The guru-in-law
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

It used to be when the playoffs rolled around and I was looking for that all-important prognosticating edge, I'd go to my guru.

He's a mountain-top guy in Tibet -- robes, lotus-position, serenity shining in his eyes, the whole bit.

So after eight days of altitude training, a four-day hike on nothing but water and pure, selfless thoughts, and some deep meditation that really can't be measured in minutes, hours, or days, I'd turn my gaunt, puzzled face toward his gaunt, peaceful one and ask, "So, who do you like this weekend, O Wise One?"

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It was an intense ritual. It had the smell of heroism and the feel of the great spiritual quest about it. I was into it.

Problem was, the little old man wasn't any good. He had the Vikes four times in the Seventies. He was all over the Bills, except in that one game against Houston back in '92. Last year, I got to him just before the Super Bowl and he didn't want to talk; he just kept singing, "The Autumn Wind is a Raider." He was wearing a patch over his third eye and he'd swapped his staff for a sword. I figured he really knew something.

But, uh, not so much.

So this year, I'm finally going another way. I'm turning to a spiritual guide a little closer to home.

Save on airfare, eat and breathe regular, maybe win every once in a while ... what the hey.

My new guy, Dr. T, won't bend his knees on pain of death, and he ain't wise so much as wizened. But he's a no-nonsense shrink with a keen eye for fears, foibles and hidden factors, and he never met a bet he didn't like.

Plus, he's my father-in-law, so, you know, if he's way off base, I can give him what-for for the next quarter century's worth of holiday get-togethers.

I believe that's what's known as a "win-win."

"So, Dr. T, who do you like this weekend?" I say.

"What? I don't get the 'O Wise One' treatment?" he says.

"So, Dr. T, who do you like this weekend?"

"I don't know. Who you got? I like the other guys, that's who I like."

It's early, but it's already a sweet thing the doctor and I have going.

"All right, all right, fancy doctor man, tell me about the Panthers and Rams ... "

"What's there to tell? St. Louis is saddled with all that ambivalence. They like Marc but they still worry that they've hurt Kurt's feelings. They like Marshall but they like all that cool, bells-and-whistles, greatest-show-on-turf stuff even more. They dig the gold-and-blue unis but worry maybe they come off a bit soft and secretly wish they were wearing the stark white-and-blue of Dick Bass and Deacon Jones. They appreciate the fans of Missouri but long for the warmth and open air of Cali.

"Carolina, on the other hand, is all about Sam Mills. They've got his number under their jerseys and his cancer-riddled body in their hearts and minds. The Rams are no match for that kind of focus. Panthers. Big."

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I say, "A sucker for the heart-string story, eh? I'd have never guessed."

He says, "You know what I'm a sucker for? A win. Carolina is a win. Mark it down and let's move on."

"O.K., how about Tennessee and New England?"

"This is tougher," he says. "Two disciplined defenses, two smart, gritty quarterbacks, a shoulder-separated hero for the Titans and a scheming wizard with an extra week of prep wearing a headset for the Pats. Tough call. I'm tempted to say it comes down to a battle of wills between the spirit of Steve Grogan and the spirit of Dan Pastorini, but that's not it. I'm tempted to say you need look no further than the fact that the Titans are the heirs of Bum, White-Shoes, Ken Houston and the Tyler Rose, but then I remember that the modern-day Patriots are the descendents of Sam "Bam" Cunningham, Stanley Morgan, John Hannah, and Mike Haynes. So that's not it either.

"I'm tempted to argue New England is too diffuse a home to be a home-field advantage, but that didn't matter in 2002 and it likely won't matter in '04. Then I'm tempted to argue that Tennessee has never really brought their A-game because they turned their backs on the one true Nashville thing -- country music and country mojo -- but then I realize that they make up for that because Titans have all kinds of mythical powers, etc. So that can't be the key either.

"And then it hits me. You know why I can't get a read on this? Because I'm thinking like you think. I'm complicating things for no reason."

"Ouch," I say.

"So let's keep it simple, shall we? What's the temperature going to be in Foxboro Saturday night?"

"About 17 degrees."

"Yeah, give me the Pats."

"Science, I like that," I say. "Then what's your take on the Green Bay-Philadelphia game?"

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"I read where the mayor of Milwaukee proposed a bet with the mayor of Philly, offering to pay up in beer and brats or some such thing," says Dr. T. "Only it turns out the mayor of Philly doesn't drink or eat meat. Nice, right? Now a lot of people will tell you this kind of disregard for the opposition is the old pride that goeth before the old fall. Not me. I say pride goeth before the steamrollering. The Brett Favre legend grows. Beer and brats for all my friends!"

"Can I get in on that?"

"Don't you mean, 'Can I get in on that, O Wise One?'" he says.

"Touché, O Wise One. And now for the Sunday nightcap: Colts and Chiefs. What say you?"

Says the doctor: "There's a lot of hugging going on with the Chiefs. Dick Vermeil, he's a sensitive guy. He loves his players and he lets 'em know it; tells Trent just that every time the QB heads out onto the field. I like that. It's bold. It runs against the macho grain of the league. It says family isn't just a metaphor and football isn't the be-all-and-end-all in K.C. I admire the whole approach. It's hard to know the players and coaches from afar, but I imagine (and I'm not just saying this because these guys covered like quilts on a bed this year and made me a little coin in the process) the Chiefs are guys I'd like to hang out with, light up a cigar with, and shoot the s--t with. I really do.

"And you know, I might get that chance sooner rather than later, because sweet as they are, they don't really play so much defense, and Peyton's coming to town. And it would be one thing if he was just bringing his arm, and Marvin Harrison, and Brandon Stokley, and Edgerrin James. But he's also bringing one of those crunch-time monkeys on his back; and if last week's an indication, the monkey's gonna be hanging with me and Dick and the Chiefs down at the corner bar next weekend, watching the Colts and the Pats go at it."

"Sounds fun. Can I get in on that, O Wise One?"

"We'll see. We won't have to hug, will we?"

"Not if your picks are right this week."

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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