After one of the greatest victories in Patriots history, after one of the defining Sundays of the Belichick-Brady Era, after an absolute roller-coaster ride of a win, after one of the more memorable they-had-absolutely-no-business-winning-that-thing games in recent memory, I turned the television off, pulled off an awkward high-five with my father and waited for the phone to ring.
And I waited.
And I waited.
Nothing. None of my friends called. My mom never called. None of my editors called. I even checked the ringer on our phone to make sure it was working. Yup. It was working. I jumped online and only two friends had sent along their congratulations (mainly because they had both wagered on the Pats). That was it. I briefly zoomed through reader e-mails and was shocked to see the same three themes over and and over again: either "You guys are so freaking lucky," "The Chargers freaking choked" or "Just kill me, now I have to sit through another freaking week of Pats-Colts hype."
At this point, I was starting to get bummed out. How could people not appreciate an undermanned, banged-up underdog that persevered simply by playing well together, by being well-coached and well-prepared, by pulling off all the Little Things and by believing in one another and steadfastly trusting they could pull out any close game? How could people not appreciate Troy Brown's supernatural strip of Marlon McCree (one of the greatest heads-up plays in Boston sports history), or Brady's slogging through a dog-crap game and having the balls to zing that ridiculously clutch throw to Reche Caldwell on the winning drive? How could they fail to be impressed that Belichick and the Pats knocked off a 16-1 team, a 16-2 team, a 15-3 team, a 14-2 team, a 14-3 team and a 14-4 team over the past five Januarys?
Stan Liu/US PRESSWIRE
C'mon, even though Brady has won three Super Bowls, his team is a great underdog story.
Then I realized something horrible.
Wait a second ... am I rooting for the football version of the Yankees?
I felt like Steve Martin realizing he was white in "The Jerk." And the thing is, I could see this coming for three years. People expect the Patriots to pull out close games. They're bored of watching it happen. They're tired of Patriots players and fans playing the "nobody believed in us" card. They're tired of writers and talking heads breaking out the popsicles for Brady and Belichick every January. It's becoming a formula -- nobody thinks the Pats can pull it off, the odds are impossible, MY GOD THEY DID IT AGAIN! -- which is unfortunate because formulas become boring pretty quickly.
Still, if the Pats really have turned into the football Yankees, then everyone outside of New England believes that ...
A. Rooting for the Patriots is like rooting for the house in blackjack.
B. An entire generation of fledgling NFL fans is being raised to root against them as we speak.
Just writing those last two sentences gave me the Manning Face. How could this be? How did we get here?
Like every other Boston fan, I grew up hating the Yankees, Canadiens, Steelers and Cowboys. My teams always lost, those teams always won, and I despised them with every fiber in my body. When our luck changed and the Celtics started competing for NBA titles again -- even winning three -- America never galvanized against them because Bird was so popular. Only recently did everyone come to loathe one of my teams: the post-2004 Red Sox, with the oversaturation of the "We finally did it!" angle. And I can't blame them. Looking back, everything after October '04 spiralled out of control faster than the street brawl in "Anchorman." The celebration carried on too long, too much was written (yes, I include myself), too many people had too much to say, bandwagon fans oozed out of the woodwork, and by the time everything was said and done, I think Curt Schilling killed a guy.
So yes, I can see how America turned on the Sox. But the Patriots??? I keep thinking of the scene in "Godfather: Part II" when Michael's sister urges him to forgive Fredo and calls Fredo "sweet and helpless." Umm, that was the Patriots! For like 40 years! As I have detailed in the past, they were always the undisputed black sheep of the Boston sports scene. At no point from 1960 to 2001 did any Patriots fan EVER think to himself, "Some day, this will all be worth it ... we're going to hire the best coach alive, find the best big-game QB alive, win three Super Bowls, become known as 'the team that just keeps winning,' break the hearts of fans across the league and, eventually, we'll turn into first-class villains and everyone will hate us and complain that we won't go away." That never happened. We were more worried that the Patriots would actually go away, that they'd bolt for another city (like L.A. or St. Louis) and never come back.
Now we're on six years of football euphoria. And I get the part where the outside world is ready for another team, because that's the way our society works now: We embrace something new, digest it, beat it into the ground and move on to something else. One minute, "Borat" is the greatest comedy of all-time; the next minute, it's overrated. One minute, everyone loves "Lost"; the next minute, we're wondering if it jumped the shark. One minute, everyone loves The Killers; the next minute, they're self-important sellouts. It's the Everything Sucks Era. We spend an inordinate amount of time bitching about everyone else. Nobody's good, nobody's worthwhile and everybody needs to go away. That's the prevailing theme. And after their third Super Bowl victory, the Patriots entered the "all right, you guys can go away now, you've ceased to be interesting" stage of their run, where we've been stuck for the past two seasons. I'm sure the players and coaches don't care, but for the fans, it's been bittersweet and even a little discouraging. If you can't appreciate THIS team, even as an impartial observer, what does that say about the future of sports?
Admit it, you had never heard of Reche Caldwell three months ago.
Consider how the Patriots are getting it done. They operate under a vexing salary cap and don't outspend everyone. They don't have any self-promoting a-holes doing sack dances or touchdown dances, they haven't been whistled for any substance abuse violations, and as far as I can recall, not a single Patriot filmed a commercial this season. Since 2001, they've gone 70-28 in the regular season and 12-1 in the playoffs drafting in the bottom half of the first round and avoiding any big-money free agent signings except for Rosevelt Colvin. They consistently find rookie sleepers, craft inspired game plans, excel in close games and thrive on doing the Little Things. Out of those 12 playoff wins, at least six left the other team muttering, "Dammit, how did we blow that game?" Only once did the Patriots ever return the favor.
On paper, I'm not sure how they're still chugging along. Their star quarterback has been pounded like Mick Foley in his prime. Their lead running back probably couldn't outsprint Eddy Curry to a hot dog truck. Their best receiver was unemployed three months ago. They don't have a single gamebreaker on the offensive side. They don't start a single top-12 draft pick except for Richard Seymour, who doubles as their only Pro Bowler. Their linebacking corps is slower than a dial-up modem connection. Their defensive leader, Rodney Harrison, is fighting to return from knee and shoulder damage, and if you know anything about the guy, he'll probably be in there on Sunday. They have a rookie kicker and two backups playing the safety spots. This team has no business winning a championship -- none -- and they're two victories away from No. 4.
Now here's where a slight dose of hypocrisy comes in. We spend so much time complaining about underachieving superstars, overpaid and overhyped players, incompetent GMs, rookie flops, dreadful officiating, troublemakers, thugs, players and coaches doing/saying dumb things, bad trades and signings, annoying announcers and writers, and overrated teams getting too much credit -- by the way, I do as much complaining and mocking as anyone, I'm not absolving myself here -- that I'm starting to wonder if we'll ever fully embrace a special team anymore. Are we too cynical? Are we too desperate to poke fun at everything? Has being a "fan" morphed into something else? Has the fan-sports dynamic started to become a little unhealthy?
Think about it. As recently as 20 years ago, the concept of a sports radio station didn't even exist. Neither did the internet or DirecTV. Fantasy leagues and SportsCenter were just starting to round into shape, but it was still pretty early for both. You simply watched a game, discussed it with friends, devoured the ensuing newspaper coverage, argued about the game at work or school the following day, then you waited for the next one. Now sports has evolved into a 24/7 event, between the instant highlights and internet coverage, thousands and thousands of Web sites and blogs, an infinite number of fantasy leagues, a never-ending slew of sports radio shows, sportswriters screaming at one another on TV and everything else you can imagine. Every game and event is digested and processed almost instantly, and then it's rehashed and digested again, and then it's beaten into the ground, and within a few hours everyone feels obligated to come up with their own unique angle on things -- even if it's extreme, even if it's insane, even if it's blisteringly nasty or vicious, even if it's completely nonsensical or inane.
For instance, since last Sunday's games were played, dozens of columnists, bloggers and radio hosts wrote or vented about the same theme: "This sucks, I can't believe we have to watch another Pats-Colts playoff game!" And none of them provided any real insight on why such a matchup possibly sucked. Hey, who needs insight? It's much more fun just to complain. I'm tired of Manning, I'm tired of Belichick, I'm tired of Brady, I'm tired of the Pats ... Really, you're a football fan and you're not interested in seeing whether the Colts can upend their long-time nemesis and finally make a Super Bowl? That's not cutting it for you?
If you don't like the accompanying BS for an admittedly overdiscussed game, simply skip the shows, columns, features and SportsCenter segments and join CBS at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday. Guess what happens when you block out the forced subplots, the exhausted Manning-Brady comparisons, the insufferable pregame hype and the vitriol on various blogs? You're left with a potentially fantastic game. Remember, these teams can't stand each other dating back to the Colts' whining like sissies after their 2004 playoff loss in New England. Indy has the greatest statistical QB of the past 15 years; New England has the best big-game QB of the past 15 years. The Colts are a good home team with something finally resembling a decent defense; the Pats are getting it done, for the most part, with smoke and mirrors. Everything about this Patriots season stopped making sense the moment Jabar Gaffney started averaging 10.5 catches per playoff game.
Brian Spurlock/US PRESSWIRE
If you can't get excited about wondering if Manning will knock off the Patriots, then don't call yourself a football fan.
So why do the Patriots have a chance? Because they're the Patriots. Watching "24" after Sunday's improbable victory, like every other Patriots fan, I couldn't help but think of the San Diego comeback during the scene when Jack Bauer pulled a Hannibal Lecter to escape another hairy situation. You always know Jack will bounce back -- not just because he signed a three-year contract, either -- and you always know the Pats will bounce back, even if they're handcuffed to a sewage pipe and pistol-whipped for three quarters. On Sunday, their best chance of winning boils down to three things: (1) don't turn the ball over; (2) hope the Colts don't play well; and (3) hope the game comes down to the last 10 minutes, when Belichick and Brady have been invincible over the past six seasons. If the first two don't happen, we won't get a chance to see No. 3. And the Colts don't want any part of No. 3.
One thing's for sure: this AFC Championship Game is totally up in the air, and if you can't get fired up for that premise, maybe you don't enjoy professional football as much as you thought. Just know that rooting for the Patriots isn't like rooting for the house in blackjack. See, we never feel safe. We never feel like we're going to crush everyone else. We're constantly astounded by what's happening, and we never fail to appreciate the significance of it. There isn't a single Pats fan who can't vividly remember those first four decades of futility and embarrassment, as well as the nightmare season when the franchise nearly fled for St. Louis and rendered every one of our memories moot. Much like Private Ryan, we earned this.
And if the Patriots can pull off another beauty on Sunday night, maybe my phone won't be ringing off the hook, and maybe we're headed for two weeks of "just shoot me, I'm so freaking tired of the Patriots" stories, and maybe we'd be as popular as the Russian hockey team in Lake Placid if the Saints make it to Miami. But you know what? Patriots fans have had it both ways, and it's much more fun being Michael Corleone than Fredo. Actually, it's much, much, much, much MUCH more fun. So keep ragging on us all you want. You'd trade places with us in a heartbeat and you know it.
(Now THAT sounds like something a Yankees fan would say.)
Before we get to the picks from the championship games, allow me some lingering thoughts from Round 2:
• I can't believe San Diego didn't give LDT 35-40 touches when he was running for six yards a carry and threatening to break every screen pass for a TD. Seriously, which slow white guy was beating him to the corner last Sunday -- Bruschi, Vrabel or Izzo? Every time they pitched it to him or swung a screen pass his way, my dad and I were more terrified than Willis McGahee getting the results of another paternity test. Everyone keeps pointing out that the Chargers choked on Sunday, but how can you possibly explain such a moronic game plan? Over everything else, isn't that why they lost?
(Good point here from San Diego reader Brian Springer: "If they just would have played Martyball, they would have won the game going away. Don't get me wrong, I understand mixing and matching of your playbook, but what happened to 'Let's keep on doing it until they stop us?' It's as if Marty was so afraid of the bashing he'd take if they played Martyball and lost, that he played anti-Martyball and it cost them the game. It just goes to show that he can't win anymore. His curse has become something that he'll never be able to shake.")
• I can't believe Reggie Bush got up from that hit; I can't believe Joe Buck didn't know if 5/8th cleats were longer than half-inch cleats; I can't believe Jeff Garcia might rope somebody into one last big contract; I can't believe Fox played "Pass the Mic" during Sunday's game; I can't believe Phil Rivers got off scot-free for such a crummy game; I can't believe the Chargers had no idea the direct snap to Faulk was coming when the Pats ran the same exact play in the same situation in Super Bowl XXXVIII; and I can't believe the Chargers threw to Eric Parker on their biggest offensive play when he'd already dropped four passes and muffed a punt.
• I can't believe the following four decisions were made: Lovie Smith calling the timeout with two seconds left; Andy Reid punting on fourth-and-15; Marty Schottenheimer wasting a crucial timeout on the single dumbest challenge in NFL history; and Bill Simmons repeatedly proclaiming that no NFC playoff team should ever be favored by more than 3 points, then taking the Saints -5 and the Bears -8.5 in Round 2. I'm the biggest idiot of the group. But not by much.
• I can't believe Mike Holmgren expected us to take him seriously in that big puffy Seahawks jacket. Every time they showed him on the sidelines, I kept expecting Harold Ramis and Bill Murray to be staring up at him in horror.
• I can't believe that (A) the Colts won in Baltimore without ever crossing the 15-yard-line, (B) that Steve McNair couldn't even give the Ravens a "D-plus" in that game, and (C) if they were playing that game again this Sunday, I'd absolutely pick the Ravens again. They needed one break in that game and just couldn't get it. You know it's a shaky win on the road when your two offensive MVPs are your kicker and the other team's middle linebacker (who tipped two INTs away). My fault for taking McNair. Gotta stick to your guns.
• I can't believe how well New Hampshire reader Tony Westover summed up my feelings on that whining nickname-stealer LaDainian Tomlinson: "I can understand why LT thought it was disrespectful and unclassy that the Patriots started 'doing the dance Shawne Merriman is known for.' Imagine if the Chargers won and some of their players went and did the Tom Brady dance at the midfield? Oh wait ... Tom Brady doesn't have a dance because he's a class act and doesn't do steroids."
• I can't believe how much I enjoyed these other three e-mails:
New Jersey's Gary Saldutti: "Andy Reid's time-management skills are so pathetic that, if he was the ball dropper in Times Square on New Years Eve, I'm convinced the ball would hit at about 12:03 a.m.."
Nashua's Todd Sullivan: "Marty's challenge of Brown's strip reminded me of Demi Moore's 'I strenuously object' scene in 'A Few Good Men.'"
Salt Lake City's Elliott Z (in the Morgan Freeman voice): "Two things never happened again after that Philly-N.O game. The Eagles never laid a finger on Drew Brees again, and Garcia never QB'd again. They transfered him to a minimum salary position on the sidelines. To my knowledge he spent the rest of his days relaying Andy Reid's plays to McNabb through a headset." • I can't believe how many bad passes Brady and Manning threw last weekend. Brady's game reminded me of one of those Bird games when he'd be 4-for-18 heading into the final minute and drain the biggest 3 and grab the biggest rebound and you'd forget the first 47 minutes ever happened. As for Manning, he, umm, didn't remind me of Larry Bird.
• I can't believe Bird retired 15 years ago and I still bring him up in every column. I need professional help.
• I can't believe how terrifying it was to pick the Bears (-8.5) last Sunday, then ride the Rex Grossman Roller Coaster for the next 210 minutes. My father summed it up best: "How do the Bears fans do it? I don't even care who wins this game and he's about to give me a heart attack."
• I can't believe the NFL Network is showing old Super Bowl telecasts in their entirety. Greatest programming idea ever. What took so long? Can you put a price on flicking channels at 10:30 at night and stumbling across Summerall's voice and the Pats-Rams game? I say no.
• I can't believe nobody mentioned the Saints were called for only three penalties last weekend. The conspiracy theory that the NFL wants the Saints to be in Miami for Super Bowl XLI -- starting with the NFL's forcing Houston to take Williams over Bush, forcing the Dolphins to sign Culpepper over Brees and forcing 31 other teams to repeatedly pass on Marques Colston -- just keeps getting stronger and stronger. Now it's just "completely asinine" instead of "criminally far-fetched and absurd."
• I can't believe that was the best offensive game plan Brian Billick could come up with. He had two weeks! Was that even a game plan?
We've been driving to the Staples Center for Clippers games for three seasons and Bill is constantly trying to figure out the quickest way. Each time he finds a better route, he spends the next three trips fine-tuning it and timing himself. I'm usually sitting in the passenger seat feeling nauseous from the quick turns, stop-and-go traffic, brake-slamming and swearing. But one day, Bill's quest for the fastest route paid off: we passed the motherload of donut shops, California Donuts. I've always loved donuts even though they're evil, but there aren't any good places out here -- we don't have a Krispy Kreme near us, there's just a Winchell's (generic) and a place called Yum Yum (which sounds like a place I'd find Bill reading porn in the curtained-off section). We desperately need a Dunkin' Donuts in L.A. but you knew this already.
The reason California Donuts caught my eye was because it had one of those really cool retro California signs. (I've always had good luck when a restaurant has a good sign, with one exception: Bob's Big Boy, which apparently serves prison food.) So one night I telepathically convinced Bill to think it was his idea and he stopped at California Donuts. When we got up to the window (yes, there's a window like at an ice cream shop) we were speechless. There was this huge deli case display of at least 30 different donuts that all looked like gourmet treats. I actually gasped out loud when I saw it. We opted for two apple fritters, a buttermilk and two glazed. They were so good that even the Olsens would have eaten them. I ripped through two and a half in about 10 minutes and then felt like I was pregnant for the next 36 hours. That was when I decided we could never go there again unless we were having a party and I wanted to serve them as dessert and pretend I made the fritters myself.
About three weeks later, Bill came home from a Clippers game with someone else and had six California Donuts with him. I was furious at him -- again, donuts are pure evil -- but that didn't stop me from shoving down a buttermilk in five bites like a hungry "Survivor" contestant who just won a food reward. Then Bill got mad that I was mad and said he'd throw the rest out, but we decided he should hide them instead so I couldn't find them. I couldn't bear the thought of those beautiful donuts sitting in the garbage. It just seemed wrong. The next day, I started thinking about the donuts and within a few minutes I was ripping apart the kitchen like a cop during a drug bust. I looked for them for a solid hour and a half in every part of the house. When Bill came home, I was completely frantic and screamed, "WHERE ARE THE DONUTS!" at him and I think he thought I was going to attack him.
The point is, I can't handle myself around these donuts. Now we've settled on establishing a "donut night" once a month so we don't end up weighing a combined 400 bills. And the reason I'm telling you this is because Donut Night is coming up next Wednesday. In my opinion, this is much more exciting than the Patriots-Colts game.
Here are my Round 3 picks: New Orleans +2.5, New England +3
• I can't believe how annoying David Spade's little dance was in the commercial for that CBS show that won't last for more than six weeks; I can't believe Dan Dierdorf didn't recognize who Puddy from "Seinfeld" was, then claimed that he watches a ton of TV; and I can't believe I took the time to write all of that down when it happened.
• I can't believe that the Chargers complained about a lack of class when Shawne Merriman attended a Chargers rally last week and egged on a "Brady sucks!' chant. No, really. This happened. Here's the evidence on YouTube. And while we're here, I can't believe how many readers e-mailed me some variation of the "Ron Burgundy was right -- San Diego really does mean 'a whale's vagina!' " joke.
• I can't believe how I make the same face every time Vinatieri bangs home a big playoff field goal for the Colts -- it's the same one that Favre made after McNabb completed the fourth-and-26 pass and Dr. Loomis made after realizing that Michael Myers wasn't lying on the front lawn anymore. I make that face every time. Every time. Let's hope I'm not making it this Sunday.
• I can't believe how reassuring it was to hear Nantz and Simms tell us that Marty was delegating to his assistants to the point that he wasn't even wearing a headset anymore, and then, just as the game seemed like it could slip away in the final seven minutes, they showed him on the sidelines slipping his headset on. That's when I knew the Patriots would win. I don't think I was alone, either.
• I can't believe how much time I spent mulling over this question from Mike G of Alliston, Mass.: "I am loving the fact that Peyton Manning will do a commercial for just about anything. How much would you pay to see him in a genital herpes commercial?" I'm in for $700.• I can't believe the score of the Seahawks-Bears game went into overtime at 24-24 while Fox showed "24" promos. That seemed rigged.
• I can't believe Troy Brown saved the day again. He's like a 15-year-old rottweiler who keeps saving his family's house from getting robbed even as they're having the "should we put him down?" conversations every nine months. Amazing.
• I can't believe how many readers predicted the following ending of the Pats-Colts game: Vinatieri shanks the game-winning field goal, rips off his jersey to reveal a Pats jersey, then runs across to the Pats sideline and jumps into Belichick's arms as Jim Nantz screams "Noooooooooo! Noooooooooo!" and Peyton Manning breaks out the greatest Manning Face of all-time. Would I sacrifice three months of my life for this to happen? Yeah, probably.
• I can't believe I kept the "I can't believe" gimmick going for this long.
On to the Conference Championship picks ...
(HOME TEAMS IN CAPS)
BEARS (-2.5) over Saints
No, but seriously ... EVERYONE loves the Saints in this game. I can't remember a bigger bandwagon pick in all the years I've been writing this column. Even if you check any gambling site that gives you the percentage of money being wagered on each team, the Saints are getting 68-75 percent of the action. Everyone has them pencilled in for Miami. That gives me the willies. And since the other two "makes me nervous" components of this game (the Rex Grossman Roller Coaster versus a warm weather dome team playing in 30-degree weather) cancel each other out, well ...
The Pick: Chicago 27, New Orleans 20
COLTS (-3) over Patriots
I tried to fight it. Really, I did. I looked at it from every angle. I kept hoping the case for the Patriots would materialize. And I kept coming back to four things:
1. The Colts crushed New England the last two times.
2. Indy's defense is good when they're protecting a lead -- they're fast upfront, they can rush the passer from different angles, their secondary makes plays, and as they showed last week in Baltimore, they can even get a little physical. If they're trailing by seven in the second half and you can run the ball down their throats? Different story. But that would presume that the Pats -- with a patchwork offense that can't produce any big play -- could take a lead and hold it.
3. Vinatieri is looming over everything. There's no doubt he comes into play down the stretch.
4. The only way Indy loses is if Manning gets rattled and kills them again. How many times can this happen? Ten? Fifteen? At some point, he has to come up big when it truly matters, right? Right?
The Pick: Colts 31, Patrio ...
(Wait a second ... if my life depended on this game, would I bet on Manning and Dungy over Belichick and Brady?)
(Thinking ... )
(Thinking ... )
Patriots (+3) over COLTS
The Pick: Pats 20, Colts 19.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.