The NFL Playoffs

Let Us Now Wager Food
The stadium scene.
Jan. 19 2007 3:01 PM

The NFL Playoffs

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Justin, I love your nickname for the Bears running backs—the "Chicago Bulls"—but my coinage for the Saints' dual threat is better. How about the "New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets"? (Patent pending.) Reggie Bush stings the defense with devastating cutbacks.  Deuce McAllister uses his powerful legs to drive defenders from Louisiana to the Sooner State, with a stop on the way for gas and magazines. Once in OKC, Deuce treats his vanquished foes to a day pass at the "western-style" theme park Frontier City. Later that night, everyone returns to the Superdome, exhausted but refreshed. Ladies and gentlemen, your New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets!

I also accept the challenge to talk about the game rather than trying to guilt readers into supporting the Saints in their time of greatest need. Like Seth, I have nerdily undertaken hours of film study in order to spot my team's strengths and weaknesses. Here's my advice for Sean Payton:

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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1)Help Fred Thomas in any way possible. Last week, Thomas was beaten by the Eagles' Donte' Stallworth for an easy 75-yard touchdown. This is something of a pattern—the tough-but-past-his-prime cornerback is often seen trailing opposing receivers by 10 yards, waving his arms frantically. The Saints' worst performance of the year, a 31-16 loss to Cincinnati, came when Thomas was embarrassed by Bengals wideout Chad Johnson (190 yards, three touchdowns). If Chicago can isolate the speedy Bernard Berrian on Thomas, they will likely score an easy touchdown. The Saints, in turn, must not leave Thomas on an island. Unfortunately, safeties Josh Bullocks and Jay Bellamy are better known for their run-support skills. The Saints' best hope is to get pressure from their front four, while throwing in the occasional blitz from linebacker Scott Fujita. Also, I would never advocate holding or illegal contact. Except in the case of Thomas, who should pull Chicago's receivers down on every play and blame it on "the wind."

2)Don't get conservative. As Brendan said in his last post, there are certain coaches (Marty Schottenheimer, Tony Dungy) who get the urge to simplify their offense come January. I don't think Sean Payton is one of those coaches, but I fear he's listening to criticism that the Saints didn't pound the ball enough with McAllister last week against the Eagles. The Saints' offense has succeeded this year because Payton lets Drew Brees pass early to build a lead, then runs the ball late in the game to kill the clock. I'd like to see Payton repeat his bravura play-calling from the Saints' 30-7 win over the Giants. On a blustery December day, he called 17 passes in the first quarteralone, while the Saints had the wind at their backs. Payton should feel confident that Brees, the NFL's most precise passer, can pick apart Chicago's Cover 2. If the Saints make hay down the middle of the field with big wideout Marques Colston and tight end Billy Miller early on, Deuce will put the Bears away late.

3) Don't fumble. This is more of a prayer than a recommendation. In my darkest moments, I think back to the Saints' trip to Pittsburgh a few months ago, the coldest conditions they've faced this season. The Saints' offense couldn't be stopped that day, but they lost 38-31 thanks to terrible run defense and three lost fumbles. I don't think the run D will be a huge problem Sunday, because they struggle more with speed backs like the Steelers' Willie Parker and Philly's Brian Westbrook than with guys like the "Chicago Bulls." But I am worried about the fumbles. Like I said yesterday, I don't think the Saints are particularly susceptible to cold weather, and I think the Bears are just as likely to drop the ball. So, that's why this is a prayer. Or a mantra. I will start now: Don't fumble … don't fumble … don't fumble …

As for predictions, I'm sticking with what I said on Wednesday: Saints 31, Bears 20. In the AFC, I think the Colts will be leading in the second half but the Patriots will win. I also predict that Seth will say the Pats won because they made a big play when it counted, while Brendan will think the Colts choked. Brendan, though, will be happy for Peyton Manning, calling his performance in a new Diet Pepsi commercial "surprisingly complex."

Before I sign off, I want to discuss a topic that I know is close to Justin's heart (and face): enormous quantities of food. One of my favorite dorky sports rituals is the wager of indigenous vittles in the name of municipal pride. Before last week's Bears-Seahawks game, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and Chicago's Richard M. Daley brokered one of the most bizarre, most gigantic food-based bets of all time. According to AP, Seattle offered up "two pounds of smoked king salmon, three bottles of Washington state wine, cheese and, of course, Starbucks coffee," while Chicago proffered "mega cuts of meat … pounds of hot dogs, deep-dish pizza … booze, coffee … Italian beef, potato chips, gourmet pretzels and popcorn, and Mexican food." First off, the Chicago smorgasbord sounds less like an enticing array of local cuisine than a list of leftovers from some kind of mayoral office party. Potato chips? Mexican food? Also, I'm a great admirer of the Seattle mayor's hilariously milquetoast trash talk, as reported by the AP: "I hope [Daley] doesn't have his heart set on Northwest salmon." Even better, this smack was delivered, "in a written statement." I guess this is what happens when you have a mayor who subsists on salmon, wine, and cheese.

Closer to home, I'm concerned that Louisiana's politicians are getting too cocky. The state's senatorial contingent has made a bet with Illinois' Barack Obama and Richard Durbin, but the Times-Picayune reports that the pols "are so confident that they're not saying what Louisiana delicacies they'll provide if the Saints lose." Also, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kathleen Blanco says she's "saving her wager for the Super Bowl," and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is planning to announce his bet with Chicago's Daley "in a day or two."

If I had to guess, I'd say Blanco and Nagin are stalling in the hopes that FEMA will pony up for a gift certificate to Galatoire's. Since they're both taking their sweet time, let me kick things off: Justin, if the Bears win on Sunday, I will present you with one of my famous gumbo-filled beignets. What do you have for me? And Seth, what are you making for Brendan?

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