NFL Pregame Ritual (Week 16)
Welcome back to the Pregame Ritual. We hope your heart is full of cheer. If it's not, then we hope that reading this column provides enough time away from your family that you no longer want to stab them with the candy cane you whittled to a fine point during the airing of grievances.
After Friday's game between San Diego and Tennessee, here are two other matchups to watch this weekend:
Two key games to watch
Baltimore at Pittsburgh (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
How's your mind? Intact? Prepare to have it blown. If the Steelers win this game, and the Jets, Jaguars, Broncos and Texans lose (they are all underdogs), then Pittsburgh will control its own fate going into Week 17.
Unbelievable, right? Last week, we compared the Steelers to "Kill Bill," but perhaps their arc more closely resembles the Christmas classic "It's A Wonderful Life" -- strong opening, depressing middle, miraculous happy ending. If they make the playoffs despite losing to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns, an angel somewhere will have surely just earned his wings.
Denver at Philadelphia (Sunday, 4:15 p.m.)
Last week, the Eagles defeated the 49ers in a game that featured greater entertainment in the stands than on the field. Eagles coach Andy Reid apparently called snowball fights classy, which must have been his way of complimenting the fans for not packing the snow with bodily fluids. This week's contest should be much more competitive, as the Eagles push to win the NFC East and the Broncos fight for their playoff lives. It will be interesting to see how Eagles fans react to safety Brian Dawkins' return. Will he be given a hero's welcome or the same nasty treatment reserved for another elderly out-of-towner who dared to take their field -- Santa Claus?
Play we'd like to see
Jim Zorn appears to be living out every working man's fantasy. Trapped in a dead-end job and terrorized by an abusive boss, it looks like Zorn has finally had enough and is telling off those above him. How else do you explain that insane fake field goal attempt on Monday night? "Management's going to take passive-aggressive swipes at me and publicly shop for my replacement? Oh yeah? Well, look what play I can call! Get bent, Snyder!"
Good for him. We look forward to seeing more of the same this week. He could call for a punt block on first down or activate himself as the Wildcat quarterback. If the Redskins manage to take a lead in the final minutes against the Cowboys, he could order up an onside kick! Who would ever do that! It will show his oppressive overlords how dangerous it is to mess with a man who has nothing left to lose.
Fine, I'll ask
Five questions about Sunday's Oakland-Cleveland game:
Could Cleveland fans even fit everything they want for Christmas in a letter to Santa or would they have to send him an entire book?
Did Tom Cable get what he wants for Christmas -- a real Rock'em Sock'em Robot to spar with?
Given that the starting quarterbacks are Derek Anderson and Charlie Frye, does the CFL rights holder get to broadcast this game?
Will Mike Holmgren and Eric Mangini watch a lot of "Sopranos" together and discuss heavy men in positions of power?
At the reindeer combines, would Al Davis insist Santa use the fastest ones even if they couldn't fly?
Storyline we care about
NFL kickers are suddenly the gang that can't shoot straight.
The sudden decline in kicking accuracy has been one of the most exciting aspects of this NFL season. We love football for countless reasons, but primary among them is our passion for the unknown. Watching sports has long been the greatest outpost for those who seek uncertainty in entertainment, and any increase in volatility only enhances its pleasure. After a rash of high-profile misses and a declining success rate comparable to Vince Vaughn, anything now seems possible on every attempt, a welcome change from the automatic days of old. If this means kickers, the elves of the football world, don't get to always do a happy little dance and sing a cheerful song, so be it.
Storyline we don't care about
Favre irked that Childress pondered pulling him
Good grief. It's as if Favre enjoys daring fans to not like him. On the field, he has outperformed all expectations. But unfortunately, that's also true off the field, where he continues to create the needless drama and controversy which has come to define him in recent years. We hope for two things. One, you'll read this article, which breaks down the second half of his career in illuminating fashion. (It was written two years ago, and he's gone 2-5 in December games since. Also, enjoy the headline that leads the sidebar.) Afterward, ask why the Cowboys get so much attention for choking at the end of the year, but it's OK for Favre to flip out on his coach, who may notice that the same thing has been happening to him. Two, we hope Favre heads back to Mississippi to coach peewee football in retirement, and some punk kid refuses to listen to him. Maybe then he'll call Childress to apologize.
Patrick Swayze's pep talk
Swayze's action movies were undeniably awesome, and his recent passing was incredibly sad. In a small attempt to pay tribute, we'll relay some of his words of wisdom in this space each week in an effort to fire up a particular player or team.
"Christmas will be ruined and everyone will hold you responsible." -- Wayne Saunders
Such a result would be just fine with the Chargers, who can play Grinch and put an end to the Titans' feel-good comeback story in Nashville on Friday night, leaving Elvis to serenade the crowd with an all-too-appropriate version of "Blue Christmas."
Most important fantasy players
Aaron Rodgers: This week represents the finals for most leagues, so here is our guess at the four players who will appear in championship games most often, as their performances have far outpaced their draft positions. Let's start with Rodgers, who quietly led all players in fantasy points this year. He needs a better publicist. We'd recommend he call the guys who represented the previous Green Bay quarterback, but we don't want to cause every press-box phone in the country to ring at once.
Vernon Davis: Davis resurrected his career this year and became fantasy gold for those owners willing to ignore meaningless indicators like previous performance and ability to not get sent to the showers during a game.
Miles Austin: Austin's breakout year created a situation similar to those found in holiday movies where adults find out Santa is real. Those willing to overcome their skepticism were treated to a magical experience, as Christmas morning came every Sunday. Those unwilling to believe were stuck with coal or, worse, Terrell Owens in their stockings. However, what those movies don't show is the answer to the logical next question. If Santa is real, why have parents been wasting their money on presents for all these years? Fantasy owners may want to ask themselves a similar question before investing a first-round pick in a shiny new wide receiver ever again.
Ray Rice: The trendiest preseason sleepers this year were Ray Rice and Derrick Ward. If you drafted the former, you probably had a successful season. If you selected the latter, chances are you know Matthew Berry's e-mail address and have used it to wish many things upon him other than happy holidays.
Toby Mergler is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., who has previously written for MLB.com, Fanball and the Virginia Law Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.