In order to form a just estimation of the character of any particular people, it is absolutely necessary to investigate the Sports and Pastimes most generally prevalent among them.Joseph Strutt - Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801)
pro-pot propaganda, Sunday's match up between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos seems to affirm the American idealized vision of itself as a meritocracy in which a combination of hard work and talent yields the rewards of success as the game's most dominating defense will be pitted against the league's offensive juggernaut; the top seeds from each conference playing in the final for just the third time since 1993. I can't fight the condescending smirk my lips form whenever I hear someone refer to baseball as America's pastime; they just don't get it on any level from opinion polls and TV ratings to water cooler talk and the behavior of society itself. According to Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, "[b]aseball is where we were. Football is what we have become." Little kids play Pop Warner, high schoolers fight the glare of the Friday night lights, and kids go to college to play football (or play football so they can go to college) all for a shot to one day be drafted by an NFL team and have the chance to fulfill their dream of one day playing in the Super Bowl.
When Peyton Manning leads his Broncos into MetLife stadium he'll be trying to duplicate brother Eli's feat of winning his second Super Bowl on his brother's home turf. Could it be his last game? Will he go off a champion a la his boss, John Elway? Just a few of the many subplots that will pump up the media buzz around the single biggest day in American sports. Heck, it took over Thanksgiving years ago and is threatening Christmas as the most important day on the calendar. Yet, no matter how many games they play in London every year (where they'll play three next year), the sport will remain a uniquely American phenomenon as it parallels the dichotomy that is America. Projecting military power (now occupying 134 countries!) at will while paranoiacally trying to monitor the world's most intimate thoughts for fear that someone's out to get them and simultaneously creating as many enemies as possible. Paradoxically powerful yet vulnerable as in football where gridiron warriors line up in formation to bomb, blitz and sack in an attempt to control the trenches while field generals fire bullets trying to blow away their enemy while inflicting very real physical damage on one another that will result in long-term health consequences every bit as serious as real soldiers. It's no coincidence that pro football has witnessed a jump in popularity in the post 9/11 world.
America's a post racial society as well of course as they elected a black president not once, but twice, and Russell Wilson could become the second black Super Bowl winning quarterback (yes, Doug William in XXII!). Yet, somehow I doubt Richard Sherman would agree, nor Trayvon Martin's family, or the one out of three black men who will go to jail in their lifetime (not to mention the women, including Broncos' WR Demaryius Thomas' mom and grandma sharing the same cell for selling crack) nor the median black income earner making less than half as much as his Asian counterpart leaving black median household wealth at less than 5% those of whites. Both America and the NFL are financial superpowers as well, constantly in search of growth regardless of the damage it does. Actually existing capitalism isn't a system to nurture the American Dream but to cultivate socialism for the rich and desperation for the poor; backdoor (and front door) bailouts for the banks, privatization of essential services providing guaranteed profits for everyone from private prisons, mercenaries and missile makers to power companies and billionaire farmers at the expense of hungry kids, the unemployed and the 'fortunate' ones who compete in the part-time McJob labor market. Meanwhile the richest sports league in the world, worth over $35 billion hasn't paid taxes since 1966 thanks to its non-profit status that it retains despite Roger Goodell's ambition to nearly triple league revenue to over $25 billion by 2027. Goodell got paid $29 million to run a socialist, revenue sharing league where millionaires bash each others brains on the field so billionaires can bilk billions from society.
Yet it seems no matter how hard it tries to turn me off the sport, the NFL still has the power to pull me back to the screen every Sunday. I can ignore the air force flyovers, the marine recruitment spots and star spangled army veterans used to sell perpetual war and convince folks that drone signature strikes are as accurate as Russell Wilson's TD strikes (true, so long as the former are targeting bridal wedding convoys the way the latter targets receiver convoys). I can overlook the fact that most of these Sunday warriors will end up crippled, suffering from CTE, or worse, provided we get wild week 17 win-your-in finishes to determine the winner of all four NFC divisions. Hell, it seems I can even look past the morally-deficient likes of Riley Cooper, Richie Incognito or pretty much every NFL teams' owner and count myself as one of the tens of millions who tune in every Sunday (and Thursday, Monday and playoff Saturdays) to take in the action. Everything about the game, much like its home country, screams Roman gladiator end of empire pans et circenses, but I can't help myself. I love the game and this Sunday's Super Bowl showdown between the Seahawks and Broncos has all ingredients for a great game: the best offense against the best defense, the... wait, let's review the season before we get to the game.
The (not so) Regular Season -
Peyton Manning started the season with a bang. Or more like a bomb or better yet a clusterbomb as he connected for seven TDs in the Broncos' season opener against the defending Super Bowl champ Ravens and at least partially avenging last year's playoff loss. Though he didn't manage to maintain his 112 TD pass pace, he did manage to duplicate Dan Marino's 1984 feat of breaking both the TD pass and passing yard records in the same year, 55 and 5,477. Five different Broncos scored ten or more touchdowns, and the teams 606 points were a record and a big part in the league as a whole setting records for total points scored (11,985 or 46.8/game) and touchdowns (1,338 breaking last season's 1,297). Even the Broncos' kicker got in on the record fun as Matt Prater broke the NFL longest field goal record booting a 64-yarder at Mile High. Though the Eagles' LeSean McCoy, who led the league in rushing with 1,607 yards, picking up over five yards a carry and adding 539 receiving yards, fantasy football's MVP Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs and even a Brown, Josh Gordon, who led the league in receiving yards with 1,646 despite missing two games to suspension, had excellent seasons, there's little doubt Manning was the league MVP having lead his team to the #1 seeding in the AFC and the Super Bowl. Elsewhere in the conference, Brady somehow led the Patriots to the #2 seed, the Chiefs ran off victories in their first nine before fading, the Bengals had another un-Bungle-like regular season, the Steelers opened 0-4 and almost made the playoffs, and besides the Colts the AFC South went, well, south.
Talk on the defensive side of the ball starts with the Seattle Seahawks as they became the first team to lead the league in points allowed in back-to-back seasons giving up a paltry 14.4 per game by fielding what could be the 2nd best pass defense since the '70 AFL-NFL merger. Add in a pretty good pass rush and you have a defense that allowed teams to only score 3.7 points per red zone trip and created takeaways on 20.1% of opposing possessions, one out of five! Offenses get most of the glory but the top five defenses in the league made the playoffs and 96 defensive TDs were scored in the regular season. Those Seahawks have a couple of the defensive player of the year candidates in their secondary, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman. Panther Luke Kuechly will probably wind up with this year's DPOY but Texan J.J. Watt could easily have been a repeat winner as could have Bengal Vontaze Burfict, 49er NaVorrow Bowman or sack masters DEs Robert Quinn of the Rams and Colt Robert Mathis along with the aforementioned Seahawks as they were all equally deserving. Other happenings in the NFC saw a vastly improved Panther, Eagle and Cardinal teams, consistently inconsistent Bears, Rodgersless Packers for nearly half a season, Payton's brother Eli throw 1.5 picks for every touchdown, an RGIII shutdown, and a Falcon meltdown.
The league also continued to somehow strike the right balance between parity, consistency and novelty. Five teams (the Chiefs, Panthers, Saints, Eagles and Chargers) made the playoffs after missing out last year with the Chiefs and Eagles rebounding from last to first (the 11th consecutive year at least one team has done it), the Patriots became the second team to win at least ten games in eleven consecutive years joining the '83 to '98 Niners (Brady also became the first QB to lead his team to win 11 divisional championships) while the Chiefs matched the feat of the '08 Dolphins and '12 Colts in following up a two win season by winning eleven the next. Defenses around the league learned to deal with 2012's offensive innovation in the pro game, the read-option, but new wrinkles were added along with new adherents as the Eagles, Chiefs, Raiders, Bills and Jets joined the Niners, Seahawks, Panthers and Redskins in using it to varying levels of success. Fresh blood was pumped into the league with offensive rookie of the year candidates such as bulldozing RB Eddie Lacy of the Packers and Chargers' wide-out Keenan Allen, Bills' LB Kiko Alonso, Jets' DE Sheldon Richardson and Bengals' RB Giovani Bernard to name but a few who made a splash in their first year.
Most surprising team (one the positive side):
The Carolina Panthers
There was no shortage of teams who made huge strides this year, but none shocked me as much as the Panthers. Sure, the Kansas City Chiefs went from 2-14 to the playoffs at 11-5 after starting the season with nine straight wins. Yeah, the Philadelphia Eagles took the NFC East (thanks to the woeful Cowboys) at 10-6 after a dismal 4-12 2012/13 season. However, both weren't in the shocking category. Ok, it was a bit surprising to see Andy Reid's new incarnation as the round red tomato be successful in Kansas City, but Chip Kelly turning around the Eagles was almost expected, albeit not with Nick Foles at quarterback. Had the Arizona Cardinals made the playoffs, they'd be in the running too, again though, thanks in large part to new coach Bruce Arians. The Panthers though? While my preseason prediction record is far from stellar (at least compared to my Superbowl predictons, incentive to read on), I had Carolina firmly ensconced in the basement of the NFC South only to see them not only win it but also earn a first round playoff bye with the 2nd best record in the NFC at 12-4.
The secret to the Panthers success wasn't a sudden transformation of QB Cam Newton back into Superman; he was a bit better than last year but he's nothing more than a good quarterback who can run. After starting the season with two losses, it was all about the dominant D. They won one of the toughest division in football thanks in part to a crash and burn season from the Falcons, a fading Saints team and a head coach in Tampa Bay who destroyed a promising Bucaneers team, but mostly thanks to a tenacious defense. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis both had Defensive Player of the Year caliber seasons while Greg Hardy picked up 15 sacks, including eight in the last three games of the season. The defensive front was further bolstered by the strong rookie seasons of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. New GM Dave Gettleman worked some salary cap and free agency magic while Riverboat Ron Rivera earned his nickname and the gambles turned around a 1-3 start to the season and brought them to the precipice of the NFC Championship game.
On the negative side:
Almost a photo-finish with the Atlanta Falcons but the fact the the Texans will be picking #1 in the draft this spring puts them over the top. Both teams were trendy picks this fall to make it to the Super Bowl yet neither could manage five wins, with the Texans dropping their final 14 in a row to finish 2-14 and the Falcons winding up at 4-12. The Texan phenomenon needs closer study, there must be something to teach future generations about exactly what not to do. Sure, there were a bunch of significant injuries with Owen Daniels, Danieal Manning, Brian Cushing and Arian Foster all landing on injured reserve at some point in the season. In fact things got so bad at running back, a position they were loaded at to start the season with Ben Tate along with Foster, some guy named Jonathon Grimes was signed right before week 17 to become their fifth starting running back of the season. It's true Matt Schaub was never going to be a great quarterback, but who woulda thought he'd throw as many pick 6's as touchdowns (ok, not really, but he did throw one in four straight games). The nightmare season was perhaps a bit of karma for a team that fired coach Gary Kukiak December 6th a month after collapsing on the field.
How About Those $100 Million Quarterbacks
Along with Matt Ryan, lucrative deals were inked before the season by Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. Well, splashing out $103.5 million for Matty Ice and $119.5 million for Tony Romo and their combined 2-7 playoff record, Joe Flacco pulling in $120.6 million for winning a Superbowl and extending Stafford's contract, bumping it to eight years and $150.5 million didn't even get their teams to the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers' Packers, though making it to the dance, saw how risky such investments can be when Rodgers collarbone snapped in week 9. Sure, it healed up in time for him to lead the Pack to a dramatic week 17 victory, but who knows what the long-term effects will be. Ryan's Falcons flopped, Joe went from Super Bowl to super average, Tony's Cowboys choked in week 17 and failed to reach the playoffs again while Matthew had his team peaking just a little early as they looked great on Turkey Day but stumbled down the stretch to finish 7-9 leaving the Lions without a playoff victory since 1991 when they won their only one in the past 55 years.
Remember way back to two years ago? The owners had locked out the players and the 2011/12 season was in doubt but was miraculously saved at the last second when the owners and players' union finally agreed on a new 10-year CBA (collective bargaining agreement)? Sighs of relief were exhaled as we all inhaled more hope and change smoke and mirrors. Two and a half years later we're starting to get a feel for who won the negotiations and I'll give you a hint: it wasn't the players or the fans. The only team whose books we have access to thanks to their ownership status, the Green Bay Packers offer a glimpse at the winners. The Packers earned a record $54.3 million for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2013, up 26% from the year before making an $85.8 million post-CBA two year total. In the two years before the CBA they made $22.3 million for a near four-fold increase. I'm guessing their situation isn't unique among the 31 other teams. Strangely, no wait, predictably, that money isn't trickling down to the players, rookie salaries were cut in half, kids are entering the draft too soon in order to start the free agency clock as young as possible, and veterans are being priced entirely out of the league. Yes, it seems the owners' man, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell really did earn his $22.3 million bonus in 2011.
To recap. Profits are up for the owners while salaries are down or at best flat except for the elite QBs and CEO. Sounds pretty familiar so far. Adding fuel to the fire, salaries are not only capped but often back-loaded which along with the team's right to use the franchise tag or cut a player at any time make guaranteed money and signing bonuses of paramount importance in a sport where every snap of the ball could lead to the snap of a femur or ligament and be your last. All of which has turned simple contracts into complex covenants and their negotiations into a labyrinthine maze only understood by the chosen few. Hmm, sounds kinda familiar too, a little like the work of those Wall Street wizards, no? Much like their robber-barron brethren's manipulation of the public to obtain bailouts, NFL owners used the financial crisis to leverage concessions from the players' union such as a temporary drop in the team salary cap that has only just reached 2009 levels again this year.
It doesn't take a rocket-scientist to realize that if elite QB salaries are rising and the total salary number is stagnant it leaves less for the rest of the players just as in the real world the growing slice the 1% are taking of the income pie leaves the 99% growing hungrier. Owners taking a bigger cut reduces the take of the players in much the same way higher corporate profits as a percent of GDP lowers the salaries of the workers. Worse, just like the country, many owner's refuse to accept that runaway inequality does more harm than good as the Bears made Smokin' Jay Cutler the leagues newest $100 million man after leading his team to, um, nothing. Remembering what inequality does to a country, think higher homicide, incarceration, obesity, mental illness and teenage pregnancy rates coupled with lower social mobility, child well being and education achievements, it suddenly becomes clear what ailed the Falcons, Cowboys, Lions and Ravens this year.
Half Time Show
A few months ago, the NFL revealed who would have the honor, privilege and responsibility of following on the heels of such performers as Michael Jackson, his sister Janet's right nipple courtesy Justin Timberlake, Prince, The Rolling Stones, U2 and most recently Beyonce. The name they came up with? Bruno Mars. Huh? It's like they picked the name by seeing who the world's most boring teenager tweets about most often. In an admission of the massive mistake, they were forced into adding The Red Hot Chili Peppers in an attempt to stir a bit of interest in the show; otherwise, heaven forbid, millions of eyeballs might not be glued to the real star of the show, the marketing extravaganza. At $4 million per second spot, the commercials are as valuable as most of the players. Mention the words Super Bowl anywhere outside North America and after a moment of doubt, without fail the only glint of recognition will be when someone remembers the commercials. It's what America does best, making empire look sexy, poison look tasty and pick-up trucks look manly. There's now marketing campaigns around the commercials themselves and even a cottage-industry of producing ads for the purpose of getting them banned, the perfect fit for a nation and game where wealth creation and destruction are one and the same.
Other distractions from the game include gambling, lots of it, with tons of prop bets this year (over 500) such as whether or not the Gatorade will be green or Knowshon Moreno will cry during the national anthem (parlay yes with Renee Fleming forgetting or omitting a word in her rendition), and of course Richard Sherman. Yes, Richard Sherman sounded stupid, juvenile, and egocentric after the 49ers game but wait until you make the defensive play that puts your team into the Super Bowl and see how you react. No, it doesn't take anything away from his amazing season, subtract from his charity work, diminish his scholastic achievements (4.2 GPA in high school, 3.9 at Stanford, or trivialize his journey from Compton to the Super Bowl, and, no, it doesn't make him a thug. Oh, and yes, the twitterverse and Joe Sixpack were using the word thug as a racial slur instead of the N-word (when they weren't using the N-word that is). No, he shouldn't be suspended. Yes, Richard Sherman is a popular prop bet play as well: whether or not he'll get a taunting penalty, currently about 4/1 against.
As for another of the prop bets, looks like the over/under on Manning hollering 'Omaha' in the pre-snap count will be at 27.5, take the over after 44 against the Chargers as the Nebraskan town's biggest marketing success since the Counting Crows gets another boost from the suddenly personable Peyton (but Bud Light, really?). The actual halftime show gives a few more opportunities to blow money on whether or not a Red Hot Chili Pepper will perform shirtless and what kind of headwear Bruno Mars will be sporting (I'd go yes and fedora). Between shots of cheerleaders while the players are leaving and returning to the field we'll get a female sideline reporter, Pam Oliver or Erin Andrews (another prop bet), giving us an interview every bit as choreographed as the halftime show but no mention of the ten thousand odd women and children sex-slaves brought in for Super Bowl week to serve the influx of predominately male fans. Of all the distractions though, one stands a clear chance of affecting the game: playing the Super Bowl outdoors in a cold weather stadium. What was the NFL thinking in its blind greed? Of course there's a prop bet for the kick-off temperature to boot along with whether or not it'll snow. Game day weather forecast is here.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
former two being punished thanks to their owners' indiscretions. Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder lead the group of Ugly Owners thanks to their fumbling, mumbling, swindling and meddling ways. Yes, the once legendary Cowboys-Redskin rivalry on the field has been diminished to a neck and neck NFC East battle over who has the worst leader in the owner's box.
Nearly every owner is to some extent guilty of screwing up, talking out, knocking off or butting in to some degree, but Jones and Snyder excel in all four categories, particularly meddling. Snyder may have eventually handed over the day-to-day operations to Coach Shanahan but did enough damage (Jeff George, Bruce Smith, Albert Haynseworth and Donovan McNabb) to last a lifetime while Jerry is still doing his best to keep the Cowboys a .500 team and blow the salary cap (really, a lucrative long term contract for the most interchangeable part of a team, the kicker?). Anyone who watched the Cowbums blow another opportunity to sneak into the playoffs week 17 must have noticed the number of backups without the talent or teaching to play, forced into action thanks to the lack of depth resulting from Jerry's reckless spending. An NFL team is only as good as the bottom of its depth chart. Dan Snyder, in addition to being football-tarded is simply an evil man. Since 1999, the year Snyder took over the Redskins, the Cowboys have a 120-120 win-loss record (136-136 since '97 and coming off their third straight 8-8 season in 2013) while the Redskins sport a 104-136 mark, the former with a grand total of one win in the playoffs during that stretch and the latter with two. Proving once again that in America the only way to create wealth is by creating disasters, the Cowboys are the league's most valuable team, worth over $2.1 billion while Snyder's train-wreck is #3 at $1.8 billion. Who's worse? Snyder? Jones? It's a toss up but I'll take Snyder by a nose, he is simply loathsome, while Jerry's just, well, Jerry.
Joining them would have to be Jimmy Haslam, Jerry Richardson and Zygi Wolf, owners of the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings respectively. Like many an NFL owner Haslam came by his fortune (dis)honestly, he was born into it, son of 'Big Jim' Haslam, founder of a single gas station that grew into Pilot Flying J, the largest truck-stop chain in North America. While his brother Bill became governor of Tennessee, Jimmy was teaching his sales force to run a rebate scam for which the feds are now currently sniffing up the management chain trying to pin the blame. I'm sure the ongoing investigation was in no way a distraction for the team leaving him no choice but to fire yet another head coach and start afresh. Again. Richardson seems to have been the ringleader in the CBA negotiations, crying poor and exhorting his fellow owners to "take back our league" even while turning a $112 million profit. Meanwhile, another trust fund baby, Minnesota Viking's owner Zygi Wilf, was found liable last year for breaking civil state racketeering laws and in the judges words had used "bad faith and evil motive" in keeping separate accounting books to fleece former business partners of shared revenue.
Of course Cowboys' Jerry pays no property taxes on his billion dollar pleasure palace, Panthers' Jerry siphoned cash from Charlotte taxpayer pockets and Zygi used the extortionary 'pay for the stadium or I'll move the team' ploy to shake the state of Minnesota down for $678 million (well, he got a state senator to do it for him!), an old gambit that's darn-near a prerequisite to get onto the Bad Owners list. Home Depot cofounder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank not only creamed a cool $200 million to put towards construction costs but even secured a revenue stream from a state hotel-motel tax to help offset costs of maintaining and operating a new stadium which will run into the hundreds of millions over 30 years. The Saints owner used a hurricane for leverage, the 49ers owner got a new stadium for nothing, the Seahawks Paul Allen got the state taxpayers to foot 70% of the new home for the 12th man which is about the NFL average of the capital cost covered by public money. In fact, research has found that the owners of the Bills, Bengals, Browns, Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Chiefs, Saints, Chargers, Rams, Buccaneers and the Titans have all turned a profit on stadium subsidies, meaning they have received more money from the public than needed to build their facilities. Only three franchises, the Patriots, Giants and Jets have paid three-quarters or more of their stadium capital costs. Yet, the Patriot and Jet owners still easily qualify as bad: the Pats' Robert Kraft extracted concessions from Massachusetts by threatening to move to Hartford, had that weird ring incident with Vladimir Putin and c'mon, look at that dude; the Jets' Robert Wood Johnson IV, somehow thinks being known as Woody will cleanse him of the stigma attached to the roman numeral after his name and his being heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and also thought Mitt Romney winning the 2012 election was more important than the Jets having a winning season.
Which leaves us with pretty slim pickings for potential Good Owners: the Giants, Ravens, Broncos, Dolphins, Raiders, Steelers, Cardinals, Bears, Lions, Eagles and Packers. Thinning the field further is child's play as Ravens' owner Steve Bisciotti made his fortune founding America's biggest staffing company, and a particularly evil one at that. Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins went so far as to create a PAC to raise money to fight politicians who were against publicly funding billionaires' hobbies. Al Davis may no longer soil the Earth or curse the Oakland Raiders but his son Mark is keeping up the tradition by threatening to move to, yes, Los Angeles, if he doesn't get some free money. Dating back to their days in Chicago, it's little wonder the Arizona Cardinals have the longest title drought in the NFL, not having won since 1947 when current owner "Dollar" Bill Bidwill's dad ran the show as Bill was infamous for his frugal style which included selling players to cover operating expenses or making them pay for their own cleats and deducting lunch from their paychecks. Oh, and he did move his team to the desert when St. Louis refused to ante up. Virginia, the current Bears owning Halas (well Virginia Halas McCaskey) doesn't seem so much evil as useless which equals bad. Meanwhile, William Clay Ford, owner of the Detroit Lions, has guided his franchise to one playoff win since he bought the team in 1963.
With a bit of charity, that leaves five seats in the Good Owners luxury box. John Mara and Steve Tisch may have inherited the New York Giants from their fathers, but have since guided the team to their third and fourth league titles. Mara has come out and said the league has forsaken players health in their dealing with the concussion issue while Tisch cut a video supporting gay marriage way back in 2001. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney has the good fortune to be a Rooney, football royalty, and also the name behind the Rooney rule which requires teams to interview a minority candidate for both head coach and general manager positions. I've got a soft spot for Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos, as he's not only Canadian but spent many years in Edmonton. Plus, you've gotta like an owner who seems to really believe his team belongs to the fans and writes an email to season ticket holders apologizing for a "gut-wrenching" loss. The Eagles' Jeff Lurie is what every owner should be, like a child, seen and not heard. It doesn't hurt that he had Philly's Lincoln Financial Field retrofitted with 80 wind turbines, 2,500 solar panels, and a 7.6 megawatt biodiesel power plant. Finally, as if you didn't see this coming, we have the owners of the Green Bay Packers sitting atop the field as it is the only form of ownership that makes sense, a publicly-owned non-profit company with 364,122 shareholders. To prevent any predator from trying to take over there is a limit to share ownership in a system that has produced four NFL championships and the most loyal fan following in the league. Naturally, the hyper-capitalistic NFL has long since banned such a practice but the Packers have been grandfathered in. Er, think it's time to get back to the game on the field...
Week 17 and the Playoffs
Week 17 - Maybe it was just me, but this years final regular season Sunday seemed every bit as exciting as a playoff weekend; 13 of the 16 games played had some sort of playoff implication. All four NFC divisions were up for grabs, two of them decided by head-to-head win-your-in games. The Packers needed to convert three fourth-downs including a fourth and eight 48-yard strike (enabled by John Kuhn) courtesy the just returned from a broken clavicle Aaron Rodgers to a just returned from a snapped fibula Randall Cobb to snatch the NFC North from the Bears 33-28. Later, the Cowboys didn't need Tony to pull a Romo as back up QB Kyle Orton threw a game ending interception to hand Dallas their third consecutive NFC East deciding week 17 loss, this time to the Eagles after losing to the Giants and Redskins the previous two years. Earlier in the day the Seahawks sealed up the West by beating the Rams and the Panthers clinched the South winning a squeaker over the lowly Falcons which relegated the Saints, despite their demolition of the Buccaneers, to a wildcard spot. The Saint victory combined with the surprising Cardinals falling heartbreakingly short in their comeback bid against the Niners left the red birds on the outside looking in and cemented San Francisco's number five seed as a wildcard.
Although the AFC divisional crowns had already been decided there were still more than enough combinations and permutations to keep things interesting. In addition to bye-weeks and homefield advantage, the wildcard race was wide open with even the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had opened the season 0-4, with a shot: all they needed was a victory combined with losses by the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers. When the Ravens mediocrity finally caught up with them, the defending Superbowl champs fell with a thud to the AFC North winning Bengals, and the Dolphins couldn't even come up with a home victory against the lowly Geno Smith-led Jets, suddenly the impossible seemed within reach as the Steelers did their job and took care of the down-and-out Browns. The late afternoon game that followed pitted the Chargers, needing a win to get in, against the already playoff-bound and position locked Chiefs. Though Kansas City sported an 11-4 record coming in and may have normally been favored, the game was meaningless to them and therefore coach tomato, er, Reid decided to rest all his starters rather than risk injury thus leaving the Chargers with a cakewalk into the playoffs against a bunch of second-stringers. You should read Bill Barnwell's account of the Chargers' day over at Grantland, but suffice it to say the Chargers needed a missed FG and penalty call to get to overtime and then an even more bizarre fake-punt which looked like a fumble returned for a winning touchdown by the Chiefs called back on forward progress to sustain their game winning field goal drive. Elsewhere, the Patriots joined the Broncos as bye-week benificiaries as winners of the East and West with a win over the Bills, and the Colts locked up a date with the wildcard Chiefs as the winners of the South.
Wildcard Weekend - Of epic comebacks, bizzarro universes, playoff futility and an Arctic vortex
Kansas City Chiefs @ Indianapolis Colts - Shrug off losing a third of your offense on the sixth play of the game (Jamaal Charles), pass the superhero cape to Alex Smith and jump out to a 38-10 lead. Then, remember you are the Chiefs, haven't won a playoff game in 20 years in an 0-7 stretch, your coach is Andy Reid who couldn't manage time even if it weren't linear, and watch Andrew Luck snatch the cape and play catch with T.Y. Hilton as they lead the Colts to a 45-44 win. NFL playoff record 1,049 combined yards.
New Orleans Saints @ Philadelphia Eagles - Nearly the mirror image of the early Saturday game, the Saints show they can win on the road in the cold with Drew Brees playing poorly as the Saints held the league's #2 offense to only 256 yards while racking up 185 yards on the ground spearheaded by heretofore first round bust Mark Ingram and some guy named Khiry Robinson.
San Diego Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals - There's good Andy Dalton and awful Andy Dalton. The awful one keeps showing up in the playoffs: three playoff appearances in three years with zero wins and six interceptions. The Bengals QB added a fumble to his two picks on this cold, soggy Sunday meaning Philip Rivers only needed to throw for 128 yards in the victory as the Bolts' RBs combined for 196 yards.
San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers - With temperatures falling towards 0° F (so what does that mean? -50° C? Bloody Americans and their bizarre measurements) the game had the feel of a heavyweight fight with the Niners left standing as Colin Kaepernick remembered he was a running QB and moved to 3-0 against the Packers. A textbook five minute drive for a last second field goal.
Divisional Round - In which brains fart, luck runs out, Superman's cape is swiped and destiny is duped
New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks - After demolishing the Saints at home 34-7 just six weeks prior, rainy, windy Seattle once again welcomed New Orleans. The Seahawks only managed to jump to a 13-0 lead three plays into the second quarter after being up 17-0 at the same point in the previous match up but a steady diet of Marshawn Lynch, who bulldozed his way to 104 of his 140 rushing yards between the tackles, allowed the 'Hawks to hang on to a 23-15 win thanks in part to this bizarre Marques Colston brain fart.
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots - Seemed Andrew Luck wanted to replay the script from the Chief win, throwing an early pick (four on the day) to hand the Patriots an early 14-0 lead but he didn't count on the transformation of this Patriots team into a power running steamroller, grinding and gashing out all six of the touchdowns on the ground (plus a 2-point conversion) on 243 rushing yards (LaGarrette Blount with four on 166). Brady and Belichek head to their eighth conference championship together with a 43-22 thrashing of the Colts.
San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers - The Panthers defense smothered the Niners November 9th 10-9 but the roles were reversed as the Niners D picked off Cam Newton twice, sacked him five times and stuffed the Panthers on the 1-yard line twice in the first half, including a pivotal fourth down stop. Cam's Superman outfit seemed to fit Niners' QB Colin Kaepernick just fine in the 23-10 win.
San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos - After improbably beating the Broncos at Mile High to spark their improbable playoff charge in week 15, the Chargers came in with the feeling of a team of destiny (fun fact: the previous five Superbowl winners had begun their season with a game against the Eagles. Who played the Eagles to begin the year? The Chargers). Yet, destiny and another strong defensive performance against the Broncos weren't enough as Manning came through when it mattered and the Bolts offense was anemic for three quarters before a late rally brought them within a touchdown only to fall short, 24-17.
Conference Championships - When Welker channels Belichek and Kap's cape slips
Patriots @ Broncos - Neither CBS nor the story books could have dreamed up a better match-up, Brady versus Manning. Again. The 15th meeting and fourth in the AFC final with Brady coming in up 10-4 and 2-1 respectively. Sadly, the game didn't live up to the hype as the Patriots didn't even put up much of a fight nor duplicate their amazing week 12 comeback OT victory over the Broncos thanks to Brady's atypically poor play, a more-than-questionable Wes Welker pick play that took out Aqib Talib (hmmm, wonder where Welker learned to do that Bill?) and a series of clock chewing drives orchestrated by Manning allowing him to even up the championship record at two wins apiece thanks to a 26-16 victory.
49ers @ Seahawks - Another perfect pairing as an all out, old school, knock 'em down, drag 'em out slugfest was all but guaranteed. The game was bookended by turnovers, an opening play fumble by 'Hawk QB Russell Wilson and a game sealing interception of Niner QB Colin Kaepernick off a Richard Sherman tip in the Seahawk endzone in the most exciting game since the Wildcard round. Kaepernick ran for 130 yards but had three fourth quarter turnovers while Wilson was steady and Seahawk beast Marshawn Lynch picked up 109 yards and a TD in the 23-17 victory.
You couldn't ask for more on paper. A pair of 13-3 (now 15-3) teams; the best offense led by the best quarterback in a passing league against the best defense in a sport where defenses are said to win championships. The tale of the tape would have to give the Broncos the nod at QB. The league-wide passing rating this year was 84.1, the highest in history. As a comparison, Roger Staubach lead the NFL in 1978 with an 84.9 rating! Manning registered a 115.1 in the regular season, but it was the records that made his year special. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson managed a 101.2, putting him over the century mark for his first two season while becoming the winningest 2nd year QB in league history. At twelve years and 250 days, the age differential between the two will set a new Super Bowl record, breaking the Kurt Warner/Ben Roethlisberger record by almost two years. If we take into account Wilson's mobility and we take heed of Peyton's age, wobbly neck and 0-4 record in playoff games with kick off temperatures under 40° F, the Broncos advantage becomes a near wash as it should be around freezing come game time Sunday.
Have I mentioned how perfect a pairing these teams are? Seriously, it's been 23 years, Jim Kelly leading the Bills against the Giants, since the #1 offense has played the #1 defense in the big dance. There's been some classics but you couldn't draw it up any better than this. There's tons of marquee matchups in this game, Manning vs Wilson, Beast Mode up against Pot Roast, but let's face it, the pivotal battle will be between the Broncos' ball catchers, WRs Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas, and the Seahawk secondary, "The Legion of Boom" of Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Earl Thomas, Jeremy Lane and Kam Chancellor. Whichever group plays better will likely determine the winner. The Seahawks had a league-leading 28 interceptions which helped the team also lead with a +20 turnover ratio. Their ball-hawking (who knew puns were so fun) ways come courtesy of their aggressiveness as they challenge receivers on the outside while playing zone around them. Some say the 'Hawks clutchy-grabby ways fall on the wrong side of the rule book, but regardless, it'll be interesting to see how the Broncos receivers deal with it.
The Seahawk receiving core should get a major upgrade with the return of Percy Harvin which could tip the scale in their favor going up against the Broncos' secondary, the weakest link in their defense playing without Chris Harris. Harvin, Seattle's major off-season acquisition, has only appeared in a couple of games following hip surgery, including less than a quarter against the head-hunting Saints in the divisional round, for a grand total of 37 snaps. Along with his fellow receivers, regular season team reception leader Golden Tate, NFC Championship heroes Doug Baldwin (six for 106) and Jermaine Kearse (game-winning grab), and TE Zach Miller, they've got more talent than the coverage which will put pressure on the Broncos front seven to, well, put pressure on Wilson.
They've been dominant in the playoffs even minus Von Miller, holding the Chargers and streaking Patriots running attack to an average of 64.5 yards. Former Jaguar coach now Broncos' defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is making his boss GM John Elway look like a genius for his part in luring Terrance 'Pot Roast' Knighton to Denver from Jacksonville as he's been the key to not only stuffing the opponents run but even made a pivotal sack on Tom Brady two weeks ago. Lining up against the rotating weakest link of Paul McQuistan and James Carpenter at LG, Pot Roast will be a disruptive force in the middle. Center Max Unger will have to slide over to help but Seattle can't afford to devote too much otherwise they'll open things up for Broncos' LB Danny Trevathan who has turned around an embarrassing start to the season when he pulled a Leon Lett. Shoddy play often characterized the whole defense much of the season as the team kept winning in spite of the defense, including a 51-48 shootout victory over the Cowboys, or even losing because of them as in the comeback loss to the Patriots after leading 24-0. In their last four games they've given up more than 100 fewer yards per game compared to their first 14.
Looking at the stats, the ground game seems to be becoming meaningless; there were only 13 running backs who hit the 1,000 yard mark this year, down from 16 last year and 23 in 2006. However, Marshawn Lynch will be a difference-maker; if the Broncos' defense can dominate the line the way the Cardinals did against Seattle in week 16, they'll win. Next to Manning, Knowshon Moreno doesn't seem quite so pivotal, but their three-headed attack which also includes Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman do have the benefit of a great blocking offensive line. The Seahawks should have some success pounding the ball behind Okung or on the edges while look for Moreno et al. to have some space as they run the no-huddle and employ spread formations to keep the Seahawks smaller defenders on the field. Remember, Seattle's run defense was 'only' seventh in the league and gave up 100+ yards 11 times. To stuff the run they'll need to find ways to keep their version of Pot Roast, Brandon Mebane, on the field. Denver's O-line only allowed the immobile Manning to be sacked 20 times but this speaks more to Peyton's pre-snap reads, Omahas and quick decisions, releasing passes a league-low 2.36 seconds after the snap. They'll have their hands full with a Seahawk team that produced 44 regular sacks and the versatile defensive end/linebacker hybrids Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin while Michal Bennett has a match-up advantage over guard Zane Beadles.
With weather being a factor, there's a good chance it'll be turnovers or the third phase of the game, special teams, that'll be the determining factor. Even without the cold, you only have to think back to Jacoby Jones' kick return TD last year for the Ravens or the Saints' onside kick a few years ago. After showing up on the injury report a few days ago, Broncos' kicker Matt Prater has gotten over the flu and seems ready to show off his NFL record holding range. He's hit on 30 of 32 this year through the playoff while the Seahawks' Steven Hauschka has been even more money, hitting an astounding 39 of 41 through 18 games. There should be fewer touchbacks in the cold meaning more returns which will put Trinidad Holiday in the spotlight for the Broncos. The small-statured speed merchant, who'll handle punts as well, has had four touchdowns in two years for Denver but he's also fumbled ten times. It's hard to say for sure, but I'll bet the Seahawks will wheel out Percy Harvin for at least a few returns despite his fragility, it's the Super Bowl after all. He was only the league's leading returner in 2011 and '12 for the Vikings and managed this beauty against his former team the only time he suited up in the regular season. Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are no slouches themselves, so, advantage Seattle.
If you think having been there before helps, the Broncos have the advantage as they'll field four players to the Seahawks zero with Super Bowl experience: Peyton Manning, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Wes Welker and Jacob Tamme. It won't, Manning's the only one to have won and the cold will limit his effectiveness Sunday. Though I'm loath to do it, after all, over the years I've called the Seattle team everything from the Seachickens to the Shithawks while being forced to suffer through all too many Sunday afternoon games as theirs was inevitably the only game being broadcast when I was growing up in Alberta, I'm picking the Seahawks to upset the favorite Broncos, straight up and of course against the spread.