In the spirit of this week's NFL news, in which old coaches Joe Gibbs and Dennis Green have returned to the sidelines, I've decided to go back to my old job too. I've signed a $21 million, five-year deal to sort mail and ship packages at You Send Me in Berkeley, Calif.
I was pretty good at that job, thanks to a good memory. The guy in Box 383 used about 47 different names and I recognized them all on sight.
I can't say the same thing for my performance on this job last week, when I picked the Broncos to beat the Colts and the Cowboys to beat the Panthers. Picking those lopsided losers was the equivalent of putting the porn star's copy of Adult Video News in the mailbox of the local chapter of Men Are Pigs International.
The fact that five of the eight members of ESPN's panel of experts also picked the Broncos is little solace, especially since aside from Joe Theismann picking the Cowboys, they unanimously got the rest of the games right. On the other hand I can go back to sorting mail. Joe Theismann isn't going back to playing quarterback.
Maybe I'll change my mind if this week's picks are better. A surprising number of you have expressed an interest in the picks of my son Buster, coin-flippinest near-toddler in America, who prognosticates by flipping a coin, heads for the visiting team, tails for the host. He went 1-3 last week, correct only on the Cowboys-Panthers game. This week his trusty quarter -- his entire fortune, by the way -- is pegging the Panthers and Eagles in the NFC, Colts and Patriots in the AFC.
It's suddenly become very chic to point out that the home team almost always wins divisional-round games. Besides being at home and usually being a better team, the host is also coming off a bye while the visitor had to win a game in the first round. Hosts have gone 17-3 in the last five years. Everyone else is pointing that out so I won't. Instead I'll go directly to the picks, with winners in all caps.
Carolina at ST. LOUIS: I honestly don't know what to make of this game. The Panthers looked great in the first half of the season, shaky in the second half and tremendous in their last game, a 29-10 demolishing of the Cowboys last week. The Rams looked shaky in the first half of the season, great in the second half and horrendous in their last game, a 30-20 groin kick in Detroit two weeks ago. What's it all mean?
The Rams haven't lost at home since Week 4 last year, back when losing to the Cowboys was embarrassing. And it's hard to picture the Panthers riding Jake Delhomme to a big playoff road win, especially against the Rams' defense, which, despite the team's lingering reputation for explosiveness, is what wins games for St. Louis. But it's not hard to picture the Rams' habit of turning the ball over doing them in, especially given how rattled Marc Bulger has looked lately. And if Bulger is replaced by Kurt Warner, as he was in Detroit, who knows what to expect. A comeback story for the ages? Six fumbles?
Tennessee at NEW ENGLAND: Here it is, a match-up between the preseason Super Bowl pick of this column's readers and the current heavy favorite. The Titans beat the Ravens last week for the first time in six tries, and they did it on the road, and it was valiant and everything, but the thing is, that was the Ravens. The Patriots went 14-2, and that includes that opening week thrashing at the hands of the Bills that we now know was simply a freak event. They won their last 12 games. The last time they lost, the Phillies were still hoping to make the playoffs.
The game-time temperature figures to be in the single digits and windy, which won't help the chronically sore Steve McNair. I believe he can play well with body parts actually missing, but I think the task is too tall this time. I'm not totally sold on the Patriots as a lock to win it all. Their running game is weak, and I never trust bend-but-don't-break defenses to keep bending and not breaking as the competition gets stiffer in the playoffs. But even if they're not a lock, the Pats have to be considered the favorite.
INDIANAPOLIS at Kansas City: Woo-hoo! Two great offenses and no good defenses. Take the over. This'll be a lousy game unless you like touchdowns.
I'm making the Colts my lone road pick for a few reasons. First, they're hot. Their only loss in the last five games was against Denver in Week 16, and I'd say they made up for that with last week's 41-10 murderlizing of the Broncos, which wasn't as close as the score. Second, the Chiefs are not. Remember when the Chiefs were 9-0 and people were talking about an undefeated season? The '72 Dolphins were getting antsy. Remember? Since then the Chiefs are 4-3, and the four wins were against the Raiders, the Chargers, the Lions and the Bears. Combined record: 20-44. The last time the Chiefs beat a team that finished with a winning record was Oct. 12, when they beat the Packers.
And finally, there's Peyton Manning. I'm a big Steve McNair fan, but his winning the co-MVP with Manning was ridiculous. Manning had an outrageous season, and he sure didn't do anything last week to indicate that his famous inability to win in the playoffs is a continuing (or real) problem.
Green Bay at PHILADELPHIA: The Packers are the team of destiny in these playoffs. Every playoffs, every year, in every sport, has a team of destiny, a club that's riding some sort of emotional situation. Of course, most of these teams lose and we all quickly forget about them, but every once in a while one sees it through to the championship and becomes known down through the ages as a Team of Destiny, one that simply Would Not Lose. The Green Bay Packers, riding the hot hand of Brett Favre in the wake of the tragic death of his father ... are not one of those teams.
The Packers haven't lost since Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, but who have they beaten? The Bears, the Chargers, the Raiders -- this sounding familiar? -- and the Broncos minus most of Denver's first string, which was held out of the season finale. They beat the Seahawks in an overtime humdinger last weekend, but remember the Seahawks were a pretty mediocre team away from Seattle this year. The Packers are going to have to be a whole lot better than they were Saturday to win in Philadelphia, and I'm not sure the Packers get a whole lot better than they were Saturday.
The Eagles have lost the last two NFC Championship Games, and maybe it's because of that that they're getting so little respect this week, though I think Favre worship is probably playing a bigger role. (Favre worship, incidentally, is fine with me.) There's general fretting about the loss to injury of leading rusher Brian Westbrook, but people seem to forget that the guy who'll take his place is Duce Staley, who's had a diminished role this year not because he's played poorly, which he hasn't, but because he's being punished for his stupid preseason holdout. The Eagles' running game will be fine.
Playoff record: 2-2
Last week: 2-2
Final regular season record: 157-99
Shockingly high number of times the word "Detroit" appeared in this column about NFL playoff games: 3
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Readers correct, sometimes correctly [PERMALINK]
More than one reader called me on my claim that the only common opponent for USC and LSU was Auburn, which lost to the Trojans by 23 points and the Tigers by 24, revealing nothing. I missed that they both also played Arizona. USC beat the Wildcats by 45 points, LSU beat them by 46. I suppose we could draw the conclusion that LSU is one point better than USC, but I'm sticking with my theory that the national champion is Cal.
Several readers also wrote in after I complained that coverage of Jamal Lewis becoming the fifth man ever to rush for 2,000 yards in an NFL season consistently ignored the fact that O.J. Simpson was the only one of the five who did it in a 14-game, rather than a 16-game, season, and that his 1973 total of 2,003 yards was still the highest per-game average in history.
I was upbraided for committing a similar sin by forgetting Jim Brown's 1,863 yards in 1963, a 12-game season. Considering how often I get things wrong, you'd think it wouldn't bother me when I get things wrong, but this one really got me down. What a dope! I was sure 1963 was a 14-game season!
It was. I quickly confirmed that the NFL expanded its schedule in 1961. Brown's 1963 per-game average was 133.1 yards per game, better than all of the 2,000-yard rushers except Simpson. Several readers also pointed out that expansion of the season colors every NFL counting record, and that total yards is a somewhat arbitrary way to measure running backs, since it relies so heavily on how many carries a back has. Good points, though I still think total yards is a fun thing to follow. But for those of you who think yards per carry is all-important, Brown's 6.4 in '63 was better than all of the 2,000-yard men, and only Simpson, at 6.0, was close.
I don't know what the yards-per-carry record is for a running back. The record book is mucked up by prehistoric figures like Beattie Feathers, who I think we can agree wasn't playing modern pro football in the 1930s, and running quarterbacks like Randall Cunningham, who had just enough carries to qualify for records, but not nearly as many as a typical running back.
For that matter, I'm not sure Jim Brown was playing modern pro football. He played at a time when 230-pound all-pro linemen were not unusual. He was most certainly a phenomenal athlete, but what was so remarkable about him was his combination of size (6-2, 230 pounds) and speed. I wonder if, in today's game, Brown might be more like, well, Jamal Lewis (5-11, 240), who's terrific, maybe a future Hall of Famer, but he's not Jim Brown. I think of the NFL of the late '50s and early '60s as being similar to baseball in the first decade or two of the 20th century: It's recognizable to us as the same sport being played today, but it's a very different game.
Some readers also pointed out that I missed at least one member of the commentariat talking about Simpson and 14 games. Bill Simmons, ESPN.com's excellent "Sports Guy" columnist, made the exact same complaint I did on Sunday, and he even got in a joke about the Ford Bronco.
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