The NFL Playoffs
Seth and Chris:
NFL games in high definition are the greatest product in the history of television. This fact hit me on Sunday afternoon, as I realized how much I'd enjoyed a playoff weekend that included, at most, two quarters' worth of playoff-quality football. The lesson here: If you've got a hi-def camera on a zip line, you have the power to make even the Eagles and Giants entertaining.
If it weren't for Joe Buck, I'd even say this is the golden age of football broadcasting. All the bells and whistles aren't just snazzy to look at. They make it easier than ever to become an informed fan. The bird's-eye shots that follow every important play make casual viewers feel like offensive coordinators—I have a much better understanding than I did, say, two years ago of the nuances of cover 2, how timing routes work, and the subtleties of blitz pickup schemes.
And yet some things in the NFL remain a mystery. Even with those NSA-quality cameras at my beck and call, I still have no idea why the Chiefs and Larry Johnson sucked so royally (or, should I say, Royal-ly) against the putrid Colts defense. I will leave further analysis of this game to our resident Kansan. But Mr. Suellentrop, I must ask: Which was more of an affront to your salt-of-the-earth Midwestern values, this Chiefs loss or the Jayhawks' first-round defeat to Bucknell in the 2005 NCAA tournament?
The rest of the wild-card round is easy enough to analyze. Each of the winning teams—Indianapolis, New England, Seattle, and Philadelphia—had both the home-field advantage and the better quarterback. The only game in which the latter point might be debatable is Seahawks-Cowboys. Dallas' quarterback, Tony Romo, played a half-decent game under center, but as a field-goal holder, he's worse than the Peanuts' Lucy—at least she can hold on to the ball. Since Seattle looks like a long shot to win again this year, the only important consequence of last weekend's game is the toll it takes on Romo's psyche. Has an athlete ever lost his mind on account of botching something that has no connection whatsoever to his usual job? The only thing I can think of is a baseball pitcher getting picked off at first to end a playoff game, but I'm not sure that even happened in Rookie of the Year.
From here on, as you both know, I'm particularly invested in what happens to the New Orleans Saints. As a New Orleanian, it feels exceedingly strange to be paying close attention to the second week of the NFL playoffs. I'm feeling such Saints-induced euphoria right now that my normally poisonous levels of sports pessimism have flat-lined. I'm frightened to say this out loud, but here goes: I think the Saints are going to beat the Eagles on Saturday night.
The credit for the team's huge turnaround belongs jointly to quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton. In a league where quarterback play has diminished to the point where a past-his-prime Steve McNair is glorified as a "game manager," Brees is a legitimately great quarterback. He throws the ball accurately, avoids sacks, and comes up big on third downs and in late-game situations. In short, he's a lot better than Aaron Brooks. And in a mediocre NFC, he's a hell of a lot more imposing than Rex Grossman, Jeff Garcia, and Matt Hasselbeck.
Even in a year when good quarterback play is hard to find, I think great coaches are an even rarer commodity. Last week, I wrote that NFL coaches should channel the aggressive style of their most successful college counterparts. While I don't think there's anyone with the cojones of Boise State's Chris Petersen in the pro ranks, New Orleans' Sean Payton stands out among his peers as a guy who knows how to impose his will on opposing teams. Instead of obsessing needlessly over running the ball, he hammers the team's strength—Brees' passing. Rather than dither over third-and-short attempts, the Saints run to the line and snap the ball before the defense is set. And when Payton flouts convention—an onside kick in the third quarter, an end around to Reggie Bush from the one-yard line—it usually works.
The NFL coach that Payton reminds me of is a fellow member of the Bill Parcells coaching tree: New England's Bill Belichick. I'll yank my own head down from the clouds long enough to admit this year's Saints aren't nearly as good as the Super Bowl-winning Pats teams of recent years. The Patriots won three championships between 2002 and 2005 thanks to Belichick's aggressive, cerebral game-planning on offense and defense and Scott Pioli's consistently brilliant personnel decisions. But I'm skeptical about Belichick and Pioli circa 2007. A few questions for Seth, who knows more about the Patriots' preseason games than I'll ever know about anything: Are the Pats still a championship-level organization? Will they be able to stop San Diego's unstoppable LaDainian Tomlinson and blitzer extraordinaire Shawne "Needles" Merriman? Are the ex-Florida Gators who make up New England's receiving corps—Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, Chad Jackson, and Kelvin Kight—100 times worse than the Florida Gators who played Ohio State on Monday? Or is it just 50 times worse?