Saturday, January 14, 2006

Where Rosy Scenarios Fall Victim to Gut Instincts, and the Tom Brady Love Fest Continues
Once again this weekend, I intend to watch football until my eyes fall out. I'll get to my picks in a moment, but first, I've got a few thoughts about my team, which was anything but elite this year.

The Packers fired head coach Mike Sherman on January 2, even though he had four winning seasons in five years and won three straight division titles. Although his firing was unjust and probably unwarranted, Sherman got caught in the switches with a new boss--general manager Ted Thompson, who took over Sherman's GM duties before last season--and a record of 4-and-12. In pro sports, you don't survive that deadly double.

This week, the Packers replaced Sherman with Mike McCarthy, a former Packers assistant who'd been offensive coordinator with San Francisco. The 49ers had one of the NFL's worst offenses this past year. Before that, he was offensive coordinator in New Orleans, which never rose above the level of mediocrity while he was there. And before that, in the single year McCarthy was the Packers quarterback coach (1999), Brett Favre had one of the worst seasons of his career. None of these is entirely McCarthy's fault--but then again, going 4-and-12 wasn't entirely Sherman's fault, either, but he was held responsible nevertheless.

One immediate positive folks are finding in the McCarthy hiring is that McCarthy's familiarity with Favre--or to put it more precisely, Favre's familiarity with McCarthy--might persuade Favre to return for the 2006 season. However, in the two weeks since the season's end, I've made my peace with the idea that Favre may not return, and lots of other Packer fans have, too. So if bringing Favre back is the best thing McCarthy can do, it isn't going to be enough.

Coaching changes in pro sports are often made on gut instinct, and it seems likely that's how Ted Thompson decided to fire Sherman and hire McCarthy. But unless Thompson's gut is especially golden, it's hard to see McCarthy as an improvement, at least not right away. Sherman won 65 percent of his games--there are coaches enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who were less successful. (Note to McCarthy: 11-and-5 next year would be 65 percent.) Now, maybe McCarthy is like Andy Reid, a previously unknown Packers assistant who's become a great success with Philadelphia, or maybe he's like Mike Holmgren, a former 49ers offensive coordinator who took the Packers to two Super Bowls, winning one (and is in the playoffs with the Seattle Seahawks this weekend). But right now, there's no evidence that he's either one of those. There's not even much evidence that he could be one of those. All we know for sure is what we can see right now--that the Packers, who were a big question mark for 2006 after the disaster of 2005, remain just as big a question mark as they were before. With an unproven coach and the team just embarking on an offseason of upheaval, maybe bigger.

Playoff Picks:
Last week, I went 3-and-1, only going wrong on Carolina/New York, which was the hardest game to pick anyhow. So now the pressure is on to do equally well this weekend, so that my picks are demonstrably better than what I might have gotten by tossing a coin.

Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks. The Redskins are a fashionable pick, partially because pundits are in love with the Skins' Hall-of-Fame coach Joe Gibbs, partially because the Redskins are the hottest team still playing, and partially because half of Americans think Seattle is located somewhere in Canada. Pundits also think this game will be close, and it could be. But I think it's also the most likely of the four this weekend to have viewers flipping to the Food Network in the second half. As the week has gone on, I've kept lowering the margin I expect the Seahawks to win by. But they'll win. Seahawks 29, Redskins 14.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos. Denver quarterback Jake Plummer has had a season in which his vast potential finally turned to performance, the Broncos' running game is its usual solid self, and their defense stopped opponents consistently all year on the way to a 13-and-3 record. But I've seen them lose big games over the years just often enough to pick against them tonight. New England has veteran players and coaches who know how to win playoff games. They also have superior talent at quarterback, where Plummer is far more likely to have an off game than Tom Brady is. Patriots 24, Broncos 19.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts. The Colts haven't played a meaningful game since early December. Will they be rusty after their long layoff? Will they be affected by the terrible Christmas-week suicide of their coach's son? Are the Steelers on a sufficient roll right now to beat the Super Bowl favorite? Answers: Maybe; yes, but in a good way; and yes, but it won't be enough. I expect this to be like a great heavyweight fight, at least for a while. Colts 28, Steelers 14.

Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears.
The hardest game of the weekend to pick. As a Packer fan, I am genetically programmed to pick against the Bears, so to compensate, I have been looking for reasons to take them all week. And they do have the league's best defense. They beat Carolina earlier this season. But there are legitimate reasons to pick against them, too. Carolina has multiple weapons on offense, and they're rolling, after disposing of the Giants last week. The Bears benched QB Kyle Orton for ineffectiveness even though they went 10-and-4 with him, and reinstalled the oft-injured Rex Grossman, then benched him again for the meaningless final game of the season--so he's played six quarters of football all year. The last big game Grossman played was at the University of Florida, and this is bigger. In addition, the December Bears were not as dominant on defense as they were during the first three-quarters of the season. Nevertheless, lots of Bears fans believe they're a mortal lock for the Super Bowl. Not so fast there, flatlanders--that's the mass hypnosis talking. If the Panthers manage at least two touchdowns, they'll win. If they get three, that's a mortal lock. Panthers 17, Bears 13.

Token Political Links: Here's a great rant from Steve Gilliard about the chickenhawks who are fighting the Iraq War and policing the bounds of acceptable discourse from behind their computers. And if you're wondering whether filibustering Alito would be a good idea or not, Salon's War Room is wondering, too.

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