By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Let's set the scene ...

It's Saturday night. Thanks to my stunning prediction of a Panthers' upset in the early game, I'm still undefeated against the spread in January. My impossible 11-0 dream isn't just alive, it's threatening to overshadow the playoffs itself. I mean, seriously ... eleven and zero? Are you kidding me?

Tom Brady
The last 13 opponents found out the hard way -- never underestimate Tom Brady.

But my beloved Pats need to come through. Driving for the lead -- and the cover -- Brady drops back on third down, spots Graham downfield and heaves a frozen rope to the Titans' 10. Graham leaps up like a gazelle. He's 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, runs like a young Kellen Winslow. There isn't a defender within six yards of him. On paper, it looks perfect ... well, except for the fact that Graham dipped his entire body in cement before the game. He's already fumbled once and dropped another tonight. He doesn't just have the yips, he has the robo-yips. And any diehard Pats fan knows what's coming next.

Clank!

The football bounces off Graham's chest. He might as well be wearing a suit of armor. Just to make it interesting, he briefly keeps the deflection alive with his fingertips, then suffers a complete full-body spasm, almost like he's being electrocuted. The football hangs in the air for one last split-second, then drops harmlessly to the turf. And the impossible dream goes with it.

I don't blame Graham. Okay, maybe a little. But some things just aren't meant to be. Despite picking all four winners, I finished 2-2 against the spread, thanks to a goofy Round Two where two road teams won outright (hasn't happened since '95); two favorites won but didn't cover (never happens); and all four underdogs covered (first time ever, and possibly a sign of the apocalypse). Do you realize that we were one fourth-and-26 deflection away from Carolina playing at home in Round One, on the road in Round Two, and back at home for the NFC Championship Game?

Crazy weekend. Just nuts. I'm still speechless. Maybe I should have seen it coming -- last Friday was one of the strangest days of my life.

For one thing, I woke up at 4:30 that morning to catch a plane. Unless your house is on fire, or unless you have to bury a body, there isn't any reason you should ever get up that early. I feel very strongly about this. Second, I spent the entire day in Vegas -- that's right, Vegas -- and never even stepped into a casino. (We were there for Jimmy's show, taping a piece at the Consumer Electronics convention.) Third, we stopped by the Adult Entertainment Expo -- a lifelong dream of mine -- and spent a whopping total of 45 minutes there before we had to leave. And fourth, we flew back to L.A. that same night.

So let's recap: A scant 13 hours in Vegas. No gambling. No casinos. And not nearly enough porn. Just throw me in Saddam's spider hole next time.

On the bright side, I met Playboy star Devinn Lane, who helped with our piece. What do you say to a porn star? Well, here's what you say: "It's nice to meet you -- I enjoy your work." And then they give you a knowing smile, and you feel really awkward and uncomfortable, and you want to say, "No, no, I don't mean it THAT way," but you don't want to hurt their feelings, either. So you nod like an idiot, then wait for them to look away so you can stare at their chest. And even if they catch you ... I mean, what can they say? They're a porn star.

See, that's why I'm here -- to tell you these things.

Devinn Lane
Devinn's bio calls her one of the "new millennium's most popular & critically acclaimed adult performers."

One more thing: They set up the porn convention so the biggest companies -- Vivid, Hustler, Wicked, etc. -- have their booths up front. You can't miss them as you're walking in. Head towards the back of the building and the booths become less and less, um, successful ... and then it gets a little depressing ... and suddenly you're like Nic Cage in "8 MM." You see some things you just can't un-see. House rules prevent me from elaborating, and maybe that's a good thing.

But here's where it gets REALLY strange. After you make it past these lurid, disgusting booths -- it's really the seventh stage of hell, you have to believe me -- there's a giant food court in the very back of the convention hall. A food court!!!! Man, I'm tired of sifting through these foot-fetish tapes ... let's go grab a hot dog! Is anyone else blown away by this? Imagine waiting in line for a slice of pizza behind Ron Jeremy? Just thinking about it makes me want to go on a Dick Gregory-style hunger strike.

Anyway, that was my trip to Vegas: Not exactly the best omen for a weekend of football gambling. Maybe that's the real reason the Impossible Dream came to an end.


Before we delve into Championship Weekend, here are 10 things I think I think about Round Two, presented Peter King-style (in honor of another entertaining season of King's Monday morning column):

1. I think I feel terrible for everyone who endured that Pats-Titans game in person. Two degrees? Minus-25 wind chill? Turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for the Titans, who were basically playing on a neutral field -- the Pats fans were too frozen to make noise; and even if they were clapping, you couldn't hear them because they were wearing gloves. People were just trying to survive. From the e-mails I received, the fans apparently bonded from the experience ... and not even in a healthy way. They sounded more like the Uruguayan rugby team from "Alive."

Here's the e-mail my buddy J-Bug sent me on Monday morning:

"Wild Turkey was going down like Bud Light. There was no other way. I wore my leather pants and they were a conversation piece for their functionality, not fashion. The crowd was excited and subdued at the same time, if that is at all possible. My friend Bob was drinking Corona; and the beer was freezing inside the neck of the bottle so that by the time you had two sips left, it could barely make it through the ice formation that began at neck and finished at the lip. For smokers, the list of dangers grew by one, because you had to take your mittens off to grip your butt, anything over three minutes exposed ran the risk of frostbite; and yes, I am serious. You don't even want to know about the shrinkage factor in the port-o-john -- I think it actually inverted into my body.

"Toward the end, I became delusional and started rambling on about how there are billions of people in the world and only 70K of them were at the game, and how we were superior beings because of this. Spit was flying out of my mouth and freezing in mid air, so it pelted, rather than dribbled, all over my friends -- it was like phlegm balls of sleet. When I mentioned that I felt like Robert the Bruce at the end of 'Braveheart', that's when my friend Niko took my car keys and assumed responsibility for the evening."

For good measure, Bug's friend Manny adds, "I couldn't even think because the thought bubbles coming from my head turned to ice, plus I couldn't understand the voices in my head because their teeth were chattering."

Sounds like a delightful time. My hero of the afternoon was Titans' coach Jeff Fisher, who broke Joe Torre's record for "Grossest booger-related incident during a sporting event" in the fourth quarter, when he unveiled that frozen ice-booger under his nose. Did you see that thing? Couldn't one of his assistants have said, "Hey, Jeff, you're on national TV and you have a 15-pound ice booger on your mustache?" Would that have killed them? I would have fired everybody after seeing the game tape. But that's just me.

2. I think it's been between 75 and 80 degrees -- and sunny -- every day for the past 10 in California. On the same day that the Pats played in sub-zero weather, I played hoops outside for three hours. Even got a little sunburned. Just in case you were wondering.

3. I think this was my favorite story of the weekend: Last Saturday night, my stepmom drove to Beverly (about 40 minutes from home) to have dinner with a friend. Needless to say, my Dad was elated. The Pats game started at 8:15. Her dinner started at eight. According to his math, there was no way she could make it home in time for the end of the game.

Patriots fan
Pats fans all over New England were overjoyed to hear the weather report from Los Angeles.

Well, I begged to differ. After all, this is my stepmother. Remember, she has that electronic honing device which I described two weeks ago, the one that implores her to immediately return home so she can enter the house during crunch-time of any big game. So for the next few minutes, Dad and I analyzed the situation like Neyer and James discussing Nomar's OPS. Dinner starts at eight ... but it's with someone she hasn't seen in a few months. And she's a notoriously slow eater, and an even slower driver. And it's going to be freezing cold. There may even be some ice on the road ... We broke everything down.

"No way she makes it home in time," my Dad said definitively. "The game should end around 11:30. She won't be home before midnight."

"You're crazy," I countered. "It's the playoffs. She saves her best for the playoffs. Don't count her out -- this is why she's a Hall of Famer. It's situations just like this."

Here's what happened: The Titans have the ball, fourth-down-and-12 at midfield. We just hit the two-minute warning. McNair and the coaches are standing on the sidelines, discussing potential plays to keep the game alive. The frozen Pats fans are standing and trying to muster the energy for one last barrage of noise. And as all of this is happening, Dad notices something from the driveway ...

It's a set of headlights ...

And a jeep ...

And my stepmother pulling into the garage ...

(And no, I'm not making any of this up.)

4. I think my "Beware of the two-team, same-day playoff teaser that looks too easy" theory has moved into the Gambling Pantheon. Do you know how many people teased the Rams and Pats last Saturday and got killed? Hey, I tried to warn you.

While we're here, I'd like to modify Rule No. 3 from my Playoff Gambling Rules -- "Before you select a team, make sure Marty Schottenheimer or Jim Mora isn't coaching them." Let's formally add the Mikes (Martz and Sherman) to the list. And just for the hell of it, let's add Jim Mora Jr. as well. Genetics.

(And speaking of coaching ... )

5. I think the following things about last week's controversial decisions:

A.) The Chiefs should have tried an onside kick. And not just at the four-minute mark -- I would have tried one every time in the second half. What's the worst thing that would have happened?

B.) Collinsworth said it best: The Packers were one yard from winning that game. You have to go for it. There's no Plan B. And considering you were running for seven yards a pop, and the Eagles d-line was collapsing before our eyes ... I mean, it's not even a debate. And you wonder why I wagered against Sherman. What a debacle. I can't even imagine being a Packers fan during that game.

C.) Most underrated dumb decision: The Panthers up by 11 in the fourth, taking that hideous sack on third down that knocked them out of field goal range. Terrible call. You run the ball, take the three points, and the Rams need two touchdowns and (probably) an onside kick to beat you.

Jessica Simpson
In other news, Nick Lachey signs on as a consultant to the show "I'm With Her".

D.) Nothing that happened all weekend could top Alton choosing Coral over Theo for the final Real World/Road Rules gauntlet. Even Gregg Williams wouldn't have done that.

E.) What about that crazy moment in OT, when the Panthers took the delay of game that nullified the winning kick, then they were going to kick the 45-yarder, anyway -- huge mistake -- but the Rams bailed them out by calling a timeout, giving them enough time to reconsider? That was like watching a chess match between Jessica Simpson and Fred Durst. I like John Fox ... but jeez. Not his finest game.

F.) I think there's a new face in the Pantheon of Faces: The Mike Martz "Let's Run Out the Clock and Take Our Chances in Overtime" Face. It was almost like he knew -- even as it was happening -- that he was about to go down in flames. He looked like someone walking aimlessly around a parking lot, looking for their car, then coming to the gradual realization that it was stolen ... only with the added bonus that 60,000 people were booing him. Again, I tried to warn you.

And yes, he's been hammered enough about it. But something was lost in the shuffle -- we might as well call it "Martzitis" because he's the most famous case. Certain coaches have a pathological need to win on their terms -- they call ridiculous naked bootlegs and wide receiver screens in big moments, instead of just keeping things simple and putting their best players in position to make plays. Martz does this more than anyone. How many times did we see things like "Marc Bulger rolling out on a naked bootleg on third down, then getting creamed" in big situations?

Take the Rams-Pats Super Bowl. From everything Belichick said in the weeks and months following that game, he planned his defensive strategy based on Martz's ego: Even though Faulk was Martz's meal ticket, Belichick banked on Martz overthinking things, dipping into his bag of crazy plays and trying to do too much to win the game. So Belichick dropped extra people in coverage, used various blitzes and dared the Rams to run the ball. He knew Martz wouldn't bite. It was too easy -- Martz couldn't win that way. And it wasn't until the Rams fell behind that they simplified things and made a late charge.

Well, the same thing happened against the Panthers. They spent three quarters running crazy plays and screwing around, and it wasn't until the fourth quarter -- down by 11, eight minutes to play -- that they started moving the ball with Faulk (mostly screens and straightforward runs, which set up the longer passes downfield). Needless to say, they ended up tying the game. And when they needed that two-point conversion, suddenly they weren't running naked bootlegs with Bulger anymore.

Here's my point: Good coaches don't care how they win. They don't care about scripting the first 20 plays or incorporating those four trick plays they whispered to Simms and Gumbel on Friday. Guys like Fisher, Reid, Belichick and Gruden keep sticking around in January because they don't mess around.

Which brings me to my second point: Strange things happened in that Pats game last week. With his name being tossed around for about 15 different head coaching jobs, Pats offensive coordinator Charlie Weis contracted a healthy dose of Martzitis -- suddenly, the Pats were running elaborate receiver screens, sending Larry Centers (?!?!?!?!?!?) down the sidelines to catch deep balls, even running a tight-end screen for Graham and his cement fingers. He almost blew the game. Not to sound like Joe Theismann; but if you're a Pats fan and you're not worried about Weis overthinking things again this Sunday ... well, you're lying.

6. I think I need to mention something about coffee here -- in honor of Mr. King -- so let's go with this one: Did you know that the closest Dunkin Donuts to Los Angeles is in Sacramento? Or as our Governor says, Sockdrahmentoe? I wish I were kidding. When I went home for the holidays, I practically started crying upon my return to D & D -- the familiar stench of coffee, unemployed locals taking up tables, angry foreigners behind the counter, insanely-hot coffee scalding my gums. It was just like old times.

Dunkin Donuts
Life is a little less complicated when a coffee cake muffin is involved.

(That reminds me: When you order a large coffee at Starbucks here in sunny California, and the smarmy wanna-be actor behind the counter corrects you and says "You mean venti?" -- well, is it legal to lean over the counter and punch him in the face? Can I get a ruling on this? Sooner rather than later?)

7. I think Joe Buck is a superb announcer -- one of the best around -- but he needs to get a little more excited on fourth-and-26 next time.

8. I think the Rams fans should be ashamed of themselves. Booing for four straight quarters, leaving with nine minutes to play ... that was quite a display. And what possible good can come out of booing your team as soon as something -- anything -- goes wrong? I never understood the logic here.

9. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

A.) Ben Stiller agreed to this "Curb Your Enthusiasm" run because he wanted to get his wife some work. Nobody can convince me differently.

B.) Is anyone else waiting for Michael Jackson to enter a plea of "Mamasaymamasahmamacuhsah."?

C.) Just an unbelievable reality-TV month: "Real World: San Diego"; "The Bachelorette"; "The Surreal Life"; "The Apprentice"; the climax of "Real World/Road Rules"; and "Newlyweds" and the "Survivor All-Stars" on deck. Sweet Jesus. This is a whole other column.

D.) Watching Isiah slowly ruin the Knicks -- in the same week that Clemens boned over all the Yankee fans -- has been one of the greatest ...

(Actually, I don't want to jinx anything. I'll shut up.)

10. I think I hate how they switched gears with the Punt Pass and Kick competition last week. Remember the old days, when each winner wore the jersey from his or her hometown team, always high comedy when the hometown fans booed one of the kids because of the jersey, and the kid always looked like he might start crying, and then the cameras couldn't switch off them fast enough? Well, they changed that. Now they wear generic jerseys. Needless to say, no booing.

And yes, I noticed.

(And yes, it's a little creepy that I was bummed out because little kids weren't getting booed. I know. That's just me. That's just who I am.)

11. I think this section goes to 11.

12. I think the Titans could have beaten the Patriots last week. If McNair didn't overthrow Bennett and Mason for those certain touchdowns, and if Bennett had caught that moon pass at the end, they could have scored 30-plus points. They certainly controlled the proceedings from the second quarter on; they just didn't do quite enough to take the game. They were one big play short. Still, a valiant effort.

Pills
Join Steve McNair as he participates in his pregame warmup.

Speaking of the Titans, here's reason No. 4,355 why I love football: On Sunday, the ESPN Sunday Countdown guys were talking about McNair's performance, how he moved considerably better than he did against Baltimore (when he was practically crippled). Someone mentioned how McNair finally started limping on that final drive, how that may have derailed the Titans more than anything. So Steve Young casually mentions, "I think the painkillers started wearing off -- they usually don't last for the whole game."

First of all, you have to love any sport that incorporates sentences like "I think the painkillers started wearing off -- they usually don't last for the whole game." Just once, I want to say this at work and have everyone nod knowingly.

More importantly, what could they have possibly injected in McNair's leg to mask a torn f*****g calf muscle for three hours? Hillbilly heroin? A horse tranquilizer? Imagine McNair out there in minus-two-degree weather, trying to muster a game-winning drive, and suddenly his leg starts throbbing, and he's thinking to himself, "Damn, they should have injected me with the tranquilizer for the 1,500-pound horses, not the 1,200-pound horses! What were they thinking?" What a strange sport.

13. I think this was my favorite exchange of the weekend: Watching the Rams-Panthers game with my buddy Sheck, near the end of the fourth quarter, the Rams were coming back and their bandwagon fans were going bonkers, Fox switched it down to sideline reporter Tony Siragusa for an update:

-- Siragusa (screaming): "Guys, it's so loud down here, I can barely hear myself speak."

--Sheck (after a beat): "Lucky for you."

13a. I think this was my second-favorite exchange of the weekend: I'm sitting on my sofa, by myself, watching Manning and the Colts perform a tracheotomy on the Chiefs. And then this happens ...

-- Dan Dierdorf (chortling): "This is complete domination. I don't think anyone saw this coming."

-- Me: "I saw it coming."

-- Sports Gal (yelling from the other room): "What's that, honey?"

-- Me (frustrated): "I'm talking to the announcers!"

14. I think we're approaching the 4,000-word mark. Just like old times! Are you still there?

Let's get to the picks.

(Home team in caps.)

Donovan McNabb
It's gonna take a lot of Chunky Soup for McNabb to carry the Eagles.

Panthers (+4.5) over PHILLY
From my Playoff Gamblings opus, Rule No. 10 applies here: During Championship Weekend, at least one underdog will cover and there will be at least one blowout.

Here are the stats: The favorites have gone 9-9 ATS over the past nine years, and there hasn't been one weekend when both games were close. The last time both favorites covered on the same day? 1996. And sure, it's been a wacky January -- as evidenced by last weekend -- but I have a feeling that things will even out on Sunday.

And then there's this: The Panthers have a better team. That always helps. The parallels to the '99 Falcons are overwhelming, right up to the part where nobody seems too excited about seeing them in the Super Bowl. Delhomme! Foster! Muhammad! It's Super Bowl XXXVIII on CBS! Still, there's something to be said about a team that always prevails in close games, even if you don't know who any of them are.

Meanwhile, the Eagles suffered too many debilitating injuries over the past few weeks -- you can lose two of your key guys and survive; but once you're in three-or-more territory, that's pretty sobering. From a talent standpoint, they could barely compete against Green Bay last week. Their defensive line is barely holding up. They have a special-teamer playing middle linebacker. Their receivers are so average, they may have broken the record for "coverage sacks allowed" last week. They miss Westbrook's game-breaking ability on third downs and punts. And whether Troy Vincent plays or not, the Panthers will be picking on that cornerback spot all game.

Maybe this comes down to how you feel about Donovan McNabb. He starts off slow during every big game -- how many passes can he throw at someone's feet? -- and then there's the moment where he says, "Okay, I'll make this happen with my legs." And either he starts making plays, or the team completely falls apart. It's too much for one guy, especially someone who isn't necessarily accurate all the time.

I just don't think he has it in him to win this game by himself, not with this supporting cast. The Packers gave last week's game away. It won't happen twice.

The Pick: Panthers 27, Eagles 20.

PATRIOTS (-3) over the Colts
Two rules apply to this one. When in doubt, seek the popular opinion and go the other way. And when in doubt, check the coaching matchups.

Well, everyone loves the Colts. And rightly so. Manning made The Leap. Their offense looks like the '91 Bills. Plus, the Pats barely won last week. And Indy's biggest strength (spreading the field with quality receivers, then going downfield) might be New England's biggest weakness (they have two rookies in the secondary). Believe me, I would absolutely pick against my team. And I almost did.

But here's the thing: You have a dome team playing outdoors in 20-degree weather. You also have the jarring leap from "Two games against a sleepwalking Denver defense and an abysmal Chiefs defense" to "The best defense in the league playing at home." It's almost like playing a video game at the "Rookie level," then jumping to "All-Madden." Isn't there an adjustment period? Just remember, this was the same team that played in Houston in Week 17 -- a game they needed to win for a home playoff game -- and they managed just three points in three quarters. You can't judge the Colts just from the past two weeks.

On the flip side, here are the Pats: Winners of 13 straight, insanely fortunate, impeccably coached, and playing at home (where they rarely turn the ball over). Against teams that won 10 or more games this season, they're a whopping 8-0. And if that's not enough, Tom Brady has something to prove -- he missed out on the All-Pro team and the MVP, and he can put himself on the map by outgunning Manning on Sunday. Everybody overlooks this guy. He's the one with the Super Bowl ring, the winning streak, the 34-12 lifetime record as a starter. He doesn't make mistakes. His teammates believe in him. And he gets better when it matters.

As good as Manning is, I'm betting on the guy with the ring.

The Pick: Patriots 34, Colts 22.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, as well as one of the writers for "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on ABC



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