Monday, December 31, 2007
To be fair, Cleveland probably deserved a shot at the playoffs, but they also should have beaten the repugnant Cincinnati Bungles two weeks ago, so you get what you get. The Vikings, of course, need a real-life NFL quarterback, not some guy whose first name is "Tarvaris." Sounds like the new four-door sedan, doesn't it? "For 2008, the new Ford Tarvaris." Guh. Trade for McNabb; heck, trade with Cleveland for Brady Quinn or draft Matt Ryan, I don't care, just get the running game some help!
Okay, now that I've gotten than out of my system, here's how The Sandlot's preview system works. I will make my predictions now for the entire playoffs, but from week-to-week, I'll adjust my picks based on actual wins. When it's all said and done, I'll tally up my overall record.
Wild Card Weekend
Washington at Seattle—I absolutely hate the Seahawks. Mike Holmgren is the most overrated coach in the league, Matt Hasselbeck isn't nearly as good as the "experts" want you to think, and Shawn Alexander's shelf life as a pro RB is set to expire. Add to that the fact that Washington has just won three "playoff-style" (i.e., win or go home) games in a row, not to mention the inspirational factor of playing for their recently deceased teammate, this whole game smells of a road win for the 'Skins.
Redskins 27, Seahawks 20
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh—I'm so sick of hearing the "experts" gush and goo about Jax like a junior high school girl with a crush on the varsity quarterback. They may have one on Pittsburgh in the regular season, but there's no freaking way they roll into Heinz on a cold day in January and beat the Steelers at home. Nope, not even going there.
Steelers 24, Jag-wires 21
NY Giants at Tampa Bay—OK, which Eli Manning do we get? Last week's "almost beat the Patriots" Eli who reminds you of the power of DNA, or QB rating 33 Eli, who makes you wonder if Peyton rubs that Superbowl ring in little brother's face when they gather at Mom & Dad's in the offseason. Given that, plus Tampa's defense at home, I have to give a slight edge to the Bucs, though if I were a gambler, this would be a "pick-em" that I would avoid like the plague.
Bucs 21, Giants 20
Tennessee at San Diego—Two good defenses, two shaky quarterbacks, one great coach (Fisher) against a less-than-average coach (Turner); what's the difference. LaDanian Tomlinson, of course. I'm not picking against LT at home. As long as Turner doesn't do anything stupid—like put the game in Philip Rivers' hands instead of LT's—San Diego simply has far more offensive weaponry, even against a good Tennessee defense. The truth, however, is that if Sunday night's game had been meaningful for the Colts, they could have beaten the Titans by three TDs, at least.
Chargers 31, Titans 17
Divisional Playoff Predictions
Dallas over Washington
Green Bay over Tampa Bay
New England over Pittsburgh
Indianapolis over San Diego
Dallas over Green Bay
Indianapolis over New England
Indianapolis over Dallas
Oh, come on, did you really expect me to pick differently?
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Oh, yeah, I forgot, the people at ESPN think Kansas is good at basketball. That explains everything.
Personally, I think Bob Stoops should be pissed.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
I was, of course, completely geeked out to watch Adrian Peterson, the sure-fire rookie of the year running back for the Vikings, run up and down the Metrodome turf, once again humiliating the Bears and further solidifying the Vikings as the red-hot team that no one wants to play.
Instead of that, I got a running game that forgot to block Brian Urlacher (still the best defensive player in the NFL) as well as not accounting for those cornerback run blitzes that San Francisco used to neutralize AP last week. Goodbye, running game. Hello, Tarvaris Jackson, hello interceptions, hello sacks, hell, oh no, he's throwing the ball downfield into triple coverage again.
I think Brad Childress might still end up being a decent head coach. He's kind of weird—he looks like "Major Dad," disciplines players like "the Great Santini" (if you've never seen the movie, well then, you don't know who Robert Duvall is at all) and motivates the team like Dr. Phil high on the most mellow Columbian Gold you've ever smoked. Yeah, weird.
My earlier comments this season about offensive coordinators serving as head coaches still stands. I think Childress needs to find an OC who shares his philosophy whom he can entrust with the operation of the offense. They also need a QB coach who will point out, as HOF QB Steve Young did last night, that when opposing defenses are stacking eight men on the line to stop the run, that only leaves three d-backs to cover five receivers. Hello, short pass down the middle? Doesn't Childress run the West Coast Offense™?
Anyway, the defense is just great; it looks like the old Purple People Eaters. Other teams simply cannot run on this defense. Their running game has the potential for greatness if the passing game can make defenses pay for stacking the box with 7-8 men. But playoffs? Playoffs? (cue hysterical Jim Mora press conference meltdown...)
Not so much.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
He'll be remembered as a Cardinal hero, a spectacular Gold Glove center fielder who made unbelievable running catches that were tailor-made for SportsCenter highlights. His greatest catches include two against Cincinnati—home and away—where he took away a home run to dead center field, and the running, diving, desperate grab that killed off a Houston rally in game seven of the NLCS in 2004.
Speaking of that series, there might not have been a game seven if not for his most dramatic home run, a walk-off blast in the 12th inning (I think...I'm going on memory and not research, so don't skewer me if I'm off a bit) that sent us to game seven and ultimately, a four-game loss to Boston.
It's fitting that Jimmy Baseball was part of the magical 2006 World Series run, albeit not as integral a part as he had been in the past. It would have been a shame if all those Octobers he spent wearing the birds on the bat had not resulted in a championship. We'll remember him with the long line of other Cardinals heroes from the past, and rightly so.
Edmonds probably only has a year or two left in the tank, if that, and it's doubtful he'll play every game this season in San Diego. But he does get to go home to SoCal, and the Padres are usually contenders in the NL West. I wish him well. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are clearly moving into salary-dump, let's-get-younger rebuilding mode, and this is just the beginning. As Cardinals fans, we have to hold on to our memories, because that's probably as good as it will get in 2008.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
My freshman year, Mizzou went 3-8, but we did beat KU 48-0, and we tore down the goalposts in celebration. Sophomore year, 5-6; Junior year, 3-7-1 (a tie?!); Senior year, 2-9; first year of grad school, 4-7; second year of grad school, 3-7-1 (another tie? yeah, to Indiana...again!).
That's six years of college and a combined record of 20-44-1. This year, they're 10-1. If they beat Kansas next weekend, they'll win the Big 12 North and play Oklahoma (who's getting stomped by Texas Tech even as I type this) for the Big 12 Championship. If they win that, they'll probably play in the BCS Championship Game for a national title.
No, and I've been sober for 15 years now. No kidding.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Colts vs. Jaguars
That was just a dominating performance by the Colts last night. In the past few years, even when Indy's been able to beat the Jags, Jacksonville's always been the more physical team. But on MNF, Indy played superior on both sides of the ball. Peyton Manning was his usual amazing self, hitting Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark with huge, timely passes, and Joseph Addai continued to show why he's one of the best backs in the league. But it was Bob Sanders and Dwight Freeney on the defensive side who made the biggest difference with game-changing tackles, a pick and a safety. The Colts still have to take care of business on the road in Carolina Sunday after a short practice week, but with a win, that will lead to the biggest game of the regular season Nov. 4 when they host the...
New England Patriots
Don't get me wrong, I hate the Pats as much as any other Boston team, in particular because of their arrogant fan base in Massachusetts, but it sure is fun watching a football team that looks like a video game or a ridiculously unrealistic Hollywood sports movie. ESPN.com's Bill Simmons (a.k.a. Boston Sports Guy) has labeled them the "Cobra Kai Yankees." That's great. Unbeatable and Hated. I can't help but smile at Randy Moss's success, though. He's been my favorite receiver since his days in Minnesota, and he's showing everyone why he's simply the best wide receiver since Jerry Rice retired. Unless they lose at Indianapolis (the only game other than hosting Pittsburgh that looks like a possible loss), we're looking at the 19-0 Superbowl champions.
"Red Sox Nation"
Can we please stop using this phrase? Can the original "Cardinal Nation," in existence since the 1940s, please sue these bandwagon jumpers for trademark infringement. For those who no nothing of baseball history (including the aforementioned bandwagoners), Cardinal Nation refers back to the time when St. Louis was the westernmost franchise in professional baseball. Before western expansion and franchise relocation, baseball fans west of the Mississippi followed the Cardinals. Combined with the midwestern broadcast reach of former broadcast station KMOX, the roots of Cardinals fans spreads through more than ten states in the Midwest. I certainly won't deny the historical appeal of the Red Sox throughout New England, but Red Sox Nation? That's just more hype from the Eastcoast Sports Promotion Network.
Okay, so we're up to 13th in the BCS after the Saturday beatdown of Texas Tech and their vaunted #1 offense. I can live with that ranking, but the top ten is just ridiculous. Kansas #9? Are you kidding? Who have they beaten? Mizzou's going to beat them by three touchdowns when they meet at the end of the season. I just wish all the screaming kids in the student section at Faurot Field could really appreciate what they are experiencing. Mizzou has won more games in the past two years than they did during my entire undergrad career (1986-1990). Gary Pinkel is changing the identity of both the team and the fan base from...wait for it..."At least they're trying!" to "We expect to win." It's about time.
Great. Six division titles, one wildcard, two NL pennants and a World Championship. Tell me again, why did we want to get a new manager? Was there someone with a better record available? Tony can leave when Tony wants to leave. Whiteyball was over twenty years ago. Tony LaRussa should already be considered the best manager in Redbird's history. Welcome back, skipper.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
I play pick-up games with friends from my workplace, which, since it's a college, includes some guys half my age with whom I have no business playing. I always feel like Samuel L. Jackson in "Unbreakable" for at least two days after I play. And even though my arm is worse than Chad Pennington's, my teammates insist that I play quarterback.
Why? In our games, the QB is also the play caller, and I'm a great offensive coordinator. I use the run a lot, which is almost unknown in pass-wacky touch football games, again mainly because of my crummy passing arm, and I try to be as creative as possible with mismatches and misdirection plays.
But here's the thing: I'm a terrible head coach. I tried to coach flag football a couple of years ago, and my team was a disaster. We didn't win a single game; we tied the last game of the year. I realized that what makes me a good offensive coordinator—an almost obsessive concern with moving the ball and scoring—didn't serve me as a head coach.
Why not? Great offenses are about "right brain" thinking: creativity, unpredictability, taking goofy chances. But football teams are based on discipline and teamwork, which is the hallmark of the defensive side of the ball. I don't care about defensive strategy. I want to figure out how to beat a defense. It's no accident that my favorite players throughout the ages—Fran Tarkenton, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning—have been quarterbacks.
Look at last year's Superbowl coaches: Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, both defensive coordinators at some point in their career. Bill Belicheck was Bill Parcell's defensive guru. New Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin is a defensive guy. Wade Phillips? Succeeding in Dallas; defensive guy. Norv Turner? Stinking it up in San Diego; offensive guy.
That leads me to the point. I like Scott Linehan. He was a great offensive mind in Minnesota, the reason for all the success between Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss. He also had success in Miami with that offense despite a lack of talent. But he's an absolute disaster as a head coach in St. Louis. He'd probably be a great offensive coordinator, but he's not going to win a game this year with this Rams team. They don't respect him.
No one respects the offensive guy. The offensive guy is weird. We're nerds. Mike Martz is our king, and he wasn't the greatest head coach in the world, either. I'm not saying offensive guys can't make it, but if I owned a team, I'd be looking for a defensive genius. Good defensive guys create good teams. Good offensive guys are better off sticking with the offense.
Hey, there's no shame in being the #3 or #4 guy on the organizational flow chart. Come on, who would you rather be right now, George W. Bush or the President Pro-Tem of the Senate? (By the way, that's Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WVA, and yes, I had to look it up.) So, whether he decides to resign on his own, or whether the Rams fire him, it's time for Scott Linehan to go. I hope he finds success running an offense somewhere. We already have the ideal interim head coach in place: defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. This needs to happen now. If I was the team owner, I'd already be making it happen.
Oh, and one more thing: Vikings head coach Brad Childress was offensive coordinator for the Eagles before he went to Minnesota. What's he done so far? Only relegated shoe-in Rookie of the Year Adrian Peterson to a backup role while starting Tarvaris Jackson at QB, who sounds like a fill-in distant cousin of the original Jackson Five lineup. "Ladies and Gentlemen, here they are: Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and filling in for Michael...Tarvaris!" Just shoot me now, please.
At least Peyton Manning's head coach is a defensive guy.
p.s. Check out the new link at the top of the page for "Tuck's Baseball Toons." Sandlot supporter and comrade Tuck is now publishing his work at The Hardball Times. Support those who support The Sandlot!
Thursday, October 11, 2007
AFC Division Winners
East—New England Patriots (5-0)
North—Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1)
South—Indianapolis Colts (5-0)
West—Oakland Raiders (2-2)
Tennessee Titans (3-1)
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-1)
If the playoffs were held today...
Pittsburgh over Jacksonville; Tennessee over Oakland; Indy over Pittsburgh; NE over Tenn.; NE over Indy.
NFC Division Winners
East—Dallas Cowboys (5-0)
North—Green Bay Packers (4-1)
South—Tampa Bay Bucs (3-2)
West—Arizona Cardinals (3-2)
Washington Redskins (3-1)
Carolina Panthers (3-2; best conf. record)
If the playoffs were held today...
Washington over Arizona; Tampa over Carolina; Dallas over Washington; Green Bay over Tampa (Fla. team at Lambeau in January!); Dallas over Green Bay.
My current Superbowl Prediction: New England over Dallas...hey, that game kicks off at 3:15 CDT this Sunday! Lucky us!
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
This year in The Sandlot, instead of recapping every game, I’m going to take a look at the division leaders, and as we get further into the year, focusing on playoff position and potential matchups, since the playoffs are the only place it matters anyway.
Dallas and Washington are both 2-0, but
Anyone else think
I don’t think
Call me crazy, but I have to go with
Tomorrow: AFC recap
Saturday, August 25, 2007
So much for that.
Look, I know that preseason doesn't count for anything. Indianapolis is something like 1-11 in their last 12 preseason games, and they're the defending Superbowl champions and win their division every year. So just because the Rams looked like the Mizzou Tigers from...well, as long as I've been alive, it seems...last night, that's not necessarily cause for concern.
Except I've never felt like Marc Bulger has the potential to be a championship quarterback. I don't care what his stats say; he looks like Bambi in the headlights of a cement mixer out there. The offensive line looks more like theater ushers--"This way to the quarterback, sir!" and the defense can't decide whether to run a failed blitz or commit another penalty.
Okay, okay, last night was no Steven Jackson, no Torry Holt, no Orlando Pace, and the playbook's nothing but plain, unflavored yogurt. Still, I've been a Rams fan since they relocated twelve years ago, and this team looks like '95-'98 a lot more than '99-'02. The NFC West is weak, as is the NFC as a whole. A team doesn't have to be great to make it to the playoffs, just good. Indy proved that good can be great in January when it counts. Let's just hope the Rams aren't really trying that much, not really trying at all, because the team that played last night got their rear-ends beat to pieces by the worst team in the NFL, the Oakland Raiders. I'm certainly not giddy with anticipation at this point.
Friday, August 24, 2007
But for some unknown reason, the St. Louis Cardinals are still playing baseball like it matters. When it's too hot to step outside and meaningful NFL games are still a few weeks away, at least the Cards are giving the Nation a glimmer of hope, even if it is only for next year.
Now I wouldn't be stupid enough to write this club off again after my bluster and certainty about the fork embedded in their backs last year. Rings and trophies, anyone? But that was also at a time when the club was well out in first place. This team has no legitimate starting pitcher who has experienced previous success in that role, unless you count Kip Wells five years ago in Pittsburgh. Wells was injured last year. Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper were both bullpen staples, and Anthony Reyes has spent the better part of the last two seasons in the minors. I honestly can't think of who our fifth starter is. Is it still Brad Thompson?
Thanks to a weak NL Central in which the Cubs and Brewers both refuse to pull away in spite of better talent and stronger pitching, the Cardinals are sitting just three games out of first place. That would be great if they weren't still two games below .500. The team hasn't been above .500 since April. So what does this all mean?
First of all, it at least makes the games worth checking in on, if not watching outright. This has been for me, for the most part, a summer without baseball. When the Cardinals were playing as bad as they had been in June and July, there was no point in watching. I'm a Minnesota Vikings fan, so I don't need to inflict any further "rooting despite the utter futility of this failure of team" into my sports environment.
This so-called pennant chase is an illusion; the Cardinals don't have the pitching to go on a long winning streak, and the center of their lineup--Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen--are all injured, despite their recent success. Pujols limps around the bases like Fred Sanford, Rolen's shoulder is likely to snap like a dry twig, and Edmonds is something like 177 years old now in dog years.
So why is this still interesting? Two reasons: Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, Yadi Molina, Brendan Ryan and a host of other young players have injected some life into the team. Second, Tony LaRussa has done another typically masterful job of keeping the team focused and playing hard when it would have been a heck of a lot easier to just call Walt Jocketty and ask, "Pittsburgh or Cincinnati?" and then just phone in the rest of the season.
I'm curious now about two things: can Jocketty get another starting pitcher at the waiver-trade deadline next week to mix into the rotation? If that occurs and (BIG if) if Mark Mulder can return in September and pitch effectively--even for just five innings--then the Cards can keep the pressure on Milwaukee and Chicago. Second, if LaRussa decides to return next year (assuming the club still wants him; this seems like a no-brainer, but the Bush administration has conclusively proven that rich people are freakin' stupid), can he effectively manage, motivate, and most importantly, teach, a team with a nucleus made up mainly of young players? I mean, other than Molina and Pujols, all other position players are tradeable, right?
Frankly, if they were 20 games below .500 and fighting Pittsburgh for last place, I wouldn't even care enough to write about it. But at least they're making things interesting...
Thursday, March 15, 2007
first round record: 23-9
second round record: 12-3-1 (third no. for game with two teams not picked)
Sweet Sixteen (4-1)
seven Elite Eight and all Final Four teams still alive
Yeah, yeah, I'm playing five brackets on "The Sandlot" group at ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge. But here at The Sandlot, I only have one chance to put up or shut up. So, if I only had one bracket to play, here's what it would look like...
MIDWEST REGIONAL (5-3)
Florida over Jackson St. (duh)
Arizona over Purdue (I like Lute Olson in the Tourney)
Old Dominion over Butler (Butler has faded badly in the past month; a 12 always beats a 5)
Maryland over Davidson (Maryland has been tough to beat in the ACC)
Notre Dame over Winthrop (ehh...)
Oregon over Miami-OH (My sleeper pick for the Final Four)
UNLV over GaTech (this game could go either way)
Wisconsin over TAMU-CC (I hate Wisconsin's chances, but they'll win this one)
WEST REGIONAL (5-3)
Kansas over Niagara (KU's in most people's FF picks, and [pukes] rightly so)
Villanova over Kentucky (Tubby might keep his job, but he won't get past the other Wildcats)
Virginia Tech over Illinois (the Illini are too slow to run with the Hokies)
SIU over Holy Cross (a popular upset pick, but I'm not biting; stick with the Salukis)
Duke over VCU (no way Coach K doesn't spoil all the Duke haters' upset pick here)
Pitt over Wright St. (I think Pitt will be back in early season form for the tourney)
Gonzaga over Indiana (I don't like the Big 10 teams in speed or shooting matchups)
UCLA over Weber St. (if any team beats Kansas, this is the one)
EAST REGIONAL (5-3)
North Carolina over E. Kentucky (even though Tyler is from my home town, I'm not one of these disgusting UNC homers breeding like rats around here. Yuck!)
Marquette over Michigan St. (could go either way, but I'm picking Big East over Big 10)
USC over Arkansas (should have been Syracuse in the Hogs' spot)
Texas over NM St. (Kevin Durant, baby! I'm watching every single Texas game until they're done)
George Washington over Vanderbilt (Here's why I love GW: "Where did you go to school?" "Uh, it was called George Washington." "Oh, GW! Did you pledge?" "Every day." [if you don't know what movie this is from, then I just can't help you])
Oral Roberts over Washington St. (because God told me so; he also threatened to "call the coach home" if they didn't upset Wazoo)
Boston College over Texas Tech (screw Bob Knight, I'm not picking him to win)
Georgetown over Belmont (the only thing that bothers me about G-Town is that they have become everyone's darling early on, and that usually spells doom)
SOUTH REGIONAL (8-0)
Ohio St. over Central Conn. St. (Central Connecticut State? Is that really a D-1 college?)
Xavier over BYU (any college named after famous Latin bandleader Xavier Cougat is okay with me)
Tennessee over Long Beach St. (forget Pat Summit in a cheerleading outfit; they need to get Peyton Manning out there in an orange jumpsuit! And yes, clearly I have a sickening man-crush on Peyton. I need help.)
Virginia over Albany (I think an entire state should beat a state capital)
Louisville over Stanford (the fact that Stanford got into the tournament makes me think someone on the selection committee has a kid who's trying to get into Stanford)
Texas A&M over Penn (everybody's sweetheart this year)
Nevada over Creighton (another toss-up in my book)
Memphis over N. Texas (I absolutely love, love, LOVE Memphis in the tourney this year)
Florida over Arizona [Purdue]
Maryland over Old Dominion [Butler]—Butler
Oregon over Notre Dame [Winthrop]
UNLV over Wisconsin
Kansas over Villanova [Kentucky]
SIU over VaTech
Pitt over Duke [VCU]
UCLA over Gonzaga [Indiana]
Carolina over Marquette [Michigan St.]
Texas over USC
GW over Oral Roberts (sorry, God) [Vanderbilt over Wash. St.]
Georgetown over Boston College
Ohio St. over Xavier
Virginia over Tennessee
Texas A&M over Louisville
Memphis over Nevada
SWEET SIXTEEN (4-1)
Florida over Maryland [Butler]
Oregon over UNLV
Kansas over So. Illinois
UCLA over Pitt
Texas over Carolina vs. [USC] (I pick Carolina)
Georgetown over GW [Vanderbilt]
Ohio State over Virginia [Tennessee]
Memphis over Texas A&M
Florida over Oregon
Kansas over UCLA
Georgetown over Texas
Memphis over Ohio State
Kansas over Florida
Georgetown over Memphis
Kansas over Georgetown (I hate myself...)
As the tournament progresses, I'll be updating this prediction post with wins and losses, and I'll also do like the "experts" do and make new predictions based on real matchups in the next rounds. For those of you who want to talk smack...well, that why we're here, right?
Sunday, February 04, 2007
1) The Colts offense should be able to score consistently against the Bears defense because the Colts offense is more talented position-by-position than the defenders on the other side of the ball, with the exception of Urlacher. Expect a big game from Harrison, Wayne, Clark, Rhodes and Addai. Oh yeah, that Manning guy's pretty good, too.
2) The Colts defense will focus on stopping the run and forcing Rex Grossman to make the kind of bad decisions that have plagued him all season. I figure he's good for at least three turnovers, most of which should result in Colts points.
3) If Chicago gets a lead, Indy can come back in a hurry. Chicago lacks that ability, and I think Indy will jump out to a big lead in the first half.
4) Tony Dungy is the master; Lovie Smith is the student. I don't think there will be much that will take Dungy by surprise today. I also get the sense that karma has decided to reward Dungy at last. Smith may have technically made it to the Super Bowl first, but Dungy is the real African-American trailblazer in terms of big-name, big-time black coaches.
5) The Colts had the harder road to the game, getting past KC, Baltimore on the road (the league's best defense, for all you Bears lovers), and then Jason and Freddy from Boston. The Bears won two games at home mainly thanks to a sloppy field. Anyone think Chicago could have won on the road in Seattle and New Orleans?
6) AFC Dominance. If San Diego, New England or even Baltimore were in this game, Chicago wouldn't even be given a slight change; the spread would be double-digits. Indy doesn't get the same respect because of the Peyton-haters and the porous run defense (now fixed in three playoff games, btw).
So there you have it. I've only actively rooted for a favorite team in three previous games: the Vikings in 1977 and the Rams in 2000 and 2002. Let's hope I can get to .500 tonight.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Colts vs. Patriots. New England confident, loose, catching all the breaks and the bounces. Indianapolis tight, nervous, afraid to lose, making crucial mistakes and letting the game get away.
The experts will tell you that Indy's last drive in the first half, where they had to settle for a field goal to cut the score to 21-6 at the break was the key to the game, but I think it was actually the defensive series just prior to that, where the Colts defense prevented the Patriots, already in Colts territory, from scoring another touchdown to run the score up to an insurmountable 28-3. Like they've done throughout the playoffs, the defense came up big when it was do or die.
Band practice fizzled out at halftime. The Colts are my third-favorite NFL team now behind St. Louis (home team) and Minnesota (childhood sweethearts—my original man-crush was for Fran Tarkenton). Our lead guitarist openly wondered whether I should be placed on suicide watch. I drove home in a funk, but I had to stop for gasoline. By the time I paid and returned to my van, the second half had started.
By the time I got home—less than ten minutes driving—the Colts had taken the second-half kickoff and driven down the field for a TD to make it 21-13. One of my closest friends, a guy who watched both of the Rams' NFC Championship victories with me at our old house, had come over to watch the second half of this year's AFC tilt. He was already encamped at the television when I announced, "We're right back in this thing."
I follow Gregg Easterbrook's (ESPN's Tuesday Morning QB) law of "kick early, go for it late," so when Indy scored to make it 21-19, I was hoping to see Vinatieri trot out to bring them within a point. No dice. Manning had his mojo working, and Dungy knew it, so they made the deuce and were officially back from the dead.
The Patriots, however, are more undead and indestructible than Dracula, Freddy and Jason combined. Tom Brady is like the Black Knight in "Monty Python's Holy Grail"; you could chop off his right arm, and he would calmly pick up the ball with his left arm and throw a 50-yard TD pass. Now the battle really began, two titanic teams, a proud champion fending off the desperate but determined challenger. The Patriots scored; the Colts answered. New England field goal; Vinatieri hits one to tie it back up at 31. The Pats drive again, stall, let their unsung rookie kicker—the one who replaced the legend now wearing Colts blue-and-white—put them up by three again.
Four minutes left in the fourth quarter; Colts with the ball. The Patriots defense is tired, lineman standing with hands on hips between plays, the sure sign of fatigue. The Colts should run Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes up the middle and let their O-line beat the defense down, right? Wrong. A couple of incomplete passes results in a quick three-and-out. The Colts are down by three, and they're kicking the ball back to Brady, who'll almost certainly not give it back until the clock's expired.
Wrong again. On third and seven on the ensuing possession, Brady throws up the middle and almost gets picked off by Bob Sanders (no relation), who has nothing but green turf between him and six points. The Patriots punt, and now Manning has 80 yards to tie or go ahead with a bit more than two minutes left to play.
The legends of the past almost seem to stand like ghosts on the sideline, watching Manning. Unitas, Bradshaw, Staubach, Montana, Elway. The heir-apparent is not on the field but on the visitor's sideline. Brady, who can make 60 seconds seem like an eternity. Standing in the shadow of history is Peyton Manning, 240 feet away from destiny.
At this point my heart is literally pounding so hard in my chest that I can feel it with my hand placed over my sternum. I tell my friend, "Win or lose, this is the best football game I've ever seen."
About a minute later, the Colts are up by four. Had they kicked for 20 instead of making the deuce to tie, this TD would have only put them up by three, and Brady could have easily brought his team down to tie and send the game to overtime. Was Dungy a prophet? Or did he simply realize that Brady is never done until the clock reads zeroes? The Patriots got the ball with 56 seconds left. 32 seconds later, they're on the Colts 40, and it's like a bad dream I can't stop having—the Rams, the Panthers, the Eagles, the Chargers, the Colts, all fallen just short, too late. Manning has his head down on the sidelines, unable to watch. I cannot bear to turn away from certain doom.
On the next snap, the miracle. Marlon Jackson (no relation to Tito or Jermaine, I think) does the unthinkable and picks off Brady in the middle of the field. He slides down to his back and starts kicking his legs back and forth like a little kid who's just won his Little League championship. There's just enough time for Manning to come out and kneel out the clock.
The dragon has been slain at last. The unbeatable team has been beaten. The quarterback who has always brought his team back has finally been stopped short. Everest has been scaled. Only one more challenge remains: successfully descending the mountain. That comes this Sunday. But from this point on, when men discuss the greatest championship games of all time, this one will stand in legend as the pinnacle.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Indianapolis at Baltimore
Okay, Manning sucks in the playoffs. There's just no other way to say it. Having admitted that, this feels like one of those unpredictable blowout games for either team. I don't see this as a close game at all, even from the start. If Indy's offense can get rolling and Peyton has one of his 350-yard, four touchdown games, it's not even close. But if he throws picks and their offense can't stop the Ravens' ground game, then it's over by halftime for the Colts. By the way, the Ravens only beat three playoff teams in the regular season, and one of them was Kansas City. They lost to Denver, Carolina and Cincinnati, and Indy beat Denver and Cincy convincingly. Most of the "experts" don't give Indy a chance, and Peyton sucks in the playoffs, and Baltimore's defense is unbeatable. The pick is clear.
Colts 31, Ravens 17
Philadelphia at New Orleans
I've spent the entire season doubting the Saints, but not this week. The Eagles are pretty much out of ammo after perservering through a brutal schedule and an unexpected (and well-deserved) division title. But there's a reason why New Orleans beat Philly, the Giants and the Cowboys soundly in the regular season—head coach Sean Payton knows these teams intimately thanks to his time in the division as a Dallas assistant. Look for the Saints offense to have a big, big celebration, N'Awlin's style.
Saints 38, Eagles 16
Seattle at Chicago
Seattle just sucks. The only reason they're in the playoffs at all is because the Rams sucked just a bit more (two field goals worth, to be exact). They got a gift last week from Tony Romo. They don't belong in this game, and the Bears are going to make them pay. I don't care how bad Rex Grossman has been; the Bears defense is probably going to be good for 2-3 TDs, either directly or by setup. This one won't be close.
Bears 35, Seahawks 10
New England at San Diego
Oh, Belichick's a genius! Oh, Tom Brady is the greatest QB ever! Oh, Marty Schottenheimer can't win in the playoffs. Please. San Diego is the best team in the AFC, and their defense is going to expose the fraud that is the Patriots' offense. They will shut down the run, close down the passing lanes and hit Brady hard over and over again. Belichick can game plan to stop LT all he wants; it doesn't mean he has the players to execute against San Diego's offensive line. First rule of gambling: when everyone is picking the same team, pick the other team (see NCAA BCS Championship).
Chargers 27, Patriots 17