The New England Patriots are two wins away from the second undefeated championship season in NFL history, the first since 1972 and the first in a 16-game season. Not a single observer who isn't either out for attention or a rabid partisan of a team standing in the Patriots' way expects them to lose one of those two games, the first of which is the AFC Championship Game against the San Diego Chargers Sunday afternoon. The Patriots are favored by two touchdowns.
And while America debates whether this year's Patriots are the greatest football team ever to snap on helmets or merely the greatest that haven't yet won the Super Bowl because it hasn't been played yet, the Patriots continue to believe they get no respect.
You have to respect that kind of dedication to an idea.
The latest mascot for the International Conspiracy to Disrespect the Patriots is Anna Grant, a 14-year-old high school freshman from Stratham, N.H., who was booed by Colts fans in Indianapolis last week. She and her family will be guests of the team Sunday.
The New York Giants travel to the frigid flatland of Lambeau Field to meet the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, which follows.
Grant won her age group in the annual Punt, Pass & Kick competition, and was introduced on the field with the other winners between quarters of the Colts' loss to the Chargers Sunday. The winners wear the jersey of their local team, which for Grant is the Patriots, who have one of the NFL's best rivalries going with the Colts.
So the fans booed her. Actually, they booed the jersey, which the kid totally got. Already smiling when she was introduced, she heard the boos and looked around, still smiling. She looked kind of tickled by it more than anything.
She told the Associated Press that her friends had warned her before the trip that she'd hear it from the Indy fans, and that "People at the game came up to me afterward and said, 'It's not you. It's your jersey.'"
It's a good bet that a 14-year-old girl who wins a Punt, Pass & Kick competition can handle herself. It's a good bet she could kick this column's ass, though strictly speaking this column doesn't have one, being a cartoon head. That's good because she might just be inclined, since I would have booed her if I were a Colts fan and I'd been there. I've booed kids for less.
You know when they have some 9-year-olds try to hit a free throw at halftime to win a trip to Disneyland or something? I boo when they miss. I boo when that 11-year-old in the next section fumbles the foul ball that hits him in the hands. I'd boo the most adorable child in the world saving a kitten from drowning if she were wearing a Stanford jersey while she did it. Or if the kitten was.
All right, all right. I'm exaggerating. I wouldn't have had to be a Colts fan to boo Sunday. I'm not a Colts fan and I'd have booed anyway.
I guess that makes me the kind of guy Patriots owner Robert Kraft just doesn't understand. That is, a sports fan.
"Why should a champion be booed?" Kraft asked the AP, ignoring that there's approximately no chance a kid in a Colts jersey wouldn't be booed at Gillette Stadium. "She won an intensive competition. She's supposed to be honored." Kraft says Grant will be honored properly at the game Sunday, and, as outraged as the permanently persecuted Patriots populace is about the whole thing, she'll probably get the biggest ovation of the evening.
Good. She deserves it, twice over, for winning and being a good sport. Good-natured booing of the other team is not a crime against humanity. Nobody threw anything. The kid reacted properly, and she's just about the only one.
In other kid-related news, my son, Buster, the game-pickinest 4-year-old who ever got booed by his own dad, has ended his contract holdout and agreed to pick winners of the conference title games. "It's been a long time and I am happy that everything is finally over and I get a chance to be a game-picker again," he said in a statement.
Since the spread of both games is more than six points his picks don't count, nor do those of Daisy, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old south of the frozen tundra. But for the record he did take the two favorites.
The little coward. Boo!
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
San Diego Chargers (11-5) at New England Patriots (16-0)
3 p.m. EST, CBS
As noted, if you're picking the Chargers in this game, you're either a Chargers fan or you're just looking for a 1-in-plenty chance of being able to say, "I called it!" Well, good for you, Sparky, but this column, which is not above that sort of thing at all, has once again taken the pledge on picking against the Pats in the playoffs.
The Chargers somehow rode their reserves and some tipped passes to an upset in Indy last week. It's hard to picture that happening in Foxboro. Quarterback Philip Rivers, nursing an MCL strain in his right knee, figures to play, but he hasn't practiced all week, though he has rehearsed what he'll say to the drunks in the stands.
Backup Billy Volek ran a nice game-winning drive against the Colts, but it's a long way from there to piling up enough points against the Pats, in freezing weather, to outscore one of the best offenses ever.
LaDainian Tomlinson, who hyperextended his left knee Sunday, is also expected to play and is ahead of Rivers in his recovery, but he won't be 100 percent. Tight end Antonio Gates, usually a dangerous weapon, is a shadow of himself with a bad toe. Covered by linebackers Sunday, which generally doesn't work, he caught two passes.
Anything can happen. Balls can bounce off Patriots receivers' hands and into Antonio Cromartie's for a touchdown return or three. Anna Grant, convinced by the crowd's adoration that she's the rightful quarterback, could rush the field and tackle Tom Brady, blowing out his knee.
Just don't hold your breath.
Prediction: New England
Kids: New England (14-point-favorite)
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NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
N.Y. Giants (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)
6:30 p.m. EST, Fox
Cold. It's going to be cold. It's going to be cold in New England too, but it's going to be Lambeau Field cold at Lambeau Field.
The Packers went something like 786 years without losing a home playoff game until 2002, when Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons got 'em. The Packers lost again to Minnesota two years later, so they're no longer invincible at Lambeau, but do you really want to go against Brett Favre when the ball's frozen and the Dallas Cowboys aren't the opponent?
Last week the Giants used their fierce pass rush to harass Tony "Favre 2.0" Romo on the way to an upset win. They'll bring that against Favre too, and they'll bank on the solid running of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw to keep the heat off of Eli Manning. And it might work.
But Favre figures to hang in against that rush better than Romo, who went into a fling-it-off-the-back-foot routine in the second half, with disastrous results, though some of that disaster can be laid at the feet of his receivers -- kind of like how some of the throws that hit their hands lay at their feet Sunday.
Favre can fling it with the most reckless of them -- he is the most reckless of them -- but he'll stand in there and get something on the throw. And he's no longer as reckless as he was for a few years there when he didn't have much talent around him. He threw fewer interceptions this year than any year since 2001.
And let's face it, the Giants didn't beat the Cowboys with their thundering rushing attack. They ran for all of 90 yards. The Giants beat the Cowboys because the Cowboys came unglued.
Romo and his butterfingered receivers couldn't make hay against the Giants' injury-depleted secondary. Favre and his crew should be able to. And with the Giants front seven pinning its ears back and charging at Favre -- their best hope for victory -- Ryan Grant should have running lanes.
Prediction: Green Bay
Kids: Green Bay (7-point-favorite)
Previous column: Marion Jones and a midweek malaise
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