January 6, 2009

Best Weekend in Sports (Pt. 2)

As I was saying, the NFL Divisional Playoffs provide the best weekend in sports. Every year I anticipate it, and every year the league delivers. 2008-09 looks to be no exception.

By the end of the weekend, one suspects even the hungriest NFL appetite will be sated.


Sunday, Jan. 11, 1:00 pm EST

Ah, yes. The Meadowlands. January. The NFC East.

If you blur your eyes a little, you can almost see the irascible Buddy Ryan leading the likes of Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery, Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Seth Joyner and a host of Eagles icons onto the windswept Meadowlands carpet to do battle with Big Tuna, Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Leonard Marshall and a host of other names that start to roll of the tongue if you let them.

That the names this Sunday are Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and Brian Dawkins, facing off against Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs and Justin Tuck, matters not. For those of us who have followed NFC East football for any length of time, this one is old school, classic Gang Green versus Big Blue. A throwback. A streetfight. And for any pure fan of the NFL game, a January treat.

A little over a month ago, this one would have been easy to call. The Eagles were in imploding, Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid were feeling more Brotherly Wrath than Love, and the Giants were a juggernaut, seemingly rolling toward a second straight NFC Championship.

Today, not so much.

Philadelphia is the one rolling, on a 5-1 run that includes a 44-6 woodshed job on Dallas Cowboys to clinch a playoff spot in the regular season finale and a solid road playoff win against the Minnesota Vikings–a tough home team one player away from serious Lombardi contention.

The Eagles best player, RB Brian Westbrook, is healthy and dangerous as ever. And if you believe in this kind of thing, given their resurgence and the way the seas parted to allow them into the playoffs in the first place, they look to have that certain feel of Destiny about them.

The Giants, meanwhile, find themselves where so many high playoff seeds have found themselves over the years–having locked up a playoff spot early and played few meaningful games down the stretch.

Add to that the two-week break they earn with the bye, and it can be hit or miss whether the top seeds hit the field with the edge they need to perform at the highest level–the level that earned them that seed to begin with.

All that said ... even in consideration of Philadelphia’s convincing game 13 win in New York, my head isn’t buying them. Not in the Meadowlands in January. It might take the Giants a quarter or two to get ramped up, but they will. In the end, home field, a healthy sledgehammer in RB Brandon Jacobs and 20-year-veteran kicker John Carney’s steady right leg will prove the difference.

Somewhere, Joe Morris will be smiling.

New York Giants - 23
Philadelphia Eagles - 17


Sunday, Jan. 11, 4:45 pm EST

With apologies to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the story here is the other guys. Particularly for fans who lived through the Norv Turner Era in Washington.

So if you’ll excuse the indulgence ...

There is a movement afoot to “give some love” to the star-crossed Chargers head coach this week. After all, his team, left for dead after a 4-8 start, not only rallied to make the playoffs, but beat first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts once they got there.

Well, maybe you're ready to go there, but not I. Not yet.

Don’t get me wrong–it isn't that I don’t like the guy. I do. It's just that down deep in my soul somewhere, I still believe that Norval Eugene Turner is the Plaything of the Gridiron Gods. I still believe that somewhere Up There, They have keep old, well-ventilated voodoo doll of the man around just for kicks. And that they pick up from time to time, grin evil grins, and perforate it with red-hot knitting needles, just to see his reactions.

And I can’t quite shake the feeling they fully intend to pull the rug out from under him this year.

And you know what? All kidding aside, it would probably be just. Maybe I’m out there alone on this one–but where the majority of comments this week seem to be in praise of Turner for rallying the troops, I find myself wondering if maybe it wasn’t more a case of his team winning in spite of Norv Turner’s unique brand of leadership, not because of it.

That's not hating, it's observation. Two years ago, Turner inherited a 14-2 Chargers team universally regarded as Super Bowl ready; as just needing someone other than Marty Schottenheimer and his Amazing Shrinking Cojones come playoff time.

Turner inherited a budding franchise quarterback in Phillip Rivers, arguably the NFL’s top running back in LaDanian Tomlinson, a likely Hall of Fame tight end in Antonio Gates, and the number one scoring offense and number seven scoring defense in football.

In his first year, he took that team to 11-5, beat the punchless Tennessee Titans in the wildcard round, then upset the Colts at home in the divisional round before going to lose to the undefeated Patriots in the AFC Title game. Not bad. Not great, given the talent at hand, but not bad.

In his second year, with his imprint firmly on the team, he was 4-8 at the three-quarter pole before rallying to finish at .500. Which by all counts, should have been the end of the Chargers’ season. Yes, really.

In the 39-year history of the AFC West since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only four teams have ever even finished second in the division at .500 or worse (the ‘98 Raiders, ‘98 Seahawks and ‘88 Broncos at 8-8; the ‘75 Broncos at 6-8).

Given that no AFC West has ever won the division at .500, and with it received the home field advantage, and further given that the two AFC wildcard qualifiers this year both went 11-5, one could almost be tempted to say the gods smiled on Norv Turner.

So which is it? Are Turner’s Chargers a scrappy, resilient bunch who refused to quit at 4-8, rallied around their coach and stared failure down ... or a deeply talented bunch of underachievers, two years removed from 14-2, backing into the playoffs against all historic odds despite him?

We’ll know more with the benefit of hindsight, obviously. But for now, I simply cannot shake the feeling that by allowing this Charger team into the playoffs, the Gridiron Gods are setting a decent man up for yet another pratfall; another of the gut-wrenching, soul-killing, my-god-did-that-just-happen losses that fans of his previous teams know only too well.

And I can’t quite convince myself that, at some point in the very near future, They will conspire to leave this poor gentleman once again looking like someone ran over his puppy.

For what it’s worth, I’m pulling for Norv. What can I say, maybe the gods will tire of torturing Norv and move on to Jerry Jones.

And I love puppies.


San Diego Chargers - 23
Pittsburgh Steelers - 16


Pittsburgh Steelers - 20
San Diego Chargers - 19


So enough deep, insightful football analysis.

42" Plasma – check.
Comfortable chair – check.
Phone silenced – check.
Cold beverage – definitely.

Let the games begin.

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