Could this be the greatest Sunday of championship games ever? Check out these 10 subplots, in no particular order:
1. Two proud franchises hosting home games in cities where football means a little too much. Not that it's a bad thing. But it's true.
2. There's also some serious baggage potential here. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers are hosting their fifth championship game in 12 years ... with mostly tragic results. In Philly, if the Eagles blow their fourth straight NFC championship, not only will the city suffer its biggest psychological blow since Clubber Lang won the heavyweight title, but these 2002-05 Eagles would take their place alongside the '60s Lakers, '90s Bills, '70s Vikings, '90s Blazers, '70s Royals and every other memorable team that couldn't get over the hump.
3. The Patriots need two more victories to clinch "Official Dynasty" status.
4. The Falcons haven't made the Super Bowl since the "Dirty Bird" season; and looking back, I'm not even sure that actually happened. All I remember is Eugene Robinson getting caught with a hooker. Does anyone remember the actual game that year? Plus, between the always-intense Jim "Don't Call Me Junior" Mora and that lunatic special teams coach they have, there's a decent chance that somebody's head could explode on the Atlanta sidelines this weekend.
5. A classic collection of coaches: Andy Reid looks like the star of a CBS sitcom where the portly guy is married to an improbably hot chick; Mora looks like one of those clean-cut porn stars who isn't quite reliable enough to get his own one-on-one scene; Bill Belichick dresses like the lead singer of an '80s cover band; and Bill Cowher looks so much like Sergeant Slaughter, you keep waiting for the Iron Sheik to attack him. Just a fantastic group. If only we could get Bill Parcells' body involved somehow.
6. Have I mentioned that there's a 16-1 team getting three points at home this weekend?
7. All four starting QBs could end up in the Hall of Fame some day: Brady, McNabb, Roethlisberger and Vick. I'm not saying it will happen. Just that it's possible. There isn't a Stan Humphries or Bubby Brister in the mix.
8. The rematch everyone's been waiting for: Dan Marino vs. Boomer Esiason. Greg Gumbel should come on the air this weekend holding a taser.
9. The Michael Vick Era always carries the 30-percent chance that something special could happen, like Vick slapping together three straight Pantheon-level performances and carrying the Falcons to a title. Now we're one-third of the way there. And he's edging dangerously close to Favre/Sanders Memorial "Don't bet against me under any circumstances" status.
10. The Patriots-Steelers game marks the second time that two teams with .875-plus winning percentages have played each other for a conference title. You want to talk about a good game? You want to talk about two great teams? I'm gonna tell you something, watch how these two teams beat the snot out of each other. Watch this. Watch this. BAM! Right there! It's a streetfight, folks!
Anyway, before we delve into Championship Weekend, some leftover awards from Round 2:
Most Tortured Fans: Jets
Forget about the fact that the Pittsburgh game was a "Level 1: Stomach Punch" game, or that they were probably the first team in NFL history to have a kicker plunk the crossbar AND pull a Norwood in the final three minutes of the same playoff game. Things have gone so poorly for Jets fans over the years, they were actually expecting something painful to happen down the stretch, just like Red Sox fans back in the day. Seriously, didn't you know Brien would miss that second field goal? Couldn't you feel the bad karma floating around? Sports is crazy sometimes.
Best Impersonation of Marty Schottenheimer: Herman Edwards
So, Herm, the Steelers give you two chances to drive inside the 20 for a game-winning field goal ... and you go conservative each time? Just one week after Marty did the same thing against you? Really? And have you ever seen a QB kneel down to set up the game-winning field goal, only he ends up kneeling in the exact same spot? I should have known that the Jets-Steelers game would come down to them screwing up the final seconds of a fourth quarter -- their whole season was like that. And then Herm has the gall to pin the loss on Doug Brien after the game. Nicely done.
(The amazing thing is that Edwards was the guy who returned Joe Pisarcik's famous fumble in the Meadowlands 20-plus years ago ... has anyone ever run the gamut of the final 30 seconds of a football game quite like Herm Edwards? Was he coaching one of the teams when the running back from "The Last Boy Scout" started shooting everyone?)
(Follow-up note here: Jets-Steelers reminded me of the Tuck Rule Game in that the Steelers were lucky to get those missed field goals -- just like the Pats were lucky to have the game-ending fumble overturned on a correctly-interpreted call. But the real story was how the Jets played "not to lose." If you remember, during the Snow Game, the Raiders had a chance to run out the clock in the final three minutes and blew a second-and-3 situation with two predictable runs. They couldn't get one more first down when they needed it. Just like the Jets last weekend. And yet, Raiders fans blame the Tuck Rule. At least the Jets fans were smart enough to realize that their coaching staff screwed up.)
Saddest Image: Doug Brien
After that second miss, he looked like one of the kids who gets bounced in the Spelling Bee -- it almost looked like he was drunk. Normally, I would create the Doug Brien "Oh My God, I'm going to get killed by three drunken Jets fans this summer" Face, but that was pretty heartbreaking to watch. I've said it before, I'll say it again: It's amazing that, in a world of something like two billion people, we can't find 30 competent field-goal kickers and 30 competent punters. Even if you come up with two a year, that's good for 15 years, right? Instead of cloning sheep, we should be cloning Morten Andersen.
Funniest Phone Call: My Mom
She called me during the weekend to ask why Randy Johnson was called "The Big Unit," saying, "I don't get it; why would somebody be nicknamed after the size of their penis? Why is this allowed? I'm not going to be able to watch him pitch now, I'm going to be frightened that something will fly out." When I responded that it was just a nickname and probably had nothing to do with his locker room prowess, she said, "Well, why would you want a nickname that makes you sound like a penis? Who would do that to themselves?"
(You know it's a good weekend when you get to hear your mom say the word "penis" two times without wanting to light yourself on fire.)
Strangest Game Plan: The Colts
How can your longest completion be 18 yards against a battered secondary? Why not go no-huddle (like they did at the end of the first half) and send five guys (all three wide receivers and both tight ends) down the field, then have Manning throw a few balls up for grabs? Wasn't that how Miami came back against the Pats last month? Inexplicable. The Colts were arrogant enough to think that they didn't need to deviate from what they did all season ... and it ended up killing them in the end. Big mistake.
(Here's a good rule of thumb: "If you have a chance to force the opposing team to put in Hank Poteat or Earthwind Moreland as its dime back in a playoff game, play as many receivers as possible until it happens -- even if you're playing the first-ever 10-WR offense.")
Strangest QB in a Big Game: Daunte Culpepper
Sometimes he looks like the next Brett Favre ... sometimes he looks like the next Scott Bakula. I'm very confused by him. Even his 2004 season was confusing: 4,717 yards, 39 TDs, 11 INTs, played 10 games without his No. 1 target, and yet he has an uncanny knack for making the wrong play at the wrong time. By the way, he's eight months older than Brady, three years older than Vick and two months younger than McNabb. Probably shouldn't be making this many stinker decisions anymore.
Strangest Game: Eagles-Vikings
Now here's a game you won't be seeing on the NFL Network in 2029. Then again, you probably won't be seeing the NFL Network in 2029. But this was one of the more unwatchable playoff battles I can remember. Not only did the Eagles look rusty, but the Vikings looked like a bunch of hung-over college kids playing an 8 a.m. intramural game. How 'bout McNabb throwing over the middle at the end of the first half to kill a potential field goal? Or the Vikes messing up that trick field-goal play? Or two Philly fumbles inside the 2-yard line? By the third quarter, I was answering e-mails and making a whatifsports.com team. What a wasted three hours. Although I was dying for Randy Moss to score so Joe Buck could lecture us again, then throw it to commercials for Cialis and "Who's Your Daddy 2."
Most Awkward Moment that Didn't Involve Boomer Esiason or Dan Marino: The Post-game Handshake between Dungy and Belichick
Did you catch that one? I watched it live and thought it looked strange, and then "Inside the NFL" replayed it with the audio. Dungy approaches Belichick with a warm smile and congratulates him. Then Belichick blows him off, and Dungy keeps congratulating him; and Belichick has none of it, finally pulling away without even making eye contact. Fortunately, Dungy didn't snap and scream, "I'm not taking that from a guy who's dressed like the lead singer of Loverboy!" That would have been awkward. But what was that about? A little residual bitterness from Indy's whining about the defensive holding last spring? Or did Belichick write the T.O./Desperate Housewives sketch and hold a grudge that Dungy slammed it? We need to figure this out.
Best Sequence in a Wrap-Up Show: Inside the NFL
For the Falcons-Rams recap -- the part when we see Vick joking on the sidelines about St. Louis defenders being out of position on the previous touchdown, followed by a close-up of Mike Martz's mug. Remind me of this sequence the next time I decide to wager on Martz and the Rams, on the road, during any playoff game. Or swing an ax into my chest. One or the other.
Best New Trend: QB's Throwing Mini-Tantrums When Their Receivers Drop Passes
Between the theatrics from Hasselbeck and Manning this month, it was almost like having Dan Marino playing again. It's funny how the QBs who actually win Super Bowls (Brady, Elway, Warner, Aikman, etc.) never resort to this; if anything, they run over to the player and encourage him to keep his head up. Hey, speaking of Marino ...
Most Awkward Moment: Boomer's Sneak Attack on Marino
Not since the Lohan-Duff feud has America been torn in two quite like this. In case you missed it, after the Pats-Colts game, Boomer derisively remarked that Manning has become the Dan Marino of his generation, then Marino responded with a withering glare and a "How many Super Bowls have you played in?" comment, followed by Greg Gumbel punching himself in the head like Raymond Babbitt. All right, I made that last part up. But this was an UNBELIEVABLE moment. Poor Marino was smoldering for the rest of the show.
(Which made me think of something: If Marino had charged Boomer and punched him out on live TV, would that have been the "Ruby shoots Oswald" TV moment for this generation? Or did that already happen when the completely insane Ron Artest charged into the stands in Detroit with the completely and utterly insane Stephen Jackson right behind him? Interesting debate. Even if this ends with Marino pointing at Boomer and screaming, "You couldn't hold my jock! You couldn't hold my jock! I have chunks of guys like you in my stool!" ... well, I'd be happy.)
Most Surprising Trend: Viewer Backlash Against Announcers and Studio Shows
I'm getting more e-mails about this than any other season I can remember. Of course, my bosses won't allow me to print any of them. Or comment on them. Or think about them. Or even continue typing right now.
(But I will say this: Before the Pats-Colts game, normally a time when you're watching anything and everything to get fired up for the game, I threw the tennis ball with the Dooze for 30 minutes so I didn't have to hear everyone yukking it up and trying to crack Rudy Martzke's "Strongest comments" column for Monday. That's pretty sad. Uh-oh, they're sending currents of electricity through my body again ... )
Most Awkward Moment that Didn't Include Belichick, Dungy, Boomer, Marino or my Mom: Tony Siragusa's William Hung Imitation
I'm 99.999-percent sure that I didn't hallucinate this, although I can't really remember because I tried to swallow my own tongue immediately after it was over. But here's what I remember ...
Coming back from commercial, Dick Stockton is reading Fox's 1,200th promo of the weekend for "American Idol." Suddenly, the Goose (roaming the sidelines in that goofy "I'm the third guy in the booth, but not really" role) starts singing "She bangs! She bangs!" at the top of his lungs. Everyone gives him the obligatory fake laugh. Then Goose keeps screaming "She bangs! She bangs!" another 10-or-12 times ... followed by a delightfully uncomfortable silence. That's what I remember. And that's why Van Damme needs to make "Sudden Death 2" -- about a retired cop desperately trying to shut the Goose's mike off during a playoff game before it's too late. Wouldn't you pay $8.50 for that?
Now we have Championship Weekend, which is shaping up like an especially inspiring episode of "Elimidate." Before you think I'm crazy, check out these astounding parallels:
The Bachelor = The Super Bowl trophy
They just want to go home with someone, even admitting that their longest relationship was just one year. By the end of January, the trophy is practically in heat. All it's missing is the bad cologne, the Viagra and the tank top.
The Favorite = The Patriots
They're the good-looking, cocky, confident blonde with an ample cleavage who just finished a modeling tour with Hawaiian Tropic. They say things like "I've never had a problem getting a date" and "Honey, if you think I'm worried about trash like you, you have another thing coming." They don't need to dress like a slut. They don't need to flash anyone on the dance floor. They refuse to kiss the trophy until all the other contestants are eliminated. They're just grinding out the date, acting like pros, avoiding any turnovers and expecting to get chosen in the end. And if you trash-talk them, you end up paying for it.
(But that's the weird thing about this show -- just when you think someone's a sure thing, they end up stumbling at the strangest time.)
The Contender = The Steelers
Maybe they aren't the cutest contestant, but they have a good personality and don't mind rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty. They nearly ran away with the date on the dance floor, then they lost some steam near the end of the third act when they got a little too drunk and admitted that, "Yeah, I've been in a threesome, so what?" Now they're underdogs to go home with the trophy, even though they already got to second base in the men's bathroom with it.
The Wild Card = The Falcons
They don't say much, they're not very good at trash-talking, they haven't proven anything, they have a nose ring ... but they also have HUGE breasts. You can never count out anyone with huge breasts. You just can't.
(And yes, Mike Vick counts as 38DDs.)
The Longshot = The Eagles
Things were going great for them until they lost a "I'm not ugly, you're ugly" trash-talk battle to The Contender, then broke a heel on the dance floor and sprained an ankle. It's also their fourth time on "Elimidate" and they haven't won yet. Things keep going wrong, to the point that their fans are expecting the worst. But that's the great thing about The Longshot ... you never know.
So that's where we stand. One man's pick for the big games:
Home team in caps
PHILLY (-5) over Atlanta
Here's a good rule of thumb for Championship Sunday: Pretend you wagered on each team, then pick the worst-case scenario for each side. For instance, a worst-case scenario for that Rams-Falcons game last week would have been Vick scrambling around early, followed by Dunn breaking a long run, then the Falcons making their obligatory special teams play, then Bulger getting hurt, then Mike Martz staring out onto the field like an American tourist trying to read a train station schedule in Chinese. And that's pretty much what happened.
For the Falcons this Sunday, here's the worst-case scenario: The Eagles shut down their running game, forcing Vick to throw the ball. When none of his receivers can get open (and isn't that the biggest mismatch in this game -- that motley crew of Atlanta receivers against Philly's superb secondary?), he'll try to create something with his scrambling ... only the Eagles have the horses up front to chase him down, much like the way Tampa Bay's D always handles Vick (as Collinsworth pointed out this week on HBO). And the Falcons offense will keep sputtering, and the Eagles will grind out a few drives, and that will be that.
Here's the worst-case scenario for the Eagles: Even though they're controlling the game, for whatever reason, the Falcons keep hanging around ... and hanging around ... and suddenly it's early in the fourth quarter, and the score is tied ... and that's when the fans start to get nervous (the baggage thing) ... and then Vick breaks a big play to take the lead ... and everyone in Philly is thinking, "Oh my God, please tell me it's not happening again" ... and then McNabb plays the rest of the game with both hands wrapped around his neck. See you next year.
So that's that. I'm leaning towards the Eagles, for a few reasons:
1. Every round in the playoffs, there's always one team that looked a little TOO good the previous week and nobody can think rationally about them. When the Falcons are on, they look unstoppable. When they're struggling, they look like crap. There's no in-between with them. I also think there's a big difference between playing inside the Georgia Dome and playing on grass in 10-degree weather. Let's see Vick prance around after he's been thrown into the cold turf a few times.
2. Everyone likes the Falcons this week, activating Rule No. 2 of the Playoff Manifesto 3.0: "When in doubt, seek out the popular opinion and go the other way."
3. You can run the ball on Atlanta. Even last week, the Rams had some success before they were forced to start throwing the ball every down. I can't remember a team making the Super Bowl that couldn't stop the run.
4. I just have this nagging feeling that we're 48 hours away from two straight weeks of "Terrell Owens: Is he playing or not playing????" stories. I know, I know. It's awful. We'll get through it together, you and me.
5. The Sports Gods can be cruel ... but are they really cruel enough to screw over Philly fans over for a fourth straight year? I say no.
The pick: Philly 20, Atlanta 10.
New England (-3) over PITTSBURGH
As Rule No. 8 of the Playoff Manifesto says, "Beware of the Road Favorite." Then again, there's no way to predict what will happen because we don't know which version of Big Ben is showing up. After that Jets debacle, all bets are off. And we know that Belichick will put the game in Big Ben's hands, if only because he loves to take away the one thing that the other team does well (in this case, running the football) and force it to do something it would rather not do (in this case, have Big Ben heaving the ball downfield). As I mentioned before, you beat this Patriots defense by challenging them downfield and getting lucky with big plays. But Pittsburgh has been ramming the ball down people's throats all season; the Steelers probably think they can do it to the Pats. It won't happen. I'm telling you.
On the other side, I don't think the Patriots will be able to run the ball, either. The Steelers will be ready for Corey D. That means Brady needs to win the game, and not with the dink-and-dunk stuff he unleashed on the Colts last week. He needs to throw downfield and force the Steelers to stop loading up against Dillon. I actually think both QBs will be successful -- this game will have more scoring then people think. Just wait. I'm even predicting a Lee Mays touchdown, regardless of what happens.
Worst-case scenario for the Steelers: They can't run the ball, Big Ben craps the bed, Brady picks them apart, Dillon finishes them off.
Worst-case scenario for the Pats: Big Ben shows up, the Pats can't run the ball, Dillon puts the ball on the ground (a red flag with him during the season), Randle-El makes a special teams play, Brady can't save the day, the Steelers run out the clock.
Honestly? I could see either of those scenarios happening. So that leaves us with three rules from the Manifesto:
Rule No. 4: "When in doubt, check out the coaching matchups."
Cowher vs. Belichick. I'll take the guy with the rings.
Rule No. 15: "When in doubt, look at the QBs."
Big Ben vs. Brady. Again, I'll take the rings.
Rule No. 16 (new): "When in doubt, make sure you're not going against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in a big playoff game."
A few readers suggested this addition after last week's Colts game. Until the Patriots lose one in January or February, it's probably a wise idea.
(I'm Bill Simmons and I approved this message.)
The Pick: Patriots 27, Steelers 23.
Last Week: 2-2.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.