Morning After: Too good?
The Patriots enter the playoffs on an impressive 12-game winning streak. But is that a good thing?
The late baseball broadcaster Bob Prince, an eccentric who for years was the beloved and legendary voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates and who was known to his fans as "The Gunner," had among his many favorite topics of conversation an element called simply and curiously The Hidden Vigorish. Any true blue 'burgher of my vintage, the generation of us who grew up with tiny transistor radios pressed to our ears or stashed under the pillow so that we could listen to late-night games from the West Coast without our parents being any the wiser, know the term well. It has nothing to do, we can tell you, with the betting term "the vig."
One of the league's truly good guys, and a good coach saddled by an untenable situation where everyone else fails, too, Dave McGinnis of the Arizona Cardinals deserves a game ball. He had his team ready for a game that held significance only for his opponent and, in the end, tenacity paid off in the form of a miracle. A lot of luck on the final touchdown play? You bet. But luck, the late baseball savant Branch Rickey Jr. once opined, is the residue of design. McGinnis knew he was a lame duck, and going into a season finale with an even lamer team he still worked hard throughout the week. His players, as they hoisted him following the Nathan Poole touchdown catch, handed McGinnis a game ball. Heck, it's the least we can do, too, for a guy who lost a lot of games but not his dignity.
Comments elicited from an AFC pro scout and an NFC personnel director:
|Heard in the grapevine|
In essence, the vigorish, as espoused by Prince (who likely had some firsthand knowledge of "the vig" as well), came down to this: The more times you win in succession, the closer you come to losing, and vice versa. The more you strike out, the closer you are to hitting a home run. A horrid slump, in the ever-fertile imagination of "The Gunner," would be followed by a hot streak. Of course, if Prince was right with his theory, you might do well to reconsider any wagers you are preparing to lay on the New England Patriots in the upcoming Super Bowl Derby. After all, the Patriots' gaudy 12-game winning streak that they carry into the playoffs can only mean one thing, at least in the Prince imagination: They are headed for nothing but disaster, maybe an early "out," certainly a loss in the divisional round after they enjoy the bye they earned with a 14-2 record.
The good news for the Pats is that the vigorish ranked right up (or down) there with most of Prince's concoctions. It was illusion and that's about it. Was is not illusionary is that New England will ride a 12-week rush of momentum in the playoffs. Want to know what the aggregate winning streak is for those other 11 teams in the postseason? Try 15 games. Only two teams, Tennessee and Carolina, head into the playoffs having won more than their last two outings. Three playoff qualifiers -- Dallas, Denver and St. Louis -- each lost its final regular-season game.
"People keep saying, 'Hey, maybe you're better off losing a game now, and getting it out of the way,' and that's just [garbage]," said Patriots right guard Joe Andruzzi. "When you're hot, and you're finding a way to win every week, you just want to keep riding the wave."
One more item about the Pats before we move on. Much of the mystery surrounding the team is on the defensive side, where Bill Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel have more wrinkles, it seems, than Phyllis Diller. But a little credit, please, for the work offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has done with quarterback Tom Brady and no reliable running game. In the Weis-designed offense, Brady is as much point guard as quarterback, a big part of his duty to distribute the ball to the open man. Has he succeeded? Consider this: In only two regular-season games did Brady fail to complete passes to at least six different receivers. There were seven outings in which he had eight or more different receivers, including one game in which he had 10.
Down to the wire
For all the cynics (pay attention here, Dad, because this one's for you) who contend the NFL is "rigged," or that there are teams in the final weeks who are just going through the motions and collecting paychecks, we offer up this weekend to debunk those contentions. Oh, sure, there will always be pockets of players who, once their teams are eliminated from playoff consideration, begin planning Caribbean vacations. But on Sunday, a lot of teams with nothing on the line but pride -- New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland, Houston, Arizona and Pittsburgh -- played hard in games that had some bearing on the playoffs.
We can only guess that in Detroit, the Lions players were so overjoyed at the announcement by Bill Ford The Elder -- confirming that team president Matt Millen will return in 2004 -- that they rode an emotional high all the way through their upset of the Rams. Wow, 10 wins now in three seasons! Surprising that Mr. Ford didn't extend Millen's contract after the game. A suggestion here for the Lions: If the Ford Family doesn't want to pay off the $6 million it owes Millen for the last two years of his deal, money that would set him free, sell a few more F-150s, guys.
OK, off that tangent, and back to the point. At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish here, the league ought to be proud of teams like the Cardinals. No, not proud of the Bidwill family, just the Cardinals. With their coach about to be fired, down to the final play of yet another dismal season, they forged a miracle. For one brief and shining moment, there was a football oasis in that NFL desert wasteland.
At Paul Brown Stadium, a Cleveland team that looked to have the U-Hauls packed only a week earlier, bounced the Bengals from the playoffs. New Orleans set the entire Seattle playoff permutation into gear by defeating the Cowboys. Houston nearly had Indianapolis doing its annual death gurgle. And the Steelers took the Ravens into overtime, and mustered up enough gumption to keep Jamal Lewis out of the record books.
On the flip side, if you are Mike Martz or Mike Tice, here's hoping the wife hid all the sharp objects in the house before you got home. The league likes to boast that every game means something. This weekend, at least, that was true.
About that breathtaking/gut-wrenching touchdown catch by Arizona's Nathan Poole on the final play of the victory over Minnesota: If two Vikings defenders don't shove Poole -- and you can't blame them, really, since it's just a natural reaction -- there is no way that he gets both feet down shy of the sideline boundary in the end zone. Unless, of course, he is the incarnation of Gumby.
Same thing late in regulation of the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game on Sunday night. Ravens wide receiver Marcus Robinson caught a pass, oh, a millimeter from the sideline, was nudged ever so slightly by cornerback Dewayne Washington, and the catch was ruled a legal one. Hey, isn't there supposed to be some judgment here on whether the receiver would have come down inbounds had he not been shoved?
In both cases, the judgments were incredibly close calls, zebra-boys. Yep, we saw the incredible one-hand grab by 49ers rookie Brandon Lloyd on Saturday against Seattle. But he actually had a foot or two of sideline with which to work. And the most amazing part of the play wasn't that he got both feet down, but rather that he snagged a ball headed in the opposite direction from his momentum, and still retained control as he fell to the turf.
The catches by Poole and Robinson were the most border of borderline. Tough to quibble with the ruling in either case. But the refs must have some new standard with which they are operating on those sideline plays. One that assumes, in some cases, that the receivers can defy gravity.
Ready to rumble
Titans coach Jeff Fisher did a very smart thing on Sunday in resting quarterback Steve McNair, because he is going to need him as physically whole as he can get him for the matchup with the nasty Ravens defense. It's a throwback game and there are going to be lots of players getting thrown around by both defenses.
Two guys to watch -- one obvious, the other not so: Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who absolutely loves to play the Titans; and Tennessee weakside linebacker Keith Bulluck, who despite being selected to his first Pro Bowl squad, is still the best 'backer no one knows nationally.
Better luck the second time?
Head coaches Tony Dungy (Indianapolis) and Mike Holmgren (Seattle) might want to consider importing hypnotists to practices this week.
How else to help the Colts forget the shellacking the Denver Broncos -- yeah, the same team that will arrive at the RCA Dome on Sunday, for a first-round playoff game -- laid on them two weeks ago? Indianapolis players are saying all the right things about getting a second shot at a Broncos team that embarrassed them at home. But privately, they can't relish the prospect of facing Denver with a healthy and well-rested Clinton Portis in the lineup.
Holmgren has to take his club back to his old haunts, to Lambeau Field, where the Seahawks were filleted by his former team on Oct. 5. Sure, we know, the playoffs are a new season. Uh-huh. But the biggest chore Holmgren and Dungy might have this week is getting their respective teams past the mental hurdles of the regular-season meetings with their playoff foes. Hard, indeed, to administer an ample dose of amnesia.
Time to step up
The latter has cast the spotlight on replacement Ike Reese and, if first indications mean anything, Reese will do just fine. Much lighter than Emmons, not nearly as good a two-way defender, Reese had eight tackles and a sack on Saturday as the Eagles trounced the hapless Redskins. There are some Philadelphia coaches who fret about Reese's ability to hold up physically at the point of attack. And, yeah, teams might run right at him in the playoffs, since he is 20-22 pounds lighter than Emmons, and simply doesn't anchor nearly as well. But the Jim Johnson defense is built for quick guys, too, and Reese can chase down the ball. He will be a key player to watch once the Eagles enter the tournament after their first-round bye.
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