Thank you, heavy rain that turned my backyard into a mud puddle and postponed Game 5 of the National League Championship Series Monday night. You let me watch a Monday night football game I'd been planning to ignore, and had actually been ignoring until I caught the halftime score: Arizona Cardinals 20, Chicago Bears 0.
The Bears came back to win a thoroughly improbable, insane and entertaining game, 24-23. And infuriating.
Infuriating because the fired-up, underdog, overachieving Cardinals handed the game to the Bears by turning ultraconservative when they got a lead. They can blame fumbles or blown punt-return coverages all they want. The Cardinals lost because their coach was too chicken to win.
And then coach Denny Green followed his gutless performance by screaming at the media -- of which he was once a member -- and denigrating the Bears, yelling, "You want to crown them, go ahead and crown their asses, but they are exactly who we thought they are, and we let them off the hook."
What a clown. And who's this "we," Run-up-the-middle-for-no-gain Man? Your team played well enough to win. You lost for them. Or maybe offensive coordinator Keith Rowen did, but you're the boss.
Still, I dare say that considering the undefeated opponent and the national TV audience, it was the most thrilling NFL game ever played in Arizona. That's not saying a lot but it's saying something.
Here's how surprising Arizona's strong showing was to me. I actually saw the Cardinals score the touchdown that gave them a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. I saw the crowd go nuts, saw the annoyed look on Bears coach Lovie Smith's face.
And then I turned off the TV. Figured I'd do some reading. Figured the Bears would win approximately 35-17. I tuned back in for the second half. That gave me plenty of time to watch the Cardinals give the game away. And I don't just mean on turnovers. If turnovers had been the difference in this game, Arizona would have won.
The story of this game, in the postgame TV chatter and in the newspapers Tuesday, was that the Bears managed to win despite giving the ball away six times and not scoring an offensive touchdown. They scored two on defense, on fumble returns, and one on a punt return.
There was some talk on the ESPN panel about the Cardinals having to learn how to win, and Matt Leinart, the rookie quarterback who had his second straight good game, talked in the postgame press conference about how the Cardinals need to "learn how to finish," that it's all a matter of confidence.
If kicker Neil Rackers hadn't clanked a 40-yard field goal, a chip shot by NFL standards, wide left, the Cardinals would have needed only one more defensive stop -- the defense had given up nothing all night -- and they would have been talking about how they'd had confidence, were learning to win, etc. etc. Leinart directed a crisp, eight-play, 39-yard drive to set up what should have been that go-ahead field goal.
But if not for the petrified attempt to sit on the lead, the game probably wouldn't have come down to that field-goal try.
Late in the third quarter, the Cardinals took over the ball at their own 40 following a Bears field goal. Arizona led 20-3. The Cardinals got two first downs to get into field-goal range at the Chicago 27.
At that point, exactly, with a little more than five minutes to go in the third quarter, Green tried to put the game on ice. He tried to run out the clock. Twenty minutes of clock.
To that point in the game, the Cardinals had had first-and-10 17 times. They had attempted eight passes and nine runs, a very nice mix. Six of the eight passes had been completed, for 58 yards, a healthy 7.25 yards per attempt. The nine rushes had gained 30 yards, 3.3 per carry. Tough running against an excellent defense, but enough to keep the Bears honest and open up some lanes for Leinart to throw.
From that moment, first-and-10 at the Bears 27 with about five and a half minutes to go in the third, leading 20-3, to the first time they got the ball after falling behind 24-23 with 2:58 to go in the game, the Cardinals had first-and-10 11 times.
Eleven times, they handed the ball to Edgerrin James for a run between the tackles.
On one of those plays, he gained 12 yards. On the other 10, he gained a grand total of zero, and never gained more than two on any play. Not counting the 12-yarder, James gained positive yardage, one or two yards, on four of those 10 first-down runs.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher made the tackle on six of the 10 first-and-10 runs in that stretch that went nowhere. "They weren't blocking me, so that was easy," he said after the game.
Twice in those 17 or so minutes, Leinart completed a third-down pass to earn another first down. All of the other first-down runs by James led to fourth down, except the two times the Cardinals fumbled on second down and the Bears recovered and ran it back for a touchdown.
During that long sequence, longer than a quarter, it looked like two Cardinals teams were playing. When the Bears had the ball, the Cardinals defense attacked, flew around, unintimidated by the powerhouse opponent or the situation. They played like a team trying to win a game, and they pretty much dominated.
When the Cardinals had it, they looked scared to death, like a team trying not to lose, hoping the clock would move faster than the Bears' ability to score three touchdowns.
It was pathetic. And it was the coach's fault. Denny Green can pound on a table all he wants, but you can't win in the NFL that way, whether your players have "learned how to win" or not, whatever that means. And you certainly can't do it against a quick-strike team like the Bears. Any team with a great defense is a quick-strike team because it can score on defense, which is even quicker than a one-play drive.
I hated to see the Cardinals lose that game, because the underdog win would have been such a great thing to watch. But I'm always happy to see gutless, conservative football turn a sure win into a loss. I keep hoping other coaches will take note. Maybe someday, we'll see an end to embarrassing, infuriating spectacles like the one Green's fear created Monday night.
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What the heck is going on here? [PERMALINK]
The real reason I hated to see the Cardinals lose to the Bears Monday is that they were my What the Heck Pick of the week. What the Heck Picks are now 0-6, but three of them have lost by one stinkin' point. And an additional one lost by two!
I'm in 16th place, also known as last, in this column's Panel o' Experts standings, but if even half of those coin-flip games had gone the other way, I'd be in 13th. If all four of them had gone my way, I'd be in 12th. If there were no such thing as a WTH Pick and I'd picked the teams I thought were going to win all six of those games, I'd be in 11th, solidly midpack, closer to third place than last.
And if my grandmother'd had wheels she'd have been a trolley car. These are the things I think about when I'm in last place.
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The high price of sucking [PERMALINK]
Speaking of last place, which is where the New York Yankees finished this year, right? Because Alex Rodriguez sucked so bad? Well, speaking of that, the winning bid for the domain arodsucks.com in an auction on eBay was $810.
Wonder how much I could get for neifirules.com.
Previous column: Fox fired Steve Lyons for THAT?
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