Monday, January 25, 2010
Super Bowl XLIV is all set and what a day of high drama football we had in the NFL. I think most of us were watching as detached fans who merely wanted to see awesome football and the prospect of a great Super Bowl match-up.
And in the end, I feel great about two #1 seeds seeing each other in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993. That was the #1 Bills against the #1 Cowboys (the following day was the first every broadcast day of the Ticket - this sports station in Dallas that turned 16 years old yesterday), and this will be the #1 Colts facing off against the #1 Saints.
The subplots are everywhere, as they were yesterday. Since we have 13 days to look ahead, let's spend this morning looking back at the genius of Championship Sunday, and now the sadness of knowing our dear friend, the NFL, is about to go away for 8 months of other things. Yuck.
Nothing comes close to the NFL and the moments of hysteria that go with it. Truly the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is shown for all to see every weekend, and yesterday was no exception.
Where do we start?
Here we go with the AFC game first:
* This game was riveting in the sense that the Jets actually had a game plan that did about as well as it could do. They wanted to pound the rock to pull the Colts safeties up, and then when the corners relaxed, they would ask their rookie QB to try to hit a home run to Braylon Edwards of play action - and it worked for 80 yards and a TD. Then, they wanted to sucker the Colts into thinking there was no way Brad Smith would throw a pass out of the Wildcat, only to have him crank a long pass to Jerricho Cotchery that set up the Jets' 2nd Touchdown. They did everything right in taking a 17-6 lead, and yet you knew, right?
* You knew that this game was all about Peyton Manning. This is what makes Peyton Manning an absolute genius. His drive right before half surely was as demoralizing to the Jets as it was brilliant to see. Four plays, which started with an incomplete pass, but then the next three plays were all completions to Austin Collie - for 18 yards, 46 yards, and 16 yards and a Touchdown. It was simple, it was lethal, and it put the Colts right back where they wanted to be going to the intermission. Meanwhile, the Jets' knew that everything worked perfectly in the 1st half for them, and yet the Colts were just 1 drive from taking the lead.
* Here is the thing about Peyton Manning - and it is something that has worked against Brett Favre for 19 years - he has 1 ring. People have a hard time appreciating the work at the very pinnacle of a sport if they only have climbed the mountain 1 time. If Manning is so great, they will say, then why is he only 8-8 in the playoffs (before yesterday)? In both Manning's and Favre's cases (and Mickelson, Barkley, Malone, and how many more greats) they might have had more had they not peaked during another's dynasty. Favre had the 1990's Cowboys to deal with (and lose to) and Manning had the 2000's Patriots who beat him down during his prime. He is now almost 34, and finally the Pats have stepped aside in their dominance, and we are seeing that Manning may be the best that there ever was. But, football doesn't award titles to the team with the best QB. That isn't how Super Bowls are often won. Now, he can win his 2nd, and then I would think even his biggest critics (and I was one until I saw the light in the 2006 AFC Championship Game) will concede his shocking level of excellence. Anyway, back to yesterday, once he got going, it didn't matter that Darrell Revis had essentially taken Reggie Wayne off the menu for Manning. He went to Pierre Garcon 15 times for 11 catches and 151 yards, Austin Collie 9 times for 7 catches and 123 yards, and threw for 377 yards despite the Jets giving him all sorts of trouble. Like making Jordan work for his 50, the Jets did all they could do - he is just that good.
* As we would see in the 2nd game, some QBs never learn to stop making rookie throws, but Mark Sanchez will need to be more careful with some of his throws. All things considered, though, he had a real solid run and if things might have bounced a different way, he might have been the first ever rookie QB to get to the Super Bowl. I liked him plenty back in April over Matthew Stafford , but whether he really is better remains to be seen. But, they asked him to stand tall and deliver a few times to make crucial throws, and they must be delighted with where he is as a rookie with his whole career in front of him. I think to get Sanchez and Shonn Greene in the 2009 draft and then to see them yesterday indicates how key getting the draft right can be for a team in the short and long term.
* Bob Sanders, a man who has made many, many big plays from the safety position on previous Colts teams has only played in 47 of the 96 possible games in his NFL career. During the game I started thinking about his usual absence and how the Colts have basically treated his presence as a bonus, not an expectation. It reminds me of Troy Polamalu and his special play at safety, because both guys are unreal ball hawks who can turn a game, and yet they both have a hard time playing that physical style and staying on the field. Although, in fairness to Troy, he has played in 16 games in 4 of his 7 seasons - Sanders has never played 17 games in a season.
* The Jets, who had their opponents miss all 5 FG attempts in their previous 2 playoff games, had no luck with Matt Stover. Stover, now the oldest person to ever play in a Super Bowl at age 42, made all 3 of his attempts on Sunday as he stands in for Adam Vinatieri.
* There was one play with about 5 minutes left in the 3rd Quarter that will haunt the Jets, I would think. A deep pass down the left sideline to David Clowney would have been a huge gain down inside the Colts 20, but the pass was a full yard or two out of bounds. A real chance for Sanchez and the Jets wasted, but the only reason for this note was that Phil Simms actually described it as an "excellent throw". Just curious how that is even possible.
And to the main event, the NFC Title game in New Orleans:
* What a game. Instant classic. What we always hope for, and we got it last night.
* 12 men in the huddle. Such Vikings folk lore. You cannot write this stuff. Without that penalty, I am pretty sure we all knew they were running it on 3rd Down and kicking a 50-yarder to try to go to the Super Bowl. But, the penalty happened, and the Vikings faced 3rd and 15 from the 38 yard line. Then, the Favre decision happened. If he would have run, I think it is fair to say - even on a gimpy ankle - that he runs to the 32 or 31 yard line. And there you are back to a 50 yarder for the win.
* The Vikings first two drives were Touchdowns with great and relative ease. The final 7 drives of those same Minnesota Vikings: Fumble, Touchdown, Interception, Fumble, Fumble, Touchdown, Interception. Here is the simple equation for those of us who follow the turnover game, You never, ever, ever, go -4 on the road in the NFC Playoffs and win. The fact that it was still even close is phenomenal. -4 is roughly a 100% loss rate. And you can still list a dozen ways the Vikings might have won that game.
* How about the Saints ability to deal with the Vikings Defensive Line versus what the Cowboys were able to accomplish a week earlier. The fear of the screen slowed them down, and so did the ability to block them far better than the Cowboys did. But, to see Edwards-Williams-Williams-Allen look good, but far from great was the real difference in this game to me. While Brett Favre is getting beat up, Drew Brees almost doesn't get touched the entire game. It was an impressive display up front from a Saints OL that most people cannot name one member.
* Seeing the Saints win is good for football and good for sports. I think there are occasionally stories where all of us put down our agendas and decades of love and hate and simply admit that this is a story that should happen. The city of New Orleans deserved this for enduring what it has dealt with. Not saying football pays for the mortgage or rebuilds your house, but you cannot tell me that football doesn't build morale. This city banded around those guys, and as a 3rd party, I think the only thing cooler would be if the Super Bowl was actually at their stadium. Good for you, Saints.
* If you listen to my show or read my blog (I assume you do that much) then you know where I stand on Brett Favre. No athlete in my life has left a bigger fingerprint on my sports obsession that this guy. I type to you in my office, where I am surrounded with pictures of moments that he played a role in. Love the guy, and despite this odd turn of events that has him playing QB for my life-long enemy, I still felt myself pulling for him to accomplish his final mission in glory. For years, he has had people go on rants on how he is no longer worthy of playing QB in the NFL and that they are sick and tired of him. How they want him to go away and stop making this league all about him. How they think it is outrageous that he won't retire and just walk away. He may have brought a lot of this outrage on himself by the way he conducted his last several off seasons, but nevertheless, the story was there for all to see.
I looked at this game as perhaps his finest effort ever for about 59 minutes of the game. I thought, win or lose, that this was to him what the 1994 NFC Championship game was to Troy Aikman. A game, that while the result did not go his way, only showed his courage and fire and perhaps in defeat, defined him best. It was like watching Rocky take a beating, but he wouldn't stay on the mat. I am sure another QB in NFL history was hit that hard that many times, but it seems like the number of times he was hit and the number of big throws he made combined to show what he, at the age of 40, is still all about. Running down that dream of ending with a 2nd Lombardi Trophy.
But, fairy tales and sports hardly ever go together. In tragic fashion, he made one throw too many. Took one chance that he shouldn't have, but those chances defined his career as much as the record breaking TD throws. I started saying a decade ago that "You live by the Favre and die by the Favre" because he defines both. He is no Aikman or Montana. They don't make that throw. He is one of a kind. He seems to be Phil Mickelson - amazing talent, combined with circuitry that allows for a meltdown when you most expect it. And then the courage (or lack of judgement) to try that same throw in that same spot again.
So, while you may have celebrated wildly yesterday because of what might be his ultimate demise, honestly, it just made the legend grow for me. Like William H. Bonney, it ended the only way it could end - shot down in a blaze of glory. Sorry, it may be seem hokey, but it has been in my head since the throw left his hand.