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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.

Brady’s day of reckoning arrives

It had to be this way.

Four years ago the Patriots played with fire in the desert and got burned. It only got worse after that.

Fans who watched Bernard Pollard crush Tom Brady’s knee before the 2008 season – ie the original Campaign of Revenge – had a heartbeat rightfully questioned whether they would ever again see Brady play for that stubbornly elusive fourth ring. Home playoff losses to the Ravens and Jets nudged that possibility closer to a reality.

Yet somehow, someway, on the strength of one of the least convincing and most peculiar 10-game win streaks one could possibly imagine, this latest Patriots installment has managed to claw its way to back to the big one. En route, Brady and Co. have snuffed out nearly every team that halted them in Januarys past.

bradyAnd so we arrive in Indianapolis, the final stop on the Patriots Campaign of Revenge 2011. One last batch of demons to exorcise.

A Lombardi Trophy will go to the winner of Sunday night’s game, but it is what that trophy represents that sets Super Bowl XLVI apart from the others that have preceded it.

Back in early 2005, Brady had just led New England to its third title in four years. A 27-year-old, fourth-year starter, the former sixth-round pick could have decided to become a cabdriver and still would have been as ironclad of a first-ballot Hall of Famer as there ever was.

Fortunately, Brady stuck to the football thing, winning more in a 10-season span than any quarterback before him. Included in the run were four seasons of 14-plus victories (the other 31 teams combined had five in that span), nine AFC East titles, six AFC Championship games and, now, five Super Bowls.

Brady always talks about leaving points on the board, a perfectionist mentality that is no doubt also a metaphor for how he views his own career. Just how many wins – and titles – have been left on the board is a question that must both haunt and drive him.

From the Champ Bailey play in Denver in 2005, to Troy Brown running an out when he was supposed to run an in against the Colts in the AFC Championship in ’06, to the slew of plays the Patriots wish they had back in The One That Got Away in the desert four years ago …

That said, to scorn an ill-fated play is to defy the breaks of the game and bounces of the ball that make football such thrilling entertainment. It’s a little like moaning about missing the final Powerball number. It’s a tough break, for sure, but the ball still had to bounce the right way on the first five in order for you to have a chance at the jackpot.

For the Patriots, there was The Tuck Rule Game, without which there is no foundation on which a dynasty is built. There was Drew Bennett allowing a fourth-down catch to slip through his hands in the final minutes of a frigid and nail-biting divisional game against the Titans in 2004. And no one will soon forget the back-to-back stomach punches endured by the Ravens in the persons of Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff two weeks ago.

The bounces of the ball went the Patriots’ way from 2001-04, and then not at all after that until recently. They’ve certainly aided the Giants, too, most notably this postseason in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, when the ball glanced off the knee of Niners return man Kyle Williams on a pivotal fourth-quarter punt with San Francisco leading, 14-10.

Had Williams steered clear of the football, the Patriots may well have been meeting the 49ers – a more favorable matchup than the Giants – in Super Bowl XLVI. As crazy as it sounds, snagging that seemingly unattainable fourth ring at the expense of San Francisco would have left something to be desired.

Brady has lost five games in 22 tries in his postseason career. One apiece to the Broncos, Colts, Giants, Ravens and Jets. In each of those instances of playoff failure, a team got the better of him on that day. But never twice. Brady beat Indy in 2003 and ’04, the Jets in ’06 and Denver and Baltimore last month.

That leaves but one vendetta to be waged.

What is often lost in the gut-wrenching conclusion to the 2007 season is how surreal the ride actually was until the very end. That outfit was, and will remain, one of the greatest of all time. But the reality is it cannot receive its rightful due until, and unless, Brady is able to snatch a ring away from the team that snatched immortality away from him.

By the time Sunday night turns in Monday morning, Brady’s legacy will be stamped. That is not to say the book is closed on the Patriots after Super Bowl XLVI. This New England team is going to get better before it gets worse.

However, for Brady, the book will essentially be closed. He will either have won his record-tying fourth Super Bowl by charging through the last remaining team with which he had a score to settle – and therefore finally elevate all the positives of the 18-1 season – or he will see his legend marked by a permanent asterisk. An asterisk denoting the fact that despite all the winning he has done (and will likely continue to do), all the records and all the history, there was one quarterback and one team that flat-out had his number.

Yes, the task is daunting. The stakes are seismic.

But just know. It had to be this way.

NFL Championship Weekend Preview

A few leftover thoughts from a divisional weekend that went more or less by the book in the AFC while veering wildly off script in the NFC. Let’s focus on the latter.

History will determine where 49ers 36, Saints 32 ranks among the all-time classics. In terms of dizzying back-and-forth finishes to an NFL playoff game, it’s right there at the top of the list. Twenty-eight points and four lead changes in the final 4:02 after nearly 56 minutes of extremely physical, defense-dominated football made for a game the likes of we which we may not see again for a very long time.

While the Saints were in excellent shape to steal a berth in the NFC Championship game after clawing back from a 17-0 deficit to take their first lead (24-23) with four minutes remaining while simultaneously deflating what had been a raucous crowd, both defenses were running on fumes by that point, which laid the groundwork for the track meet that ensued over the final 242 seconds.

Defenses traditionally tire in the waning minutes of bone-crushing bloodbaths like the one these teams waged at Candlestick Park. In a game that featured everything ranging from extracurriculars to flat-out brawls after nearly every whistle, it becomes a lot easier to understand why neither defense had anything left in the tank for the furious finish. The last team with the ball was going to win, and the 49ers were that team …

The Packers didn’t merely lose to the Giants, they were completely undone. If it weren’t for some questionable calls and Aaron Rodgers’ ability to scamper for multiple first downs in key situations, the game could have been even more lopsided than the 37-20 final score.

NFL offensive Player FootballThe second-quarter fumble by Greg Jennings that was correctly called on the field, incorrectly changed to a down by contact after an officials conference and inexplicably upheld after a Giants challenge was an egregious officiating error. That sequence led to a Green Bay touchdown that tied the game at 10 early in the second quarter. Then in the fourth quarter with the Giants leading, 30-13, a phantom roughing the passer call on Osi Umenyiora gave Rodgers a new set of downs that enabled the Packers to ultimately strike for a touchdown that made the game close again.

In addition to the officiating nightmare and Eli Manning picking apart the Green Bay defense, what stuck out most was how New York’s defense defied conventional wisdom in stopping Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. Going into the game, the consensus was that the only way the Giants could slow Rodgers was via their front four. Yet for much of the first three quarters, the Green Bay offensive line did its job against the Giants’ pass rush. Rodgers frequently had all day to throw but no one to throw to, which forced him into seven scrambles for 66 yards. Six of those carries went for first downs, which were all that that prevented the game from turning into a laugher. While Rodgers also uncharacteristically missed his target on more than one occasion, the play of the Giants’ secondary and linebackers in coverage was exceptional …

Now, on to championship weekend, which is guaranteed to spit out a headline-grabbing Super Bowl, be it Harbaugh Bowl II (Ravens-49ers), a 2000 Super Bowl rematch (Ravens-Giants), a Tom Brady extravaganza (Patriots-49ers) or a seismic and end-all sequel (Patriots-Giants).

With everything on the line, matchups will be key. Here are three matchups from each championship tilt that will go a long way toward determining the AFC and NFC champs.

AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3)

Key Matchup No. 1 – Matt Light vs. Terrell Suggs

When the Ravens tuned up the Patriots in a 2009 wild-card game, Suggs abused Light, and consequently, Tom Brady. The likely 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has made no secret of his feelings for Brady (they are not warm), and thus will be playing with a chip on his shoulder. While the Patriots will attempt to slow Suggs with chips of their own (likely from tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski), it is incumbent on Light to do his job and keep T-Sizzle away from his quarterback.

Key Matchup No. 2 – Patriots linebackers vs. Ray Rice

Anyone who recalls the ’09 playoff game knows Rice had a field day from the outset against New England, his 83-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play from scrimmage setting the tone for a 22-carry, 159-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Patriots’ linebackers will need to have their heads on a swivel to keep track of the diminutive and explosive Rice, who is often tough to pick up behind a mountain of offensive and defensive linemen. Brandon Spikes – whose return has been key for the New England run D – must repeatedly punish Rice. If he can do that, the pressure will shift to quarterback Joe Flacco, which gives the Patriots the advantage.

Key Matchup No. 3 – Tom Brady vs. Ed Reed

There may be no love lost between these teams, but between Brady and Reed there is no doubt a deep-seated mutual respect. Reed remains one of the greatest freelancing safeties in the history of the game. Brady has consistently lit up opposing defenses between the hashmarks, his receiving trio of Hernandez, Gronkowski and Wes Welker proving to be virtually impossible to cover in open space. Whoever prevails in the cat-and-mouse game between Brady and Reed will be leading his team to Indianapolis.

Bottom Line: In 2009, Brady didn’t have Welker (injury) or his tight ends (college). As long as he is upright, the Ravens can’t contend with all three downfield.

Patriots 27
Ravens 21

NFC Championship: New York Giants (11-7) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Key Matchup No. 1 – Smiths vs. Giants offensive line

The Giants have done a fantastic job of protecting Eli Manning throughout the playoffs, but neither the Falcons nor eli3Packers boast anything resembling the duo of defensive end Justin Smith and outsider linebacker Aldon Smith. The twin terrors combined to sack Drew Brees twice and hit him an additional nine times last week. Manning’s Achilles heel is making bad decisions in the face of a strong pass rush, which has been the calling card of the Smiths this season.

Key Matchup No. 2 – Bradshaw/Jacobs vs. Patrick Willis

Lost in the sublime play of Manning and the Giants’ defense of late has been the resurgence of the New York running game. Ahmad Bradshaw appears to be fully recovered from the foot injury that cost him the month of November and Brandon Jacobs has reprised his role as the ultimate downhill runner, the kind that evokes images of a boulder careening down the side of a mountain. With rain having pounded the Bay area all week, the Giants will need to get something from their rushing attack if they want to hold the San Francisco pass rush at bay. Willis spearheads the Niners run defense. If he is swarming to the ball and choking the point of attack, the Giants will have no choice but to become one-dimensional.

Key Matchup No. 3 – Giants kick units vs. 49ers return units

San Francisco was exemplary on special teams during the regular season, ranking first in the NFL in yards per kickoff return (27.2) and fifth in yards per punt return (12.4) while taking one of each to the house. The Giants, meanwhile, were middle of the pack in terms of return yardage allowed. They tied for 10th in the league in kickoff returns, allowing an average of 22.9 yards per, and tied for 16th by allowing 9.9 yards per punt return. If New York can battle the 49ers to a stalemate on special teams, that will be as good as a victory.

Bottom Line: It’s nearly impossible to lose a playoff game with a plus-four turnover ratio, which the 49ers almost did last week. The Giants won’t be nearly as careless with the football.

Giants 23
49ers 19

2012 NFL Divisional Preview

Before jumping into previews of this weekend’s divisional games, some brief postmortems on a pair of the one-and-dones from wild-card weekend …

Marvin Lewis better think long and hard before throwing a challenge flag next time he leads a team to the playoffs. The Bengals’ head coach blew both of his challenges in the first half of Saturday’s 31-10 loss to the Texans, the second straight playoff game he has been without any red flags after the intermission.

The point here is not to dissect the challenges. What’s notable is each could have been avoided if Lewis had called a timeout instead of reaching for the red flag. Timeouts carry very little significance in the first half, and they buy a coach and the guys upstairs time to look at a play before coming to a conclusion. In the case of each challenge Saturday, a few looks would have made it clear that the odds were not good for a reversal. Losing a timeout (which happens on a failed challenge anyway) is not a big deal in the first half. Losing a challenge is critical. Losing both is an early deathblow, something Lewis has managed to do in consecutive postseason games …

Not only were the Steelers banged up beyond belief, but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defensive game plan resulted in a monumental backfire in Sunday’s 29-23 overtime loss to Denver. By stacking the box and playing a ton of Cover Zero, LeBeau anticipated the run-heavy offense of Tim Tebow and the Broncos would be stuffed at the source and Denver would be unable to move the ball.

ray-lewisLeBeau underestimated how the loss of starting safety Ryan Clark would impact the Pittsburgh secondary. In a game that he was leaning uncharacteristically heavily on his safeties, putting backup Ryan Mundy on a island was not a good idea. It didn’t help that Ike Taylor played one of the worst games of his life at the most inopportune time, but LeBeau seemed like he never entertained the notion that the Denver game plan might be to try and make plays over the top of his defense …

Houston Texans (11-6) at Baltimore Ravens (12-4)

These teams met in Week 6 at M&T Bank Stadium, with the Ravens pulling away in the fourth quarter of an eventual 29-14 win. Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense moved the ball with surprising ease against the top-rated Houston defense, piling up 402 total yards. However, following an opening 97-yard touchdown march, Baltimore had to settle for field goals on five of its final six scoring drives, which kept the game close.

Houston had two things going for it that day. For one, Matt Schaub was still under center. The Texans quarterback submitted a modest performance, completing 21 of 37 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown. The key was he took care of the football, something opposing quarterbacks traditionally have lots of difficulty doing in Baltimore. Houston actually won the turnover battle, 2-0.

That won’t be happening again with T.J. Yates going into one of the more hostile environments for his first road playoff game. Yates was decent against the Bengals (11-for-20, 159 yards, touchdown), but nearly all of his completions came off play-action and he also made one terrible throw that Bengals safety Chris Crocker would have likely taken the other way for a game-tying touchdown in the third quarter had he not dropped an easy interception.

The Ravens grind inexperienced quarterbacks into the ground in the playoffs. In blowout wins over the Matt Cassel-led Chiefs in 2010 and Chad Pennington’s Dolphins in 2008, the Baltimore D forced a combined 10 turnovers (seven of which were interceptions). The Ravens did something similar to Tom Brady (four turnovers) and a house-of-cards Patriots team in 2009.

Those games were all on the road. Having obtained home-field advantage for the first time in the Flacco era and fresh off seeing the team that has thwarted their Super Bowl aspirations twice in the last three postseasons get bounced in a Mile High shocker, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are circling the wagons. The Ravens smell blood in the water.

Ravens 27
Texans 10

Denver Broncos (9-8) at New England Patriots (13-3)

Two recent patterns, working in tandem, have emerged over the past few postseasons. A heavy underdog first pulls off a huge upset in the wild-card round. Then that unlikely victor, headed on the road to a rested top seed, proceeds to gain steam throughout the following week as the talking heads find a way to make a case for another odds-defying triumph.

Except that’s not what happens.

Exhibit A: 2008, the 8-8 (and formerly 4-8) Chargers knocked off the 12-4 Colts in Round 1 at home. San Diego then went into Pittsburgh as seven-point ‘dogs and found itself down 28-10 in the fourth quarter en route to a 35-24 defeat.

Exhibit B: 2009, the 10-6 Cardinals won a wild 51-45 overtime shootout with an 11-5 Green Bay team many had pegged for a Super Bowl run. Just when everyone started wondering if a second straight Super Bowl might have been in the “Cards,” the Saints blew the doors off Arizona in the divisional round, 45-14.

Exhibit C: Last year, in the grandaddy of them all, the 7-9 Seahawks shocked the world by bumping the defending champion Saints, 41-36. Like clockwork, the momentum built up throughout the week as Seattle – a 9.5 point underdog – made its way to Soldier Field for a date with the Bears. Chicago led, 35-10, with three minutes to go before the Seahawks scored a pair of garbage touchdowns in a 35-24 loss.

That brings us to Saturday night, when Tim Tebow and the miracle-working Broncos will attempt to become the latest team to spoil a Patriots season at Gillette Stadium.

Denver’s impressive victory Sunday notwithstanding, one would be remiss not to note that it came against a Pittsburgh team that was without starting center Maurkice Pouncey, safety Clark, defensive end Aaron Smith and running back Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers’ problems were compounded by an immobile Ben Roethlisberger, the early losses of the rest of their defensive line (nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel), the above-stated ill-conceived defensive game plan and the unenviable task of playing from behind in the thin air.

Tebow made some big plays, for sure, but everything broke right for the Broncos.

Against a New England team that has the benefit of extra preparation time, tape from the teams’ Dec. 18 meeting and the return of Josh McDaniels (who drafted Tebow and star wideout Denarius Moore during his brief tenure as Broncos head coach) to the war room, the Broncos are going to be hard-pressed to give the Patriots another serious for their money.

Last month in Denver, New England was flummoxed by the Broncos’ rushing attack (167 yards in the first quarter) before settling down defensively. That allowed Tom Brady to kick it into high gear, as the Patriots ripped off 27 straight points to turn a 16-7 deficit into a blowout.

For a Patriots team that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2007 AFC Championship and has made no secret that it continues to covet that elusive 60-minute performance, a fast start with no letdown appears imminent.

Patriots 38
Broncos 21

New Orleans Saints (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

A classic contrast of styles, the dominant San Francisco defense will look to slow Drew Brees and the explosive Saints offense. If the 49ers can keep this game in the high teens or low 20s, they will be in excellent shape to punch a ticket to the NFC Championship game. Alex Smith will not win a shootout with Brees.

The San Francisco D, which has been great all year, has absolutely suffocated opponents on its home turf – particularly in the red zone. The 49ers rank first in virtually every red zone defensive statistic at home, including opponents’ scoring chances per game (1.5) and touchdowns allowed (0.4).

Those numbers translate to the San Francisco defense yielding a touchdown on just 25 percent of opponents’ penetrations inside the 20-yard line. For some perspective, the Browns ranked second in the league in that category at 39 percent, putting them closer to the 17th-ranked Jets (52.4 percent).

Given that grass has served as something of an equalizer for the Saints offense – Brees is merely terrific, as opposed to superhuman, outdoors – the game figures to be relatively low-scoring and tight.

The deciding factor may very well be third downs. Specifically, New Orleans’ ability to convert them. While the Saints have averaged 27.2 points per game on the road and 25.8 points outdoors – as opposed to 41.6 in the Superdome – it has been their knack for converting third downs in bunches on the road that has helped them enjoy success.

The Saints checked in with a league-best 54.7 percent third-down conversion rate on the road in the regular season. If the 49ers defense has an Achilles heel at home, it is an inability to get off the field on third down. San Francisco allowed opponents to convert third downs at a 39.5 percent clip at Candlestick Park, 20th in the NFL.

For a team so defensively stout in its house, that kind of inefficiency in key situations could be its fatal blow. The last time the Saints played outdoors was Week 14 at Tennessee, a game that saw the Titans defense hold New Orleans to three field goals through the first three quarters. But on the strength of a 58 percent third-down conversion rate (11-for-19), the Saints struck for a pair of touchdowns late in a 22-17 win.

aaron-rodgers-falconsThe 49ers defense will come out strong and hold Brees at bay for a good chunk of the game, but the Saints’ ability to come through on third down will wear San Francisco out by the fourth quarter.

Saints 24
49ers 22

New York Giants (10-7) at Green Bay Packers (15-1)

The game of the weekend and the rematch everyone has been waiting for, there are no illuminating stats or hidden metrics that can paint a clear picture of Giants-Packers II.

Either the New York pass rush is going to make life miserable for Aaron Rodgers or the Packers offense is going to have its way against a banged up and beatable Giants secondary.

Whoever blinks first will be in a heap of trouble.

If Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Chris Canty and Osi Umenyiora are eating Rodgers’ lunch from the opening whistle, the likely NFL MVP will start having flashbacks to Week 15, when Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali (three sacks) took up residence in the Packers’ backfield and Kansas City held Green Bay to 315 total yards and 14 points.

In that scenario, the Giants’ front four will suddenly see a redux of Super Bowl XLII against the Patriots, which will only fuel them further.

In the alternative scenario, the Giants’ pass rush will fail to harass Rodgers, which will enable the Packers to jump out to an early lead. When – as is often the case – Green Bay plays from ahead, it not only puts pressure on the opposing offense to match scores with one of the highest-powered attacks in the league, but it also allows Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Packers defense to start inching upfield and sniffing out big plays.

Part of the reason Green Bay led the league with 31 interceptions and ranked behind only San Francisco with a plus-24 turnover differential in the regular season is because playmaking defenses have the benefit of becoming even more opportunistic when playing from ahead.

If the Giants’ pass rushers throw the first blow and Eli Manning puts points on the board before Rodgers, Green Bay’s entire defensive philosophy will become compromised. Manning’s trio of downfield threats (Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham) will have to be paid extra attention by the Green Bay secondary.

This game is so close it’s pretty much impossible to call. Sometimes you have to go with your gut. In the worst-case scenario for each team, Manning has the chops and weapons to win a potential shootout with Rodgers. Rodgers, on the other hand, simply won’t have the answer if confronted by a clicking and unrelenting Giants pass rush.

History would indicate that the Giants – as well as they have played over the past three weeks – have yet to peak. The Packers appear to have already peaked.

Giants 27
Packers 24