This week has illustrated beautifully why the Super Bowl should be played one week after the conference championship games, rather than two weeks, as it often has been.
The big story for the first half of the week was a joke made by Tennessee Titans kicker Joe Nedney, who kicked the game-winning field goal over the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday after getting a second chance because of a running-into-the-kicker penalty on a kick he'd missed. The Steelers thought the penalty was a bad call, that Nedney, who didn't appear to have been hit too hard by Steeler Dewayne Washington, had taken a dive to draw the flag.
"He got a pretty good hit on me," Nedney said after the game, "but I think when I'm done playing ball, I might try acting."
This didn't sit well with the Steelers or their fans or the media or the actors union, and Nedney has been apologizing more than Bill Clinton ever since, saying he was just kidding, it was a joke, a bad one, and he should have kept his mouth shut, and yeah it really was a penalty.
Here is one of the first things they teach you at sportswriting school, or at least it would be if there were such a thing: Nothing a kicker says, ever, is important.
Lesson 1: Let's say a kicker is talking. Do you write down what he says in your notebook? No! You say, "Excuse me, why are you talking?" and then walk away without waiting for an answer. Lesson 2: If you are writing about something a kicker has said, you should think seriously about either finding a new thesis or calling in sick. You have gone off course. (The story you are now reading doesn't qualify because of its postmodern nature: I'm writing about writing about something a kicker has said. It's meta, as the Internet kids used to say.)
So this kicker humor was the big story this week and we're only coming up on the conference championship games. There are still four teams playing and we only had one week to get through, yet supertankers of ink were spilled over a matter so trivial that Kato Kaelin could have added a little gravitas by weighing in.
Now imagine if there were only two teams playing, and we had two weeks to kill. Or just think back a few years. This is the second straight year and the third in the last four that there hasn't been an extra week before the Super Bowl, but before that we endured five straight years of the dead week.
I don't know the real reason the NFL has moved away from that extra week, though I suspect it didn't escape notice that the move cut in half the number of nights that players might be busted for cruising hookers. Whatever the reason, it's a rare and one hopes permanent show of good sense by a league that doesn't usually show good sense. Most of its moves are designed to dull the excitement level. This one does the opposite. This time next week, instead of reading endless stories about this player's earring collection or that one's sister's brave struggle with chronic hangnail, we'll be gearing up for the game.
Right now we're gearing up for two. Before we get to them, let me mention the big story of the latter half of the week, the firing of San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci. Word is that Mooch was blindsided by his sacking Wednesday. How can this be? He's a lot closer to the situation than I am, obviously, and as I watched the second half of the Niners' 31-6 loss at Tampa Bay Sunday, I said to my imaginary friends, "Mariucci's gone." This is the 49ers. He was rumored to be on the rocks all year. His semi-public contract negotiating and his flirtation with the Buccaneers last offseason were ugly. He's never taken them to the Super Bowl.
And then his team gets annihilated in the playoffs by the Bucs, historical underachievers in the postseason and former Mariucci footsie-playing partner. See ya, pal. If Mariucci was really surprised by his firing, he's not as smart as he's cracked up to be, which would be bad. He's also not as smart as I am, which would be frightening.
To the gridiron we go:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles, NFC Championship Game (3 p.m. EST, Sunday, Fox): Last week I was taken to task by a few readers for picking all four home teams and not going with any underdogs. "If you're going to go out on a limb and make predictions, at least have the guts to pick at least one team that isn't a favorite going into the weekend," one person wrote, as though I make my picks and then say, "Wait a minute, I have all favorites here," and then start switching them around. Which I do. Just not last week, for reasons I'll explain next week, if you're good.
This week I am going with an underdog, the Buccaneers, the team I picked to go to the Super Bowl (and, uh, lose to the Steelers) before the season started.
You surely know all about how the Bucs have never, never, double-dog ever won a playoff game on the road, and how they're 1-googolplex when the game-time temperature is colder than zero Kelvins. OK, they're 1-21 when it's below 40 degrees Farenheit, that win coming this year in the leafy Chicago neighborhood of Champaign. The forecast says it'll be in the high 20s in Philly Sunday, but I think we saw how important this sort of thing is two weeks ago when the Atlanta Falcons won in Green Bay, where the Packers had never, never, cherry-on-top ever lost a playoff game.
Yeah, the Bucs lost a playoff game in Philadelphia in each of the last two years. They also lost playoff games in consecutive years in Dallas two decades ago, when the average current Buccaneer was in kindergarten and first grade. All four of those games have roughly the same relevance this weekend. Unlike the last two years, Tampa Bay has an offense now. It's not as good as it appeared to be last week against a wilted 49ers defense, but it's good enough that the Bucs are no longer one-dimensional.
The Eagles appear to be the class of the league, and they seem to have the championship formula -- great defense, solid offensive line, good running game, talented skill players. They're so good they can apparently win with pretty much anybody at quarterback, as they showed late in the season when Bill Cosby, Camille Paglia and Pink each took a few snaps.
I just have a feeling about the Bucs. I think through some combination of handling Philadelphia's exotic blitzes, grinding out some yardage on the ground -- the Eagles aren't great against the run, and the Bucs have improved lately -- containing Donovan McNabb and maybe scoring defensively, they're going to win a brutal, low-scoring game. On the road. In the cold. Buccaneers.
Tennessee Titans at Oakland Raiders, AFC Championship Game (6:30 p.m. EST, Sunday, CBS): Maybe this will be the shootout that last week's Jets-Raiders game was supposed to be and wasn't, because those shootout games never seem to end up being shootout games. By the same token, the Bucs-Eagles game will probably end 52-47, just to spite us typists.
The Titans are the hottest team in the league, having won 11 of their last 12, with the only setback a one-point loss in Baltimore in November. But it's the Raiders who are really humming. They've won eight of their last nine -- all but one against at least pretty good teams -- since a bizarre four-game losing streak that followed a 4-0 start. Their offense, led by MVP Rich Gannon, is clicking. And they're a team on a mission: This is it for the Raiders, who are old and about to take a big salary-cap hit. If they don't win Super Bowl XXXVII, it's going to be a while, maybe even III or IV years.
The Raiders plastered the Titans 52-29 in September, but that was before Tennessee put it together, and anyway the game turned on a flukey, Titans train-wreck of a first quarter. For you meaningless-factoid fans, the Raiders are 4-9 in AFL or AFC championship games. The Titans, who used to be the Houston Oilers, are 3-4, including 2-2 in the 1960s.
The deal here is that there's not much reason to believe the Titans can stop the Raiders' league-best passing game. And in addition to their sterling trio of wide receivers -- Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Jerry Porter -- the Raiders also have weapons in the backfield, most notably Charlie Garner. Their conscientious use of the run lately has made their passing even better. The Titans place their running burden on the fragile Eddie George, who left last week's game with a concussion and was listed as questionable Thursday. He'll play if he's breathing, but he's not the force he once was.
The wild card, pardon the use of that term, is Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who has been hurt all year and has perfected the art of missing practice all week, then playing brilliantly on Sunday, leading his team to victory through a combination of guts, talent, smarts, smoke and mirrors, not necessarily in that order. I don't think he can do it Sunday in Oakland, but it should be fun to watch him try.
And then just like that it'll be Super Bowl week. Raiders.