Page 2 columnist
Nothing makes a New England winter move along faster than the Patriots playing deep into January. Turn on any TV station and they're showing a Pats-related story. You see Patriots bumper stickers on toll-booth buckets and telephone poles. At my local bank, there's a Patriots sticker on one of the windows. At Monday night's Celtics game, the crowd cheered every time the Jumbotron showed someone in a Pats jersey. Visit any local coffee shop and there are six concurrent Patriots-related conversations happening at the same time.
Everyone seems happier. On Thursday, I was driving home and a fellow driver actually let me cut into the left lane on Storrow Drive, the first time I can remember that happening in months. Readers include me on e-mail threads with their buddies, all which center around themes like "The greatest game ever!" and "Is this the year?" On our local sports radio stations, callers babble incoherently about our black sheep Pats finally getting some breaks. Even the grizzled members of the local media are playing along, writing positive stories and facilitating happy Pats talk (at least until things turn and they start kicking us in the teeth again).Like everyone else, I find myself wondering about goofy, illogical things. For instance, Pats linebacker Tedy Bruschi believes the late Dick Rehbein -- the team's quarterbacks coach who died suddenly before the season -- was watching from above and helping out in the Breaks Department. I spent an entire car ride from Burlington to Boston mulling this over. Does stuff like that actually happen? How else would you explain the call getting reversed in the Oakland game? Or the fact that this team always seems to recover every one of its fumbles? Or the game when David Patten was knocked out cold during a crucial possession in Buffalo, fumbled but retained possession because his unconscious head was out of bounds? Or when Vinny overthrew the winning receiver in the second Jets game? Or the way an improbable chain of late-season events unfolded with the Raiders and Jets that resulted in New England getting a first-round bye? Good God, how do you explain everything that's happened with Tom Brady? Maybe Rehbein is watching. I keep thinking about the Pittsburgh game. Don't we match up with Pittsburgh pretty well or am I crazy? Isn't the Kris Brown thing going to rear its ugly head before everything is said and done? Won't Belichick come up with something to stop Kordell? Haven't we had significant success against Bettis over the years? Isn't it a sign that we reached the Super Bowl two other times, both games were in New Orleans ... and the Super Bowl is being held in New Orleans this year? And what about the fact that ESPN.com is sending me to the Bayou next week, my first-ever Super Bowl Experience? What if the Pats make it? How do I balance being there as a columnist and being there as a fan? Will I make it out of there alive?
(All right, the answer to that last question is, "No, definitely not." But just bear with me.)I find myself using the word "We" all the time. Why? I don't know. Usually, I hate when fans use the word "We" when discussing their favorite team, but in this case, I really feel like I'm a part of everything that's happening here. This is my team. I grew up with them. I watched every game during every crummy season. I sat through every catastrophic draft. I reeled with every bad break (and there were a ton of them). I struggled for comebacks every time one of my friends poked fun at them. So, yeah, I'm a part of this, too. Forty-five players and 10 coaches are directly involved in Sunday's game, but there are tens of thousands more just like me, the diehards, the ones who truly care. We're playing the Steelers on Sunday. If we win, we're going to the Super Bowl. And that's why it's 32 degrees and drizzling here today ... and it doesn't seem nearly that cold.
|***** ***** *****|
"You couldn't see that well because the snow was blowing right in your eyes from the corner of the end zone (where the visiting team's locker room is). Everyone got really quiet ... you looked around and everyone was just locking arms with their buddies, hoping for a minor miracle -- a 45-yarder in the snow. Vinatieri has trouble kicking those in the practice bubble. So normally I'm thinking there's no way they could make that kick. But this time it was different, it just felt different ... just the way things seem to be falling in place for the Pats, you knew there was a chance that Vinatieri could somehow find a way to make that ball get through those uprights ... somehow ..."From where we were sitting, you could see the movement on the line, you could see Vinatieri's approach and follow through. ... You knew it cleared the line of scrimmage only because the Raiders immediately turned to watch the flight of the ball. No one could see the football for a good second or so. The Raiders immediately started signaling 'No good.' I had a terrible feeling in my stomach ... until about the 5- or 10-yard line! There it as, an oversized Tim Wakefield knuckleball dancing toward the crossbar. The most untrue spin I've ever seen on a football kick, other than an onside kick. It looked like it wasn't going to get there, but it somehow kept floating (I think the wind might have helped it out at least a yard or two along the way). "Turns out, it needed every bit of that push. It barely made it over, maybe by about 2 feet, and the split second it did make it over the crossbar, the float was gone .... and the ball just dropped to the snowy ground. TIE GAME! Pandemonium. Pure bliss. After the signal was made that the kick was good, the whole section basically fell down on each other. I'm not kidding. I had a guy lying on top of me who sits five rows behind me. Fists in the air, momentary insanity, hugs all around, pure bliss. Never in my life have I seen such happiness at a sporting event, or any event for that matter. You knew after that the Pats would find a way to win this game in OT. You just knew it."
And while we're here, the Raiders blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, and they also had a chance to put the game away in the final three minutes -- Gruden called two conservative run plays (on second-and-3, no less!) when they could have iced the game. If I were a Raiders fan, I would be wondering why my team couldn't put the Patriots away before it ever reached the point that a dubious rule gave the Pats a second life.
2. As the game approaches, you can always count on a writer from one of the two cities involved to try and stir things up ... and it's usually done poorly. In the case of Pittsburgh-New England, some schmuck from a Pittsburgh paper attempted a "Even though the Patriots perennially stink, here are some ways Pittsburgh fans can summon enough hatred to root against them this week" column on Tuesday, which fell flatter than the Olson Twins. I've been to funerals that were packed with more comedy than this thing. Sometimes I can't believe I'm in this business.(And for someone from Pittsburgh to seem condescending about New England ... I mean, geez. We gave the world "Cheers," they gave the world "Queer as Folk." We gave the world Sam Adams, they gave the world Iron City Light. For God's sake, they can't even support four professional sports teams. Don't even get me started.)
PAT: 35-10, St. Louis.(Shot of Bruce and Warner hugging) JOHN: This is what it's all about. ... but apparently they were still doing the live broadcasts for Fox. I've stopped trying to figure it out.
|Sports Dog's picks|
|He had a better winning percentage than more experienced NFL prognosticators, such as Bill Simmons, The Swami and Norman Chad, so Bailey The Sports Dog (39-27-2 in the regular season) is letting it ride for the playoffs. Bailey didn't lose in the divisional playoffs weekend, going 3-0-1 to run his playoffs record to 5-2-1.
Here are Bailey's predictions for the conference championship games.Philadelphia plus 12 over St. Louis: Rams 27, Eagles 18 (Philadelphia covers) Pittsburgh minus 9½ over New England: Steelers 30, Patriots 13
Three reasons to back Philly here: They're playing as well as anyone right now; they blitzed Warner practically to smithereens in Week 1; and McNabb gives them a puncher's chance. I almost talked myself into them as an underdog pick ... almost ... until I read about Troy Vincent struggling with that strained groin. You can't have your best cornerback playing at half-speed (or not at all), not this late in the season and especially not against the Rams.It sounds dumb ... but in good conscience, I just can't take them. Nothing would be worse than picking the Eagles and getting 11 points, then watching them trying to match up with all those Rams receivers, as Madden says things like, "The Eagles are going with six defensive backs here, but the dime back is actually a converted linebacker" or "See, if Troy Vincent was healthy, there's no way Isaac Bruce would go by him like that." You need to be healthy and lucky to beat the Rams in St. Louis ... and the Eagles aren't healthy. Too bad. The Pick: St. Louis 38, Philly 24
AFC Championship: New England at Pittsburgh
Forget about the fact that I'm a Patriots fan for a second... there's no way in hell that they should be plus-10 in Pittsburgh. For one thing, they haven't been blown out of a game since Week 4 in Miami. Look it up. Even when they lost by 11 in Denver (Week 6), Brady was driving them for a game-winning touchdown in the final few minutes. Even when it isn't their best day, this Patriots team has shown an astounding capacity to hang in games. If the Pats played Oakland under better weather conditions, and if Pittsburgh had played a team with a competent quarterback last week, this line would be in the 6- to 7-point range.You have to admit, it's a pretty good matchup. Pittsburgh's biggest problem has been scoring inside the 20; New England's biggest strength has been stopping teams inside the 20. New England's biggest problem has been protecting its QB against good defenses; Pittsburgh's biggest strength has been blitzing the QB. If you're a Pittsburgh fan, deep down, you wonder about Kordell coming through in a tight game. If you're a New England fan, deep down, you wonder if it's too much to ask from a first-year QB (Brady) to win in Pittsburgh, especially with these stakes. These are two similar teams -- hard-nosed, well-coached, aggressive, well-balanced, everything you would want -- and when two teams seem pretty close, it comes down to coaching and special teams... and that means Kris Brown officially becomes a factor. Football is a strange game; the weakest link on a particular team usually rears its ugly head when it matters most. For the Steelers, it's their kicker. And they know it. The Pick: New England 19, Pittsburgh 17. Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2. Starting Monday, he'll be filing daily "Postcards from New Orleans" for the Super Bowl.