Saturday, January 15, 2005

Gaspipes and Chin Straps
Last year in late December and early January, I posted two or three entries on my beloved Green Bay Packers, and the various miracles by which they secured an NFL playoff spot, advanced to the second round, and were eliminated. This year, the Packers' December ride did not provide much joy. Yes, to end up with a record of 10 wins and 6 losses after starting off 1-and-4 was impressive, but it became clear during the winning streak that the Packers' pass defense was pitiful, and that if an opponent was of a mind to throw the ball, we wouldn't have a prayer. The first indication was a November game against the Vikings, in which a comfortable lead melted in the fourth quarter and required a last-second field goal for Green Bay to win. A few weeks later, the Packers were destroyed by the pass-happy Philadelphia Eagles, and if the good St. Louis Rams team had showed up in Green Bay instead of the poor one, they might have lost to them as well. Yet most bigtime NFL experts, on ESPN and elsewhere, kept saying the Packers had an excellent chance to go deep into the playoffs. Knowledgeable fans in Wisconsin knew better.

After Green Bay's six-game winning streak ended in Philadelphia on December 5, the wheels began wobbling on the wagon. Close wins over Detroit and Minnesota were overshadowed by a bad loss at home to Jacksonville, and it became clear they were running on fumes by the time they met the Vikings again in the playoffs last week. In that game, the defense was charateristically horrid, and when it wasn't (for a brief time in the third quarter when the game seemed tantalizingly within reach), Brett Favre was. You gotta wonder if Favre's tendency to choke in the playoffs in recent years is related to pressure: He's won one championship, he knows his clock is ticking, and he wants another title so badly it interferes with his ability to function when the pressure is greatest.

So anyway, the Packers took the gaspipe, but the playoffs continue this weekend. The divisional round might be the best weekend of any season--four games in two days with good teams and lots on the line. Here's how I see them:

New York Jets at Pittsburgh: The Jets are lucky to be alive after last week's game--they gave San Diego a chance to tie it in the last 15 seconds thanks to a stupid penalty, and then saw the Chargers' kicker miss a potential game-winning field goal in overtime. But the Jets got a game-winning kick of their own, and a ticket to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Steelers are an amazing 15-and-1, and they've done it with a rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Someday he's going to wake up and realize where and what he is--but probably not until next week. Steelers 20, Jets 7.

St. Louis at Atlanta: The Rams are the most overrated team of our generation--they are 1-and-1 in Super Bowls since 2000, yet to hear people talk about them (including the Rams themselves), you'd think they had won five in a row. Still, they're good enough to win this game--Atlanta went 11-and-5, but against a pretty soft schedule, and lost to some of the softest teams on it. This game has the potential to blow all the bulbs on the scoreboard. Rams 41, Falcons 36.

Philadelphia at Minnesota: It has been my position for a long time that the Vikings, despite their talent, don't win consistently because they lack guts. When the going gets tough, they start pointing fingers instead of tightening their chin straps. (I still think that's true even after last week.) I'd like to see them get killed in this game, but they won't--it'll be competitive. Philadelphia hasn't played a meaningful game in over a month and they're missing their top receiver, Terrell Owens, but they've got guts enough to handle it. Eagles 27, Vikings 17.

Indianapolis at New England: Peyton Manning of Indianapolis is in the midst of what's probably the best season any quarterback ever had, but the defending Super Bowl champions are the one team he can't seem to beat. New England is missing its top pass defenders, which is good news for Manning, but this is likely to come down to New England's solid offense against the Colts' suspect defense. Outdoors in the cold, it's hard to pick against the Patriots, but it's even harder to pick against Manning. Colts 27, Patriots 24, maybe in overtime.

These predictions are for entertainment purposes only--no wagering.

Recommended Reading:
For you non-football fans, a purportedly real college paper about Oedipus.

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