Brendan, Justin, and Seth:
If the Saints had lost last weekend, I probably would've left this dialogue to wither and die. But after Saturday night's thrilling, mortifying, life-affirming 27-24 win over the Eagles, I've got the energy to chat all week. So, welcome to the second edition of Slate's Wednesday Morning Football in America! Chris Suellentrop, our resident Chiefs fan and the man who has served dozens of Tropical Blizzards to Marty Schottenheimer, has abandoned us to "go on vacation." In Chris' absence, we've cobbled together a complete set of championship-caliber fans. Joining me (Geaux Saints!) and Seth (Mr. Patriot) will be Bears lover Justin Peters and Brendan I. (Love the Colts) Koerner. Welcome, gents, and beware of the dreaded horse-collar tackle.
I'll start by stating the obvious: The divisional round was outstanding. Three of the four games twisted and turned until the final seconds. Even the Colts-Ravens contest, a showcase for boffo soccer-style kicking and not much else, became a fascinating psychological and strategic battle. But now for the sad news. Though they emerged victorious, our teams all looked fallible. The Saints defense gave up two long scores. The Colts couldn't score a touchdown. The Bears looked shaky on both sides of the ball. And the Patriots shot themselves in the foot repeatedly, only to have San Diego shoot itself in the head, shoulders, knees, and toes (and eyes and ears and mouth and nose).
Despite my fondness for you, Seth, I'm really annoyed that the Chargers blew it. For most of Sunday's game, they were a joy to watch—the unquestioned best team in the NFL. The San Diego cornerbacks and pass rushers harried Tom Brady into his worst-ever playoff performance (three interceptions, 24 incompletions), and Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson proved he's twice as fast and twice as strong as any other football player alive. And then came the fumbled punt, the Troy Brown strip, and some horrendous last-minute clock management that cost the Chargers a legitimate shot at a tying field goal. Cue New England's celebratory end-of-game dance routine. (Seth, I eagerly await your review of the Pats' sassy rendition of Shawne Merriman's "Lights Out" dance. Does Ellis Hobbs get points off for not stripping down to a trapezius-baring tank top?)
San Diego's late-game goatery irks me not because the Chargers deserved to win (they didn't), but because it unnecessarily prolongs the Patriots' dynasty. Why are this year's Patriots unnecessary? Because we've already learned everything we need to know about the major players. There's little disagreement among the sports fan cognoscenti that Bill Belichick is a genius and Tom Brady is a great clutch quarterback. That Belichick and personnel man Scott Pioli have the Pats winning again with a load of new players is something I can appreciate intellectually, but it's nothing I care to look at. Especially compared to basketball dynasties, great football teams produce diminishing aesthetic returns. I never got sick of Magic's Lakers or Jordan's Bulls. If I never get to see Tom Brady throw a football again, however, I wouldn't be too broken up about it.
While I've lost interest in the Patriots, I'm still strangely tickled about the been-there-done-that Patriots-Colts AFC championship game—aka Brady vs. Manning XLI. Even with his look-at-me school of play-calling and his seeming desire to become the Ron Popeil of the NFL, there's still a place in my heart for Peyton Manning. Watching the usually infallible Manning try to figure out Bill Belichick's defenses has been like watching a really smart toddler try to put together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. He didn't get it done the first time around, or the second time, or the eighth time, but I have a feeling this time will be the charm.
After their close call against the Eagles, I'm feeling just as confident that the Saints will make it to the Super Bowl. That is, kind of sort of a little bit confident. Of the four teams still alive, I think New Orleans is the only one that's played up to its real abilities. The Patriots and Colts can and will move the ball better than they did last week, and the Bears defense won't be as much of a sieve against the run. But the Saints did all the same stuff they usually do. The offense, led by Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Deuce McAllister, and Marques Colston, moved the ball consistently via the run and the pass. The defense played well nine out of every 10 plays but got burned for a 75-yard touchdown pass and a 62-yard touchdown run. The Saints played so closely to type, in fact, that Eagles coach Andy Reid should've yelled, "The Saints are who we thought they were!" in his postgame press conference.
Assuming that my guys keep on keeping on, the NFC championship game will come down to the Rex Factor. Last week, I guessed that Chicago QB Rex Grossman would lead the Bears to a 28-24 victory despite throwing eight interceptions. Well, the Bears won 27-24, and—despite often looking perplexed about where he was and why a football was in his hands—Grossman turned the ball over just twice. This week, Grossman will be full of confidence thanks to his playoff victory. He will also be throwing against a Saints defense that forced only 19 turnovers all year. (The Bears, by comparison, have forced 43.)
My prediction: Grossman loses his helmet before the game and is unable to play. Saints win, 31-20. Mr. Peters, proud citizen of Illinois and loyal member of the Ursine Nation, how does that score sound to you?