Angels in the endzone
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Just a day after he lost his father and best friend, Irv, you saw Brett Favre drop 399 and a big ol' L on the Monday Night Raiders. Six short days later, you saw Brett's Pack roll over the Broncos and then sneak into the playoffs on the strength of an Arizona ambush.

Which is to say, whatever else you saw, you also saw angels in the end zone.

Brett Favre
Brett Favre clearly had some angels on his side the past couple of weeks.
Like Clarence Oddbody tailing George Bailey, there's little doubt that there was some sweet, benevolent spectre riding shotgun on Favre's shotgun arm last week, making sure things turned out magically right and turning the heart of every red-blooded American football fan (outside of Minnesota, that is) to mush.

It was special, but it wasn't uncommon. You often see the work of the winged ones come NFL playoff time. Who do you think kept the immaculate reception afloat in Pittsburgh that cold, grey day back in '72? That's right: a Steely angel. And who do you think knocked the ball from Ernie Byner's hands back in '87? Uh-huh. It was none other than the angel assigned to shuttle the young Mr. Elway from "promising" to the promised land.

Match-ups, schemes and tendencies, home-and-road splits, and winter-weather records are all key prep-week indicators, sure. But if you want the true lowdown on this weekend's wild card games, you'd best look up, you know what I'm saying?

Here's how the halo-to-halo battles look from where I'm sitting:

Tennessee at Baltimore

The Titans will tell you they don't need no stinkin' angels; they've got Titans, thank you very much. We're talking the elder gods. We're talking Gaea, the mother of all gods. And we're talking Prometheus, the cat who brought fire to mortals and foretold the future like he'd read all about it in the morning paper. With ancient aces like these in the hole, Jeff Fisher's guys come in breezy and bold this Saturday, thinking they can't be beat.

Jamal Lewis
Jamal Lewis could run all over the Tennessee Titans on Saturday.
It's true; they are formidable. But a word of caution is in order, to both the team and its fans: You invoke the old-school Titans and you run the risk of static coming across the trans-historical lines. You run the risk that a call on the Titans gets heard as a call on "Clash of the Titans," which means you're going into battle with Harry Hamlin's poutish lips and Ken-doll hair, which means, you know, somebody's going to smite your sorry ass but good.

The Ravens, meanwhile, are counting on their angel, Barry Levinson, a man who turns all things Baltimore into poetic, poignant stories of ordinary folks leading quiet, dignified lives and dreaming big, beautiful dreams. Saturday isn't so much a game to them as a pitch meeting, a moment when the story of their win takes its place within a sweeping saga of a great American city and a brave American people. They know they've got a journeyman at quarterback and they know points have been scarce; but they also know they've got Jamal taking the handoffs, Ray patrolling the midway, and Barry doing the talking, and they're pretty sure that combination will be enough to send a howl-at-the-moon dog like "Clash of the Titans" scurrying and whimpering off into the night.

I agree: Ravens win.

Dallas at Carolina

I'm thinking about Dallas, and I'm thinking about Parcells and his hard-nosed, no-excuses approach and the outhouse-to-the-penthouse miracle it produced this season, and I'm picturing a very serious, very dangerous angel riding into town with the Cowboys on Saturday. I'm picturing Jimmy Conway with an ice pick, or maybe the lone rider of the apocalypse with a stogie in his mouth and a carseat swinging low from his Harley.

But then, the other day, I'm watching an NFL Films look back at Super Bowl XIII, which the Cowboys lost to Pittsburgh, and I'm listening to the old-time Cowboys, stalwarts like Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris, talking about how their team's been wronged, slighted by history, because of that one loss, about how they should have more guys in the Hall of Fame than they do, about how maybe they, and not the Steelers, are the real team of the '70s, and about how the pass-interference call on Bennie Barnes was a travesty. And I'm listening to this and I'm thinking, for god's sake, let it go. And all of a sudden I realize the Cowboy angel puts on a good show, but he ain't bad, he's just sad.

James Taylor
The sweet sound of James Taylor will carry Carolina to victory over the Cowboys.
Inside, beneath the Bill mask, he's a sniveling, whiny character with matted-down hair and a four-day stench. He's a Trekkie, he plays Dungeons and Dragons, he has conspiracy-theory flow charts on his bedroom wall, Pink Floyd 8-tracks on his stereo, and a mommy in the kitchen making him a liverwurst sandwich even as we speak.

Carolina counters (like they need to counter ... ) with angel-voiced angel James Taylor, who'll be humming softly in the ears of every player on every play.

In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina

Can't you see the sunshine

Can't you just feel the moonshine

Ain't it just like a friend of mine

It hit me from behind

Yes I'm gone to Carolina in my mind

This sounds soft to your ears and mine, perhaps; but to the players, it is the sound of a deep and abiding calm within which they are not athletes or men but pure, perfect impulses to run, jump, throw, and tackle.

It is the sound of Panther ferocity. It is the death knell of the Cowboys. It's the soundtrack to Carolina in a walk.

Seattle at Green Bay

The Hawks are 2-6 on the road, including a 35-13 drubbing at the hands and at the home of the Packers. So, naturally, their angel is St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers seeking safe passage across the treacherous road-trip stream.

Mike Holmgren
Mike Holmgren's attempts to channel St. Christopher will prove no match for Brett Favre.
In a tradition that began last week in San Francisco, each Seattle player wears a St. Chris medallion under his traveling suit and uniform, and Coach Holmgren brings a life-size cardboard cut-out of the Saint on the plane, stands him up in front of the bulkhead, and has the team rise and recite aloud the following pledge and prayer: "Whoever shall behold the image of St. Christopher shall not faint or fall on that day."

It's a charming ritual, full-up with the fellowship of humiliation and hope, tinged with equal measures desperation and devotion.

Nine games out of 10, Chris gets you the win.

But this is the 10th game, the one where the other guys have the fallen father and destiny angels sitting one to a shoulder, driving the quarterback and his team the way Heston drove a chariot.

And so, it will be the Packers, the Packers, the Packers. And I say again, the Packers.

Denver at Indianapolis

Okay, look, I'm not going to complicate this one. Sometimes football is about football, and football angels are football angels, you get me?

So it goes like this:

Once upon a time, the Broncos had Craig Morton. Craig was cool because he was so uncool. He was old and slow. He threw pretty much nothing but dying quails and wounded ducks. He didn't move much; and sometimes, when he stood on the sideline with his helmet off, you couldn't tell the difference between him and the Broncos older-than-the-hills head coach, Red Miller.

Craig threw to guys like Rick Upchurch, Haven Moses, and Riley Odoms, and he hit Rob Lytle coming out of the backfield. He wore a big, bright orange that wasn't afraid to be orange, that was proud to be orange, that was at the center of a whole Rockie Mountain-area Orange Crush craze.

The modern-day Broncos have backed away from the orange, which if you ask me is kind of cowardly, but Craig doesn't care. He still looks out for them.

Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning hopes to wave goodbye to the Broncos after knocking them out of the playoffs on Sunday.
Once upon about the same time, the Colts had Bert Jones. Bert was cowboy cool. He scrambled around in the dirt of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium like he was barrel riding. He didn't throw a pretty ball, either, but it had a bucket load of umph on it, and he threw it without fear or pity. He played with a grin that was part grimace and part I'm-comin-ta-git-ya. He was fun, and he threw to guys like Raymond Chester, Glenn Doughty, and Lydell Mitchell coming out of the backfield. He wore the helmet and colors of Johnny Unitas -- enough said.

The modern-day Colts are in Indy, playing on turf, but Bert doesn't care. He still looks out for them.

So who gets the edge?

Tough call.

The angels are a push.

I'd say, go for the team with the better QB in the here and now. Like I said, sometimes football is about football.

Go for the Colts.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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