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Friday, January 5, 2007
Solving the playoff mystery

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Before we get to the Round 1 playoff picks, I couldn't resist passing along my top 10 highlights and lowlights from the extended holiday break:

1. Flicking over to the Fiesta Bowl and catching the last few minutes of Boise State-Oklahoma, seeing Boise's QB seemingly blow the game with one of those Paul Crewe "I'm openly shaving points" picks, watching him rally back with the first hook-and-ladder play I've seen live in 26 years (it's really the "hook-and-lateral," but I like the malapropism better), being so enthralled that I actually logged onto the Internet to send an excited e-mail to my friends, and even before I logged off, Boise State had won the game on a WR option pass and a Statue of Liberty play for the two-point conversion, followed by Chris Myers ruining a postgame marriage proposal by Boise's running back to his cheerleader girlfriend.

Just an unforgettable 30 minutes of TV. I'm still giddy. Has a sports year ever peaked on the first day? And how many converted Boise State fans will be wholeheartedly rooting for these guys in Round 2 of the NCAA playoffs this weekend?

(Whoops, wait a second ...)

2. Taking it easy on New Year's Eve for the first time in eons. That's right, the Simmons family stayed home. The thing that always kills New Year's Eve is the impossible expectations -- it's expected to be the most entertaining night of the year and rarely is. Well, remove all expectations and you end up emulating the people who enjoyed "Rocky Balboa" because it wasn't nearly as bad as they thought it would be. We bought a HoneyBaked Ham, threw down a bottle of wine, broke open some champagne around 8:30 and watched the ball drop on MSNBC's East Coast feed with Carson Daly and the creepy dudes from Panic At The Disco (all right, that part could have been better). Everyone was sound asleep by 11. Would I do this every year? Of course not. But I'll always remember this as the New Year's Eve when we stayed home and it wasn't that bad.

(By the way, for the over-30 people reading this, did you ever try to remember every New Year's Eve since you were 18 and what you did? I can remember every one since 1988 except for December 31, 1997 ... I have no idea what happened on this night or what I did, just that I was living in Boston at the time. So either I'm blocking the whole night out of my mind or I ended up at a party with some amazing weed on the level of the medical marijuana that Mike Tyson used to smoke before eventually graduating to blow. Either way, I'd just like to know what happened. Did you ever wish your entire life was on DVD and you could just pop in various episodes to remember what happened? Me, too.)

Listen Up!
Some FYI's and follow-ups for you:

1. Longtime reader Tim Urban is competing on the upcoming season of "The Apprentice," which starts on NBC this Sunday. To my knowledge, he's the first person to appear in a Sports Guy mailbag AND a reality show. I couldn't be more delighted.

2. Here's a link to that Bash Brothers poster I mentioned in the McGwire column.

3. If you lost all faith in hard-hitting sports journalism, please check out the three-part series in the Washington Post that dissects the Redskins season. Really good stuff.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

4. BET starts running Season 1 of "The Wire" on Wednesday. You're out of excuses.

2a. So why did we take it easy on New Year's Eve? Because we were going to the Rose Bowl Parade the following morning. I wasn't crazy about going for three reasons: (A) I abhor getting up early (and we were up at 5:15); (B) it's a traffic nightmare (we were out of our house at 6 a.m.); and (C) the day consists of sitting in the stands and watching marching bands and elaborate flower-floats roll by for three straight hours (on paper, an absolute nightmare).

But here's what I wasn't counting on ...

We brought our daughter, who's 20 months old, smart as a whip, completely fearless and the only kid in her "Mommy and Me" class who refuses to sit in a circle. (Note: I never mention her in columns only because I hate when people use sports columns to talk about their kids. Nobody cares. I'm well aware of this. This will all make sense in a second.) She's the kid who gets bored on an airplane after about 20 minutes and needs to walk up and down the aisle saying "Hi" to people for the rest of the flight. So trust me when I tell you how unbelievable this was -- she sat on our laps watching bands and floats cruising by for more than two hours straight. She was riveted. She was overwhelmed. She was completely absorbed. This was indisputably the greatest day of her life -- nothing else has come close. She would still be sitting there by herself with the Art Shell Face going if the parade didn't end.

(Would I ever go again? Of course not. But it was worth going once. If you have little kids, and you have the chance to go, do it. And yes, I promise not to mention my kid in this space again unless there's an exceptionally good and relevant reason ... although I've been fighting off the urge to rant about the "Teletubbies," "Elmo's Potty Time" and "Bert & Ernie" for nine months now. I'm going to snap at some point. Consider yourself warned.)

2b. As for the actual Rose Bowl, it's the second-greatest football stadium I've entered other than Lambeau: just rows and rows and rows of seats, like a gigantic high school stadium crossed with a Roman coliseum. Does it seem like 110,000 people? Actually, no. At first glance, because it isn't a sprawling structure like some of the newer NFL stadiums, it feels more like 55,000-60,000 people. Then you start looking around and realize that there isn't a wasted inch in the stands -- no luxury boxes, no club seats, barely any tunnels. It's just a giant mass of perfectly organized people, and it's low enough that you can see the mountains and hills surrounding the stadium on all sides. Throw in a gorgeous California day and I can't imagine a better setting for football, unless you're in Lambeau on a 50-degree afternoon in the middle of October or something.

Anyway, thanks to some ESPN/ABC connections, I finagled a field pass and stood on the 20-yard line for all the introductions and the first 10 minutes of the game ... I mean, if you don't get goose bumps standing on the field before a Rose Bowl, with the players sprinting out and 110,000 people screaming and cheering, then I don't know what to tell you. I'm not the type of person who takes a step back from a moment, reflects on it and thinks, "Man, I'm really lucky to be here right now," but this was one of those rare times. I am lucky.

Three other notes:

• At some point during the game, I decided that Michigan's fight song is my favorite college fight song, narrowly edging Boston College's superb fight song, "For Boston, for Boston, let's hope we didn't fix the game ..." You can hear the Michigan song 200 times in three hours (and we did) and it never gets old. Now I'm wondering if NFL teams should have fight songs instead of playing Blur and Guns N' Roses every game. Wouldn't it be fun to see Arizona or Detroit hire someone to come up with invariably horrendous fight songs that their fan bases would end up hating? I hope this happens.

• Most underrated part of a college game: When the marching bands play at halftime and feel obligated to play classic rock or newer alternative songs, and it turns into a game of "Name That Tune" listening to them botch these songs and trying to figure out what the hell they're playing. Shouldn't this be its own game show on ESPN2? Somebody get Matt Vasgersian's agent on the phone!

• Along those same lines, there's really no comparison between attending a big NFL game and attending a big college football game. Between the tailgates, cheerleaders, marching bands and fight songs, the life-or-death mentality of the fan bases, the pace of the games, the purity of the experience itself ... it's just not close. College football crushes pro football as a spectator sport. And it's mainly because of the TV timeouts (endless in the NFL), the canned/predictable songs blaring from the PA system (they're the same in every NFL stadium) and the lifeless, state-of-the-art stadiums that every NFL owner builds now, where they separate the levels with luxury boxes and diehard fans are trapped in the nosebleeds 200-250 feet from the field. Of the newer NFL stadiums, only Seattle's seems to provide a real home-field advantage, and that's only because Paul Allen hired someone to figure out how the layout of a stadium could reflect noise (the answer: through aluminum seats and a specially constructed end zone section). It's just not that fun to go to an NFL game anymore. College? Very fun. And the Rose Bowl was almost surreal. All in all, one of my favorite days in awhile.

3. Enduring one of my least favorite days in recent memory: A trip to the Staples Center for the annual Clips-Celtics contest (on Dec. 27). It's usually a fun night because of all the Boston transplants out here; we always manage to turn it into a "home game away from home." Not this year. Playing without Paul Pierce, the Celts were annihilated and looked like a Division II college team -- which made perfect sense because we have a team comprised of mostly under-23 guys and a coach who should be leading a team like Appalachian State.

Maybe the low point was when a Boston fan sitting 10 rows behind me snapped and started screaming at Doc Rivers (who's been patiently waiting to get fired for the past two months so he can sign a TV deal, only the Celtics won't fire him because they don't want to pay two coaches to coach the same lousy team, so now Doc shows up for every game with the positive energy of someone about to undergo their first chemo treatment) to remove Brian Scalabrine from the game, yelling over and over again in a dead-quiet Staples Center, "Get Scalabrine out of there, Doc, he's terrible, get him out of there!" And Scalabrine stood there pretending not to hear while everyone else sat there feeling exceptionally awkward (especially the other players). Meanwhile, the Celtics were losing by 20 and running an offense that had precisely two plays. Short of the Bias/Lewis deaths, I can't remember a more depressing and hopeless night that involved my favorite basketball team.

Super Mini Mailbag
My buddy e-mailed me the other day with the defining quote of the current psyche of all Philly sports fans in regard to the Birds' upcoming playoff game: "If they lose to the Giants this week I will be so emotionally ravaged that I went ahead and bet $56 on the Giants to win straight up. Got +250 on that play to pay out $140, helping to ease the anticipated depression."
-- Mike, Philadelphia

Looking back, LDT may have assembled the best eight-game stretch of any player in NFL history and may be the greatest half season of any athlete in any sport ever. Here are his numbers from Week 8 until Week 15: 1,153 yards on 185 carries (6.2 yards per carry) ... 21 rushing touchdowns (or more than 2½ per game, also known as about a touchdown more per game than the Raiders) ... 238 yards on 21 catches (11.3 yards per catch) ... two receiving touchdowns ... one passing touchdown ... no fumbles. The only thing I can think of that could come close is Pedro in 1999 or Johan Santana's second-half performance in 2004.
-- Sean S., Holbrook, Mass.

Took notice to the Peyton/Marino in the '90s comment in last week's column. Did you miss this clip? Once again, thank you YouTube! Nothing can beat Marino's dead stare at the end.
-- Damien F., Drexel Hill, Pa.

Brett Favre and Tony Romo are ruining the NFL. Brett's a former drug addict who won one Super Bowl and nothing since he stopped popping pain killers. He'll have the record for most interceptions soon and is holding a good franchise hostage because he won't retire. And now Tony Romo, who kills his team in good games, is the new golden child of the NFL. During the Lions game, they kept saying "that's a Brett Favre play." What's a Brett Favre play, throwing into triple coverage and getting mad at your wide receiver? Why do people think this guy is good, because he puts up good numbers against crappy teams, then craps the bed in an important one? The NFL doesn't need another quarterback like that, we already have Peyton Manning.
-- Dave, Boston

(Two mitigating factors: First, Red Auerbach picked the perfect year to leave. I couldn't be more delighted that he's missing this crappy season. Thank God he's not here -- that would make this ongoing debacle 10 times worse. And second, I just added every men's hoop game involving Ohio State and Texas to my TiVo so I could start following Kevin Durant and Greg Oden. That's right, I've officially entered "Root against the C's for a high lottery pick" mode! It's always fun to turn against your own team for a few months. All right, maybe not. But since they insisted on tanking the season by keeping Doc, then I'm tanking the season as a fan. So there.)

4. Hearing the news that Barry Zito signed a $126 million contract with San Fran, then having a heated "was that the worst contract in sports history?" e-mail argument with my buddy Gus for the rest of the afternoon. (I said yes; Gus argued that the Brown and Hampton deals were worse; and I counter-argued that the Brown/Hampton deals were precisely why a contract like this should have never happened again.) I could see that kind of money going to Johan Santana or Roy Halladay ... but Barry Zito? Haven't we learned that you can't overpay a nonsuperstar with an obscene contract because there's no possible way he can live up to it, and if anything, the weight of that contract (as well as the short leash from fans) will end up being more counterproductive than anything? Unbelievable. Why does it seem like fans keep getting smarter and the people running sports teams keep getting dumber?

5. Checking out this year's Hall of Fame ballot and seeing the likes of Scott Brosius, Devon White, Bobby Witt and Wally Joyner on it. That always kills me for some reason. And just in case you were wondering, I would vote for Jim Rice, Goose Gossage, Jack Morris and Tommy John (for reasons explained in this 2005 column), as well as newcomers Tony Gwynn (a no-brainer), Cal Ripken Jr. (ditto), and Mark McGwire (as I explained in this issue's magazine column). But as a pseudo follow-up to that 2005 column, I thought these six newcomers to the ballot deserved their own paragraphs (even though I'm voting "no" for them). If you don't care, skip to the next section:

HAROLD BAINES: Remember my argument that Tiki Barber was like a Reuben sandwich during any fantasy draft? Baines was the poor man's version of the Tiki/Reuben analogy. He always seemed to finish between .285 and .310, with 20-25 homers and 85-95 RBIs, you always felt completely unexcited when you drafted him ... and by the time June rolled around, you always had four teams trying to trade for him. Also, he was the first fantasy guy to start the whole, "Can someone really be designated as an outfielder when they haven't held a glove in five years?" debate. He excelled in the '90s without any help from performance enhancers (and if he was using 'roids or HGH, then he was buying bad stuff because his power numbers barely budged). For some strange reason, it was always 10 times more fun to call him "Hal Baines" than it should have been. And if that's not enough, you never felt good if your team was pitching to Hal Baines in the ninth inning of a tie game. I couldn't vote for him only because he was a lifetime DH and fell 134 hits shy of 3,000.

ERIC DAVIS: Everyone remembers Strawberry and Gooden as the Great Unrealized Potential Guys of the '80s, but Davis swiped 80 bags in 132 games when he was just 24, then followed that up by hitting .293 with 37 homers, 100 RBIs, 50 steals and a .992 OPS in 1987. Even Bonds never topped 35 homers, 50 steals and 100 RBIs. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to put my 50 Eric Davis rookie cards into a giant pile and set them on fire.

BOBBY BONILLA: Too bad he doesn't have the credentials, because it would have been fun to see him make it just to hear Mets fans booing and berating him during his speech. Which reminds me, if you ever want to torture a longtime Mets fan, ask him to make his "All-Time Least Favorite Mets" lineup, then tell him that he can pick only three outfielders between George Foster, Vince Coleman, Kevin McReynolds and Bobby Bo. They'll spend at least three hours trying to figure it out.

ALBERT BELLE: Consistently omitted from Steroid Era discussions for reasons that are never entirely clear: He was completely insane (even changed his name from "Joey" to "Albert"); suffered from violent mood swings; had one of the best physiques in the league; put up some of the greatest power seasons of that decade (including a 1.152 OPS in the strike season, 103 extra-base hits in '95 and 99 extra-base hits in '98); was known to dabble in the cheating department (remember that crazy story when teammate Jason Grimsley snuck into the umpires' locker room to switch his corked bat?); and by the time he hit his 30s, the dude needed an artificial hip. I'm going out on a limb here and saying something was up. On the bright side, during the mid-'90s if you had to pick one player who would have either (A) been arrested for pummeling a beat reporter into unconsciousness, or (B) pulling a Juan Marichal and taking his bat out to the mound during a beanbrawl, it absolutely would have been Albert. I kinda miss him, actually.

PAUL O'NEILL: Such a loathsome Yankee that I once ran a crazed rant from a reader on my old Web site called "Why I Hate Paul O'Neill." It was 1,500 words. And that was after I edited it and removed about 45 obscenities. I kinda miss him, too.

JOSE CANSECO: Forget about his 466 homers and 40/40 season, his "most blinks in one game" and "most tight muscle shirts worn in a single calendar year" records, his "Surreal Life" stint, his performance as Billy Bear in "48 Hours," the fact that his brother was the Frank Stallone of baseball, the fact that tens of thousands of kids poured their life savings into his rookie cards and ended up getting reamed and everything else ... can you believe that Jose's ridiculous autobiography ended up becoming the "All The President's Men" of the Steroid Era? At the very least, it was a memorable two decades with Jose. You have to admit. On a personal note, I will always remember standing on the field at Fenway in 1996 for one of Jose's patented batting practice shows. As soon as he stepped to the plate, everyone else stopped what they were doing -- even the players -- and we oohhhed and ahhhhed as Jose cranked juice-fueled moonshots over the Monster. I think I grew three back zits just watching him.

6. Finally seeing "Borat." I had been saving it and saving it for the perfect day, like when you have that one last cold premium beer in the fridge and don't want to drink it until the perfect time. Over the holiday break, it was time. No need to gush over it -- everything's been said. But I can't remember the last time I went to a movie and KNEW it was going to be outstanding.

7. Getting treated to the hypocrisy of another Lakers-Heat Christmas game on ABC. You gotta love the NBA -- once upon a time, it scheduled the first Kobe-Shaq game on Christmas Day even though they hated each other's guts, knowing it would lead to a week of "bad blood" promotion and casual fans tuning in just to see if Shaq would punch Kobe in the face. Three years later, the Nuggets-Knicks fight happens and the league condemns everyone involved and hands out whopping suspensions for a brawl that wasn't as bad as the third-worst basebrawl in the average baseball season ... but hey, make sure you tune into Kobe-Shaq III, a holiday tradition of pure hatred on ABC! Gimme a break. We're going to remember 2006 as the year the wheels came off the David Stern era -- he's a cigarette and a shotgun away from turning into the warden from Shawshank.

8. Hearing the news that Nick Saban was headed to Alabama. Yippee!!!!!! The Patriots just lost the biggest coaching threat in their division!!!!! You'll hear no "Nick Saban is a lying scumbag" comments from this guy. For one thing, coaches pull this crap all the time -- they switch schools, switch teams, jump back and forth from college to the pros, and only remain loyal to themselves and their bank accounts. So this shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone. When we go more than three months without a visible coach boning over a pro team or a college, let me know.

But here's why I enjoyed this particular bone job so much: Last spring, Saban was deciding between Drew Brees and Daunte Culpepper and ended up signing the wrong guy. Huge mistake on about 20 different levels, but the important thing to remember is that one decision killed Miami's entire season. And he made it. Anyway, the season finally ends and Saban says to himself, "Well, I can kill myself working 16 hours a day trying to make it work in a tough division with Culpepper, Joey Harrington and Cleo Lemon as my QBs ... or I can get a fresh start with the most famous coaching job in college football for $32 million guaranteed. Hmmmmmm."

I mean ... OF COURSE he was going to leave! Did you really think he was sticking around? I'm surprised he didn't leave treadmarks. So Saban rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again, and the poor Dolphins fans wake up tomorrow and they're still stuck with Culpepper, Harrington and Lemon. How is that fair? I hope the Dolphins fans band together and break the record for "most turd sandwiches ever FedEx'd to one person."

9. Falling behind to the Sports Gal by one game during the end of the regular season, then realizing that we could simply extend the contest through the playoffs, count playoff games, and pretend that this was the plan all along -- kinda like how the "Survivor" producers will switch the tribes around midway through the season if they don't like the dynamic of the game. So if you're scoring at home, I'm one game back with 11 games to play. Good times! I love making up the rules as we go along! And if I'm more than one game back heading into the Super Bowl, don't think I'm not making the Super Bowl worth five points. This is fun.

10. Reading the current issue of the New Yorker, where Malcolm Gladwell examines the sentencing from the Enron scandal and centers his piece around a superb analogy: Namely, that there are puzzles and there are mysteries, and people mistakenly treated Enron like a puzzle when it was really a mystery. I won't step on the entire premise in case you're interested in reading it -- and you should, it's particularly superb -- but the puzzle/mystery paradigm Gladwell used worked so well that I realized it could be applied to the NFL playoffs. And everything hinges on one question:

The Sports Gal Speaks
I'm never surprised by the things I read about Britney anymore. She just can't get one thing right. She dresses like a tramp, chooses the wrong guys, forgets to wear underwear, befriends bad people and neglects her children. She lost everyone's respect and her public image is pretty much shot. I always knew she made a big mistake when she cheated on JT and now she's paying for it. The only way to restore her image and get her life back on track is to find a good man and settle down. And that's what she's trying to do; she's just going about it the wrong way. She reminds me of the promiscuous girl in college who can't get a boyfriend because nobody wants to date the drunk who always has ripped stockings and smells like Tequila.

If I were advising Britney, I would tell her to ...

1. Fire her stylist, stop smoking, stop drinking, stop chewing gum, burn her entire wardrobe, then burn it again. Especially that black lace number where we can see her panties and bra. Is she for real? Brit, you're a pop star, not a porn star.

2. Stop flaunting those scary breasts. What's with the sudden Double-Ds? We know she's not breast-feeding -- that would entail being in the same room with her baby. If those are implants, either go smaller or beat them down with a tire iron every morning.

3. Get rid of that man-stealing tramp, Paris Hilton. Paris will never allow Britney to have a good guy that she could have for herself. I'm convinced she made Britney fat with the "Mean Girls" trick by getting her hooked on fattening "diet" cookies. She's evil.

4. Avoid all men who have dated Lindsay, the Olsen twins, the Hilton sisters, Nicole, Claire Danes and anyone slated to do a movie with Angelina Jolie.

5. Change her dating criteria to include NO dancers, NO unemployed trust-fund kids and NO men that allow their pants to dip below their anus.

6. Stay home with the kids and stay out of Vegas. Apparently the saying "whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" doesn't apply to Brit, because she can't spend three minutes there without us seeing a picture of her passed out or exposing her crotch.

7. Try to get back together with JT. It's a million to one shot, but you never know.

8. Scrap tips 1-7 and just concentrate on showering and wearing underwear every day. It's a noble goal.

Here are my Round 1 playoff picks: Colts (-7); Cowboys (+2.5); Pats (-8.5); Giants (+7).

Last week: 6-10
Season: 129-122-6

NEW! The Complete Sports Gal Archive

Are the playoffs a puzzle or a mystery?

My long-running NFL Playoff Manifesto (here's the 4.0 version) centered on the premise that it's a puzzle that can be pieced together with a proven set of gambling rules. This mantra worked nicely for a long time, peaking when I went 28-14-2 over a four-year playoff span from '01 to '04 (here and on my old Web site). When we entered the era of Perpetual Putridity, those rules became irrelevant and the Manifesto posted a .500 mark (11-11) over the past two playoffs. Now we're coming off a regular season in which underdogs finished an astonishing 39 games over .500. It's foolish to pretend that there's any rhyme or reason to this stuff from year to year. I give up.

Do we know anything heading into Round 1? Sure. We know Chicago's quarterbacks will kill the Bears in the end. We know Indy can't stop the run and the Jets can't run the ball -- two absolute no-no's for the playoffs. We know the Chiefs have a shaky game coach and an even shakier QB. We know the Giants tried to quit on their coach and couldn't even pull THAT off. We know the Pats are a banged-up team that can't seem to make any big plays. We know the Cowboys are banged-up emotionally and can't stop the deep ball. We know the Seahawks didn't beat a single team that finished with a winning record. We know the Eagles finished the season strong and would be a Super Bowl sleeper if there wasn't an entire city of fans expecting the worst from them at all times. We know the Saints have the most explosive offense in the NFC and not much else. We know the Chargers have the most overall talent, but we also know that Marty Schottenheimer (playoff record: 5-12) and Phil Rivers (playoff record: 0-0) are prominently involved. And we know Baltimore was built for January and seems to be peaking at the right time

Other than that? We don't know anything.

Since you can't have rules for a league that makes no sense, I'm dumping the Manifesto and approaching this month like it's a mystery. What's the point of making a Super Bowl pick when half these teams could catch fire like the Steelers did last season? For instance, I'm not crazy about the Cowboys, but they match up beautifully with Seattle and Chicago in the first two rounds. Would you bet against them in the conference title game if they had some momentum going? Me neither. Yup, I could see Dallas winning it all. Same for New England, New Orleans, Philly, San Diego and, definitely, Baltimore (the team I would pick if I had to choose one). That's six of the 12 teams, and in case you didn't notice, I left out the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a 12-4 team from the AFC.

That's why the 2006 NFL Playoffs are a mystery. Just like Enron. And for gambling purposes, let's hope that's where the Enron comparisons end.

On to the picks ...

HOME TEAM IN CAPS

COLTS (-7) over Chiefs
I spent 48 hours firmly entrenched in the "How are the Colts stopping Larry Johnson???" camp until realizing that nobody was wondering about things like "How is the Chiefs defense stopping Manning and the Colts?" and "How could a team with Trent Green and Herm Edwards possibly come through on the road, in a dome, in a playoff game?" Plus, I'd be a little more scared of LJ if he wasn't sitting at roughly 740 carries right now. This feels like one of those games where you're scared right up until the moment when Manning hits Harrison for the 40-yard TD to make it 7-0. Then you're cruising.

The Pick: Indy 37, Kansas City 22

Cowboys (+2.5) over SEAHAWKS
There are three types of dysfunctional NFL teams: The ones who openly hate their coach, have no real leadership and constantly look like they're trapped on one of those seven-day boat cruises where everyone on board gets severe diarrhea within 48 hours (like the Giants); the ones that have poor discipline and too many head cases to ever get it together (like the Bengals); and the ones who seem a little emotionally screwed up, but not so much that it can't be salvageable (like the Cowboys). Look, I know Owens is crazy, and I know Parcells has become a full-fledged liability as a head coach. But the Cowboys are loaded on both sides of the ball, they can play on the road, and they're the healthiest team heading into the playoffs. You're telling me they can't get it together for three hours and beat a clearly inferior team?

The Pick: Dallas 30, Seattle 23

Giants (+7) over EAGLES
Can you imagine a worse scenario than this? It's 10-0, Eagles. The crowd is going ballistic because Eli just overthrew a wide-open Plax on second-and-15 from the Giants' own 2. Coughlin is standing on the sidelines looking like he's being robbed at gunpoint again. Tiki looks like he'd rather be on the "Good Morning America" set discussing iPods with Robin Roberts. And now Eli is bending over behind center, and he's got the full-fledged Manning Face going, and it's so loud that you can barely hear yourself think ...

(I think I just threw up.)

So why am I taking the G-men? Because no NFC playoff team should be laying more than three points to any other NFC playoff team. Because of the familiarity of two division rivals going head to head for a third time. And because Jeff Garcia is prominently involved. I mean, it's Jeff Garcia!!! With all due respect to the Ewing Theory, I'm supposed to lay seven points in a 2007 playoff game with Jeff Garcia???? Is this a Bad Idea Jeans commercial or something?

The Pick: Philly 21, New York 20

PATRIOTS (-8.5) over Jets
It's been fun to see the Jets fans come out of a decade-long hibernation/depression to unleash taunting "you're going down!" e-mails and phone calls to Patriots fans like myself. You guys are cute. It's like having a puppy hump your leg or something. Anyway, here's the lingering question: How does a team with no home-field advantage, no deep threats, a banged-up secondary and one of the worst special teams units in football give 8.5 points to a team that played them tough twice? It makes no sense, right?

Here's the answer: The Pats tipped their hands in a meaningless Tennessee game last week. There's been a nagging sense since the curious Colts defeat that they were better than they were letting on, that they were playing possum to an extent, blessed with an easy schedule that guaranteed them the 4-seed four months ago. When the Titans got them riled up with a couple of chippy plays, the ticked-off Pats switched gears, kept their starters in, opened up both barrels and blew them off the field. It was an awesome performance. For the first time all season, they looked like the physical, nasty, ball-breaking, smashmouth team that won 21 straight and 31 of 33 during the '03 and '04 seasons. I can't imagine that team losing at home, in January, in a do-or-die game, to an opponent that can't run the ball or stop the run. It's not happening.

The Pick: New England 31, New York 10

Last Week: 9-7
Season: 128-123-6

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.