It was just about two months ago that I waxed theoretical about the Patriots, hypothesizing that their most serious opponent was, and would remain, Las Vegas. At the time of the piece, New England was 10-0 overall, with its average margin of victory standing at 25 points. Because sportsbooks had traditionally shied away from allowing NFL spreads to approach the 20s, and considering the Patriots were thoroughly nullifying that stratagem–winning games by more than three touchdowns–the Pats were an astonishing 9-1 ATS (against the spread). I talked about how big gamblers with big money were taking Vegas to the bank on the backs of the revengeful-Patriots. And were they ever. (Past tense.)
It was no coincidence that after that ridiculous 1-9 start versus the Patriots, Vegas began to compensate for its losses. Overcompensate, in fact. Beginning with the Eagles game (Pats by 24.5), Vegas started making the Patriots such titanic favorites it was almost as if the sportsbooks had dumped the expertise of Jekyll in favor of Hyde. The lines for New England’s remaining games went like this: -19 at Baltimore; -11 against Pittsburgh; -20.5 against the Jets; -22.5 against Miami; -13.5 at the Giants; -13.5 against Jacksonville. They covered exactly one of those games, the Steelers. That’s six of the last seven going to Vegas, courtesy of the Patriots becoming human. Or was it?
There are two principle explanations for how Vegas pulled the strings on a total one-eighty, turning a team that was a historic 9-1 ATS into a run-of-the-mill 10-7 overall. First are the whales I referenced before; those gamblers with huge egos and huger bankrolls. They absolutely and undeniably reamed Vegas over the first two months and change. When someone is lucky enough to do that, what ends up happening is they generally catch a waft of invincibility, which Vegas pounces on. Pounce they did by way of the aforementioned spreads. And all those gamblers who spent more than half of the 2007 season lounging on Cloud 9, sustained by the fury of the Patriots, came crashing back to earth. Why? Because a gambler is swayed by the guise of a “sure thing”. Vegas adapted to the reality that on the football field the Patriots were the closest to a sure thing that American sports had ever witnessed. They were able to adapt because of the Patriots’ perfection and the confidence it instilled in the bettors. So they started skyrocketing the spreads, and the gamblers, captivated by the excellence of the Pats, kept drinking the Kool-Aid. In other words, Vegas actually succeeded in exploiting the strength of its adversary.
The second explanation, which Vegas duly incorporated into its bloated spreads, was the Patriots’ perfection itself. Specifically, the fact that with each passing week another professional football organization had no other ambition than to go out and conjure up every ion of collective hubris in an end-all attempt to derail this mystical and improbable march towards football immortality. Over the last six games of the regular season and the first game of the playoffs, the Patriots played seven Super Bowls through the helmets of their opponents. The Steelers failed miserably. The Jets and Dolphins performed admirably. The Eagles and Giants were as awe-inspiring in defeat as a team could possibly be. The reverberations from “the miracles in Baltimore” are still being felt. And the Jaguars fought tooth and nail for three quarters. Anyone who expected the Patriots to be throttling teams through December and into January simply doesn’t know football. Which brings us to this weekend’s AFC Championship Game.
The Chargers are a good football team. In light of their latest win against the Colts it’s safe to say they would have probably won the Super Bowl last year if the Patriots hadn’t ended their season at Qualcomm Stadium (better yet, if Marty Schottenheimer and Marlon McCree hadn’t joined forces to end their season at Qualcomm). They stumbled out of the gates this year but rebounded and regained form. They are banged up, for sure, and a combination of immaturity and classlessness (see: Phillip Rivers jawing with Indy fans last week and Igor Olshansky’s dim-witted comments the other day) has become this team’s calling card. But they are talented.
LaDainian Tomlinson, who has been as much of a non-factor in his team’s two playoff wins as a superstar can be, will give the Patriots some problems running between the tackles. It’s his cutback ability that is deadly, however, which means Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas will need to stick to their assignments and wait for the chance to knock LT out of the game with a big blind-side hit when he attempts a cutback. In the passing game, while Antonio Gates will be limited because of a foot injury, the Chargers wideouts have stepped up as the games have become more important. Vincent Jackson has been superb and Chris Chambers always menaced the Patriots during his tenure with Miami; don’t think for a second he’s planning on changing his ways.
Anyone expecting a repeat of the Patriots 38-14, post-CameraGate whupping of the Chargers in Week 2 better start reevaluating sooner than later. Patriots-Chargers has become the second best rivalry in the league behind Pats-Colts, not only because of the bad blood that has lingered between the two teams since the beginning of the 2004 season, but also because San Diego has shown to be the only other team capable of beating Indy. They’ve come too far to roll over. With that said, the Chargers most significant strength lies in their ability to create turnovers. They were +24 this season, which was best in the NFL (followed, of course, by Indy at +18 and the Patriots at +16). Needless to say, the Patriots defy anyone to win the turnover battle with them in the playoffs, which will lead to the demise of the Chargers. But don’t be fixated on 17-0, because the Patriots surely aren’t. Don’t be fooled by the Vegas-manipulation of Patriot-gamblers. Understand that this will be a game. And if Phillip Rivers is unable to play, don’t think for a second that Billy Volek won’t come in guns-blazing and start firing away (the Patriots, lest we forget, have met formidable opponents in perennial backups, AJ Feeley and Kyle Boller).
As opposed to the playoff game last year, the Patriots will control this game behind the greatest quarterback to ever play the position. They might even go up by two touchdowns. But the Chargers won’t back down. Time and again they’ve made it clear in their over-the-top, overly-arrogant manner that they are not scared of the big, bad Pats. What they still haven’t gotten through their thick heads, though, is that fear aside, they are simply not as good of a football team as the Patriots.
Patriots 27 Chargers 20
Very few thought the Giants, led by Eli Manning, would be one of the final four standing this season. Fewer even could have predicted that brother Peyton would be finished before Eli. So what now? Do the networks honor their contractual agreements with Mastercard and play the requisite loops of “Priceless Pep Talks with Peyton Manning”, during a Peyton-less championship Sunday? Is that funny? Fitting? Sad? A conflict of interest? Not really, not when revenue is the only matter of interest. For now we’ll call it a funny, fitting and sad conflict of embarrassment. Plus, who knows, maybe Eli is a Lambeau-gem away from stealing the bit from his big bro. And now, another priceless pep-talk with Eli Manning! “Priceless” as that may be, let’s not jump the gun.
Let’s stick to the truth, which is Eli will be playing in a championship game a full two years before his brother did. More relevant is the fact that, beginning with the Patriots game three weeks ago, the bumbling little brother has grown up, grown into a Manning. He has done it on the biggest and most primetime of stages: against the Patriots with nothing on the line but football pride, and then twice on the road in the playoffs, the second against his team’s oldest rival. Say what you will about him, but regardless of Peyton’s shocking loss last weekend, Eli has marched his way into the spotlight. He’s earned it. You can mark it down now, the future belongs to Eli Manning. However, as much fun as it is to look ahead, we are perpetually stuck in the present, whether fully aware of it or not. Only experience can thoroughly validate that notion. On Sunday afternoon at Lambeau, the present will belong to Brett Favre, because he knows the future is a precarious concept to harness.
There is no doubt that the Giants have been playing like they don’t just want a rematch with New England, but they are entitled to it. The defense has been outstanding, tossing aside the Buccaneers like rag dolls before bullying the Cowboys into submission once Eli gave them a lead in the second half. But a Sunday on the frozen tundra of Lambeau with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake, well that’s a different story. Early forecasts are calling for a temperature in the low single digits. It also snows pretty much everyday in Green Bay during the winter. Given that Eli has never played in temperatures colder than 24 degrees, and given that Brett Favre, well uh, has, it’s simply not possible to expect Eli to maintain his level of performance. Both teams will want and need to run the ball. Both defenses will be stingy and stout in the red zone. This is going to be an old-school type football game, fought in the trenches, and decided in the fourth quarter. Eli and the Giants have had a defining season that will undoubtedly springboard them to success for years to come. Sunday, however, is reserved for one of the game’s legends to shine one more time.
Packer 20 Giants 16