Nostraflemus pictures the NFL future
What makes the divisional round of the NFL playoffs so cool is that players and fans alike are now close enough to the Super Bowl to begin wondering about The Dream Scenario. After seven grueling, hype- and angst-filled months, just three more wins is all that separates teams from holding up that Tiffany trophy and grabbing a slice of immortality.
See, right there? I got you thinking about it, didn't I?
The challenges. The triumphs. The nail-biting comebacks. The controversies. The road trip to Miami. The victory parade routes. All of it. But, instead of waiting around for another month to see how everything unfolds, I thought I'd take a look into my crystal football (just call me, uh, Nostraflemus) and reveal the ultimate Super Bowl Dream Scenario for each of the eight remaining teams.
In what amounts to a divine coincidence for a town that deserves a cosmic break, or 20, this year Mardi Gras opened just one week after the Saints won the Super Bowl. What's more, months before the playoffs even started, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was named the honorary King of Bacchus for the parade. (Which sounds like a totally cool gig until you realize that the list of past honorees -- Hulk Hogan, Sean Astin, Jon Lovitz and Nick Cage -- reads like a pitch for a new VH1 reality series, minus a Baldwin brother or two.) Turns out, in classic Big Easy form, it was hard to distinguish between when the Saints' Super Bowl party ended and Mardi Gras began. Or, if it will ever end.
How long to St. Patrick's Day, anyway?
All anyone knows is that after his MVP performance in Miami against the Colts (after his 14th completion in a row made it 34-10, I loved how Brees pointed toward the press box as if to say, 'That's for those 7½ votes I got in the regular-season MVP voting"), Brees deserves all the acclaim. Although, knowing him, he probably worked out before the parade and then threw for 1:45 minutes afterward. No, that's not right. It was probably more like 2:45.
It seems almost silly now, all that talk about how the Saints faded down the stretch, or how, before the Saints and Colts kicked off in the Super Bowl, the game had been built up as some Big Easy showdown between Brees and native son Peyton Manning. Instead, it was former undrafted rookie free agent Pierre Thomas who became a household name. Sure a healthy Saints secondary really helped the team recapture its attack-style personality, getting to Manning early and often. But Thomas, who used to stay in shape over the summer by pushing his old Dodge around his Chicago neighborhood, rushed for 179 yards and three TDs, gashing the Colts' weak run defense for huge gains, especially on third down.
As the co-MVP, Thomas really hated to leave the party in New Orleans in order to visit Disneyworld. But, as luck would have it, the post-Super Bowl bash was still raging three days later when he got back home to the French Quarter.
The Cardinals' winning the Super Bowl wasn't that big of a deal, really. It only changed the game of football, forever.
You need to run the ball to win in the postseason? Nope. You need to protect the ball? Sorry. Getting battled-tested in a tough division is key? Don't think so. Defense wins championships? Wrong again. After giving up 45 points and winning against Green Bay in the wild-card round, the Cardinals went all Madden on NFL tradition the rest of the way. They gave up, on average, 38 points and 489 yards per game in the postseason and still won their first Lombardi Trophy after a wild, breathtaking, 43-41 shootout win against the Chargers in Miami. And how great was it that the win was sealed by kicker Neil Rackers (cut after the Divisional round and then resigned after media day at the Super Bowl), who redeemed himself with a 51-yard field goal as time expired? Apparently, officials did not see that the Cardinals had 12 men on the field for the kick, and the final score stood.
Anyone who followed the Cardinals' two-year run -- to think how close they came to winning back-to-back titles and becoming an insta-dynasty -- knows that the game will never go back to 4 yards and a cloud of dust. More teams used more shotgun formations to throw more passes for more yards and more touchdowns than ever before in the 2009 NFL playoffs, and the folks who will inherit the game -- a generation of fantasy footballers, video gamers and hi-tech thrill-seekers -- expect even more action next season.
Too bad, the father of the "new" NFL, Kurt Warner, won't be around to see it. After securing his place in Canton with four straight 400-yard passing games in the playoffs, the original ringleader of the Greatest Show on Turf and, now, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, quietly announced his retirement after the game.
I especially liked how, in his announcement, Warner said he would not accept enshrinement into the Hall of Fame until his Cardinals gave back the 1925 NFL title they stole from the Pottsville Maroons.
America, you got your team back.
And, somehow, it seems fitting that with that particular moniker the Cowboys remained a dysfunctional soap opera all the way up until time ran out on the Chargers in Miami. By now you've probably heard about Jerry Jones' billion-dollar man-cave stadium with the overcompensating TV set. You've heard of the so-called December swoon, the ghosts of 1996 (the team's last playoff win before 2010) and what's-her-name with the high-waisted jeans. But who knew hanging around for a few extra days in New Orleans after the NFC Championship Game would get Tony Romo in such hot water? And then, how about Jones' statement when the team landed in Miami that a poor showing in the Super Bowl might cost Wade Phillips his job?
The only thing more bizarre, but with just as good an ending, was when Roger Daltry broke his hip during rehearsals and Pearl Jam agreed to fill in for The Who during halftime.
In the end, this Super Bowl win didn't belong to the quarterback. This wasn't Jerry Jones' win. This wasn't even DeMarcus Ware's win (even after nine postseason sacks.) No, this win belonged to one of the best guys and brightest minds in the game: Wade Phillips.
It was Phillips' lightning-fast, swarming defense, after all, that made Brett Favre cry real tears on his own field and announce his retirement -- at halftime. It was Phillips' scheme that kept the Cowboys in the game with Romo struggling in New Orleans. And it was by rallying around Wade in the Super Bowl, after Jones' bizarre (or, was it brilliant?) proclamation in Miami that finally spurred the Cowboys to greatness. Well, that, and the way the Cowboys offensive line physically dominated the Chargers in Miami and the 175 yards receiving by superstar wideout (and Super Bowl MVP) Miles Austin.
Sure, after Felix Jones ran for 194 yards in the NFC Championship Game, his agent threatened to hold him out of the Super Bowl unless he got a raise. There was a reported scuffle between Troy Aikman and Romo on the Cowboys team plane's flight home to Dallas. And, yes, Jones did try to charge fans for the victory parade. But in the end all the drama around America's Team was counterbalanced, expertly, by Phillips, who might just be the most down-to-earth coach in football. Which is why it was so cool -- and such a perfect ending to the season -- to see both Jerry Jones and Tony Romo join in as the Cowboys carried their coach off the field in Miami.
Not so fast, New England.
After what the Colts just did, it's time to reopen the debate about the NFL's team of the decade. Consider: The two-time champion Colts had more wins this past decade, more MVPs and one fewer cheating scandal. After watching Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne and Jim Caldwell demolish the overconfident Cowboys in Super Bowl XLIV, the 17-2 Colts have to be ranked among the all-time great teams.
I just wish -- sigh -- that they had gone for the Perfect Season.
After taking nearly a month off to rest, the Colts started slow against the Ravens. In a repeat of their bizarre win at Miami, though, Indy gave up 276 yards rushing and held the ball for only 14:27 but Manning put on another clinic of offensive efficiency, scoring on each of his final three possessions to save the day. His naked bootleg on the final score of the game -- none of the Ravens defenders were within 12 yards of Manning -- might just be the most amazing postseason play call I've ever witnessed. I swear, if you look closely at the replay, I think you'll see Manning actually smiling as he plods into the end zone.
From there the Colts rolled the upstart Jets, and then Manning -- shocker -- picked apart the Cowboys with an MVP performance that was as flawless as it was effortless. That deep rainbow bomb to Wayne? That goal-line bullet to Dallas Clark? That sideline pass, lasered through a rabbit hole of outstretched paws on third-and-11 when everyone in the world (literally, judging by the ratings) knew Manning was passing? Every season now for the past 10 years or so, Manning has done the impossible by continuing to top himself. But this has to be it, right? This has to be the end. No one can play the position better than this. With serious labor issues on the horizon we argued on the media shuttle back to the hotel about whether or not this was the last Super Bowl of this era. I said, sadly, yes, it was.
About one thing there was no debate, though: This was the single greatest passing performance in a Super Bowl, ever, and it had me wanting to call Bill Belichick in the middle of the night to ask for the Team of the Decade trophy back. But something tells me after the Super Bowl performance by Peyton (35-of-38 for 367 yards and three TDs), a student of the game like Belichick had already dropped it in the mail to Indy.
I blame LT and that superbad Electric Glide viral video of his.
Somehow, while watching (and rewatching) that video, while dancing along with it and trying to figure out the deal with that creepy, scraggly, bearded guy in the yellow shirt that read 'Hit That Hole' (Uncle Bryan? Is that you?), we all lost sight of the fact that the Chargers were, by far, the hottest team in the playoffs. So the fact that they are flying home to California right now with the Lombardi Trophy (a parade and bonfire on the beach, what a great idea) really shouldn't surprise anyone ... but wait, hold up, is that guy dancing with LT really wearing a shirt with a dinosaur on it?
Anyway, the Chargers haven't lost since Oct. 19. They have now won 14 straight. I know, after the wild-card round, we all fell in love with Joe Namath's team, but the 34-3 hurting that the Chargers put on the Jets should have been our first clue. Sure, San Diego's run defense seemed soft. But we all know run defense is about gap integrity -- selflessly holding your ground at the line so that, most of the time, others can step in and make the tackle. I guess the Chargers just needed that little extra incentive to take that part of their game to the next level. Or maybe they just ran out of worthy opponents who could challenge them and bring out their best.
That's how the rest of the playoffs went, right? It didn't hurt that the Chargers faced two not-so-great running teams in the Colts and the Saints, but still. It seemed like every postseason play the loaded Chargers offense had another star step forward. LT in the fourth quarter against the Jets. Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles pass-catching out of the backfield against the overpursuing Colts defense, and then, wow, what a show put on in Miami by Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd, who had a Larry Fitzgerald-like postseason, averaging 19 yards per catch.
In the end, though, no one took the Chargers seriously until Norv Turner finally manned up in Miami and decided to put the Saints away for good by going for it on fourth-and-4 at the 39. Saints LB Scott Fujita got a hand on LT's jersey, but one of the greatest running backs of all time slipped past him sideways and then plowed his way the final 3 feet for the decisive, game-clinching first down.
Where in the world, I wonder, did LT learn a slick, sliding, sideways maneuver like that?
Because the outside temp in Minneapolis was, oh, all of 6 degrees today, they decided to hold the Vikings' victory parade inside the Mall of America. Sure, it's a little cheesy, but you can forgive the Vikings for being out of practice when it comes to parades. Not anymore. Not since Brett Favre unretired and, in doing so, gave a team with good coaches, a star running back, a mauling, road-grating offensive line and a great run defense the little extra boost it needed to reach the big time.
In the end, it wasn't his arm that lifted the Vikings -- quite the contrary. After the epic, knock-down, drag-out battle royale against Dallas (two missed game-winning field goals in overtime, when will we ever see that again?), it was Favre's unselfish play after struggling mightily (three first-half picks) against Arizona that seemed to light a fire under the rest of the team. Who really thought they'd see the day when Favre audibled to a run play? Well, that's what happened against the Cards and that's how Adrian Peterson got his mojo back, to the tune of three TDs and 201 yards in the NFC Championship Game.
Call it luck, if you want, that the AFC playoffs imploded with upsets, leaving the Vikings to face the underdog Ravens in Miami. But it all seemed like destiny to me. Not just the nagging injuries to Ed Reed and Joe Flacco but the way Favre selflessly managed the game, converting almost every third down, it seemed, to a wide-open and sure-handed Sidney Rice or Visanthe Shiancoe. Sure, Jared Allen was the star of media day (and South Beach), but in the actual Super Bowl it was the Vikings' stellar run defense, led by Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield, that stole the show by channeling the Purple People Eaters of long ago.
With such mediocre numbers, did Favre deserve the Super Bowl MVP award? Of course not. Was there any doubt the adoring horde of media in Miami, who so desperately want to see a little bit of themselves in the Vikes' gray, pudgy, over-the-hill quarterback, would hand him the award, unanimously? Heck no. We love our fairy tale endings. I get it.
Of course, I thought it was fitting that Favre was given the choice of visiting Disneyland or Disneyworld. He immediately chose Disneyland. Then changed his mind to Disneyworld. Late today, as the team buses pulled into the Mall of America parking lot -- right next to "Say Cheese" and the "Quallet" kiosk -- word came from inside the Favre family that Brett is leaning toward his original choice of Disneyland.
Just call 'em the Ray-vens.
Behind running back Ray Rice and linebacker Ray Lewis the Ray-vens put a nice capstone on the Pats' dynasty by rushing for 234 yards and four TDs while harassing a skittish Tom Brady into 19 incompletions, three sacks and three picks. Baltimore just took that blueprint and applied it to a flat Colts team (Peyton Manning is now a shocking 7-9 overall in the postseason); a surprise Jets team that ran out of gas in the AFC Championship Game; and then the self-destructive Vikings, who were doomed by three Brett Favre picks in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, the last one, of course, an audible read by Lewis who snagged the screen pass and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown to give the Ravens a 20-14 win in Miami.
They were quite a pair, the Ray-vens' two Rays: the young, smiling Rice, who ran like a mini-avalanche, and the old, wily, relentless veteran Lewis, who cemented his place as one of the game's all-time great 'backers.
But you know what I'll remember the most from the Ray-vens run? The fact that in four games, and over 233 plays, banged-up and slumping quarterback Joe Flacco never faced a third down longer than 6 yards. It might seem as implausible as some of the scenes in "The Blind Side" (or the idea that the extreme importance of the left tackle was just recently discovered), but you can go back and check -- it happened.
Now, you can talk about Ed Reed's gutsy play and his two picks against Mark Sanchez. Or the leadership of Matt Birk, the explosiveness of Willis McGahee, the physical tone-setting of fullback Le'Ron McClain or the way Jarret Johnson flushed Favre out of the pocket on that final pick. But, for me, it was the screaming, howling hug that the two Rays shared on the podium before the trophy presentation (after both players had accounted for all of Baltimore's 20 points in the Super Bowl) that will forever mark this team, in my mind, as the Ray-vens.
NEW YORK JETS
It would be hard to hype anything more than the Jets' improbable, bizarre, glorious, wonderfully messed-up run to a Super Bowl championship. But here goes: The Jets defense finished the regular season first in total yards allowed, yards against the run and scoring. And now, after the run the Jets put on, manhandling both the Chargers and the Colts on the road and then bullying the Cardinals in Miami -- to the point where, after eight sacks, you almost had to look away every time Kurt Warner dropped back to pass in the fourth quarter -- you have to rank this defense right up there among the all-time greats.
Which only seems fitting since the Ryan family is the common thread running throughout all of the game's greatest defenses -- outside of Pittsburgh, that is. Rex's dad, Buddy, was the line coach when Joe Namath's '69 Jets won it all, and he went on to build the defense all others are measured by: the 1985 Bears. Rex was then a key part of the 2000 Ravens' ravenous junkyard-dog style defense, the one that broke the record for fewest points allowed in a season while swarming its way to the Lombardi.
Now, we add the 2009 Jets to that list.
(And, ya know what I like best about this family of defensive savants? The Ryans have never forgotten, or shied away, from the two things we love about this game, that the NFL has tried so hard to legislate away: uber-violence and fun.)
The NFL is fast becoming a pass-happy, no-contact, flag football video game league. But not yet. The Jets' offensive line, led by the game's best center in Nick Mangold, physically manhandled everyone in its postseason path with the one-two punch of backs Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones. (They were so good they even overcame two end zone drops by Braylon Edwards against the Cardinals. After the game, Edwards made it clear that LeBron James was to blame.) And then, rested and angry after long, clock-killing drives, that Ryan defense stepped on the field and imposed its will and flat-out embarrassed opponents. The Jets' great corners locked receivers up downfield and made the game's best passers hold the ball an average of 0.75 of a second longer than they were used to, allowing linebacker David Harris and the rest of that wild front seven the time they needed to turn the game's best quarterbacks into road pizza.
An event no one could have ever imagined six weeks ago, but one that's a perfect Ryan-family heirloom: Today in Manhattan, the Super Bowl MVP, cornerback Darrelle Revis, will lead one of the all-time great defenses down Broadway for the ticker tape parade.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship." And his work will be featured in "The Best American Sports Writing 2009" anthology. The Flem File appears every Wednesday during the NFL season with updates on Mondays and Fridays.