NFL playoff note-book

In October, the Red Sox and Yankees played seven epic games. Steve Bartman provided Chicago with a pariah of Buckner-esque proportions. Josh Beckett emerged as baseball’s pitcher du jour. Jack McKeon proved that managers, like fine wines, simply grow better with age. Without question, the 2003 baseball playoffs were the best in years.

But now it is January. Now Al Harris picks off Matt Hasselbeck and inspires talk of destiny. Now Steve Smith unleashes lightning in a bottle and silences the Edward Jones Dome on the first play of double overtime. Now Indianapolis and Kansas City provide puntless, but certainly not punchless, entertainment. Now this is what I call playoffs.

Major League Baseball, eat your heart out.

I know, I know. Turn off the turntable, Noah’s record is broken. Turn off the turntable, Noah’s record is broken.

I’ll admit to extreme bias. But no one can deny that this NFL postseason has been exceptional. Saturday night’s Carolina-St. Louis double OT was particularly breathtaking. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more exciting game. Maybe Buffalo’s 32-point second-half comeback against Houston in 1993. Maybe.

• For the Panthers to watch John Kasay choke, then have St. Louis get all the breaks in rallying from an 11-point deficit and send the game to overtime, and then win? Gutsy. For them to keep composure after watching him choke again in overtime? Tres Gutsy. For Mike Martz to get conservative in OT and settle for a field goal after tearing into Carolina territory? Gutless.

Martz took heat all week for not getting Marshall Faulk enough touches. As usual, Martz ignored his critics and repeated his mistake, giving Faulk just 16 carries throughout the four quarters of regulation. Then, as if to confound them all, after a 26-yard Bulger-to-Bruce connection that placed the Rams’ proverbial foot squarely on the Panthers’ neck, Martz runs up the middle on the first and second down. Net gain: three yards. Third down? Dink’n’dunk screen pass to Mike Furrey easily batted down by Julius Peppers. That left Jeff Wilkins with a 53-yard field goal. Short. Yo, Mikey? Can you spell goat?

• Speaking of goats, I bet Matt Hasselbeck sure feels like one. Sure he played a great game, and few expected the Seahawks to contend in chilly Green Bay. But in trying to audible amidst the equally howling winds and crowd noise of Lambeau, he made a mistake that was quintessentially Seahawk. As my Uncle Tom said, ya gotta use a timeout there, or bad things will happen. Al Harris down the sideline is a very bad thing for the birds.

So the Packers’ “season of destiny” continued. I’m not one to buy into karma, magic, hocus-pocus or mumbo-jumbo. But Brett Favre’s play since the tragic death of his father Irv seemed divinely inspired, if not destined. That is, until Brett Favre threw an awful interception on his first throw of overtime against the Eagles, setting up their winning field goal. Two weeks of battling the birds proved too much for Favre and fate. Still, it sure looked like someone upstairs was on their side when they led 14-0 in the second quarter.

• And the Eagles? They’ll play in their third straight NFC championship game after the gritty win over the Packers. Donovan McNabb’s stats weren’t gaudy, but they demonstrated once again what Rush Limbaugh overlooked: the guy just wins games.

• In the AFC, winning games is a concept almost synonymous with the New England Patriots, winners of 13 straight, whose victory over the tough Titans brought back memories of 2001. For the Colts, who they’ll play for the AFC crown, it’s more like 1999, sans the whole losing in the playoffs bit. Peyton Manning has been nearly perfect, as his quarterback rating will attest, while Edgerrin James finally seems to have regained his stride. They have been impressive, to say the least. But if I see Peyton Manning make one more drawn-out gesticulation audible, I’m going to scream. I wonder if Sergio Garcia would waggle if he worked within the constraints of a play-clock.

• So the stage is set: Panthers-Eagles, Colts-Patriots. Predictions? Those will come on Friday. For now, I give the final word to CBS’s number two broadcasting team of Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf, also known as the geriatric avengers:

(Context: Dick Enberg talking about Indianapolis Colt receiver Reggie Wayne, who grew up admiring Eric Martin, whom Wayne  said could “catch a BB in the dark.”)

Dierdorf: I got shot in the butt with a BB gun once.

Enberg: In the dark?

Dierdorf: No, but it hurt just the same.

Enberg: Thanks for sharing.

Classic. The NFL playoffs really do have it all.

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