Friday, January 18, 2008

Endgame: Conference Championship Previews

San Diego Chargers at New England Patriots

The AFC is not a place for nice guys. You like the goofy, commercial appeal of Peyton Manning? We’ve seen him eviscerate underperforming teammates on television before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did it again. Love those Jaguars, with David Garrard’s million dollar smile and the team’s hard working mentality? Jack Del Rio told his former starting quarterback he was the man for the job, fired him days later, and the team forgot all about him. So it’s fitting that, in a conference dedicated to reminding us that nice guys finish last, it is the meanest, angriest, least likable teams that have risen to the top.

To say that the Patriots are unlikable is cliché at this point. Tom Brady runs up the score, there’s no longer any doubt that Randy Moss cheated every former employer he had, and I’d say Rodney Harrison was the devil’s agent on earth if I didn’t have a lingering suspicion that he may in fact be the Antichrist himself. It goes deeper than just competitive dislike, though. Normally, if some terrible injury were to happen to a player, I’d imagine I’d feel sympathy for them. Not so with this Patriots team. If Tom Brady got the Theismann treatment on Sunday, most people who aren’t Pats fans would feel absolutely nothing. Worse, some of them would be cheering; so many of us have been wanting it to happen all season long. This team isn’t just ruining the sports season; it’s making each and every one of us worse people.

Which is why most of will be cheering for San Diego this weekend, a team that, against any other opponent, would easily draw the ire of unattached football fans. They’d deserve it, too. Shawne Merriman is still the same obnoxious, ends-justify-the-means prick he’s always been, and LT2 has finally started to be exposed as a diva in his own right. But the piece de resistance is clearly Philip Rivers, whose tirades over the last several weeks have been the stuff of legend. What kind of a douchebag taunts a crowd from the sidelines. What kind of an a-hole yells at his own fans? In the now t-shirt marketed words of Kissing Suzy Kolber, “Ya betta ask somebodddaaaayyyyyy.” What’s even stranger is that the more abrasive the team gets, the hotter they become, a fact that became very clear during last weekend’s stomping of the Colts (forget what the scoreboard said, that game shouldn’t have even been close). They alienate as they succeed, the opposite trajectory of the typical NFL franchise.

And that’s OK, and maybe even necessary for this weekend. The Patriots have torn through the AFC like movie monsters, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that you don’t kill Godzilla with kindness. Consider the majority of the teams that have come closer than anyone else to winning: The Colts (forget the nice guy image; they HATE the Pats more than any of us can imagine), the Giants (the team that set the bar for abrasive interactions through the media), and the Ravens (who were the Patriots in a time before winning justified being a bad example). The Chargers have more firepower than any of these teams, and have displayed a meaner streak as well. Don’t kid yourself into thinking Belichick is happy to see these guys; it’s hard to beat a team twice, and this team is meaner and, more importantly, better than the first go around. Expect the Juggernaut to pull out its fullest, most creative arsenal. Expect these teams to hit each other in the mouth hard. Best of all, expect a much better football game than anyone on TV believes. This isn’t David vs. Goliath; it’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, and we’re all rooting for whoever we consider the lesser of two evils while cities get destroyed.

New York Giants at Green Bay Packers

In contrast to their AFC colleagues, the NFC seems to stand for the Nice Fellas Conference. Tony Romo smiles all the time! Brett Favre plays games with the refs! Michael Strahan cracks funny jokes at press conferences! Hi-fives and hugs all around!!! Also in contrast to the AFC, it is the two best feel-good stories of the NFC that face off in the conference championship.

And make no mistake, the New York Giants are as satisfying a feel-good story as you’ll find in these playoffs. After enduring a season filled with doubts about their potential and derision toward their quarterback, everything changed for this team in Week 17, when, with no other motivator than their own pride as a team, they took a stand against the Patriots. Even though they lost that game, something changed on the field. The pass rush lived up to its immense potential. Brandon Jacobs ran like trying to bring him down with fewer than three men was a waste of time. Perhaps most importantly, Eli Manning stopped looking like he cared what the crowd thought (told you so…). Since then, they’ve looked as hot as any team, pummeling Tampa Bay and Dallas into submission. The defense that won’t stay out of the backfield and an offense that grinds and, in a surprising twist, has shown they can change pace and hustle downfield before you realize what’s happening.

But they’re messing with destiny now. Everything you knew about Brett Favre was wrong: He didn’t come back to break records, and he didn’t come back because he couldn’t shake his itch to play the game; Brett Favre came back to win a Super Bowl, and to do it on his terms. Playing fast and loose, with a receiving corps that is as ready to improvise as its quarterback, the Packers pass attack has looked as difficult to defend as anyone in the league. As if fighting to keep up, the defense has brutalized opponents, with only, ironically, the Giants boasting as impressive a front seven, and the Grizzle Gang of corners Woodson and Harris freeing up the safeties to play centerfield. Throw in the emergence of Ryan Grant as a smaller, but quicker Brandon Jacobs, and there’s not much this team can’t do well.

Sure, they may seem friendlier than their AFC counterparts, but neither one of these teams is playing for the “NFC Champion” hats the winner receives; they both know that they can win in the big show, and they both know that this is the game that gets them there. Still, the highlights of both of these teams operate in a manner distinct from the AFC competitors. The Pats and Chargers make their high powered offenses look like exercises in perfection, a ballet with precise steps to be followed. The Packers pass attack and the Giants front seven, on the other hand, make the game look fun, something that’s crafted on the fly. That makes this game unpredictable, unlike the obvious favorite-underdog relationship of the AFC. Look for this game to wind up being the most fun to watch, particularly because both of these teams have won over the football viewing public this year. Expect whoever comes out on top to show signs that they can be more than just a space filler across the field from the AFC Super Bowl representative.

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