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Monday, January 22, 2007
Updated: February 5, 9:17 AM ET
Enough talk about parity, please

By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2

Scratch a sports nut and he or she will complain that parity plagues the post-salary-cap NFL. It isn't just the sports radio universe that claims this -- recently the New York Times, which styles itself the Paper of Record, has run two prominent articles complaining that NFL parity has changed everything for the worse. If everything really has changed for the worst, why are the NFL's ratings and attendance numbers at record levels? And supposing there is a shocking outbreak of parity, why would this be bad? Sports yakkers extol the old days of dynasties, but for every good team there must be a bad team. If most NFL teams are of roughly similar quality, we'd expect many close, exciting games -- which seems more interesting, and a better value for the spectator's dollar, than lots of boring blowouts that are over at halftime.

Anyway, parity is a myth. Up one side and down the other, a myth.

Let's take the parity complaints in turn. First, supposedly parity is proven by an outbreak of close games. "In an era of parity in the NFL, it seems that more and more games are being decided by field goals," the New York Times decried this Sunday, quoting Dick Vermeil saying "with parity the win margins are closer than ever before." In 2006, 45 percent of NFL games were decided by a touchdown or less, while 23 percent were decided by a field goal or less. A decade ago in 1996, 45 percent of NFL games were decided by a touchdown or less, while 20 percent were decided by a field goal or less. In 1986, when there was no salary cap, 47 percent of NFL games were decided by a touchdown or less, while 21 percent were decided by a field goal or less. In 1976 -- the Golden Era to parity complainers, the decade of the Steelers' dynasty -- 37 percent of games were decided by a touchdown or less, while 19 percent were by a field goal or less.

Figures for other years since the merger are similar. So during the 1970s, games were on average slightly less close than today. But for the past two decades, starting prior to the salary cap, there has been no meaningful year-to-year difference in the closeness of games. If you argue by scores, the most you can argue is that games of the 1970s were slightest less close than games in decades since -- and again, what's wrong with close games? The product being sold is, after all, entertainment. Anyway, project the close-games rate of 1976 onto the 2006 season and there would have been 10 fewer games, of 256 played, decided by a field goal or less. Some earthshaking trend.

TMQ Cheat Sheet
This week: Gregg Easterbrook on ...

Stats of the week
Cheerleader of the week
New Orleans at Chicago analysis
Box office figures also exaggerated
Next, the Cruiser Mark Foley
New England at Indy analysis
Hillary tempts the election gods
Bonus cheerleader of the week
All-Unwanted All Pros
Unwanted Player of the Year

Next on the list of parity myths is the claim that there are far more teams in the middle now than before. In 2006, 21 of the 32 teams (66 percent) finished in the middle at 6-10, 7-9, 8-8, 9-7 or 10-6 -- at .500 or two games above or below. In 1996, 20 of 30 teams (67 percent) finished at .500 or two games above or below. In 1986, 13 of 28 teams (46 percent) finished at .500 or two games above or below. (That year's number simplifies for two ties.) In 1978, the first year of 16-game slates, 17 of 28 teams (61 percent) finished at .500 or two games above or below, again simplifying for ties. Go back before the cap and there's just not that much variation in the percentage of middle finishers. Take 1981, for example -- 20 of 28 teams (71 percent) finished at .500 or two games above or below. In statistics, most things that can be measured finish in the middle. So we should not be surprised that most NFL teams finish in the middle.

Now compare the NFL to the NBA and MLB. The equivalent of finishing at .500 or two games above or below in the current National Basketball Association is to record between 31 and 51 wins. Last season, 20 of the 30 NBA teams fell into that band, 67 percent. The equivalent of finishing at .500 or two games above or below in current Major League Baseball is to win between 61 and 101 games, and last year all MLB teams (100 percent) fell into that band. So in the NFL, which has a hard salary cap that always applies, 67 percent of teams fell in the middle; in the NBA, which has a soft salary cap that only sometimes applies, 67 percent of teams fell in the middle; in MLB, which has no salary cap, 100 percent of teams fell in the middle. Consider that for an MLB team to have finished last season with the equivalent of the 14-2 record compiled by the San Diego Chargers, it would have needed to win 142 games. The winningest MLB clubs of last season, the Mets and Yankees, put up 97 victories.

Finally there is the complaint that parity causes the teams that make the postseason to vary too much year to year. From 2005 to 2006, only five of 12 postseason teams repeated. From 1995 to 1996, six of 12 postseason teams repeated. From 1985 to 1986, eight of 10 postseason teams repeated. From 1975 to 1976, five of eight postseason teams repeated. In the past five seasons, an average of 5.4 teams have made the playoffs in successive years; during the Pittsburgh dynasty period, an average of 5.8 teams per season made the playoffs in successive years, and then four fewer got wild cards. So the variation in who makes the postseason has increased meaningfully, while scoring margins and middle-of-the-pack shares have not. More regular season games played and more wild-card slots offered should pretty neatly account for increased variation in who reaches the postseason, leaving the parity myth just that -- a myth.

In other news, if you think parity has ruined the NFL, how come the games keep being great? New England at Indianapolis, New England at San Diego and Dallas at Seattle were as exciting as football can get, while Jersey/A at Philadelphia and Philadelphia at New Orleans were tremendously entertaining. Five of the 10 playoff games so far have been great games -- if this is caused by parity, I want more parity.

In hulking lineman news, we saw three offensive touchdowns by linemen in the New England-Indianapolis game! Plus one of the best plays of this year's bowl season came when Alabama threw a designed lateral to an offensive tackle for a touchdown. Maybe it will actually become sexy to play the line! I knew I was born too soon.

And in other football news, below find the annual Tuesday Morning Quarterback All-Unwanted All-Pros -- the NFL's best players who were never drafted, or were let go, or both. Next week: The winner of the coveted "longest award in sports," the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP.

Stat of the Week No. 1: From the late second quarter to middle of the third quarter, Indianapolis snapped the ball 36 times, compared to five snaps for New England.

Stat of the Week No. 2: Adam Vinatieri is 29-for-29 kicking for and against Indianapolis at the RCA Dome.

Stat of the Week No. 3: Since the team with the best regular season record (San Diego) will not win the Super Bowl, in nine of the last 10 seasons the team with the best regular season record failed to win the Super Bowl. (In 2003, New England had the best regular-season record and also won the Super Bowl; in 2002, Tampa won the Super Bowl after a 12-4 regular season and Philadelphia was also 12-4. But the league seeded Philadelphia first based on tiebreakers.)

Stat of the Week No. 4: Since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990, 27 of 34 Super Bowl entrants had bye weeks to start the postseason.

Stat of the Week No. 5: Placekickers are 42-of-45 in field goal attempts in the postseason, or 93.3 percent.

Stat of the Week No. 6: John Branch of the New York Times points out that the 93.3 percent success on field goal attempts is better than PAT success in the regular season 30 years ago, when placekickers hit on 90.8 percent of attempts.

Stat of the Week No. 7: The overall field goal success rate of 81.4 percent during the 2006 regular season was the NFL's best ever. Thirty placekickers who attempted 10 or more field goals achieved a better kicking percentage than the 66.8 percent career accuracy of Jan Stenerud, the only full-time placekicker in the Hall of Fame.

Stat of the Week No. 8: New England converted 19 fourth-down attempts this season, best in the league.

Stat of the Week No. 9: Peyton Manning is 6-6 as a postseason starter, Tony Dungy is 8-8 as a postseason coach.

Stat of the Week No. 10: Dome teams are 0-10 in outdoor conference championship games.

Alysse
Alysse of the Eagles' cheerleaders, who now have an entire offseason to try to figure out of it is physically possible for them to wear less.
Cheerleader of the Week: Evan Birnholz of Highland Park, Ill., nominates Alysse of the Eagles, his classmate at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. According to her team bio, as an undergrad Alysse majored in geography at West Chester University. Using her geography degree, perhaps she could explain to the NFL that the "New York" Giants and "New York" Jets do not play in New York!

Actual British Government Office -- Not a Monty Python Ministry: Last week there was controversy in the United Kingdom regarding the cover-up of an inquest into bribery in military contracting, this inquest being conducted by the government's Serious Fraud Office. Apparently in England humorous fraud is fine! Interested in a career in Serious Fraud enforcement? The organization offers "a salary structure and reward and recognition package which rewards performance" -- we're not clear if that means performance in ferreting out fraud, or covering it up. Also offered to employees are "interest-free loans for season ticket purchase." If the public has to finance its own seasons tickets, but government officials are getting them interest-free, that sounds like something that should be looked into by the Serious Fraud Office.

Americans Now Hear the Word "Pleasure" 100 Times for Every Actual Experience of Pleasure: TMQ is being driven crazy by the modern affectation of saying "my pleasure" in formal settings that have nothing to do with pleasure. When you call a Hyatt hotel and ask to be transferred to a guest room or the front desk, the Hyatt operator says, "My pleasure." Lots of corporate-run chains are instructing workers to say "my pleasure" in situations far removed from what the word means. It's even catching on with intellectuals; recently David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, signed off from an NPR interview by invoking this phrase. (NPR: "Thanks, David." Remnick: "My pleasure.") "My pleasure" is a ridiculously overloaded surrogate for "sure" or "happy to do it" or "you're welcome." More, its adaptation as a hollow chestnut of mundane interaction seems part of the overall cheapening of the meaning of words. Pleasure is one of the greatest and highest experiences of life; in our short stay on this Earth, we know far too little. And pleasure is almost always intimate in nature. Using the word "pleasure" in contexts that have nothing to do with intimacy or delight seems a cruel little joke in a world of too much work and too little enjoyment.

New Orleans at Chicago Analysis: No! Don't point! Don't taunt! As Reggie Bush ran down the sideline for his 88-yard touchdown that would pull the Saints to within 16-14 early in the third quarter, Bush pointed at the Chicago defender who was trailing him, Brian Urlacher, in the kind of juvenile gesture that would make a high school coach furious. Bush then somersaulted into the end zone -- but it was the taunting while he ran that worried TMQ. By convention, football accepts that the guy who scores a touchdown gets to celebrate: I didn't object to the somersault, and few players would object. But to run down the field pointing at the defenders and mocking them was to invoke the wrath of the football gods. And to do it while your team was behind on the road! Yea, verily, the football gods spoke. To the point Reggie Bush acted out, the New Orleans offense had been playing well. Here is what happened on the remaining New Orleans possessions of the game: missed field goal, safety, punt, fumble, interception, turnover on downs, turnover on downs. Reggie -- you're an underdog on the road, your team is behind, and you think it's a good idea to mock the other side's best player and leader? What a screwup. Hey, you kids out there: Dance in the end zone but never, ever point or wave the ball or taunt on the field of play.

New Orleans knew that last year in the postseason at Chicago, Carolina threw the ball in the cold and made sport of the Bears' cornerbacks. The Saints' game plan was the same, with New Orleans' coaches calling 34 passes and nine rushes to the point when the game was still tight (the safety), Drew Brees ultimately throwing for 354 yards. Obviously turnovers killed the underdogs -- three lost fumbles, an interception and the safety, which is a turnover plus points, versus no turnovers for the hosts. But let's not leave out pass-wackiness as a cause of the Saints' demise.

Trailing 16-14, the Boy Scouts reached first-and-10 on the Chicago 29, on a day when they averaged 4.7 yards per rush. Incompletion, incompletion, incompletion, missed long field goal attempt. Had New Orleans gained even five more yards, a field goal puts the Saints ahead and might have altered the dynamic of the contest. Then after a Bears punt, tally still 16-14, the Saints had first-and-10 on their own 5. You've just tossed three straight incompletions, how about a rush to get Brees some room to operate? Incompletion, then intentional grounding from the end zone to avoid a sack, and it's 18-14 plus Chicago ball. One possession later it's still 18-14 and New Orleans faced third-and-2 on its 40: incompletion, punt, quick Chicago touchdown and the Saints never threatened again. You cannot win in Chicago in January by calling 53 passes and 11 rushes, which is what the Saints' coaches called -- and this distribution was established long before the fourth quarter when New Orleans had to heave-ho.

The New Orleans season was a huge success, in part because of good coaching, yet TMQ left the game puzzled by numerous Saints' decisions. For kickoffs, New Orleans lined up with Bush on the kicking team's right and beer man Michael Lewis on its left; each time Chicago deliberately kicked left to Lewis, who had seven kickoff returns for a measly 18.9-yard average. Seeing that the Bears were kicking to Lewis, why didn't the Saints' coaches have Bush and Lewis switch places as the Chicago kicker approached the ball? Footing was bad despite the high-tech heated new field at Soldier Field. (The whole new stadium arrived in a flying saucer, so you know it's high-tech.) Bad footing usually favors the offense, because the offensive player knows where he's going; on bad footing, crossing patterns drive defensive backs crazy because it's so hard to get through the pick. Yet the Saints called few crossing patterns or double-receiver sets -- playing indoors seems to have made them forget outdoor tactics. The long touchdown to Bush was a crossing pattern -- he cut under a pick by Marques Colston. But otherwise crossing patterns were few for the Saints.

Meanwhile the New Orleans offensive line, one of the best in the league this season, had an unimpressive outing. Left tackle Jammal Brown, who made the Pro Bowl on hype -- all four other New Orleans offensive linemen are better than he is -- was often out of position,or needed guard help. Game scoreless, New Orleans facing third-and-4, Brees was sacked and fumbled; the Saints recovered for a 25-yard loss. On the play, Brown lines up across from Chicago right defensive end Mark Anderson, and in pretty much all blocking schemes known to man, the left tackle takes the right defensive end. But Brown just let Anderson go -- never so much as touched him -- and Anderson sprinted straight to Brees unhindered, and caused the fumble. Watching the replay gave me a sick feeling. The New Orleans left tackle, left guard and center triple-teamed the Chicago right defensive tackle, while none of these three even glanced at the guy who went unblocked to the quarterback.

As regards the Ming Ding Xiong ("Bears whose outcomes are decided by fate" in Chinese), people complain nonstop about the baby-faced Rex Grossman, but he's 19-7 as a starter. Grossman struggled and was only 3-of-12 at intermission. But his deep passes were almost there, and you knew New Orleans would become complacent about him, which it did. At the end of the third quarter, Grossman drove the Bears 85 yards for the pull-away touchdown, throwing four times and connecting for 12, 13, 20 and 33 yards. Only then did New Orleans coaches pull weak corner Fred Thomas -- who just doesn't have it anymore after 11 seasons -- but the damage was done. The Bears offensive line did not allow a sack, taking the Saints' pair of first-round-drafted defensive ends out of the game, and pull-trapping well.

My worry was that Chicago went pass-wacky at the goal line, which is the worst place to go pass-wacky. On Chicago's first first-and-goal, at the New Orleans 3, the Bears rushed once and threw twice. The result was two incompletions and a field goal. On Chicago's second first-and-goal, at the New Orleans 8, the Bears rushed once and threw twice. The result was two incompletions and a field goal. On Chicago's third first-and-goal, at the New Orleans 9, Chicago rushed twice, touchdown. That's how you win in the snow.

As for that Brian Urlacher -- nobody hustles more. He was the sole Chicago defender who never gave up chasing Bush's long run. Several times when Bush split wide, Urlacher moved out to cover him one-on-one. Urlacher is the kind of guy who could be the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP.

That fleet of ships in the background? Artistic license.
Box Office Figures Also Were Exaggerated: The new movie "300," extremely very loosely based on accounts of the 300 Spartans who held off a the entire Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., depicts the infantry of the invading Perisan king Xerxes as so vast and numerous the men stretch to the horizons -- at least tens of thousands of soldiers. This is nonsense. Ancient population estimates are notoriously vague, but in 480 B.C., there probably were no more than 100 million people in the entire world: No nation was able to field an army of vast numbers. Most scholars believe the first city with a population of one million did not exist until the 8th century A.D., more than a thousand years after the events depicted in "300." (The first city with a population of one million is believed to have been Baghdad.) "Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census," by Tertius Chandler, estimates that the largest city in the world at the time depicted in the movie "300" was Babylon, with 300,000 to 400,000 residents. Babylon was the Persian capital, but it is close to inconceivable a city of that size could have sent the army depicted in "300," since perhaps one resident in five could be a healthy military-age male, and if all the men in the city had gone off to invade Greece, they would have returned to find Babylon invaded by somebody else!

In the 2004 Brad Pitt demi-epic "Troy," the fleet assembled by the Greek king Agamemnon to sail against Troy is depicted as hundreds of sail vessels stretching as far as the eye can see. This also is nonsense. Assuming it actually happened, the Trojan war is thought to have occurred about 700 years before Thermopylae. At that time it is likely there were no more than a few hundred thousand people living in Greece. A population of that size could not have built a fleet of hundreds of ships, especially considering this was 3,300 years ago when all work would have been done by hand. Population estimates in ancient times are thought to have been routinely inflated by chroniclers. Exodus says that "600,000 men on foot," plus women and children, fled Egypt when God parted the waters. Most likely all Egypt in the time of Moses had a population of less than 1 million. But even inflated populations could not have built hundreds of warships 3,300 years ago!

Leonidas chocolate
If Leonidas had 300 truffles instead of 300 Spartans, Greece would have fallen.
Note 1: Leonidas, the Spartan leader at Thermopylae, in youth was told a prophecy, that either Greece would be destroyed, or a Spartan king would volunteer to die in a battle against impossible odds, inspiring the rest of Greece to resist the invaders. Legend says Leonidas and his best warriors chose death in order to honor the prophecy. Today we remember Leonidas not as a hero of democracy but as a brand of luxury chocolates. Note 2: today "B.C." is shunned in academia because it means Before Christ. Most PC texts instead use "B.C.E.," for Before Common Era. But as noted by reader Sonny Bunch of Washington, D.C., the zero year of B.C.E. is still the birth of Jesus -- so using B.C.E. does not change the Christian-centrism, just replaces an informative, factually specific term with a fuzzy euphemism.

ESPN Editors from the Future Just Sent a TMQ of the Year 2107 Backwards in Time, and It Complains About Not Enough Blitzing and Too Many Male Cheerleaders: Last year Astronomy magazine ran a cover story promising, "Time travel, long a staple of science fiction, may not be too far from reality!" Maybe this story came backwards through time, because when you flipped inside, you found the story was premised on the existence of wormholes and vibrating superstrings -- neither of which have ever been observed -- and did not suggest in any way how time machines would function on an engineering basis. More important, like all time-travel speculation, the story skipped the subject of where, exactly, time travelers would travel to. The big objection to time travel isn't the time machine, it's the "where would you go?" problem. Time travel requires there be an infinite number of universes, each eternally frozen in an instant of the past or future  that is, destinations for the time traveler to reach. Maybe there are an infinite number of frozen universes, but what are the odds of that?

Time machine
Your time machine is ready, sir. Unfortunately, there is nowhere for it to go.
Give Astronomy credit for noting that technology is moving toward a very limited form of time manipulation. The faster one travels, the slower one ages. Until jet air travel, no man or woman moved at a speed in which "relativistic" time measurement came into play. Today, take a 600 mph transoceanic jet trip, and when you land you are 10 billionths of a second younger than those who were not flying during those hours. That kind of gain is irrelevant, and it may be that at jet speeds, the stress of jet lag reduces lifespan. (A recent University of Virginia study suggested mice die younger if subjected to repeated simulated transatlantic flights.) But Astronomy pointed out that if technology eventually allows travel at one-half the speed of light, someone taking a 50-year round-trip flight to the Vega star system will return to Earth 13 years younger than those who remained behind -- those on Earth will age 50 years during the voyage, while the travelers will age 37 years. Boost the speed to 99 percent of the velocity of light and the travelers gain 43 years -- everyone on Earth still ages the same 50 years, but the people getting off the Vega starship have aged only seven years. Calculations like this make it conceivable, at least, there will someday be voyages to other worlds, even if the light-speed barrier proves absolute and there never is any kind of faster-than-light stardrive. Star trekkers might be willing to accept trips only a few years long by their body clocks, especially if suspended animation is developed.

Another Cosmic Thought : Recently Mordechai Kislev of Bar-Ilan University in Israel found evidence of figs grown by controlled cultivation about 11,400 years ago in the Jordan Valley. The standard estimate had been that the first domesticated crop plant was wheat, first grown perhaps 10,000 years ago in what is now southern Turkey. Now it appears that men and women were cultivating crops at least a thousand years earlier than previously believed. Every time telescopes improve, the universe appears larger and older; paleontology keeps finding evidence that complex life is older than previously estimated; now it's looking like farming-based civilization is older than once believed. We are part of a cosmic enterprise whose size, scope and age we may yet barely grasp.

Archeologist
Everything they find makes civilization seem older -- and remember, they're literally just scratching the surface.
Life Imitates Art: Last week TMQ complained that announcers practically say, "He could have gone all the way if he hadn't been tackled!" New England at Indianapolis: Jim Nantz of CBS cried of a catch on which Reggie Wayne gained 13 yards, "If he hadn't been tackled he might have gone all the way!"

Next, the Cruiser Mark Foley : The Navy just announced its next supercarrier will be the Gerald Ford. The ship is the first of a new design supplanting the current Nimitz-class, and thus the new class of supercarriers will also be named Ford-class. The three most recent supercarriers, the Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, are all named for presidents. This is a big step up from the previous supercarrier, the John Stennis, which was named for a congressional committee chairman who opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and whose main accomplishment in the Senate was never saying no to a Pentagon budget overrun. The British Navy has ships with glorious names such as Illustrious and Invincible. America has ships named after committee chairmen!

USS Gerald R. Ford
They're clapping because the model costs a lot less than the actual Gerald Ford will cost.
Check the list of the U.S. Navy's supercarriers and note the presidential succession. Of postwar presidents, Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan and the elder George Bush have supercarriers named after them; Democrats Truman and John Kennedy have supercarriers in their names; the missing presidents are Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Since Nixon is the only president ever to have resigned, it would be inappropriate to name a ship after him. That means there are three postwar presidents worthy to have their names placed on Navy capital ships, who have not had a supercarrier named for them -- and all are Democrats. Attention Pentagon: You're not supposed to be partisan, how come the Navy is showing favoritism to the Republican Party in the naming of supercarriers? There is an attack submarine named for Carter, but no ship named for Johnson or Clinton. Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency twice; Gerald Ford was never elected to any national office, and served only an interregnum term in the White House; Jimmy Carter is is the only living president to have won the Nobel Peace Prize; yet Ford's name now graces the new class of supercarriers, while the Navy has extended only a lesser honor to Carter and no honors to Johnson or Clinton. This seems cheap political favoritism unbefitting the United States military.

Note 1: See from the Navy's list that there was once a carrier named the Franklin Roosevelt, but this name, honoring the greatest Democratic president, has been retired. Lots of other glorious carrier names have also been retired, including the America, Constellation, Tarawa, Saratoga, Coral Sea, Valley Forge and others. These are storied names -- and out of use, while a man who opposed desegregation is honored. Note 2: The shipyard in Cherbourg, France, is building the final nuclear missile submarine of its Triomphant class. The boat's name? The Terrible. There couldn't be a more fitting name for a ship whose purpose is launching nuclear warheads.

New England at Indianapolis Analysis: The big play of this contest was the Indianapolis field goal with 11 seconds remaining in the first half, making it New England 21, Indianapolis 6 at intermission. The Colts had fourth-and-goal on the Flying Elvii 8 when they sent in the kicking unit. Kick Early Go For It Late! Indianapolis absolutely had to score at the end of the first half. The field goal made it a two-touchdown game and gave the hosts realistic hope; had Indianapolis tried for the touchdown and failed, the contest would have been over. A field goal might not seem like much when you're behind 21-3, but these three points -- plus the fact that the Indianapolis cheerleaders changed outfits at halftime and appeased the football gods, see below -- let the Colts know victory remained possible. To the point of the last-second first-half field goal, Indianapolis had gone 20 consecutive postseason possessions without a touchdown. The next three Indianapolis possessions? Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.

The Colts' epic comeback exemplifies a point TMQ often makes about comebacks -- when you're way behind in the second half you are probably toast, but when you're way behind in the first half, you have just as much time remaining to come back as your opponent took to get ahead. Let's christen this the Law of Remaining Clock. The biggest comeback in NFL history, Buffalo back from 35-3 to beat Houston in the playoffs, began two snaps into the second half; the key point was that the Bills had just as much time to come back as the Oilers had expended getting ahead. In the second-greatest comeback, San Francisco back from 35-7 to beat New Orleans in the regular season, the comeback began on the first play of the second half; the key point was that the Niners had just as much time to come back as the Saints had expended getting ahead. My sons badly wanted Indianapolis to win, and when it was 21-3, their hearts sank. "Look at the clock, it's still the first half," I told them. Most likely Colts' coaches were rallying their players with the same words.

Resisting the urge to panic helped the Colts' comeback. Taking the second half kickoff and trailing 21-6, Indianapolis coaches called eight rushing plays on the 76-yard touchdown drive that turned the game into a tense, close contest. Then on the next possession came the play that Colts players, coaches and front office people, especially Bill Polian, have been waiting for since the 2004 AFC Championship. In that game, New England was never called for defensive pass interference, despite numerous obvious muggings of Colts' receivers. Bill Belichick, knowing officials tend to call defensive pass interference and offensive holding (the two most damaging penalties) less as the postseason progresses, had instructed his defensive backs to interfere with Colts receivers mercilessly until such time as a flag was thrown -- and a flag was never thrown. Polian complained bitterly after that game, and should have; the league changed its officiating procedures, instructing zebras to end the traditional practice of switching to "let the boys play" in the postseason. Then in 2005, New England beat Indianapolis again in the playoffs, and again was never flagged for defensive pass interference. Now it's the third quarter of the 2007 AFC Championship, and once again New England has not been flagged for defensive interference. Eleven consecutive postseason quarters between the Pats and Colts and we're supposed to believe New England has never once interfered with an Indianapolis receiver? Finally the yellow flies -- Ellis Hobbs called for pass interference in the end zone. Polian must have yelled, "Finally, FINALLY!" Ball spotted on the 1, and on the next play, Peyton Manning threw a touchdown pass to defensive tackle Dan Klecko, lined up as a blocking back. Putting a big defender in as a blocking back at the goal line, then throwing to him, is one of Bill Belichick's favorite tricks. How the football gods must have chortled to see Belichick's own trick used against him.

Colts cheerleader
The Colts' cheerleaders' halftime switch of outfits was essential to the Indianapolis comeback.
The RCA Dome was weirdly quiet when the Colts took possession on their 20 with 3:49 remaining, trailing 34-31. I'm thinking: Now's your chance, go win the game! The crowd was obviously thinking: Ohmygawd they're gonna lose again. The RCA Dome was again weirdly quiet when the Colts got the ball back, again on their 20, with 2:17 remaining and one timeout, still trailing 34-31. I'm thinking: The football gods just gave you a second chance, go win the game! The crowd was obviously thinking: Ohmygawd. First Peyton Manning threw a short out to Reggie Wayne, who stepped out of bounds to stop the clock. Then Manning threw a perfect strike to Bryan Fletcher, the Colts' third tight end, who was on the field owing to an injury to someone else -- coming into the game, he had 18 receptions on the season. Fletcher promptly dropped the ball as if it was a live ferret. On the next snap, Colts' coaches or Manning or both did something beautiful and inspired that, of course, the announcers utterly missed. They called a play for Fletcher -- the same backup who had just dropped the ball -- and what they called was a deep pass. Fortune favors the bold! Thirty-two yard completion to Fletcher, and a few snaps later, ecstasy in the RCA Dome.

The home timekeeper had a big play on Fletcher's reception, too. The ball snapped with 2:08 showing, and as Fletcher strove out of bounds the Indianapolis timekeeper stopped the clock with 2:01 showing, thus handing the Colts an extra play before the two-minute warning. It turned out the extra snap had no role in the outcome, as the home team scored the winning touchdown at 1:02. Had the Colts scored to win on the final down, today a huge controversy would be swirling over the mysterious clock-stop at 2:01. (There's no way the play in question took only seven seconds.) Reaching first-and-10 on the New England 11 with 1:53 remaining, the Colts acted very New England-like by rushing three straight times to kill some clock before scoring. The winning touchdown came up the middle behind a Hall of Fame block by undrafted center Jeff Saturday, who shoved out of the picture the huge, first-round defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. Saturday is the kind of guy who could be the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP.

As for the Patriots, they vary game plans week-to-week more than any NFL team, and opened on offense with something they hadn't showed much lately -- "bunch" formations as opposed to spreads. Two early Flying Elvii touchdowns resulted, and the Patriot offense continued to perform well -- 27 points on the road in a championship game is a good day. New England always runs a creative play that causes you to say "Wow, that was sweet." Games scoreless, the Patriots had third-and-9, and lined four-wide with receiving-downs back Kevin Faulk on Tom Brady's left. The Colts looked like they would blitz from the offensive right; Tom Brady madly motioned Faulk over to the right, as if instructing him to blitz-block. Then Brady handed off to Faulk running left behind pulling right guard Steve Neal. The eight-yard gain set up a 35-yard run by Corey Dillon on fourth-and-1, in turn setting up New England's first touchdown. Later, game tied at 21, New England facing third-and-goal on the Indianapolis 6, Brady threw a perfect strike to Jabar Gaffney at the back of the end zone, and the latest Belichick reclamation project made a perfect catch. Brady openly tells people that he looks to the back of the end zone in this situation because defenders lose track of the back of the end zone, and they did on this play. Brady tells people where he's going to look and still fools them!

There was a colossal hidden play at the endgame -- hidden plays being ones that never make highlight reels, but stop or sustain drives. Game tied with 8 minutes remaining, New England had first down on the Indianapolis 18. Reclamation project Reche Caldwell, who's had a fine year, lined up right and was uncovered by any Colt. He waved madly for Brady to snap the ball and toss it his way. When Brady finally did -- nothing but turf between Caldwell and the end zone -- Reche dropped the pass as if it was a live ferret. New England settled for a field goal, four lost points helping determine the outcome.

Good as New England always is, its offensive strategy in the endgame seemed puzzling. Leading 34-31 with 2:39 remaining, facing second-and-8, the Patriots came out empty backfield. This is a clock-killer situation, run the ball! Short pass, Indianapolis timeout. Now facing third-and-4 with 2:30 remaining, the Patriots came out empty backfield. This is a clock-killer situation, run the ball! Incompletion stopping the clock, and the home team gets possession back with plenty of time.

The New England defense had a fine season, finishing second-best behind Baltimore in points allowed, then had two good playoff outings versus Jersey/B and San Diego before finally running out of steam against a Colts' offense that was due for a breakout. Ty Warren, Asante Samuel, Mike Vrabel and other Pats defenders had Pro Bowl caliber years, though only Richard Seymour received a free ticket to Hawaii. For the last two seasons, Samuel has been the best cornerback in the NFL, but shut out of Hawaii because he's not the flashy, boastful type of corner the Pro Bowl voters favors. Now that Samuel has returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the same postseason, he should get his due in ink. (Warning to Colts' coaches -- three of Peyton Manning's six postseason interceptions have come on short turn or hook passes to the right intended for Marvin Harrison; corners have noticed some cue that tips them this action is coming.) But bear in mind that concentration and fundamentals, not flashy plays, are the best aspects of Asante Samuel's game. Samuel is the kind of guy who could be the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP.

Small puzzle: Why didn't Belichick challenge the Saturday fumble recovery ruled a touchdown for the Colts, tying the game at 28 early in the fourth quarter? Replays clearly showed Saturday was down before the ball broke the plane, and New England had all three timeouts. A successful challenge would have made it New England 28, Indianapolis 21 with the Colts facing third-and-goal on the Pats' 1. Probably the hosts would have scored anyway, but something might have gone wrong for Indianapolis on third-and-goal at the 1, too. This seemed a rare case of Belichick showing less than complete attention on a small detail. (The Colts would not have gotten a first down from Saturday's recovery; if the offense recovers its own fumble shy of the "line to gain," a first down is awarded only if the loose ball was in the possession of the defense at some point during the down.)

Hillary Clinton
Does she already have more money than all previous presidential candidates combined?
Wacky Food of the Week: Recently at this restaurant -- which bills itself as "one of the 100 hottest restaurants in the world," I would have been quite happy to be one of the 100 hottest guys on that city block at that moment -- TMQ was confronted with "yuzu barbeque" and "boniato root puree."

Hillary Tempts the Election Gods: "I'm in, and I'm in to win." So began the announcement Hillary Clinton sent to her supporters. Matt Hasselbeck once said at the coin flip of a playoff overtime, "We want the ball and we're gonna score." That didn't turn out so well. If you type "Hillary for president" into Google, it produces four addresses that appear to be the official campaign site, and it's hard to tell which is which. Note that on what is, I think, the actual official site, there is no text to Hillary's announcement, just a YouTube video clip. Imagine if George Washington had no text for his Farewell Address, just posted the clip on YouTube -- then known as ThouTributary. In case you haven't already noticed this, if Hillary wins the recent presidential succession in the United States will have been: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton.

Jessica
Jessica of the Colts' cheerleaders, who's selling the indoor, dome-based lifestyle.
Bonus Cheerleader of the Week: Jessica E. of the Colts, who according to her team bio works as a "lifestyle marketing manager." When will someone sell me a lifestyle! Reader Rob Craig of Indianapolis writes to report that he and his friends watching the AFC Championship felt cold waves of dread when the Colts' cheerleaders came out in chaps that were sexy but hardly displayed cheerleader professionalism; predictably, the home team was down 21-6 at halftime. For the second half the Colts cheerleaders stripped off the chaps and danced in short-shorts, and predictably, the home team rallied to victory. When TMQ saw the naughty-cowgirl outfits the Colts' cheerleaders changed to at halftime, immediately I thought: Giddyup!

All-Unwanted All Pros: Each year Tuesday Morning Quarterback names the All-Unwanted All Pros -- the NFL's best players who went undrafted, or were let go, or both. My definition of "let go" is hazy. Traded players do not qualify as let go, since their teams got something in return. Players whose original teams could not keep them for salary cap reasons don't qualify. But anyone who was waived or who left in free agency when his original team made no bona-fide attempt to retain him can make my squad. An asterisk means the player has been let go more than once, or went undrafted and was also let go; boldface means the player belongs in the real Pro Bowl. You'll see a lot of boldface in my All-Unwanted All-Pros, which tells you just how many successful NFL performers were originally shrugged at by the experts.

First Team

OFFENSIVE LINE
Ruben Brown, Chicago (was waived in 2003 as washed up)
Jamar Nesbit,* New Orleans (undrafted and waived twice)
Jeff Saturday , Indianapolis (future first-ballot Hall of Fame center was undrafted)
Brian Waters, Kansas City (undrafted former Berlin Thunder player)
Steve Neal,* New England (undrafted, waived twice, did not play college football)

TIGHT END
Antonio Gates , San Diego (undrafted and did not play football in college)

WIDE RECEIVERS
Reche Caldwell, New England (dismissed by league as a bust, this season Caldwell started more games for the Patriots than in his entire previous four-year career)
Mike Furrey,* Detroit (undrafted and waived twice in the Arena League; was a defensive back in 2005)

TAILBACKS
Willie Parker, Pittsburgh (undrafted and did not start in college)
Warrick Dunn, Atlanta (let go by Tampa as "too small," just completed third consecutive thousand-yard season)

FULLBACK
Lorenzo Neal,* San Diego (let go four times, was blocking back during the best years of LaDainian Tomlinson, Corey Dillon and Eddie George)

QUARTERBACK
Drew Brees, New Orleans (unwanted in San Diego and turned down when he offered to play for Miami)

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
Bryce Fisher,* Seattle (graduate of the Air Force Academy, where they make you attend class!)
Trevor Pryce, Baltimore (four-time Pro Bowler was let go by Denver after 2005 season)
Warren Sapp, Oakland (led league in sacks by a defensive tackle; two years ago, CBS Sportsline said of Sapp, "This guy is done. Finished.")
Pat Williams,* Minnesota (undrafted; Minnesota's incredible figure of just 2.8 yards per rush allowed is largely this large gentlemen's doing)

LINEBACKERS
London Fletcher,* Buffalo (undrafted after playing DIII in college; since 2000 has more tackles than Ray Lewis or Zach Thomas)
Bart Scott, Baltimore (first-round picks Terrell Suggs and Adalius Thomas get the press, undrafted Scott does the work)
Mike Vrabel, New England

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Ryan Clark,* Pittsburgh (undrafted and let go three times)
Ty Law,* Kansas City
Walt Harris, San Francisco (Chainsaw Dan Snyder released Harris to free up money to sign safety Adam Archuleta, who failed to start for Washington)
Kevin Kaesviharn,* Cincinnati (see below)

Second Team

OFFENSIVE LINE
Joe Andruzzi,* Cleveland (undrafted, waived twice and played DII in college)
Marc Colombo, Dallas (dismissed by the league as a bust, started only two games from 2003 to 2005)
Pete Kendall, Jersey/B
Chris Naeole, Jacksonville
Jason Peters,* Buffalo (undrafted and waived twice; was a tight end in college)

TIGHT END
Desmond Clark, Chicago

WIDE RECEIVERS
Terrell Owens,* Dallas (it hurts to put him here, but he caught 13 touchdown passes)
Wes Welker,* Miami (makes it over Terry Glenn because Welker is also a special teams ace)

TAILBACKS
Thomas Jones, Chicago
Chester Taylor, Minnesota

FULLBACK
Jim Finn,* Jersey/A (Ivy League grad from Penn)

QUARTERBACK
Jeff Garcia,* Philadelphia (undrafted former CFL player, let go twice in NFL)

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
Jason Ferguson, Dallas
Vonnie Holliday,* Miami
Rod Coleman, Atlanta
Kelly Gregg,* Baltimore (tastefully named!)

LINEBACKERS
Ben Leber, Minnesota
Donnie Edwards, San Diego (plays inside linebacker at 227 pounds)
David Thornton, Tennessee (once had 145 tackles with Colts)

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Darren Sharper, Minnesota
Robert Griffith,* Arizona (undrafted and let go twice, has had an impressive 13-year NFL career)
Marlon McCree,* San Diego (Marlon -- on fourth down, knock it down!)
Brian Williams, Jacksonville

KICKING TEAMS
Placekicker: Robbie Gould, Chicago (undrafted, his 143-point season would have led the league in scoring were it not for LaDainian Tomlinson's 31 touchdowns)
Punter: Brian Moorman,* Buffalo
Long-snapper: Jon Dorenbos,* Philadelphia (during offseason, works as a magician in Vegas)
Returner: B.J. Sams, Baltimore
Special teamers: Sean Morey, Pittsburgh (Ivy league grad from Brown); Kassim Osgood*, San Diego

Honorable mention: Morten Andersen, Atlanta. The NFL's new all-time leading scorer was let go FIVE TIMES and did not play in 2005 because no one wanted him

Kevin Kaesviham
TMQ's Unwanted Player of the Year.
Tuesday Morning Quarterback's Unwanted Player of the Year is Kevin Kaesviharn, safety and nickel back for Cincinnati. Kaesviharn played Division II ball at tiny Augustana in South Dakota, graduated in 1997, and was out of football for four years before earning a tryout in 2001 with the Green Bay Packers, who promptly waived him. Kaesviharn caught on as a Bengals' special-teams player, then was waived and re-signed three times. Kaesviharn gradually played his way into the lineup, starting most Cincinnati games since 2003, and drew some votes for the Pro Bowl this season. At the risk of sounding really corny -- kids, if you've got a dream, never give up.

Belichick Ensemble Watch: On Sunday not only did he go with the cutoff hoodie again, Belichick had a wooden pencil in his ear. But he doesn't hold anything to write on, so why did he need a pencil? At the current rate of deterioration in Belichick's willingness to dress up in public, by midseason 2007 he will be wearing painter's coveralls and sandals on the sideline.

Reader Animadversion: Got a complaint or a deeply held grievance? Write me at TMQ_ESPN@yahoo.com. Include your real name and the name of your hometown, and I may quote you by name unless you instruct me otherwise. Note: giving your hometown improves your odds of being quoted.

Next Week: A week with no football on television -- can this be legal? Tide yourself over with the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP.

In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" and other books. He is also a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sound off to Page 2 here.