We're lagging behind in the NFL Playoff business. The Maroon has become a bit backdated, on account of a month or so of court-ordered hibernation. But this problem is more than a little appropriate, because we have come here today to tell you some things about the way it should have gone, but didn't, in our absence.
You should have been rooting for the Patriots a long time ago. That was obvious, with the Adam Vinatieri and the winning of the Super Bowl, &c., last year. I'll grant that the luster was gone by week four or so of this season, when "I'm a" Priest Holmes had unlocked the magic of the Patriots not having a run defense for all the NFL to see. Really, after watching twelve more weeks of mediocrity, I was starting to lose my Patriots fervor.
But football has suffered longer stretches of such lethargy, and anyone with his head on straight would have to agree that the NFL is a better place when the Patriots literally become the Bad News Bears. Miami, and the Dolphins thereof, helped to facilitate this transition in both teams' final games.
It's not enough to say that the Patriots were awesome last year and awesome again in week 16 of this one. The Patriots were awesome last year and remain awesome. This was particularly the case when they were playing the Dolphins a few weeks ago.
People who alleged during last season and during this season that the Patriots were the beneficiaries of more than a few lucky bounces must have had their eyes on the punt shanked by Mr. Mark Royals, and, more metaphorically, on the decision to not run out of his own end zone made by Mr. David Wannstedt. These are both reasonable subjects of scrutiny.
But it's more than a little eerie that this same sort of thing happened in every critical game last season. The Pats sank a little too deep in the quagmire by giving control of their destiny to the not-so-kosher Jets and Packers, but I can say confidently that they would have won a second consecutive awesome Super Bowl in some awesome way that may or may not have pissed off some more Raiders fans (who have a dramatically ill-apportioned sense of entitlement, like a bunch of wailing babies who are missing their bottles).
To distill this word-stew down to its essence: the Patriots, not some mystical roll of the dice, are responsible for their goodness. In fact, it would appear that only when the Patriots leave it to chance (viz., the Jets) to decide things do they fail. So, again, you should have been rooting for the Patriots a long time ago. Just like you should have been rooting for the Giants, and the Browns. Over to you, P-dro. Tell the nice people why they were supposed to like the Browns.
Over on my side of the office, this is what things looked like circa week 17 of the NFL season: A mildly likeable Jets team had torn Brett Favre's figurative sack to drag their butts and the much more likeable butts of the Cleveland Football Browns through the non-phantom tollgate that leads to the Toll Road to the Super Bowl, to the dismay of all of New England, all of Florida, and pretty much the rest of the country outside of New York/New Jersey (hence New Jerk City [I would mention that the people of New Jerk City already had one team in the playoffs, that team being another very sad story]).
Now, the Jets (who were beaten by the Browns [in a game of sanctioned NFL football]) earlier in the season, saw their Super Bowl stock rise from negative $chadpennington.00 to something like $75 a share in the post-regular season intermezzo. How did the Jets react? By flogging the Colts to the tune of 41-0. Good on the Jets, I suppose.
And the Browns (who beat the Jets, remember) caught their share of lukewarm and barely fuzzy nods from the sporting press. While some optimists gave the isotopic Browns a puncher's chances against the rickety Steelers, the consensus was that Cleveland would be one and done.
One later, the Browns were done. But not before opening up three separate 10-digit leads on Pittsburgh behind 429 yards passing from a guy who claimed to be Kelly Holcomb. It took a twenty-minute defensive meltdown, several needless fouls, a prolonged play-calling brainfart from pseudo-reliable offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, a brutal third-down drop by not-even-close-to-reliable-but-a-good-guy-off-the-field wideout Dennis Northcutt, and bad clock management to stop Holcomb.
There's two ways of looking at Cleveland's loss to Pittsburgh, which weighed in as the #2 Most Debilitating Playoff Loss Ever, breathing down the neck of the 1992 Bills-Oilers divisional tilt. (Of course, later in the day, it was knocked down to #3 through the dynamic advances in losing technology pioneered by the Giants.) The first way would have been to issue a 48-hour ban on the sale of alcohol and firearms in area codes 216 and 440.
The second angle? As a fried app, consider this: the loss to the Steelers wasn't even the most brutal loss Cleveland suffered this season. The Dwayne Rudd Affair saw the Browns lose a game they were winning with zero seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter, which, 13912863% of the time, would result in a Cleveland W. Not so. We all know how this particular story goes.
That's the party line, anyway. We all know that most Clevelanders were already knitting themselves commemorative "We Beat the Steelers in the Playoffs" adult diapers even as Tommy Maddox was marshalling (as only Tommy Maddox can marshal) an unlikely, unnecessary, unenjoyable comeback victory that should not be characterized as stunning, thrilling, "roller coaster," titillating, fun, historic or at all positive. But all those diapers, and all the dreams that hand-knit commemorative diapers are often loaded with, went out the window, squarely onto the head of an unidentified and (allegedly) aroused Indians front-office employee. The significance of all this remains murky.
Over in the NFC, the Falcons shook off a week 17 manhandling by the completely insane Browns and snuck into the playoffs after Aaron Brooks traded lives with Martin Lawrence for the last month of the season. When pressed about the fact that Mike Vick is the only talented offensive player on the Atlanta roster, Dan Reeves ate a bottle of Zocor. When pressed further, Reeves rolled around in broken glass and wrestled a bear. The bear declined comment.
Apparently inspired by Reeves' refusal to feel pain, a strenuously mediocre Falcons team did a hurt minuet on Brett Favre's head, which has inexplicably become something of a hotspot these days. Even stranger was the fact that Atlanta's dance party was at Lambeau. After Dan Reeves returns from assassinating Saddam Hussein, the Falcons take on the Eagles in a game that poses a question that has plagued man since olden times: which kind of predatory bird is more ferocious? And what about condors? A huge owl with rabies? Do pterodactyls count?
The New York Football Giants, of course, have been conspicuously missing from our little round-up here. They represent the third (this would follow the first, Patriots, and second, Browns) and final movement in the song we've been singing about the great, lovable teams that are no more, and for whom we must root retroactively. In play format, here is a recap of the Giants-49ers game:
Garrison Hearst: I hate anyone unlike me.
Jeff Garcia: Has anyone seen my helmet? I need to cover up my bald spot. Also, why is my team getting embarrassed?
Amani Toomer: That's because we are the New York Football Giants and we are awesome. I, specifically, am awesome.
Jeremy Shockey: Bone density too high... cannot move jaw [Waves hands. Looks at sky and freaks out]
Steve Mariucci: Bummer.
[halftime show excludes any performance by R. Kelly]
Matt Allen: Ha, ha ha! I intend to sabotage this great win by the Giants.
Trey Junkin: I am a robot/alien who was built/sent down from a bad planet only to help you. [Presses button on chest]
Kerry Collins: I can't believe we lost! Has anyone seen my Zocor-and-Bacardi cocktail glass?
Paul Tagliabue: I regret making evil things happen. Many people will be fired, but I am not saying that.
S.M.: Bummer. [Makes face like a jerk]
Obviously, the crescendos that crash in this last movement are too much to listen to without sustaining cochlea damage. Let us hope that the sadness of these dark weeks can affect some profound change in all of us, or it will have been worth nothing.