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Examining the NFL playoff picture

Let’s start with the bad news. For fans of the Raiders, Chiefs, Browns, Jaguars, Panthers and Eagles, the next significant date on the NFL calendar is April 25, 2013. Realistically eliminated from playoff contention, those teams and their followers should already be seeking the input of Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay (or in the case of Philly fans, preparing to make the 90-minute jaunt to New York City for a primetime boo-off with Jets fans at Radio City Music Hall next spring). Unfortunately, the 2013 NFL Draft is all those fan bases currently have to look forward to.

Now to the good news. With only six teams whose records have them earmarked for 2013 and beyond, that leaves 25 playoff hopefuls (plus the Jets) as the season hits the home stretch. Not too shabby. Of those, seven have four wins, four have five wins, five have six wins and 10 have at least seven wins. Some are hot, some are hurt, some are hollow, some are inconsistent, some are scary, some are just plain mediocre. In the NFC, there could be a fistful of solid teams that don’t make the playoffs. In the AFC, the Chargers are still very much alive. So there’s that. If I had to pick a Super Bowl matchup today, not one of the three best teams by record would be included. In other words, there are many unknowns with a mere five weeks to go in the regular season.

Since the playoff picture is so murky and out of focus, why don’t we turn this column into a microscope and see if we can’t reduce a bit of the blur? (Be advised: Any Tebows in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear).

AFC

Division winners – New England, Baltimore, Houston, Denver

The Patriots’ closing slate (Houston, San Francisco, Miami twice, at Jacksonville) is certainly no cakewalk, but they are straight rolling and haven’t lost a second-half game since 2009. Winning out will give New England 13 victories. Denver is clicking too, and its schedule (Tampa Bay, at Oakland, at Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City) is manageable. The Broncos should run the table as well and finish with 13 wins. At 10-1, the Texans are the odds-on favorite for the No. 1 overall seed in the conference, but their schedule (at Tennessee, at New England, Indy twice, Minnesota) has potential bumps in the road, and they are fresh off barely escaping five-quarter games against the Jaguars and Lions. Houston looks like the AFC’s third 13-3 team. Since the Broncos lost to the Patriots and Texans and the Texans will have lost to the Patriots (future-perfect tense alert!), the tiebreaker will go: New England, Houston, Denver. That means the Broncos and 9-2 Ravens – who are poised to stumble down the stretch, just wait – will be hosting Wild Card games.

Wild Card teams – Pittsburgh, Indianapolis

The Steelers are in the midst of their first losing streak since 2009 and likely won’t be pulling out of it with a Week 13 matchup in Baltimore that Ben Roethlisberger is unlikely to return for. If Pittsburgh were in the NFC, there would be legitimate cause for concern. But in a top-heavy AFC, the Steelers should be able to rebound from their tailspin and win their last four games (San Diego, at Dallas, Cincinnati, Cleveland). Injuries aside, this is a team that was playing at a high level in reeling off four straight wins against some quality opponents before losing its quarterback. Nine wins will be good for the second Wild Card, and at 7-4, the Colts should be able to squeeze two out of a challenging final five (at Detroit, Tennessee, Houston twice, at Kansas City). Indy will need to continue to protect its turf, which means splitting with the Texans. That’s doable as long as Andrew Luck doesn’t hit the so-called rookie wall.

Outside looking in – Cincinnati, San Diego, Miami

The 6-5 Bengals have come on strong, but despite a 21.3 point average margin of victory during their three-game winning streak, it’s tough to put a lot of stock in it considering they beat the Raiders, Chiefs and the Giants on one of Eli Manning’s personal bye weeks. Cincinnati would need to pull three wins out of a daunting closing slate (at San Diego, Dallas, at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, Baltimore). Can’t see it. As usual, the 4-7 Chargers should be better, but their quarterback and coach are a turnover/blunder machine. However, given San Diego’s proclivity for December surges and a palatable schedule (Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Carolina, at Jets, Oakland), it’s not out of the realm, right? On second thought … yes, yes it is. Six words for the 5-6 Dolphins: twice New England, plus San Francisco. I think that’s six words.

NFC

Division winners – Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, New York

Barring a total collapse, the Falcons will waltz to their second No. 1 seed in the last three years. Whether they do more with it than Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21 remains to be seen. But the road to New Orleans will go through the Georgia Dome. The Bears are a borderline juggernaut with Jay Cutler and hopeless without him. Luckily he’s back, and thanks to San Francisco’s tie, Chicago should be able to secure the second NFC bye with wins in four of its last five (Seattle, at Minnesota, Green Bay, at Arizona, at Detroit). Indeed, the Niners are going to regret drawing with the Rams, as back-to-back road games in New England and Seattle indicate San Francisco will finish 11-4-1 to Chicago’s 12-4. The Giants may win nine, they may win 10. But they will win the NFC East and play Wild Card weekend. Just how they like it.

Wild Card teams – Green Bay, Seattle

For once, I’m going to hate being right. In late September, after The Seattle Job got the real referees back on the job, I wrote that the matter would not be resolved until December and/or January. Well lo and behold, it’s looking more than ever like the Fail Mary will not only cost the Packers the NFC North crown and a first-round bye, but will also end up putting the Seahawks in the playoffs. At 7-4, Green Bay (which closes with Minnesota, Detroit, at Chicago, Tennessee, at Minnesota) could still win the division, but that will likely require going into Chicago and beating the Bears for the season sweep as well as running the table. Since it will probably take 10 wins to earn the second NFC Wild Card, 6-5 Seattle will need to go 4-1 against a slate of Chicago/Buffalo (road) and Arizona/San Francisco/St. Louis (home). The way the Seahawks play at CenturyLink Field and given how well they played the 49ers at Candlestick, a road win in Buffalo appears to be all that’s separating them from 10 wins. And a heap of controversy.

Outside looking in – Tampa Bay, Washington, New Orleans, Dallas, Minnesota

The 5-6 Saints face a murderers’ row (at Atlanta, at Giants, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina) to end the season. While they would be a bona fide “team nobody wants to face,” it appears that 0-4 start will end up dooming the Saints. The Cowboys have traditionally been floppers in December. Sizing up the 6-5 Vikings’ final five games (at Green Bay, Chicago, at St. Louis, at Houston, Green Bay), it’s tough to find even one sure victory. The Redskins are playing splendid football behind Robert Griffin III but are still a year away, which leaves the formidable Bucs (at Denver, Philadelphia, at New Orleans, St. Louis, at Atlanta) as the team that figures to be crying foul should they fall a game or tiebreaker short to the Seahawks.

AFC projections

1. New England (13-3)
2. Houston (13-3)
3. Denver (13-3)
4. Baltimore (11-5)
5. Pittsburgh (10-6)
6. Indianapolis (9-7)

Cincinnati (8-8)
San Diego (8-8)
Miami (7-9)

NFC projections

1. Atlanta (13-3)
2. Chicago (12-4)
3. San Francisco (11-4-1)
4. New York (10-6)
5. Green Bay (11-5)
6. Seattle (10-6)

Tampa Bay (9-7)
New Orleans (8-8)
Washington (8-8)
Dallas (8-8)
Minnesota (7-9)

Super Bowl contenders: Who makes the cut?

The NFL prides itself on being an equal opportunity league. The turnover of playoff teams from one year to the next is traditionally at least 40 percent. It was a 50/50 split in 2011.

Since the Patriots won three out of four Super Bowls from 2001-04, five of the last seven champions have played in the Wild Card round. Three of them (’05 Steelers, ’07 Giants, ’10 Packers) ran the road gauntlet as Wild Card teams, and a fourth – the ’08 Cardinals – came within a minute of doing the same.

While gaudy, prolific regular seasons can captivate the masses, the trend of the league over the last seven years has illustrated time and again that it’s not how you get there, but the momentum you carry into January. Because of that, it’s difficult to gain a good handle on the true Super Bowl contenders until December at the earliest.

Then again, if we wait until then, there won’t be much to talk about around the Thanksgiving table, will there? Here’s a pre-Turkey Day stab at categorizing the contenders:

The pretenders – Baltimore, Seattle
The Ravens look like they blew their best chance at a second Super Bowl last season. Since Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff teamed up to flush the AFC title down the toilet in New England last January, Baltimore has been careening toward mediocrity – despite a house-of-cards 7-2 record through nine games. The Ravens’ defense is banged up and unable to stop anyone, allowing over 390 yards per game, fifth worst in the NFL. Joe Flacco, who by his own admission was poised to enter the ranks of the elite, is barely a Top 15 quarterback and only seems to play well against the Patriots. Yet the Ravens appear charmed, drawing Pittsburgh twice in the next three weeks with Ben Roethlisberger’s status in question. Baltimore looks headed for a second straight AFC North crown and a home game in the first round. One it will likely lose.

If the Seahawks had managed to upset the 49ers for sixty minutes instead of forty a few Thursday nights ago, they would be occupying a far more significant tier of these rankings. Seattle has the league’s No. 4 overall defense, as well as the fourth-ranked scoring defense. Marshawn Lynch always gains steam as the season progresses and is the type of unrelenting, downhill runner that can make life miserable for opposing defenses in the playoffs (hello: New Orleans, 2010). In addition, the number-crunchers at Football Outsiders have Seattle ranked third in the NFL by their total DVOA metric. However, because of that loss on Oct. 18 (and San Francisco’s subsequent tie), the Hawks trail the Niners by two games in the loss column in the NFC West, meaning they are all but assured to be on the road in the playoffs should they get there. And Seattle can’t win on the road. Russell Wilson has thrown eight interceptions in five games away from CenturyLink Field, four of which the Seahawks have lost.

The faux-tenders – Atlanta, Houston
Has an 8-1 team ever looked as ordinary as the Falcons? They should have lost to Carolina in Week 4, were outplayed by an awful Raiders team in Week 6, did everything they could to blow a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to the Broncos in Week 2 on Monday night and couldn’t score with three chances from the 1-yard line and the game on the line last Sunday against the Saints. The argument for the Falcons is they are seasoned after consecutive one-and-dones in the playoffs. From this view, the Atlanta defense is pretty much the same unit that was tuned up by the Packers and Giants, and Mike Smith is pretty much the same coach that has tightened up in each of those blowouts.

On paper (and the field, for that matter), the Texans shouldn’t be lumped with the Falcons. Houston boasts the No. 2 overall defense and No. 3 scoring defense in the league, along with the presumptive defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt. They can stop the run and feature one of the game’s best safety/corner tandems. So why are the Texans relegated to this status? For one, despite the growing up they did in the playoffs last year, they did so without their starting quarterback. As well-constructed of a team as Houston is, this is still a quarterback-driven league, particularly when it’s all on the line, and I’m not convinced Matt Schaub is ready to stare down the Bradys, Mannings and Rodgers of the world with a championship on the line. And sorry, but Super Bowl contenders don’t get their clocks cleaned at home in a nationally-televised game like Houston did by Green Bay in Week 6.

The caveats – Pittsburgh, Chicago
The jury is still out on the Steelers and Bears because of their ailing quarterbacks. If Jay Cutler experiences lingering post-concussion effects, it could be deja vu for the 7-2 Bears, who were 7-3 at the two-thirds marker last year and had the makeup of a legitimate contender before Cutler was felled. Likewise for the Steelers, who simply have no chance without a 100-percent Roethlisberger.

The uncategorizables – Giants
So the Giants won six of their first eight, highlighted by a 26-3 stampeding of San Francisco that is neck and neck with Aaron Rodgers’ six touchdown passes in the aforementioned Sunday night smackdown for the season’s most impressive victory. They’ve since dropped two straight games, Eli Manning has looked terrible and the schedule is murderous down the stretch. Hmmm, where have we seen this before …

The lurkers – New England, San Francisco
As usual, the Patriots are tough to quantify. They once again feature the league’s highest-powered offense, ranking No. 1 in total yards per game (430.3) and points per game (33.2) with room to spare in each category. Seventh in passing, fifth in rushing. In terms of total DVOA, New England is second overall, and its three losses have been by a combined four points. Yet in two of their last three games, the Patriots have been forced to pull rabbits out of their hats against the Jets and Bills. Back-to-back games against Houston and San Francisco in Weeks 14-15 will be interesting, but will probably tell us more about the Texans and Niners than the Pats.

Indeed, if San Francisco is able to fly cross-country and knock off New England in primetime on Dec. 16, the road to New Orleans could realistically be going through the City by the Bay. That said, Tom Brady rarely loses at home, in December or to NFC teams in the regular season. Tough to see all three happening at once. That’s not to say the Niners aren’t serious contenders. Quite the contrary, as this team is built to beat any NFC heavy-hitter minus the Giants, who just flat-out have San Francisco’s number.

The favorites – Green Bay, Denver
If the 49ers are built to beat Green Bay (they are) and the Giants pose legitimate matchup problems for Green Bay (they do), how can the Packers be the favorite to come out of the NFC? First, the defense, which has quietly regained its 2010 form: solid against the run (98.3 yards per game, tied for 10th in the NFL) and able to bring consistent pressure (28 sacks, tied for second). Then there’s Rodgers, who far too many questioned after four lackluster performances (by his standards) dating back to the playoff loss to the Giants last year. Rodgers didn’t look great to begin the season, and Green Bay lost two of its first three games (well, according to the replacement refs). Since The Seattle Job, the Packers are 5-1 and Rodgers has been in message-mode.

During their four-game winning streak, the Broncos have scored 35, 34, 31 and 36 points. Peyton Manning has established himself as the clear front-runner for MVP, the defense leads the league with 33 sacks and is ranked sixth overall. And just in case you were wondering, the Broncos are No. 1 in total DVOA. They haven’t lost since Week 5 in New England, and a cursory glance at their schedule indicates there’s a good chance they won’t lose again until a potential rematch with the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. And by the looks of it, that one may very well be in the Mile High City.

Taking the NFL pulse at season’s midway point

Some quick-hitting thoughts as the calendar flips to November and the 2012 NFL season reaches the halfway marker …

The West is already won
The AFC West appears to be a tightly-contested race, with only one game separating the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders. Don’t be fooled. At 4-3, Denver is poised to run away with the division after emerging from a grueling first two months that included games against at least four contenders (Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston and New England). Peyton Manning looks more comfortable by the week and the schedule shakes out favorably.
The Broncos can start fitting themselves for a three-seed unless San Diego finds a way to keep playing the Chiefs.

The NFC West has calibrated itself after a collective September surge that few, if any, saw coming. Since the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams started a combined 11-4, they have gone 0-9. San Francisco, meanwhile, is humming along at 6-2. At their best, the Niners have looked like a team destined for another deep January run. But they have also been pummeled by the Vikings and Giants, raising some questions about their ability to consistently win in the trenches. While the Jekyll and Hyde act could be a cause for concern in the long run, it won’t prevent San Francisco from cruising to its second straight NFC West title.

Talib the difference-maker in New England?
Trades are rare in the NFL, but don’t tell that to the Patriots. Bill Belichick has proven over the years that he will buck the trend if he feels he can acquire a potential impact player at a reasonable price (Randy Moss in 2007 and Deion Branch in 2010, both acquired for fourth-round draft picks, come to mind). Hence the deal for corner Aqib Talib, whom New England obtained Thursday in return for a 2013 fourth-rounder.

The longtime Buccaneer is one of the elite corners in the game, a position that has been a major problem spot for the Patriots since the departure of Asante Samuel after the 2007 season. Talib arrives with a good deal more baggage than that which he will stick in his new locker, but Belichick has never been fazed by so-called “character issues.” Some of his bold moves have paid off (Corey Dillon, Moss), others not so much (Albert Haynesworth). If Talib embraces the opportunity and helps shore up the Patriots’ only glaring weakness, they will be tough to beat in the AFC.

Dolphins/Colts has playoff implications
On Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins and Colts will tango at Lucas Oil Stadium, with the winner moving to 5-3 and squarely on track for 10 wins. The 10-win plateau is traditionally a goal set by teams with playoff aspirations. Indianapolis is coming off a 2-14 season and Miami didn’t inspire too much confidence during its stint on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which is to say this game wasn’t exactly highlighted in yellow on the “games to watch” list as recently as early October.

But these teams have combined to win six of their last seven, Indy on the strength of a coming-into-his-own Andrew Luck and Miami thanks to the league’s No. 5 scoring defense. In a weakened AFC this year, whomever comes in second between Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North looks to have a secure hold on the first Wild Card spot. The second Wild Card is up for grabs, and the winner of this game will have the inside track heading into the cold months.

Another Giant slide in the offing?

The Giants pull into the midway point at 6-2, the fifth time in the last six years they have won at least six of their first eight games. Only once in that span did they manage better than four wins over the second half of the season (5-3 in 2008). To be fair, the schedule almost always breaks poorly for Tom Coughlin’s crew. This year is no different, as the Giants face a daunting second half that includes games against the Steelers, Packers, Saints, Falcons and Ravens, along with divisional games vs. the Redskins and Eagles.

It’s tough to envision the Giants managing better than a split of that slate, but given that they’re currently the only team in the NFC East over .500, it’s reasonable to assume that 10 wins will secure the division. Of course, the caveat to all this is the one time the Giants produced a strong second half and locked down home-field and a first-round bye in ’08, they were bounced in the divisional round by the Eagles. Go figure.

No matter what, NFL’s black eye will linger

It looks like the NFL referee lockout will end in time for the regular officials to be back on the field for the Week 4 games. But that by no means ensures the issue is a thing of the past. Not after the Packers were hosed on Monday night by an official who had been deemed unfit for Division I college football.

If and when late December rolls around and Green Bay is fighting for a playoff spot and comes up a game short (unlikely) or loses a tiebreaker it would have otherwise won (very much a possibility) and therefore loses a bye or has to go on the road in the postseason, the aftershock will be greater than the quake.

golden-tate1It didn’t take a polished football mind to see this coming. From the outset, it was clear the replacement refs were overmatched. Not counting subjective elements of the job (which even the regular officials struggle with, albeit not to the degree of the replacements) the scabs proved incapable of consistently spotting the ball correctly, marking off penalty yards, keeping timeout inventories, awarding challenges and generally maintaining order and game flow. In other words, the stuff that fans, and more importantly, players and coaches take for granted. That’s not even mentioning a few glaring conflicts of interest that surfaced.

That was the writing on the wall, the fodder for news conferences, talk shows and water coolers. You could take your pick of issues plaguing the replacements on the field, and make a solid case as to how they were overmatched. It wasn’t until Sunday night in Baltimore, however, that “overmatched” became “utterly ill-equipped.”

In the biggest game of the season to date – a rematch of the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Ravens – the replacements were cooked from the word go. Players engaged after the whistle on nearly every play, which stripped the game of any semblance of rhythm. The refs tried to counterbalance that by throwing so many flags it was fair to wonder if it was free banana night at M&T Bank Stadium. Both teams were victimized by terrible calls.

Then, on the game’s final play with the Patriots leading, 30-28, kicker Justin Tucker hooked a 27-yard field goal over the left upright. Was the kick good? Did it sail to the outside of the upright? Replays showed it was too close to call. The only person who could definitively tell was the official standing underneath the upright. He signaled “good,” and the game was over.

Analysis of the first two weeks had already shown that the replacements were being influenced by the home crowds in respect to the calls they made and in what situations. After all, the majority of these guys had never worked in front of more than a few thousand fans, let alone upwards of seventy or more.

So was the kick good? Or more to the point, if it was indeed slightly wide left, was that official capable of processing the brain wave to criss-cross his arms in front of a bloodthirsty Baltimore crowd that not long ago had managed the clearest and “loudest manure chant” Al Michaels had ever heard? Was the official thinking about Billy Cundiff in the AFC title game and how he might not escape M&T Bank Stadium with his extremities intact if he signaled no-good? Or was he making the call he was paid to make? Would he have made the same call on the same kick at Gillette Stadium?

It’s impossible to know, but after a similar occurrence at CenturyLink Field twenty-four hours later – only this time far more egregious and hideous – one that unequivocally cost the Packers a win, all those questions are valid. And that’s what happens when a monolith like the NFL loses its credibility.

The referees may be on their way back this weekend. As for the integrity of the league, the best-case scenario is January.

Allen’s exit ends Big Three era

In the days after the Celtics ran out of gas down the stretch of Game 7 and succumbed to the Heat, it was tempting to get in the mix and offer some final thoughts following, what appeared to be, the final curtain of the new Big Three era.

A team born out of a bounce of a ping-pong ball on May 22, 2007, that had produced so many stirring memories was headed into a haze of uncertainty.

Of the original three-party, only Paul Pierce was under contract. And while it was a no-brainer that Kevin Garnett would either hang em up or return in Green, it was hard not to prepare for the former. Anyone who watched the man play from big-31late-February on could not possibly escape the thought that he was in the throes of firing every remaining bullet in his chamber in one final blaze of glory.

But when Garnett, the glue, decided he was not ready for the next banner ceremony at the Garden to be the one raising his No. 5 into the rafters, Year 6 of the Three-Year Window appeared to be all but a formality. Just like Ray Allen’s arrival in 2007 had spurred Garnett to join Boston, so too would KG’s decision to return give Allen all the incentive necessary to re-up so he and his teammates could regroup, avenge the loss to Miami and make another charge at Banner No. 18.

The Celtics have done a lot of winning over the last five years. Few will dispute that they likely would have done even more had circumstances not dictated otherwise. But given the trajectory of the franchise from the end of the original Big Three era – beginning with Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, giving way to M.L. Carr, Rick Pitino and 18-game losing streaks – to the dawn of the new one, Celtics fans were desperate for something positive to cling to.

The team bonded in Rome, where Ubuntu was hatched, before the 2007-08 season, and it didn’t take long for Boston to become a basketball city once again. Tom Brady may own the town, but he plays 25 miles to the south and is only there 8-10 times per year.

For five years, the Celtics were tangible, relatable and omnipresent. They squabbled, but more like a family than highly-paid professional athletes. They were fiercely loyal to their coach, who instilled in them a will to play as much for each other as they did for the fans.

Allen is as meticulous of an athlete (or person, for that matter) as you will ever see. Every move he makes, on the court and off, is calculated. So for him to turn his back on his roots and teammates and irrevocably alter his legacy at this stage in his career by joining the enemy means, well, there was evidently a lot going on that we were not aware of.

The gist of it has now been circulated: Allen was hurt by the way Danny Ainge conducted his business, trying to trade him on multiple occasions, including informing him that he had been shipped to Memphis for O.J. Mayo at the trade deadline only to have the deal fall through at the last minute. He was angered at losing his starting job to Avery Bradley while grinding through what was undeniably his most physically taxing season as a Celtic. And he grew tired of dealing with the mercurial Rajon Rondo on a day-to-day basis.

The reasons were there, and plentiful, for Allen’s discontent to grow into spite.

However, even as Celtics fans try to extract the knife he just plunged into their backs, it’s nonetheless difficult not to wonder if things could have gone differently. In this case, the simple answer is no.

If it was fixable, you can rest assured the trio of Doc, Garnett and Pierce would have found a way. For all Rivers made about the team’s splendid chemistry last season, that sentiment was obviously not shared by Allen. For Ray, the Ubuntu probably died when Ainge tried to swap him for a newer model. But a case can be made that it goes back even further, back to the trade of Kendrick Perkins.

When Ainge stunned everyone by dealing Perkins in February 2011, he made it clear he was running the Celtics as an enterprise. In Ainge’s eyes, Perkins had become a dated asset, no matter that the spirit of the team had been founded on and revolved around its belligerent unity. Not only did the loss of Perkins rob the Celtics of their burly 7-footer who also happened to serve as Rondo’s stabilizing force, it jolted them all back to the reality of basketball as a business.

Less than 18 months later, the business of basketball was brought full circle by Allen. Except this time it was personal, because it’s impossible to have it both ways. Ubuntu and the business of basketball were always on a collision course, and the first domino was Perkins.

So instead of one last Last Hurrah for the Big Three, it’s suddenly the end of days, when Jesus became Judas. The retooled Celtics will once again be in the hunt next year. But the days of the new Big Three are over.

Heady times they were.

Game 7: Last tango on South Beach

Mike Breen summed up Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals aptly:

“Murphy’s Law in effect,” Breen told Jeff Van Gundy and the rest of the national ESPN audience late in the fourth quarter of Miami’s 98-79 thumping of the Celtics. “Even Murphy had it better.”

And so it was on a forgettable Thursday night at the Garden, Breen’s line trumped only by LeBron James’ 45-15-5 – a cold-blooded and emphatic response to the question of whether the King’s season would be dealt its death blow by the hallowed parquet for the third time in five years.

kgThe way the Celtics came out – Paul Pierce clanking shots, Kevin Garnett getting clapped by Shane Battier, Rajon Rondo slinging passes into the first row – it sure looked like they thought the building itself was going to win them the game, and all they had to do was hop on for the ride, like a bunch of kids on a Tilt-A-Whirl.

Instead, it was James doing the tilting and whirling, sticking shot after shot directly in the eye of Celtic after Celtic. When it was all over, he was only in Wilt Chamberlain’s company. There’s a reason the guy has won three MVPs, folks. It’s because, on occasion, he does things like what we all, um, witnessed last night.

I’ve said it before, but it must be reiterated. This is the Heat. This is who they are. The moment you let your guard down or allow a scintilla of (the wrong kind of) hubris to enter the equation, they will coldly and unequivocally steamroll you. The Celtics know this better than anyone, but then again, these are the Celtics – prideful, stubborn and bearing a massive chip on their collective shoulder that practically screams their love for doing things the hardest possible way.

Naturally, there’s a silver lining, like there always is with this Green machine and the caveats that attempt to do justice to its head-scratching idiosyncrasies.

On the same night James found a way to will himself to a higher place, the Celtics laid a big ole dinosaur egg. Part of that is a happy coincidence, because let’s be real, even a 41-point eruption from Pierce or a tour-de-force Rondo was unlikely to thwart LeBron from exiting onto Causeway Street victorious. It was just one of those nights.

Long before the Garden snapped out of its coma and the final buzzer sounded, I couldn’t help but think of a game with eerie parallels to the one that was still unfolding in front of me.

In the 2010 Finals, the Celtics roared back from a 2-1 series deficit to the Lakers by winning Games 4 and 5 at home, sending them to the West Coast with two shots to close out the title. The way they came out in Game 6, it seemed like they believed the Lakers were going to serve them their rings on a silver platter and plan the parade for them.

To date, that remains the biggest no-show of the Big Three era, but boy, did Thursday night give it a run for its money.

Everyone knows what happened in Game 7 that year. Despite playing without an injured Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics threw the first haymaker. And the second. And third. Their lead was 13 in the third quarter before it all came apart in the fourth. Twenty-one Lakers free throws, a game-tying three from Derek Fisher and a back-breaking dagger from Ron Artest. Just like that, Banner No. 18 vanished into the rafters at Staples Center.

The Celtics are a grinding, forward-thinking team. When they say they don’t think about Heat-in-5 from last year, they mean it. But don’t believe for a second that when Game 7 in Miami reaches meet-your-maker time, the Celtics won’t have something extra to draw on, something uniquely painful yet invigorating.

What happened that night in L.A. is the greatest regret they have, but when the Heat are making their charge in the fourth quarter, it will represent their greatest weapon. For two years, that game has haunted them and driven them. It’s part of the reason they are even here to begin with. And by late Saturday night, it will become the reason why they were able to outlast the mighty Miami Heat.

Time to move on from the Rondo-robbery

“I guarantee you right now, they’re distracted, our team, in the locker room. But we have to get it out of us and move on.”
–Doc Rivers, after the Celtics lost Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Heat in overtime, 115-111

Celtics fans should heed the words of the coach. Let it out. Your team was the victim of brazen highway robbery on South Beach last night. What should have gone down as one of the all-time great one-man acts in playoff history was unceremoniously ripped from the grasp of Rajon Rondo. Indeed, the non-call on Dwyane Wade’s face-hack of Rondo was quite possibly more foul than the play itself.

But this is not the time to lament the Rondo-robbery, or Paul Pierce fouling out on a questionable call, or LeBron James being whistled for all of two fouls while defending an attacking Pierce all night, or James taking nearly as many free throws (24) as the entire Celtics team (29), or the Heat being the beneficiaries of a 47-29 edge at the line, or Greg rondo2Stiemsma picking up four fouls in five minutes … simply for being Greg Stiemsma. I’m out of breath.

No, as Rivers wisely pointed out, Game 2 was not the end of the line, and while it helps to let the disbelief and anger flow in the moment, it’s necessary to quickly put a lid on it and trudge forward.

With the consensus headline around the country on Thursday morning some variation of, Celtics give Heat best shot, still lose, I say fair enough. Yes, the Celtics produced arguably their best effort – particularly at the offensive end – of the postseason, but they were forced to play with one hand tied behind their back.

The Celtics have cause for optimism going forward, though, because unless David Stern wants the conspiracy theories to start flying on the Kings-Lakers 2002 level, the officiating, ahem, “situation” will be rectified as this series drags on, you can bet Tim Donaghy’s right pinkie on it.

As for James and Wade, what’s yet to be rectified is their closing capabilities in tight games. Let’s go to the tape:

Exhibit A: Celtics leading, 94-91, 2:18 left. Shane Battier drains a three to tie the game. On the next trip down, Mickael Pietrus commits a bad foul on LeBron, who hits two free throws to put Miami back on top, 96-94. The Heat get a stop, and with the Celtics clamping down on defense, Wade dishes to Udonis Haslem, who sinks an 18-footer from the baseline to extend the lead to 98-94.

Exhibit B: After a Boston timeout results in a Rondo-to-Garnett lob with 1:05 left to make it a two-point game, Wade drives in and draws Pierce’s sixth foul on a circus layup attempt. With 47 seconds left and Pierce out, Wade can essentially seal the game at the charity stripe. He bricks the first free throw, makes the second. 99-96. A Ray Allen trey knots the game at 99 with 34 seconds left.

Exhibit C: James misses a layup with 20 seconds left, gets his own rebound, and misses a 21-foot jumper at the buzzer with Rondo guarding him. Overtime.

Exhibit D: James misses two free throws to begin overtime. Wade misses one on a potential three-point play with 3:32 left that keeps the game tied. Then, following the Rondo-robbery, the Heat open up a seven-point lead with 18 seconds left, yet the Celtics manage to slice the deficit to three with two seconds remaining thanks to a pair of pure-grit Rondo threes. Wade goes to the line and promptly misses the first free throw before rattling home the second.

So for those scoring at home, Battier and Haslem had Miami’s two biggest field goals at the end of regulation, and James whiffed on a pair of potential game-winners. Compounding that, James and Wade combined to clank five of 12 free throws beginning with 47 seconds left in regulation.

This is nothing new for James and Wade – be it the missing of crunch-time free throws or game-deciding shots. Apart from the playoff series between the two teams last year, when James shook the Celtics monkey off his back with a trio of devastating closes, the Heat’s superstar tandem has consistently wilted in decisive moments – be it the regular season or the NBA Finals. Of course, the Heat win a ton, but most of the time they’ve already run a team out of the building when the clock is ticking down.

But this isn’t last year. Barring a redux of Wade taking out Rondo in Game 3, Boston’s greatest weapon will be healthy for the remainder of the series, which is to say the games will continue to be close-fought wars.

Time to soldier on, everyone. You know the Celtics will.

All signs to NBA Finals read ‘Rondo’

He is perplexing, maddening, awe-inspiring. Sometimes all on the same play. His basketball wits are befitting of a savant, his control of the reins of a proud team self-proclaimed. His ability to elicit a mind-blown, What was he possibly thinking? after his worst and greatest moments alike is incomparable.

If we could see the court through his eyes, it would be like trying to look at the Matrix: endless strings of numbers and characters in code. It is for this reason that he so fascinates and infuriates us, three first-ballot Hall of Famers and one of the game’s great coaches included.

On Saturday night in a Game 7 against a team for which he had no respect, he spent the first 43 minutes and change doing a formidable job of authoring the last rites of the Big Three era. He was disengaged, careless, and at times – in the case of missing point-blank layups – just plain bad.

It didn’t matter that it was Game 7, for he was Rajon Rondo and they were the Philadelphia 76ers, a cute and lively young bunch that he had used to entertain himself for the first five games, like a cat with a ball of yarn, rondobefore yawning and deciding before Game 6 he no longer fancied them. From the beginning of that contest through the aforementioned first 43 minutes of Game 7, he shot 26 percent from the floor and committed 11 turnovers.

Game 7 was all kinds of ugly, but it was a game the Celtics grabbed by the throat with a 10-2 run to start and maintained control of throughout. Gino may not have been dancing on the jumbotron, but everyone in the house knew the outcome; that is, until the 4:16 mark of the fourth quarter when, with the Celtics leading by three, Paul Pierce took a pass from Rondo on the perimeter, drove and collided with Thaddeus Young for his sixth foul. A few minutes earlier, a Rondo turnover had necessitated Pierce committing his fifth foul to prevent Andre Iguodala from having an uncontested layup.

Pierce screamed in frustration. The Garden hushed. Things had gotten real, so Rondo activated his “on” switch.

“I felt I was part of the reason he fouled out,” Rondo said after the game. “I had two bad turnovers. I felt somewhat responsible for it.”

What he did next is why every Celtics fan still has reason to believe Banner No. 18 is within reach. A baseline drive to extend the lead to 73-68. A combined 50 feet of rainbow jumpers for a total of five points, followed by four free throws in as many attempts. Nothing but nylon on each of the six releases. Game. Blouses.

The thing about Rondo, I think, is he not only believes he’s the smartest and best player in the world, but that it’s actually not even close. It’s the reason he’s alternated between clashing with and revering his three elder teammates from Day 1, the reason he’s stepped to Kobe, called out LeBron and Wade. It’s the reason a handful of his masterpieces have come against the Lakers and Heat, and why he often needs to be jolted to life against the likes of Philly – even in a Game 7.

It’s the reason that, despite the established gap between the teams, the Celtics undeniably wanted the Heat more than the other way around. They may not have won a title in four years, but every time the Celtics take the court in the postseason, they do so with the swagger and heart of a champion, and the cold drive of vengeance-seekers.

They’ve lost three elimination games in this era, and the one time it wasn’t in a Game 7 was last spring, when Rondo had his elbow dislocated, courtesy of Wade. The Heat won that second-round series in five games, and celebrated as if they had been coronated. Miami may say they expect the path to the Finals to go through Boston, but that was all supposed to have ended last year. The Heat believed they ended it, ended this incarnation of the Celtics, and you can’t really blame them.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have long believed it would have all gone differently had Rondo not gone down. Rondo knows it would have.

All the talk leading up to the 2012 Eastern Conference finals has been about all the things the Celtics must do to simply have a chance against Miami. Garnett must dominate the battle of the bigs, Bosh or no Bosh. Pierce must battle LeBron to a stalemate a few times. Allen must find some bounce in his ailing ankles, or at least some semblance of his jumper. Bass must … the bench must … etc.

Little, however, has been made of the fact that the Heat only came alive against Indiana after LeBron and Wade raised their collective games to a level previously unheard of. So how about this: In order for the Heat to beat the Celtics, LeBron and Wade must each continue to drop 30-plus a night. Udonis Haslem must consistently hit 15-foot jumpers. Mike Miller and Shane Battier must shoot 40 percent from the beyond the arc on wide open looks. Erik Spoelstra must win a two-minute coaching battle with Doc Rivers. If that happens, consider the Celtics’ caps tipped.

The reality is both teams are hurting, and neither is without its flaws.

Back to the vengeance-seeking. Because Pierce, Allen and Garnett came together so late in their careers, and because of the immediate success they enjoyed, there’s been a bittersweet element to their time together. The combination of missing each other’s primes with leaving what they perceive to be multiple titles on the table once together has rendered them bitter and scornful.

In that respect, Rondo has always been the outlier, the young gun who has the drive to win, but not the ticking clock to keep the firing burning. On those occasions when he’s “engaged,” the Celtics are damned near impossible to beat. An engaged Rondo was sighted off and on against the Hawks and 76ers. What we have never seen is a vengeance-seeking Rondo. If that guy shows up, the Celtics will end the Heat’s season.

Fearless Celtics ready for a bar fight

On Feb. 12, the Celtics had just finished holding off the Bulls at TD Garden in a nationally-televised Sunday afternoon game. The day belonged to Rajon Rondo, who messed around to the beat of a 32-10-15 triple-double as an injured Derrick Rose glowered from the opposing bench.

Rose or no Rose, the Bulls’ fate had likely been sealed by the mere time slot and presence of ABC cameras, for that combination had proven countless times to be the tonic that morphs Rondo into an unstoppable force, a slicing and diming hardwood maestro that no foe can contain.

Shortly after the final buzzer, an animated Kevin Garnett – is there any other kind? – approached Rondo near the sideline, embraced him and bellowed out a few emphatic love-fueled words of encouragement. The camera then cut to midcourt, where Paul Pierce was observing the one-sided exchange. All Pierce could do was laugh and shake his head. A scene at once all-too-familiar and yet somehow novel.

Welcome to Year 5 of the well-documented “Three-Year Window” for the Garnett-Pierce-Allen-(Rondo) Celtics.

kobepierceAside from Year 1, when it all went according to plan – the 66 regular-season wins, the silencing of LeBron Part I, the evisceration of the Lakers and accompanying NBA championship – nothing has come easy for the Green. Garnett’s knee injury halted the title defense; Kendrick Perkins’ torn ACL cost Boston another ring at the expense of LA in 2010; the Perkins trade gutted “Ubuntu” last year, and Rondo’s hyperextended elbow put to rest any notion of challenging the Heat in the playoffs.

One line of thinking heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season was that veteran-laden teams would have a distinct advantage. Be it flawed logic, untimely injuries or a general lack of player conditioning, that theory was debunked rather quickly when the defending-champion Mavericks, Celtics, and to a lesser degree, the Lakers, limped out of the gate.

In Boston’s case, the cause was a bit of it all. Pierce was both hurt and in less-than-stellar shape to begin the season. Garnett looked like he had swapped sneakers for cinder blocks. Jeff Green was found to have a potentially life-threatening heart condition. And for a team that prided itself on defense and situational execution, the lack of a proper training camp took an immediate toll.

The result was a 4-8 start, which in a 66-game season amounted to .333 ball for nearly 20 percent of the slate.

The Celtics, who had begun no worse than 20-4 in any of the previous four years and had never known life out of first place in the Atlantic Division, were six games behind the fast-starting 76ers and on the outside of the playoff picture looking in before wiping the crust out of their eyes.

Although the blows continued to come, first in the form of trade winds that swirled around each of the Big Three before centering on Rondo, then by way of further injuries to Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox and Mickael Pietrus – the latter two being particularly frightening – the Celtics nonetheless began to coalesce.

Proud, resolute and stubborn, the ex-champs climbed back to relevance, thumbing their noses at all those who wrote them off as too adversity-stricken and too old to make anything more than a whimper in this funky campaign. Through Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs, the Celtics were 26-15 since the 4-8 start, which is equivalent to a 52-win pace in a normal season.

Garnett has been sensational since assuming the 5, a position-shift he was forced to accept because, well, there was nobody else. Pierce is fresh off netting Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for March. Second-year guard Avery Bradley has turned into Tony Allen 2.0, a ferocious perimeter defender who recently did this to Dwyane Wade.

And then there’s Rondo, who is playing at an otherworldly level these days, the end of the trade talks (and no visits from the commander-in-chief) having clearly helped him find a bit of mental equilibrium.

But as has been the case since Day 1 of Year 1, it’s Garnett who remains the beating heart of the team.

In late January, back when the 7-9 Celtics were gasping for air, they found themselves trailing the Magic by 27 points in Orlando. A third-quarter run got them within striking distance and a 27-8 onslaught in the fourth resulted in a rather breezy 91-83 victory, after which Garnett produced one of his more memorable postgame interviews with Craig Sager.

“It was a damned bar fight,” Garnett barked to no one in particular as Sager attempted to begin a question. “A bar fight. It was a bar fight, Craig. Tonight was a bar fight, man … You ever been in a bar fight?”

Despite returning to first place in late March after 50 games in unfamiliar territory, the C’s task only gets tougher. A brutal final stretch against a slew of contenders, along with a back-to-back-to-back on the road, loom. The playoffs, which Boston will undoubtedly enter with the label of also-rans, follow.

But hey, it’s Year 5 of a three-year window. This is borrowed time for the Celtics, which begs the question: Who else is ready for a bar fight?

Yes, the Saints’ bounty program was bad, but …

The following should not come as a newsflash: Football is a savage game, waged by self-proclaimed gladiators.

The sport has no room for the soft or merciful, a statement that is more applicable to the game’s greater culture than to those who contest it at its highest level. Indeed, before passing judgement on the New Orleans Saints and their bounty program, it would be foolish to overlook from whence the mentality originates.

Beginning in Pop Warner youth leagues, where kids as young as 5 years old – aptly named “Tiny-Mites” – are taught how to tackle, to high school programs that establish pecking orders primarily through hitting drills that (rightfully) reward those who can pack the most hurt, football athletes are hardwired early, with the welcome-and-embrace-violence mentality repeatedly hammered Saints Bounties Football in at every subsequent level of competition.

So then, why all the disbelief and outrage at the actions perpetrated by the Saints? Should it really come as a surprise that grown men who are paid specifically for their ability to inflict harm on other grown men have taken it upon themselves to also pay one another in pursuit of the same end? Anyone who believes so fails to grasp the most fundamental aspect of football.

Now there is naturally a moral argument at play here, and it’s evident in the circles of prayer that take place among combatants whenever a player is seriously injured. The game may be savage, but football players, in the end, are not.

Therein lies the issue, however, because up until that point when someone is lying motionless on the gridiron, the way in which a football player is hardwired allows for only one objective: destroy. The alternative is to be destroyed or be out of a job. It’s that simple, and it’s a reality that fans are able to grasp implicitly. But when the curtain is drawn and elements of the game’s nasty underbelly revealed – when the speculated becomes corroborated – there’s no going back.

That’s the crux of the matter with the Saints and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s unprecedented – and warranted – leveling of the organization through suspensions, fines and forfeitures of draft picks.

It’s not merely the act of issuing bounties that is such a symbolic black eye – the bounty system is (well, was) surely practiced by other players and teams – it’s the act of getting caught, and the ramifications for the sport in a day and age where issues of player safety have finally come to the forefront.

While I do not condone the practice of putting a bounty on someone’s head, I’m a realist. I know what makes football great and so lucrative of an enterprise, and to believe there isn’t a healthy amount of unholiness involved in creating the product is simply naive.

The problem is, not only did the Saints commit the ultimate faux pas by allowing everyone a glimpse behind the curtain, but the brazenness and defiance that characterized the whole thing insulted and incensed Goodell, who does not mess around when it comes to his duty of protecting the NFL shield (see: Spygate, Michael Vick, James Harrison etc.).

“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” Goodell said in the official NFL release detailing the league’s response to the matter. “When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.”

Message received.