count them out just yet.

Green Bay Packers—at Panthers (loss); Vikings (loss); at Lions (win). They could flip-flop Vikings/Lions, but they're not beating the Panthers, so that's still just 9-7 at best even with Aaron Rodgers returning from injury. They don't have the pieces around him to sweep three games.

Dallas Cowboys—at Raiders (win); Seahawks (win); at Eagles (win). Why? Ezekiel Elliott is coming back from suspension, that's why, and the Eagles won't have anything to play for. If they sweep, they finish 10-6 and have a chance to get in, but they'll need lots of help above them.

My prediction: Carolina gets the five-seed; Seattle steals the sixth.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

AFC Wild Card Contenders...Cannon Fodder

The AFC is in the unusual position of being clearly the weaker of the two conferences this year. They really only have two upper echelon teams in the Steelers and the Patriots, with everyone else vying for scrimmage opponents for the two superior organizations. But rules determine that because of TV money and crap like that, instead of just putting Pittsburgh and New England into the AFC Championship without two weeks of pointless games, we have to come up with six teams. So let's see who's going to stink it up in the first week of the playoffs.

Not beating the Patriots...ever.
Jacksonville Jaguars (predicted 10-6 record)
In my conference leaders preview, I said that the Jags and the Titans were basically the same team. Looking ahead at their four remaining games, it looks like they should both finish 10-6. Since Tennessee owns the tie-breaker, it looks like Jacksonville will be the fifth seed, which should pit them against Kansas City. I like their chances against Andy Reid in the first round. Their defense might keep them in the next game against the Pats, but Blake Bortles is not winning a game at Foxboro.
Prediction: Loss at New England in Divisional Round

Let's get ready to rumbllllllllllllllle!
Baltimore Ravens (predicted 9-7 record)
The Ravens could very well finish 3-1, but they're likely to cough up a game to Cincy or Cleveland, so I'm going with 2-2 and the sixth seed. This puts them on the road against Tennessee, where their playoff experience takes the game and brings about the divisional matchup against Pittsburgh that everyone looks forward to every year. This is consistently the best and most vicious grudge match in the league, and it's definitely must-see TV.
Prediction: Loss at Pittsburgh in Divisional Round

Close but no Cigar:
Looks like a pick-six to me.
LA Chargers—Moving an hour north doesn't change the fact that no one chokes at the wrong time late in the season like Philip Rivers. They'll lose at least two of their last four games and finish out of the running at 8-8.

The agony of defeat...
Buffalo Bills—I have a soft spot for the Bills because their playoff and Superbowl misery is on par with my own beloved Minnesota Vikings, but despite a tough defense, they have no quarterback to speak of. They have two games against the Dolphins (split), a probably win against the woeful Colts, and a sure loss to New England. That's 8-8 and an extension of the longest current playoff drought in the league.

"I wanna look like a toddler!"
Oakland Raiders—The Silver-and-Black should be running away with the AFC West thanks to KC's epic collapse, but for some reason, the pieces are just not clicking in Oakland. Maybe it's karma for their goofy-haircut bastard of an owner moving the team to Las Vegas. And what the hell is the deal with multi-millionaires and billionaires with terrible haircuts? Hire a Hollywood hair stylist; bowls are for cooking, not haircuts. They're going to finish 1-3 with a 7-9 record overall.

Every other team in the AFC is below .500; none of the remaining 5-7 teams (Jets, Dolphins, Bengals) are going on a four-game winning streak, and even if they did, that would still just give any of them a 9-7 record and a predicted tie with Baltimore. Odds are about the same as Powerball, so I'm not putting my prognosticating reputation (suspect as it is) on the line for that.

Next time: NFC Wild Card Odds

Thursday, December 07, 2017

2017 NFL Playoff Predictions: NFC

Day Two of NFL Playoff Predictions guaranteed to go wrong takes us to the NFC, clearly the stronger of the two conferences overall this year, which makes it even more difficult to accurately predict. My conundrum is compounded by the fact that as of this writing, my beloved Minnesota Vikings sit atop the NFC standings. Anyone who is a Vikings fan knows that this is counter-intuitive information...the better things look for the Vikings, the farther the fall and the more painful the heartbreak will be.

Yeah. This could happen.
It's like this: you have a wonderful, joyous affair four-month affair with Kate Upton that you plan to culminate with a wedding in Vegas; you make it to the altar, where she joins you for the ceremony, only to change her mind and leave you just before she says her vows. Knowing this is going to happen neither deters you from pursuing her nor alleviates the pain of the inevitable loss.

Yeah, that's what it's like to be a Vikings fan.

Carson Wentz that-a-way...
NFC East Leader: Philadelphia Eagles
Pro: The NFL's best and most consistent all-around team, their schedule still looks like 13-3 even if they lose the LA to the {wretching, gagging noise} Rams this weekend. After that, they're at the Giants (black hole of awfulness) and then home against Oakland and Dallas. It looks like they have the inside track on home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Con: Did their loss at Seattle expose inherent weaknesses, or was it an outlier? Look at this weekend's game at the {projectile vomiting} Rams to see how they respond to a talented QB and vicious defense on the other side of the ball.
Prediction: NFC Champions

Alvin Kamara or Flavor Flav?
NFC South Leader: New Orleans Saints
Pro: Drew Brees playing QB like an '80s game of Tecmo Bowl, and the most frightening one-two punch of running backs in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara that we've seen on any team in decades. They still have two games against Atlanta, which if they split, they have what looks like easy games against the Jets and Tampa Bay. Look for them to finish 11-4.
Con: Can they persevere in a close game against a tough defense? We'll probably have to wait until the playoffs to see about that. And it's going to happen again in Minnesota.
Prediction: Loss to Minnesota in Divisional Round.

Every Vikings fan needs therapy.
NFC North Leader: Minnesota Vikings
Pro: A defense without any discernible weaknesses, teams simply haven't been able to score on the Vikings this season. In the past three weeks, they held the Rams {bleaaaah} to a mere touchdown, and they went on the road to hold Atlanta to three field goals. You can't pass or run on them regardless of your weapons.
Con: When will midnight strike for Case Keenum and we see his ball gown turn to cleaning rags? Is is conceivable that Keenum, a career backup, can do what Kurt Warner did in St. Louis? Bitch, please...this is Minnesota. Keenum will not do what Fran Tarkenton, Randall Cunningham, and Brett Favre were unable to do. Midnight is coming, Viking nation. Try to enjoy the dance for as long as it lasts.
Prediction: Beats New Orleans in Divisional Round; loses to Philadelphia in NFC Championship

Look into the dead eyes of pure evil.
NFC West Leader: Los Angeles {RALLLPH!} Rams
Pro: Jared Goff becoming the QB the team hoped he would in trading away last year's draft to get him; Todd Gurley running wild up and down the field; a vicious, punishing defense that specializes in making QBs miserable and ineffective; no more Jeff "fitty-fitty" Fisher "coaching" on the sidelines.
Con: They are owned by P.Enos Kroenke, and I refuse to believe that the universe will not bitch-slap him with a karmic enema year after year after year until his black soul is reunited in Perdition with his Dark Master.
Prediction: Loss to Philadelphia in Divisional Round

Next up: AFC/NFC Wild Card Predictions

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

2017 NFL Playoff Predictions: AFC

It's the best time of the year for NFL fans; as Christmas approaches, so does the opportunity for disappointment, heartbreak, depression, and despair...all those things we look forward to in the holiday season. Today I'm going to look at the front-runners in the AFC; I'll tackle the NFC leaders tomorrow, and I'll take a look at the Wild Card odds next week after this weekend's games. Play along and keep score at home, and as always, all predictions are guaranteed to go wrong.

Ha-ha! I own the referees!
AFC East Leaders: New England Patriots
Pro: Their head coach and quarterback made a deal with the devil that apparently doesn't expire until sometime in the next decade. They also play in the most pathetically weak division in the league, so having six automatic wins means .500 everywhere else wins the division. Oh, and the referees are clearly on Robert Kraft's Christmas bonus list.
Con: The league's most hated team, the goal of the AFC playoffs is to keep them out of their, what is it now, ninth Superbowl appearance? Look for the kind of head hunting not seen since Gregg Williams coached the Saints defense.
Prediction: Loses AFC Championship game

I'm smarter than you!
AFC North Leaders: Pittsburgh Steelers
Pro: Mike Tomlin, the NFL's smartest coach; LeVeon Bell, the NFL's toughest runner; Antonio Brown, my fantasy team savior every week; Ben Roethisberger, the Jason Vorhees of quarterbacks.
Con: They'll have to play the AFC title game on the road in New England; their scoring has been inconsistent this year.
Prediction: AFC Champions

Paying off the refs explains a lot.
AFC South Leaders: Tennessee Titans 
and Jacksonville Jaguars (tied at 8-4)
Tennessee: How the #%@& is this team 8-4?
Prediction: Wild Card Playoff Loss

Jacksonville: How the #%@& is this team 8-4?
Prediction: Wild Card Playoff Loss

AFC West Leaders: Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, all tied at 6-6
This is how many people think I'm going to win a playoff game.

Look, we all know that the Chefs are in freefall, but their next three games are all at home against Oakland, LA Chargers, and Miami, with their final game at Denver, who is a garbage fire this year. I think the Chefs are going to turn it around and go out on a four-game winning streak to take the division. The Chargers are legendary for pooping their pants when the playoffs are on the line late in the season, and I don't trust Oakland to do anything predictable from week to week other than play way below their talent and potential.
Prediction: KC takes division, loses in Wild Card round

Monday, January 19, 2015

Now all my football demons have been cast out...

I've been watching professional football since 1976, when I was eight years old and my maternal grandfather, along with my dad, introduced me to Fran Tarkenton and the Minnesota Vikings. I've been a die-hard Vikings fan ever since, which means that I've suffered a lot of heartbreak. My grandpa was from St. Louis, so I've also followed the football Cardinals until their departure after a dismal 1985 campaign, then welcomed the St. Louis Rams in 1995. The Rams gave us the Greatest Show on Turf, four years of glory, a lonely island in a sea of feckless ineptitude.

My football fandom has not been a total loss. I saw the Rams win what many people think was the most exciting of all the Super Bowls in 2000 over the Tennessee Titans, and I celebrated in 2006 when Peyton Manning and the Colts beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship (what my blog entry calls "The Greatest NFL Game Ever Played"), followed his sole Super Bowl win over the Bears. So it's not like I've never had the chance to break out my copy of Queen's "Greatest Hits" and blast "We Are The Champions" throughout my house.

But for the most part, NFL fandom is an exercise in annual heartbreak. Even the great champion cities of Pittsburgh, Dallas, and San Francisco have lost more season than they've won. For me, it's reached the point where I'm happy if one of my favorite teams makes it to the playoffs (which has been forever for Minnesota and St. Louis).

With that said, the following are my five most heartbreaking NFL losing experiences, all of which were expelled with the same force as Legion being cast into a herd of swine after yesterday's NFC Championship game. We'll get to that in a bit; first, my pain, then my redemption.

Still my favorite QB of all time.
#5. Vikings vs. Raiders, Super Bowl 11, 1977
This was the year I was introduced to the Vikings, who went 10-0 before finishing 11-2-1 and beating Washington and the L.A. Rams to get to their fourth Super Bowl. Then they met the best Oakland Raiders team that John Madden ever coached and lost 32-14. I remember walking out of the house and trudging miserably through the snow before the game was over when I realized the Vikings had no chance to win. I should have just given up then.

#4. Cardinals vs. Washington, 1984
This was the last St. Louis football Cardinals game I ever watched. After taking a 27-26 fourth quarter lead, the Cardinals gave up a field goal to trail 29-27. QB Neil Lomax took the team down in the waning moments to give kicker Neil O'Donahue a chance at a 38-yard game-winning field goal that would have put the Cardinals into the playoffs. Wide right. Four years later, the team moved to Phoenix. I didn't care.

#3. Vikings vs. Saints, NFC Championship, 2010
This was the year Brett Favre came out of retirement (again) and had a simply magical season with the Vikings. Had the referees decided to actually call one or two of the at least 17 roughing the passer personal foul penalties that should have been called on the New Orleans defense, the Vikings probably win this game by two touchdowns. They would have played Peyton's Colts in the Super Bowl, giving me the rare opportunity to root for both teams and be happy regardless of who won. Instead, I hope New Orleans never makes the playoffs again. Ever.

Kurt Warner, HOF (soon!)
#2. Rams vs. Patriots, Super Bowl 36, 2002
The Patriots illegally videotaped the Rams' practice walk-throughs, giving their defense the necessary advantage to derail an offense that was utterly unstoppable that year. Years later,  when the cheating came to light and after the NFL's "investigation," all the recorded evidence of the cheating was destroyed. Yeah, yeah, move along, nothing to see here. I can only take solace in the fact that some day Tom Brady will be too old to play football, and even further into the future, when Bill Belicheck passes away, the devil will finally cash in on Belicheat's end of their bargain.

What Moss meant to the Vikings
#1. Vikings vs. Falcons, NFC Championship, 1998
This is the Rosetta Stone of misery for all Vikings fans. All it would have taken to seal the game in the fourth quarter was a 38-yard field goal by Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed all season. He missed, of course, and Atlanta tied the game with less than two minutes remaining, then won it in overtime. Until yesterday, all you had to say to a Vikings fan was "1998" to either: a) reduce him to tears; or b) enrage him to the point of homicidal psychosis. But thanks to our longtime rivals, the Green Bay Packers, Vikings fans can at last take solace in the fact that we no longer own the worst choke-job in the history of conference championship games.

Here's why my list no longer matters: Up 19-7 with five minutes to go in Seattle, a venue where most visiting teams have no chance to win, Green Bay, led by the NFL's best QB, Aaron Rodgers, goes three-and-out with three weak runs. On the next series, Russell Wilson throws his fourth interception of the day. Green Bay takes over near midfield with less than four minutes to play. Run, run, run, punt. Rodgers never throws the ball.

Next, a Packers defense that had successfully contained Seattle's offense all day allows them to score a touchdown in less than a minute, then loses the on-side kick when it goes through the hands of a backup tight end, then gives up another touchdown by being unable to tackle either Marshawn Lynch or Russell Wilson on long runs, then gives up a two-point conversion that Wilson just threw up for grabs as he was going down, then ties it up with a field goal to send it to overtime (even though it would have won them the game except for the miracle two-point conversion), then loses the overtime coin toss, then gives up a Hail-Mary touchdown pass on the first Seattle possession in overtime.

Go ahead. Let it out.
Count it up. 1) Three and out. 2) Intercepted Wilson AGAIN! 3) Three and out. 4) Gives up TD. 5) Loses onside kick. 6) Gives up go-ahead touchdown. 7) Gives up impossible two-point conversion. 8) Can't score winning TD, settles for overtime. 9) Loses OT coin toss. 10) Gives up game-winning TD on Hail-Mary pass on Seattle's first possession. Ten disastrous events, all coming after they held a 12-point lead with five minutes to play.

Thank you, Green Bay. You've just relieved me of 30 years of football futility. I'd like to tell you that you'll get over it someday, but that day is likely to be a long time coming.

Friday, January 17, 2014

AFC Championship Preview

Well, for most of the country who doesn't have a vested rooting interest in an AFC team, this is the game they all wanted. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, round four: New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos. The last time these two quarterbacks met in an AFC Championship Game, it resulted in what I wrote about in 2007 as "The Best Football Game of All Time." We should probably expect the same this time around.

When these two teams met earlier this year in New England, Denver jumped out to a big lead at halftime and then squandered it in the second half. Like I wrote in 2007, New England is Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger all rolled up into one unstoppable killing machine. And as much as it pains me to write this, I think that's what we can expect to see unfold in Denver this Sunday afternoon. Let me break it down quarter by quarter...

First Quarter: Both teams punt on their first possession, but New England gets the first score toward the end of the quarter after a long drive. NE 7, DEN 0.

Second Quarter: Peyton gets rolling and puts up two touchdowns. Brady follows with a quick drive, throwing the ball down field at will through the porous Denver secondary. Peyton drives the Broncos down field in a two-minute drill that results in a half-ending field goal. DEN 17, NE 14.

Third Quarter: Denver gets the ball first and kicks another field goal. Both defenses tighten up, and each team only manages one TD in this quarter. DEN 27, NE 21.

Fourth Quarter: Brady starts to light it up, once again taking advantage of the fact that Denver's defensive backs are about as effective against the pass as the Titanic was against icebergs. New England scores two touchdowns, while all Denver can muster throughout most of the fourth quarter is another field goal. With less than four minutes to play in the game, New England kicks off to Denver with the score NE 35, DEN 30.

Now is the time where Peyton does what he's done so many times before. With pinpoint accuracy and the calm that comes from the fact that he is a cold-blooded assassin, Manning drives the Broncos across the goal line for the go-ahead touchdown, putting Denver up 37-35. There's only one problem: there are 55 second left to play in the game, and New England still has two time outs.

Brady takes the ball on his own 20 yard line. The Denver pass rush doesn't get within a mile—high, low, or any direction—of Brady at any point. Denver's pass defense brings to mind other notable defensive stalwarts like the French infantry in WW2 or Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, and four plays later, with four seconds remaining, Stephen Gostkowski kicks a 38-yard field goal to give the Patriots the AFC Championship with a final score of 38-37.

At this point, I once again vow never to watch another NFL game for as long as I live. My wife will roll her eyes in long-suffering derision.