Editor's note: David Fleming started the weekend in St. Louis watching the Panthers beat the Rams and ended it in Philadelphia, where the Eagles outlasted the Packers. Here's some of what he what he saw.
So there I was, standing alone inside the press box of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. It was less than five hours into my 48-hour trek through the NFC divisional playoffs and already my iPod and I were running low on battery power when I watched a guy open a bottle of -- get this -- white zinfandel for the working press.
I nodded at him and said, "Uh, hey pal, I'm gonna need something a little bit stronger."
This game, and this trip, began with the lovely little visual of an obese, dancing Rams fan who had shaved the team's logo into his back hair. From there, things got really weird.
The Panthers recover their own fumble in the end zone for a score? The Greatest Show on Turf turns into a church carni in the red zone? A rookie corner beats an all-pro wideout for the play of the game? John Kasay, who I watched put earplugs in at the beginning of the game, lined up, what, five times to kick the game-winner ... then shanked it? Mike Martz goes from a mad scientist play caller to, well, how do they say it herrre in St. Louis ... scerrrred? (Although I give him credit for sticking with Marc Bulger who halted his Neil O'Donnell-in-the-Super-Bowl imitation and made some clutch throws at the end of regulation.)
Lost in the fifth longest playoff game in history was the retirement of legendary Rams offensive line coach Jim Hanifan. Hani, who I once spoke to while he snuck a smoke between meetings, is going on an all-expense paid trip to Ireland thanks to his players. (Me? I get to go to Houston.) During the week Rams lineman Kyle Turley tried to explain just how special Hani is by speculating how many people would attend his funeral. Finally, Turley just shook his head and said to himself, "...geez, what am I doing?"
Then there was Panthers GM Marty Hurney who spent so much time pacing past the trays of White Castle hamburgers in the press box dining area that the bottoms of his black shoes looked an inch thinner at the end of the game.
"We're an ugly team," said defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "I don't care about ugly. That's the way we play. Ugly football. That's our formula."
And while it never got ugly, mind you, Buckner and I then engaged in a little heated, but good-natured debate about The Mag's decision to hold our story on the Panthers D-line. A PR guy even sauntered up to ask me to let it drop. Let it go? I guess he doesn't read this column. Buck's a good guy. We worked it out. No worries.
By then safety Mike Minter had come over and put his arm around my shoulder to ask about some pub for his defensive backs. "I don't want to read anymore about how our secondary is the weak link of our team," he said. Behind him players were lined up in the training room waiting for IV's like cars behind a Jiffy Lube. "When we finally won this game I ran up into the stands, talking, yelling, screaming all kinds of crazy stuff," he said. "That play (Ricky Manning Jr.'s interception) was the play of the year. I bet you were going through some wild emotions, too, huh?"
Not as much as defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. "I felt like I was going to cry," he said. "There were so many emotions going through my head, I was so happy I couldn't move, couldn't even jump up and down."
Out in the hallway an exhausted Jake Delhomme -- perhaps the easiest guy to cheer for in these playoffs, was pulling his own suitcase toward the team bus when a fan yelled out, HAPPY BIRTHDAY JAKE!
Dressed in all black coming the other way was Kurt Warner who seemed to bolt out of his own locker room heading for the exit. And although he had missed a game-saving tackle Jason Sehorn was in the hallway minutes after the game playing kissy face with his wife Angie Harmon. I walked down to the Panthers bus, idling outside under a creepy yellow moon, and almost ran over Holly Robinson Peete.
But the lasting image I will always remember from this game is coach Mike Martz looking dumbfounded, facing backwards on a golf cart -- the yellow warning siren flashing above his head -- as he zipped down a hallway under the EdJones Dome. During the week Martz swore that Marshall Faulk was running the ball as well as he had in the last three years. Then he gave him the rock all of 19 times.
So it seemed appropriate that after this game Martz would be flying into the future ... backwards.
As for me, in a few hours I would be bolting east toward Philly after an early morning in-depth chat on a radio show about, well, the snot-cicles on Jeff Fisher's beard. I landed in Philly on time and was allowed to check in early at my hotel where I was left to wonder: is it wrong that I stay at this place because of its proximity to a Dunkin Donuts?
At the stadium they were handing out white rally hankies and I have to tell you as tough as these fans think they are it's impossible to look like a bad ass while swirling a white hanky over your head. The only thing less tough looking is drinking out of a juice box. Or drinking white zinfandel in the press box.
Here a colleague of mine informed me that the 182 in Blink 182 is the number of times Scarface utters the F-bomb. Is that true?
My seat in Philly made me feel like a doctor behind a two-way mirror at an asylum because I was right on the glass, just a few inches away from the Missing Lincs in the stands who dropped at least 182 F-bombs within the first five minutes of the game. It's gotten so bad that Eagles coaches have had to put screens up over the windows in their booths. Of course, these same beered-up doofuses in the stands ended the night hugging each other and swearing up and down that they never doubted their boys for a moment.
Ya know who is setting up to be the hero in Philly? Duce Staley, the guy teammates call the emotional MVP of this team. Know how I can tell Staley has kept his ferocious style despite immense disappointment with his contract and role on the team? His blitz pickup. When there's a 250-pound linebacker charging at you, there's just no way to fake it. "He's not afraid to die," is how one coach put it. It will be strange if Staley helps the team that still doesn't really want him win a Super Bowl.
The locker room was just about empty after the game when I sat down with Brian Dawkins who I spent time with in Florida during the offseason where he trains with an Ultimate Fighting Champion. In the middle of our conversation, former Eagle Hugh Douglas, working for the NFL Network, busted in with some in-depth queries about Dawk's fur coat. Hmmm. He's rude, unprepared and asks shallow questions. Hugh's a natural for this biz.
Monday the oddities continued.
I spent part of the morning listening to backup quarterback A.J. Feeley talk about the best place to get Sea Bass in Philadelphia. I learned of Staley's love for Red Bull. (Personally, I prefer Mountain Dew's Amp.) I saw perhaps the funniest bobblehead in the world: football Jesus. And I got the feeling this town -- but not this team -- was under-estimating the Panthers. Which I think would be a huge mistake. And that's not just because I miss home so much.
Later, I checked my voicemail and instantly disrupted the silence in the press room -- which looks like three rows of detention hall cubicles -- with a thunderous, gut-busting fit of laughter at the message left by my sweet goofy daughter.
"DAAAAAAADDDEEE," she screeched with pride and delight, "... I POOOOOOPED IN DA POTTYYYYY!!!!" Yes, of course I teared up.
Then, as I waited for Donovan McNabb to finish with his cold tub, I nodded innocently at wideout Freddie Mitchell who the night before had made the miraculous fourth-and-26 catch to save the Eagles season. (Yet another example of the Packers gagging this game away.) Still, it was the kind of catch people here will be telling their grandkids about (in the 10 seconds each year they're not viciously ripping apart every aspect of the team, that is.)
Silly me, I figured Freddie would still be buzzing.
"Sup Freddie, how you doing?"
"(Expletive) man, I'm (expletive)."
That's when I knew: the weirdness was never going to end.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.