By David Fleming
Page 2

Unable to claw his way any closer to Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, Atlanta defensive end Patrick Kerney used a teammate for a stepping stool and simply hurled himself, like a rabid dog attempting to snap his yard chain, at a wall of Panthers blockers. In midair he was bent backwards, flipped, kicked, elbowed and then driven, headfirst, into the turf. When he landed, Kerney yanked off his helmet as if it were filled with yellow jackets and hurled it across the field before falling into a heap near midfield where he stayed, writhing in intense pain, for what seemed like several agonizing minutes.

Underneath him was the giant red, white and blue NFL logo most teams paint onto the grass at the 50-yard line. And above him the stadium speakers blared Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."

Kerney would be fine. A few moments later he'd walk off on his own and would eventually return to the game to wreak more havoc. But for the briefest of moments he provided the perfect snapshot of December in the NFL: the nastiest, most ultra-violent, crazy, six-inch pain needle, mangled digits and pus-filled cauliflower ear, let's-try-anything-for-one-last-chance-at-the-playoffs free-for-all.

What's not to love about December? Eighteen teams competing for 12 spots. The weather turns mean. The stakes go high. The players get ugly and the game gets visceral while multimillionaires like Kerney display absolutely no regard for their own physical well-being in an all-out pursuit of a 22-inch Tiffany trophy.

Peace on earth and goodwill toward men? Uh, not in the NFL in December. Not in Charlotte, where even the cheerleaders pack a punch. And not on Sunday, when even the TD celebrations, such as Steve Smith's mildly amusing diaper-changer, were down and dirty. "People only remember you for what you did in December," says Panthers safety Marlon McCree. "You look around into the eyes of the guys you've been playing next to all season -- and there's a different look in their eyes in December."

And a different feel to the game.

On Atlanta's second series, tight end Alge Crumpler hit Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers with the kind of Monty Python Knights of the Round Table block at the knees that nearly left him an amputee. (Peppers returned to the game.) Then, after a scuffle out of bounds, I saw Panthers punter Jason Baker dabbing his forehead looking for blood. I knew someday I would see a punter actually break a sweat, but I never imagined seeing one bleed. Later in the game, Atlanta corner DeAngelo Hall tried to spike the ball, into the brain stem of Carolina fullback Brad Hoover.

And at times on Sunday it seemed like McCree and fellow Panthers safety Mike Minter were taking turns flattening different Falcons into road pizza. Most of the time it was Mike Vick, who was bullied, bruised and battered into a 39.1 QB rating with all of 36 yards rushing. And, for a moment, I allowed myself to wonder: If Carolina could do this to Vick, what would this defense do to a stationary target like Peyton Manning? Ugh. Ouch. Yikes. Bleeghh. WHY IS HIS LEG TURNED THAT WAY? OK, that's enough.

Anyway, while growing up in Daytona Beach, Fla., McCree would sometimes look up into the stands during blowouts in high school and see his mother, Patricia, leaving the game. "That wasn't no football game," McCree says she'd say later as an explanation. "See, my momma loves football but she wants to see 6-3 and 17-15 type games. Lots of offense is nice and good, but defense and hitting and intensity? That's football, you know?"

It certainly is in Dallas, where I love hearing how Bill Parcells simply doesn't "believe" in injuries this time of year. It surely is in Denver, where it looks like John Lynch, the gentlemanly de-nogginizer himself, is making a late run at matching last year's total of 80-large in fines. It is in Detroit, where security guards pursue and hit harder than Matt Millen's defenders. And it is in Seattle, New York and Chicago and in the turnaround in Minnesota. All over the league the hitting is so raw and real this time of year you've got to watch highlight shows through your fingertips like you watch horror movies.

Call it what you want: Man Up Time, Four Yards and a Cloud of Plasma, but trust me, everybody hits harder in December. Just ask Drew Rosenhaus, the banged-up Pats, anyone still willing to show his face in Philly after the Seattle D left town, the Steelers (who are in such disarray that Ben Roethlisberger had to cancel a taping of "Wheel of Fortune" -- how harsh is that?) or, heck, just ask Crumpler, who summed up the Falcons' letdown in Sunday's showdown against Carolina like this: "Uh, they kicked our asses."

Oh, don't worry, soon enough the game will return to the pageantry of the playoffs, the bunting, the celebrity "hard rock" bands, the cross-promotion and all those pretty, rainbow-bomb offenses in the AFC. But in December the NFL can be an extraordinary real-life Boulevard of Broken Dreams (and bones.) The kind only a good football momma like Patricia McCree could appreciate.

"This time of year you see so much pushing and shoving and yapping after the whistle," says McCree. "Guys are just slamming into each other at full speed, the intensity is extreme and it just sweeps you up into the game. Your adrenaline is rushing, the crowd is loud and you got guys banging and knocking people around, it just engulfs you and the next thing you know you get swept up into that high and you realize, man, we are playing at a level we've never been at ... once you get there there's no turning back."

All day long Carolina coach John Fox was patrolling his sidelines, slapping his play-card against his palm for emphasis while extolling his players to keep the needle buried in the red. Like all great coaches, Fox understands that intensity this time of year comes from the last place you'd expect: the classroom. It's an idea mastered by Bill Belichick. The better prepared players are, the more confident and comfortable they feel, and the more comfortable they feel the freer they are to simply react on the field and let their natural talents and instincts come through.

That's why Fox's scheme against the Falcons was such a masterpiece. Yes, he used three corners to lock down the outside so Minter and McCree could roam the box and disrupt Vick. Yes, he used speedy safety/linebacker rook Thomas Davis as a spy. Yes, he sampled some "46" defense, used a ton of fronts and stunts to confuse and slow Vick and pressured him up the middle with former Falcons 'backer Chris Draft. But, more importantly, Fox implemented the scheme in a simple, streamlined way that gave his defenders the confidence and freedom to fly around and match Vick's speed instead of trying to contain it.

Fox truly hates the fact that his myriad administrative duties as head coach often take him away from what he loves to do: game plan, teach and motivate. So you know he's loving this stretch of games. He's a December guy, through and through. You can hear it in his players, too.

"This time of year is like a 12-round championship fight," says McCree. "And we're not the kind of team that wants a KO in the first round, no way, man, we want to go 12 rounds. All 12. We want to beat you down, wear you out and punish you. It's like backyard-style football, that get-down-and-dirty-and punch-someone-in-the-mouth style of football. And you know what? I think people really like that."

Yes we do.

Repeat after me and momma McCree: Yes, we do.

David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, can be preordered through Baywood Publishing. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com




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