Gentlemen: Is it too late for the NFL to dump that whole lose-once-and-you're-out thing and let the Jets and Patriots play for a fourth time next weekend? While the conference championship games—Packers at Bears in the NFC, New York at Pittsburgh in the AFC—should be fine and dandy, they can't possibly match the bluster and weirdness of Pats-Jets. In the run-up to Sunday's game, a 28-21 victory for the underdog New Yorkers, the Jets'Antonio Cromartie called Tom Brady an asshole, and the Patriots'Wes Welker put various foot-related concepts in his mouth 11 times in a single press conference. The Jets' Bart Scott, bristling at Welker's subtle jibes at Rex Ryan's alleged fetish, threatened Welker with bodily harm; the Patriots' Bill Belichick, in turn, excused his top playmaker from the game's first offensive series. Unless I'm forgetting a Brandon Stokley-instigated on-field Whoopee cushion imbroglio, this was the first time a slot receiver's wit had a material impact on an NFL playoff game.
This sort of ridiculousness tends to orbit around the Jets' Ryan, who matches a keen coaching mind with the temperament ("Let's make sure we play like the fucking New York Jets, and not some fucking slapdick team!") and body type of a replica-jersey-wearing sports radio caller. It's hard not to root for the slobbish coach when the snobs in the NFL commissioner's office have the gall to simultaneously warn league personnel about the dangers of trash talk and call attention to the over-the-line pre-game braggadocio on the league's official Web site. That's why, for me, the highlight of the weekend came when Ryan ran down the sidelines—estimated 40-yard dash time: 18.3 seconds—to celebrate Shonn Greene's game-clinching trot into the end zone. If he were a Jets fan, Ryan's jubilant pre-Super Bowl shuffle might have been immortalized in one of the NFL's happy, bouncy, playoff-promoting TV commercials. Since this happened on the field during a game, however, it was a Very Bad Thing—the tail end of a celebration that began with Greene's unsportsmanlike conduct flag for taking a nap on the ball. *
Along with providing off-field entertainment, Ryan orchestrated a Jets defense that stymied everybody's Super Bowl favorite. No team cultivates an aura of invincibility like the Belichick-and-Brady Patriots. On their best days—last month's 45-3 win over the Jets, for instance—the Pats look as if they're scrimmaging against air, the opposing defense less like a whirling, moving obstacle than a bunch of fixed traffic cones. On Sunday, though, Brady hit the turf five times, and when he did have time in the pocket, nobody seemed to be open—not the zone-buster Welker and certainly not Deion Branch, who was shadowed for most of the game by human eraser Darrelle Revis. On the bright side for the Pats, this will be one year when nobody accuses them of stealing the other team's defensive signals.
As I'm sure Wes Welker's gag writer would agree, Sunday's game turned on the placement of Santonio Holmes' foot. Holmes' fourth-quarter touchdown grab in the back corner of the end zone—a handsome bookend for his game-winning Super Bowl catch against Arizona—seemed choreographed to magnify every skill required of an NFL receiver. Despite having his vision of the incoming pass mostly obstructed by a defender, Holmes managed to leap in the air, grab the ball at its apex, drag his knee and foot in bounds before his momentum carried him over the end line, and (in the parlance of the NFL rule book) maintain control of the football as he hit the ground. This all took less than a second. In real time, it looked impossible that all the variables had lined up the way they had, in fact, lined up. "There's no space back there," said an incredulous Jim Nantz, narrating the slow-motion replay. (Stefan, I'm sure Mike Mayock would've seen things differently: "You gotta make that catch!")
If Holmes' catch wasn't the most-perfect play in NFL history, Aaron Rodgers made it at some point on Saturday night. It'd be hard to imagine that any quarterback has played a postseason game better than Rodgers did in Green Bay's 48-21 win at top-seeded Atlanta. The Packers quarterback, who completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns, is going to get really famous really fast if he beats the Bears in Soldier Field next weekend. But as Stefan mentioned last week, Rodgers has suffered two concussions this season. Can you imagine the hullaballoo if he gets "dinged" again this coming weekend, yet the Pack still advances to the Super Bowl? For two weeks, the sports media would talk about nothing but brain scans and early-onset dementia; this is perhaps not the NFL's dream scenario.
Stefan and Nate, the world awaits your thoughts on your ex-teammate Jay Cutler's four-touchdown day against Seattle. (The Seahawks, by the way, are who we thought they were. Unfortunately, the Saints let them off the hook.) And, Tom, I have neglected to say anything at all about the Steelers' win over the Ravens, a game almost as thrilling as Jets-Patriots (and even more thrilling if you get your jollies via rampant pass interference calls). Let's hope Pittsburgh's victory doesn't overshadow the Ravens' fumble return for a touchdown at the end of the first quarter, a play in which the ball sat undisturbed for what seemed like a full minute before Baltimore's Cory Redding * realized he was allowed to pick it up. CBS's many replays, to my great disappointment, featured neither a pennywhistle nor the strains of "Yakety Sax." Instant replay? Pish. I demand instant follies.
Correction, Jan. 17, 2011:The entry originally misspelled the first name of the Baltimore Ravens' Cory Redding. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Jan. 18, 2011: This entry originally said Rex Ryan was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in Sunday's Jets-Patriots game. The penalty was on the Jets' Shonn Greene. (Return to the corrected sentence.)