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Drew Brees was in the middle of a recent photo shoot, having fun and joking around in between poses that shifted, deftly, from regal to steely, when, without warning, a fuse blew and the smallish room he was in went dark. Like, cave dark.
Panic ensued. There was a good bit of yelling. Assistants bumped into each other. Switches were flicked. Extension cords whipped around on the carpet like serpents until, finally, after an eternity of almost three whole minutes, the lights came back on.
And there was Brees, standing in the same, exact location, the same pose even. The Saints' preternaturally cool and unflappable quarterback hadn't moved an inch.
Not me. Crouched in the darkness, ball-point pen at the ready, I had already begun sizing up my competition if things devolved into a Mad Max/28 Days type of situation (let's just say I liked my chances). Later, I thought, this moment of bedlam was the perfect precursor to the NFL playoffs.
This time of year, we're all increasingly thrown into complete darkness, as all the normally helpful trends, rules and predictors of the buttoned-down NFL get cast aside in favor of (glorious) postseason pandemonium.
Wrong-side up. Upside-down. Inside-out. Everything in the NFL is completely messed up this time of year.
Brett Favre and the Cowboys got better at the end of the season? Wait. The Eagles win six straight and then, with a first-round bye on the line, lay down in Dallas? Bears quarterback Jay Cutler single-handedly destroys the Bears' season with a league-high 27 picks (many of them inexplicably thrown into triple coverage inside the red zone) and the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach are the ones who get fired? The NFL talks of competitive balance and integrity -- and then the Jets slither into the playoffs after beating backups?
Personally, I blame the Arizona Cardinals. They still can't run the ball or defend the run. They have zero offensive balance (a 62/38 pass-to-run ratio). They don't protect the ball (minus-five in the giveaway/takeaway category.) They have an old QB and a young coach. They're .500 at home. And yet, dangit, based on matchups, how can you not like them to sneak back into the Super Bowl?
(Lately, the only predictable moment has been a delusional Mark Cuban whining about the NFL playoffs -- specifically, how the Cowboys' first-round home game conflicts with his Mavericks' home NBA game in Dallas.)
This all started back in Week 16 when, for the first time in NFL history, Brees' 13-win Saints were beaten by the 12-loss Bucs. "What's gone on has maybe created as many questions as answers," Brees said.
Ya think? In fact, if this divinely contrarian span had a poster boy (po' boy for short) it would be Saints owner Tom Benson wildly celebrating a field goal that was actually, um, no good.
And it's only gonna get more messed up from here on in, folks. You can count on it. In fact, we should just go ahead and, once again, rename this column the Melf File.
Sure, Flem loves to tell you that to win a Super Bowl you need to run the ball. But my man Melf says 14 of the top 20 running backs in the NFL will be sitting out the playoffs. The Titans' Chris Johnson breaks the 2,000-yard barrier, and for the first time in NFL history the Panthers had two backs go over 1,100 yards. Yeah, they're all on a beach in Aruba right now.
Flem says, yeah, the Colts were crazy to not play their starters. Shame on them. Injuries shminjuries. Then Melf watches the Pats' postseason chances go down in flames after Wes Welker blows out his knee in Week 17.
Flem hitches up his trousers and says you can't win with rookie quarterbacks or rookie coaches. Melf watches as the Jets' Mark Sanchez becomes the third rookie QB to make the playoffs in the last two years and Jets coach Rex Ryan becomes the eighth first-year head coach in the last two seasons to make the postseason.
Flem says the destruction of the music industry and an end to the stranglehold record companies once had on creativity has ushered in a new, exciting era of music. Melf points out that the massive trifecta of sucktitude, John Mayer/Bon Jovi/Nickelback, are more popular than ever.
Flem says the one thing you can count on is home-field advantage in the playoffs. I mean, that's all we hear all season long, right? You battle for four months to earn the right to play at home in the playoffs. Yeah, well, that text you just got is from Melf, telling you home teams were 3-5 in the first two rounds last year.
Flem listens intently as Chad Ochocinco runs his mouth. Melf celebrates when the Bengals diva gets de-pantsed by the Jets' defense. Flem says: Bengals, AFC North title. Melf says, look at the big picture: two winning seasons since we were in college. Flem says: two words, Carson Palmer. Melf says, three words: No. Playoff. Wins.
Frustrated, Flem says Melf sounds too much like an acronym used for hot moms. Creepy, replies Melf.
Discipline. That's what Flem says counts in the NFL. Melf giggles and says the Ravens and the Packers are two of the most penalized teams in the NFL.
Flem says the white-hot Cowboys can't be stopped. Melf points out that Andy Reid has never lost a playoff opener and Wade Phillips has never won one.
Flem foolishly thinks the most deserving teams make the NFL playoffs. Melf wonders why the Texans aren't still playing, then.
Flem knows that run defense is key this time of year. Melf points out that four of the 12 teams still playing are, statistically, in the bottom half of the league in run defense.
Flem says mullets are totally uncool. Melf shows him a picture of Randy Johnson.
Flem mentions that momentum is key this time of year. Melf knows that the top seeds in each conference are a combined 1-5 in the past three weeks.
Flem believes to be a successful organization there must be a clear hierarchy in the decision-making process. Melf isn't sure, but he thinks Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen have both been given the same title with the Redskins.
Flem knows, for a fact, that wideouts are the stars of the postseason. Melf says this year it's gonna be tight ends.
Flem thinks nothing is harder than beating a team in the wild-card round that defeated you one week earlier in the regular-season finale. Melf, something of a stats guru, says that since 1990 this back-to-back rematch has happened nine times, and the original loser has won five times in the playoffs.
In a conciliatory tone, Flem says ... doh.
Then he points out that there really is nothing more annoying than people who repeatedly refer to themselves in the third person.
And, at long last, Melf is silent.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship." And his work will be featured in The Best American Sports Writing 2009 anthology. The Flem File appears every Wednesday during the NFL season with updates on Mondays and Fridays.
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