For football fans, the playoffs are always momentous. But one of this weekend’s games, between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, is especially significant. For among the questions that will be answered will be one that has long puzzled mankind: Does God exist?
In an attempt to answer that question, the tortured French philosopher Blaise Pascal came up with something called “Pascal’s wager,” also known as “Bet on God.” Pascal’s argument went something like this: Man cannot know for sure whether or not God exists, but he has nothing to lose and everything to gain if God does exist, so he should “bet on God.”
It wasn’t exactly the most overpowering argument for the existence of a supreme being ever made, but it is one that millions of atheists, agnostics and other non-believers have been forced to take seriously since Tim Tebow pulled on a Denver Broncos’ uniform.
The devout Mr. Tebow has been the worst thing to hit non-believers since the Spanish Inquisition. Tebow throws passes that make Anthony Weiner’s look accurate. His noodle-armed play at the quarterback position has taken the league back 60 years, to the leather-helmet era when completing a pass was like throwing a no-hitter. “This is what I see, and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and everywhere I see nothing but obscurity. Nature offers me nothing that is not a matter of doubt and disquiet.” Pascal said that, but it could have been Broncos coach John Fox commenting on the location of one of Tebow’s deep balls.
And yet, this son of Southern Baptist missionaries, star of a notorious antiabortion Super Bowl ad and warrior of Christ, keeps winning. Winning in the last second. Winning because other teams would make unthinkable mistakes. Winning against all odds.
This has been weird and unnerving all year, and the fact that Tebow passed for 316 yards and averaged 31.6 yards per pass last week, in what was obviously a divine reference to John 3:16, made it even more so. But it was still possible for a heretic to chalk it all up to mere chance – until last week’s wild card game. Tebow was facing the Pittsburgh Steelers, the No. 1 defense in the league. There was no chance in hell – pardon the expression – that Tebow was going to beat the Steelers. But he did – and he beat them by throwing the ball.
The Vegas odds on God existing suddenly jumped 30 points.
Thanks to Tebow, the non-faith of millions is hanging by a thread. And if he manages to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxboro, the issue will be resolved once and for all. Pascal’s bet will be paid by the Man Upstairs, and all those who pick the Pats will find themselves descending into the Lake of Eternal Fire.
So it’s with considerable trepidation that I’m putting my money, and the fate of my potentially immortal soul, on the Patriots.
Here’s why I’m violating Pascal’s wager and betting against God. Tebow may be under divine protection, but he’s gotten a lot of help from mere mortals on earth. Like Steelers’ defense coordinator Dick LeBeau, who was so worried about the Broncos’ running game that he crowded the line of scrimmage with not just eight but sometimes nine players, leaving his cornerbacks one-on-one with the Broncos’ receivers, with no safety help. Playing without safety Ryan Clark, the Steelers’ corners, especially Ike Taylor, had a bad day. Tebow made some excellent throws, but on a number of plays his receivers were so open he could have hit them with a Nerf ball.
To which, defenders of the faith will say, “So what? The Steelers have a good secondary. The Patriots’ secondary is so bad, playing them is like cheating against yourself in the old Foto-Electric Football game, where if you lay the ‘slant pass’ offensive card on top of the 'off tackle run defense' card you’re guaranteed a 60-yard gain every time. How are these human colanders going to stop the Broncos?”
The answer is: They aren’t. Tebow, who is actually looking a little more like an NFL quarterback, will complete some passes, and the Broncos should be able to run effectively as well. But the Patriots will not make the Steelers’ mistake and bring their safeties up on every play: They’ll make Tebow work his way down the field. The Broncos will score points against the horrendous New England defense, but not enough to keep up with the great Tom Brady (whose monster season got lost in this all-time Year of the Quarterback) and his insanely good inside passing game. The Patriots’ two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, are unstoppable, combining for a laughable 169 catches, 2,237 yards, and 24 TDs. Combine them with slot man Wes Welker, the baddest white boy in the league, and the Broncos just won’t be able to score enough points to keep up.
I better be right. If I’m not, I’ll see some of you downstairs.
49ers vs. Saints
While the Broncos-Patriots game will resolve the existence of God, the 49er-Saints game will answer another philosophical conundrum: Can an immovable object stop an irresistible force?
The Saints are the irresistible force. They are one of the greatest offensive football teams in history. Their quarterback, Drew Brees, just shattered one of the sport’s most venerable records, Dan Marino’s single-season passing yardage mark. They have, as the announcers used to intone ad nauseam about my team, the 49ers, back in the Montana-Young days, “so many weapons.” They were already unstoppable with Brees passing to Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and his monster tight end, Jimmy Graham, and a potent rushing attack led by Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory; the addition of Darren Sproles, the tiny all-purpose back who is quicker than any player in football, was almost L.A. Lakers-like in its unfairness. They averaged more than 34 points a game and were successful on third down a mind-numbing 56.7 percent of the time – another NFL record. Watching Brees in the second half of the wild card game against the Lions last week, it appeared that on every play he had his choice of a 20-yard completion, a 30-yard completion or a 40-yard completion. It’s an offensive juggernaut comparable to the “greatest show on turf” Los Angeles Rams. The Saints are the hottest team in football, winning their last eight regular season games before beating the Lions.
Standing in their way is one of the league’s stoutest defenses, led by the best linebacker in football, Patrick Willis, his almost equally talented inside-backer clone Navorro Bowman, the indefatigable defensive lineman Justin Smith, killer rookie pass rusher Alden Smith, and a young, ball-hawking secondary. All of them hit hard, they rarely miss tackles, and they are extremely well-coached and disciplined. It is next to impossible to run on them. Their only weakness is that they occasionally give up the long pass, a vice that could quickly prove fatal against Brees and company.
In addition to their league-best kicking game, the 49ers will have one huge advantage: They will be playing on natural grass at Candlestick Park, which will slow down the speedy Saints. But nothing can consistently stop an offense like New Orleans’. To win, the hit-and-miss 49ers offense, which has stumbled repeatedly in the red zone this year, will have to score more points than it normally does. That means that Alex Smith, the consummately-jerked-around 49ers quarterback who has had a heartwarming renaissance this year under certain Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh, will have to play at the top of his game, as will tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. If running back Frank Gore, who despite gaining 1,200 yards has had a strange, up-and-down season, returns to his unique form, hurling himself into the tiniest cracks, disappearing in a forest of huge bodies and suddenly exploding out of them, the 49ers just might be able to score enough points to beat the Saints. That is a big “if”: contrary to national media commentary, the 49ers’ offensive success this year has been due as much to Alex Smith as Gore. Opposing teams have routinely stacked the box against the run, forcing Smith to audible to pass plays on first down.
All year, the 49ers offense has been a step off, whether due to play calling or execution or breakdowns on the offensive line. But they have the talent to put together a complete game. To win this game, they will have to.
My brain says Saints, but as a lifelong 49ers fan I’ve got to stand behind the red and gold. 49ers, 30-28.
Packers vs. Giants
The Green Bay-New York Giants game poses another philosophical question: What is the sound of one loss clapping? The Packers are the defending champions. They went a league-best 15-1 behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose spectacular play led many experts to acclaim him not only as the best quarterback in the game today, but the greatest ever to play the game. And yet, when they lost to the mediocre Kansas City Chiefs 19-14, corrosive doubts appeared. The Packers’ weaknesses – a shaky defense, an inconsistent running game and occasional difficulties in pass protection – were ruthlessly exposed by the Chiefs, who played aggressive bump-and-run coverage, pressured Rogers off the edges and managed to put up enough points to win.
Those doubts, combined with the fact that the Giants are peaking at the right time, has made this game much more intriguing than it would have been two months ago. The Giants are one of those teams nobody wants to play: After surviving a rash of injuries, they had to make it into the playoffs the hard way, dispatching the Jets and Cowboys to make the wild card round then soundly defeating the tough Atlanta Falcons to make it into the final eight. With their ferocious pass rush, led by Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Omenyiora and Justin Tuck, they have the ability to force Rodgers out of the pocket. On offense, quarterback Eli Manning is having a superb year, his wide receivers are extremely nasty and the Godzilla-like running back Brandon Jacobs, who sometimes seems to be running through Tokyo Harbor, returned to form against Atlanta, smashing linebackers like toy replicas of skyscrapers. Green Bay’s defense gives up a lot of yards (though only an average number of points, largely because they lead the league in takeaways), so if the Giants can avoid turnovers, they should be able to score points.
But the doubts about the Packers are overblown. Their defense did not have the year it did last year, but it still has plenty of talent, including first-ballot Hall of Famer Charles Woodson and ferocious linebacker Clay Matthews. And then there’s No. 4. The combination of that one Packers loss and Drew Brees’ record-setting season led everyone to get an instant case of amnesia and forget just how extraordinary a year Aaron Rodgers had. Confronted with Brees, Rodgers must feel a little like a guy who wins the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, only to discover that his roommate is placing his Nobel trophy on the fireplace. It won’t matter: Rodgers will slice and dice the Giants’ tough defense, and the Giants won’t be able to score enough points to keep up. Packers, 28-21.
Ravens vs. Texans
The question posed by the last of the four games, between the Baltimore Ravens and the Houston Texans, is a faceoff between what the mystic sage William Blake called “innocence and experience.” (OK, this particular philosophical conundrum is a stretch, but give me a break -- it isn’t easy coming up with these labored allegories.) All other things being equal, do you put your faith in a naive youth, who has little experience but carries no baggage, or in a veteran who has been through the wars but has been wounded by criticism? Is the fresh-faced kid more likely to come through, or the sadder but wiser adult?
I’m referring to the duel between much-maligned Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, and rookie Texans QB T.J. Yates. Football games are always duels between quarterbacks, but this particular one-on-one matters more than most because of the eight playoff teams, these two are the most like each other. Both have powerful defenses. The Ravens (you have to love a football team named after a morbidly heavy-handed Edgar Allen Poe poem) have the great running back Ray Rice. The Texans counter with another great running back, the eccentric running back Arian Foster.
(Since theology plays such a large role in these playoffs, Foster is worth a brief digression. He was not, unfortunately, named after Arius, founder of Arianism, the most important Christian heresy: If he had been, he and Tebow would have been on opposite sides of the Christological questions debated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. But their trademark poses do constitute a theological throw-down. Tebow’s famous “Thinker” pose is a prayerful Christian attitude. By contrast, the little bow that Foster takes after scoring is derived from eastern religions. “It’s a Hindu greeting that means ‘I see the God in you,’” Foster said. “It’s a Namaste. It means respect. It’s me paying my respect to the game of football.” Unfortunately, since their teams are both in the AFC, the world will not be able to witness the clash of religious gestures that would take place if Tebow and Foster scored in the same game.)
In any event, the two teams are mirror images of each other, which puts the focus on the quarterbacks. And unfortunately for Joe Flacco, many observers have failed to see the god in him. Like Alex Smith and Mark Sanchez, he has been damned with faint praise as a “game manager,” when not being outright excoriated. The criticisms are largely unjustified, but Flacco will have to win this game to quiet them.
He will. Old age and treachery will defeat youth and beauty. Ravens, 24-14.
Coming on Sunday: Analysis of the weekend’s games, plus specious comparisons between football and quantum mechanics!