December 30, 2007

A Team That Can't Be Beat (Perhaps), and Other Football Stuff

I DON'T KNOW ABOUT the rest of you, but I certainly got an unpleasant sense of foreboding in the fourth quarter of last night's game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.

For three quarters of the game, the Giants had outplayed the Patriots, but in the fourth they were clearly starting to run out of gas. It wasn't much longer before Eli Manning, the Giants' middling quarterback, threw an interception and the wheels began to fall off the Giants bus. The end result, of course, we all know: the Patriots, who had been down 28-16, came roaring back and were suddenly ahead 31-28. Soon after that, it was 38-35 and the game was over and the Patriots, whom America has loved to hate this year (and with some good reason), stood triumphant. For the first time in 35 years, America had an NFL team that went undefeated in the regular season.

Of course, as others have pointed out, there have been other teams who have gone undefeated in the regular season other than the '72 Dolphins. There were a couple of teams in the Thirties that ran the table in the regular season. But no one remembers them because they didn't win the NFL championship; and New England, accordingly, must win the Super Bowl if they want to be hailed as one of history's greatest football teams.*

Can they do that? It seems very possible -- but I'm not sure. It will depend on how the playoffs go.

Certainly having the bye week and the No. 1 seed, with its conferral of home-field advantage, will help. Certainly the fact they're healthier compared to other playoff teams in the AFC helps: the Pittsburgh Steelers are pretty banged up and the Indianapolis Colts are really banged up. I also don't think the Patriots would lose to Cleveland (Tennessee?) should the No. 6 seed somehow emerge victorious from the Wild Card games in a week's time.

That said, though, both the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Diego Chargers are in the hunt, and I think both these teams are underrated: Jacksonville, because it's a small market, never gets the respect it deserves despite being a consistent playoff contender; and San Diego is much improved from earlier this year. The Patriots -- and their fans --would do well not to underestimate either franchise as the playoffs get under way.

It's also possible -- however unlikely -- that the NFC contender in the Super Bowl could pose a threat to the Patriots' plans. As a fierce AFC partisan, I fully and cheerfully admit that I do not give the NFC -- being the league's second tier -- the respect it deserves. Still, some of their squads -- most notably Dallas -- seem much improved this year and it's possible they could pull out an upset.

We shall see. In the meantime, though, even I must congratulate the Patriots on a job well done this season, as much as it pains me to do so. Watching last night's game, there were definitely moments -- as there were during many of the Pats' games this season -- where my reaction to their inhumanly good play was summed up in one word: goddamn!

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LOYAL RANT READERS know my brother, Jesse, is a loyal and stalwart fan of the Cleveland Browns. He knows an amazing amount about the team and its players, follows the team's games and progress religiously, and has developed the most prized virtue among Browns fans: hating the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Well, I am proud to announce that Jesse's devotion to the Browns is even impressive than I thought. I know this because I was at home in northeast Ohio with the Kepple family watching the Browns-Bengals game last Sunday. During this game, I learned that Jesse has perfectly channeled the stoicism of Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel into his football watching.

Anyone who watches a Browns game will soon become familiar with Mr Crennel's reaction to blown plays, awful turnovers, stupid penalties or dazzling displays of incompetence on the part of his players. That is to say, there is no reaction. Whenever something bad happens, the camera will inevitably focus on Mr Crennel and he will stand there mute and immobile, surveying the situation with the weary gaze of a man who has seen it all before and will undoubtedly see it again.

Last week, Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson threw four interceptions in the Browns' 19-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, a loss that cost them a guaranteed playoff spot and a loss that came about precisely because of those interceptions. My brother did not react in the slightest. He surveyed the situation with the weary gaze of a fan who has seen it all before and will undoubtedly see it again, although I can see why he hopes that wouldn't be the case. I asked him how he managed to do this, because it's the exact opposite of how i react to the Steelers doing badly. His response could be summed up like this: I've seen them lose a lot, you know.

I do hope the Browns make it in the playoffs. I do hope they go far in them, although not at the expense of the Steelers. It'd be nice for everyone in Cleveland.

As for me -- how do I react to the Steelers losing? Well, if you can, check out that NFL fantasy football commercial that has Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" as the music. Watch how the one Steelers fan is shouting in despair at the television and later is curled up on the sofa clawing at a pillow in agony. It's kind of like that.

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THE DETROIT LIONS are my No. 3 team in the NFL, behind the Steelers and the Browns, and I have to say I think they're screwing the pooch once again. The Detroit Free Press reports that offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be cashiered after the Lions' game against the Packers today.

If you ask me, throwing Martz under the bus is only symptomatic of a larger problem with the Lions, in that their front-office management stinks. At best, they'll be 8-8 after a season that saw them start out at 6-2.

Still, 8-8 would be a heck of an improvement for the Lions, which have stunk to high heaven for decades. I mean, since they won the 1957 NFL championship, they've won one playoff game. Yes, one game -- in fifty years. So why get rid of Martz now? Why not let him develop his strategies and staff?

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AS FOR THE STEELERS' POSTSEASON, I have become one with how it might turn out. I would like it if we won one playoff game; I would be pleased if we made it to the AFC Championship Game; I would be ecstatic if we made it to the Super Bowl again. It is only just and right that the Steelers be the first team to get six Super Bowl rings.

Still, I know all these scenarios are unlikely, and so I am taking a healthier, more balanced approach to the NFL playoffs. Thus, in the event that Pittsburgh loses in the post-season, I'm going to look forward to next year and start thinking about how wonderful it will be when football season starts up again. Kind of like this:

And from there, let's take it away!

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* Note that I said "one of history's greatest football teams." The 2007 New England Patriots can't be the greatest team, because the greatest football team of all time is the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers. This is an indisputable and incontrovertible fact. Not only did the '78 Steelers have such luminaries as Bradshaw, Harris, Stallworth and Swann on offense, the team also had Jack Ham and "Mean Joe" Greene on defense. As evidence of the '78 Steelers' superiority, I would note that if Pats DT Vince Wilfork had poked his finger into Mean Joe Greene's helmet like he did to a Giants player on Saturday night, Mean Joe Greene would have killed him, and in such a way it would even gross out the developers of "Mortal Kombat."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at December 30, 2007 10:57 AM | TrackBack
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