Before we get to my Round 2 picks, here were the most memorable things about Round 1, in no particular order
• Seattle reviving the “Nobody Believed In Us” theory so emphatically that it’s hard to figure out how it isn’t the Super Bowl favorite right now. The Seahawks even gave us a signature “Nobody believed in us!” NFL Films moment — after beating the Saints, cameras caught Pete Carroll wrapping up his postgame speech by telling them they’re going to shock the world a second time in Chicago, then saying, “Nobody thinks it’s gonna happen, except the guys in this locker room — AND THAT’S ALL THAT MATTERS!” That was followed by Lawyer Milloy chanting “We all we got!” and his teammates chanting back, “We all we need!”
“We all we got!”
“We all we need!”
“We all we got!”
“We all we need!”
“We all we got!”
“We all we need!”
(And I’m supposed to pick against Seattle this week?)
• A comeback weekend for obscure white receivers! How ’bout Kevin Curtis still kicking around? How ’bout Brandon Stokley catching a few postseason balls before his inevitable next concussion? How ’bout Blair White and Riley Cooper failing to come up with what would have been game-clinching catches? And where were Tim Dwight and Joe Jurevicius for all of this?
• Peyton Manning’s playoff record slipping to 9-10. Nine and ten! Granted, a few weren’t his fault (the losses to the ’05 Steelers and ’07 Chargers, to name two), but isn’t it fascinating that (A) Indianapolis was favored in seven of those losses; (B) Manning’s playoff record in games decided by six points or less is 1-6; (C) Tom Brady won 10 straight playoff games before losing his first; (D) of any quarterback with eight or more playoff wins, only Manning and Dan Marino have losing records; and (E) the combined playoff record of Joe Montana, Brady, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw is 78-28?
• A Chiefs season rumored to be disintegrating partly because of tension between coach Todd Haley and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and either coincidentally or uncoincidentally, their chances against Baltimore fell apart immediately after a fourth-and-1 sweep that got stuffed for minus-6 yards. If you called that play in a video game, your opponent would look at you after he squashed it and say, “Really?”
• The Eagles crushing their fans with one of their patented Andy Reid Era losses — you know, the ones in which they fall behind early, look like crap, come charging back and, just when Eagles fans drop their guard, the team kicks them in the teeth again. If “The Shawshank Redemption” had been about two Eagles fans, it would have ended with Red and Andy hugging in Mexico then being caught by local police. As @tbookman tweeted after, “On behalf of all Eagles fans — would you do us all a favor and just shoot us? Please?”
• Atlanta clinching the No. 1 seed, then somehow ending up with a red-hot Packers team while Chicago gets the 8-9 Seahawks. Huh? I still say the highest AFC/NFC seed should get to pick its opponent in each of the first two rounds. Imagine the Seahawks in their locker room in Atlanta screaming at each other, “They wanted us well, they’re getting us!”
• Aaron Rodgers steadily moving toward “You’re going to have to mention me any time you’re sitting at a table with three other talking heads gushing about Manning, Brees and Brady” territory.
• Matt Hasselbeck enjoying one of those Bishop Pickering “this is the best day of my life” games from start to finish — he even walked out of the stadium holding his son on his shoulders as the crowd cheered. There’s an 80 percent chance he’s getting struck down by lightning this weekend.
• Two media darlings getting free passes for shaky playoff performances. We already mentioned Manning, who didn’t take enough heat for blowing two pivotal fourth-quarter moments (his third-and-7 audible to Dominic Rhodes at New York’s 15, and his sloppy third-down throw to a wide-open White that could have clinched the game). But what about Sean Payton’s stinkbomb in Seattle? How bad were those pooch kickoffs that shortened the field for Seattle? Why weren’t they blitzing Hasselbeck? How could they not do a better job of protecting Roman Harper once it became clear that Seattle was targeting him? What about two of his players just blatantly quitting during that now-famous Marshawn Lynch touchdown jaunt? And how Payton could get outcoached that badly by
• Carroll, who broke Matthew McConaughey’s “We Are Marshall” record for “most fist pumps, happy stomps and delighted runs onto the field in two hours.” I never imagined Carroll’s high-energy routine would work in Seattle, simply because I watched it bomb in New England so dramatically that we nearly deported him to Nova Scotia. For the past two weeks? It worked. Nobody thinks it’s gonna happen, except the guys in this locker room — AND THAT’S ALL THAT MATTERS! I can’t wait to say that to my son when he’s finally potty-trained.
• Al Michaels saying of LaDainian Tomlinson, “That’s the only thing left on his résumé, Chris — a great postseason performance.” That’s like saying, ‘That’s the only thing missing from Chris Rock’s résumé, Chris — a great movie.”
• This e-mail from Justin in D.C.: “What would you say the odds are on NFL coaches within the next few years switching from play charts to iPads to serve the same function? If it did happen, I’d bet on Andy Reid to have the first problem with it.” Nobody’s taking that bet.
• Seattle demolishing the “We need a rule so only teams .500 or better can make the playoffs!!!” argument. Fun while it lasted. And yes, the past three .500-or-under playoff teams won their first games.
• The Jets smartly using Antonio Cromartie for a couple of second-half kick returns, with Cro unleashing a humongous return to set up their game-winning drive. Playoff teams don’t do this nearly enough; it’s win or go home, so your philosophy should always be “Let’s do everything we can to win this game” AND “What moves can I make that would put the fear of God into my opponent?” As a Pats fan, trust me: I don’t want to see Cromartie returning kicks this weekend. Just like I wouldn’t want to see Ed Reed returning punts if I were a Pittsburgh fan.
• Put it this way: if the NFL Network ever created a countdown show called “The 100 Worst Timeouts Ever,” Jim Caldwell would be on the cover of the DVD box. He somehow spawned a cousin to the Peyton Manning Face — the Peyton Manning “F— This, Just Let ME Coach” Face.
• Inside the NFL’s second replay of Lynch’s crazy touchdown run. One of the best NFL Films replays ever — I loved seeing the crowd jumping up and down in the background even as the run was still going on. By the way, how ’bout Tracy Porter getting stiff-armed to the ground, getting up, then giving up with 10 yards to go when he had a clear angle? I don’t think the NFL is going to be splicing that sequence with Saints fan reactions for its next NFL playoffs commercial.
• The 10 million people who tweeted some variation of the “Rex Ryan advanced thanks to someone’s foot!” joke after Nick Folk’s game-winning field goal. I thought the entire joke might trend.
• Those last two minutes of the Eagles-Packers game, when it seemed like Green Bay left the door open just enough that Michael Vick was going to barge through it (shades of San Fran and the McNabb/Mitchell game a few years ago). Didn’t happen but it was really freaking exciting. Do you think Green Bay’s fans have exhaled yet?
• Roger Goodell steadfastly insisting on an 18-week season after we just watched New Orleans try to win a playoff game with an eighth-string running back.
• And finally, this e-mail from Brad in Seattle: “Add this to your next Playoff Manifesto: Don’t rely on a dome team, from the South, who’s never won a road playoff game, making a cross country trip, on a shortened week, to cover a double-digit spread, when the home crowd can be so raucous that they’ve registered on the Richter scale.” Noted.
One story before we get to the Round 2 picks: After years of refusing to acknowledge Oklahoma City for stealing the Seattle SuperSonics, I bent a little over the last few months (calling them “Oklahoma City” or “OKC” in columns), simply because their fans can’t be blamed for what happened. On the final Wednesday in December, I even flew there to catch a home game, setting off this chain of events
1. That night, I had my first encounter with a ghost. (Check the sidebar of this column for details.)
2. Four days later, my neighbor mistakenly thought my friend Dicky was trying to rob my house — actually, he was holding a Christmas gift and a Starbucks coffee and coming over to watch football — so she called her security company, and somehow, this led to seven LAPD cops raiding my backyard before realizing that burglars usually don’t watch four football games at the same time in their socks while eating bagels.
3. That same night, the Seahawks beat St. Louis and cost me $13,000 (and eighth place overall) in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest.
4. A week later, the Seahawks shocked New Orleans, ruined a three-team parlay that Cousin Sal and I had been cultivating all week, and cost me what could have been a perfect weekend of playoff picks.
5. This week, my son came down with pinkeye, I got a ticket for an illegal U-turn just 50 feet from my daughter’s school, and we found out that the a-hole who stole my wife’s iPhone last month made $600 worth of cell phone calls to Cuba before we shut it off.
Should I keep going? I will scream this as loudly as possible (and in all caps): I AM SORRY, SEATTLE. I SHOULD NOT HAVE GONE THERE! OK? OK!
(This better not be leading to Seattle making the Super Bowl, beating my beloved Patriots as 14-point underdogs with Pete Carroll, the first coach I ever consistently made fun of in my “Sports Guy” column, as the head coach. If so, that’s probably it for me. I’m giving up on American sports, moving to England, throwing myself into the Premier League and never coming back. And you think I’m kidding.)
On to the Round 2 picks
(Home teams in caps)
STEELERS (-3) over Ravens
Key Player: Ben Roethlisberger. Allow me to be the 25,678th person to mention this week that (A) these teams are dead-even, and (B) every time they play, it’s a three-point game. Can you really bet against Roethlisberger in that situation? You know he’s connecting on one deep touchdown to Mike Wallace. You know he’ll pull about eight crazy plays out of his butt, including the signature one in which three defenders bounce off him, he scampers around for a few seconds, then finds someone 35 yards downfield. You know he’s home. You know he thrives in these ugly, hard-hitting games. He’s 8-2 in the playoffs why go against him? Because for the eighth straight year, Ray Lewis thinks this is the best team he’s played on since the 2000 Super Bowl team?
Possible Playoff Doppelganger: Steelers 23, Ravens 14 (Jan. 18, 2009). A brutally physical game ends with a Pittsburgh cover when Joe Flacco, having treaded water for 56 minutes, finally submerges with a touchdown pick. One of my favorite covers of the decade.
Relevant E-Mail (from Tammy in Cleveland): “According to KC Joyner, Ben Roethlisberger might be on pace for a better career than Tom Brady. One of the metrics Joyner used: ‘Bad decision percentage.’ I guess we’re only talking on the field, KC?”
Hero You Might Not Have Expected: Emmanuel Sanders. Who, by the way, has one of the great “This name could have gone in 12 different directions” names of all time. You could have sold me on Emmanuel Sanders being a supermodel, a child TV star who once sued Michael Jackson, a wide receiver, an R&B singer, a soft-core porn movie title, a sideline reporter, a Revolutionary War hero, a college, a prep school
Possible Tragic Figure: On my podcast last week, Mike Lombardi mentioned how the Ravens’ offense is like a restaurant that has too many things on its menu; instead of concentrating on 8-12 signature dishes, it tries to make every possible dish and ends up doing nothing memorably. I thought that was a brilliant way to put it, and also, it made me hungry. Anyway, in this analogy, Flacco is the beleaguered chef trying to make 30 different dishes at the same time. You can’t do that in Pittsburgh. Not against this defense. Sorry.
Obscure Gambling Tip: You can bet $100 to win $110 that the first score of this game will NOT be a touchdown, then be the only guy in the room cheering wildly at a 3-0 lead.
“Jersey Shore” Parallel: J-Woww vs. Sammi. They hate each other so much that there’s not even much talking anymore; two or three times a year, they just drop the gloves and go. And it’s always close. By the way, have you noticed the parallels between J-Woww-Sammi and Ali-Frazier? An epic first fight ending up in an upset, followed by a lackluster second fight with the loser of the first one getting revenge we only need the Thrilla in Manila of catfights to take us home.
Theories In Play: Nothing jumps out beyond “Don’t be swayed by home-field advantage if the game is being played in a state-of-the-art stadium,” unless you think Flacco qualifies for the “Never bet on a shaky QB on the road” theory. If the Steelers blow out Baltimore (or vice versa), we might have to create an “Anytime talking heads spend the entire week saying emphatically, ‘Whatever happens, it’s going to be a three-point game like it always is,’ prepare for a double-digit win.”
The Pick: Steelers 24, Ravens 16
FALCONS (-2.5) over Packers
Key Player: James Starks has just enough Buster Douglas where-the-hell-did-he-come-from-and-how-did-nobody-know-he-was-THIS-good potential that it has to be mentioned. The 2010 Packers were one of those “If they could only ” teams. If they only had a running back. If they only stopped shooting themselves in the foot. If they only stopped letting opponents hang around Does Starks solve their biggest “If they could only ?” If he’s named the Super Bowl MVP and weighs 340 pounds in two years, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Possible Playoff Doppelganger: New Orleans 27, Philly 24 (Jan. 13, 2007). A topsy-turvy, semi-sloppy, entertaining game with a balanced dome team prevailing thanks to a few big plays and an extremely loud crowd. Bonus points because the Saints beat Philly by three in the regular season as well (just like Atlanta squeezed by Green Bay in November).
Relevant E-Mail (from Dave in Carmel Valley): “Has Aaron Rodgers reached Ron Burgundy status? ‘Aaron Rodgers is good. I mean really good. HEY EVERYONE! COME SEE HOW GOOD AARON RODGERS IS!’ I think so, and I’m a Bears fan. That guy scares me.” Agreed.
Hero You Might Not Have Expected: Me. I think I’m the only one picking Atlanta this week. Nobody believed in this column except for the guy writing this column! I all I got! (I all I need!) I all I got! (I all I need!)
Possible Tragic Figure: Mike Smith. Did he learn from that Monday night loss to New Orleans in Week 16, when the Falcons played missionary-position football and never tried to actually win the game? In other words, did he treat his Schottenheimer Syndrome? Did the team’s doctors get him on the right meds for the playoffs?
Obscure Gambling Tip: You can go against both Boston College quarterbacks this weekend (Matt Ryan and Matt Hasselbeck), parlay the Packers and Bears to win ($100 to win $168), and if it’s working, you can pretend you persuaded two former Boston College stars to shave points for you.
“Jersey Shore” Parallel: The Packers are like Ronnie with Sammi — masterful at digging themselves out of holes, capable of rebounding from any mistake, overvalued and overconfident, and eventually, they’re going to run out of luck and get caught.
Theories In Play: “Beware of teams that looked a little too good in Round 1,” “Beware of the Obvious Game,” and “Don’t ignore turnovers and special teams” and we might be adding “Don’t take a Mike McCarthy team in a loud dome” if Green Bay blows this one with dumb penalties, a few untimely turnovers and a special-teams breakdown. That’s what I’m banking on. Should we create an “I Can’t Believe We’re the No. 1 Seed And Nobody Believes In Us” Theory for Atlanta right now, or just wait until after the game?
The Pick: Falcons 26, Packers 20
PATRIOTS (-8.5) over Jets
Key Player: I keep thinking of Bill Belichick going into his office last Sunday, popping in that Colts-Jets tape, watching Mark Sanchez’s passes sailing away like helium balloons at a 5-year-old’s birthday party, then thinking to himself, Should I just start scouting Pittsburgh and Baltimore now?
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Possible Playoff Doppelganger: Cowboys 34, Eagles 10 (Jan. 10, 1993). I thought we’d go way back to mix it up. What about the ’92 Cowboys as nine-point favorites against a bitter division rival in Round 2? Maybe the Pats won’t celebrate the game at the White House by snorting a pound of cocaine afterward, but everything else could unfold the same way.
Relevant E-Mails (from my friend Jay): “I want [Danny] Woodhead to drop-kick the extra point when we’re up 34-3” and “I’m so looking forward to Belichick giving Ryan a completely perfunctory handshake in the middle of the field. Message: You’re just another guy to me. Now get out of my way.” Five months of Rex Ryan bluster has sent Patriots fans into full-fledged “Eff You” Mode. If you told Pats fans, “You could have a 100 percent chance of winning by three, or a 60 percent chance of winning by 50 and a 40 percent chance of losing,” we’d all take the three-point victory but only after a ton of deliberation.
But you know what? I love Rex Ryan for this. My favorite league (the NBA) has been compromised by a buddy system and a commissioner who seems to be worried that two guys yapping competitively on a basketball court could lead to guns being drawn or another Kermit Washington punch. He’s done his best to remove all traces of animosity from his sport, for better and worse. Rex and the Jets thrive on that animosity. Or they like to think they do. At least they’re interesting. And now that we have that settled, I hope the Pats win by 40 and Danny Woodhead drop-kicks the last PAT.
Heroes You Might Not Have Expected: Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski or, as they’ll be known when we combine them in my fantasy league next year, Aarob Gronkandez. Any time you can team up Gronkandez and Ben-Danvis Greenwood-Ellishead, you have something special.
Possible Tragic Figure: If the Jets pull off an upset, we’ll look back at Wes Welker’s clever press conference (heavy with deadpan foot references) as the turning point. I’m already dreading Monday’s New York Post with Welker’s picture and “FOOT IN MOUTH” as the headline. Did I just jinx it from happening? Please tell me I did.
Obscure Gambling Tip: The AFC is favored by only four points over the NFC in the Super Bowl. On a neutral field right now, I think Vegas would favor the Patriots by six over Green Bay, seven over Atlanta, 14 over Seattle and 8½ over Chicago. But what do I know?
“Jersey Shore” Parallel: On this week’s show, Snooki said, “I will pee in a bush, I will poop in a bush, and I will hide in a bush.” Is it a bad sign for Jets fans that the quote made me think of Mark Sanchez?
Theories In Play: “Never take a shaky QB on the road,” “If you’re picking an underdog, you better think it can win,” “Don’t be a hero, just try to win money,” “Before you make a decision, take one last look at the quarterbacks” and “Never take the cameraman in multiple foot-fetish videos in a playoff game against Bill Belichick.”
The Pick: Patriots 34, Jets 17
Seahawks (+10) over BEARS
Key Player: I planned on taking the Bears all week — thinking they would throw with impunity on Seattle like Brees did last weekend — until my friend Connor asked me, “Wait, why should I trust Jay Cutler laying 10 points in a playoff game again?” Cutler hasn’t thrown for 250 yards since Week 7. For the season, he threw 16 picks, fumbled nine times and got sacked 52 times. His career record in the NFL? 24-29. His career record at Vanderbilt? 11-34. His career number of playoff games (college or pro): 0. His offensive coordinator is the immortal Mike Martz, who has a storied track record of stubbornly out-thinking himself in big games. And he isn’t exactly inspiring as a leader, as Rick Reilly pointed out in a recent column. Which brings me back to our original question: Why should I trust Jay Cutler laying 10 points in a playoff game again?
Possible Playoff Doppelganger: Cardinals 33, Panthers 13 (Jan. 10, 2009). Rare combination of “shaky team peaking at the right time” and “overvalued favorite that wasn’t that good to begin with.” FYI: Since 2004, seven teams have been favored by nine points or more in Round 2. Only one covered (by a half-point, no less). And three lost.
Relevant E-Mail (from Keith in Suffolk): “How could you bet against the Seahawks [in Round 1]? Don’t you know that when Pete Carroll is allowed to coach on a Saturday and pay his players, he’s practically impossible to beat?” For the record, Bears-Seahawks takes place on a Sunday.
Relevant E-Mail (from Brian in Chicago): “The Bears are the luckiest team in the history of the NFL. Every week it seems like they get a horrendously lucky break, beginning in Week 1 with the Calvin Johnson catch/no catch and continuing throughout the season. That is why, as soon as the Seahawks won against New Orleans, I took ALL of the money I had won through pools and fantasy this year (I had a great year, $500 total winnings) and bet it on the Packers to beat Philly. Why? Because the Bears are the luckiest effing team in the NFL — if the Packers won, then Chicago would get Seattle at home. You know the rest. Has there ever been a team this lucky?”
Hero You Might Not Have Expected: Can Seahawks rookie Russell Okung hold Julius Peppers sackless again? And is there a more secretly fun football term than “sackless”?
Possible Tragic Figure: If the Seahawks get bounced in this round, Lynch’s “One of the greatest runs in playoff history!” moment will suffer historically. It’s inevitable. Ask yourself this: When was the last time you had a conversation about Chris Burke’s walk-off homer in the 18th that sent Houston to the 2005 NLCS? Had the Astros won the whole thing, it would have been legendary. But they lost, so nobody cares. Although I hope and pray it inspires the NFL Network to count down the “100 Greatest Runs of All Time.” You know, right after they finish my “100 Greatest Timeouts” show.
Obscure Gambling Tip: Seattle has 20-1 odds to score the most points of any Round 2 team. Since Thanksgiving, Chicago gave up 26 to Philly, 36 to New England and 34 to the Jets all at home. Hmmmmmmm.
“Jersey Shore” Parallel: The Seahawks are like Vinny — for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why they were here. And now, I can’t imagine the playoffs without them.
Theories In Play: “Nobody believes in us,” “When in doubt, check the coaching matchups,” “Before you make a decision, take one last look at the quarterbacks” and “Beware of the easy two-team teaser on the same day” for Seattle; “Beware of teams that looked a little too good in Round 1” and “Don’t pick an underdog unless you think it can win” for Chicago. I think the Seahawks can win. We all we got? We all we need. Say no more.
The Pick: Seahawks 33, Bears 30
Last Week: 3-1
Overall Record: 134-119-5
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller “The Book of Basketball,” now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World or the BS Report page. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.