Sorry You’re Working Today: NFL Wild-Card Weekend Picks

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

New Year’s Day is my own personal Groundhog Day — I’m always hungover, I’m always making resolutions that I never end up keeping, and I’m always losing college football wagers that never should have been made because I don’t follow college football closely enough. This week, I mixed it up by leaning on the advice of Grantland’s Mallory Rubin, our office guru for the following topics: best and worst cereals, best and worst Popchips flavors, Instagram accounts solely devoted to cat pictures, hardcore nerd-it-up baseball conversations, and all things college football. Here’s how that email chain played out:

Me: “Who am I betting on in this college playoff?”

Mallory: “I hope you can feel Nick Saban’s smoldering glare from across the electronic abyss. BAMA. Always Bama.”

And then:

Mallory: “(Alabama beats Ohio State. Florida State … shudder … beats Oregon. Alabama beats Florida State to restore order to the universe. Alabama gives Nick Saban another raise to avoid the indignity of a Big Ten coach making more money than an SEC coach. And then the 49ers hire Lane Kiffin.)”

I won’t show you the third email in which she raved about FSU’s “juju.” But that ended up being my single worst two-team teaser ever — it’s almost like I single-handedly swung Mallory’s college football juju just by asking for her gambling advice. I watched every minute of both games, came away loving the new playoff system even as I hemorrhaged money, and thought Jameis Winston lost that game because HE’S A LIAR AND AN ALCOHOLIC! (Just kidding. That was my audition for a First Take guest-host gig.) Still, this was seven hours well spent because (a) the Bama-OSU game was legitimately terrific, and (b) how many times do you get to scout the top two NFL draft picks going head-to-head in a big game?

Some disclaimers: Oregon’s crazy pace makes it semi-impossible to evaluate Marcus Mariota … Winston’s receivers betrayed him with those drops and fumbles … Mariota carries himself like the real-life Lance Harbor, a.k.a. the Handsome, Humble, Soft-Spoken QB Who Almost Seems Too Good To Be True … Winston’s coach clearly scolded him as things were falling apart and told him to “Calm the f-​-​-​ down or you’re going to the bench” … it’s really fun to root against FSU for a variety of reasons … it’s hard to imagine two cooler QB names than “Marcus Mariota” and “Jameis Winston,” and their unique styles make it so you’d WANT them to succeed at the next level.

One more disclaimer (something I’ve written about many times in this space): I wholeheartedly believe that NFL quarterbacks succeed for the following reasons: “talent” (25-30 percent) and “everything else,” which covers leadership, charisma, personality, work ethic, intelligence and not doing basically anything that Johnny Football does (70-75 percent). You’re not just the QB in pro football; you’re the CEO. You’re setting a week-to-week, day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute example. If your teammates don’t believe in you, if they don’t follow you, if they don’t totally care about protecting you or fighting for you, then you’re done. If you can’t crouch in a crunch-time huddle — down four, three minutes left, 80 yards to go — and look your 10 dudes in the eye and say with complete confidence, “WE ARE SCORING RIGHT NOW,” then you’re never making it in (Cris Carter voice) the National Football League.

Now, you still need to make one specific throw in pro football: that 15-yard frozen rope to either sideline. If you can’t make that throw, you don’t have a chance. NFL defenses are just too good. And that’s what makes the Winston-Mariota debate so interesting: From what I saw (and what I’ve read, too), they both have plenty of athletic ability to make it in the NFL. Mariota fares much better with those leadership/charisma/personality pieces, but it’s impossible to know yet if he can make every NFL throw. And Winston drew raves for his leadership and charisma ON the field, but his myriad off-field issues (we don’t need to rehash them here) undeniably threaten that aforementioned 70-75 percent.

So, who seemed more NFL-ish in the Rose Bowl, Winston or Mariota?

Well, Mariota had a slight lead heading into New Year’s Day and certainly didn’t blow it. (That’s an understatement.) And even if Winston’s team fell apart in the second half, with his ghastly Sanchezesque fumble turned touchdown providing the death blow (although his clock management didn’t help), I’d rather build around Winston than Geno Smith, Josh McCown, Jake Locker, Blake Bortles or any of these other bottom-of-the-barrel NFL QBR disasters. Both of them just felt NFL-ish to me. At gunpoint, I’d take Mariota over Winston and build a fast-paced offense around him; I just think he’s a slightly safer bet. But for a league that’s starting Ryan Lindley in a Round 1 playoff game this weekend, the more the merrier. We need QBs. Last night’s Rose Bowl might have lost me money, but at least it made me feel like our collective situation under center is about to improve by 7 percent.

Speaking of Lindley, it’s time to bang out some Round 1 picks. But first, as always, some actual emails from actual readers.

Q: On the Cousin Sal pod, you guys talked about how this Wild Card Weekend might be the worst ever set of games for Round 1. Just dig a little deeper. Riverboat Ron vs. President Elect Bruce Arians?? The Karma Police vs. Big Ben – Past vs. Present Karma Bowl??  The Red Rifle vs. Andrew The Giant in the Andy vs. Andrew Debate Bowl??  JIM CALDWELL’S FACE ON 26,000 SQUARE FEET OF HIGH DEFINITION GOODNESS?!?
—Brandon, God’s Country, Indiana

BS: And you left out a few other fun subplots: Cowboys fans feeling eerily confident in Tony Romo and Jason Garrett in a playoff game (in all caps: UH-OH); God adding rain and (potentially) ice to Saturday night’s Steelers-Ravens blood feud; Cam Newton doing Cam Newton things; Ryan Lindley doing Ryan Lindley things; Steve Smith doing Steve Smith things; the puncher’s chance of the Lions winning in Dallas and inadvertently spawning one of the top-three Detroit football moments of the past 50 years (no, seriously); three tremendous receivers (Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant and T.Y. Hilton) and one formerly tremendous receiver who might still be tremendous but we haven’t seen it in a while (Megatron); Andy Dalton either vindicating or enraging everyone who wagered on him in a road playoff game; any and all Jerry Jones luxury-suite shots; Trent Richardson running two yards and falling down somewhere between eight and 10 times; and, one more time, JIM CALDWELL’S FACE ON 26,000 SQUARE FEET OF HIGH-DEFINITION GOODNESS!!!!

Q: What are the odds one of the Lions stomps on DeMarco Murray’s broken hand and incites an enormous brawl at midfield? 20 percent? If it happens, will they call it the “Malice at the Dallas?”
—Yonatan Z, San Jose

BS: That too! We have a 1-in-5 chance of the Malice at the Dallas!

Q: Matt Stafford has never won a road game against a team with a winning record.  Never ever ever.  Not even Jerry Jones’s stink can overcome that, right?
—Jason, Milwaukee

BS: And I forgot that one, too. We get to see the “MATTHEW STAFFORD’S ROAD RECORD AGAINST WINNING TEAMS: 0-16” graphic a bunch of times. Can we take the car keys away from every Lions fan right now to be safe? I don’t want them driving after this game.

Q: My girlfriend does an entire routine imagining how Belichick reacted on his wedding night with his (now ex-) wife.

“Bill, it’s time for the rehearsal dinner.”
“On to the ceremony!”

“Bill, do you take this woman … ”
“On to the reception!”

“Bill, unzip my dress … ”
“On to the honeymoon!”

Do you think it’s possible for Belichick to ever exist in the here and now?
—Dave in Arlington

BS: Your girlfriend sounds like a keeper! That’s a funny routine. Belichick as a dad would be just as funny …

“Hey, Dad, I lost my tooth!”
“On to the Tooth Fairy … ”

“Hey, Dad, I got into Harvard early admission!”
“On to the first semester … ”

Couldn’t one of you Weirdos Who Knows How To Do Things On The Internet just create a Belichick soundboard in which he answers any conceivable life-related question with a Belichickian answer? And no, I don’t think it is possible for Belichick to live in the here and now. He has a future fetish.

Q: Saw your “Best Ball” idea for the NBA. Did you know that Australian Rules Football uses that exact process to determine their MVP? After each game the referees vote for 1st, 2nd and 3rd most influential player in the game. The player with the most total points (3 for 1st, 2 for 2nd, 1 for 3rd) over the season wins the Brownlow Medal (the defacto MVP). Votes are sealed after every game, so the Brownlow is announced live at a postseason Red Carpet event with all the players there. This creates an ESPYs-esque unintentional comedy factor, in addition to a phenomenal gambling opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to get in on some amazing Robin Lopez +/- 1.5 NBA Best Balls action? Anyway, Aussie Rules Football is the best sport on earth, and I’m 100% all-in on the NBA Best Balls concept.
—David E., Chicago

BS: Proving yet again that Australians are the coolest people on the planet. I’m still waiting for my first moment when I say to myself, “I wish Australia weren’t there.” Australia is like the Robert Horry or Philip Baker Hall of continents — it just makes everything it touches a little bit better. Well, except for tennis majors. I still think the Australian Open needs a gimmick that’s better than, “Our court is blue, we’re not on grass or clay, and we’re not in New York.” I vote for cheering/booing during play in all Australian Open matches. And the tennis community has to look the other way with PED use for those two weeks — as opposed to the other 50 weeks, when the tennis community still looks away. Don’t get me started.

Q: Did you know Peyton Manning has to win the Super Bowl this year to push his career playoff record above .500?
—Augie, Irvine

BS: Did you know Peyton Manning has lost more playoff games (12) than any quarterback ever? Did you know he’s 1-2 in the Super Bowl, and that he lost those two games by a combined 49 points? Did you know Manning’s regular-season passer rating (97.5) is 8.3 points higher than his playoff rating (89.2), even though he played 30 percent of those playoff games on the road? Did you know that Manning’s team was favored in 10 of his 12 playoff losses? Did you know he has more one-and-done postseasons (eight) than any other QB ever? Did you know he has only one game-winning drive in the playoffs? Did you know he’s lost playoff games to Jay Fiedler, Mark Sanchez and Chad Pennington? Did you know he threw three touchdowns and seven picks during his one Super Bowl–winning playoff run? Did you know that he’s 2-5 in outdoor playoff games on the road, with those two wins coming against Trent Green and a washed-up Steve McNair? Did you know that he destroyed the 2013 Pats to the tune of 400 yards, 2 TDs, 0 picks and a 118.4 passer rating and I should immediately shut up?

Q: Dear Grantland Layout Editor/Unpaid Intern,

Please start putting all of Bill’s picks in one convenient box in addition to randomly sprayed over 6,900 words. It shouldn’t be this hard to confirm he went 7-9 against the spread yet again, right? Thanks for doing the Lord’s work.
–Kelly, Newport, KY

BS: Come on! I finished 101-93-4 against the spread during the 13 weeks when we posted this column, and an astonishing 58-0 during the four weeks when we didn’t. And I’m 11-3-2 against the spread in Round 1 games since 2011. GIVE ME THE PROPER AMOUNT OF RESPECT, RANDOM PERSON FROM KENTUCKY!

Q: Merry Christmas! For all of your Panthers bashing this year, I’m going to send you a fruit cake in the mail, except that instead of fruit and nuts, there will be little pieces of chopped up donkey dick in it. I’m usually a big fan, but your blithe and snide dismissal of the Panthers has shaken my faith in you.  They will win in Atlanta and win their 1st playoff game at home and then you will be eating humble pie…and donkey dick cake.
—Jon, New York

BS: I didn’t get the donkey dick cake yet — did you at least make it gluten-free for me?

Q: Is Carolina-Arizona the least enjoyable playoff match-up ever? It feels like this game should be on NBA TV.
—Dan, Appleton, WI

BS: I thought that was hilarious even before I read that someone tweeted that joke to Barnwell. Is there any way they could fly in 11,000 depressed Atlanta Hawks fans just to complete the NBA TV effect?

Q: I just spent the past 4 years playing defense for a college team that couldn’t score. It’s a demoralizing experience. You know you are probably only getting 3 plays off. Maybe 6 if you’re lucky. You’re constantly paranoid about having to defend a short field because of an erroneous turnover. You feel that if you can’t protect a 7-0 lead you’re going to lose. So I can understand the psychological toll that playing defense for Ryan freakin Lindley against the Seahawks has on a person. At least when Stanton plays, Arizona believes they can win. With Lindley or Logan Thomas at quarterback, there’s no hope. I don’t want to diminish Seattle’s accomplishment in Week 16, but they did not destroy a great defense; they beat up a progressively mentally defeated defense.
—Jake, Boston

BS: And that’s the real reason why Arizona’s defense “slipped” these past few weeks. You can’t thrive on defense knowing that the game is over if you fall behind 10-0. And by the way, when your fans are glumly saying, “If we only had Drew Stanton for this one,” there’s a 97.8 percent chance that you’re absolutely screwed.

Q: The NFL: where you get suspended two games for punching your girlfriend in the face or one playoff game for stepping on Aaron Rodgers.
—Matt H., Detroit

BS: Come on, that’s not fair! The NFL’s Ted Cottrell overturned the league’s original suspension in what ended up being Team Goodell’s last flip-flop of the 2014 season. After it happened, I tweeted that “Roger Goodell is like the Elf on the Shelf — he’s an imaginary disciplinary figure who has to be moved around manually from room to room.” I’m calling Goodell that from now on. He’s the NF-Elf on the Shelf. To believe in the competence of his disciplinary acumen at this point, you have to take such a big leap of faith that it’s really no different from your kids believing that a Christmas elf doll is judging them for bad behavior, reporting back to Santa and switching rooms every night as soon as everyone falls asleep.

But don’t worry, Roger — you won. You kept your obscenely overpaid job, you made it to the playoffs, and nobody cares that you just submitted the worst one-year performance in the history of the commissioner position. Not just the NFL, but any sport. Gary Bettman could have climbed on a Zamboni during Thursday’s Winter Classic and started running over Blackhawks and Capitals and his 2015 still wouldn’t have been worse than Goodell’s 2014. It’s amazing that Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Donald Sterling froze Goodell out of the top three for 2014’s Anti-Sportsman of the Year. My pick remains Sterling for the same reason that Marty Scorsese won the 2006 Oscar for The Departed — it’s a career achievement award, basically.

Q: Listened to the pod with Sal this week. As a Ravens fan, you are correct. This is not a great football team. But haven’t we seen not-so-great teams win in the playoffs? This team has some pieces: Jacoby Jones & Special Teams (ranked #1 according to Football Outsiders), the Pass Rush (the front-7 will hit Ben and hit him often – could win turnover battle), Flacco’s Deep Ball (you say it all the time, the biggest threat is a QB with a deep ball), and Justin Tucker (nice weapon especially in the 4th quarter). I know our secondary is a dumpster fire and our offensive line is banged up, but the Ravens have certain intangibles that playoff teams have when they go on unexpected runs. (Whew…got through all of this without bringing up Ray Rice.)
—AJ, Charlotte

BS: Sorry, I’m not buying the Ravens. Sing it one last time, Radiohead!

Q: Pats fan here.  Just want to ask you…What the hell are you doing?  You say in your podcast that you would “welcome” the Ravens to play the Patriots in round two and you are not scared at all?  You wrote about the playoff powers of the Wonk Team.1 Don’t you know that the Ravens are the Wonk Team!!! You called it before the season!!! And you are disrespecting them on the air!!! Dammit Simmons.  Ever since your podcast I haven’t been sleeping. I cant eat.  I cant concentrate.  Please give some sort of double reverse jinx against the Ravens in your article tomorrow.  PLEASE!!!
—Jacob, Glendale AZ

BS: First of all, settle down. The Ravens aren’t the 2014 Wonk Team — it’s almost definitely the 7-8-1 Panthers, a deeply flawed team from a comically incompetent division that went 64 days between victories, then turned things around by beating four straight lousy teams and drawing the Arizona Lindleys at home in Round 1. They’re one win away from securing “ABSOLUTELY NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!!!!!” status heading into Round 2’s game in Seattle.2 Oh, and if Arizona somehow beats Carolina, then THEY become the Wonk Team. Either way, it’s not the Ravens. So rest easy, Jacob from Glendale.

A quick reminder since we’re here: The Wonk Team has won four Super Bowls and a bewildering 22 of 25 playoff games since 2007. The complete list: 2013 Chargers (1-1); 2012 Ravens (4-0), 2011 Giants (4-0), 2010 Packers (4-0), 2009 Jets (2-1), 2008 Cards (3-1), 2007 Giants (4-0). Again … 22 of 25!!!!! Including some of the biggest underdog playoff upsets this century. Beware of the Wonk Team. Repeat: Beware of the Wonk Team.

—Alexander, New York, NY

BS: “What if I told you that Johnny Football would become Johnny TMZ, Johnny Clipboard, Johnny Curfew and Johnny Waiver Wire in the span of nine months? From ESPN Films, it’s a new 30 for 30 documentary, Johnny Be Bad, directed by Skip Bayless.”

Q: Has there ever been a better Least Valuable Player candidate than Johnny Douchebag?  Not just for everything he’s done through week 16, but being able to play a large part in your team not only losing to, but handing your biggest rivals a playoff spot WHILE YOU ARE INJURED?  By throwing a party and costing your team two of their best players?  Just days after giving interviews about being more mature?
—Mike, St. Louis via Cleveland

BS: You totally insulted our 2014 co-LVPs, Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. Come on.

Q: Who is your “This QB is hot going into the playoffs and could rattle off 4 straight wins” team and why isn’t it Tony Romo’s Cowboys? Have you seen this stat? Romo has the 5th highest passer rating since 1970. The four ahead of him: Rodgers in 2011 (Won the super bowl), Peyton in 2004 (lost second round), Brady in 2007 (lost Super Bowl), and Peyton in 2013 (lost Super Bowl). The two after him: Steve Young in 1994 (won Super Bowl) and Joe Montana in 1989 (won Super Bowl).
—Augie, Irvine

BS: Allow me to counter those numbers with Mike Sando’s sobering 90s/20s revelation, covered on and this week’s B.S. Report. Basically, Dallas’s recent doppelgängers as a great offense/lousy defense team were the 2010 Saints (lost Round 1 to Seattle), the 2011 Packers (lost Round 2 to the Giants) and 2008 Saints (missed playoffs). So I think that’s a dead heat.

Q: In last week’s article you pondered “a potential Ryan Lindley vs. Derek Anderson outdoors playoff matchup in Round 1.” So what’s the worst QB matchup in playoff history?  My vote? Quincy Carter vs. Jake Delhomme in 2003.
—Michael, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

BS: That’s the winner on paper, but Jake was GOOD that postseason: Three straight wins (two on the road), six TDs, one pick and a QB rating in triple figures. You can’t judge 2003 Delhomme by the Delhommes that came later. Anyway, I didn’t have time to peruse decades and decades of playoff football, but I did pore over the 21st century and found these honorable-mention worst matchups: T.J. Yates vs. Andy Dalton (January 2012), Chris Simms vs. Washed-up Mark Brunell (January 2006), Elvis Grbac vs. Jay Fiedler (January 2002), and Trent Dilfer vs. Gus Frerotte/Jarious Jackson (December 31, 2000).

Your winner? Chris Simms vs. Washed-Up Mark Brunell! That Bizarro Shootout yielded 27 combined points (seven from a fumble TD return), 239 total passing yards and just 363 total yards of offense as Washington (2.5-point favs) covered in Tampa Bay. Brunell and Simms started only three more NFL games combined. And yes, I will always have a fond memory of this game because I picked it correctly and even wagered on the Deadskins. Don’t bring atrocious QB matchups into my house!

Q: Did you know RYAN TANNEHILL threw for over 4,000 yards this season? I miss football without rules.
—Ted, Reading, PA

BS: I actually didn’t believe this and looked it up. It’s true. You know what else is true? Ryan Tannehill now has as many 4,000-yard seasons as John Elway and Joe Montana combined. Let’s just move on before I start sobbing.

Q: You know who effects every offensive play? Every QB on every team in the NFL. Well how many player effect every defensive play? Just JJ Watt. Try this, who’s the second best player on the Texans defense? I’m waiting… The corpse of Brian Cushing? The #1 overall pick who played less than one healthy game this year? There is no answer. There’s not one other player on the Texans defense who’s inarguably above average. Rodgers is great, yadda yadda, QBs are more valuable in general (duh) but it’s not the “Best QB On a Playoff Team” award. JJ has dragged a team that went 2-14 last year, went through 4 QBs and got zero help from a draft pick in the first 5 rounds almost to the playoffs. He’s the MVP.
—JD, Houston

BS: As for the other side …

Q: JJ Watt should not win the MVP for the simple reason that he did not add “value” to his team. How “valuable” can you be if your team still misses the playoffs that season? If he doesn’t play this year they win 4 or so less games, still missing the playoffs but getting a much better draft pick. In a perverse way he’s one of the 2014 LVPs.
—Taylor, Tallahassee

BS: All good points. Then again, the chasm between Watt and Every Other Good Defensive Lineman was significantly larger than the chasm between Rodgers and Every Other Good QB. And Watt owned the 2014 season more than anyone else. But I thought Rodgers needed a signature game to swing the race … and that’s exactly what happened. He swung the race just enough by coming back from injury to beat the Lions. Packers fans believe it’s their version of the Willis Reed game; non-cynical NFL fans believe it was one of the most dramatic moments of the season; and cynical NFL fans have Rodgers’s “miraculous” return ranked somewhere between Paul Pierce’s Wheelchair Game in the 2008 Finals and Keyser Söze’s final scene in The Usual Suspects. But Rodgers needed SOMETHING like that to pass Watt. And it happened.

Q: Here’s why Steelers-Ravens owns the Best Rivalry title. Both teams have been successful for the last decade just like Brady-Manning, but true hatred sets them apart. The refs aren’t stopping play for 10 minutes during Brady-Manning games to warn the sidelines and pull those two apart (like Steelers-Ravens in week 9). I hate the Ravens. Each game is a slugfest that toes the line between tough football and a straight out street fight. Search Steelers-Ravens on YouTube and pretty much the only thing that comes up are “Jacked Up” style highlights of Willis McGahee getting destroyed by Ryan Clark or Le’Veon Bell getting knocked into next week. And the best part is we WANT that. We want to play under the rules from 10-20 years ago where everyone is free game and don’t you dare go over the middle. THAT’S why this is the best rivalry in sports.
—Rob, Pittsburgh

BS: An undeniably compelling case. It forced me to subtly revamp my Top Six Rivalries list:

1. Ravens-Steelers
2. Brady-Manning
3. Goodell-Truth
4. Cowboys-Eagles
5. Andy Reid–The Clock
6. Aaron Rodgers–Daniel Day-Lewis
7. Mike Smith–Fourth Down3

Q: You always mention how much of an advantage it is for an NFL offense to throw it deep a few times a game and draw at least one big pass interference penalty. This scenario often comes up when discussing Joe Flacco — his best skill is having both the audacity and arm strength to repeatedly fling it deep. Well, ESPN’s Total QBR stat has a sub-category called “PEN EPA” which ESPN defines as “Clutch-weighted expected points added on penalties”, and Flacco is BY FAR the leader in this category. I looked back further, and it turns out the leader in that category for every year since 2009, other than 2012, has been none other than Joseph Vincent Flacco.
—Matthew Lee, Ames, IA

BS: Probably not a good sign for Baltimore’s Round 1 hopes that this email cracked my “Top Three Reasons Baltimore Could Come Back To Haunt My Pittsburgh Pick” list.

Q: I’m really looking forward to this SportsCenter segment in 2019.

Piano music fade in.
Title sequence with “The Big D”.
Tom Rinaldi voice over:

“What if I told you a man dedicated 25 years of his life to something?

“And when it finally happened, it took place in front of millions of viewers … and that man was not ready for the pressure?

“This is a story about a degenerate gambler and an amazing run in front of millions that could end in only one way… disaster.

“I’m Tom Rinaldi; this is the story of Cousin Sal.”
—Todd, Omaha

BS: This was the funniest Sal-related email coming off the Cousin’s improbable hot streak on SportsCenter (15-0-3 in the last six weeks), narrowly edging the reader who sincerely wondered if Sal was inadvertently proving Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours theory from Outliers. (In other words, Sal’s 10,000 hours of watching football finally paid off.) By the way, Sal gives his Round 1 picks on Friday night’s SportsCenter at 11 ET. If he nails Round 1, I’m going to fully expect him to push it to the limit and buy a Tiger.

Q: Thanks for publishing my e-mail about the Falcons-Panthers game in last week’s mailbag. My wife’s brother is a big fan of yours. He may be rich, live in a big house, have a hot wife and be a better athlete than me.  But I finally have something to brag about next time I see him!  I don’t know what to be more proud of — the mailbag appearance, that  I trained my 4 year old daughter to bring me beer from the fridge by age 2, or that now when she takes a really big dump in the toilet she brags that she “did a daddy-sized poop.”
—Noah, New York, NY

BS: Coincidentally, that’s also what I’m expecting from Ryan Lindley in Round 1 — a daddy-sized poop.

Q: In Summer Slam 1988, Honky Tonk Man did not have an opponent for his Intercontinental title match just like Urban Meyer had no coaching threat in the Big Ten. A confident Honky Tonk Man came out for the match first, then we heard heavy metal music and Honky Tonk Man looked on in horror as the Ultimate Warrior sprinted to the ring and crushed him. Right now Jim Harbaugh is going to Michigan as the Ultimate Warrior — and Urban Meyer is looking on in horror.
—Nick, San Francisco

BS: Yes, Nick sent me this email before Ohio State’s upset over Alabama. But anyone who can successfully compare an iconic 26-year-old wrestling moment to a current (and important) NFL story line automatically makes the mailbag, especially if it allows me to embed a YouTube clip of said wrestling match. It’s just one of my rules. Give it up for the Honky Tonk Man, Urban Meyer!

Q: Anytime you have the chance to get rid of a coach that has gone to three NFC Championships in four years so you can keep your average GM and most likely get an unproven head coach in return, you HAVE to do it, right??
—Ranjit, Irving

BS: That Niners debacle incorporated three of my favorite sports rules!

1. The Honky Tonk Man Assumption: Anytime a seemingly significant sports development inspires one of my readers to successfully compare it to one of Honky Tonk Man’s most famous matches, then you can officially assume that something significant happened. (Covered above.)

2. The Legacy Kid Rule: If your team is being run by someone who inherited that chance, didn’t earn his own fortune and wants to prove to everyone that he can successfully run stuff, too, then there’s an 80 percent chance your team is headed for major trouble. (Cut to Knicks fans and Lakers fans nodding sadly as Yankees fans self-consciously glance at each other wondering if they should be nodding sadly or not.)

3. The Parcells Principle: If your biggest rival is unequivocally delighted that you just made a particular move, then you just f-​-​-​ed up. Period. End of story. You know who loved the fact that Harbaugh left San Francisco? Seahawks fans! Oh, and Pete Carroll! He even said so: “Yeah, it’s good he’s out of here. He was tough. We wish him the very best. He had a fantastic run in this division. … I’m sure they’ll make a great replacement and all that kind of stuff, but he was tough to go against.”

Translation: Can I drive Harbaugh to the airport to make sure he really left?

Why is this called the Parcells Principle? After a preciously young Patriots team came within one stupid kickoff of upsetting Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI,4 the disintegrating Bill Parcells–Robert Kraft relationship officially fell apart and Parcells jumped to the Jets (and took Bill Belichick with him). If you rooted for any another AFC contender, this brought you an impossible amount of delight. You LOVED that Kraft pushed Parcells out. What happened? Kraft hired Carroll to coach an absolutely loaded Patriots team that lost a frustrating 7-6 playoff game in Pittsburgh.5 The Pats didn’t win another playoff game until the Belichick-Brady era kicked off in 2001. Speaking of the Pats …

Q: When I heard that Tom Brady changed his guaranteed money from a skill guarantee to an injury guarantee, increasing the cash flow available for this offseason by $24 million, it got me excited at first because I thought it would increase the chances that Darrelle Revis could be extended as well as Devin McCourty and Nate Soldier. After reading your tweets, I saw that you were actually skeptical of the move. Could you explain your tweets a little further?
—David Rudman, Port Washington

BS: My illegitimate son Barnwell already broke down all the contractual mumbo jumbo for Grantland on Tuesday, including the crucial point that avoiding Brady’s $24 million escrow payment helped only New England’s cash flow (not its cap). So I will only add these three points beyond those tweets:

1. Peyton Manning signed a $96 million deal with Denver, then eventually restructured the deal to guarantee him $58 million over his first three Denver seasons. Brady’s 2013 extension was more team-friendly; he made $33 million guaranteed for 2013 and 2014 combined, then had another $24 million guaranteed coming that was going to cover the next three seasons (2015 through 2017) and turned him into the Tim Duncan/Dirk Nowitzki of Football. (Translation: an unbelievable bargain for a contender.) That’s why my sh-​-​ detector went off. Why not lock down that bargain? For more short-term “cash flow”? For someone who’s a billionaire? Something didn’t add up.

2. OK, so dig a little deeper. The revised “deal” pays Brady $27 million total over the next three seasons (a $3 million bump), but it’s guaranteed only if Brady gets injured during THIS postseason. As the Patriots furiously leaked their “this isn’t a big deal, this is just Brady being an awesome teammate who just wants to win” story to the appropriate parties, buried within those reports was the following tidbit: It’s now a million times easier for the Patriots to release Brady this spring. Again, the Patriots can cut Brady this spring with heavily reduced financial repercussions.

3. Back to Brady, who eschewed $24 million guaranteed for $27 million with no guarantees. Yet another example of New England’s unabashed exploitation of Brady’s generosity and team-first nature over these past 12 years, right? But buried in all this week’s news stories was another tidbit, “Brady also now can be released by the Patriots without any liability, but he then would become an unrestricted free agent, free to command the type of guaranteed money he has agreed to surrender.”

Why would Brady do that? That’s simple: because he loves playing football, he doesn’t have to worry about money,6 and he wants to end his career on HIS terms. Remember, Brady has the best chance of any quarterback ever of succeeding in his early-forties; I wrote about his whole eats-drinks-sleeps football machine routine two months ago, then Sports Illustrated expanded on that angle in December. Nobody takes better care of his body. Even if he was better six or seven years ago (especially with deep balls), he’s still one of the best five QBs in football.

What kind of leverage is that worth? What are three years of Tom Brady worth on the open market this spring for Houston, Buffalo, the Jets, the Rams or whomever? If you’re an up-and-coming team like the Rams, wouldn’t you give Brady $55 million guaranteed for three years without even blinking? If you’re the Texans, and you’ve been crippled by the QB position for just about this entire century, wouldn’t you fork over that $55 million in 2.3 seconds? Oh, here are the 2015 free agents at that position right now:

• Brian Hoyer
• Mark Sanchez
• Jake Locker
• Ryan Mallett
• Michael Vick

And here are the trade candidates …

• Jay Cutler
• Robert Griffin III

Damn. I might have gone low with that $55 million guess. And again, Brady won’t care about signing for the most money possible. For all we know, he’d pick a franchise based on the available talent, the coach, the owner and the situation, in that order, with money being the last (and least important) variable.

So here’s where you say, “Well, why wouldn’t he just stay in New England then?”

Great question. I spent the whole week thinking about it. The answer: Brady knows better than anyone how Belichick is wired. During Brady’s entire career, the Krafts and Belichick have successfully pulled off their good cop/bad cop routine; the Krafts make the players feel like part of their extended family … right up until Win-At-All-Costs Belichick does whatever is best for the team. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship in every respect — not just because of the three Super Bowls, but because the Patriots are 150-42 (not including playoffs) since 2003.7 Bill Belichick has to be mentioned first, second, third, fourth or fifth in any “Who’s the greatest person to ever run an NFL team?” conversation. It’s just a fact.

Of course, over the past 13 years, Brady watched Belichick shank Drew Bledsoe, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Troy Brown, Richard Seymour, Wes Welker, Willie McGinest, Logan Mankins and other esteemed Patriots over the years. That’s why everyone respects the Belichick-era Patriots so much, whether it’s real respect or begrudging respect. The plan never wavers. Belichick will always do what’s best for the future, whether it’s trading down in drafts for extra picks or dumping beloved veterans one year too early instead of one year too late. And Brady knows it. He also knows how miserable Belichick can be day-to-day, especially if you’re letting him down in some way.

So, assuming the Patriots didn’t …

A. Renege on that escrow payment, then put Brady in the position of swallowing his anger for five weeks because he didn’t want to affect the team’s Super Bowl chances (doubtful, but it can’t be ruled out)

B. Already make a wink-wink deal for the future that they can’t announce yet (even more doubtful)

… then this contract “tweak” was about flexibility over everything else. Even if neither side will admit it. I believe the Patriots wanted more flexibility to gently push Brady out if (REPEAT: IF) his performance slips or his body breaks down (think Favre in Green Bay or Manning in Indy). And I believe Brady wanted the flexibility to find a different team if his relationship with Belichick soured for whatever reason. Removing those guarantees, and turning that contract into a year-to-year thing, provided him that flexibility.

And if you think this isn’t a big deal, here’s why you are wrong. A week ago, Tom Brady was locked down in New England through 2017. Now, it’s much easier for him to leave in three months — a decision that might be affected, one way or the other, by whatever happens these next five weeks. Something HAS changed here.

Last point: Like so many others these past few days, I found myself getting sucked into HBO Signature’s restored/HD/widescreen five-day marathon of my second-favorite TV show ever, The Wire.8 In the last episode, Cheese and a few other drug dealers are figuring out how to buy out Marlo when someone makes a “back in the day” case and Cheese angrily interrupts him.

“There ain’t no back in the day, n-​-​-​-​,” Cheese hisses. “Ain’t no nostalgia to this shit here. There’s just the street and the game and what happen here today.”

Isn’t that how Bill Belichick runs the Patriots? Ain’t no nostalgia to this shit here. It’s all about what happen here today. Belichick shanking Brady 13 years after he shanked Bledsoe FOR Brady would be the ultimate Belichickian moment. The man doesn’t pay for past performance. He cares only about what you’re worth right now. That’s the biggest reason why the Patriots win 12 games and compete for the Lombardi every year. And that’s the biggest reason why it’s conceivable — repeat: conceivable — that this contract “tweak” is a bigger deal than everyone thinks.

And yes, I’m skipping over the fact that Cheese got shot in the head right after he finished that mini-speech (and all the parallels that can be drawn there). Let’s get to the Round 1 picks …

PANTHERS (-6.5) over Cardinals

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Panthers: You laid nearly a touchdown with a lame division champ that went 64 days between wins. You backed a 7-8-1 team with the 25th DVOA over an 11-5 team with the 22nd overall DVOA. You got too carried away with an end-of-the-season winning streak over four teams that finished a combined 22-42. You ignored an old-school Playoff Manifesto Rule: “When In Doubt, Check the Coaching Match-ups” (Rivera vs. President-Elect Arians). You didn’t see Barnwell’s nugget about how three of the other four “Worst QBs To Start A Playoff Game Since 1972” won those games.9 You spent too much time worrying about Arizona scoring and not enough time wondering what would happen in a 13-10 game if Cam made one dumb mistake. Worst of all, you backed the wrong Wonk Team — you thought it was Carolina when it was really Arizona all along.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Cardinals: You grabbed the Cards even though they limped to the finish line and turned into an advanced-metrics disaster. You talked yourself into a road underdog that scored 87 points total in the last SEVEN games. You went against a suddenly hot QB who loves to freelance in chaos playing a risky defense that loves to create chaos but struggles against running QBs. You didn’t care that someone named Kerwynn Williams was starting at running back, or that the Cards finished .500 on the road only because they beat Brandon Weeden, Derek Carr, Shaun Hill and Eli Manning Without Odell Beckham Jr. You got scared by the high-ish line without asking yourself, “What happens if Arizona falls behind by 10 points and has to start making things happen?” Oh, and you backed Ryan Lindley and his 51.3 passer rating on the road. You backed Ryan Lindley on the road!






The Pick: Panthers 23, Cardinals 7

STEELERS (-3.5) over Ravens

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Steelers: You forgot that John Harbaugh is 9-4 in the playoffs (seven wins away from home). You didn’t check the weather — rain and possible ice leads to uglier games (Baltimore’s specialty) and makes special teams more important (advantage: Baltimore). You forgot about that electric Jacoby Jones return that’s definitely going for a TD or coming damned close. You stupidly thought Le’Veon Bell’s absence because of a hyperextended knee wouldn’t make that much of a difference. You forgot that Haloti Ngata was coming back from getting grounded for taking Adderall the night before the SATs. You forgot that “James” Flacco throws a better deep ball than anyone, and Pittsburgh is more prone to give up deep balls than anyone. You forgot that Pittsburgh lost to Tampa, Cleveland and the Jets. You forgot that Todd Haley was involved. Most of all, you forgot the Ravens love throwing you off their scent in the playoffs, then sucker-punching you right in the gonads. That’s what they do.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Ravens: You ignored the probability of Baltimore’s putrid secondary getting overpowered by the NFL’s most dangerous passing attack. You mistakenly thought the weather might cripple Pittsburgh’s offense. You forgot that the Lewis era officially died in Baltimore when Ed Reed left. You forgot that Baltimore’s offensive line was all kinds of banged up, and that Pittsburgh rushes the passer pretty well. You forgot how scary it was to wager against Big Ben in Big Games unless he’s going against Tim Tebow during the final 15 minutes of Fourth and God. You forgot that the Ravens went 4-0 against the NFC South (congratulations!) and or that they beat one above-.500 team all season (in Week 2, no less). You forgot about Pittsburgh’s many playmakers, and you definitely forgot about the great Antonio Brown. You forgot that Pittsburgh’s destiny might be taking out Manning on the road as heavy underdogs again, just like it did nine years ago. Most of all, you forgot about karma. Was there a better karmic ending to this 2014 Ravens season then “Destroyed by their most hated rival in Round 1?” Of course not.

The Pick: Pittsburgh 37, Baltimore 24

Bengals (+4) over COLTS

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Bengals: You forgot how scary Andrew the Giant was, especially when he’s not getting threatened by a decent enough pass rush.10 You forgot that Cincy’s passing game was hopeless without A.J. Green, that Jermaine Gresham was limping around, and that Mohamed “I’m That Guy You Always Checked Out On Your Waiver Wire For Five Minutes But Never Actually Picked Up” Sanu was Cincy’s second-scariest receiver. You forgot that Indy waxed Cincy in Week 7: 27-0. You forgot that Vontae Davis could handle A.J. Green if Green miraculously played at the last minute. You forgot about the Adam Vinatieri–Mike Nugent mismatch. Do you realize you took Marvin Lewis in a playoff game? Or that you took Andy Dalton? Or that you took Andy Dalton in a road playoff game? Or that you took Andy Dalton in a road playoff game in a dome? Or that you took the Bengals in the playoffs, period? Why haven’t you disabled your online gambling account already?

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Colts: You forgot that the Colts were 2014’s Good Bad Team; they got destroyed three times in the last nine weeks. You forgot that Ahmad Bradshaw’s injury created the NFL’s most pathetic running back crew. You forgot that New England and Dallas ran the ball down Indy’s throat … and Jeremy Hill could do it, too. You forgot about the 3.3 percent chance that Jim Irsay would wander onto the field like Shooter in Hoosiers. You forgot that Gio Bernard turned into a frightening third-down back. You forgot about A.J. Green’s Ewing Theory potential as well as the resulting “Nobody Believes In Us” potential. You forgot that Luck throws it up for grabs too much, and that Cincy’s excellent secondary loves picking off dumb passes. You forgot that Indy’s home-field “advantage” just hadn’t been overpowering, and that four favorites never cover in Round 1. You forgot that Cincy’s overall roster was just better than Indy’s roster. You forgot that Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning and Randall Cunningham also lost THEIR first three playoff games. You forgot that Dalton could destroy Cincy’s postseason without necessarily doing it this weekend.

The Pick: Cincinnati 23, Indianapolis 20

COWBOYS (-7) over Lions

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Cowboys: Tony Romo. Jason Garrett. Tony Romo AND Jason Garrett. You ignored how Dallas’s biggest strength (running the ball) conflicted with Detroit’s biggest strength (stopping the run). You laid a touchdown with a crummy defense against a playoff team with multiple big-play weapons. You forgot about Megatron. You forgot it was Golden Tate’s destiny to have a Revenge Game in Seattle in Round 2. You forgot that you were backing Jerry Jones in the playoffs, that Dallas crowds sucked this season, that a worn-down DeMarco Murray had carried the ball 392 times already. You forgot how sad Troy Aikman sounds when he’s announcing a big Cowboys loss. You teased the Panthers and Cowboys and stupidly forgot to hedge with Lions +7. You got a little too excited about Round 2: Romo vs. Rodgers in the Ice Bowl 2.0. You forgot about Stafford’s Back Door cover potential. And you forgot that (a) Suh’s appeal getting reversed, (b) Suh shutting down Dallas’s run game as part of Detroit’s upset victory in Round 1, then (c) Suh signing with the New York Giants in March would be a classic under-25 Cowboys fan trifecta.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Lions: You took Jim Caldwell and Matt Stafford, together, in a nationally televised playoff game. You forgot that Stafford is Jay Cutler with better PR. You didn’t realize that Detroit’s defense looked terrific as long as it wasn’t playing an elite offense. You forgot that Eric Ebron was destined to drop two big third-down catches, Matt Prater was destined to miss one semi-easy field goal, and Caldwell was destined to screw up two challenges and one end-of-the-half clock management situation. You forgot the Lions were 0-3 against winning teams since Week 2. You forgot that sloppy teams with composure/coaching issues can’t win playoff games on the road. You forgot how good Romo, Murray and Dez were all season. You forgot that a great offensive line always beats a very good front four. You forgot Stafford’s big-game bad luck could easily trump Romo’s big-game bad luck. Most of all, you forgot the 2014 Cowboys repeatedly proved that they could extend leads and put games away. You were afraid of that semi-high line … and you shouldn’t have been.

The Pick: Cowboys 33, Lions 14

Last Week: 9-7
Season: 159-93-4

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, NFL, Wild Card, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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