- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, who also pens "The Flem File" on Page 2. He's written some big-time NFL pieces for The Mag, including the security package and the cover story on Jeremy Shockey earlier this season. Point being: the dude knows a lot about the National Football League, information he normally deals out in a back-and-forth with one (lucky?) fan per week in his "Dear Flem" piece.
So this week, we let fans ask him questions about the four playoff games this weekend. Best Divisional game of all-time? How much money is due Darren Sproles? Should Giants fans be scared right now? Here we go now.
STEVE (CONCORD, MA): What's the best divisional round game of all-time, in your humble opinion?
DAVID FLEMING: I'd vote for Pats/Raiders in overtime from 2002—you know, the snow bowl and the infamous 'tuck rule?' I still remember thinking, 'The Patriots are going no-huddle pass crazy in a blizzard? Belichick's a mad genius.' But honestly, I think we're on the verge of, maybe, the best Divisional round of all time. Consider this: all of these teams either dominated the regular season or caught fire late and are riding a wave of momentum into the post-season. It wouldn't surprise me if any of the remaining eight teams won the Super Bowl. When was the last time you could say that? On top of that, these games are all rematches of extremely competitive games from the regular season. The Ravens were beating the Titans until Kerry Collins put together two great drives to win 13-10; The Cards were beating the Panthers 23-17 late in the third quarter and Kurt Warner was picked late in the red zone on what could have been a game-winning drive; the Chargers lost at Heinz Field 11-10 but that was before they 'discovered' Darren Sproles; and the Giants and Eagles traded wins in a series that ended up, I think, 51-50 in total scoring.
MICHAEL (SACRAMENTO, CA): If you're a Giants fan right now, are you nervous given what happened in that second Eagles/Giants game?
DAVID FLEMING: I have an older brother whose an FBI agent in Detroit and a diehard Giants fan so I have to be careful what I say here. But between you and me, yes, I would be very nervous. You know why? In the last month or so the Eagles are 4-1 and the Giants are 1-3. Philly has essentially stolen the Giants blueprint from their miracle run to the Super Bowl last year: catch a wave of momentum late in the season and surf that sucker all the way to the Supa Bowl. I'm also impressed by the way the Eagles, once a 70/30 pass to run team have become much more balanced as of late. The Giants, meanwhile, remind of the Pats last year: they seem to have peaked too early. The Divisional round usually pits momentum versus fresh legs and rest. In a game so violent it's hard to underestimate how much of a benefit it is for teams to have two weeks off before playing the most important game of the year. But will that translate into a healthy, fresh Brandon Jacobs asserting his will against the Philly D? Or, with Plaxico out, will the Eagles be able to walk down that eighth player from the defensive backfield and put him in the box and stuff the run? This game is going to be epic. How long until kickoff?
TRACEY (BALTIMORE, MD): Is Ed Reed the single-best player at his position in the NFL right now? By that I mean, is there any position in the NFL with a bigger gap between the perceived No. 1 guy and the perceived No. 2-5 guys than safety right now?
DAVID FLEMING: I was at the game in Miami and my ears are still ringing from listening to Pats safety Rodney Harrison (working as a reporter for the NFL Network while wearing a suit and sneakers, I might add) scream in delight every time Reed broke on a ball, which seemed like every down. Ed Reed has become like the Peyton Manning of NFL defense: you could make an argument every year that he should win the MVP award. I said a few weeks ago in my column that in 20 years we might end up saying Ray Lewis was the guy who played with Ed Reed instead of the other way around. But let me point something out first from this weekend: Chad Pennington could not physically get the ball downfield or beyond the numbers with any kind of velocity or accuracy and, as a result, the Ravens were able to cheat everything inside and overload the middle of the field, knowing that's where he was going with the ball. Baltimore delivered one of the worst beatdowns I've ever seen in the playoffs and it makes you wonder just how much the Dolphins were a product of an unbelievably easy sched. All I mean is, as great as they looked, I wouldn't hand the Lombardi to the Ravens just yet. That game was a brutal mismatch. If they repeat that performance in NashVegas, then, yeah, start mapping out the parade route in Balitmore.
MAX (SAN FRANCISCO, CA): How much money is Darren Sproles going to make himself this postseason?
DAVID FLEMING: He's scheduled to make around a $1 million this year, which he pretty much earned in the Wildcard game alone. This is going to get very complicated very fast in the off-season. The Chargers, after letting Michael Turner go last year, don't want to make the same mistake twice, right? And LT, god love him, is about to hit 30, which is 67 in running back years and he's looking every bit that old. Anyway, the Bolts GM is AJ Smith and he's old school and old school scout types have very very rigid height/weight prototypes in mind for each position—which is going to be a big problem because Sproles is, what?, 5-foot-6 and maybe a a buck eighty? The thinking goes, you just don't pay a guy with that kind of frame (regardless of his incredible talent and remarkable heart and drive) a megabucks deal to be your every down back. Nothing secretly drives scouts and GMs more batty than paying a guy who ends up being hurt all the time. But they might not have a choice: because the Chargers cannot go into next year without a solid backup plan for LT.
SCOTT (STOWE, VT): If the Cardinals were to run this thing all the way to the Super Bowl, does that make Kurt Warner a Top 10 all-time QB in your view?
DAVID FLEMING: First of all, that's a big 'if,' don't ya think? The Cards are 0-5 and have lost by an average of almost three TDs on the East Coast this year. The other big factor, and this goes to your question, I can't think of another high profile quarterback in the last 15 years who has been more effected by physical pressure than Warner. "Pressure busts pipes" is what Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton told me a few weeks ago and that applies to Warner, who seems tO physically transform into a different player after he gets hit a few times. The Panthers know that. Julius Peppers knows that. And so I expect them to come after him with everything they have when they get into third-and-long situations early on Saturday night. Remember, you don't have to register a sack to have an effective pass rush, at least not with Warner. But let's go ahead and say Warner prevails and wins the Super Bowl—I still don't think he makes the top 10 of all-time great QBs. I applaud him for giving every grocery store stock boy the ability to dream about the NFL. But, I mean, you're gonna put him next to Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and John Elway? I don't think so.
TYRELL (LEXINGTON, KY): What would be the best AFC and NFC Title games that could result right now, in your view?
DAVID FLEMING: The great part about this weekend is I can't think of a 'bad' matchup. You know if the Chargers win and the Titans lose, San Diego, which started the season 4-8, wi ll be hosting the AFC title game. How about that? Or, check this out, how about Steelers-Ravens III? Oh my gosh. Those two epic defenses clashing in the freezing cold of Heinz Field after the first two games were decided by four points or less? It could be the most exciting, melon mashing 10-7 game in NFL history.
LEE ANNE (HOBOKEN, NJ): Out of all the veterans still around without a ring—coach Jeff Fisher, LT, Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid, John Fox and Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith—is there a truly "good guy" we should be rooting for to finally grab one?
DAVID FLEMING: All these guys are worthy. Jeff Fisher is a class act, a unique mind and a guy who remains down to earth. Donovan McNabb is the same way. He's survived just about every challenge the league can throw at a player while making football in Philly tolerable for the last decade without stooping to the level of his critics. But—ya know what?—I'm going with Steve Smith. And here's why: I know he's had some problems off the field, issues that he's dealt with like an adult—and not a celebrity or spoiled athlete. He's human. He's not perfect. He's not all bad. And he's not all good. But he remains one of the few players in the game today who I'd pay money to watch play. I always think of him as the Allen Iverson of the NFL: undersized but fearless—a guy who plays every down like it's his last and treats every pass route like a street fight. He used to work in a Taco Bell and ride the bus for hours just to play juco ball in Los Angeles and he kept playing even after he broke his neck at Utah. But the thing that told me all I need to know about Steve Smith is that when I spent the day at his house a few years back, the main things displayed in his trophy case were not any of the things he had earned as an all pro receiver but the pee wee soccer trophies his kids had earned.