Tuesday, January 30, 2007

AFC Championship: The Best Football Game of All Time

I was rehearsing with my friends in our basement band, a '60s and '70s-era classic rock band named "The Rainmakers," when Asante Samuel picked off Peyton Manning's stupid, pointless, predictable, gets-intercepted-every-damn-time corner pass intended for Marvin Harrison and took it in untouched for the score that made the game 21-3 New England. This was the kind of game I had feared yet somehow expected.

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

NFL Divisional Playoffs

Sorry for missing the Wild Card weekend, but one of my students turned me on to a little computer game called "World of Warcraft." I got a ten-day free trial, and I've been sitting, ashen-faced, slack-jawed and red-eyed in my basement on my laptop for the past 240 hours. No kidding, this freaking thing makes meth look like Diet Coke. Don't get it unless you've just won the lottery or something. I suppose I might actually watch this weekend's games.

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