“Invictus” failed to deliver

Round 2 picks: Stars align for Jets?

Tom Pennington/Getty Images Cowboys Stadium

New rules help define ’09 playoffs

I finished the 2000s having gained surprisingly little gambling acumen about the National Football League. In fact, I think I got worse. My picks became so shaky that, when I took 10 weeks off to work on a book two summers ago, readers repeatedly e-mailed me wondering if ESPN had suspended me for massive gambling losses, then made “finishing my book” the agreed-upon-alibi (shades of “I have always wanted to play Double-A baseball” and “Elin acted courageously”). This wasn’t true. As far as you know.

So was I asleep last decade? What should I have learned about the NFL in these past 10 years? I’m not talking about innovations like HD, the NFL Network, gigantic plasmas and LCDs, the work of the Football Outsiders guys, DirecTV’s Red Zone package, grotesquely swollen pregame shows (crap, that’s not an innovation), and running backs insulting their coaches on Twitter. I’m talking about big-picture revelations that should have improved my ability to pick this weekend’s playoff games. To wit …

Revelation No. 1: “Home-field advantage” just isn’t as much of an advantage anymore.

I tackled this subject 14 months ago, mentioning smaller advantages for road teams (QB/coach headsets, charter planes, better grass and turf, giant heaters for cold games, giant spray machines for humid games) and settling on one sizable disadvantage for home teams: an influx of state-of-the-art, suite-heavy stadiums that cater to wealthier fans but disenfranchise die-hards and, on top of that, usually don’t sound as loud. And fans just aren’t as blindly committed as we once were. Teams rip us off with parking, restrict tailgating hours, overcharge for concessions and make us endure an endless array of TV timeouts; if the weather or the home team sucks, we’re even less excited to be there.

It’s also impossible to be a modern NFL fan at the stadium. Thanks to DirecTV, BlackBerrys and fantasy, fans multitask on Sundays like CEOs. Wait, the Saints just scored; who got the TD??? There are 250 moments like that. We’re constantly distracted. Once upon a time, when the Patriots were playing, that was the only game I watched. Now? I’m monitoring every other game as well as my fantasy guys and any wagers I would have placed if gambling was legal in this country. It’s all-consuming. You can’t do it inside a football stadium.

So it’s a sacrifice in a way — if we spend a day at a stadium we’re giving up everything else we love about NFL Sundays — but the fan/team dynamic has changed for the worse. Some die-hards still love going. Others don’t love going as much, but they keep going anyway. And there’s a large group in the “I like going once a year, but not eight times a year” camp. Combined with the different acoustics of the newer stadiums, road teams aren’t exactly walking into a lion’s den anymore.

The question remains: Instead of shelling out dough for season tickets (and in some cases a seat license as well), why not just put the money toward a killer TV and watch your team from home? Is it really better to watch a Pats game from the third deck, a million miles from the field, than it is sitting on your sofa in front of a 50-inch plasma with HD? You can even invite your friends, or rotate houses every week. Is it really that much of a dropoff?

(The short answer: No. The long answer: No, but by remaining at home, if you’re a family guy who frequently thinks about things like, “I’m trapped, why did I do this to myself?” and “Instead of getting married and having four kids, I wish I had just driven my car off a bridge at 115 mph,” you might need those 10 getaways per year to recharge your batteries, have a few too many cold ones, smoke a few cigarettes that your wife would have never let you smoke, and maybe even hit on a heavyset girl wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey whose eyes are two different sizes. Or as married Jets fans call it, “me time.”)

Anyway, “home-field” advantage is morphing into “home field.” Check out the home regular-season records:

1990-99: 1,387-939-2 (.596)

2000-09: 1,442-1,084-2 (.571)

Check out the home playoff records from 1990-2002, then 2003-08:

1990-2002: 96-34 (.739)

2003-08: 34-26 (.567)

In the old days, you rode the home playoff teams — especially with smaller lines — unless you were steadfastly convinced the road team could win. Now? Only a few home venues can definitely swing a playoff game: any older dome, Qwest Field in Seattle, Lambeau in Green Bay, Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, Omar Little Stadium in Baltimore, and that’s about it. You think the Ravens are scared to play in Gillette this Sunday? You think Philly is afraid of Dallas’ goofy stadium this weekend? You think I’ve watched too many Dan Dierdorf-called games and it’s making me start sentences with the non-argumentative argument “You think”? Please. As Dan might say, I’m not so sure that the death of home-field advantage wasn’t the biggest NFL story of the past decade. Or at least in the top 200.

Revelation No. 2: The old adage of “you win in January by running the football and stopping the run” is dead.

Mark Sanchez

The importance of the Ten Things You Need To Do To Win A Super Bowl In 2010 goes like this: (1) throw the ball; (2) protect your QB; (3) defend the pass; (4) rush the passer; (5) win the turnover battle; (6) don’t let any unit of your special teams consistently murder you; (7) don’t let your coach kill you with boneheaded decisions or poor clock management; (8) run the ball; (9) stop the run; and (10) don’t give away a chance to finish 19-0 in a way that makes your fans feel like you just whipped horse manure at them.

It’s all about flinging the rock now. Look at the 2009 Chargers, the hottest team in football … and a team that can’t run to save its life. Look at this year’s MVP candidates: Rivers, Manning, Brees, Favre, Brady. All quarterbacks. Look at all the game-breaking receivers these days; every team has at least one (and some have two). Look at last year’s Super Bowl, which turned into an exhilarating playground game of pitch-and-catch. Hell, look at the difference in QB statistics in 1999 compared to 2009:

• QBs throwing for more than 4,000 yards: 1999 (five); 2009 (10).

• QBs throwing 26-plus TDs: 1999 (three); 2009 (11).

• QBs completing 335-plus passes: 1999 (two); 2009 (11).
• QBs with a 95-plus passer rating: 1999 (two); 2009 (nine). (Seven of the top 53 QB ratings all-time were posted this season.)
• QBs with 21-plus TDs who were at least plus-9 for TDs versus INTs: 1999 (six); 2009 (14)
• According to Peter King, there were 866 pass plays of 25-plus yards (third-highest since 1992).

Things changed once the spread offense took off, the NFL cracked down on violent hits to receivers and quarterbacks, and Bill Polian’s Chris Crocker-esque whining after the 2004 season’s Pats-Colts playoff game led to the NFL cracking down on physical play from defensive backs. The rest was history. No lead is safe; no over-under is too high. That’s why I laughed when I read Rex Ryan’s quote after his Jets thrashed Cincinnati on Sunday night:

“We’re dangerous. You have to be able to run the football this time of year, and you have to be able to play defense, and we can do that better than any team in the league. That gives us a chance in every game, no matter who we play.”

Umm … not really. You need to be able to throw the ball, Rex. You need to make big plays. You need to be able to play from behind. The rules reward a team that does those three things. That’s what makes Philly so intriguing. Like Steve Nash’s Suns, they don’t have a big guy, they can’t protect the rim and they need to make 3-pointers (or, in this case, connect on some long plays) to have a chance. Nash’s Suns know if their 3s aren’t falling, they will lose. McNabb’s Eagles know if their long passes aren’t connecting, they will lose. But if either team gets hot, look out.

And that’s what Rex Ryan doesn’t seem to understand. The Jets don’t have a chance in every game “this time of year,” because “this time” isn’t like the other times. There’s a reason Dan Marino spends every waking moment wishing he was born in 1981, not 1961.

(Random tangent: Of all the retired guys in any sport, do you think Marino is the most bitter about someone else’s timing? I was there for Marino’s prime and Manning’s prime. They were basically the same guy: Called their own plays, audibled at the line, barked at teammates, turned solid guys into All-Pros, always made opponents pay if you let them hang around. Manning moved a tad better, Marino had a little bit more of a cannon, but you beat both of them by collapsing their pocket and forcing them to hurry throws. Marino’s prime extended 13 years; Manning hits Year 13 next season. Like John Elway, Marino was mired in the You Can’t Win A Super Bowl Unless You Can Run The Ball And Stop The Run Era … only he never found his Terrell Davis. Manning? He won a Super Bowl with Dom Rhodes and Joe Addai. Basically, Marino resents Manning’s era as much as I resent everyone younger than 30 who spent the past decade single in the Casual Sex Is Not Only OK, It’s Encouraged Era.)

Revelation No. 3: The most potent force in January and February is the “Nobody Believes In Us” theory.

Again and again and again and again. Although we’ve never really figured out why. Every football team should be motivated in the playoffs, right?

My dopey theory: In the age of parity, every contender has roughly the same level of talent. There is no such thing as a juggernaut anymore. Even when the 2003/2004 Patriots rolled off their incredible 33-4 streak, three of their six playoff games (including both Super Bowls) came down to the final two minutes. Throw in the decline of home-field advantage and, more than ever, playoff football hinges on luck, breaks, injuries … and motivation. The past decade featured two of the most defining “Nobody Believed In Us” games ever played (Super Bowl XXXVI, Super Bowl XLII) as well as six teams (2000 Giants, 2001 Pats, 2003 Panthers, 2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants, 2008 Cardinals) that thrived on that mantra.

We always think of “Nobody Believed In Us” only working for the winning team, but the bizarro version is equally dangerous. You never want your team to be too pleased with itself (like the 2001 Rams or 2007 Pats) or overconfident for dubious reasons (see Ryan’s quote above). Instead of the “Too Many People Believed In Us” theory, I’d name this one after Albert Ganz, the villain in my favorite movie of all time (“48 Hrs.”). At the very end, Ganz is shot by Nick Nolte’s character, Jack Cates, looks down at the wound in disbelief and says, “I can’t believe it … I got shot!” A couple of beats pass, then Cates shoots him about 370 more times. So long, Ganz. (At least until he came back as Dexter’s dad.) But you never want to be rooting for the team that has a Ganz moment: Like Tennessee or Carolina last year, or the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. I can’t believe it … I got shot.

Could picking playoff games be as simple as determining the motivators for every matchup? For instance, this week’s Bengals-Jets line shifted 1.5 points toward New York, a team that seems curiously overconfident for a team with a rookie QB. Could you see a convincing Cincy victory followed by Bengals players saying things like, “The only people who believed in us this week were the people in this locker room” and “They did a lot of yapping this week and we wanted to shut them up”? Absolutely. That’s football in the 2010s. A little motivation goes a long way.

Revelation No. 4: If your team is two minutes away from making history by going 19-0, and you happen to be attending the game, don’t jinx the moment by happily posing for a photograph with the scoreboard behind you.

Wait a second … I should have known that? You’re right.


Revelation No. 5: If your team blows a chance to go 19-0 because the opposing QB broke free of a sack while his offensive line was having a “who can commit the most blatant holding penalty” contest, then chucks the ball up for grabs, only to have it caught by a backup wide receiver who’s falling backward and traps the ball off the top of his helmet to keep the drive alive, the only way that sequence can be more gut-wrenching is if that receiver never makes another professional football catch.

(Deep sigh.)

Revelation No. 6: A ravenous 24/7 sports cycle invariably sways our objectivity without us even knowing it.

We’re all about extremes these days. Any fan can be heard through message boards or talk radio stations. Nearly every white male between the ages of 21 and 50 now has a sports column, blog or podcast, and there are more local and national TV/radio outlets with opinions than ever. Five different broadcast networks even have NFL studio shows (Showtime, ESPN, NFL Network, Fox and CBS) that encourage strong opinions and wild statements. So how do you stand out in this mess? By overreacting one way or the other. If someone looks good for a few weeks, or even a week, we praise them like Little League parents. If someone lays an egg, we pick them apart like an angry spouse. These aren’t teams in 2010 as much as volatile stocks.

Buy! Buy! Buy! … No! … Sell! Sell! Sell!

For instance, everyone likes the “red-hot” Jets to upset the Bengals this weekend, conveniently forgetting that they dropped six of seven games midseason before beating the Panthers to end the Delhomme era (Jake went out in style with four picks), winning consecutive road games over the 6-10 Bills and 2-14 Bucs, then mustering seven points at home against the Falcons in Week 15. From there, they whupped the Colts’ second string and the Bengals’ second string to sneak into the playoffs. Suddenly they’re an enticing underdog pick. Huh???? They can win a road playoff game with a rookie QB who finished with 12 touchdown passes and 23 turnovers? If they make a big doody on Saturday — and I think they will — the same people who loved the Jets all week will immediately slip into “Mark Sanchez just wasn’t ready for that kind of test in THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE” mode.

In the era of hyperbole, you have to be careful not to be swayed too easily. The Cowboys aren’t as good as it looked last week; the Eagles aren’t nearly as bad. The Colts mailed a Polaroid of a middle finger to their fans in Week 16, but the road to Super Bowl 44 still goes through them. The Cowboys may have spoiled the Superdome mystique in Week 15, but that doesn’t mean the Superdome still can’t swing the NFC title. Beware of hyperbole for the sake of hyperbole. Beyond that, don’t forget about the effects of hyperbole for the “Nobody Believes In Us!” and “Too Many People Believe In Us!” teams.

So that’s what I learned in the previous decade. That doesn’t mean some of the old Playoff Gambling Manifesto rules don’t still apply — specifically, never wager on a crappy QB (especially on the road), beware of bandwagon picks and only pick an underdog if you think it can win — but I think the newer rules will take precedence. Hence, my new and improved Super Bowl pick: San Diego 83, New Orleans 77.

And now, the Round 1 picks …

BENGALS (-2.5) over Jets

Key Player: I don’t know what kind of quarterback Mark Sanchez will be five years from now. But if I had to LOSE a 2009 playoff game and could pick any starting QB, and JaMarcus Russell was trapped under a rock, I’d think long and hard about the Sanchize. Football Outsiders had him ranked 38th out of 46 QBs; generous considering he was in the cushiest situation of any bad QB. Four starters finished with lower QB ratings than Sanchez’s 63.0 (Matt Stafford, Josh Freeman, Delhomme and Russell), but none was protected like the Jets protected Sanchez. They ran the ball a league-high 607 times (Carolina was second at 525) and threw the ball a league-low 393 times (Seattle was second at 441). Of their 280 first downs, only 131 came from passing (third-lowest total in the league). Most rookies improve as the season goes along, but Sanchez seemed to get worse as the weather turned.

First half: 1,443 yards, 67.6 QB rating, 8 TDs, 10 INTs.
Second half (missed a game): 1,001 yards, 56.6 QB rating, 4 TDs, 10 INTs.

Starting with Week 12, the Jets moved into “Screw it, we’re living and dying with our rushing game” mode and refused to take any chances with Sanchez, even though opponents were stacking the line and doing everything but bringing out signs that said “THROW IT, YOU WUSS!” to taunt them. Against Carolina: 17 passes, 39 runs. Against Buffalo: 17 passes, 43 runs. The telling game was Week 15 against Atlanta, when the Falcons stuffed the run and Sanchez HAD to throw and the Jets mustered only seven points. He just couldn’t make them pay. I see a repeat in Cincinnati. The Jets want to make it through this game without Sanchez having to make any plays … but the Bengals know this.

Possible Playoff Doppelganger: Colts-Chiefs from 2006. Everyone thought Larry Johnson was going to run all over the Colts, but the Colts went into that game thinking, “If Trent Green is gonna beat us, fine, but we’re not losing this game because Larry Johnson ran all over us.” He didn’t. And hey, it’s not like the Bengals are the ’99 Rams, but if both teams are relatively similar, I’ll take the experienced QB over the rookie QB every time.

Possible Tragic Figure Not Named Sanchez: Brad Smith.

Hero You Might Not Have Expected: Brad Smith. He’s the hit-or-miss guy of this game. I’m guessing “miss.”

Relevant E-mail (courtesy of Paul in Haledon, N.J.): “When we’re getting killed by Cincy on Saturday, I’m going to think back to the moment I knew we were screwed — Fireman Ed making a cameo on ‘Inside The NFL.'”

This Game As a “Jersey Shore” Character: The Sammi Sweetheart/Ronnie relationship. Every time you see them on the screen, you’re hoping they show someone else. I’m just not sure which team is Sammi and which team is Ronnie.

Theories in Play: Cincy qualifies for both “Nobody Believed in Us!” and Paul Crewe Memorial “We’ve come too far to stop now” status. It’s a tight-knit team that suffered two tragedies during the season; you can almost imagine Marvin Lewis’ eyes welling up with tears during the pregame speech. I like home teams playing with emotion in the playoffs. They have one quality game in them before Indianapolis obliterates them in Round 2.

The Pick: Bengals 20, Jets 6.

Eagles (+4) over COWBOYS

Donovan McNabb

Key Player: Donovan McNabb. And not just because Philly isn’t as good as Dallas and needs three or four big plays to steal this game. Can you think of someone who defined the NFL Hyperbole Decade better than McNabb? He stinks! He’s great! He can’t win the big one! He’s getting better in the clutch! He has no heart! He has a ton of heart! He needs to go! He needs to stay! I can’t remember a more polarizing NFL career. Because he stunk last weekend, it seems logical that he would play well this weekend. … Right?

Possible Playoff Doppelganger: Eagles-Cards from last year. Back and forth, big plays galore, big passing day for McNabb, team that scores last wins … only this time, we’ll also be treated to dozens of shots of Jerry Jones making the “I Know I’m On TV Right Now, But I Need To Look Cool, So I’ll Just Crane Forward And Jut Out My Chin” face.

Possible Tragic Figure: Embattled Dallas kicker du jour. I can’t even keep track anymore.

Hero You Might Not Have Expected: Andy Reid. Part of me wonders if he played a little possum last week. Hey, Wade, show me everything you have, I’ll keep it relatively simple and take some shots downfield, and if it doesn’t happen, we’ll unleash the real playbook and all our blitzes next week. Could a guy who holds challenge flags like hand grenades and stares at the 2-point conversion chart like it’s written in Swahili also have a devious/ingenious side?

Relevant E-mail No. 1 (from Wayne H. in Fullerton, Calif.): “Thanks for reminding me not to get my hopes up about Reid and McNabb after I already got my hopes up about Reid and McNabb in the playoffs for the eighth time in 10 years.”

Relevant E-mail No. 2 (from my buddy Sal, a Cowboys fan): “Just my luck — we play so well that Phillips keeps his job, then the Redskins hire Shanahan, and now watch us blow this Eagles game.”

Relevant E-mail No. 3 (from Ryan in New York): “I’m sure you’ve seen Greg Garber’s column. What you may not have noticed is that in addition to Andy Reid, his three disciples with head coaching jobs (Childress, Harbaugh, Spagnuolo) all fall in the bottom 10 of that list. Of course, as an Eagles fan, I need to rush to point out that three of the four of them are also in the playoffs.”

This Game As a “Jersey Shore” Character: Snooki. She might get punched, she might throw up, she might eat a foot-long pickle, she might take over a dance floor and do splits while wearing a thong. Relatively unpredictable, always exciting.

Theories in Play: Besides the obvious (after three weeks of getting massaged by the media and raising expectations, the Cowboys are clearly eligible for a Ganz moment), I brought up the Saturday Night Phenomenon in last year’s Round 2 column while previewing Cards-Panthers. Starting with the “Snow Game” (what Patriots fans call “The Tuck Rule Game”), I noticed that one Saturday night game was memorable every postseason; the underdogs had covered the previous five in a row; and 10 of the 17 Saturday-nighters were memorable in some way. Then I wrote ominously, “If you like the Panthers, you’d better really like them. Well, I really like them.”

(Important note: After nine-plus years at ESPN.com, we’re nearing the point that I could release one of those 365-day calendars in which every time you flipped to another day you’d see another embarrassing moment from my column archives. I’m probably about 23 more days away from completing it. Let’s make up one bad prediction just to cross today off: “I don’t care how bad this looks for Conan O’Brien, I think losing ‘The Tonight Show’ is gonna be the best thing that ever happened to him.”)

You know the rest. Jake Delhomme threw so many interceptions that I honestly can’t remember what the final number was. (Five? Six? Seven?) That made for six straight Saturday night underdogs and 11 of 18 memorable Saturday-nighters. Throw in the lack of home-field advantage, Dallas getting too much love from the media, Philly edging into “Nobody Believes In Us” territory, Dallas’ never-ending kicker issues, Wade Phillips being Wade Phillips and the simple fact that it seems far-fetched that an explosive, hit-or-miss offense like Philly’s would shoot blanks for two weeks in a row … I mean, at the very least, couldn’t you see this one going down to the wire? I want the points.

The pick: Dallas 33, Philly 31 (Eagles cover).

PATRIOTS (-3) over Ravens

Key Player(s): Can Baltimore’s passing attack come through in a nail-biter? They blew winnable games in New England and Pittsburgh because of dropped passes, and Joe Flacco looked slightly overwhelmed in big spots against the Steelers (the first time), Colts and Packers. If a computer was simulating these games, the Ravens would look fantastic. (In fact, Football Outsiders had them ranked as their No. 1 team in 2009.) But there’s something missing with them; just a steady stream of dropped passes, bad penalties and missed field goals at the worst possible times. In the old days, the Patriots feasted on teams that killed themselves. Now? Hard to say.

Fred Taylor

Relevant E-mail (from Charlie in Ohio): “I believe Jason Voorhees is still alive, only now he goes by Bernard Pollard.”

Possible Playoff Doppelganger: Colts-Pats from January 2004. Cold and physical, with special teams, turnovers and mistakes taking precedence. Sadly, no potential for the Manning Face unless Flacco dramatically overachieves.

Strange Gambling Advice: Even though I think New England will win, I like Baltimore’s Super Bowl odds (25-1) as a long-shot wager. Why? Because they only need to prevail in one nail-biter to get over that “there’s something missing with us” hump. Weird comparison, but I was watching “Basic Instinct” the other night and thinking about how insane it was that Sharon Stone — who put herself on the Smoking Hot Map in 1984 with “Irreconcilable Differences” — toiled away for eight solid years before “Instinct” made her a superstar. Every time it seemed like she might take off (“Action Jackson,” “Total Recall”), it just didn’t take. When it finally happened, I only remember being surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner. The tools were there. You could say the same about the 2009 Ravens.

Possible Tragic Figure(s): Jonathan Wilhite, Billy Cundiff (tie).

Hero You Might Not Have Expected: Fred Taylor.

This Game As a “Jersey Shore” Character: The Situation. Familiar, lovable, riveting … and just like The Situation, the Ravens never seem to seal the deal when it matters. Although it SEEMS like they’re doing business.

Theories in Play: The Pats were a smoke-and-mirrors team to some degree; they didn’t play one great game against a good team, struggled mightily against the pass and were predictable offensively. It had all the makings of one of those “we just didn’t have it” years, but everyone was overrating them as a contender. Now, Wes Welker’s soul-crushing injury and news of Brady’s various injuries restored the natural order for them: They went from overrated and undefinable to slightly underrated and definable. They’re the banged-up, grind-it-out, everyone’s-underestimating-us, teeming-with-pride Patriots again. The crowds have been spotty for the past few years, but I’m expecting a monster effort Sunday. Everyone loved Welker: players, coaches, fans, everyone. The rest of the season is for him. Too bad it probably won’t last past next week.

The Pick: Patriots 24, Ravens 16.

Packers (PK) over CARDINALS

Key Player(s): Too many injured, might-play/might-not-play Cardinals to count. This line moved three points this week; for once, it didn’t feel like a red flag. The Packers are healthier and peaking at the right time; their 2009 road record was better than Arizona’s 2009 home record. I have not heard anyone successfully make a case for Arizona this week that didn’t involve the words “home field,” “God” and “puppies.”

Relevant E-mail (from Chip at Marquette in Milwaukee): “I can’t concentrate on the Cards with Favre waiting for us in Round 2. If we lose to Favre three times in one season, that will be the worst thing that happened here since Dahmer. I’d say it was the worst ever, but Dahmer kept male organs in jars in his refrigerator. We’re never topping that.”

(Important note: I made up that last e-mail. Couldn’t resist. But what happens if Favre knocks the Packers out of the playoffs? Do we put yellow police tape around the entire state of Wisconsin?)

Possible Playoff Doppelganger: Panthers-Bears from January 2006. Chicago had home field; Carolina was better.

Possible Tragic Figure(s): The Packers’ kickers will submarine them at some point. Jeremy Kapinos finished last for punting net and only put 15 of his 66 punts inside the 20 (second-worst of all starting punters); Mason Crosby missed nine field goals (most of any playoff kicker). That reminds me: Someone attended one of my book signings wearing a Crosby jersey. When I asked the guy if he was related to Crosby, he said, “No, I just like him.” My signings pumped out “Yup, these are my readers” moments at almost warp speed. It was phenomenal.

Hero You Might Not Have Expected: Steve Breaston.

This Game As a “Jersey Shore” Character: Pauly D. No real surprises in store, but you will be entertained.

(By the way, I’m devastated that none of these Round 1 games could be compared to J-Woww, the brawling boozer with up-and-down looks who compared herself to a praying mantis because she likes to effectively rip guys’ heads off after she has sex with them. Maybe next week. I’m thinking Chargers-Bengals for that one.)

Theories in Play: Last decade’s new rules are in play for the Pack (passing trumps running, home field doesn’t matter as much) and Cards (potentially a textbook “Nobody Believes In Us” team, although I get the feeling they don’t believe in themselves, either). From the old Playoff Manifesto, four other beauties point to Arizona: “beware of the road favorite” (Green Bay will be favored by Sunday), “never follow the general public on a bandwagon pick,” “beware of a coaching mismatch” and “pay special attention to special teams and turnovers.”

Normally, I would trust the process and take the Cardinals here.

I am taking the Packers. For three reasons. First, they have a better team. Second, I don’t think they have Ganz Corollary potential because of their agonizing loss to Pittsburgh in Week 15, which happened just late enough that it left the right kind of sour taste for the postseason. And third, two playoff matchups seemed to have been predestined since the middle of the season: “Pats-Colts II: Fourth and Another Two” and “Favre-Packers III: Apocalypse Now.” As it stands right now, both of them could happen this month. Good God almighty.

The Pick: Packers 31, Cardinals 23.

Last Week: 10-6
Season: 133-116-5

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy’s World. His new book, “The Book of Basketball,” is now available.

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