Friday, January 4, 2008
'There is no tomorrow' in the NFL playoffs
By Bill Simmons
Flipping channels over the holidays, I stumbled across "Rocky III" and decided to stick around for the climactic training scene. Ever do that? You watch 25 minutes of a movie you've already seen 270 times just for one scene? Right when I came in, Apollo was bringing Rocky back to his old gym, so I hung around thinking, "Twenty minutes until the awkward beach hug!"
After a few minutes, I got bored and started flipping around, returning in time to see Rocky quit during a beach sprint as Apollo hissed to Adrian and Paulie, "It's over." (That part always cracks me up -- Rocky and Apollo training on the beach while Rocky's alcoholic brother-in-law and dolled-up wife inexplicably look on.) So Adrian chases down Rocky and they have the dramatic, heart-to-heart, "I don't wanna lose what we got!" conversation that ends with Rocky admitting, "I'm afraid! All right, I'm afraid!"
And even before Adrian talked him off the ledge and gave him the "Even if you lose, we still have each other" speech, I was sitting there thinking, "You know, this is kind of like me with picking football games."
See, I used to stick by all these rules. I never took bad QBs on the road. I loved home dogs. I stayed away from Obvious Games. If the line looked suspiciously high or low, as if Vegas was trying to bait us into a bad pick, I always went the other way. Then the 2006 season happened -- a fluky gambling season in which an inordinate amount of underdogs cover -- and I ended up throwing all my rules out the window.
From start to finish, the 2006 NFL season was a complete and total gambling aberration. During the regular season, underdogs finished 39 games over .500 against the spread and won 75 percent of those covers outright. In the playoffs, a team made the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman at QB; a Bill Belichick defense blew an 18-point lead to squander a Super Bowl berth; and Peyton Manning turned out to be more clutch than Tom Brady. By the time it was over, my head was spinning. I was like Rocky, asking myself, "How did everything that was so good end up being so bad?" When the underdogs started off hot in 2007, I assumed the NFL had been flipped upside down and there was no rhyme or reason to anything anymore.
Not true. Upon further review, the 2007 season wasn't that strange. If you rode the contenders (not counting Week 17, New England, Indy, San Diego, Green Bay, Dallas and Jacksonville were a combined 58-31-2 ATS), went against the Year-After Teams (Denver, New Orleans and Chicago were a combined 16-32 ATS) and went against the crappy teams (Miami, San Fran, St. Louis and the Jets were a combined 21-38-5), you had a pretty good year -- as long as you figured out those three categories in time. For the most part, home dogs covered when they should have covered, and Obvious Games failed to cover because they were too obvious. This was a relatively simple gambling season if you stuck to your guns.
Well, I didn't stick to my guns. Now, I'm looking at the biggest playoff month in the 11-year history of this column. After a two-year slump and the embarrassing revelation that I'm not even the best handicapper in my own family, I need to get my mojo back. I need to get back to the basics. My back is to the wall. There is no tomorrow. I just need to go out there and have fun. I need to start picking games like Bill Simmons again.
Remember, I'm the same guy who gave you not one, not two, not three, but FOUR versions of the NFL Playoff Gambling Manifesto. I had a system, dammit! Starting this week, we're going back to it. Thank you, Adrian, you little minx. You made me see the light.
Before we tackle the first-round picks, let's rip through a few e-mails to get the juices flowing.
Q: Along with the three Super Bowls and the Snow Game, do you think the Pats-Giants game was one of the five greatest wins in Patriots history? My roommate and I have been arguing about this all weekend; we're deferring to you because you're old enough to remember every big Pats game post-AFL.
THE B.S. REPORT
Searching for help with his Round 1 picks, Bill Simmons talked to Aaron Schatz from footballoutsiders.com
, Cousin Sal, Dave Dameshek, Rob Stone and even his buddy House in a deluxe playoff edition of The BS Report
-- Tommy, Providence, R.I.
SG: Thanks for the backhanded compliment! Maybe it can't supplant any of the big playoff wins in '85, '01, '03 or '04, but if they finish 19-0, it would be the franchise's most memorable regular-season win. There was so much to love about that game, including ...
Q: Here's an idea for a Power Poll centered around your picks battle with the Sports Gal. Every week, it could look like this:
The Chad Lowe Division:
- Both teams giving a crap. Sometimes you get in these ruts with sports when a few ho-hum weeks will pass and you can't even remember why you go out of your way to watch all these games. Then something like "Pats 38, Giants 35" comes along and you think, "Oh, yeah, that's right -- this is why I watch sports every night, just in case something like this happens. I forgot."
- The New York starters being penciled in to play one half, then getting so juiced up by their crowd and the electricity of the game that they voted to keep playing at halftime. Shades of Pélé convincing the Allies to skip the halftime escape in "Victory," right? You could almost picture Plax and Strahan saying, "We can beat those guys!" and Tom Coughlin excitedly saying in a Michael Caine accent, "What do you mean we can win? What do you mean we can win?"
|A great moment ... that you could see coming from a mile away!|
- Belichick trying to pull off a "Milton Berle Game" because he thought the Giants were only playing hard for a half, nearly letting the game slip away, then reluctantly saying, "All right, I guess we'll start blitzing the hell out of Eli" near the end of the third quarter. And that was that. My buddy Paul went to the game -- as soon as the Pats unleashed some pressure on Eli, I started texting him, "Here comes the Eli pick, here it comes ..." and then it finally happened at the worst possible time. Not a good sign for the Giants' playoff hopes.
- Brady and Moss both breaking TD records on one of the most memorable sequences in franchise history. Two e-mails summed it up perfectly:
Dave in Madison, Wis.: "Just watched Moss drop a potential TD and catch the next one for a TD. Couldn't they have stopped the game between those plays so I could bet my life savings on 'the next play will be a TD pass to Randy Moss?' I mean, what was the likelihood of that play ... 80,000 percent? Screw death and taxes, that was the most certain moment in sports history. The Giants could have used their entire defense, their mascot, their cheerleaders, half the fans and the Stanford band to cover Moss, and it was still gonna happen."
Paul R. in New York: "It pains me to say it, but the Brady-Moss bomb reminded me of Montana to Rice. When you have sat through dozens and dozens of games from the upper deck of a stadium (I haven't missed a Giants game since the strike ended in 1987), you see football plays differently as they develop. The execution of that play between those two guys, the throw in the face of the rush, the route, the accuracy and the catch combined to produce the only play I have ever seen at Giants Stadium that reminded me of the same type of route/TD that I saw Montana and Rice execute in September 1988. I'm glad I saw it."
- Here's how you know you're rooting for a great football team: When they need two touchdowns with 20 minutes left, they're on the road, it's a must-win game and your heart isn't even beating that fast. That has been the enduring legacy of this particular Patriots team (well, other than Spygate). You always know they're coming back. In my entire life, I've only rooted for one other team like that -- the '86 Celtics, an equally great team with a similar knack for crushing the other team's windpipe just when it least expected it. Above everything else, what made the Giants game special was the certainty of the outcome. The game was in doubt, but there was never a doubt. That's when you know you're great.
The Hillary Swank Division:
1. Sports Gal
-- Granny, Fairfield, Conn.
SG: That hurts. Couldn't you at least have gone with Drea de Matteo and Shooter Jennings?
Q: Can ESPN please confirm Emmitt Smith is returning next year? Anyone who can praise Tony Romo by saying, "Not only does he have the NFC East record for touchdowns, but also the team record" deserves a five-year extension.
-- Smitty, Orlando, Fla.
SG: (Fighting off 35,000 amps of electricity.)
Q: In your QB column, you wrote Matt Cassel and Jim Sorgi graduated from Brady College and Manning University. Don't you think it should be Brady University and Manning College? Brady has more of a university feel, where people party all week at keggers and get sloshed while making out with tons of girls. Manning is the collegiate type who spends quiet evenings with his longtime girlfriend making fondue and wondering if having chocolate fondue for dessert at a fondue party is appropriate. BU all the way!
-- Brent, Wallingford, Conn.
SG: Done and done. You're right, Manning College sounds like an NESCAC school, and Brady U. sounds like one of those schools you'd visit for the weekend and be furious that you didn't apply there afterward. Unfortunately, my Brady-Manning "Good-By-Osmosis" Theory was destroyed by Sorgi in Week 17. Which reminds me ...
Q: It's cool that Indy let a fan play QB during the last game of the year. I think this really let's people know what it is like to play in an NFL game. What's that you say? Jim Sorgi is an NFL QB?
-- Todd, Cleveland
SG: Yup, the Osmosis Theory has been shot to hell. By the way, did we ever figure out why it was a bad idea for Manning to come back in and run a two-minute drill to knock Tennessee out of the playoffs? That wouldn't have been good practice for Indy's first string heading into January? Also, what's the point of playing your first string for one half, then bringing in scrubs like Sorgi to win the game? When you're in the position the Colts and Cowboys found themselves in last week, doesn't it make more sense to start second-stringers, and if those players kept you in the game, then you send the first-stringers in for the final 15-20 minutes? Or is that too logical?
Q: I just read your story on the 60 starting quarterbacks and it was good, except for one glaring mistake that stuck out like a sore thumb. Didn't you misplace Tarvaris Jackson? He belongs in the Turnover-Machine-With-Inept-Coach category. He is the only quarterback in that group and, frankly, no other real quarterback deserves to be with him.
A disgruntled Vikings fan
-- William, Salem, Mass.
Q: Did you see Tarvaris threw jump-pass interceptions in the last two games? At least we have Adrian Peterson ... until we send him to the Patriots.
-- Dan, St. Paul, Minn.
SG: I grouped those e-mails together to reflect where the average Minnesota sports fan's head is at right now. At the rate they're going, the Twins are going to announce they've hired Kevin McHale as a special consultant to help make the Johan Santana trade happen.
Q: Between "Inside the NFL," the NFL Network and "Football Night in America," I've reached the point with Cris Collinsworth where I can finish his sentences before he can. Sports Guy, have you reached that point yet?
-- Doug, Madison, Wis.
SG: Have I reached that point? I still like Collinsworth -- despite his histrionics at halftime of the Chargers-Pats game -- but I think I've spent more time with him the past month than I did with my wife. Now I'm even starting to talk like him. Here's how I originally answered Doug's question:
"Doug, I gotta be honest with you ... when I watched Cris Collinsworth on tape this week, to me, he's the X factor of the National Football League right now. Have you guys had the chance to see him on tape? (Cris Carter and Dan Marino stare blankly and look confused.) Guys, I gotta tell you, after watching Cris Collinsworth dissect these football teams ... (throwing hands in the air) ... I don't know when he sleeps! Guys, you HAVE to watch the tape of Cris Collinsworth watching tape -- he's the unsung hero of every show he's on. This is a guy who knows everything you'd ever want to know about the National Football League, he doesn't sleep and, honestly, I think he's having the greatest year that a football analyst has ever had. (Laughing.) Look, you can say what you want, I'm tellin' ya, he's having the GREATEST year that a football analyst has ever had in the National Football League."
Q: Who do you see coming out of the NFC? With the way Dallas finished the season, you could make a case for every team, right?
SG: I respectfully disagree. I'd break it down like this ...
Tampa Bay: The Bucs are a more efficient, more reliable version of Tennessee. And that's not a compliment.
N.Y. Giants: Eli Manning would have to win THREE games on the road. Did you see the look on his face during the fourth quarter of the Pats game? Come on.
Washington: Can you win six straight games with the pride of Walpole, Mass., Todd Collins? Can you win three playoffs games on the road with him? As good as he looked in December, I find it hard to believe a 36-year-old backup QB could suddenly morph into the real-life Shane Falco. For God's sake, I wrote a column three weeks ago about the dearth of good QBs. Really, Todd Collins was good for all these years and didn't stumble across a single coach who believed in him? Really? I just can't buy it.
Seattle: Let's say the Seahawks beat the Skins, and then, in Round 2, somebody shocks the Cowboys and Favre completely self-destructs. Seattle can't win consecutive road games against 13-3 teams, but a home-road-home run isn't impossible, right? By the way, this feels like the 27th straight year that the poor Seattle fans have talked themselves into the whole, "I know we're not that good, but if X happens, and Y happens, and Z happens, we might be able to sneak into the Super Bowl!" It's becoming a January tradition right up there with Vince Carter getting hurt and Fox kicking off a new season of "American Idol."
Dallas: Between the Romo-Jessica saga, T.O.'s ankle sprain, the team's lack of intensity since the Packers game and Wade Phillips being Wade Phillips, there's a lot not to like. Everything about these guys screams, "We peaked too early, and we're ready to choke in the playoffs, even if we have home-field advantage."
THE BEST CHANCE
Green Bay: Ryan Grant pushed the Packers to another level when he turned into Dorsey Levens 2.0 a few weeks ago. It's hard to imagine them losing a home playoff game, leaving "At Dallas" as their only obstacle. ... And if that's the case, I like the Pack's chances. After a bizarre season that included lowlights like Vick, Pacman, Spygate, Taylor, Petrino, Miami's near-donut and the ongoing NFL Network fiasco, what's a better scenario for the NFL than Favre and the Packers (wearing the white hats) trying to prevent Belichick and the Patriots (wearing the black hats) from finishing 19-0? (Important note as required by the Anti-Jinxing Committee: You know, assuming the Pats make it as well.) Wouldn't that be the most riveting Super Bowl ever? Do you know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who would miss that game?
Here's the problem: In the NFL, the best possible Super Bowl scenario almost never happens. Just look at the past 10 Super Bowls since the fantastic Green Bay-Denver game: Denver-Atlanta (should have been Minnesota); St. Louis-Tennessee (great game, boring matchup); Baltimore-N.Y. Giants (yawn); St. Louis-New England (everyone wanted Pittsburgh); Oakland-Tampa (yawn); New England-Carolina (nobody expected a good game); New England-Philly (everyone was bored of the Pats); Pittsburgh-Seattle (yawn); and Indy-Chicago (unfortunately, the Colts and Pats had played the Super Bowl two weeks before). That's a bad streak of luck. Let's hope we're not headed for a Jags-Seahawks battle.
Q: I went to the Pats game at Giants Stadium last night. While the game itself was awesome, my favorite moment was before the game. Walking around the parking lot before the game we came across about 15 people sitting around a television in the back of a truck. On the TV was Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series. We arrived right before "The Steal." We all yelled for Dave Roberts to take off, accompanied by a bunch of "we have no chance ... Rivera never blows a save ..." Everyone erupted when Roberts slid in safe, and a bunch of Yankees fans looked on in disgust from the other parking spots. Then, I went in and watched my football team complete a perfect 16-0 season. Life doesn't get much better than this, does it?
|Sorry, Giants fans, but there's no way Eli Manning is winning three straight road playoff games.|
--Chris, Quincy, Mass.
SG: If we could send e-mails through time, and somebody sent this mailbag question to the 2000 Me, I probably would have passed out.
All right, I'm properly juiced. Time for the wild-card picks. Wish me luck.
(Home teams in caps):
SEAHAWKS (-3.5) over Redskins
Sorry, Todd Collins. I can't take you on the road in a tough stadium in January. In the past three years, only three opposing QBs have beaten Matt Hasselbeck at Qwest Field: Drew Brees, Phil Rivers and Alex Smith. (Hold on, Alex Smith sucks. That doesn't help my theory at all. Let's do this again.) In the past three years, including the playoffs, Matt Hasselbeck is 21-3 starting at Qwest Field. (Much better.) The 36-year-old Collins didn't start a game for 10 full years before ripping off a four-game winning streak against a lousy Chicago team, a Jekyll-and-Hyde Giants team, a one-dimensional Vikings team and a Dallas team that didn't try. Now we're getting less than four points with him in a road playoff game? Doesn't that seem insane?
Rule No. 1 of the Playoff Manifesto 4.0 says you should never, ever, EVER back a crappy QB on the road. The question remains: Is Collins a crappy QB who caught lightning in a bottle for four games against a favorable schedule, or is Collins quietly giving us the script for the next half-decent Disney sports movie, "The Late Bloomer?" As much as I like Cinderella stories, I'd rather put my money on a 36-year-old career backup playing like a 36-year-old career backup at Qwest Field. Call me crazy.
The Pick: Seattle 30, Washington 15
Jags (-2) over STEELERS
|Do you trust four weeks of strong play ... or 13 seasons of mediocrity?|
Everyone loves the Jags.
Everyone loves the Jags.
Everyone loves the Jags.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a first-round game in recent NFL history with more red flags. The Jags dominated Pittsburgh four weeks ago. The playoff line opened with Pittsburgh favored by 1, then shifted three points toward Jacksonville. When I called my buddy Geoff to discuss the lines on Wednesday (something we've been doing for 20 years), the first thing he said to me was, "I love the Jags." When I picked up USA Sports Weekly this week, I couldn't help but notice all nine of the writers picked the Jags. According to sportsbook.com's "Betting Trends" page, 93 percent of the action is on the Jags. Turn on any sports radio station or TV show and if you don't hear someone say, "I'll tell you something, I love this Jaguars team" within three minutes, you should just call the police to be safe. On the flip side, you can't hear the Steelers mentioned without hearing they're on their third left tackle, or that Aaron Smith's injury was devastating to their defense.
The Steelers have three things in their favor other than Rule No. 2 and Rule No. 8 of the Manifesto. First, Heinz Field is an absolute mess. Nothing evens out a game like a screwed-up field, so if that papier-mache grass starts to fall apart, look out. Second, the Jags are built to play tight games or protect second-half leads -- they aren't a team you want to back financially when they're trailing by 10 at the 2:30 mark of the third quarter. If the Steelers take a lead and catch one break, the crowd and the field could carry them from there. And third, as goofy as this sounds, the Steelers have a ton of playoff experience -- even someone like "Ben" has played in five playoff games and a Super Bowl. Where's the playoff experience with the Jags?
So why take them then? Because they dominated the Steelers four weeks ago. I don't care what the final score said, that game wasn't close with Willie Parker and Smith. Even the Steelers fans seem curiously pessimistic about Saturday night's game and were probably more excited about the Penguins-Sabres snow game. (And with reason. That game was awesome in HD. Even I ended up watching the third period, the OT and the shootout. If the NHL ever becomes an all-outdoors league, I'm back, baby!) Anyway, since Jacksonville was the hottest non-Patriots team heading into the playoffs (Rule No. 6), Vegas should have made that line "Jags minus-3" from the get-go. At least. Since they had to spend the past few days chasing Steelers money, for one of the few times I can remember, the casinos screwed up and it's going to end up costing them if the Jags win, which they will. I think.
(Deep breath ...)
(Deeper breath ...)
The Pick: Jaguars 21, Steelers 17
BUCCANEERS (-2.5) over Giants
THE SPORTS GAL'S PICKS
The Sports Gal took the week off from ranting for reasons she'll explain next week. Here are her Round 1 playoff picks: Seahawks -3.5; Steelers +2; Giants +2.5; Titans +9.5.
Last week: 9-7
We're about to find out the definitive answer for the question, "Can an NFL team's actions in the past two weeks of the season determine its karmic fate for the playoffs?"
The Bucs mailed in the final two weeks, screwed up New England's first-round pick from the 49ers trade and did everything but announce to the league, "We are totally fine with getting the Giants in the first round." Meanwhile, the Giants admirably busted their butts against the Patriots and suffered significant casualties in the process. If the Karma Gods were in charge of this game, the Bucs would lose.
Unfortunately, karma doesn't decide football games -- coaches and quarterbacks and injuries and home-field advantage invariably play a bigger role than anything else. Tampa has the coaching advantage (Jon Gruden with three weeks to prepare against Tom Coughlin ... yikes), the QB advantage (would you rather have Jeff Garcia at home or Eli Manning on the road), the health advantage and home-field advantage. More importantly, the Giants have become somewhat of a bandwagon pick, as evidenced by the curiously low line. And then there's this: When I write the Playoff Manifesto 5.0, you can bet anything that Eli and Coughlin will be featured in a section that includes the words "don't" or "beware." Seriously, you're thinking of backing Coughlin, Eli and (probably) his second-string center in a road playoff game? Are you nuts?
The Pick: Buccaneers 27, Giants 20
CHARGERS (-9) over Titans
The Chargers won two nail-biters this season (Indy and Tennessee, two games they could have blown) and their other nine games by 11-plus points apiece. You know what that means? They're the perfect favorite for this type of playoff game -- they should easily beat a team that can't play from behind (no playoff team in the AFC has worse QBs than the Titans), they know they should win and as long as things are going their way, they'll look fantastic because they're textbook front-runners. From a gambling standpoint, I'd love for them to cruise to a blowout win if only because it could potentially suck the line lower for San Diego-Indy in the second round ... which would be awesome because there's no chance in hell Phil Rivers and Norv Turner are strolling into the RCA Dome and hanging with the Colts.
(Wait, did I say that out loud? Um, I mean, it would be awesome because a Chargers-Colts game would be a total dogfight! I can't see that line going higher than Indy by 3! Anything higher and Vegas is crazy!)
There's only one problem: We've been here before with San Diego. In 2006, the Chargers blew a second-round home game to the underdog Patriots. In 2004, they blew a first-round home game to the underdog Jets. Each time, they killed approximately 20 million gamblers who were dumb enough to throw them in a two-team teaser or parlay. And even though the coach of those teams is gone (Marty Schottenheimer), he was replaced by Norv Turner, which was a little like replacing a broken condom with a busted IUD. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for playoff purposes? Well, Marty was 5-13 in the playoffs. You can't get worse than that unless you tried to coach with a head injury. Norv's playoff winning percentage is a much more palatable .500. -- I know, he's only 1-1 lifetime, but still -- and he doesn't have the same debilitating, "I'm in the playoffs and something horrible is about to happen" look on his face that Marty had. Why?
Because he has that look all the time.
When Marty got "the look," he tightened up and so did his team. In Norv's case, his vacant staring and occasional grimace will make that wild-card battle against the Titans seem like any other game to the Chargers. We're going to have to wait a week before he and Rivers conspire to kill their season. Be patient.
The Pick: Chargers 34, Titans 7
Last Week: 8-8
|Phil Rivers and the Chargers look great in a blowout ... and not so great in a close game.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column -- as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more -- check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.