With only a year remaining in this decade, we still haven’t settled on a name for it. Should we call it the aughts? The zeroes? The double ohs? The Robert Parishes? You got me. All I know is that I nailed seven of my 12 goals as a sports fan heading into the new millennium: The Red Sox, Pats and Celtics all won titles; the Sox toppled the Yankees in a playoff series, CBS sent a certain someone pack(er)ing, I caught a full-scale basebrawl in person at Fenway, and I attempted (and nearly made) a half-court shot during a break in an NBA game. That leaves me with five goals and 12 months to go. You could call it my Sports Fan Every Decade Bucket List:
1. I want to catch a foul ball during a major league baseball game. I’ve come within about 6 feet twice in the double ohs. Never happened.
2. I want to see the Holy Cross men’s hoops team pull off one March Madness upset. Rather than just leaving me upset.
3. I want to watch the baseball playoffs without hearing the voice of a certain announcer. House rules prevent me from sharing the name. In other news, did you know that, if you start an inning with a home run instead of a walk, you’re more likely to have a multi-run inning?
4. I want one of my readers to strike it rich, purchase an NBA team and name me as general manager. Stranger things have happened. I mean, Mike Dunleavy continues to be the only coach-GM in the league. If the Clippers were a movie character, they’d be the mustachioed guy who bailed on De Niro’s crew in “Heat,” then gets found by De Niro lying on the ground after being beaten within an inch of his life. You know how Mustache Guy’s life ended? He kept whispering, “please, please” to De Niro through battered lips, begging his friend to shoot him and put him out of his misery. And De Niro did. That’s the Clippers right now. I think I have a chance.
5. I want to finish 11-0 against the spread with my NFL playoff column.
That’s probably the most realistic of the five remaining goals. In 11 postseasons dating back to my old Web site, I haven’t finished better than 8-2-1. The good news: We can build on this! We live in a world in which Mike Shanahan (two Super Bowl rings, 224-138 in Denver) just got canned by the Broncos and Herm Edwards (two career playoff wins, 2-22 in his last 24 games) kept his job in Kansas City. Why couldn’t I finish 11-0 for the playoffs? As always, we’ll be leaning on my trusty Playoff Manifesto 4.0 (last updated in January ’06), which should hopefully be useful during one of the single strangest Round 1s in recent NFL history. Consider the following facts:
** All four games have spreads of three or less.
** All four games will take place either in a dome or relatively warm weather.
** Three of the four road teams are favored, a direct violation of Rule No. 8 in the Manifesto (“Beware of the road favorite”).
** Four of the eight Round 1 teams (Arizona, Philly, Minnesota and San Diego) cannot be trusted under any circumstances. At the very least, I’m not allowing you to throw any of them in a teaser. I expressly forbid you. Got it?
** One 8-8 team (San Diego) is hosting a home game. Our crack ESPN Research Separtment tells us that .500 teams are just 2-7 in Round 1 games since 1972. The only winners prevailed during the ’04 playoffs, when the 8-8 Rams beat Seattle and the 8-8 Vikings shocked Green Bay in Lambeau. You might remember Brett Favre single-handedly murdering the Pack in that Vikings game by throwing four picks, followed by the media treating him with kid gloves and making excuses for him afterward. Sound familiar?
(That reminds me, belated thanks to Favre not only killing the Patriots’ season but for forcing me to think like a Jets fan for three hours. Is there any way I can have that experience removed from my brain? Is there a pill I can take? I can’t get the stink of the Jets off me; it’s like getting sprayed by a skunk.)
SPORTS GAL’S PICKS
Zona +1.5, Indy -1, Miami +3, Philly -3
Last Week: 11-3-2
** A 12-4 team (Indy) currently riding a nine-game winning streak is barely favored against the 8-8 Chargers. Only four other times since 2000 have we seen a playoff matchup featuring a four-plus win difference between the two teams — Eagles-Vikings (2004), Steelers-Jets (2004), Pats-Jaguars (2007), Pats-Giants (2007) — and only once did the team with the inferior record pull out a win. That’s right, it was the 2007 Giants. I will now re-enact the Helmet Catch with a live grenade.
** Not one but TWO rookie quarterbacks (Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco) are laying points on the road. To put this in perspective, they will become only the seventh and eighth rookie QBs to start a playoff game since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. The other six? Ben Roethlisberger, Shaun King, Todd Marinovich, Dan Marino, Jim Everett and Bernie Kosar. Now THAT, my friends, is a weird list. Only “Ben” and King won their first games, both played poorly (“Ben” even threw a TAINT) and neither covered: The ’04 Steelers beat the Jets by three, and the ’99 Bucs outlasted the Redskins by one.
** You can wager against Tarvaris Jackson this week, in a legally sanctioned playoff game, and only lay a field goal. It’s true. Even crazier, I’m thinking about taking him.
** Philly’s Andy Reid will be battling former assistant Brad Childress on Sunday in a matchup Peter King described as “teacher vs. pupil.” Teacher versus pupil???? That explains everything! Do you think Reid tutored Childress in classes like “Screwing Up a Two-Minute Drill,” “Hanging Your QB Out to Dry,” “Dumb and Possibly Damaging Field-Goal Attempts,” “Idiotic Short-Yardage Calls,” “Special Teams Collapses,” “How To Blow Your Challenges,” “Leaving Yourself With No Timeouts” and “How To Remain Calm As You’re Getting Booed By Your Own Fans”?
** There are two frighteningly Obvious Picks this week (Atlanta and Philly), a direct violation of Rule No. 2 of the Playoff Manifesto: “When in doubt, seek out the popular opinion and go the other way.”
** Your sideline reporter for the Atlanta-Arizona game? The one, the only … Tiki Barber.
(Move over, Eric Dickerson and Lisa Guerrero, there’s a new sheriff in town!)
** The playoff history of old QBs, young QBs and erratic/skittish/inaccurate QBs just isn’t favorable … and yes, there are five of them involved in Round 1. If that’s not enough, we have three first-year coaches and two coaches with no playoff experience whatsoever.
Add everything up and this might be the all-time Michael Conrad Memorial “Let’s Be Careful Out There” Weekend. Proceed with caution. Please. Here are my Round 1 picks…
(HOME TEAMS IN CAPS)
CARDINALS (+1.5) over Falcons
One of my favorite rewatchable cable movies is “Cast Away,” although one scene has recently started to bug me: After Tom Hanks’ character gets rescued, he goes on a whim to see his former fiancee (Helen Hunt) late at night. They catch up for a few minutes, say their goodbyes, then she lends him one of their cars and he starts driving away. Suddenly, Hunt screams after him and runs down the driveway to catch him … and even though it’s a thunderstorm, he somehow hears her, puts the car in reverse and they make out in the pouring rain before deciding that this can’t work and she needs to go back in the house. This all happens in about 90 seconds. He’s nice enough to give her a lift back to the garage. She gets out and walks into her house completely drenched. And Hanks drives off, presumably closing that chapter of his life.
One problem: Are we really expected to believe that her husband never woke up during any of this?
In Monday’s “BS Report”, Cousin Sal, Aaron Schatz and Mike Lombardi joined Bill Simmons for the first Mega-Playoff Podcast.
To subscribe to the “BS Report” on iTunes, CLICK HERE.
Imagine you’re married to the lady who was engaged to someone who was stranded on a deserted island for four years, dramatically escaped, became a worldwide celebrity and now was back in your town. Imagine your wife is an emotional wreck about the whole thing. Imagine your dining room is covered in maps and sketches as she spent the last few days trying to figure out exactly how Hanks escaped. Aren’t you waking up every time she gets out of bed for a glass of water? Aren’t you jumping at the sound of every car door slam? Wouldn’t the noise of your wife screaming “Chuck!” outside your house in the wee hours send you outside wielding a shotgun? HOW THE HELL DID HE SLEEP THROUGH THIS? How? She made Hanks coffee, gave him their car, opened their garage, screamed his name, made out with him on their street … and he was just catching some Z’s the whole time? I can’t handle it.
Here’s the point: You wouldn’t notice this mistake the first time you watched the movie, or the 10th, or maybe not even the 20th. Eventually? You would notice it. And that’s how I feel about this Falcons-Cards game. The Falcons couldn’t look like an easier pick until you start tossing it around for the 20th time. My turning point happened in Monday’s “BS Report,” when our friend Mike Lombardi confessed that, as crazy as it sounded, he loved the matchup for the Cards. What??? How could that be?
I started picking the game apart. Atlanta has a rookie QB (Matt Ryan); Arizona has an experienced QB (Kurt Warner). Arizona is 6-2 at home; Atlanta is 4-4 on the road with three double-digit losses. Atlanta’s running game has been significantly less effective on the road (check out Michael Turner’s splits); if that trend continues this Saturday, that puts the game in Ryan’s hands … and, again, the history of rookie QBs in the playoffs isn’t good. And if that’s not enough, everyone on the planet loves Atlanta. Why? Why is it so obvious that a 4-4 road team is going to beat a 6-2 home team? What about the crowd? What about the nerves of a rookie QB in a playoff game? What if the Cards can throw on them and turn the game into a shootout? What if they get anything from Edge James, who showed a pulse for the first time in three years against the Seahawks last week?
In that same podcast, Lombardi and I wondered if the Falcons might lack an extra gear for the playoffs. I called them an Ellen Barkin Team; in other words, they exacted the most out of what they had, exceeded all expectations and looked good as long as you didn’t catch them from the wrong angle. If they were at home for this one, I’d love them. On the road with a rookie QB against a team that can score in bunches during a weekend when we have four road favorites, two Obvious Games and two rookie QBs? Not as much. Something screwed up has to happen in Round 1. Might as well be the first game. And if you think there isn’t some “Nobody believed in us except the people in this locker room!” potential with the Cards here, you’re crazy.
The Pick: Arizona 34, Atlanta 17
Colts (-1) over CHARGERS
I anticipated this becoming a bandwagon pick until something weird happened: The Chargers became a sexy (copyright: Matthew Berry) sleeper in Round 1. Look, you’ve heard and read all the same crap as me: Manning struggles against 3-4 defenses; San Diego always plays Indy tough; LDT looked like old-school LDT last week against that putrid Denver defense; San Diego’s crowd can disrupt Manning’s audibles; San Diego is peaking at the right time (by winning four straight against teams with a combined record of 24-40) and so on and so on. Nobody seems to care that Indy has proven — repeat: proven — to be a well-coached, resilient, disciplined, veteran team with a knack for pulling out close games and catching breaks at the perfect times. Or that San Diego fired its defensive coordinator midway through the season and came within a dropped onside kick recovery of going 5-9. Or that Indy hasn’t lost since Game 5 of the World Series. Or that San Diego went 0-5 against 2008 playoff teams. Or that the coaching matchup is Tony Dungy versus Norv Turner. Or that Indy is probably the best road team in football.
You know how the Colts will play this one: They’ll drag out the clock, take 45 seconds per play, keep San Diego’s offense off the field, pick them apart on third downs and get one fortunate turnover at the right time. You’ll see a variety of shots of a crazed Phil Rivers pacing the sidelines and yelping out F-bombs. You’ll see Norv Turner doing a lot of staring. You’ll see Tomlinson standing grimly on the sidelines and debating whether to milk an injury. You’ll hear Madden rave about how well the Colts are controlling the clock. You’ll see the Chargers make a late charge, only it will be too little, too late. The Colts will escape and the Chargers won’t seem so sexy (copyright: Matthew Berry) anymore, more like an 8-9 team who hoodwinked people into picking them.
Two more predictions for this one: First, I see the Colts winning out and giving us a “2 Mannings, 1 Trophy” Super Bowl (Colts-Giants) that could lead to the entire country to get a temporary restraining order against Archie Manning. Second, I think this will be Tony Dungy’s last season — win or lose — leading to a confusing 2009 AFC season with Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan in new digs and new coaches for Indy, Denver, the Jets, Cleveland and possibly San Diego, Kansas City, Cincy and Oakland. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Don’t sleep on this Colts team.
The Pick: Indy 23, San Diego 17
Ravens (-3) over DOLPHINS
The Ravens are really good. Not “they can win the Super Bowl” good, but definitely “they can hang with any elite team and beat all the teams they should beat” good. Their five losses this season: Pittsburgh (23-20, OT), at Tennessee (13-10), at Indianapolis (31-3), at N.Y. Giants (30-10), at Pittsburgh (13-9). Totally respectable. They’ve been cooking a solid January recipe all season (tireless running game, good special teams, ball-hawking defense, smart coaching staff, no killer turnovers) and caught a huge break drawing a Round 1 team that they already thrashed badly in Week 7, can’t throw deep (Baltimore’s one Achilles heel), and doesn’t have much of a home-field advantage (Miami finished 5-3 at home and failed to play a single dominant game). It’s just a perfect matchup for the Ravens — a deliberate, nonexplosive offense that they can swallow up. Flacco won’t even need to throw 15 passes in this game for them to win. And they should.
While we’re here, the 2008 playoffs could affect Playoff Manifesto 5.0 (due in January 2010) with the following revisions and new rules (some of which I introduced last January, but they’re worth mentioning again before Round 1).
** Rule No. 3 (“Before you select a team, make sure Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Tice, Mike Martz, Mike Sherman or Jim Mora Sr. isn’t coaching it”) will be tweaked to just Schottenheimer, Herm Edwards, Wade Phillips, Norv Turner, Anyone Named Mike, Andy Reid, Anyone Described As Andy Reid’s Pupil and Anyone Related to Jim Mora.
** Depending on how Flacco and Ryan fare this month, Rule No. 1 (“Never, ever, EVER back a crappy QB on the road”) could be tweaked to “crappy QB or rookie QB.” Or not. We will see.
** We need to create The Brett Favre Corollary (“Never back an aging QB in cold weather”), as well as the 2007 Giants Corollary (“Be careful betting against a team with serious ‘Nobody believed in us but the guys in the locker room!’ potential”) and the Eugene Robinson Corollary (“Beware of any team that battled a major off-field distraction during the week leading up to the game”).
** New rule: For any playoff game with a 10-plus point spread, just take the points or stay away. It’s for the best. You’re basically flipping a coin at that point.
** New rule: If you’re taking a warm-weather team in a cold-weather road game, you’d better have a really, REALLY good reason. Like, “Half the guys on the home team are battling mononucleosis.”
And if Baltimore takes Miami to the woodshed this weekend, maybe we’ll create a “Make sure that Team A didn’t completely whip Team B’s butt during the regular season before you back Team B in the rematch” rule. Because I think that’s where we are headed with this one.
The Pick: Baltimore 29, Miami 10
VIKINGS (+3) over Eagles
The scariest game on the board and, quite possibly, in the history of mankind. Remember when I picked Philly over Dallas last week because “I hated this pick both ways, changed it 35 times and settled on being more frightened having the Cowboys than the Eagles”? This is that game, squared. The Vikings violate four of my signature rules for a decent playoff team: They’re poorly coached, they have abominable special teams, their QB could self-destruct at any time, and their fans are so racked with doubt about this particular team that you can hear their sphincters collectively tightening during games.
Then you have the Eagles — the Chargers of the NFC, a team that threw away its season and then received a second life when two even crappier teams (Tampa and Dallas) fell apart and tossed them a playoff life raft. They can’t run for short yardage. They can’t win close games (1-5-1 in contests decided by a touchdown or less) and repeatedly blow the most basic clock-management decisions. Their fans are so exhausted from being tortured by them that last Sunday, with the Eagles needing a win against Dallas and a Tampa/Minnesota loss to make the playoffs, my partner for Clippers season tickets (Tollin, a die-hard Philly fan) opted to attend a Mavs-Clips game over staying home and rooting for the Iggles to sneak into the playoffs. Why? Here’s the e-mail he sent me after I jokingly asked him if he wanted the Clips tickets:
- So Clipps-Dallas or Iggs-Dallas? Hmm, that should be pretty easy … an early-season NBA day game between an historically & dysfunctionally miserable team and an aging, underachieving, boring team with zero playoff or global implications … OR a last-game-of-the-year showdown between the football team I’ve rooted for fruitlessly for 45 years, still dreaming that they’ll pick up on Phillies karma and do the unthinkable by somehow eking their way to Tampa and then making the third time the charm … and the hated, evil archrivals who come as close to the Celtics as any pro team ever has in terms of hatability … BUT — even if Al’s Raiders manage to upset the Bucs, making the 4.15 tilt a winner-goes-on, loser-goes-home Instant Classic, raising the specter of Wilbert Montgomery all over again, I just don’t think I can let myself get sucked in again. Andy’s not up to it, Donovan’s not up to it, our receivers aren’t up to it, Westy can’t do it all by himself … after last weekend’s debacle in DC, sitting there with a raging flu all by myself for seven hours, nursing the unlikely Raiders over the Bucs and then watching the Iggs self-destruct against a team who had pretty much folded the tents and whose coach had pretty much said, “ok, just put me out of my misery … ” I can’t do it to myself. I would rather take my kid to a totally meaningless, emotionless NBA game, set the TiVo in case the Raiders pull it off and then torture myself trying to avoid the score on the Staples scoreboards and listen to Sirius on the way home and then close the door and suffer in silence. So yeah, I’ll take the tickets.
Ladies and gentlemen, your Philadelphia Eagles! Before you feel good about their thrashing of the Cowboys, don’t forget that they’re the same team that mustered three points in a must-win game at Washington the previous week, and the same team that prompted Tollin to write that insane e-mail. In the Playoff Manifesto, I mentioned in Rule 2 that “During the second or third round of the playoffs, there’s always one team that looked a little TOO good the previous week and nobody can think rationally about it.” Aren’t we living that one prematurely with Philly after Week 17? Check out their eight road games this year:
Dallas 41, Philly 37
Chicago 24, Philly 20
Philly 40, S.F. 26
Philly 26, Seattle 7
Cincy 13, Philly 13 (tie)
Baltimore 36, Philly 7
Philly 20, NYG 14
Washington 10, Philly 3
And check out Minnesota’s eight home games:
Indy 18, Minny 15
Minny 20, Carolina 10
Minny 12, Detroit 10
Minny 28, Houston 21
Minny 28, Green Bay 27
Minny 34, Chicago 14
Atlanta 24, Minny 17
Minny 20, NYG 19
So we have a 3-4-1 road team laying points to a 6-2 home team playing in one of the only definitive Good Home-Field Advantage Arenas left in football? How does that make sense?
Oh, yeah, I forgot … Tarvaris Jackson. But what if the Vikings come out pounding the run with Peterson and Chester Taylor, take the ball out of Tarvaris’ hands except for the occasional play-action or designed rollout, jump out to an early lead, get their dome crowd going, throttle Philly’s finesse running game with their vaunted rush defense (you have to admit, that’s a nice matchup for them), get their crowd going (and more importantly, the dome noise going), avoid a special-teams mistake, then rely on Philly’s offense to do what it does best on the road: Struggle in short yardage, call needless timeouts, look lethargic, make dumb turnovers, panic and leave their fans punching walls and closing down bars. When you think about it, isn’t this PRECISELY the type of game that the Eagles have routinely squandered during the McNabb/Reid era?
And then there’s this: Of all the younger players in the league, only Adrian Peterson has dipped his toes into Keyser Soze-esque, “I will win this game by myself and wreak holy hell in the process” waters. I watched him do it to Green Bay in Week 9, when he nearly killed the Vikings with a fourth-quarter fumble and avenged it with a maniacal performance on their final two possessions. When he gets rolling and the Metrodome gets behind him, there isn’t a more frightening force in the league. Couldn’t you see him emerge as the story of Round 1 on Sunday night? Heck, maybe even Tarvaris will make a play or two. And when it’s over, they can look into the cameras together and say, “Nobody believed in us!” Except for me.
The Pick: Minnesota 27, Philly 16
Last Week: 7-7-2
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.