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PARAGRAPH ONE Are you ready for some football?1 With apologies to the good people of ______,
a) Chicago and New Orleans
b) Los Angeles, since they don't have an NFL team
c) Detroit, since they don't have an NFL team
this Sunday's AFC Championship Game between Indianapolis and New England is ______,
a) the real deal2
b) a Game of Games3
c) the marquee showdown of the postseason4
d) one of the most eagerly anticipated playoff games in recent memory5
e) the Super Bowl, Red Sox-Yankees, the game America wants, the best matchup you can have in the NFL this year6
a subplot-laden contest that stands as _____.
a) one of the league's best rivalries7
b) a rivalry that is actually interesting and captivating, a prime-time game with tension and intensity8
c) Super Bowl XLI, really9
d) Hector and Achilles between the hashes10
PARAGRAPH TWO Indeed, _____
b) network executives
c) pigskin fans
d) Joe Eszterhas himself11
could not have scripted it better12. The matchups in this _____
a) meeting of old division rivals13
b) top annual battle in the AFC14
c) "battle amongst all battles"15
are scintillating: _____, _____, _____. (choose three)
a) Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning16
b) Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick17
c) Adam Vinatieri vs. his former team18
d) Bill Belichick vs. Tony Dungy19
e) Patriots vs. Colts20
f) the Colts vs. a brick wall21
Add in the fact that these two teams are meeting for the ninth time in eight seasons and have a history of _____,
a) just plain not liking each other22
b) being rivals off the field23
c) defining the other, both personally and globally24
d) Tom Brady just continuing to win25
and you have all the makings of _____.
a) Peyton Manning's Super Bowl26
b) the ultimate clash of styles27
c) a game that will make you forget that NFC-AFC hypefest with the Roman numeral and the hideous halftime show28
d) not Just Another Big Game29
e) the most delicious, drama-filled playoff game in the history of mankind30
PARAGRAPH THREE In the words of _____
a) Yogi Berra, "It's deja vu all over again."31
b) the Bard, "Once more into the breach."32
c) Detective John McClain, "How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?"33
d) Ron Burgundy, "Stay classy, San Diego."34
PARAGRAPH FOUR Start with the teams on the field.35 Owners of the league's best regular-season record since 1999, the Colts are nevertheless _____.
a) underachievers once playoff time rolls around36
b) always setting the curve on the midterm before flunking the final37
c) maybe the best team in two decades that's failed to break through and get to the Super Bowl38
d) choke artists, a soft team unable to win the big one39
e) like a great high school basketball player who still can't beat dad in the one-on-one games in the driveway40
f) a franchise that can be summed up with one anecdote: they have an "AFC Finalists" banner hanging up in the Hoosier Dome41
The evidence? Despite winning four straight division titles and advancing to the postseason in seven of the last eight seasons, Indianapolis has just four playoff wins in the same span. PARAGRAPH FIVE To borrow from ________
a) "Lost in Space," "danger, Will Robinson!"42
b) Shaggy in Scooby-Doo, "Zoiks!"43
c) Mr. T, "I pity the fool."44
d) Donald Trump, "you're fired."45
PARAGRAPH SIX Unlike the Colts, the Patriots are _____,
a) one of the most efficient, tough, disciplined and focused football teams the league has ever seen46
b) the most efficient, unflappable team in NFL history47
c) a team that is at its best in games they have to win48
d) the most resourceful team at this time of year49
e) a team that has guys who keep making plays to win football games50
a fact supported by the team's three Super Bowl titles. Two times in the last four seasons, New England and Indianapolis have met in the postseason; two times, the Pats sent the Colts packing, making them _____.
a) Indianapolis' answer to Ahab's whale and Sisyphus' rock51
b) a stubborn doorman, refusing to let Indianapolis pass52
c) Indianapolis' eternal speed bump53
d) Lucy holding the football to Indianapolis' Charlie Brown54
PARAGRAPH SEVEN Perhaps55 the most intriguing56 story line heading into the game involves the _____
b) physically impressive, statistically mind-boggling58
c) clearly frustrated59
d) noble but doomed60
Manning and the _____
a) ultimate game manager and leader61
b) consummate winner62
Brady, who have become a contemporary version of _____.
a) Dan Marino and Joe Montana65
b) Dan Marino and Joe Montana66
c) Dan Marino and Joe Montana67
d) Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan68
The two quarterbacks mirror their teams: Manning is football royalty, the _____,
a) game's greatest student69
b) 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback everywhere on television, hawking this and hawking that70
c) guy with more endorsements who makes more money than Brady71
d) The Man to every stopwatch-toting football scout in America, with the word prototypical stamped inside his lip72
but also _____.
a) can't win the big one73
b) is haunted by playoff struggles74
c) lacks a championship and magic75
d) is Dan Marino, Karl Malone and Ted Williams, the 21st century symbol of big numbers in the face of futility76
Brady, on the other hand, _____.
a) makes a mockery of every scouting service in America77
b) dinks and dunks the D to death78
c) presents the experts with a chronic problem of being better than they say he is79
d) is pretty cute80
No matter, though, because he _____
a) is halfway to Michael Jordan's six championships,81
b) just keeps winning,82
c) is a pretty boy with an assassin's heart,83
d) is about winning the game, living to make the Big Play in the Big Situation,84
e) is a plodder, a planner, a guy who would rather make history than make noise,85
all of which makes him _____.
a) a winner who gets it done and gets better as the season goes on86
b) a quarterback who knows how to win, and can practically will his team to win with the game on the line87
c) the insatiable reincarnation of Joe Montana, a proud keeper of a dynasty, such a cool customer in the clutch, such a winner88
d) like an oil company, consistently cashing in89
On Sunday, Brady will look to burnish his legacy90; Manning, to redefine his. PARAGRAPH EIGHT
If the Colts quarterback is to shed his label as _____,
a) a choker91
b) a postseason underachiever92
c) a Superman who can find Kryptonite in any stadium when the playoffs come around and the Super Bowl gets closer93
d) a player who can't deliver in the clutch, routinely shrinks from pressure and chokes like Aurora Snow94
he will have to overcome _____
a) the devious95
b) the Byzantine and baffling game plans of96
c) the NFL's brightest defensive mind,97
d) the best coach in all of sports these days, a difference maker, the modern day Lombardi/Noll/Landry,98
e) the master of the football mysteries,99
Bill Belichick. Clad in _____,
a) a ratty sweatshirt100
b) the worst looking clothes in public of any famous person this side of Madonna101
c) a sweatshirt that looks as like he used it to buff up his pickup truck after the semiannual trip to the car wash102
d) a bright red hoodie, dressed up for the occasion103
the Patriots' coach is _____,
a) joyless, condescending and colorful as a No. 2 Ticonderoga104
creating defensive schemes that have made Manning post a paltry passer rating105 and often look like _____.
a) a man with brain cramps106
b) a man halfway to his personal hell107
c) he just stepped in dog poop108
d) a really smart toddler trying to put together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. He didn't get it done the first time around, or the second time, or the eighth time109
PARAGRAPH NINE That said,110 Manning and his team may never have a better chance to _____.
a) slay all their past demons111
b) take a stand, exorcise all the demons and get to the Super Bowl112
c) reach the crowing block atop the Pyramid of Success113
d) send their tortured history to the showers114
e) prevent poor Peyton from ending up like Saddam's half-brother, his head a few yards away from his body115
The game will be played in the friendly confines116 of the climate-controlled, fast-track RCA Dome; the Colts have former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, the _____;
a) best clutch kicker of all time117
b) the greatest clutch kicker in the history of football118
c) the greatest clutch kicker the game has ever seen119
d) no-doubt, long-range, clutch kicker who literally does not care if he's trying a kick on the fourth day of training camp or in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl120
the team's traditionally porous defense is _____.
a) improved, helping ease the burden long carried by the offense121
c) (supposedly) paying mind to playing defense123
d) finally regaining its 2005 swagger124
Meanwhile, New England's secondary _____,
a) is beat-up and undermanned125
b) is injury-plagued126
c) is ravaged by injuries127
d) has opening game starters at safety, Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson, both nursing injuries128
which may not be as big a disadvantage as it seems -- the Patriots are known for _____.
a) just purring along, hardly missing a beat, regardless of who sits and who plays129
b) working themselves into a no-one-respects-us froth130
c) staying cool, loose and seizing the moment131
d) being all about four letters ("team") meaning more than five letters ("stats")132
PARAGRAPH 10 No matter the matchups, one thing seems clear: lose, and Indianapolis will have to deal with another year of questions such as: ______?
a) Why is Belichick able to make Manning look more like little brother Eli than a future Hall of Famer133
b) Is this finally the year134
c) When are we all going to admit that Peyton Manning sucks in January135
d) Why would you ever bet on Peyton Manning or against Tom Brady in a big game136
PARAGRAPH 11 Speaking of questions137, which team will emerge triumphant?138 The law of averages139 suggests that the Colts are due. However, the Patriots are anything but average140, mostly because _____.
a) they often win games in which they're not supposed to have a chance141
b) they do the seemingly impossible142
c) they make enough plays to be one play ahead at the end of the game143
d) beating them in January is like trying to kill Rasputin: You had better poison them, shoot them, stab them and then wrap them in chains and thrown them into a river, and then take their pulse and make sure they're really, really dead144
They also have Brady, who _____.
a) is one ring from talking about one for the thumb145
b) has the championship rings146
c) who has what Manning would pay dearly for, a Super Bowl Ring147
d) is the guy with the ring148
Bet against them? No way. Together, New England and its quarterback are the winningest149 combination in the sport; together, they are always ready for some football150.
1 In the industry, this is known as a lede, a short, attention-grabbing phrase intended to pull readers into a story -- much like Britney Spears exiting a limo, sans underpants. Asking a question is a simple, time-honored and exceedingly lazy way of engaging readers with a lede; the specific question in hand is also a pop-culture reference (see footnote 34) and a catchphrase, (see footnote 34) as well as a cross-promotion for "Monday Night Football," now an ESPN broadcast property.
Besides, it worked for Obama.
2 Toronto Sun, 2006. Which is really something, considering the game doesn't involve Doug Flutie or the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
3 Steve Serby, New York Post, 2007. Journalism scholars should note that the Post is prone to occasional hyperbole.
4 Randy Covitz, Kansas City Star, 2005.
5 Brian Lewis, New York Post, 2005.
6 Dan Shaughnessey, Boston Globe, 2005.
7 Ira Miller, Contra Costa Times, 2007.
8 John McLain, Houston Chronicle, 2006. Unlike, say, 85 percent of the "Monday Night Football" lineup.
9 Gary Myers, New York Daily News, 2007.
10 Geoffrey Norman, National Review Online, 2006. And no, we didn't know the National Review wrote about football, either.
11 Given his work on "Showgirls," this likely isn't true.
12 In the industry, this is known as a cliché.
13 Associated Press, 2007.
14 Mike Reiss, Boston Globe, 2007.
15 New England Patriots defensive end Ty Warren, 2007.
16 Vito Stellino, Florida-Times Union, 2006.
17 Serby, New York Post, 2007.
18 Cris Carter, Yahoo! Sports, 2007. Assuming this wasn't written by an intern.
19 Stellino, 2006.
20 Bob Kravitz, Indianapolis Star, 2007.
21 Mike O'Hara, Detroit News, 2005.
22 Shaughnessy, 2006.
23 Stellino, 2006.
24 Howard Bryant, Washington Post, 2007. Note the skillful pairing of "personally and globally," which suggests additional layers of meaning without stating anything of substance. In the industry, this is known as padding the word count.
25 Bill Simmons, ESPN.com, 2006.
26 Serby, 2007.
27 Lewis, 2005.
28 Shaughnessy, 2005.
29 Simmons, 2004.
30 Reggie Hayes, Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, 2007. In Hayes' defense, he was exaggerating for comic effect. Probably.
31 Berra wrote a book subtitled "I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said!" So who really knows?
32 William Shakespeare, "Henry V," 5.3, line 4. Assuming this wasn't written by an intern.
33 "Die Hard 2: Die Harder," 1990.
34 In the industry, this is known as a pop culture reference. Note that the pop culture reference does not have to be particularly pertinent or even relevant to the topic at hand -- Will Ferrell has as much to do with Peyton Manning as Condoleeza Rice has to do with "American Idol" -- but must be familiar to the reader. Remember Spears, sans underpants? The point of the pop culture reference is not illumination through metaphor, but rather identification through shared experience. I laughed at that movie, too! The writer and I think the same way! Pop culture references can enjoy extra resonance by being catch phrases, short statements that have achieved popular currency and thus become nonsensical clichés. (Also note that identification through shared experience is the basis for 90 percent of Dane Cook's standup routine). 35 In the industry, this is known as a transition, and also known as holding the readers' hands to the high chair, then feeding them applesauce. The goal is to signal a shift in direction (i.e., "start") while indicating where that direction leads (i.e., "the teams on the field"). Mission accomplished!
36 Jennifer Toland, Massachusetts Telegram & Gazette, 2006.
37 Seth Wickersham, ESPN.com, 2007.
38 Myers, 2007. The 1998 Minnesota Vikings say hi.
39 Shaughnessy, 2006.
40 Shaughnessy, 2005. Meow!
41 Simmons, 2006. Meow!
42 The 1960s television series, not the crappy movie with Joey.
43 "The Adventures of Scooby-Doo," pretty much every episode.
44 Mr. T, pretty much every project he's been a part of.
45 Donald Trump, "The Apprentice." Also note that a pop culture reference -- in this case, a catch phrase -- should be relevant to the reader. To wit: If pressed, most ESPN.com readers in the 18-35 demo will identify Will Robinson as a former center for the San Antonio Spurs. Know your audience!
46 Tom Curran, Providence Journal, 2005.
47 Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN.com, 2007.
48 O'Hara, 2005.
49 Myers, 2007.
50 Simmons, 2004. Though technically speaking, they're actually making football plays to win football games. Also see Jaworski, Ron, "NFL Countdown," 2005-7.
51 Lewis, 2005. Note that this metaphor expects the reader to be familiar with American literature and Greek mythology, an iffy proposition in the era of MySpace and IM-speak. Better to replace "Ahab's whale" with "a 404 Error" and "Sisyphus' rock" with "a snickering Simon Cowell." See footnote 45.
52 Kravitz, 2007. Invokes a hot nightclub and/or VIP room. Much better than item in footnote 51.
53 Kravitz, 2007. Slightly inaccurate, given that a car can continue to move forward after hitting a speed bump. "IED" is more appropriate.
54 J.A. Adande, Los Angeles Times, 2005. Again, would be more accurate if the well-known "Peanuts" scenario in question ended with Lucy smashing the football into Charlie Brown's groin.
55 More word padding.
57 Serby, 2007.
58 Jim Donaldson, Providence Journal, 2006.
59 Lewis, 2005.
60 Kravitz, 2005. Ouch.
61 Simmons, 2004.
62 Michael Felger, Boston Herald, 2005. Technically inaccurate; if Brady were, in fact, a consummate winner, he would have never lost a game. In reality, he is a frequent winner.
63 Rick Herrin, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2007. Debatable; David Copperfield landing Claudia Schiffer is magical; Brady dropping Bridget Moynahan is trading up.
64 Easterbrook, 2007. In other words, strongly appeals to nontraditional male fans.
65 Donaldson, 2006.
66 Kravitz, 2005.
67 Miller, 2007.
68 Serby, 2007. Points for originality.
69 Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.com, 2007.
70 Serby, 2007.
71 McLain, 2006. Not that Brady is lacking for endorsements and cash. Also, he's the one dating Gisele.
72 Rich Garven, Massachusetts Sunday Telegram, 2005. The same scouts were equally gaga for Ryan Leaf, which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.
73 Peter King, Sports Illustrated, 2007.
74 Herrin, 2007.
75 Wickersham, 2007.
76 Jackie MacMullan, Boston Globe, 2005. Again with the Marino-bashing? Poor Dan.
77 Garven, 2005.
78 Simmons, 2004.
79 Sally Jenkins, Washington Post, 2005.
80 Gisele, to the Boston Herald, 2006.
81 Serby, 2007. And just a little bit farther from the highest-possible Pac-Man score of 3,333,360, set in 1999.
82 Simmons, 2006.
83 Kravitz, 2007. Man crush?
84 Ryan, 2007. Totally, completely not redundant.
85 Steve Buckley, Boston Herald, 2007.
86 Ashley Fox, Philadelphia Inquirer, 2006.
87 Karen Guregian, Boston Herald, 2005.
88 Serby, 2007. Man crush?
89 Garven, 2005. Or like a vice president with oil company stock.
90 When sports journalists need to add gravitas to an amusing but hardly Earth-shattering event -- which is to say, all the time -- the concept of athletic legacy is often introduced.
91 Serby, 2007.
92 Andrew Perloff, SI.com, 2007.
93 McClain, 2006.
94 Simmons, 2006. Nothing is more pop culture than porn.
95 Serby, 2007.
96 Pasquarelli, 2007. Little-known fact: Belichick's game plans are written in Medieval Greek.
97 Myers, 2007.
98 Kravitz, 2006. Whew.
99 Norman, 2006.
100 Robert Weintraub, Slate, 2005.
101 Norman, 2006. Writer seems unaware of Britney Spears. See footnotes 1, 34, 45.
102 Norman, 2006.
103 Toland, 2006.
104 Kravitz, 2006. That about covers it.
105 We didn't feel like looking up the actual number.
106 Alan Greenberg, Hartford Courant, 2005.
107 Serby, 2007. Which will probably be the basis for Manning's next credit card commercial.
108 Simmons, 2005.
109 Josh Levin, Slate, 2007.
110 Obvious. Still more word count padding.
111 Carter, 2007.
112 Serby, 2007.
113 Adande, 2005. Located in Egypt.
114 Kravitz, 2007.
115 Callahan, 2007. This really ran in an actual newspaper. Stay classy, Boston!
117 King, 2007.
118 Shaughnessy, 2006.
119 Greg Garber, ESPN.com, 2007.
120 King, 2007. Unnecessary use of the word "literally." We think we think.
121 Brian Costello, New York Post, 2005.
122 Miller, 2005.
123 Garven, 2005.
124 Brendan I. Koerner, Slate, 2007. The more things change ...
125 Randy Covitz, Kansas City Star, 2005.
126 Shaughnessy, 2006.
127 Michael Lev, Orange County Register, 2005.
128 Greenberg, 2005. The more things change ...
129 Sylvester, 2005. Does not apply to Brady.
130 Silver, 2005. Year irrelevant.
131 Garven, 2005.
132 Simmons, 2004. Possible tag line for "Patriots: The Movie?"
133 Serby, 2007.
134 Costello, 2005.
135 Simmons, 2006.
136 Simmons, 2006. It depends on the point spread.
137 Transition. See footnote 35. The "speaking of" construction is typically employed when the writer is too: (a) lazy, (b) unimaginative, (c) strapped for time to come up with something more artistic. Not that sports writing should be mistaken for 19th century landscape painting.
138 "Win the game" sounds prosaic.
139 Never trust a sports writer who invokes the law of averages; none of us took more than a basic statistics course in college -- and by "take," we mean "slept through" -- and most of us struggle with figuring out the tip on our bar tabs.
140 In the industry, this is known as clever wordplay, which is why sports writing is one of the most lucrative corners of the literary world.
141 Ken Powers, Massachusetts Sunday Telegram & Gazette, 2005.
142 John Tomase, Boston Herald, 2005.
143 John Clayton, ESPN.com, 2007. Substitute "points" for "plays" and you have a pretty formula for victory.
144 Jenkins, 2007. You know, like Saddam's half-brother.
145 Serby, 2007. Note that anyone who actually says "one for the thumb" in real life is a tool -- even if they are, in fact, a ring away from one for the thumb.
146 Donaldson, 2006.
147 McLain, 2006. Alternately, Manning could get a ring for free by becoming president of Russia.
148 Simmons, 2003.
149 Shouldn't even be a real word, but whatever.
150 In the industry, an ending like this is known as a callback, a reference to the start of the column. Beyond providing a graceful and circular exit, the callback helps writers achieve the primary goal of most columns: reaching the allotted word count and hitting SEND TEXT.