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Celtic Pride: Can Ya Feel It?

Let’s get something straight: these are not your father’s Celtics.They are not led by the “Big Three”. They don’t play in the musty heat box colloquially known as “The Gaahden”. And until they hang banner #17 over the famed parquet floor and collect the requisite hardware, they will only be another on a lengthy list of exceptional Celtic teams to fall short of greatness. Call me a hater, call me a cynic (I am neither), but like it or not that’s the basketball standard in Beantown; the standard set by the Russells and Havliceks and Birds and McHales. It’s a standard that, in light of tragedy and incompetence, was almost wiped clean from our memories.

Now it’s back and as relevant as ever. Celtic Pride, it would seem, is the ultimate double-edged sword, though I sense few complaints these days. The TD Banknorth Garden is being mentioned in the same breath as “The Garden”. Pierce, Allen and Garnett are drawing comparisons to Bird, McHale and Parish. The Celtics as a whole are being compared to the Patriots. The crazy thing? All are legitimate utterances, albeit totally premature. However, I didn’t decide to write this column now for no reason.

Two days after Christmas, the Green beat the Sonics in Seattle for their twenty-fourth win. They won 24 games last year too. With 55 more losses. Symmetry, and its eye-opening implications, that’s the first reason for the timing of this piece. Second is the fact that with 27 games now in the books and the C’s standing at 24-3, they have played exactly one-third of the season and are squarely on pace to tie the ’96 Bulls single-season NBA-record of 72 wins. Last, and most jaw-dropping, is this: no team in Celtics history, not a single one of 16 world champions, has ever begun a season better than 23-3.

Two obvious questions have emerged: 1) Can the Celtics win 72 games? and 2) Can the Celtics win the NBA title? After the Celtics-Sonics game, which aired on TNT, Charles Barkley and his sidekick Kenny Smith debated basically that. Actually, Smith started it by saying that Boston is officially “flirting with the Bulls.” That innuendo set off Barkley, who vehemently objected to such a proclamation, retorting that, “If they win 72 games I’ll walk from here to Phoenix…in a speedo.” Let the record show that TNT headquarters are in Atlanta (and who’s to say Barkley doesn’t walk from his hotel to the studio in a speedo everyday?). But I digress.

The fact is that this discussion has reached the highest echelons of the NBA media–for the uninitiated, Sir Charles sits alone on his throne at the top while Smith is his most esteemed dignitary–which is a good thing not only for the Celtics, but for basketball. Back to the original questions. Yes, the Celtics could win 72 games. Yes, the Celtics could win the NBA title. No, there’s not a shot in hell they could do both.

First, let’s show why they are capable of attaining greatness in some form. For the sake of argument, we’ll agree that 72 wins and a loss to the Spurs in the Finals is still a type of greatness, even if it’s an obvious notch below 60 wins and a championship (I believe this idea has been exhausted by the whole what-if-the-Patriots-are-18-0-and-lose-the-Super Bowl brouhaha).

You often hear coaches and analysts saying, it’s not just that they’re winning games, it’s the way in which they’re winning them. This couldn’t be more applicable. The Celtics are tops in the NBA in arguably the most important category, opponents field goal percentage. Teams are converting only 41 percent of their shots against Boston, while the C’s overall field goal percentage is 47 percent (3rd in the NBA). They are also shooting the ball exceptionally well from beyond the three-point arc, a vital aspect of championship teams since the shot was invented about 25 years ago. At 39 percent, the Celtics’ long range shooting is bested by only Toronto. They are also sharing the ball with the fluidity and unselfishness of a throwback team. As a squad they are averaging almost six assists more than their opponents, good for second in the league.

That all adds up to 24 victories in 27 tries by an average of 13.9 points per game, far and away the best in the league (Detroit is second at 9.4). Let’s also not forget that their three losses came 1) at Orlando, a game in which they were down 20 and came back only to have Paul Pierce miss a potential game-winning shot, 2) at Cleveland, when they succumbed in overtime after Lebron dropped 11 in the extra session, and 3) in Boston against Detroit by two points earned at the charity stripe by Chauncey Billups, an NBA Finals MVP. In other words, this team is either going to beat you into submission or make you work 48 grueling minutes (or more) for a single win. That’s the mark of a dominant team, a history-making team. And that’s the reason the 2007-08 Celtics could win 72 games.

But…….

Unlike football, where the Patriots will have the benefit of a bye-week in the postseason to justify playing their starters in a ‘meaningless’ regular season finale, the Celtics will be granted no such luxury come April. The NBA playoffs are long. Very, very long. Fittingly for the Green, it will take 16 wins to pave the way to and make official that elusive championship number-17. The “16 to 17” mantra will assuredly be collectively tougher to harness than the “three games to glory” blueprint the Patriots have established and replicated this decade. Don’t get me wrong; winning even a single game in the NFL Playoffs, let alone three, is supremely difficult (but the Patriots are the Patriots).

In the case of the Celtics, beating four different teams four times is harder. Age is absolutely the deciding factor. If Paul, KG and Ray were 27, 28 and 29, and surrounded by a couple of crafty veterans, I’d say the Bulls’ 72 and 16 was matchable. But Pierce is 30, Garnett is 31 and Allen is 32. That makes a huge difference when talking about a minimum-100 game season. So the easy answer will be to get the three stars some time to collect their breath before the real games commence.

Then there’s the point guard factor. Rajon Rondo has already made strides through the first third of this season, but don’t be fooled; he still must make half of a quantum leap if he wants to entertain any notions of piloting a championship team, head to head against Billups, Steve Nash and Tony Parker (two of whom he’ll inevitably have to clash with).

I’ve said from the beginning that the Celtics would be back in the NBA Finals this year, and obviously have no reason to waver from that assertion. But 72 preceding 17? Well that’s still a whole other thing. Those pertinent questions won’t even hint at being answered until March, and ultimately, June.

Kenny Smith, even if he was justifiably shot down by Sir Charles, probably summed it up best: the Celtics are flirting with the Bulls. As the final hours tick down on 2007, that much is undeniable. While flirtation is usually fleeting, let’s be real: these days, even cynics would find it difficult to contend that the Celtics’ run is destined to be short-lived.

NFL Playoff Picture

Two weeks left. Lot’s to be hashed out, except at the top. In the AFC, the Patriots have clinched home field throughout the playoffs and the Colts have secured the vital second bye. The Packers and Cowboys have both clinched byes in the NFC, but with identical 12-2 records, home field is still up in the air. Dallas owns the tiebreaker against Green Bay by virtue of its head to head victory, so if the Cowboys win out (at Carolina, at Washington), the top spot will be theirs.

After that it gets complicated. Eight teams will be playing wild card weekend, with three (Tampa Bay, Seattle, San Diego) already clinching their respective divisions. While the Bucs, Seahawks and Chargers are in, it remains to be seen whether those teams will end up with #3 or #4 seeds. That leaves four teams (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Tennessee) battling for three spots in the AFC, and four teams (New York, Washington, Minnesota and New Orleans) duking it out for two spots in the NFC. So who’ll still be playing football on the first weekend of 2008?

NFC

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) at San Francisco; versus Carolina

Best case scenario NFC #3 seed

It’s likely that…The Bucs will be the #4 seed and host a wild card game. They’ve already capped off another zany NFC South season in which the last place team from the previous year wins the division. Though even at 11-5, if they want the third seed they’ll still need help from Seattle, a team they lost to in Week 1. The Bucs defense has a few of the usual suspects (Derek Brooks, Ronde Barber, Greg Spires) from past squads, as well as some new faces (Cato June and Kevin Carter). Combined they’ve led a unit that is tied for best in the NFL in points allowed (15.6) and third in total defense.

Seattle Seahawks (9-5) versus Baltimore; at Atlanta

Best case scenario NFC #3 seed

It’s likely that…The Hawks will beat the NFL implosions better known as the Ravens and Falcons and snag the third seed. Who would have thought that a 20-6 Week 1 victory over the Bucs would be the difference between the #3 and #4 slots in the NFC? Not many. What is established is the Seahawks have proved themselves to be the NFC’s best closing team. Their success over the last four years makes it difficult to label them a “dark horse”, but let’s be clear about one thing: Seattle doesn’t lose postseason games at Qwest Field

Washington Redskins (7-7) at Minnesota; versus Dallas

Best case scenario NFC #6 seed

It’s likely that…A promising season turned-tragic after the loss of Sean Taylor will end just short of the playoffs for the Redskins. To mentally and emotionally regroup enough to win two of three football games after such a trying time is remarkable. Taylor was the probably the team’s MVP before his murder, which has made it even more difficult to bounce back for Washington. For the Skins to have a realistic chance they have to win both of their remaining games. Right now it seems like even a split is implausible.

Minnesota Vikings (8-6) versus Washington; at Denver

Best case scenario NFC #5 seed

It’s likely that…The Vikings beat Washington and lose to Denver, securing the final NFC playoff spot. Behind Adrian Peterson, Minnesota has looked downright frightening throughout their current five-game winning streak. Included in that run were decisive wins against the Giants and Lions, which primed the Vikings for the playoff push they’re in the middle of. It’s tough to sustain that high level of play for an extended period of time. It’s possible the Vikings will sew up a playoff spot this week. Either way, a game in frosty Denver at Mile High against a bitter Broncos team will be a tall order for a young Vikings team.

New Orleans Saints (7-7) versus Philadelphia; at Chicago

Best case scenario NFC #6 seed

It’s likely that…The Saints will break even at 8-8 and end up on the outside looking in. Very rarely does a team start 0-4 and even sniff the playoffs, but that’s exactly what the Saints have done. However there is truly no room for error when trying to rebound from such a horrid first quarter, and the Saints erred big time two weeks ago. When the season is over, they’ll look back at the game they gave away against Tampa Bay as the death blow to their improbable turnaround.

New York Giants (9-5) at Buffalo; versus New England

Best case scenario NFC #5 seed

It’s likely that…The Giants will knock off Buffalo and clinch a playoff berth before using the Patriots game as a bye week to prepare for the playoffs. There has been endless debate in New York about whether or not the Giants should try to prevent history and load up the chambers for a war with the Patriots. While a full-strength Giants team could present a formidable challenge to the Patriots perfect season quest, it makes no sense. Preparing a team to advance in the playoffs is all that matters. Expect Tom Coughlin to follow that script.

AFC

San Diego Chargers (9-5) versus Denver; at Oakland

Best case scenario AFC #3 seed

It’s likely that...The Chargers take the #3 seed after rolling over Denver and Oakland. Lest we forget these are the same players that went 14-2 last year. Norv Turner may not be as good of a regular season coach as Marty Schottenheimer, but there’s no way he can be as bad of a playoff coach as his predecessor. If there’s one divisional round game I’m already looking ahead to, it’s Colts-Chargers. Remember, San Diego is the only team other than New England to beat the Colts this year, and they are playing much better football than they were when the two teams last met, in early November.

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) at St. Louis; at Baltimore

Best case scenario AFC #3 seed

It’s likely that…The Steelers recover from their lull, put Anthony Smith’s ludicrous and juvenile “guarantee” behind them and hold off the charging-Browns in the AFC North, which will give them the fourth seed and a home game in the first round of the playoffs. The Pittsburgh “Steel City” defense has let them down in both crucial facets of the game the last two weeks, against the Patriots and Jaguars. First they watched Tom Brady throw for 399 yards, then they got run over by Jacksonville’s rushing offense, which gained over 200 yards on the ground. Troy Polamalu will be key to the Steelers righting the ship defensively.

Cleveland Browns (9-5) at Cincinnati; versus San Francisco

Best case scenario AFC #3 seed

It’s likely that…The Browns wrap up the final AFC playoff spot with a win against the 49ers. If they hadn’t lost twice to the Steelers, Cleveland would be controlling its own destiny in the AFC North. Regardless, it’s been a special season for Romeo Crennel and Derek Anderson in the city that rocks. It’s appearing more and more unlikely that the Browns and Steelers will meet for a third time in the wild card round, but if that ends up being the case, an old rivalry could really heat up.

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) versus Oakland; at Houston

Best case scenario AFC #5 seed

It’s likely that…The Jaguars will again be a 12-win wild card team because they’re in a division with the Colts. Most recently, in 2005, the Jags won 12 games (more than each wild card team) and were forced to go on the road to New England in the first round because of the Colts. Even on the road they will be a tough out, as they proved with their win in Pittsburgh last week. Fred Taylor is the most under-appreciated running back of the last decade and David Garrard runs as efficient an offense as there is in the league.

Tennessee Titans (8-6) versus NY Jets; at Indianapolis

Best case scenario AFC #6 seed

It’s likely that…Like last year, the Titans will end up being the AFC team with too little too late. Like the Saints, Tennessee committed the cardinal sin in the NFL by blowing a playoff-like game late in the season. Against San Diego, the Titans had a chance to kill the clock and secure a victory, but failed. Now, unless they win out and get some help, they too will be scorning an opportunity lost.

Stretch Run for the Patriots

And so the rat returns to face the perpetrator. Now it’ll get interesting.

Or perhaps not.

The Patriots are 13-0, one win away from joining the ’72 Dolphins as the only team to win fourteen regular season games without a loss. Unforeseen nail-biters against Philly and Baltimore are in the rear-view; so too is a dispatching of the Steelers, formerly billed as “the last hurdle”. All that’s left to tackle (among an assortment of Jets, Dolphins and Giants) is history. The formality of formalities.

While Patriots-speak forbids peering down the road at what may be, it’s nearly impossible not to see the finish line taking form. On Sunday against the Jets, be it rain or shine, well predicted-Nor’easter or meteorological hype, the Patriots are going to hand Mangini’s boys a beating. It’s going to be fun, for sure, but interesting? All the media wants to know is what will ultimatley be icier: the conditions on the field in Foxborough or the post-massacre handshake between coaches. While Coach Bill would never reveal a goal loftier than winning one football game that’s next on the schedule, the eternally curt-Belichick gave writers and fans a singular slice of something other than humble pie during his midweek press conference leading up to the Jets game.

The questions were naturally focused on how “the handshake” would go down, to which the monotonous guru responded predictably: “Right now my focus is on getting ready for the New York Jets.” Mmm hmm.

Anything else, coach?

“High-fives, I haven’t really thought too much about that,” he continued. “Cartwheels.”

Whoa, rewind that. Was that (gulp!) humor emanating from the robotic minister of Patriots information? Did the coach’s inner comedian suffer a Freudian slip? Uh, no. Judging from the wily smirk that followed the quip, in a moment that brought brief but distinct animation to an otherwise insipid public persona, it sure as heck seemed like Bill was temporarily deviating from the token replies established by his personally accumulated guidebook to press conferences, “Belichick Media Responses 1A through 999Z”. In a split second Bill delivered a one-two punch that left the press corps reeling. First a joke…then a grin??

Since it is common knowledge that at the podium Belichick doesn’t so much as scratch his nose without calculation, one could only wonder what he was really trying to say. I mean we are talking about a guy whose total number of recorded smiles in his Patriots-tenure could be counted on one hand.

Was he foreshadowing a rehearsed post-game routine that would involve pirouettes and would thoroughly rub bitter defeat in the face of his protege-turned-squealer? Nah, Bill’s never really been the melodramatic type. More probable is the possibility that he was using some media-driven triviality to express his general feelings about the state of Patriot-affairs at this point in the 2007 season. Because from a Patriots point of view, things are looking so downright peachy these days, apparently a smile was in order.

The goal of Belichick’s Patriots since he took over the team in 2000 has always been the same: get to the games that matter, the games in December and January, and enter those games as the stronger and more meticulously prepared team. When the weather gets colder and the season is already 12-odd games in the books, it is schemes, game-planning and the mental toughness to go sixty minutes that come to the forefront. Under Bill, with countless different inserted-working parts over the years, it is in those circumstances that the Patriots have thrived.

Since 2001, New England has gone a combined 38-7 (.844) over the last month of the regular season and through the playoffs. Belichick and Brady are 12-2 in the postseason together. Translation: this is their time. So what does this have to do with one smirk from Belichick in relation to a very specific topic? In this sportswriters opinion, everything.

What Belichick now sees, even if he’ll never come close to admitting it, is the perfection he’s sought since before this latest Jets game, before CameraGate and even before the start of the ’07 campaign. It all began back in Indy last January, in the AFC Championship. The Patriots were supposed to win that game. Belichick knew it. Brady knew it. Josh McDaniels and Scott Pioli and the Kraft’s knew it. We all did. The Patriots were up to their old tricks: they were beating a team with superior talent on the biggest stage simply by being mentally and physically tougher, by being better-coached, by making fewer mistakes, and by collectively knowing that they’d make the one game-changing play required to advance or win a championship.

But they didn’t. They couldn’t. For once it was the Patriots’ opposition that was able to make the adjustments. For once it was the other team making the championship-clinching play. For the first time since Belichick and Brady hooked up, the “inferior talent but superior team” factor that had defined the glory of their improbable triumphs against the Rams and Steelers and previous Colts’ outfits had finally come back to bite them in the rear. Against Indy, they were again outmatched skill-wise, but the difference was this time they actually lost the game.

Thus commenced an entire shift in the modus operandi of the Patriots’ brass. Never again would a lack of talent thwart the Patriots in their quest to become the franchise that redefined NFL-history. So in trotted Adalius Thomas, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. Perfection was the un-divulged goal from square one. However, before this new team even had a chance to come together, Eric Mangini broke an unspoken coaches code–throwing kerosene on a fire that had started burning in Indy last year–and morphed a New England goal into a Patriot-vendetta.

No one said it would be easy, and as much as Belichick and his team believed it could happen, perfection would still have to be earned. After storming back against the Colts and surviving the Ravens, the Patriots have shown they are up to the task.

Yes, they still have six more games before goals can be achieved and vendettas settled. But the point is, this is their time. Games against the lowly Jets, the hapless Dolphins and the Giants jayvee squad will formalize a perfect 16-0 season and put the Patriots exactly where they want to be: in Foxborough with two games at Gillette for the right to return to the Super Bowl.

Indeed, I gleaned all this conjecture from a single smirk. But I’ll ask you this: if we’ve already seen Belichick crack a smile this season, a happening that in past years has only been witnessed after an Adam Vinatieri title-winning kick, what could still be to come?

I for one have a feeling he’s saving the cartwheels for Phoenix.

LSU’s Wild Ride to the Big Game

As soon as LSU conquered the land’s toughest football conference last Saturday, the Tigers and their loyal pack were resigned to the hard truth that a possible BCS crown had already been lost. SEC champions for the first time since its last national championship in 2003, LSU knew it wouldn’t be enough. A computer–in conjunction with writers and coaches–had decided that a couple of one loss teams, West Virginia and Missouri, were superior to the twice-downed-in-triple-overtime Tigers. And that was that.

Only a miracle could save the Tigers. Actually two.

Check that, two and a half.

Miracle number one came in the form of the formidable Oklahoma Sooners. Oklahoma too had seen its title hopes crushed after a loss at Texas Tech. Oklahoma still found its way to the Big 12 championship game, where the perennial conference power-Sooners faced Missouri, a team it had already beaten by ten points earlier in the season. Accordingly Oklahoma was favored entering the rematch with the top-ranked Tigers. They pummeled Missouri for a second time, this bout by three touchdowns, which ultimately raised the question: which occurrence was more miraculous–Oklahoma beating the number one team in the country or the number one team in the country being Missouri? Subjectivity aside, Missouri was out but all that meant was Ohio State was in.

LSU needed miracle number two, the true miracle, to have a realistic shot of leapfrogging the five teams necessary for securing second place in the final BCS standings. The game in question was #2 West Virginia hosting unranked Pittsburgh. Also known as “The Backyard Brawl”, WVU-Pitt is traditionally adequately summed up by its joint-nickname. The key word being “traditionally”. This season West Virginia, led by quarterback and Heisman-candidate Pat White, had staked its claim as a national contender while Pitt had languished as Big East bottom-feeders. With the line Las Vegas had set, West Virginia by 29 points, it appeared that a backyard beat-down was in the cards. Didn’t happen. The Panthers shocked the mortified Mountaineers and their rugged fans, 13-9. By the time LSU’s charter flight from Atlanta had landed in Baton Rouge, the table was set.

What needed to happen next was for the Tigers to get the official invitation to dinner–a summons that would only be proposed at the behest of a computer.

Due to the convoluted nature of the BCS mathematical formula and the fact that the entire system was being tested by a handful of teams all vying for the desired permutation that would spit them out in the top two, the human element was going to be crucial. Since the polls (Harris and Coaches) represent two-thirds of the BCS compilation, the six computer rankings used as the other third of the BCS formula were going to hold far less weight. As long as there was a consensus between polls on the number two team in the country, the BCS do-dad would likely concur.

So LSU had to wait for one more small miracle by putting its fate in the hands of the voters, who as we all know can be fickle at times. One of four teams–LSU, Georgia, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech–would have to be number two. Voters tend to stick by the guiding principle of “it’s not about losing, but rather when you lose”. In respect to the teams LSU was contending with the Tigers couldn’t feel very confident considering they were the most recent of the four to be defeated, and at home no less on the day after Thanksgiving. Oklahoma last lost on November 17; Virginia Tech on October 25; and Georgia way back on October 6. However, with a little deeper digging you could toss aside all conventional wisdom.

Oklahoma lost its two games to unranked teams (Colorado and Texas Tech) and only beat three ranked teams (Texas and twice Missouri). Virginia Tech lost to LSU by 41 points at Tiger Stadium. And Georgia, although beating four ranked opponents (including Kentucky, who beat LSU), couldn’t get by Tennessee, which was precisely what prevented them from gaining a head to head shot against the Tigers for the SEC championship.

The resume of LSU dwarfed those of its three competitors. Of the Tigers’ 11 wins, six were against ranked teams (Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee). Each of their two losses came in triple-overtime in true SEC-blood games against Kentucky and Arkansas. And to compound the drama, in the hours leading up to the SEC championship against the Volunteers, LSU was thrust into pondering life in the near future without its head coach Les Miles (who had been granted permission to speak with his alma mater, Michigan, about its coaching vacancy) and its defensive coordinator Bo Pellini (who appears headed to Nebraska). Then the Tigers had to play the game itself without their starting quarterback. The injured-Matt Flynn was replaced by sophomore Ryan Perrilloux, who in an MVP-performance, won the game despite playing through an injury on his throwing hand sustained during the contest.

LSU’s immediate reward for reclaiming the SEC? A birth in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Any other year an LSU appearance in the Sugar Bowl would have the state of Louisiana thumping. After Saturday’s game though, the sugar wasn’t tasting so sweet. While the Tigers were assured of playing a BCS game in the Superdome, it wasn’t the one they had envisioned throughout the ’07 season. This year, so it happened, was New Orleans’ turn to host the BCS National Championship and it sure seemed like the Tigers were going to miss the party.

Not until the finishing touches were put on one predictable and one epic choke, and not until those chokes were assessed by the voting powers-that-be were Tiger fans finally rewarded with that invitation they’d been expecting since two-a-days began last summer. An invitation to travel into their backyard and compete for a national title.

While the reality is LSU will likely win the national championship in a de facto home game, the simplicity of one winner-take-all game that has evolved from the chaos of an unprecedented and enthralling SEC campaign is almost an anticlimax for LSU fans. Between two triple-overtime losses and three other games in which the Tigers rose from the ashes (against Florida, Auburn and Alabama, all games in which the Tigers came from behind in the waning minutes or seconds) Tiger fans must feel as if they’ve been stuck in a centrifuge since the beginning of October; they may no longer be plastered against the wall but their heads are still spinning.

Once they regain their collective equilibrium they’re going to realize that no one game could compare to the five heart-stopping battles they waged within their own conference. I chronicled one of those struggles, the Auburn game, which I attended while the Red Sox were simultaneously making a fierce ALCS comeback against the Indians. Much like LSU after the Arkansas game, the Red Sox were all but written off after falling behind three games to one against Cleveland. When the seemingly impossible finally happened and the Sox clinched the pennant after three straight wins, Red Sox Nation gleefully looked ahead to the grandest stage in baseball, the World Series. But deep down we all knew the true trials of willpower were behind us. All that laid ahead was business. The business of winning a championship.

LSU ran the gauntlet that was the SEC this year. Like the Red Sox in the ALCS, the Tigers escaped battered and bruised if not preciously close to knocked out, but they escaped nonetheless. Boston, after finally putting away the Indians in Game 7 at Fenway Park, took four straight from the Colorado Rockies to win its second World Series in four years.

Expect the Tigers to follow in kind with their second in five.

It’ll all take place on January 7 in N’Awlins, in a Dome inhabited by Saints but at times destined for Tigers. And even if the game doesn’t end up shaving additional years off the lives of LSU fans, only when the purple and gold confetti starts flying will the path traveled be fully appreciated.

Cheers and Jeers: NFL Week 12

Here are some cheers and jeers following a bizarre Week 12 in the NFL…

Cheers to Chad Johnson for bringing back some of that Ocho Cinco zest and revealing he still has a knack for the theatric. Against the Titans Johnson caught a season-high 12 passes for 103 yards and three touchdowns. After his first score, which doubled as the first time he’d seen the end zone since Week 2, #85 took control of a sideline camera and filmed his fans in happy mode. Other than a classic (yet seemingly under-the-radar) ESPN interview between Keyshawn Johnson and Chad, the entertaining Ocho Cinco has not been heard from nearly enough this year. The NFL put its foot down on excessive touchdown celebrations, which is one reason for the generally toned-down merriment following scores. As for Chad’s fall from grace, the Bengals played poorly all season, which should explain why until Sunday we’d seen very little of one of the more vocal and dramatic personalities in the league. If Chad can lead Cincinnati back to relevance that’s a good thing for the NFL (considering this season it hasn’t repeatedly had to send representatives to courtrooms on behalf of Bengal players).

Now, to go from the uplifting to the unfair…

Jeers to Peyton Manning for showing up to “root” for his brother when the Giants hosted the Vikings. Like Eli doesn’t know Peyton has been better than him at every level of football since Pop Warner. Not only did Eli have to contend with Minnesota’s formidable pass rush, he had to do so with his big bro dissecting every play from his perch in a Giants Stadium luxury box. How did Eli respond to the sibling pressure? By throwing four interceptions (three for touchdowns) to the woeful Vikings secondary. Sibling rivalries are always intense, especially when they wind their way to the pinnacle of a sport (just ask Venus and Serena Williams). Thing is with Peyton and Eli, only one of them is at the pinnacle of football. The other one is a serviceable quarterback who just happened to throw three touchdowns to the other team Sunday. Look, this may have been destined to be one of those “Eli games” but his brother certainly didn’t help the cause. Shouldn’t Peyton have been buried in a tape room somewhere preparing for Jacksonville?

Speaking of two guys who will be spending some time in the tape room…

Jeers to Gus Frerotte and Kurt Warner for fumbling the ball on the last the play of the game. All Frerotte had to do was take the snap on fourth-and-goal from the Seattle 1-yard line, hand the ball to Steven Jackson and walk off the turf that formerly housed “The Greatest Show”. Instead he botched the snap, dropped the ball and lost the game. Warner’s gaffe was almost as egregious and equally decisive. In overtime against the 49ers, Warner’s Cardinals were backed up at their own 3-yard line. On first down Warner dropped back into the end zone, couldn’t find an open receiver, and was stripped of the football. Tully Banta-Cain recovered the freebie for the game-winning touchdown. For two quarterbacks with a combined 23 years of NFL experience, the fashion in which Frerotte and Warner exited the field Sunday was embarrassing to say the least.

On a more positive note…

Cheers to the Eagles for displaying their disgust at being on the short end of a 24-point spread by nearly taking down the Patriots in Foxborough. If New England has been the ruthless model of efficiency this season the Eagles have been the total opposite model of chaos. Donovan McNabb and the city of Philadelphia are approaching the end of a bitter relationship. Eagles coach Andy Reid has dealt with domestic issues of monumental proportions. No one would have blinked twice if the Patriots dropped the Eagles by four touchdowns. Yet led by A.J. Feeley and a fearless, unrelenting pass rush Philly hung with the Patriots for four quarters, something no team (even the Colts) has accomplished against the Pats this year. While the term “blueprint” may be a little exaggerated, the Eagles clearly showed the rest of the league that any defense with the stones to consistently rush five and six guys can disrupt Tom Brady. If an NFL team ever deserved a pat on the back in defeat, it was the Eagles on Sunday night.

Speaking of pats on the back…

Cheers to NBC for pumping up the volume on the sideline microphones at Gillette Stadium, which enabled viewers to literally hear how Tom Brady was dealing with the Eagles’ various defensive alignments and pass rushes. Time after time Brady took the play clock down to the final seconds, letting out a hail of adjustments to his receivers and linemen in an attempt to warn them of impending defensive movement. More than once he called out a hot route or refined blocking assignment to a receiver by name (“Gaf..” “Randy..”). We also heard Brady use the audible “Omaha” on more than one occasion, and given the tranquil atmosphere he even took to whispering something in the ear of Kevin Faulk before taking a snap out of the shotgun. NBC’s first two broadcasts of Patriots games were filled with a lot gushing on the parts of Al Michaels and John Madden. In Week 2 against San Diego it was all about CameraGate and last week in Buffalo they took turns tossing the “perfect season” salad. Last night NBC simply broadcast a football game and let the players do most of the talking.

Finally…

Jeers to Todd Sauerbrun for pretty much single-footedly losing the game for Denver in Chicago. As a kicker I believe Sauerbrun should have gotten the memo about Devin Hester. You know, the one that outlines how Hester is the most electric return man ever to play the game of football!!!!! How’s this for a bad day: first Sauerbrun booms a punt to Hester in the third quarter, which the lightning returner takes to the house; then after the offense has given the Broncos a 20-13 lead, Sauerbrun’s kick off sails straight down the field to Hester, who snatches it and torches another Denver coverage unit for six more; then with a 34-20 lead late in the game and Denver forced to punt, Sauerbrun, so concerned with keeping his boot away from Hester, instead doesn’t even get the kick away and has it blocked. 17 unanswered points later and the Broncos had ample reason to leave the Windy City feeling pretty Sauer.

Here’s the updated power poll…

NFL Top Five Power Poll: Week 12

1. Patriots (11-0)

2. Cowboys (10-1)

3. Packers (10-1)

4. Colts (9-2)

5. Jaguars (8-3)

Patriots vs. Vegas/Week 11 Power Poll

Vegas always wins. That’s one adage to live by if you don’t happen to reside in the top one percent of gamblers. There’s a reason the Vegas Strip is so gaudy, the casinos are so flashy and the sportsbooks are so ethereal (so to speak). It’s because you’re leaving your money there. Duh. The point of this piece is not to rant about the ploys and allure of casinos, because there are tons of spots around the country where you can get screwed at the blackjack table and have it sanctioned by the state legislature. However only in one locale can you happen upon the aforementioned, otherworldly venue called a sportsbook, and wager on any sporting event you desire. That would be Las Vegas (and the rest of the barren state it’s a part of, Nevada).

The reason Vegas always wins when it comes to sports wagering is because, quite simply, it’s smarter than the vast majority of people making bets. Vegas has professional analysts, cutting edge computers and some of the most shrewd statisticians, all working in accord to assure it comes out on top. The logic behind Vegas gambling lines (or “point spreads”) is simple. The goal is to set a line that will attract an equal number of wagers on either side. In other words, if 1000 people are each going to bet $100 on a specific game, oddsmakers ideally want 500 of those wagers to go on the favored team and the other 500 to go on the underdog. Considering for each bet the gambler must pay a ten percent wager-fee (colloquially called “the vig”), if oddsmakers succeed in balancing the bets, the house takes in its ten percent on all bets made, and wins. Of course the strategy is far more complex than that, but in a nutshell that’s the essence of a Nevada sportsbook.

So how does this tie into the Patriots? Put bluntly, the Patriots are seriously threatening to fleece Vegas like no sports team in my memory (and possibly of all-time). The answer to how and why the Patriots (read: those people gambling on the Patriots) are systematically beating Vegas is two fold. First is the the sheer talent and capability of this team relative to the rest of the league. They’re better than the field, and everybody knows it. Second (and more importantly within the context of Vegas) is CameraGate. Post-CameraGate, Bill Belichick has his team so bloodthirsty and vengeance-seeking, even Vegas can’t account for it. Traditionally in professional sports, wins and losses are more or less all that matter to teams (meaning average margin of victory isn’t very significant). Unlike college, where writers and coaches vote to determine how teams rank in relation to one another (which is why forty and fifty point blowouts are common in the NCAA), professional sports boil down to “Ws” or “Ls”. In addition, Vegas has always benefited from the concept of professionalism within pro sports. That is to say that these guys are, at the core, part of a business, and while habitually competing against one another, they are nonetheless colleagues in their respective professions.

The Patriots are nobody’s colleagues but their own. You can throw “professionalism” into a bucket with “running up the score”, douse it with lighter fluid, add a lit match and toss it right out the window. The only way this team interprets the notion of professionalism is by playing sixty minutes of butt-kicking football every week. This is the conundrum Vegas has found itself trying to solve. Here are two constants that Vegas must cope with: 1) on any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team; 2) the Patriots are winning football games by an average of 25 points.

Now because the goal of a sportsbook is to get action on both sides of a point spread, and given the historically-tested “any given Sunday” theory, Vegas is wary about pushing NFL lines into the 20s, no matter how obvious a perceived mismatch there is. It screws up that balance they’re looking for, and usually teams don’t keep pouring it on with three touchdown leads. Except Bill’s boys, driven by superior talent and fueled by retribution. For the record, the Patriots are either 9-0-1 or 9-1 against the spread this year (the line against the Colts fluctuated from -4 to -5.5 and the Patriots won by four, so some gamblers who utilized the four point spread conceivably pushed their bets that week, neither winning nor losing.)

That said, non-compulsive gamblers likely steered clear of the Colts game, simply because Pats-Colts has proven a tall order to predict. To put all this in perspective, imagine you were in Las Vegas before Week 1 of the NFL season and put $100 on the Patriots. If each week, minus the Colts game, you let it all ride (ie reinvested your initial bet plus what you profited into another Patriots-wager), today you would be sitting on $46,080 (or $51,200 – $5,120). The little more than five grand would be the ten percent you owe to the sportsbook for placing the bets.

Allow me to be the first (or millionth) to inform you: you’re not supposed to be able to turn a hundred bucks into fifty thousand. Vegas is supposed to curb that streak waaaaay before it gets going. If you went on a run like that at the blackjack table the casino powers would have you set up in a luxury suite before you turned your first ten grand. Yet here we are, two-thirds through the 2007 NFL season, and the Patriots have already dealt a severe blow to the sports gaming monopoly residing in the western desert. Believe me, there are many serious gamblers out there riding the heck out of this Patriots wave. Sure, in the grand scheme it may only be a pin prick through the monstrous moneymaking enterprise that is Vegas, but rest assured, it’s a pin prick straight through the heart of the beast.

How’s that for a different take on the Patriots’ dominance? Now here’s my latest power poll, highlighting the cream of NFL mortals…

NFL Top Five Power Poll: Week 11

1. Patriots (10-0) The Pats are early 22 point favorites this week against the Eagles. Now someone tell me they’re surprised.

2. Cowboys (9-1) For the first time since I’ve been an online sportswriter (which isn’t terribly long, but still) I have an NFC team in the top two. My logic here is that with the Colts losing twice and the Cowboys standing at 9-0 against everyone but the Patriots, they deserve the ranking. The Tony Romo to Terrell Owens combo has been jaw-dropping of late. Since their loss to New England in Week 6, the Boys have run off four straight, and Romo has found T.O. eight times for touchdowns. The defense has played markedly better as well. After giving up 48 points to New England, the Dallas D has shut down opposing offenses to the tune of 18.5 points per game.

3. Packers (9-1) What more can you say about Brett Favre and the Pack? Green Bay has won in Denver, in Kansas City and in New Jersey against the Giants. Favre’s quarterback rating of 98.6 is the highest of his career since 1995 (99.5), when he was embarking on a streak of three-straight league MVP awards. He’s already thrown more touchdowns (19) than he did all last year (18). What was unquestionably the team’s greatest weakness, its running game, appears to be solved. Ryan Grant (who? an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame, that’s who) has busted onto the scene, and averaged over 90 yards rushing in Green Bay’s last four games, all wins. Assuming the Packers win on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit (never an easy task), home field in the NFC will be on the line Thursday night November 29, when the Pack travels to Dallas.

4. Colts (8-2) The Colts are having a season in ’07 similar to the ’06 Patriots campaign. They’ve battled key injuries throughout (most significantly, Marvin Harrison) and struggled to win games. But they’ve continually found ways to post victories and look like a 12-4 team that will be contending for the second bye in the AFC. Still the Colts must get healthy if they want to even gain a rematch with the Patriots, let alone entertain notions of defending their crown against the Pats.

5. Giants (7-3) Earning a spot in the top five for the first time, the Geeeeeee-Men. As in “geeee this team loves laying an egg after a 6-2 start”. Yes, the Giants probably did lose the division by shooting themselves in the feet multiple times two weeks ago at the Meadowlands against Dallas. Down two games in the standings (which is basically three because the Giants lost both matchups with the Cowboys), the New York football Giants better get used to winning on the road, because that’s what they’ll have to do (again) come playoff time. The good news is with a fairly kind schedule (Minnesota, at Chicago, at Philly, Washington, at Buffalo) down the stretch, the G-Men should be 11-4 entering the season finale at home against the Patriots. Barring a Cowboys-implosion or a Patriots-loss, this game will be very interesting because neither the Giants (who will have the top wild card locked up) nor the Patriots (who will have home field secured) will have a lot to play for. Which means this game will officially qualify as “most playoff-like game with least on the line” status.

5a. Steelers (7-3) Let’s not mince words. When you lose to a 1-8 team you probably don’t deserve to be in the top five, no matter what your record is. Luckily the Steelers have the football tradition, not to mention a top-five running back and quarterback as well as one of the league’s elite defenses. That said, each statement the Steelers have made this year has been a losing statement (see: Arizona and the Jets). To date, their biggest win was a 38-7 trouncing on a Monday night of a Ravens team we all know would be better off with USC’s offense. After they beat the Dolphins and Bengals, Pittsburgh will see where it truly matches up on the proverbial measuring stick. On Sunday December 9, the 9-3 Steelers will travel to Foxborough to meet the 12-0 Patriots.

NBA Preview 2008: A Glimpse into the Future

With all the NBA Previews floating around, here’s an uncompromising vision of the 2008 NBA Playoffs…

Mid-April 2008: the NBA Playoffs are set

East

1. Celtics (58-24) versus 8. Knicks (41-41)

2. Pistons (52-30) versus 7. Cavs (43-39)

3. Magic (47-35) versus 6. Heat (45-37)

4. Bulls (47-35) versus 5. Nets (46-36)

West

1. Suns (61-21) versus 8. Kings (43-39)

2. Spurs (59-23) versus 7. Hornets (46-36)

3. Nuggets (54-28) versus 6. Rockets (51-31)

4. Mavs (54-28) versus 5. Jazz (52-30)

Late-April 2008

The first round of the 2008 NBA Playoffs featured a few laughers, some unforgettable subplots and one epic series. In the East, the Celtics beat the Knicks in four. In Game 1 Isiah Thomas (who just before the postseason signed himself to a 10-day $40 million contract to prevent Stephon Marbury from running point) took the opening tip and drove to the basket. The ensuing swat by Kevin Garnett was so severe that player-coach-GM Isiah opted to forfeit the series and all three of his job titles, and move to a country where it wasn’t frowned upon for a male boss to make sexually insinuating remarks to a female subordinate. The next day Marbury led the Knicks in a parade down Broadway.

The Nets/Bulls series was a first round joke, as Vince Carter dropped 45 in Jersey’s Game 1 victory. His agents then informed him on a conference call that the 2008-09 season wasn’t a contract year, and the Nets lost the next four straight. In the 3-6 matchup Dwight Howard and the Magic knew something was awry when Shaq rolled up to Amway Arena in a 22-wheeler emitting pungent diesel fumes. In the Heat’s 4-1 series win, Shaq went for at least 18 and 12 each night.

The best series was a rematch from last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, between the Pistons and Cavs, won by King James. The Pistons made the necessary adjustments and were in position to eliminate the Cavs in Game 6 before Lebron iced Rasheed Wallace at the free throw line, if you can call it that. As he did to Gilbert Arenas two years ago, Lebron walked up to Sheed and whispered something in his ear. Sheed then removed his head band, threw it around the neck of Lebron, pulled him close and whispered something back through a loony smirk. For that he received his fourth technical of the series, allowing the Cavs to force a Game 7, which the Pistons won in double overtime.

Out west the Kings battled the top-seeded Suns to a split in Phoenix. In Game 3 back in Sacramento, the Maloof brothers, evidently too close to the action, inadvertently tripped Ron Artest as he was running back up the court after a dunk. An incensed-Artest chased the petrified owners into the stands, making him the first player to leave the court both on the road and at home. There were no injuries, but the remainder of the series didn’t go too well for the Kings, and their owners, the Queens.

In other first round action, the second-seeded Spurs dismantled the Hornets, sweeping four straight. The series was so one-sided Tim Duncan only protested every other call against him. Meanwhile, in the 3-6 set, the Nuggets (who owned the best record in the league over the last six weeks) maintained their high level of play against Tracy McGrady’s Rockets. Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony hit many, many jays and Marcus Camby’s lanky, shot-blocking frame consistently frustrated Yao in the Nuggets’ 4-2 series win.

That left the Mavericks and Jazz, a series which Mark Cuban assured everyone who was willing to listen that his Mavs would not lose. Too bad they didn’t have an answer for Deron Williams, who methodically picked apart the Dallas defense with a dizzying array of fast break dishes, no-look bounce passes and smooth jumpers. Dirk Nowitzki didn’t replicate his dud performance of a year ago against Golden State, but in the end the Mavs fell in an anti-climatic Game 7, very similar to their Game 6 elimination at the hands of the Warriors. After his team’s second consecutive first round exit, Cuban was so enraged he vowed never to speak to the team or media again. In their pieces the next day the Dallas beat writers declared the season a success.

May 2008

After the Celtics smoked the Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Dwyane Wade held a players-only meeting in the locker room. He told his teammates that the Celtics were very beatable, given how “freaking old” they all were. By the end of his tirade he realized that the cold stares of Shaq, Alonzo Mourning and Penny Hardaway were burning holes through his jersey. The Celtics coasted in five. In the other second round matchup, the Pistons and Bulls squared off for the second year in a row. Chauncey Billups (aka Mr. Big Shot) was neutralized by Ben Gordon’s protruding chest. Due to this, Pistons coach Flip Saunders was rendered completely useless since he had only one play on his clipboard (“Chauncey create offense”). Da Bulls advanced in six.

In the second round of the west, Phoenix started looking like a team ready to handle business. The Jazz, who had looked so workmanlike in the first round, simply couldn’t run with Steve Nash and the Suns. After Utah lost the first three games of the series by a combined 42 points, Carlos Boozer tracked down Phoenix GM Steve Kerr and told him he had a hidden “screw over my team” clause worked into his contract and he’d be willing to exercise it for an immediate trade. Sans Boozer, Utah was swept the next night. Meanwhile, the Nuggets and Spurs clashed for the third time in the past four postseasons. In a startling reversal of roles, it was the Spurs who captured Game 1 before losing four of the next five to a Nuggets team clicking on all cylinders. For the third time in five years, the Spurs again could not defend their title. When Tim Duncan was asked if he felt his team didn’t have the necessary fire and drive to repeat as champions, he responded by saying that Dirk Nowitzki’s game-tying three point play in Game 7 of the 2006 Playoffs was “bulls–t”.

That left four teams standing in the ’08 Playoffs: the Celtics, Bulls, Nuggets and Suns. The Eastern Conference Finals was a backyard brawl. The teams split the first six games, all hotly contested affairs. Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Ben Gordon each hit a game-winner. What was an up and down, guard-oriented affair throughout the first eighty percent of the series turned into the KG show in Game 7 at the Garden. Garnett went for 37 with 24 rebounds in the decisive contest, and entered select company when he shattered the backboard glass on a tremendous two-handed throw-down. He then ate the remnants of the defunct apparatus. The Western Finals was equally entertaining. While the Suns took care of the Nuggets in six, Denver won the first game against a suddenly lackadaisical-Suns team. The series became an instant classic when Iverson arrived unannounced at Mike D’Antoni’s press conference after Game 1, during which the coach was questioning if his Suns had practiced hard enough to adequately prepare for the tough-minded Nuggets. A.I. looked up at the snarling coach, and asked him if he was really talking about “practice?!?”.

June 2008

The Celtics and Suns, after waiting a combined 34 years (the Celtics since 1986 and the Suns since 1993) to return to the Finals, waged hardwood war in the championship round. The hype going into the series revolved around an ongoing debate of which franchise and its players was hungrier. Was it the Suns? who had only appeared in two Finals in their history, the ’93 loss to Michael Jordan’s Bulls and a 1976 loss to their father’s Celtics. Or was it the Green? who had suffered through two decades of total futility after three decades of systemic dominance.

Each side claimed it was hungrier than the other. In the first shocker of the series, Steve Nash beat KG in a hot dog eating contest prior to Game 1. For the first time all season the omnipotent and omnivorous Garnett was upstaged, which set the tone for the series. Nash was simply too much for the slower-Celtics and their epically overwhelmed point guard, Rajon Rondo. The Suns notched the first two games in Phoenix plus the second game in Boston, pushing Boston to the cusp of elimination going into Game 5. In that affair the Green looked done with just under a minute remaining, trailing by eight points. It was then that Danny Ainge pulled the string on an incredible transaction, securing Reggie Miller’s services for 38 seconds. The baller who had redefined “clutch” entered the game and ripped off three treys in a row, sending the Garden into oblivion and implausibly jettisoning the Celtics back to Phoenix for Game 6. Returning to the arena formerly known as America West, Nash ended any hopes of a Boston-comeback. The Suns won a track meet, 123-119, and Phoenix clinched its first basketball title behind Nash’s 24 points and 16 dimes.

And just like that 2008 was in the books.

Pats and Colts: Then and Now

This time around, it was the team with red trim to complement its white and blue that made the plays when they counted most. It was only Week 9, but the Patriots proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they are again kingpins of the NFL.

For the time being, after a 24-20 defeat, the still-defending champion Colts are number two.

Until matters are settled once and for all in January, the Colts will have to live with the fact that the script got flipped in here is my test captionthis rivalry. Again. After all, when you’re playing at home in the fourth quarter holding a 10-point lead and you happen to be Peyton Manning, the script is usually yours to pen. Especially in light of the demons the Colts were able to slay last January in that same Heat Dome.

In the 2006 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots played 40 minutes of superb football before collapsing to a superior Indianapolis team. Despite playing so well for so long, the game came down to two plays for New England: a failed third-down conversion at the 2:17 mark, which gave the ball back to Manning; and on the ensuing Colts drive, the inability of linebacker Eric Alexander to cover a sideline flag pattern run by tight end, Bryan Fletcher.

The impact of those two plays on the depleted and exhausted Patriots was season-ending. The third down that would’ve iced the game was ill-fated because of an unprecedented miscommunication between Tom Brady and Troy Brown. Mr. Old Reliable simply ran the wrong route. The 32-yard strike to Fletcher, which accounted for the bulk of the Colts championship-winning drive, was inevitable. Alexander, starting his first NFL game at linebacker, was nowhere near nimble enough to contend with the down field presences of Fletcher and Dallas Clark (who singlehandedly torched the Pats linebacker corps and secondary).

In that game the Patriots out-schemed, out-executed and thoroughly outplayed the Colts for the majority of three quarters, but it wasn’t enough. Two more plays and it would have been.

Lest we forget, that was then and this is now. What a difference an offseason makes.

Subsequent to that defeat the Patriots went on a talent-feeding frenzy, making it clear that lack of viable personnel would never thwart them again. As fast as you can say “Randy Moss for a fourth rounder plus CameraGate”, the entire mindset of the team and its fans morphed. No longer would games be played merely to win, they’d be played to conquer.

What we knew before Week 9 was that the Patriots could pretty much systematically destroy any opponent, and show no mercy in doing so. Any opponent, that is, but the Colts. What we discovered after this regular season’s Pats-Colts installment was that these Patriots still remember how to win close games in the fourth quarter, which used to be the team’s m.o.

Playing consistent sound football was also a requisite of past-Patriots teams; that’s how they won an NFL-record 21 games straight between the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Many of those games were won by Brady leading a late go-ahead drive or the defense making a game-saving stop. Their average margin of victory was just a shade over a touchdown. However those teams didn’t have a receiving corps of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth. But these new Patriots do, and last Sunday against the Colts they showed they’re capable of beating the best even while playing almost their worst.

Let’s be honest: the Patriots had no business winning this football game. They were down 20-10 with 9:42 left. The first fifty minutes were sorry. Tom Brady had thrown not one, but two interceptions (although the second was a “play of the year” pick by Gary Brackett), only his third and fourth of the season. The noise level in the RCA Dome was so high the only way the coaching staff could get plays to Brady was via signals, and it’s evident that Brady himself had to call at least a handful of plays.

The defense was suspect too. At the end of the first half it allowed a check-down play to Joseph Addai to go for a 73-yard touchdown, and the Patriots lost the lead. The severity of giving up an uncharacteristic big-play in quasi-kneel time was augmented by the defense’s lack of discipline. The unit was penalized four times for 30 yards, and that doesn’t even include two pass interference calls (one mediocre and one terrible) on Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs that tallied 77 yards. Each one placed Indy on the doorstep of the Patriots goal line. Within character, the D tightened when manning the red zone against Peyton, and the Colts were only able to add a few “3’s” onto the scoreboard.

The Colts continued to let the Patriots hang around and they paid for it. It took all of four plays (a Moss 55-yard catch setting up a Welker 3-yard touchdown and a Stallworth 33-yard reception setting up a Kevin Faulk 13-yard score) over two successive fourth quarter drives for the dynamic Patriots offense to turn a 10-point deficit into a four point lead.

And just like that it might as well have been 2003, because this lead–unlike typical ’07 Pats leads–had to be protected. Protect it they did, as a team. The one play the defense had to make came at the 2:34 mark: it had to prevent Manning from converting a third and nine from midfield. Rosevelt Colvin accomplished that and more, charging Manning from his outside linebacker position and strip-sacking the helpless quarterback. Then the offense needed to gain one more first down before the two minute warning, and Brady found Welker on a quick-out (or the Troy Brown special), sealing the deal.

While CameraGate is due its fair share of credit for inspiring the Patriots to grind teams into the ground over sixty minutes, the concept itself is longstanding in Foxborough. The teams in ’01, ’03 and ’04 won Super Bowls because every time they took the field they were ready to fight for all sixty minutes. They lost the AFC Championship game last year because they didn’t have the talent and stamina to go the distance. This season they have both, and ever since CameraGate turned a philosophy into a vendetta, the Patriots have been downright nasty. Over the first eight weeks, they played from start to finish every Sunday and won each game by an average of 25 points.

Then they returned to the house of their demise last year; the place where they were taught the harshest of lessons, lessons that would’ve been many touchdowns harsher had that ’06 squad come out the way the Patriots did Sunday. While cumulatively the most recent sixty minutes they played was a far cry from their collective performance over the first eight games, the common thread of finishing what was started remained. That’s clearly been the message this season. It was the same message the 2006 Patriots couldn’t heed. But that team didn’t have a Moss. It didn’t have a Welker or Stallworth or Adalius Thomas. It didn’t have CameraGate.

This team has all those things, and apparently, a little bit of each can go a long way. Even against the best.

NFL Top Five Power Poll: Week 9

1. Patriots (9-0)

2. Colts (7-1)

3. Cowboys (7-1)

4. Packers (7-1)

5. Steelers (6-2)

Manny Became Manny: Red Sox World Series Champs

“If it doesn’t happen, so who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.”

– Manny Ramirez, before Game 5 of the ALCS

—————————————————————————————————————————-

Three days after the Red Sox won their second title in four years, I found myself thinking one thing: this was Manny’s October. Of course, it was Beckett’s as well. And Papelbon’s. And Papi’s and Lowell’s and the young guys’ and everyone else (including Drew and Lugo!). It obviously took a resolute effort by all parties involved to win eleven games. That’s how World Series are captured. It was Manny, however, by virtue of the comments he made before Game 5 in Cleveland, who galvanized this team.

Manny the Galvanizer? you may ask. True, it may not roll off the tongue as easy as, say “William the Conqueror”, but for the record, since Manny made those remarks with the Red Sox facing a 3-1 ALCS deficit, the Sockers are undefeated, and will remain so until next April.

Statistically, Manny’s imprints are all over this postseason. He led the Sox or tied for the team lead in home runs (4), RBI (16), walks (16) and on base percentage (.508). He hit the walk-off blast in Game 2 of the ALDS that brought the element of the surreal back to Fenway. And when the Sox again found themselves on the brink of elimination, he channeled the guy who had made it all seem so simple three years prior.

Whenever I think back to 2004, I see Kevin Millar, working The Walk that led to The Steal. I also see Millar, on the field before Game 4, talking to the fans. Most of them were holding signs vividly detailing their despair and heartache. And there was Millar, telling the fans (in reference to the Yankees), something along the lines of “don’t let us get this one. Because then we have Pedro in Game 5 and Schilling in Game 6 and anything can happen in Game 7.” He then directed himself to the clubhouse, where he led some of his teammates in a shot of Beam, and the rest became history that the sport of baseball had never known.

The parallels between the ’04 and ’07 teams are significant. Both squads played with a distinct confidence; the Idiots used Varitek’s Glove in A-Rod’s Face as a rallying cry, and plowed their way through the final two months of the season and the Angels en route to the 2004 ALCS; the ’07 team was a slower, steadier roll, as it surged into first place in April and never relinquished its lead, sweeping basically the same Angels team again in the first round. Then for both teams, something happened. They hit a brick wall. Never will I understand how the Idiots got down three games to the Yankees. I only understood how they came back. They came back because they were all battled-tested from the shock of 2003 and because they had a blue-collar swagger that had captivated a Nation.

The explanation for how the ’07 team got down 3-1 was not only identifiable, it was cut and dry: they stopped hitting. They stopped hitting because they had two perpetually unproductive players (Drew and Lugo) who began feeling the gravity of Boston and the weight of their contracts and a rookie catalyst at the top of the lineup (Pedroia) who started to stall out as the games became more important.

Enter Manny (or as I like to now call him, “Media Cowboy of October”). In truly Millarian (ie what the %$&# are you thinking??) fashion, Manny, as had become a regularity in the ’07 postseason, addressed the media, and verbally shrugged his shoulders about the implications of defeat in Game 5.

Manny the Trivial? Now that sounds more accurate.

You know what? He was right. He was absolutely right. After 2004, Red Sox Nation could no longer be compared to Atlas, Greek god of heavy burdens who had to hold the heavens on his shoulders. After 2004, for once in eight generations, it really wasn’t the end of the world if the Red Sox lost. Manny was well aware of that. His hot and cold relationship with the city of Boston started frigidly; he requested out multiple times early in his contract because the team had no camaraderie and the sports climate in Boston was cooking him alive. But when his career became marked by its greatest achievement and a fan base with its 86 years of baggage was finally vindicated, Manny must have realized that only green pastures lay ahead.

The fact that Manny came out and said what every Red Sox fan was thinking in the recesses of their minds makes him a genius. Manny, ladies and gentlemen, has seen and endured it all and emerged as, you guessed it, Manny. While his time in Boston has tested him to the nth degree, at certain points he’s survived it and others he’s relished it, in the process he’s carved himself what is going down as one of the great legacies of all-time.

So he got in front of the camera and, for the benefit of Lugo and Pedroia and Drew and the Nation, issued a collective tranquilo. He saw his team needed a load taken off, and he nominated himself point man. In doing so he brought us all back to earth, and brought his teammates back to baseball. Over the subsequent seven games, Lugo played with an electricity none of us had seen before, Pedroia grew up (again) before our very eyes, this time into a five and a half foot long-range assassin, and Drew hit a I’ll-never-forget-where-I-was-when-this-happened grand slam that he’s now receiving a check in the amount of $14 million for.

Oh, and Red Sox Nation got another parade. So there. It all worked out.

Just like Manny cared it would.

Believing on the Bayou: a Sox/Tigers Narrative

The whys and hows associated with extraordinary happenings in sports can only be thoroughly assessed with the assistance of hindsight. That’s the beauty of The Moment: it rips you from reality, sweeps you up, and spits you out in a state of euphoria. Reflection is not possible when living The Moment. Only realization. Realization that wherever you are and whatever the circumstances, The Moment will always be with you.

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It was Saturday morning, October 20. Curt Schilling was approximately eight hours from throwing the first pitch of Game 6 of the ALCS at Fenway. I was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, priming myself for what I knew could end up being the most intense sports experience of my life. Not only was I preparing for another Game 6 with the Sox in the midst of another furious ALCS comeback, I was preparing to miss it.

Friends of mine had come through with dynamite tickets to the completely sold out LSU-Auburn game. A game, for LSU-faithful, that was equally as important to the Tigers as Game 6 was to the Sox. One loss for either squad meant no championship in ’07. Of course, the predicament these two odds-on favorites had to contend with was a result of their own doing. The Red Sox played uninspired baseball for three straight games against Cleveland, pushing them to the brink of elimination. LSU, meanwhile, a week after pulling a cat out of a hat against the defending-national champs, Florida, lost a back-breaker in triple overtime to Kentucky. Just like that, two teams that had visions of perfection were left with the disturbing actuality that seasons so full of haughty expectation were improbably teetering on the brink.

By mid-afternoon outside Tiger Stadium all you could see were purple tents; all you could hear was classic rock and all you could feel were Tiger-fans zoning themselves in for a showdown with…the Tigers (of Auburn). Then there was me. I was, you might say, a fish out of water. But not to most of the tens of thousands milling around me. Garbed in a yellow-LSU t-shirt and Red Sox cap, I tacitly fit in. No matter how much I appeared to belong, the ritual I was engulfed in was like nothing I had ever been a part of. Baking under the scorching southern-sun, I drank beer, ate gumbo and jambalaya, and did my best to engage the Fighting Tiger-faithful.

However, as the hours passed and the bodies multiplied, the angst started to take form. As I wrote before, a Sox-Indians ALCS was nowhere near as angst-inducing as another Sox-Yankees would have been. That said, with the way my heart was palpitating around 7:00 pm, my future cardiologist thanks Cleveland for ousting the Yankees. Because I literally could no longer sit still, I decided to make some rounds.

I crossed the street outside the stadium, and as I was peering through a steel fence into one of the cavernous tunnels that marks a point of entry, I heard a voice that seemed to be addressing me. I was already toasty enough to not really care about acknowledging the belligerence around me, but next thing I knew a guy was in front of me, asking if I knew how to traverse the fence and get to the tunnel. Before my synapses had a chance to fire, I was doused with an affront that made me see New York.

“AWWWWWW,” the guy said. “You’re a Red Sox fan!?”

“Abso-(expletive)-lutely,” I retorted.

Typical of a Yankees fan, he threw a few more barbs about my allegiances before again asking me for directions. I wish I had known where he was trying to get, so I could have then sent him in the exact opposite direction. As we were parting, I on my own and he with another couple, he turned.

“Later bro,” he said. “I’m going to meet my ex-girl and her new guy so I can beat his ass.”

“Sounds good pal,” I returned. “Maybe he’s a Red Sox fan. At least it’ll be worth it.”

Chuckling at the fact that Sox-Yanks beef really does invade all environments, I decided to test out my new headphones and old-school AM/FM walk-man, which beginning in about thirty minutes, was going to be my lifeline to Schil and the Sox. I had already researched the ESPN Radio affiliate in Baton Rouge, which was AM 1300. Tuning into the station expecting to hear some ALCS pregame, I instead heard LSU pregame. I wasn’t worried, since I knew that the LSU games were broadcast on FM. I received a call from my friends, who said they were heading into the stadium. I told them I was going to try and catch the beginning of the baseball game on TV and I’d meet them for kickoff.

I began gravitating in and out of various tailgates, accepting beers and talking to different people while waiting for some piece of Red Sox bait that I could gobble up and parlay into a first-inning viewing. Opportunity presented itself when I found myself inside a tent the size of a tractor trailer. I got talking to a guy who quickly noticed my hat, and conveyed his support for my team. He had given his tickets to his sons, so he would be sedentary for the duration, which made him one of few not attempting to imminently enter the stadium. I asked him if, by chance, I could take in the first forty minutes of the Sox game. He obliged, told me to take a seat, handed me a 22 ounce can of Natural Light, and we exchanged formal greetings. SCORE.

The game began, and still a bit wary about the lack of any pregame coverage on the radio, I decided once and for all to locate the broadcast. For the entire first half inning, during which Schilling set down the Indians, and throughout the bulk of the Red Sox half of the first, I desperately tried to find the right station, to no avail. When Manny came up with nobody out and the bases loaded, I resolved to the fact that the first inning would be it for me because this game definitely wasn’t being broadcast in Baton Rouge. An early score had never been so imperative.My palms were drenched as Manny pin wheeled the bat, while my host (whose name I had long forgot) popped open another Natty Light. Strikeout. You’ve got to be kidding me. Mike Lowell the run producer was next up. Pop out.

Kill me now.

J.D. Drew was up with two outs and the bases loaded. I was about to see a microcosm of his entire Red Sox season as my final send off into Tiger Stadium. Then, without me even knowing it, the seeds of The Moment were planted.

“Now that J.D. Drew is a ballplayer,” said the guy.

I cringed. Luckily I was too frozen in place to produce any identifiable reaction, because had I been able to, it would not have been a very polite reciprocation of my new friend’s hospitality. Drew worked the count to 3-1, which helped me temporarily emerge from my comatose state.

Just a walk, J.D. Puhhhhh-leeeease, J.D.!!! Do the one thing we’ve paid you $14 million to do this year. Just take ball fou—

—CRACK!!!!!!

“There it goes,” said the guy.

No way.

No EFFING WAY.

GRAND SLAM!!!!!! J.D. DREW!!!!!!!!!

I don’t know what I did next; that’s usually how it goes when you encounter The Moment. I think I ran around a few tents screaming at the top of my lungs before returning to my new best friend.

“THAT J.D. DREW IS A BALLPLAYER!!!!!!” I bellowed. “HE PLAYS BASEBALL!!!!!!!!”

All I needed to do before jigging my way into Tiger Stadium was solidify one piece of information for my official recollection of The Moment.

“What’s your name again, sir?” I asked the guy.

“Bobby,” he said. “Bobby Sage.”

“Thank you, Bobby Sage!” I said. “I will never forget you, Bobby Sage!!”

On that ecstatic note I headed into the stadium, visions of Drew rounding the bases consuming my mind and prickly chills stinging my spine. What greeted me was an abyss of purple and gold, over 92,000 strong, packed into an imposing structure, aptly deemed “Death Valley”. The noise level was so high even my thoughts were deafened. Our seats were in the North endzone, next to the student section. Mayhem.

Unfortunately, the ensuing Tiger-performance bore no resemblance to what inhabitants of Death Valley know to be the norm; namely dominant football. Auburn moved the ball on a seemingly-porous LSU-defense. The Tigers offense turned the ball over; receivers dropped passes. By halftime, the deficit was 17-7, and LSU fans started resembling Red Sox fans after Game 4. Specifically, there was a pervasive sense of frustration bordering on incredulity. Never, however, was there a sense of defeat among the fans, which made me feel right at home as a Sox fan.

Sure enough, the Tigers battled back, and led in the fourth quarter, 23-17, until Auburn scored a touchdown with 3:21 remaining. With the extra point, it was a 24-23 deficit for LSU. As was the case in the game against Florida (when LSU converted five out of five fourth downs), the Tigers played their best with their backs against the wall. An authoritative drive led by quarterback Matt Flynn culminated with the closest a regulation-football game can come to a walkoff victory: Flynn threw a touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd with one second remaining to end the game.

And in the dwelling of Baton Rouge, a place that feels its heartbeat determined by the play of its Tigers, The Moment took over.

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Only after the campus of LSU stopped shaking sometime Sunday morning, and after the Red Sox formally clinched their 12th pennant later Sunday night, was I able to start to reflect on the weekend that was. The Moment, which had officially spanned more than 24 hours, three historic games and two sports, ultimately subsided. In its place came the whys and hows. Why is it that the Red Sox become unbeatable only when they’re at their most beaten? How is it that the Tigers never say die in Death Valley?

The latter is an easier question to answer: teams get scared when darkness descends on Tiger Stadium. In their last 25 Saturday night home games, the LSU Tigers are a perfect 25-0. While the Tigers have been a force in college football for the last five years (a cumulative 51-9 record and national champions in 2003), the home-field advantage on a Saturday night in Death Valley goes way back and is unparalleled in college football. Whenever 92,000 people flow into Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night, they are determined to emerge victorious; so too are the players and team they support. Many times the games are laughers. A handful of nights turn magical. What stays unchanged is a collective assertion of will over the adversary and the constancy of winning under the Louisiana stars.

As for the Red Sox, the transformation this team has undergone since 1999, from uncanny chokers to torchbearers of comebacks, is both glorious and amazing. It’s also completely impossible to diagnose. As you’ve probably read or heard somewhere by now, the Red Sox are 14-3 in their last 17 elimination games, and have seemingly instilled trepidation in the opposition to such a degree that in the future teams are actually going to dread getting up in a series against this team. Beginning in ’99, continuing in ’03, culminating in ’04, and returning in ’07, the Red Sox have changed the face of playoff baseball. Since ’99, they’ve played .823 baseball when each game could be their last, and .438 baseball (14-18) when it’s just another meaningless, non-life-or-death battle in October. Wow.

Now it’s time to look ahead. With triumph again born from tribulation, the Sox and Tigers are each ready to resume pursuit of all that matters in the eyes of their faithful: hanging a banner in ’07. Great moments are often the impetus of and the driving force behind what ultimately become great teams. On the weekend of October 20, the towns of Boston and Baton Rouge officially started believing; believing that for their teams, greatness was indeed again on the horizon.