Round 1 of the 2005 NFL playoffs actually gave me writer's block.
I'm not kidding. At 11 on Thursday morning, I wanted to commence writing this column. Unfortunately, I needed to figure out my four picks between Tampa-Washington, Jacksonville-New England, Cincy-Pittsburgh and Carolina-New York ... and there wasn't a single game I liked. Not a one.
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Here's why that's strange: I'm the same guy who created a Playoff Gambling Manifesto nine years ago and made it my own personal kabbalah. I never cross the Manifesto. Ever. In nine years, I have had only one losing season against the spread (5-6 during the goofy 2003 playoffs). I'm 26-17-1 in four seasons for ESPN.com. The Manifesto usually guides me in the right direction. Usually. I never have trouble picking playoff games. Within three seconds, I always know where I'm going.
Well, except for this year. Yesterday morning, I stared at the lines and awaited my first revelation. I kept staring. Nothing was coming. My buddy Sal called. We broke down every game. I was leaning toward the Jags, Bengals, Giants and Skins; Sal liked the Pats, Steelers, Panthers and Bucs. In other words, we completely disagreed on everything. Not good. At noon, I took a break for lunch and read the USA Today. Nothing. Took an extra-long shower and even shaved using one of those steam-proof mirrors. Nothing. Played with my kid, tried to clear my head. Didn't work. Put my sneakers on, took Dooze and Roofie for a long walk, thought about the lines again. Nada. This was a disaster. I was 13 hours away from handing in my first blank column.
Now it was 1:30 p.m. Desperate for a spark, I called Gallo at work, the co-creator of the Manifesto -- surprisingly, we differed on three of the four games. That never happens. He's the Siegfried to my Roy when the playoffs are involved. Not this year. Now my head was spinning. I changed into workout clothes and hopped on the treadmill, hoping to sweat out four picks during an obligatory Jags-Pats game on Madden. Not only did that fail to work, I barely outlasted the Jags for a hard-fought win, which confounded me even more.
Now I was panicking. I thumbed through the newest issues of Sports Weekly and Sporting News, hoping for random tidbits that could help. Nothing. Read Doctor Z, Peter King, John Clayton and KC Joyner online. Nothing. Checked the weather for the four home teams on AOL.com, noticed we were due for rain in Jersey on Sunday, then spent the next 20 minutes wondering if that would help the Giants (because of Tiki) or hurt them (because it could make Manning even shakier). No idea. Even made a rare visit to footballoutsiders.com, hoping they came up with some crazy playoff stat that figured out the Round 1 games. Nope.
Suddenly it was 4:15. Desperate to clear my head, I hung out with my kid for the next 45 minutes. The kid always clears my head. Not this time. I couldn't stop thinking about those stupid games. By 5, the kid fell asleep. Miraculously, "Cocktail" came on one of the Encore channels, giving me 110 minutes of obligatory procrastination with a sleeping baby. I mean, you can't pass up "Cocktail." Not under any circumstances. Especially when it's running unedited.
Well, I finally realized something during the movie ...
One of the prevailing themes of 2005 was that Tom Cruise turned into an insane person. I made that joke. You made that joke. Everyone made that joke. But when you watch "Cocktail" again -- a movie that was released in 1988, by the way -- it becomes abundantly clear that Cruise was bonkers way back then. Just watch the "Addicted For Love"/bottle-flipping scene again, it's absolutely no different than his doing somersaults on Oprah's sofa. In fact, his performance on "Oprah" was lifted right out of this movie. They're the same guy.
Here's the point: Cruise didn't change ... we changed. He's always been crazy. He tried to tell us in "Cocktail," we just never realized it. Now we know. And the same goes for Round 1 of the playoffs. It's always been screwed up, it's always been tough to pick four winners, but the biggest difference in 2006 is that there aren't any crappy coaches or crummy QBs to make it easier. There's no Anthony Wright at home, no Jake Plummer on the road, no Mike Sherman, no Mike Martz. Hence, there are no layups. We just have to work a little harder at figuring this out, that's all. Just know that Round 1 has ALWAYS been crazy. Just like Tom Cruise.
Knowing that made me feel better. Of course, that didn't stop me from making one last exploratory call to my buddy Bug. "I love the Steelers and Pats," he told me.
"Really? I was leaning towards the Jags and Bengals."
"Well, I love the Steelers and the Pats."
Two hours later, with a blank document screen still glowing on my laptop, I was plowing through "Inside The NFL" on TiVo, fast-forwarding through the Carter-Marino parts and praying that Cris Collinsworth would show me the light.
And you thought this job was easy.
Speaking of light, we need to get to these picks before the sun comes up. As always, the goal for the playoffs remains 11-0. It's a pipe dream, but dammit, it could happen some day. I can dream. Even this year.
On to the Round 1 picks (home teams in caps) ...
Redskins (+2.5) over BUCCANEERS
Remember when Tampa waltzed into New England in Week 15 and got summarily destroyed? There are two kinds of football butt-kickings -- the Aberration Butt-Kicking and the Decisive Butt-Kicking -- and that game fell into the latter category. The poor Bucs couldn't block New England's front seven, couldn't stop the run, couldn't do anything. They were manhandled. It was a mismatch. Even Gruden seemed resigned to what was happening -- he barely did the Eastwood Squint the whole game. And normally that would be fine, but they were playing for a playoff spot and couldn't afford a stink bomb like that, not at that stage of the season. That makes me think they aren't very good.
Three other things scare me from Tampa's perspective:
1. They're going against a red-hot Redskins team that seems to be peaking at the right time (see Rule No. 6 of the Manifesto). I keep reading how the Skins are banged up and running on fumes ... how can you be running on fumes when you've run off five straight? Would you want to play these guys right now?
2. I don't even remotely trust Chris Simms. Take everything shaky about a young QB during a season, then triple it during the playoffs -- the list of young QB's who didn't self-destruct in their first or second playoff game is small, to say the least. (Note: it's like finding a female celebrity under 24 who became famous and didn't immediately turn into a chain smoking, popsicle-stick-bodied lunatic.) On the flip side, someone like Mark Brunell is perfect for these situations. He'll limp around, run for a few first downs, hit a few deep throws, act like a general pest and involve the Lord in every touchdown celebration. My money's on him.
3. If the Bucs pull out a win, that would send them to Chicago for a freezing cold Round 2 game, as well as the following Fox promo: "SIMMS! GROSSMAN! It's Round 2 of the NFL Playoffs on Fox!" Come on, that's not happening. Not in a million years. Take the points.
The Pick: Washington 24, Tampa 20
PATRIOTS (-7.5) over Jaguars
Two rules in play here ...
Rule No. 5: "Don't bet heavily against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick under any circumstances."
Rule No. 10: "Only pick an underdog or a road team if you're convinced they have a chance to win the game outright."
Well, I don't think the Jags have a chance to win. Not in Foxborough. Am I scared of those tall Jags receivers winning jumpballs against those tiny Pats D-backs? Of course. Am I scared of the Pats' giving up a cheap touchdown in the final few minutes for the cover, a Jaguars specialty over the years? Absolutely. Am I scared that the line seems about 2½ points too high? You betcha. But I don't think the Jags can run the ball against New England's front seven with a banged-up Fred Taylor, and if they fall behind, that means a banged-up Byron Leftwich has to keep them in the game by himself. You can't beat the champs when you're banged-up. I'm laying the points.
(And if that's not enough, here were Jacksonville's last nine wins: Rams, Texans, Ravens, Titans, Cards, Browns, Niners, Texans, Titans. Combined record: 38-106. I'm just sayin'.)
The Pick: Patriots 26, Jags 15
BENGALS (+3) over Steelers
As far as trilogies go, this one is somewhere between Lewis-Rahman III and Ruiz-Holyfield III. In other words, NFL Films isn't getting the A-team documentary crew ready or anything. With that said, this game gave us the most shocking line of the week (and maybe the whole season); I was 5 points off with my guess on Sunday night. Just five weeks ago, the Steelers were giving 3½ to the Bengals in Pittsburgh, lost the game ... and now they're giving 3 in Cincinnati? Huh?????
Anyway, I see three rules from the Manifesto in play here, including ...
Rule No. 2: When in doubt, seek out the popular opinion and go the other way.
Not to keep bringing this up, but Pittsburgh hosted Cincy with its playoff hopes on the line last month, turned the ball over four times and blew the game ... and then San Diego saved their butts the following week by choking at home to the Dolphins. Everyone forgets this now, just like everyone forgets how Roethlisberger choked for two straight weeks in the playoffs last year. But because the Bengals lost a fluky home game to Buffalo two weeks ago (highlighted by a kick-return TD and an interception TD), then rested everyone in a blowout loss to KC last week, suddenly they're reeling and Pittsburgh is fine? Huh??? This line perplexes me. It's vexing. I'm vexed.
Rule No. 7: When in doubt, research special teams and turnovers.
I'm not crazy about Cincy's special teams, but the Bengals forced a league-leading 44 turnovers this season, including four from Pittsburgh in their Dec. 4th game, and if you don't think this stuff matters in the playoffs, you're crazy. Also, if Cowher has a pattern in January, other than the spit freezing in mid-air as it comes flying from his mouth, it's this -- his teams keep blowing winnable games with dumb interceptions, fumbles and special teams miscues. That's their M.O. I don't see why that would change in Cincy.
Rule No. 8: Beware of the Road Favorite.
The oldest rule in the book. If you're going against a good team at home, you better have a really good reason. I'm not crazy about this Bengals team, but what have the Steelers done, really? They lost to the Pats at home, lost to Jacksonville at home, got killed by Indy on the road, lost to Cincy five weeks ago ... what am I missing here? Just because they beat the Browns by 41 points, I'm supposed to take them as a road favorite against an 11-5 team? No thanks.
The Pick: Bengals 28, Steelers 26
GIANTS (-2.5) over Panthers
First of all, thanks to the Panthers for continuing to ream me right through Week 17 of the season. Now I know what it would have felt like to have a 320-pound roommate in prison. Second of all, thanks to the weather gods for earmarking Sunday's game for rain -- I may have been dumb enough to pick Jake and the Panthers otherwise, even though he's clearly Beelzebub. And third, thanks to Tiki Barber, who's going to singlehandedly win this game for me and everyone else who backs the Giants this weekend, even though we can't name any of their linebackers.
So what Manifesto rule applies here? You have to go to Rule No. 2, section D: "There's always one team that looked a little TOO good the previous week and nobody can think rationally about them. For example, during the 2005 playoffs, everyone fell in love with the Falcons after they shellacked a shaky Rams team. Don't get sucked in."
This year? We have the up-and-down Panthers coming off a decisive victory against a disinterested Atlanta team that may or may not have been quitting on the coach. How does that change what happened the previous 16 weeks, like three awful losses at home (New Orleans, Tampa, Dallas) and three certified stink bombs from Beezlebub on the road (at Miami, Detroit and Chicago). Suddenly a warm-weather team is waltzing into Giants Stadium, with a chance of rain, against a great pass rush, with one of the most influential home crowds going against them ... and they're pulling off an upset in Round 1? How does that make sense?
(Note to the Giants: Just to be safe, please don't trash-talk Steve Smith before the game, or this pick is moot. Which reminds me, if you were on the Panthers, wouldn't you make up stuff that opposing teams said about Smith before big games? If I played for the Panthers, I would be going up to Smith on Saturday night and telling him, "Yo, a friend of mine is good buddies with Michael Strahan ... apparently Strahan was saying that he thought you were wildly overrated. Not just overrated, wildly overrated. Can you believe that?" Actually, they probably do this already.)
Anyway, barring a complete collapse from Eli Manning -- whom I've been conspicuously afraid to mention over the last few paragraphs, and only because he seems more overmatched lately than Matt Damon in the golf scenes for "Legend of Bagger Vance" right now) -- a Giants home win sets up the rest of my playoff picture prediction ...
In the NFC, Chicago creams Eli and the Giants in Round 2, and Seattle holds off a frisky Redskins team in overtime, leading to the Bears pulling off a 17-10 shocker in Seattle to make the Super Bowl. In the AFC, the Pats and Denver prevail in Round 2, leading to the Pats dismantling the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. And that sets up something that was 20 years in the making: An unfathomable rematch of the Pats-Bears Super Bowl that traumatized me as a kid, with the Pats getting revenge as the ultimate exclamation point to the Belichick-Brady Dynasty.
(And sure, it's probably not happening ... but it's fun to see in print.)
The Pick: Giants 20, Panthers 16.
Last week: 8-7-1
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.