To all those romantics who keep attempting to resurrect baseball, and re-establish the sport to the "America's Pastime" perch from which it long ago plummeted, four words: Well, take that, seamheads. Yeah, we'll admit the baseball playoffs were incredibly compelling. They forced even yours truly, an unabashed Yankees fan, to peruse a few innings involving franchises bedecked in something other than pinstripes. It was a resuscitative effort, an admirable and captivating month-long stretch.
Peyton Manning, Colts QB
There was no lack of heroes this weekend but no one stood taller than Peyton Manning, who won his first playoff game a week ago, then his first postseason road contest Sunday. The crowd at Arrowhead Stadium was supposed to provide Kansas City with the "12th man," as it usually does, but instead it looked like the Chiefs defense had the resistance of zero players on the field. Manning is so white-hot right now and so prepared, mentally and physically, you're almost surprised when he actually throws an incompletion. He is having an unbelievable playoff run, a postseason performance for the ages, at least over the last two outings.
Comments elicited from a pair of AFC scouts:
"(Carolina offensive left tackle Todd) Steussie hasn't been all that good this season in the running game but, every time the Panthers needed tough yards against the Rams, it seems like they ran behind him. He really had a very good day against (defensive end) Grant Wistrom. And I love the Carolina right tackle, (Jordan) Gross, who kept Leonard Little in place. Gross is going to be in the Pro Bowl in a year or two. He's not a true power guy like you want on the strongside, but he's real smart and uses his hands well. I would guess he'll eventually play the left side when Steussie retires."
"It sure looks like (Eagles middle linebacker Mark) Simoneau is wearing down physically. He's not a very big guy to begin with, has never played this many snaps in a season, and just looks dead-tired. He didn't 'fill' very well against the Packers and he's going to have his hands full with (Panthers center) Jeff Mitchell next week."
"From what I hear, (Rams defensive coordinator) Lovie Smith didn't have great interviews in a few places. And his team's performance on Saturday won't help his chances of getting a head coach job. And while we're talking about it, (Mike) Martz might not want to answer the phone for a few days. I doubt St. Louis will fire him but stranger things have happened."
"It looks like New England can take advantage of the Indianapolis safeties in the passing game. But to do that, (tight end Daniel) Graham has to catch the ball. I thought he was getting better as a receiver but, from what I saw (Saturday) night, he's got hands like feet."
"Even though the Packers lost, they got a steal when they signed (defensive tackle) Grady Jackson to a two-year contract extension. They didn't pay much to keep him, sort of protected themselves with weight clauses, and kept a guy capable of stuffing things up inside when he is really motivated, which he was on Sunday night."
"I told you last week the Chiefs missed (injured middle linebacker Mike) Maslowski. No one even knows who the guy is, but he is tough against the run, and the Chiefs haven't been the same without him in the lineup."
(Green Bay backup tailback) Najeh Davenport really runs hard. I was impressed by the guy. He's a terrific complement to (Ahman) Green."
"He didn't have a great game on Saturday but, I'll tell you what, if I was building a front four from scratch, I would seriously consider (New England end) Richard Seymour. I think, though, I'd play him at tackle in the 4-3, because he's really disruptive there."
Heard in the grapevine
Not only did the Chicago Bears secretly interview University of California coach Jeff Tedford last week, and offer him the job after LSU's Nick Saban rebuffed them Saturday night, but the Atlanta Falcons also quietly met with him on the West Coast. For obvious reasons, like recruiting, Tedford didn't want word to leak of his NFL interviews. He was to have been at Halas Hall on Sunday night, according to the Bears plans, but elected to remain in his current job. ... New Falcons coach Jim Mora had hoped to hire former Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg, probably to tutor his quarterbacks. But he likely can forget it, since Mornhinweg is set to sign an extension that will keep him with the Eagles as senior assistant for Andy Reid. ... The Falcons quietly interviewed former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green before he took the Arizona Cardinals job. ... In addition to Dallas quarterbacks coach Sean Payton, the Oakland Raiders will interview Cowboys offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, probably later this week. ... The Eagles aren't sure that corner Troy Vincent, who missed Sunday's game, will be ready for the NFC title matchup. And the Panthers are very concerned about the quadriceps injury suffered by star tailback Stephen Davis early in Saturday's victory over the Rams. ... New England took care of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, rewarding him with a new three-year extension, since his contract was about to expire. Crennel will make about $1 million annually and that will tide him over nicely, if he doesn't land any of the head coach spots for which he has interviewed. His counterpart, Pats offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, seems to have moved into the top spot on the Buffalo wish list. That means the Bills may not have a new head coach until after the Super Bowl. ... Tennessee tailback Eddie George is one of several Titans veterans who will have to take a pretty big pay cut to stay with the club for the 2004 season. ... There are at least three teams willing to deal for Cincinnati tailback Corey Dillon, but none would surrender more than a middle-round draft pick. ... Bengals coach Marvin Lewis will decided on his starting quarterback, either Jon Kitna or Carson Palmer, before the team's first mini-camp. ... One reason Oakland owner Al Davis will have a problem filling his head coach spot: Davis wants the successor to Bill Callahan to retain the eight assistants still under contract. ... Even though Marty Schottenheimer is coming back to San Diego next year, most of his assistants have been told that they are free to seek other jobs if they so desire.
But just when baseball fans nationwide were starting to crow a bit, along came the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. And after Sunday, well, NFL executives and their television partners had to be thrilled. "I've never seen anything like it," said Philadelphia cornerback Troy Vincent, a 12-year veteran. "Every game was so intense. I mean, usually you have one or two 'dog' games, right? But not this year."
Indeed, the 2003 postseason is setting up as a Super Bowl derby of a different pedigree. The four games this weekend were decided by a total of 19 points, by far the closest divisional round since the NFL adopted the current 12-team format in 1990. Want to know how that stacks up to past years? There were 19 individual divisional round games 1990-2002 decided by more than 19 points. The 4.8-point average victory margin for this weekend's matchups was 70 percent lower than the average cumulative advantage for the divisional round, 16.1 points, since 1990. For the first time ever in the divisional round, every game was decided by seven points or fewer, and never before had there been a pair of overtime contests. This marked only the second divisional round, the other being in 1995, in which two road teams advanced.
Even including the wild card round, in which there were two lopsided outcomes, these still shape up as the most competitive first two rounds since the 12-team field was implemented. Six of the eight games so far have been decided by seven points or less. The average differential in the first two rounds is 9.75 points, and that includes Indianapolis' romp over Denver and the Carolina laugher against Dallas, both in the wild card bracket. Since '90, the average winning margin through two rounds has been 14.1 points.
Oh, yeah, even the overtime games in the NFL playoffs are usually concluded in 3½ hours. That usually amounts to about five innings in baseball. Every poll conducted in recent years has indicated that the NFL is this nation's sport of preference. The vise grip on the conscience of sports fan across the country doubtless tightened even more over the weekend.
He's the man
Anyone left out there who still wants to debate the shortcomings of Peyton Manning in so-called "big" games? No, we didn't think so, at least not based on what the Indianapolis Colts star has done in the team's two playoff victories. Manning has completed 44 of 56 passes for 681 yards, with eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He is having a playoff series for the ages but, to really silence the few remaining naysayers, will have to win at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro next weekend. If he and his Colts teammates can defeat the Patriots and the Bill Belichick-designed defense, maybe all of the critics will finally lose their tongues for good.
Carolina on the offensive
Kudos to Dan Henning, the venerable Carolina offensive coordinator, for the manner in which he has given emerging quarterback Jake Delhomme more leash in the final month of the season and now the playoffs. Sometimes you can see a player's confidence growing, and that has been the case with Delhomme, in his first year as a starter. He has begun to make plays, especially on third down, and authored some huge throws at key junctures of the Panthers' two playoff victories.
The Carolina offense at the outset of the season was about as rudimentary as it could get: Hand the ball to Stephen Davis, don't turn the ball over, play it safe on third-and-long. That is hardly the case now and, with the Panthers displaying so much grit as a group, they will be no easy opponent for Philly in next Sunday's conference championship game.
We've been touting wide receiver Steve Smith, the club's most valuable player over the second half of the year, for weeks. He will be the most dangerous wide receiver on the field next Sunday and, even when the opposition defense knows that Delhomme has tunnel vision for Smith, he still seems to find a way to shake open. Delhomme and Smith are earning themselves a lot of money with their recent performances. Smith will be a restricted free agent and general manager Marty Hurney will have to ante up a pricey contract to keep him for the long-term. Delhomme will go into the final season of his two-year deal in 2004 and he, too, needs an extension.
And don't forget head coach John Fox. He has one season, then an option year, left on the three-year deal he signed in 2002. Plus he ranks among the lowest-paid head coaches in the NFL. Hurney will make sure, sometime soon, that changes.
Another assistant coach who flies under the radar but should be lauded for the work he has done in transforming chicken feathers into chicken salad: New England assistant head coach and offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia. One of the league's good guys, he never rates mention when the subject turns to solid offensive line mentors. But take a look at the quintet the Pats are starting right now and you wonder how Scarnecchia has done it.
We'll say it for the millionth time: We like Mike Martz. We like the aggressive, foot-to-the-throttle he usually takes on offense, the design that creates separation for his wide receivers, the deaf ear he turns to the second-guessers. But since we don't get invited to Mike's charity golf tournament every spring, and thus don't have to worry about being stricken from the guest list, we're not afraid to be critical of him when called for.
And, in the wake of his play-calling at the end of regulation on Saturday, a little criticism clearly is called for. All the rationalizations in the world won't make right Martz's decision to sit on the ball and kick a game-tying field goal. What it should say to Marc Bulger, the young quarterback, is that the coaches didn't have confidence he would avoid a killer turnover in the end zone.
For years, Martz has been ripped for his game management, and he seemed to get better this year. But he reverted again on Saturday and paid the price. Then again, Martz wasn't the only coach whose sideline skills were dubious. Fact is, game and clock management represent two of the most glaring shortcomings of NFL head coaches. It's as if some guys ought to hire an assistant to be in charge of those areas.
McNabb steps up
Long before Sunday evening, Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb had earned his bones, but the comeback victory over Green Bay was the kind of game that he still needed to remind his detractors of his wondrous all-around skills. McNabb hit some huge passes, like the fourth-and-26 laser to wide receiver Freddie Mitchell with just 1:12 left in the game and the Eagles' season on serious life-support.
But it was the plays that McNabb made with his feet as well, rushing for a league postseason record 107 yards, that truly made the victory something special. McNabb seems to run more in the playoffs than in the regular season, and his scrambles against the Packers were very timely, indeed. Of his 11 carries, seven produced first downs, four were for double-digit gains, two netted more than 20 yards, and he also had a 22-yard scamper nullified by a holding penalty. Because he will never be among the NFL's most accurate passers and isn't often bailed out by one of the league's more ordinary receiving corps, both of which were evidenced on Sunday, McNabb needs to bring the full package to a game to be really effective. And that means getting out of the pocket on occasion.
Too often, McNabb, probably subconsciously, tries to answer his critics by being a pocket passer. Hey, Donovan, you are what you are and shouldn't permit yourself to be pigeonholed. There is always one guy the defense can't account for, the scrambling quarterback, and when passers make plays with the run, it drives coordinators crazy. After a slow start, McNabb brought the "A" game Sunday and, for the Eagles, it was a good thing he did. Despite a postgame observation from some chucklehead local media type who suggested the Eagles offensive line played well -- it was all coach Andy Reid could do to stifle a laugh -- Philly allowed eight sacks as the Packers blitzed from a variety of angles. Of course, predictably, on the big fourth-and-26 play, Green Bay defensive coordinator Ed Dontell played a too-safe zone, dropping off seven defenders, and got torched.
Eagles backs will be tested
The Carolina defensive front four hasn't rushed the quarterback nearly as well this year as it did in 2002. But the unit is playing the run with great determination and the Eagles backs are going to have to be more productive in the NFC championship game. Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter carried just 14 times between them on Sunday, just three more attempts than Donovan McNabb registered, and gained 57 yards. OK, so that's a four-yard average, we know. But neither back got into a rhythm and one of two needs to step up for the Eagles next week.
Had the Packers won on Sunday evening, our plan was to write the lead story on the dominance of the Green Bay offensive line, and they still merit a nod even in defeat. The Packers absolutely beat up the Philadelphia front seven, muscling them off the ball most of the night, opening up huge creases that produced 210 rushing yards, including 156 of those by tailback Ahman Green.
Makes you wonder if coach Mike Sherman will spend some time this week lamenting his decision to punt from the Philadelphia 41-yard line on a fourth-and-one with 2:30 remaining. If the Packers get a first down there, and really the Eagles were offering little resistance at that point, the game essentially would have been over. Sherman went for a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line late in the first half and Green was stuffed for no gain.
Truth is, while you can debate Sherman's decision, the play-call was a good one. The reason Green didn't score was because he tripped over right tackle Mark Tauscher, who had been knocked into the backfield, it appeared by Philadelphia defensive tackle Corey Simon.
Changes in Kansas City?
Maybe it's a good thing the Kansas City Chiefs didn't rally to win on Sunday, since coach Dick Vermeil would have needed to hire a new defensive coordinator before the AFC championship tilt. There have been times in the past when Chiefs defensive boss Greg Robinson was in trouble, and escaped with his paycheck intact, but there likely will be no Houdini act this time around.
Sunday's defensive effort was inept and, with so many terrific defensive coordinators currently unemployed, Vermeil can't help but make a change, right? Word is that, even before Sunday, the Chiefs were considering hiring former Buffalo head coach Gregg Williams as their coordinator for 2004. Washington got to Williams first, with a four-year contract worth $4.6 million, but Vermeil will be able to find a top-shelf guy out there to run his defense. There is a glut of excellent schemers and tacticians right now.
Tale of two Hunters
All guys named Hunter Smith are not created equal and, as proof positive, we offer up the Indianapolis Colts. The team's punter is named Hunter Smith. The Colts trainer has the same name. Between his signing bonus and his base salary, Hunter Smith the punter earned $1.03 million for 2003. Hunter Smith the trainer could only approximate that kind of pay day if he charged by the inch for taping players' ankles every day.
Who's been the busier Hunter Smith in the playoffs? That defines the term "no-brainer." Hunter Smith the punter has yet to get onto the field as, thanks to their incredible offensive production, the Colts haven't kicked the ball away in two straight games. Hunter Smith the trainer hasn't been able to take it that easy. By the way, Indianapolis has had 17 offensive series in their two postseason victories and have scored on 13 of the possessions. They lost the ball once on a fumble, once the half ran out on them, and twice they turned it over on downs.
Stat to note
This year marked the third time since 1990 that the Kansas City Chiefs won 13 games in the regular season and then lost their opening playoff contest.