Tuesday, January 23, 2007

So it's down to two teams in the NFL. And at last, and in no small part due to my efforts, the Bears bandwagon is rolling to Miami for Super Bowl XLI. For all of those people who laughed at me following the Arizona game and the Miami game and the Green Bay game on New Year's Eve, now I'm right and you were wrong (I don't think I need to be more magnanimous in victory than Bill Belichick was in defeat). But my world makes a little less sense now than it did on Sunday morning.

Peyton Manning beat the Patriots. Unlike many in New England, I did not brace myself for the apocalypse. I didn't see it coming, but I am not as surprised by it as some commentators either. It was only a matter of time before he won a playoff game against the Patriots. These things happen in football. The quarterback of the moment always has a nemesis he must pass to get to the next level. Brett Favre and Steve Young both had to beat the Dallas Cowboys and Troy Aikman in their quests for immortality. Terry Bradshaw had to beat the Miami Dolphins and Bob Griese. In large part that is forgotten, because the average fan has the memory of a goldfish and the last five years are the sum and total of the NFL.

What really surprised me, what upset my comfortable world view was the manner in which Manning won. My calling him an archfraud in this space now hangs on the erratic right arm (and odd, nearly shot put throwing motion) of Rex Grossman. Not only did Manning win, but he came back from an 18 point deficit in the biggest game he'd ever played. That surprised the hell out of me, and a lot of people the world over.

But the thing is, it was bound to happen. Every year, Brady gets a little older, and that defense ages in dog years. People get hurt, and all of a sudden the Patriots look like a who's who of has beens and never will bes in the secondary. Ray Mickens was playing defensive back in the fourth quarter. Who knew he was still in the league?

I think the dynasty is over, not just because I don't like the Pats. Consider the Reggie Wayne near fumble on the game winning drive. Since 2001, those plays have been going the way of Patriots. Sooner or later, they had to run out of luck. It just seems like these things are all coming to a head at the worst possible time. As I said earlier, this team keeps getting older.

They really haven't reloaded through the draft as well as they needed to, either. Yes, Maroney was a great pick and he's their back of the future. But was Pioli in the men's room when it came time to draft Chad Jackson? If some one said that the Florida receiver turning in the best overall performance during this playoff run would be Jabar Gaffney when this season began, that person would have been laughed out of town.

When it really mattered, the Patriots wide receivers who came up big against the Chargers came up very small against Indy. That was pass interference on Troy Brown. He gave the Colt defensive back a forearm on his way by, which is what made it an obvious call, as opposed to the simple pick which led to the Reggie Bush TD. Blocking downfield before the ball is caught is offensive pass interference. But the enduring image of this collapse has to be Reche Caldwell and his creepy wide-eyed stare after each crucial drop.

So there we have the Patriots entering the decline and fall portion of their dynasty. They are thin (at best) at wide receiver. Their linebacking corps consists of Roosevelt Colvin, two aging stalwarts whose best years appear, like objects in Meat Loaf's rear-view mirror, closer than they are in Bruschi and Vrabel and then two guys who would be fortunate indeed if they were allowed to back up Urlacher and Briggs if they played for the Bears in Banta-Cain and Alexander. Their offensive line doesn't inspire terror. Their defensive line is outstanding, but the secondary is a mismatched crew destined to lose Assante Samuel in the not too distant future. But they have cap room, if they want to spend it.

Then there is my adopted team, the Chicago Bears. They overcame Sen. Obama's effort to jinx them, and they overcame me speaking highly of them to beat America's new team. It's too bad in a way that the Saints had to lose. If I hadn't become emotionally invested in the Bears, I would have been rooting for the Saints this year. If they'd won I would have rooted for them in the Super Bowl against the Pats or Colts. But there's always next year...

I was disappointed, but not surprised at Reggie Bush when he scored that TD. The play was the first real flash of the brilliance he showed day after day at USC, and it reminded me of the number of times he'd made arrogant celebrations like that against a certain team from the nation's premier Catholic institution of higher learning in which I am also emotionally invested. I was amazed that he wasn't flagged for the celebration.

If TO had done either the pointing at an opponent or the flip into the end zone he would have been flagged. If TO did both on the same play, he'd be in front of a panel at the league office as though it were the Spanish Inquisition and TO said the world was round. But some leeway is given to those who attended that first-rate academic institution in LA. Perhaps Reggie was taking lessons on how to behave in the adult world from fellow Trojan Sean Salisbury. Read this, and see if you can resist making a joke involving a manufacture of prophylactic products who shares the name of the school's mascot.

That joke about a reaction to TO taunting, flipping and dancing has been in my mind since I saw the play on Sunday. Unfortunately, TO had to do it again. It's like there is some sort of bizarre cosmic connection that causes him to go out and say something that didn't need to be said as soon as I get ready to make a positive reference to him. For the 1,000th time, I was told that it was time I gave up on TO today. I'm just not ready to do it.

I wish he hadn't said it, but I don't think it was quite as big an insult as the media has made it out to be. TO doesn't live in the same world that normal people inhabit. When he was a kid, his grandmother was the most stable thing in his world. Unfortunately, since he's been in the NFL, Bill Parcells is probably the most stable, positive influence in his professional world. Now Parcells is out of the league, for the time being anyway, and TO is still in Dallas. As his last fan, I am not looking forward to this coming season. What a media circus this will be.

If only TO could learn how to live without being the center of attention. Or even better, the media could act on their threat to stop paying attention to him. I love hearing that threat. As though the media could ignore the best source for the quick story so that the American sports fan could learn how to feel from the font of righteous anger with the least effort expended.

It reminds me of something I read the other day in Dickens' Hard Times:

Whenever a Coketowner felt he was ill-used - that is to say whenever he was not left entirely alone, and it was proposed to hold him responsible for the consequences of any of his acts - he was sure to come out with the awful menace, that he would "sooner pitch his property into the Atlantic." This had terrified the Home Secretary within an inch of his life, on several occasions.

This applies to both TO and the media. Neither party in this dreadfully repetitive pas de deux can exist without the other. And neither is good for the other. He enables the media's indolence, and the media enables his penchant for attracting negative attention. Too bad for people who just want to watch football, but then are there any left? Every thing has to have drama and back story, now and it's too bad.

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