The Pittsburgh Steelers ganged up on the Miami Dolphins in the fourth quarter Thursday, rallying to win the season's first game going away, 28-17. And if you watched, did you notice anything different?
Me neither, not much.
Oh, I don't mean the Super Bowl champs picking up where they left off, winning their ninth straight meaningful game, snatching momentum and the lead from the Dolphins on an 87-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass and run from backup quarterback Charlie Batch to tight end Heath Miller and then salting things away with interceptions by Troy Polamalu and Joey Porter, the latter returned for a thanks-for-coming touchdown.
I'm talking about how the game marked the return of NBC to big-time non-Olympics sports broadcasting, the debut of its new Sunday night prime-time NFL show, time-shifted and abbreviated for the holidayish event.
For all the ink that's been spilled about the league's changing TV landscape, about the Sunday night game going to NBC and Monday night to ESPN and announcers switching networks willy-nilly to fill slots and even that package of eight late-season Thursday night games going to the NFL Network, the viewing experience stays pretty constant.
For the average fan, provided he or she has cable, which the average fan does, the big issue is remembering to tune to Channel 4 instead of Channel 7, or whatever.
Once you did that Thursday night you got the Peacock pregame crowd instead of the Disney pregame crowd. So big deal. Bob Costas and three ex-players in boxy suits instead of Chris Berman and three ex-players in boxy suits. I happen to think Costas is to Berman as James Joyce is to Soupy Sales, but does it matter that much?
And you can pretty much do three spins on a big wheel with all of the available players-turned-pundits' names on it and choose whichever three come up and you'd get more or less the same show. NBC spun and got Sterling Sharpe, Cris Collinsworth and newcomer Jerome Bettis, and that looks like a nice spin, but would your fan experience be so different if it had come up Tom Jackson, Howie Long and Michael Irvin?
And as long as I'm asking questions here: Where is it written that the only people qualified to sit at that desk and pontificate are former players or the occasional coach between jobs?
I like what CBS does with the NCAA Tournament, teaming up ex-baller Clark Kellogg with Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis. I'd love to see S.I.'s Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman, or Peter King, who's doing cut-in reports during the games for NBC, has to say on that NFL panel.
Or maybe a sabermetric type like Aaron Schatz, Bill Krasker or Bud Goode, who can offer a really different point of view, not just the minuscule difference between, say, a linebacker's and a quarterback's viewpoint. I have no idea if these specific guys would do well on TV. I'm just talking ideas here.
Once Thursday's game started, it was the old ABC "Monday Night Football" show, with Al Michaels and John Madden and most of the same production values and techniques. Different score bug, different sideline reporters, different opening music. The equivalent to your favorite team changing the stripe pattern on its uniform sleeve.
One nice move by NBC: It got rid of that stupid horse trailer. At long last: What the snot was that about, anyway?
The Peacock also did a nice job quickly and clearly getting to the bottom of the situation on Miller's crucial fourth-quarter touchdown. Dolphins coach Nick Saban had thrown his red replay-challenge flag before the extra-point snap, since replays showed Miller had stepped out of bounds before crossing the goal line.
But because Saban waited so long and threw his flag so tentatively, the laundry landing quietly on the field behind the nearest official, none of the zebras realized he was making a challenge, the PAT was kicked and the Dolphins had missed their opportunity to have the play reversed.
Madden and Michaels wondered if the booth officials could look at replays to see whether Saban made his challenge in time, but by the time the network returned from commercials, Michaels had gotten an answer. He said, "You cannot challenge when the flag was thrown."
A few minutes later, Collinsworth appeared in the booth and said he'd gotten clarification on the rules. He explained that Saban could have run down the sideline to get the attention of the officials, or that he could have just run onto the field and thrown the flag where it couldn't have been missed.
This surprised Madden, the former coach. "I wish I would have known about that rule, or that rule would have been when I was coaching," he said. "You can just run on the field any time you want to? I may come back!" He said he'd wing that thing right at a ref.
Collinsworth joked that it would have taken Madden longer to get out there than it would have taken Saban. "It probably would have," Madden said, "but they would know that I was out there. There wouldn't be any question."
Michaels said, "A few coaches around the league are saying, 'Now I know what to do the next time.'" That was a cogent comment. The NFL's welter of rules is so byzantine and nonintuitive, it's likely there were active head coaches who didn't know the rule Collinsworth explained before he explained it.
None of this was that big a deal, but far too often broadcasters sit around and guess about the rules that apply or don't apply in a situation, as Michaels and Madden did immediately after the extra point, and then they leave it at that, despite having squads of "reporters" and production assistants who could find out the correct answer.
We saw that in last year's AFC playoffs, when CBS's announcers yammered on and on about whether Polamalu had made a "football move" on his famous overturned interception, only for the NFL to announce later in the week that that rule didn't even apply in that situation.
Good for NBC to actually expend the required 0.1 ounce of elbow grease and get the proper information.
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NFL Week 1 [PERMALINK]
This column's tradition of predicting the outcomes of all NFL games wheezes into its fourth season. As usual, I'll be tracking the picks of a panel of experts whose picks are made public, along with the picks of you, the unwashed hordes -- as represented by the public's picks at Yahoo Sports -- and those of my son, Buster, the coin-flippinest 3-year-old in our corner of the space-time continuum.
And yes, to answer all your e-mails at once, he's real, and he's still 3. It has been only five months since the NCAA Tournament, when his coin last appeared. It's not that unusual for a person not to have a birthday in a given five-month period.
I think we'll all find once again that the experts are not, as a group, smarter than the unwashed hordes, nor are they smarter than a 3-year-old with a quarter. And considering I'm one of those experts, please remember: Do not use my picks to place bets involving actual money. This is a bad idea even if you bet against the teams I pick. Trust me.
Predicted winners are in capital letters, with each team's 2005 record in parentheses.
Sunday early games
Atlanta (8-8) at CAROLINA (11-5): The Falcons can plant their flag in the division race right here, but I don't think they will. If Michael Vick's finally going to prove himself an elite NFL quarterback this year, he has a tough first assignment against a powerful front that's good at preventing the thing he's already elite at: running.
Baltimore (6-10) at TAMPA BAY (11-5): It'll be interesting to see if, against a good defense, the presence of Steve McNair throwing to old pal Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap will open things up enough for what looks like a creaky running game. That and McNair's health are the keys to whether the Ravens will finally have an offense to be reckoned with. I think the Bucs will get a good start on what will be a tough defense of their division title.
BUFFALO (5-11) at New England (10-6): What the Heck Pick of the week. For readers new to this column, What the Heck is a weekly pick of an underdog team I honestly think is going to lose the game. So it's not quite an "upset of the week" pick. It's picking an obvious winner, then choosing the other team.
The bylaws state that the What the Heck Pick has to be a losing team playing a winning team and expected to lose by most everyone, including, of course, me. Most important, the What the Heck Pick of the week is available for sponsorship. Bids start at $1 million for the season.
CINCINNATI (11-5) at Kansas City (10-6): One of the great things about the NFL is that a match like this in Week 1, between two 10-win teams with high-powered offenses, is barely even noteworthy. It's nothing more than one of the better games of the week. In college football, it's big news when two good teams play each other before the first snow.
This weekend's Ohio State-Texas game is the first time the top two teams in the Associated Press poll have played each other in the regular season in 10 years. Good grief. What a crock.
As for this game, it might come down to who has the ball last, but I'll go with the higher-octane offense and take the Bengals.
DENVER (13-3) at St. Louis (6-10): Rookie Mike Bell will be Denver's next 1,000-yard rusher. He ought to get a good start against a Rams defense that's supposed to be much improved every year, and rarely is.
New Orleans (3-13) at CLEVELAND (6-10): The Browns are 1-6 in opening games since returning to the league, which isn't some crazy statistical anomaly. They're 36-76 overall. But things seem to be looking up, and getting to start against the Saints, who have nowhere to go but up, but have a long way to go, is a nice break. The Browns go to Cincinnati next week.
N.Y. Jets (4-12) at TENNESSEE (4-12): Two teams trying to start over, the Jets with a new brain trust, the Titans with a lot of new players including a "new" quarterback, if you can call likely starter Kerry Collins new. Vince Young is standing by, and will reportedly play a little in every game, which should be fun. Who knows what to make of either of these teams just yet, so we'll go with the franchise that's gotten it right more often in the past decade.
PHILADELPHIA (6-10) at Houston (2-14): Two teams that should both be better than they were last year. Of course, that's saying two very different things. David Carr, you remember the ground don't you? Because here it comes again.
SEATTLE (13-3) at Detroit (5-11): The Rod Marinelli Era begins in Detroit. Boy, that sounds exciting, doesn't it? This will be the first test of the Seahawks' ability to avoid that Super Bowl loser downfall thing.
Sunday late games
CHICAGO (11-5) at Green Bay (4-12): My hands trembled over the keyboard, trying to decide whether to make this a What the Heck Pick. Or, could have been the D.T.'s. Let's see if the Bears have any offense at all, not that they'll need much for this game.
Dallas (9-7) at JACKSONVILLE (12-4): Terrell Owens makes his debut as a Cowboy. Here's the prediction: He has a big day and the Cowboys lose.
San Francisco (4-12) at ARIZONA (5-11): Last year they shipped this game off to Mexico City, but now the Cardinals have a new stadium where people will actually attend the games, so no more offshoring. If the Cardinals can block anybody, they could be an actual good team. I don't think that's going to happen, but they ought to start with a win.
INDIANAPOLIS (14-2) at N.Y. Giants (11-5): Someone call Project Censored. Both of these teams have a quarterback named Manning. And get this: They're brothers. Where is the mainstream media on this?
Minnesota (9-7) at WASHINGTON (10-6): Washington running back Clinton Portis is unlikely to play, which will hurt, but not as much as it would have last year, before Washington traded with the Falcons for T.J. Duckett.
SAN DIEGO (9-7) at Oakland (4-12): Whose bright idea was it to sign the Raiders up for Monday night football, even if it is the all-new late-night B-game? This is a team that's gone 13-35 over the last three seasons. The Texans have won 14 games in that stretch. The Lions 16. The Bills 20. The Titans 21. You don't see any of them playing in prime time. Guess the Black Hole plays well on TV. Something we're not likely to be saying about the Raiders this year.
Season record: 0-1
Last season: 166-90 regular season; 7-4 playoffs
Last season's What the Heck Picks: 6-10
Rank of a small red beanbag handkerchief on the list of things I would throw really hard at NFL referees if I were an NFL head coach: 13
Previous column: AFC preview
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