The gambling gods may have destroyed my annual dream of going 11-0 against the spread in the playoffs, but they couldn't destroy the "All-NFL Playoff Mailbag." As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.
Q: I'm a Steelers fan. I despise the Patriots and moreso, the Ravens. But I think I found something to like about this game. Bernard Pollard plays for the Ravens. If he were to accidentally roll Brady's knee again, doesn't he become the most celebrated/infamous hitman in NFL history? Ray Lewis has to be staring right at him when he gives his "Lets do what we do!" pre-game speech, right?
— Chris, Pittsburgh
SG: First of all, that's not funny. Second, Pats fans know him by his full name (Bernard Karmell Pollard) because it makes him sound like an assassin, which he is, because you know, he assassinated the 2008 Patriots' season. Third, if Pollard sacks Brady and does a cutthroat gesture on his knee (instead of his neck), I really think there will be a riot or something close. Fourth, Pollard's comments about Brady this week ("That's the pretty boy. That's the man of the NFL. That's Mr. Do-It-All. So everybody is going to hold that against me but I don't care") almost make me wonder if Bernard Karmell Pollard WILL go after Brady in this game just to prove a point. I don't like anything about this paragraph.
Q: In the TV trailers for "The Grey", Liam Neeson's character seems to know exactly what to do in every situation in the movie. It's like he's the VP of Uncommon Sense. How great would it be to hang out with Liam's character for a day? Faced with wolves? "Don't move, stare right back at em." Hungry for lunch? "Make hot dogs. They're your favorite food and you've been eating well so you can afford the nitrates." Should I start a game of Words With Friends with my boss? "No, you will have trouble remembering to not play his game during work hours, and the benefits of the new kinship will be minimal."
— Ryan, Plainsboro, NJ
SG: I love that commercial and can't wait to overpay for that movie. If it's taking place in the forest (like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings), I'm out. I don't like being in the forest. But if I'm on a mountain (like Cliffhanger, The Edge or The Grey)? I'm totally in. Can we get Liam to give Alex Smith a pep talk? Alex, keep your eyes down the field when that Giants pass rush is coming at you. Don't look down. Look over them. If you look at them, they'll eat you alive. Also, cram these lima beans underneath your testicles, it will give you extra strength.
Q: I dare you to write an NFL Playoffs column without mentioning the "Nobody Believes in Us" theory at least sixteen times. I don't think you are capable of doing it.
— Ben L., Miami
SG: You're on. Just know that nobody believes I can do this except for the people in this locker room.
Q: You need to suck up your bruised aortic pump enough to introduce the Kate Middleton of the Tyson zone- the Tebow Zone. The main criterion: you subconsciously are willing to believe any story you hear related to this person before the fact, and then when it happens, you're left simultaneously dumbfounded and repentful. Ironically, it's the same way you feel during the first hour of travel after wrapping up a trip to Vegas. What happens in the Tebow Zone, stays in the Tebow Zone!
— David W, Boca Raton
Q: You need to consider creating the Tebow zone — it's the exact opposite of the Tyson Zone. I would believe any positive Tebow story right now whether it's "Tebow bought lunch for an entire homeless shelter" to "Tebow learning Portuguese for his mission trip to Brazil" to "Tebow credited for baking the greatest chocolate chip cookie ever" What do you think?
— Robert, Las Vegas
SG: Tebow is unbelievable — we can't even agree on what the Tebow Zone might look like. I vote for the "positive" Tebow Zone, although Robert didn't go far enough with his fake stories. Robert, you could have absolutely played the "Tebow figured out a way to holistically restore Lindsay Lohan's virginity so they could lose theirs together" card. Don't hold back next time.
Q: I had a dream last week that Tim Tebow proposed to my fiancee. I was just standing there watching. It was in an empty museum and Tebow was wearing a tux with a black bowtie. What ring did he give? A plastic setting with a mini disco ball connected to it. I wish I were kidding. Sports Guy, please interpret this for me.
— Lev, San Francisco
SG: The museum symbolizes a cross between a cathedral (the church of Tebow) and the NFL Hall of Fame (where you subsconsciously believe Tebow may be headed). The mini disco ball symbolizes the free-sex era of the late '70s (the antithesis of everything for which Tebow stands); the plastic setting means the ring isn't real (reassuring for you, since you're subconsciously scared of losing your girlfriend to another man and/or Tebow himself). So you have the safety within the dream of knowing that this is ridiculous, and that it's not actually happening, which is why In-The-Dream You watched the proposal instead of trying to stop it. Deep down, you're threatened by Tebow's handsome looks, winsome personality, and virgin ruggedness, as well as the fact that he might have legitimate religious powers. Regardless, thanks for leaving me the "Did the dream suck for three quarters, then pick up in the last few minutes?" joke. I appreciate it.
Q: Isn't the Jaguars passing on Tim Tebow one of the worst draft decisions in history in any sport? Forget Bowie over Jordan, passing on Tebow will likely kill pro football in Jacksonville. If any team ever needed to draft a guy who could sell tickets, it was the Jags. And if there was ever a guy who could sell tickets IN FLORIDA, it was Tim Tebow. The Jags play in front of 20,000 empty seats per game, will likely move to LA in a couple years and Tim Tebow is the nation's favorite athlete. And to think how the Jags could've run every team into the ground with MJD and Tim Tebow. In fact, if I'm John Elway, I call the Jags up right now and see what they're willing to part with.
— Sean, Washington, D.C.
SG: You're preaching to the choir — it never made sense for Jacksonville to pass on Tebow, they should have just traded down 10 spots and taken him. The upside was too great. Again, they would have owned football in Florida had he panned out. What if the Jags offered Blaine Gabbert, their 2012 no. 1 pick (no. 7 overall) for Tebow? Wouldn't Elway have to take that deal? (Yes.) Wouldn't it be the most unpopular trade in recent sports history? (Yes.) Isn't Elway the only GM who can pull off such a trade, considering his own godlike status in Denver and the Broncos' fans unwillingness to vilify Elway even if he traded Tebow? (Yes.) Would anything be more riveting than Broncos fans quickly scapegoating Gabbert when he nearly self-destructed in Jacksonville with 200 times less attention? (Yes.) I can't think of a more fascinating fake sports trade — it's even juicier (and slightly more logical) than a Dwyane Wade/Joel Anthony for Dwight Howard/J.J. Redick swap.
Q: Clicking CTRL + F and typing "Tebow" reveals that you successfully used his name 55 times in your Round 2 article. If only we could check an episode of First Take with Skip Bayless as easily.
— Ryan, Boston
SG: Only 55 times? You're right, we better get out now. I'm gonna miss Tebow.
Q: Please pick against the Giants against SF. We're getting too confident.
— Greg, New York
SG: No kidding. I asked a buddy of mine (a die-hard Giants fan) whether he was worried about this weekend and he responded, "Worried about Alex Smith against JPP, Tuck and Osi? (Makes a face like he's just been insulted.) Come on. We're going to rip that guy in half. Don't be stupid. Take the points." Hmmmmmm.
Q: I'm a Niners fan and during that roller-coaster of a Saints game, I was texting back and forth with a buddy of mine. When Davis caught the game-winning pass and I finished jumping around like Balki Bartokomous from Perfect Strangers doing the 'Dance of Joy,' I texted my buddy, "I THINK I'VE GOT A HARB-ON!!!" Please tell me no one else thought of this phrase yet. And can we have "Harb-On" replace "Tebowner" for the rest of the playoffs?
— Mark D., Woodbridge, Canada
SG: Happy to make the switch. Good luck with your Harb-on this weekend.1
Q: This August at our annual fantasy football draft, our league came up with a new rule that the owner who comes in last place is forced to wear a jersey of the league's choosing for one day after the season ends and feel that this is something that more leagues should do. For example, the owner who came in last in our league is a big time Pats fan, and as a downtrodden and bitter Dolphins fan and recently converted follower of the book of Tebow, nothing would have pleased me more than watching him walk around for a day in a Tebow jersey had the Broncos beaten the Pats. Thoughts?
— Matt, State College, PA
SG: I'm a big fan of booby prizes for fantasy leagues. In my West Coast league, our last-place team has to pay for our league's postseason pizza banquet. Granted, it's a relatively cheap booby prize because we hold the banquet at Shakey's in West Hollywood — one of those seedy restaurants that has no bathroom mirror (because anyone who's there hates themselves too much to look), waiters and waitresses who don't even attempt to understand customers, and some of the strangest couples you will ever see. At this year's banquet (coinciding with the Steelers-Broncos game), we were treated to a toothless man who dressed like a woman and came with his/her boyfriend (15 years younger, at least), who proceeded to grope him/her throughout the game as we tried to figure out if we could catch cancer or an STD just from watching them. I forgot to mention that the pizza is really, really terrible. Paying for a 12-man Shakey's pizza banquet — now THAT, my friends, is a booby prize.
The more I'm thinking about it, why wouldn't we have a prize for every place in a fantasy draft? Shouldn't every place matter? I don't even know where I finished in my West Coast league, but I would have remembered if fifth place meant, "You're responsible for engraving the winner's name into the next trophy before next year's auction"; seventh place meant, "You have to wear Eli Manning's pink breast cancer awareness Giants jersey to next year's auction"; and ninth place meant, "You have to wear one of those European banana-hammock bathing suits to a crowded beach and take a picture with three strangers."
Q: So Jeff Fisher had an entire year off and he still couldn't fix his mustache?
— Frank, Pittsfield, MA
SG: Nope. He pulled a Wannstedt on us.
Q: After watching Jimmy Graham dominate this season, is there any doubt LeBron would be the most impactful tight end in the NFL? Graham's played football for a year and dominated because of his athletic ability (which pales compared to LeBron).
— Christian, Stamford
SG: Only one problem: LeBron would sign with New England to play with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Somehow he'd think this made sense.
Q: It drives me crazy during every Fox NFL telecast when they cut to the announcers in the pressbox and Joe Buck says: "And now we welcome you inside our broadcast booth..." Does showing a 10-second close-up of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman's stone faces as they unenthusiastically summarize the game really merit a "welcome" message? "Welcome you inside our broadcast booth" should be a new euphemism for some brief, unpleasant event where awkwardness inevitably ensues.
Guy #1: "So why don't you and so-and-so hang out anymore?"
Guy #2: "She tried to welcome me inside her broadcast booth last Friday night and things got awkward. I'm going to give it some time."
Guy #1: "Joe, you're exactly right."
— Ryan, Harrisburg, PA
SG: Good e-mail. I have some insight having been the third man in the NBA booth for a Heat-Warriors game in 2009. As you know, NBA telecasts feature the equally awkward "Here are the announcers crammed next to each other at midcourt!" shot, which is every bit as uncomfortable as "And now we welcome you inside our broadcast booth " And here's why: The cameraman squats on the other side of the broadcast table, points the camera maybe four feet from your face, then does a reverse zoom thingie so you seem further away then you actually are. And it's a giant camera. And it's HD. And you're crammed next to two other guys. And you don't know whether to smile, nod, look serious or what to do and also, you're thinking, "I wonder if they can see that shaving cut on my neck" because the camera is four feet from your face. That's why I looked like I was filming a hostage video during every half-court booth camera shot. So when Fox does it during NFL games, I'm sure the camera guy is reverse zooming Troy and Joe while pretty much straddling them. He can't be more than three feet away. How would you feel?2
The logical compromise: Use a camera from across the field, do a hard zoom-in and have Troy and Joe play to that camera from a distance. But that would make too much sense. In general, TV networks have done a shaky job adapting to the HD/Big TV Era — we see too clearly now, only the TV networks keep chugging along like nothing changed. We have the same problem with sideline interviews during NBA and NFL games: Do we really need to see 65 inches of Michele Tafoya's head? Or Ric Bucher's head? Or Kevin Durant's head? Or anyone's head? I'm glad Ryan from Harrisburg brought this up. You'll think of him as Troy and Joe are staring at you like serial killers on Sunday afternoon.
Q: After submitting one of my more legendary performance (hammered at a company event, smoozed up one of the partners, somehow got massive props from my boss, then went home with a company hottie...) I was watching the press conference after the epic 49ers - Saints game, and I realized...wait...I was really just emailing to tell you about my awesome night. I love being young. Have fun being old.
— Ryan, Los Angeles
SG: Thanks. Appreciate it.
Q: Rick Reilly wrote this week, "I try to keep all my columns under 900 words so people don't have to quit their jobs to read me. It's just sports, not the American Medical Journal." Did you ever think about changing your moniker to the American Medical Journal Guy?
— Murph, Springfield, MA
SG: Just for that, I'm going for 7,500 words this column. Let's just move on before I have to fire myself.
Q: After hating the guy for most of his career, I've had an about-face when it comes to Tom Brady the past 3-4 years. Whether it's the baby mama drama, the long hair, the supermodel wife, the FU attitude, the weak supporting cast, or the return from serious injury, I've gone from thinking he's overrated to agreeing that he's the best QB of his era and an all-timer. One problem: He's never had a decent nickname. Tom Terrific? Seriously?
— Grant, Austin
SG: Tom Brady doesn't need a nickname. Neither did Joe Montana, Dan Marino or John Elway. Neither do Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers or even (Howard Finkel voice: "The neeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwwwwww NFC Quarterback Champion of the worrrrrrrrrrrrld ") Eli Manning right now. If you're an elite quarterback with a cool-sounding name, you don't need a nickname. If you're a potential Hall of Famer with a name that sounds like a Hollywood scriptwriter made it up, even better.
OK, now flip this around: Look at some of the QBs who have nicknames. Matty Ice. The Sanchize. T-Jack. Sensing a trend? I'd argue that it's a bad sign when your quarterback has a nickname — there's a little overcompensation involved, right? And it can only end badly if he doesn't live up to his nickname. Here, look.
Q: A few buddies and I were playing poker and talking football when one of the guys referred to Matt Ryan by his nickname, "Matty Ice." Instinctively, me and another guy starting laughing, to the surprise of the rest of the table. After his 3 career playoff performances, no one should be calling him "Matty Ice." Has there been anyone else in sports that once had a great nickname only to make a mockery of it?
— Brian Grayon, Albuquerque
SG: I'm splitting my vote between the XFL's "He Hate Me" guy and two boxers — James "Quick" Tillis (he wasn't quick) and Hector "Macho" Camacho (he wasn't macho). Although you could talk me into Chauncey Billups still being called "Mr. Big Shot" a good four years after he stopped being Mr. Big Shot. You could say he's firmly entrenched in the Donovan McNabb/2010 Redskins stage of his career. After Chauncey made the game-winner in Wednesday's Mavs-Clips game, he acted totally surprised and overly excited, as if he were saying, "Whoa! It went in! I'm still Mr. Big Shot!" Might be a good idea to retire that name, Chauncey.
Q: If by some Tebownian miracle you actually print my last email, don't print my email address. Getting fired sucks.
— Ryan, Los Angeles
SG: You don't know how badly I wanted to post his work e-mail with a "Have fun getting fired" answer.
Q: Incomprehensibly you left Barry Sanders off of your Bo Jackson Freak Hall of Fame team. He's the first player who pops into my head when I think of athletic freaks of nature. That's like making a list of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time and forgetting to put Led Zeppelin on it. Have you visited the tropics lately? Do you have a parasitic worm eating your brain? Is it stress? Lack of sleep? The pressure of trying to go 11-0 against the spread? I enjoy your columns and want to make sure you're healthy, that you're going to stick around. Just checking, maybe you should see a doctor...
— Tom D., San Francisco
Q: Dude, can you please go back and watch some Jim Brown footage, then revise your Freak Hall of Fame?
— Trent Hone, Arlington, VA
SG: Incredible clip. Did Jim Brown invent/patent/retire the move of running across the field at a 90-degree angle — sometimes 20 or 25 yards! — just to eventually turn the corner on the other side of the field, or am I imagining this? Has any offensive player done that since? Anyway, I can't put Brown in the NFL Freaks Hall of Fame because I never watched him live. As for Sanders, that was a total brainfart. He's another one who had no frequal. Just know that I still stand by a "Never bet against Barry Sanders — not ever" rule from one of my original Gambling Manifestos, as well as a "Never take Barry Sanders' advice on abstinence before marriage — not ever" rule from my "Bachelor Manifesto."
Q: I was watching a shortened Mike Francesa show on YES today. Giants fans only wanted to talk about the blown call on Greg Jennings' fumble. Mike went on to use the phrase "under the hood" a ridiculous amount of times over the next hour to describe the action of the ref looking at the replay. I finished watching the show but it was bothering me how many times I heard "under the hood". I was sure it was 40 times at least. I decided to go back and figure it out. Mike used the actual phrase "under the hood" 36 times. Callers used it twice bringing the total to 38. This is where it gets dicey. Mike once said "blew the call under the..." before trailing off. I counted that as 0.75 times . He also used "...before the hood" once. I counted that as 0.25 times bringing the total to 39 and that was it. I missed my theory by one "under the hood". Now I know how you feel after not covering that Texans-Ravens game. So close. Notes from my study: Mike used the phrase "underneath the hood" once which I counted in his total and all but 1 of the "under the hoods were said in a 60 minute time frame. For the entire 2 hour show Mike's UTHPM (Under the Hoods per Minute) was 0.65 narrowly edging out Dog's 0.63 "Unbelieveable"s per minute from 1999 about Darryl Strawberry's recovery from cancer. If Mike had done the full show he would have been at 195 "under the hoods." This may or may not be a cry help.
— Mike Z, Decatur, GA
SG: Wait, we're already in range?
Q: I've got a question I have never heard addressed: what stellar individual decided that the Giants' equipment should [be] so ill-fitting and stupid looking? Seriously, compare any person on the Giants roster to any other player in the NFL. Also, Screw New England, Screw Brady, and Screw you. Keep up the good work.
— Greg, The Bake, CA
SG: Oh God, think baseball, think baseball
Q: I am flying today from Logan back to San Diego. As I was going through security, the TSA agent was discussing Brady with a coworker. Her conclusion was that Giselle was solely to blame for the lack of Super Bowls in the past couple years. Imagine the thickest Boston accent possible: "All I know hon is 3 championships with Brigette Moynahan and zippo with Giselle." In arguably the dumbest move I could make, I decide to interject, "Yeah, but Moynahan pulled the goalie on him." As soon as I said it I wanted to desperatly pull the words back, grabbing for them like Stallone reached for Hal's girlfriend Sarah in Cliffhanger. Her head swiveled towards me with fire in her eyes and I knew it was going to be bad. I was convinced a full cavity search was in my immediate future and possible rendition to a remote base in Nowherestan. "What? He wasn't there? It's all her fault right?". I went into full third grade class mode, "Yes ma'am, of. Of course ma'am. Right you are ma'am", praying to make it through with my dignity (and sphincter integrity) in tact. After spraying me with venom she lets me go and then stops me later to explain the euphemism 'puling the goalie' which was in no way awkward. The lessons: keep your mouth shut at the airport, and don't mess with chicks from New England.
— Jeff S., San Diego
SG: Yup, there are my readers. (Can't believe I couldn't hold out. Sorry about that.)
Q: When writing a text about the upcoming Ravens game, i realized the iPhone autocorrects "Flacco" to "Flacid." Seemed appropriate.
— Tommy B, New York, NY
SG: See, if I piggyback on this joke and Flacco rips up the Patriots' defense this weekend, I'll get a steady slew of "You jinxed the Pats with those Joe 'Flacid' jokes!" e-mails. Let's move on.
Q: Since you never answer my long thought-out mailbag questions, I'm going to ask you a simple one. What you and your dad gonna do when Patriots vs Giants II runs wild on you? Could a new Level of Losing be created?
— Pat Frappier, Ottawa
SG: Why do people keep sending me (or any other Patriots fan) this e-mail? Here's a newsflash: If the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl, we ALL want the Giants. Don't you realize that would be the best possible way to extinguish every awful memory from Super Bowl 42? And that we'd have a chance to do it in Indianapolis, the scene of the other Super Bowl that got away, when the Pats blew a 20-point lead to the 2006 Colts and gakked a third-and-3 that could have ended the game (and led to a trouncing over Rex Grossman and the Bears two weeks later)?
A good parallel: Magic and the Lakers totally choked in the 1984 Finals against my Celtics. They blew Game 2 and Game 4 in the worst possible ways, then melted down completely down the stretch in Game 7. Magic spent the summer hearing that he was a choke artist. The Lakers spent the summer hearing that they weren't as tough, they were California pansies, they were intimidated by Kevin McHale's clothesline and everything else. And Boston fans probably broke the superiority complex record that summer; we owned the Lakers and that was that. You know what happened a year later? The Lakers won the 1985 title in Boston Garden. It was like hitting a giant RESET button. Now, anytime that 1984 Finals comes up, it's always mentioned with the caveat, "But remember, the Lakers got their revenge the following year." That's what would happen if the Patriots beat the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. Or so I keep telling myself.
Q: Can all debates please end as to whether or not quarterbacks are "elite?" Who cares? Why is this a discussion? It's not like Eli Manning gets some sort of contract bonus if he is considered elite by the public and media. It's just a word. We all obviously know which quarterbacks are playing well and which are not. What magical properties does the word "elite" have that somehow takes this to another level?
— Jacob, Burlington, VT
SG: I don't mind the "elite" tag — I always took that word to mean, "YoucanwinaSuperBowlwithhim," which is 21 letters longer. I always want to know if my quarterbacks, coaches, closers, goalies, no. 1 starters, play-by-play guys, friends' new girlfriends, pot dealers and Zamboni drivers are elite.
Q: With Tebow and Big Ben hurt, and Brady headed to the Super Bowl, doesn't Peyton have to start at the Pro Bowl? Ordinarily, owners and management are ambivalent at best about having their players in the Pro Bowl-injury concerns-but this is the rare case where EVERYONE wants to see this happen. Colts' management (whoever that is at the moment) will want to see if Peyton's "still got it," and everyone else will want the opportunity to see Peyton in a Colts helmet-possibly for the last time. Isn't this the only way the Pro Bowl's watchable, given the bizarre scheduling of playing it before the Super Bowl, keeping the best players out of it?
— John S., Atlanta
SG: I love this idea. I can't think of a single reason why I'd watch the Pro Bowl other than my buddy Sal saying to me either, "Hey, did you hear Peyton Manning is playing?" or, "I'm parlaying the AFC and the over, you want in?" Speaking of Peyton
Q: You ever wonder if Eli is secretly behind Peyton's neck issues? Somehow? Now that he is out for a whole year and Eli's got a healthy defense it is time to make his move to no longer be Manning #2. I swear he has been amazing much more often lately and it just seems like the grand evil plot an overshadowed younger brother would carry out.
— JAW, Chicago
SG: That would be the greatest sports scandal of all time — if it came out that Eli paid off the doctor of Peyton's first neck surgery to screw it up so Peyton was never the same. At the very least, you have to admit that they would have done that plot on a nighttime soap in the 1990s.
Anyway, I'm glad JAW brought this up. If Eli won the next two games, this would morph into one of the most bizarre storylines in sports history: Just two years ago, Peyton was one victory away from a second Super Bowl and an excellent chance at being remembered as the best quarterback of all time. You know what happened next. Now, his little brother — the Pippa to his Kate — has a decent chance of doubling Peyton's Super Bowl total, taking down Rodgers and Brady, securing "most clutch QB alive" status and becoming the most famous New York football player since Joe Namath right as his brother's career is heading toward an abrupt ending.3 And he's only halfway through his career! What were the odds that Eli's career would end up being better than Peyton's career in 2006? Maybe 200 to 1? Now it's dropped to I don't know, maybe 7 to 1? 5 to 1? Stunning.
Q: Not sure if you've seen, but the Ravens have a "nobody believes in us!" video that automatically plays when you go to www.baltimoreravens.com. Do you think the football gods will frown upon this? It feels like they're using "nobody believes in us!" in vain.
— Dan, Columbus, OH
SG: Yeah, that's a total violation of the "Nobody believes in us" covenant. Teams can only point out in private before the game that nobody believes in them — once it's mentioned publicly, the focus of the general public shifts from "Team X can't lose" to "Team Y is mad that nobody believes in them, are we taking them too lightly?," followed by the narrative shifting and people forgetting to keep saying that "Team X can't lose." The Ravens played this so poorly that I'm just going to assume that Cam Cameron called this one.
Q: Let me help you with your plan to move the Super Bowl to the second weekend of February... DON'T. Explanation: Valentine's weekend. In my household, the subject of going on an early December campout with some other dads and sons came up. That was shot down pretty fast by the wives because of the holiday party season. How fast do you think a Super Bowl party will be shot down? Will it even get off the ground? Sure you could use some defense like the Saturday is for the lady and Sunday is for the guy, but Valentine's (and the corresponding weekend) is in no way, shape, or form about the guy.
— BS LeBlanc, Dallas
SG: The lesson, as always: Don't get married.
Q: I live in San Francisco and the post-Saints vibe was comparable to when the Giants won the World Series in 2010. But I digress. I challenge you to find me a better comeback player in any sport EVER than Alex Smith. And I don't mean some superstar who got hurt or had an off year and then came back and returned to form. I mean an honest to goodness down for the count type player that came back and did everything everyone said he couldn't. Since 2005 Alex Smith has had more crap piled on top of him than his midget hands could withstand. He was disowned by not one but TWO different awful coaches (Mike Nolan and Singletary) and has been the most consistently criticized starting QB in the NFL for the better part of six years. And in one game he has sealed his place in 49er, and probably NFL, history. Even if he only performs as a "game manager" for the rest of his career, which is unlikely considering Harbaugh has turned him into a top 15 QB with one year and a shortened offseason, is there any other player in any sport that has gone so drastically from "get this guy off of my team before I fire bomb this stadium" to "4th quarter with under 15 seconds and a shot to go to the NFC championship game on the line? Give it to baby hands and see what he can do."
— Jesse, San Francisco
SG: I certainly can't remember anything like it. Alex Smith's nadir was lower than Trent Dilfer's nadir, Jim Plunkett's nadir, Brad Johnson's nadir in terms of sheer incredulity, only Mark Rypien's one great season for the '91 Redskins compares,4 but Rypien's previous two seasons weren't as bad as I remembered (16-8 record, 38 TDs, 24 picks, 5,830 yards, 84 QB rating). When I picked San Fran to be 2010's breakout team (as it turned out, one year early) partly because of a "More shaky QBs than you think went 13-3 this decade" theory, the consensus was, "With Alex Smith? Are you crazy????" And that was one whole crappy season ago. So yeah, this is relatively insane.
Then again, the concept of a "late bloomer with a pedigree" isn't as insane — we just watched it happen in basketball with Zach Randolph, who belatedly morphed into the NBA's most unstoppable inside scorer last spring. You never know when the right pedigree can override a series of bad breaks/decisions/situations. When you watched Smith, it wasn't like watching Hasheem Thabeet in person, where you just say to yourself, "My God, there is NO chance." It always seemed like a confidence thing — he ranged from "semi-rattled" to "shattered" for six solid seasons, only now, it's like Jim Harbaugh willed him to matter again. I think it's one of the greatest coaching achievements in recent football history. Rebuilding the right QB is doable if he's getting a fresh start on a new team. But building him in the place where he failed for years and years, with that baggage just sitting everywhere, with fans, media members and teammates doubting him? Much different. I can't even think of a parallel to this Alex Smith saga. It doesn't exist.5 Niners fans actually believe that Alex Smith can handle New York's fearsome pass rush this weekend. And you know what? I might believe it, too.
Q: A couple of years ago I promised my son his first football jersey. The clearance rack was comprised mostly of cheap (really cheap) Alex Smith jerseys. As Alex wasn't technically dead at the time, I wondered what would happen to the clearance rack if he suddenly turned his career around? So now that we finally have our "moment" with him, I'm guessing those jerseys go right back to front of the store. Has this ever happened before?
— Mike, Oakland
SG: We've seen Clearance Rack guys switch teams and become Full-Price guys again (Michael Vick, for instance). But someone doing it for the same team??? I can only remember it happening once: In 2000, the Celtics Pro Shop discounted a slumping Kenny Anderson's authentic game jersey by something like 70 percent. I remember agonizing about whether to buy it — I didn't want to pull full-price for Walker, Pierce or really anyone on that crappy team and didn't have much money to begin with, so I ended up demurring. A year or so later, the 2002 Celtics made a playoff run and Kenny fought his way off the clearance rack like Liam fighting his way off that scary mountain in The Grey. And Mike is right — that's a bigger deal than we realize. It never happens. To land on a clearance rack in 2012, you need to either
A. Get traded or waived
B. Sign somewhere else
C. Fail a drug test
D. Change your number
E. Commit a crime
F. Date and/or marry a Kardashian, then act reprehensibly toward her on a reality show for weeks on end
G. E + F
H. Claim that you would have stopped 9/11 had you been on one of the planes
I. Play poorly for long enough that the guy running that store says to himself, "This is a disaster; the only way I will sell any of this guy's jerseys is by discounting them heavily and hoping someone buys his jersey either because they're broke, they want to put Scotch tape over the name, or they're saving it for 15 years from now when it becomes ironic."
Anyway, that's a pretty effective way to describe an athlete hitting rock bottom — when he goes clearance rack on us, almost always, you know it's going badly. But here's a dark horse pick for our next rags-to-riches jersey clearance guy that's right, I still believe in you, Josh Freeman! Bad year. Shake it off. You're not a 50 percent off guy yet.6
Q: What are the odds Bob Kraft has the old timey Patriot guys with the muskets try to take Bernard Pollard out during warm-ups?
— Mark H., Boston
SG: Right now it's +300. Dropped from +350 earlier in the week.
Q: I love how you and Cousin Sal list all of the various potential storylines for the Super Bowl in Indy and you fail to mention how poetic it would be for Baltimore to win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis. I really can't wait till the Ravens beat the Pats again and then beat the Giants in the Super Bowl. Boston and New York right in a row. It will make next baseball season so much more palatable.
— Matt Baetz, Baltimore
Q: How INSANE would it be for the Ravens to win the Super Bowl in INDY!?! Would that be the kill shot of football in Indy? After a Super Bowl loss, first-round playoff loss, 2-14 season in consecutive years, and the possibility of Manning leaving the team after Caldwell getting fired. I think God hates the Colts.
— Fernando, Puerto Rico
SG: My biggest fears of the Patriots-Ravens game, in order:
1. Ray Rice
2. Bernard Karmell Pollard
3. The Patriots selling out to stop Ray Rice and Joe
Flaccid Flacco catching fire against New England's weak secondary
4. The poetic justice of Baltimore winning a Super Bowl in Indy during Indy's worst season ever
Q: On a scale of one to ten, what was your disbelief over Joe Flacco claiming that he didn't really care that his star teammate said he folded like a cheap card table against the Texans? And do you think there is any chance that what Ed Reed said will actually motivate Flacco?
— Tim, Anchorage
SG: And here's what makes me feel most confident about the Patriots' chances
You need to believe in your QB to win a big game on the road. I usually ignore media-driven stories in the days leading up to the game, but watching one of Baltimore's defensive leaders calling out his QB that blatantly was really, really strange. Throw in the problems Flacco had with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron over the years, as well as Cameron's horrific playcalling against Houston last week (and a few other times this season), and it just makes me wonder: What happens to Flacco and this particular Ravens team if the first half doesn't go their way? Remember when they totally no-showed for a nationally televised Chargers game in December? Did that mean anything? Or should we remember Flacco's superb performance in their comeback at Pittsburgh and shake the other stuff off?
Hmmm. Let's just make picks for the Conference Championships (home teams in caps).
PATRIOTS (-7) over Ravens
Believe me, I know all the reasons you'd grab the points here. I visited Bristol on Tuesday, ran into Eric Mangini and listened to him break down — for five solid minutes — every hard-core football reason why New England was a better matchup for Baltimore than Houston was. The Mangenious put the fear of God in me. Plus, we know the Ravens will have a ton of confidence going back to New England; we know the Ravens looked worse than they actually are against Houston (and the Patriots looked better than they are); we know the Patriots are going to sell out to stop Rice and let Flacco beat them; we know it's going to be a hard-hitting game; and we know the Ravens think they can beat up Brady and New England's receivers. The recurring theme from any die-hard football follower seems to be, "You know it's gonna be close."
So why pick the Pats? I'll keep it simple: If you can beat a supremely motivated Patriots team in New England — especially this particular Patriots team, which has been lights-out offensively for two solid months and wants nothing more than to end this whole "Baltimore owns you" thing — without a decent pass rush, a shrewd offensive coordinator, fast linebackers, or a genuinely reliable quarterback that your team totally believes in, then Tebow bless you.
The Pick: New England 37, Baltimore 26.
Giants (+2.5) over NINERS
This reminds me of one of those old-school playoff games from the Madden/Summerall era, back when home-field advantage mattered, coaching mattered, old-school rivalries mattered and original Playoff Manifesto rules like "When in doubt, go against the general public," "Don't forget to factor in coaching and special teams" and "Don't go against a great defense at home" actually meant something. We keep hearing that the Giants are a team of destiny, but what about the Niners? People have been dismissing them, overlooking them and expecting them to self-combust all year. They finished 13-3 and were four-point underdogs at home in Round 2. They have weathered every slight, turned them into fuel, kept plugging away. And now they're here.
On paper, the Giants are better — they can throw the ball and rush the passer. Last week, the Packers lost because of drops and bad luck, and because the Giants played splendidly, but also because Aaron Rodgers' vision shifted as that game went along. It's the old Mike Lombardi theory — if you can make the QB look at the line of scrimmage (because he's afraid of what's coming) instead of downfield (where his receivers are), it's over. You won. That's what the Giants did to Rodgers last week. He played scared. You would think that Alex Smith would play scared, too, but here's the difference: Rodgers HAD to play well for Green Bay to win last week's game. Smith only has to be competent. I see one of those sloppy, ugly, muddy, windy, physical games in which field position, trick plays, special teams, play-action passes, pass-catching tight ends, crowd noise and (most important) Jim Harbaugh matter more than anything else. My generation was weaned on playoff games like this one. It's going to be a classic. If only Madden and Summerall could be there.
So that's why I tried to talk myself into the Niners. But what was the dirty little secret of last weekend's Niners-Saints game? San Francisco's defense played like crap down the stretch. Brees finished with 462 yards and four touchdowns; the Niners gave up two big (and seemingly deadly) scores in the final five minutes. Why wouldn't the Giants be able to move the ball on Sunday? When will the Niners have another playoff game when they get FIVE turnovers at home? Shouldn't we worry that, other than Vernon Davis, the next best Niners receiver finished with 25 yards? How will they handle third-and-longs if the Giants double Davis? It's also hard to say nobody believes in the Niners when they're laying two and a half, right?
I'm grabbing the points. I'm grabbing the hot team. I'm grabbing the hot QB. And if Alex Smith comes back to haunt me, so be it.
The Pick: Giants 24, Niners 19.
Last Week: 2-2