Rematch Weekend: NFL prepares for part two (and three) of classics
Familiar games in Divisional Round and why the OT coin flip absolutely must go
It's somewhat stunning Darren Sproles hasn't touched the ball more in San Diego
A look at playoff officiating crews, Ten Things I Think I Think and much more
Headlines from a newsy little NFL wild-card weekend:
The wild-card results set up Rematch Weekend ... and the rematches are of five regular-season barnburners. Philadelphia beat New York by six, New York beat Philly by five, Carolina beat Arizona by four, Tennessee beat Baltimore by three, Pittsburgh beat San Diego by one. Wow. You can't make this stuff up.
The overtime rule continues to be the dumbest, stupidest, most indefensible rule the NFL has on its books. Giving a coin flip more power than Tony Soprano has now deprived us of a satisfactory ending to two pivotal games this year -- Jets-Patriots in Week 11, when the Patriots and 401-yard passer Matt Cassel never saw the ball in overtime after a heroic fourth-quarter comeback, and Colts-Chargers, when we didn't get to see the NFL MVP even play in the fifth quarter because it was a one-possession overtime.
Coaching news: Eric Mangini very well may get a nice little second act off-off-off-off Broadway -- unless a very big fish in Foxboro does something unexpected.
One by one, here goes:
Rematch Weekend. Flip Four Coins. Over the weekend, only Arizona-Atlanta was a relative snoozer. We had one game go to overtime, another close game get broken up by Ed Reed's acrobatic brilliance, and Brian Westbrook break up a two-point fourth-quarter game by being, well, Brian Westbrook. This weekend will be better, if the regular-season meetings are any indication.
-- Game 1, Saturday, Ravens (6th seed) at Titans (1st). Earlier this season, Oct. 5, at Baltimore: Tennessee 13, Baltimore 10. They should call this one the "First Team To 10 Bowl.'' Baltimore led 10-3 late in the third quarter, and this is when Kerry Collins cemented his 2008 legacy. He took the Titans on a 13-play, 81-yard drive to a Rob Bironas field goal, and on the next possession went 80 yards in 11 plays and won it on a short touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler. Shortly after this, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz spoke for the team when he told Collins, "This is your team. We all believe in you.'' I doubt home-field will matter much in a donnybrook, but Tennessee's glad to have it.
-- Game 2, Saturday, Cardinals (4th) at Panthers (2nd). Earlier this season, Oct. 26, at Charlotte: Carolina 27, Arizona 23. This is the one Arizona loss this season that still has the Cards apoplectic. They led 23-17 with 16 minutes to go and Steve Smith burned them with a 65-yard touchdown catch to take the lead. Then Kurt Warner led a drive to the Panthers 15 and got picked by Jon Beason on a short throw over the middle. They drove to midfield later in the fourth quarter but stalled. Arizona's a bad road team, but this one was anyone's game. If the Cards play the run this weekend nearly as well as they played it Saturday against Atlanta, when they throttled Michael Turner, this will be a game.
-- Game 3, Sunday, Eagles (6th) at Giants (1st). Earlier this season, Nov. 9, at Philadelphia: New York 36, Philadelphia 31. Dec. 7, at the Meadowlands: Philadelphia 20, New York 14. Eight quarters. Philadelphia 51, Giants 50. You can't be happy if you're the Giants to see the Eagles, 4-1 since Week 14, swagger in ... especially since New York is 1-3 since Week 14 and had to go to overtime to win that one. But the best thing for the Giants is rest. Brandon Jacobs and his balky knee should be OK, and he's the one player in the NFC playoffs who should give Eagles mastermind defensive coordinator Jim Johnson some long nights ... assuming Eli Manning can find a weapon in the passing game to take the pressure off Jacobs, which he couldn't do the last time the Eagles and Giants met.
-- Game 4, Sunday, Chargers (4th) at Steelers (2nd). Earlier this season, Nov. 16, at Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh 11, San Diego 10. The Troy Polamalu Invisible Touchdown Game. You remember -- this is the game that should have ended 18-10, or 17-10, or something other than the first 11-10 score in the 89-year history of the NFL. The Steelers led for only 17 minutes of the game on a bitter, snow-showery day at Heinz Field. Darren Sproles touched the ball only three times in the game -- one rush, one reception, one kick return. You think that might change Sunday?
The Boomtown Rats Don't Like Mondays. I Don't Like Overtime. Actually, I love overtime. Great drama. I just hate the NFL's overtime rule, which puts an inordinate value on whether the visiting-team captain calls heads or tails. The Colts called heads Saturday night. It came up tails. So this is how the game sends Tony Dungy into his retirement deliberations -- with the NFL MVP standing on the sidelines, never able to touch the ball with the season on the line. So in 2008, nine of the 15 overtime games have been one-possession periods. Nine out of 15. I know what you overtime-rule lovers are saying: Defense is half the game, so if you want to win in overtime, stop 'em on the first possession and go down and score. True. So why, after every coin flip in overtime, do the winning players and the home crowd (if the home teams wins the flip) get all euphoric? Because they know it's a huge advantage. Who wouldn't rather have the ball first when the first team to score wins? In regular-season history, by the way, 141 games (33 percent of all games) have been won on the first possession. That's 141 unfair games.
Mike Scifres Was Miraculous Saturday Night. Maybe Better Than Darren Sproles. More about both the San Diego punter and mighty mite back deeper in the column, but never, ever, ever do I recall a team having to fight out of so many deep holes as the Colts did Saturday night. Scifres was Kobe scoring 81. A net punting average of more than 50 yards ... unbelievable. "He's the best I've ever seen,'' Norv Turner said after the 23-17 Chargers win. Other than maybe those couple of Arctic playoff games in Foxboro, this might have been the toughest, most physically and mentally taxing game of Peyton Manning's career. You're on the road, you can't hear, you're playing a team with nothing to lose and a defense that's on fire, and you never get the ball on any of your 12 possessions in better field position than your own 33-yard line. The starting points of Indianapolis' 12 drives: 10, 19, 3, 33, 7, 20, 26, 9, 20, 21, 1, 19. I laughed all day Sunday when I kept hearing from the experts about how Peyton Manning didn't look much like an MVP on Saturday night. No crap, Sherlock! Pretty hard to be great when you're on the road in the playoffs and your average starting point all night is the 16-yard line.
I Don't Know Who To Praise More From Sunday's Games This Morning -- Brian Westbrook or Ed Reed. Let's start with Westbrook. This is what I asked him Sunday night, 90 minutes after the Eagles survived their trip to the great north in a 26-14 win over the Vikes: You've played 53 minutes. You've touched the ball 22 times and gotten absolutely nothing done -- 20 carries for 38 yards, and 12 yards on two catches. Zip. Your team is nursing a 16-14 lead, and you've done nothing to help. At what point do you say, It's just not happening for me today? "I think the biggest thing is not to get frustrated," he told me. "I always look forward to the next play. I try to be patient. It's very hard to do it. Very hard. I'm a positive guy. I'm always saying to the guys in the huddle, 'Believe in the next play.' I preach to them, 'We're very close. Very close.' And today, I was lucky. On the sidelines, guys kept telling me, 'Don't worry. Next play! Next play!'
"As a running back, you look for the next crease. On every play, you're looking for the crease. In a game like this, when you're up against such a good defensive front, it's hard to stay that way. Maybe earlier in my career I'd have missed the big play. But I've seen it happen before, and I have such a good line, with guys who keep having faith in me. On this team, I've got excellent blocking by my wide receivers downfield. So I know if I get a chance, I've got a shot to make a big play. If you get down, or you're in the tank, you're not going to be ready when the crease comes.
"We hadn't called the screen much this year, because I think we called it so much last year that defenses are all waiting for it and don't give us a chance to make it work. I bet I've caught less than 20 screens this year. That's not many. But on the sidelines before the series, we were talking about it, so I wasn't surprised they called it. And when I caught it, there was a crease, and I saw it, and Buck [Correll Buckhalter, his running mate in the backfield] threw a great block. I got a little space, and you saw the blocking I had downfield. What a great feeling.''
He lay in the end zone, pig-piled. "Just appreciating it. Exhausted, but appreciating it,'' he said. "You go 53 minutes without making a single play, and then that happens."
How about the Eagles? Eight days ago, they need Oakland to beat Tampa Bay, in Tampa, and they needed either Chicago or Minnesota to lose, and they needed to beat Dallas, at home. Everything happened right. Then they needed to go to Minnesota and win against a team that was 5-1 down the stretch. Everything happened right. And now they go to play the Giants at the Meadowlands. Against the same team in the same place 29 days ago, Philly won by six.
"This is definitely amazing,'' Westbrook said. "Crazy season. We lose in Dallas on a turnover late. We go to Chicago and lose, can't covert on the goal line. We have the crazy tie in Cincinnati. We lose to the 'Skins. We really haven't played a lot of very good games all season, but the way the system is, we get in, and now, we have a chance to get to the Super Bowl. We kind of feel like it's our time to right all the wrongs from this season.''
Now For Ed Reed. If you're like me, what amazes you after Sunday's game is the third interception that flew through Reed's hands in the fourth quarter. You're not used to him missing anything. Rodney Harrison, a pretty good safety himself, covered Baltimore's 27-9 win for NFL Network. I've known Harrison for a long time. He doesn't sugarcoat much. I asked him this morning where Reed ranked on his list of the great ones. "Best ball-hawking safety of all time,'' Harrison said via text-message. "Considering all teams game plan for him, yet he continues to make the impossible plays ... 44 career picks, over 1,000 return yards, numerous touchdowns. Numbers don't lie. Wow.''
Reed's not into the I'm-the-greatest game. He'll let others do it for him, and I'm glad to oblige. The leading interceptor of all time is a safety -- Paul Krause, who had 81. Krause averaged 5.1 picks per season in 16 years. Reed has averaged 6.1 a year, in seven years. Each has had two years with nine interceptions or more. "Every great player in history was great in his day,'' he told me afterward. "Players can dominate in their time, and that's great. I really don't think of myself compared to other guys.''
On this day, the Ravens came into Miami thinking turnovers. Miami had turned it over only 13 times in 16 games. Here, Baltimore stole it five times, four times on interceptions. "That was our thought all week,'' Reed said. "We knew the key was going to be to take it away. They were a really efficient offense. But that's what we do as a defense -- we force you to do things you don't want to do.'' Listening, Tennessee?
And Now For the Employment Gossip. It's no coincidence that every network on planet earth -- except maybe Al Jazeera -- had Eric Mangini as the Cleveland's coaching leader in the clubhouse. Either we're all being totally snowed (gee, that's never happened before), or Mangini's going to be the coach of the Browns soon. The topic to me that's as interesting as the Mangini one is what it means for New England vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, who is clearly the top candidate out there to run a front office. Two weeks ago, I was sure Cleveland owner Randy Lerner was going to fire coach Romeo Crennel and thought he'd fire GM Phil Savage -- and if he did, he'd lay out the red carpet from Foxboro to Berea to make sure he stole Pioli from Bill Belichick's side. But clearly, something has happened in the last few days that I didn't expect.
First, I have to issue a major mea culpa to the radio listeners who heard me say the other day Mangini would never get the Cleveland job. Stupid me; never say never in January. I thought in midweek Mangini would never get the Cleveland job because I thought Pioli was going to be the general manager, and yes, someday the Manginis and Piolis and Belichicks will link arms and sing "Kumbaya,'' but I don't think they're all quite ready to do that right now. (At least not without metal detectors being used for their grand reunion.) My apologies for misleading you.
But it leaves me questioning Pioli's future. Could he get swept off his feet by a man he'll have much in common with, Kansas City owner Clark Hunt, when they meet this week? Will Pioli return to the safety of the dynastic womb in New England? That's something I never thought a possibility in December, but the longer it goes without him leaving the nest, the more chance there is he might stay.
Hey, it's fun to speculate. It's like these games. Who really knows?