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'Hot and healthy' flies out the playoff window

SAN DIEGO – Tony Dungy stood in the hallway outside the visitors' locker room at Qualcomm Stadium Saturday night, his facial expression lacking the usual serenity. Given that he had just lost an intensely contested playoff game in overtime that may turn out to be the last he ever coaches, pending his decision in the next week or so, he had every right to be more fretful than philosophical.

Yet the Indianapolis Colts coach knows from experience, good and bad, that postseason dreams are often realized and undone by a missed block or a fortuitous bounce or some other nearly imperceptible force that tips the outcome. And when asked, following his team's 23-17 defeat to the San Diego Chargers, what he has learned after coaching 10 consecutive teams to the playoffs about how to identify a potential Super Bowl champion, Dungy managed a smile and said, "Well, it's hard to tell, because what you have is a lot of good teams in the playoffs. Once you're in, you can't just play hard – you've got play smart as well, and you've got to execute.

"The bottom line is if you're hot and healthy, it doesn't matter where you're seeded. Whether you're talking about the Giants last year or us the year before or Pittsburgh before that, if you're hot and healthy, you've got a real shot."

Or, conversely, you could be the team that Dungy coached at Qualcomm, a 12-4 Colts squad with a nine-game winning streak and an MVP quarterback and virtually all of its important players in the lineup facing an 8-8 division winner with its star halfback barely functional, its star pass rusher on injured reserve and its star tight end playing on a bum wheel.

And you could still lose, in this case hot and healthy turning to done and anguished in the span of a Darren Sproles scoring sprint down the left sideline.

That's the NFL in the 21st century, and if we learned anything from the first weekend of the 2008 playoffs – conveniently staged in 2009, just to add to the confusion – it's that the conclusions we breathlessly draw during the four-month regular season mean very, very little when it comes down to what Jemaine and Bret from "Flight of the Conchords" would call business time.

Just ask the Baltimore Ravens, who on Sunday went on the road to defeat the Miami Dolphins in such ridiculously dominating fashion that it's very easy to envision them joining the '05 Pittsburgh Steelers as a No. 6 seed that wins it all.

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It was another major playoff disappointment for Manning and the Colts.
(US Presswire/Stan Liu)

Or ask the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles, who in Sunday's second game smacked around the NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. Philly muddled through an inconsistent regular season that included an embarrassing tie at Cincinnati, a benching of longtime quarterback Donovan McNabb that could have become permanent had second-year replacement Kevin Kolb not struggled in relief, and a lifeless 10-3 defeat to the Redskins in the second-to-last week. On the season's final Sunday the Eagles needed upset victories by the Raiders and Texans to avoid elimination, yet upon earning an invite to the postseason, they behaved as though they were the party's rightful hosts.

You could also ask the Arizona Cardinals, who after clinching the NFC West – their first division title in 33 years – tanked so miserably in their next two games (a 35-14 home defeat to the Vikings and a 47-7 road drubbing by the Patriots, who didn't even make the postseason) that they were lampooned as the playoff field's resident laughingstock. On Saturday the Cards looked sharp and fierce in subduing the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons, setting the stage for the Saturday night drama in San Diego that featured an even more impressive display by the other lightly regarded division champ from out west.

With LaDainian Tomlinson (torn groin muscle) limited to five first-half touches and tight end Antonio Gates (high ankle sprain) unable to push off with his right foot, and with outside linebacker Shawne Merriman (knee surgery) watching from the sidelines in street clothes, the Chargers made their doubters – and yes, that would be me near the front of the line, right behind Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler – do double-takes for 3½ hours.

As the gritty, inspired performance unfolded, we were forced to discard everything we thought we'd learned about the champs of the dubious AFC West in '08: the Chargers' 4-8 start; the fact that they needed an onside-kick recovery in mid-December in Kansas City to stave off elimination; their 0-5 record against playoff teams and 2-7 mark in games decided by eight points or fewer.

Instead, we now recognize Sproles, a 5-6 halfback who until a playoff upset over the Colts in Indy last January was a third-stringer restricted almost exclusively to special teams, as the breakout star of the playoffs.

And we honor Mike Scifres for having, given the stakes and setting, what I would declare to be the greatest game by a punter in NFL history.

I could give you the numbers – Scifres put all six of his punts inside the Indy 20-yard line and four within five yards of the goal line; his astounding 51.7-yard net average was an NFL playoff record – but statistics alone don't do it justice. I could tell you about the context, how Scifres' final punt skipped out of bounds as if guided by a Norv Turner-held remote control and backed up MVP Peyton Manning at his own 1-yard line with 2:41 to go in the fourth quarter, inspiring a defensive stand that gave the Chargers one more chance to force overtime.

But what I really want to point out is that on Nate Kaeding's 26-yard field goal that tied the game with 33 seconds left in regulation, San Diego's Dave Binn – a 15-year veteran who may well be the best long snapper in NFL history – flipped the ball between his legs with a hauntingly low trajectory, an uncharacteristic slip that could've spelled disaster for San Diego and propelled Dungy's team into the next round.

The holder who fielded it cleanly and, in one motion, placed it down so perfectly that Kaeding didn't even realize the snap had been off-target? Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Scifres.

Then came the overtime coin toss, where hot and healthy took a backseat to lucky. The captains came to midfield, and Manning, before making the call, deferred to teammate Darrell Reid, who chose heads.

Up in a luxury suite, the quarterback's wife felt her stomach drop.

"I don't know why he did that," Ashley Manning said afterward. "Peyton always picks tails."

The coin came up tails, and 68,082 fans erupted, and San Diego defensive tackle Jamal Williams, who was also at midfield, yelled "Game over!"

It wasn't quite that simple, but after a couple of key plays and three defensive penalties, San Diego was at the Indy 20, well within Kaeding's range.

Now Dungy was helpless, and Turner, San Diego's embattled coach, had a decision to make. On first-and-10 he ran Sproles off left tackle, and the halfback was slammed for a two-yard loss by linebacker Clint Session.

What next? Should Turner go ahead and send in Kaeding on second down? Should he run another play, and if so, what? There was a lot of hemming and hawing on the sidelines, and suddenly Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was in Turner's field of vision.

"Iso! Iso! Iso!" Rivers screamed at his coach, urging Turner to call a running play that would isolate the speedy Sproles against an Indy linebacker off left end.

Turner obliged, and then Sproles was alone in space, where he burst forward and made a sweet inside cutback. Then he was in the end zone and the Chargers were in the divisional round (they'll play the Steelers in Pittsburgh next Sunday) and Dungy, whose team won the Super Bowl as a No. 3 seed two years ago, was entering that dark decompression zone that may push him toward retirement.

"When you play football, the playoffs just drain you," Rivers said afterward. "In other sports like baseball and basketball you get a series, and there's a margin for error, but for us, if you lose one game, it's just over. So yeah, anyone can win, and not everything is as it seems going in.

"We played so many close games this season where we had little things go against us – in Pittsburgh, in Denver, against Carolina – and we couldn't overcome them. This time, we found a way. And here we are."

And here the rest of us stand at attention, getting ready for what should be a highly entertaining divisional playoff weekend. Don't worry if what you think you know turns out not to be so. Just sit back and enjoy.

I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …

Though the sixth-seeded Ravens were the road team at Dolphin Stadium on Sunday, three key players – safety Ed Reed, linebacker Ray Lewis and halfback Willis McGahee – were back home in the city where they starred as collegians. The Miami Three might as well have had the Hurricanes' marching band performing behind the Baltimore sideline, as they helped the Ravens dominate the AFC East champion Dolphins 27-9 to advance to what should be the sexiest game of the divisional round Saturday against the top-seeded Titans in Nashville. Reed had two of the team's four interceptions of Chad Pennington, who'd thrown just seven in the regular season, including a second-quarter pick that he returned 64 yards for a touchdown – the eighth time in his career he has returned a turnover for a score. Lewis, who had a team-leading nine tackles, was his usual menacing self, while McGahee ripped off a 48-yard run that broke the Dolphins' spirit with 4:53 remaining. Saturday's game at LP Field shapes up as a classic. The Ravens played both the Titans and Steelers exceptionally tough in the regular season and will back down to nobody.

His team remains a work in progress, but give Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt credit for staying true to his aggressive nature with Arizona's season on the line. Up 30-24 on the Falcons at University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday, Whisenhunt gave quarterback Kurt Warner a chance to close out the game, rather than playing it safe with low-risk running plays, and the veteran passer delivered. After taking over at his own 20-yard line with 4:10 remaining, Warner immediately hit Larry Fitzgerald on a 15-yard pass. Two plays later, he connected with Steve Breaston on a 25-yarder. Finally, after Atlanta burned its final timeout with 2:17 remaining, Whisenhunt refused to get conservative on third-and-16 from the Falcons' 46. Warner dropped back and floated a beautiful ball up the middle to tight end Stephen Spach, a guy the Cards signed off the street in late October and who hadn't played in an NFL game since '05. "Best tight end out there," Cardinals player personnel director Steve Keim said Sunday. "Sometimes you get lucky." He's being modest, but whatever he saw in Spach, whose 23-yard catch allowed Warner to ice the victory with three consecutive kneel-downs, it's telling that Whisenhunt trusted a guy who'd only been with the team for two months in that situation. Seeking the real story on Spach, a former Fresno State walk-on, I hit up my friend Kate Troescher, who knew him when both were athletes at Clovis (Calif.) High School. Troescher, the greatest yell leader in Cal history and now an accomplished Bay Area traffic reporter, said that Spach "was voted best smile as a senior and his family is so big they took up an entire pew at mass." You just can't get this stuff anywhere else.

I'm starting to wonder whether the Eagles might have a chance to be this year's version of the '07 Giants, who got hot at the right time, never acted overwhelmed by the prospect of facing favored teams on the road and won the Super Bowl as a wild card. The way Philly handled the Vikings in a 26-14 victory at the Metrodome on Sunday was impressive, and it was fitting that the last, errant pass thrown by Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was snatched on the sideline by Eagles counterpart McNabb as time expired. McNabb's upbeat, stress-free nature is a nice counterbalance to Andy Reid's coach-typical tightness, and having come back from their share of crisis points to sneak into the playoffs on the final weekend, Philly's players have no reason to be anything but loose. I'm still not convinced that this team, which has struggled with consistency all season, can go on the road and knock off the top-seeded Giants on Sunday – after all, New York could be this year's Giants, too. But I know McNabb and the Eagles will be devoid of fear as they battle their NFC East rivals, and I expect a terrific game that will hinge on two or three pivotal plays.

… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT

Vikings coach Brad Childress told Gus Frerotte, the veteran quarterback who guided Minnesota to an 8-3 record as a starter before losing his job late in the season because of injury, that he had decided to go with Jackson down the stretch because of a "gut feeling." I wonder how Coach Chilly's gut is feeling after Jackson looked overwhelmed and ineffective in Sunday's defeat to the Eagles while Frerotte, who was cleared to return three weeks ago, stood on the sideline feeling helpless and frustrated. Jackson, as another Vikings player later told me, had a "deer-in-headlights" look about him during his long afternoon, which saw him complete only 15 of 35 passes for 164 yards and throw a ruinous interception that Philly's Asante Samuel returned for a game-changing touchdown late in the second quarter. Meanwhile Childress, the Eagles' offensive coordinator before taking the Minnesota job at the end of the '05 season, got totally schooled by Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who made it look, said one Viking, "as though we were one play behind all day." Especially pathetic was the way Jackson, theoretically trying to overcome a 12-point deficit in the final two minutes, was loathe to throw downfield, instead checking the ball down to outlet receivers in what amounted to a total surrender. Late in the game, another Vikings player said, "our sideline was in total disarray." For Frerotte, who had planned to retire last spring before Childress pursued him and offered a two-year deal, it was a long afternoon that left him pondering his future. "I just don't know what to think right now," he said Sunday night. "It was a very frustrating experience, because I felt like I should've been the one playing. That might sound selfish, but I think I would've given us the best chance to win. I'm going home to St. Louis [on Monday] to be with my family and figure out where things stand, but the way things played out at the end really makes me question things." Meanwhile, I have a new nickname for that large block of Vikings season-ticket holders (45 percent) that elected not to purchase playoff tickets: visionaries.

As one of the NFL's best pass rushers of his generation, the Colts' Dwight Freeney believes that he is held by opposing pass blockers "every single damn play." Let that serve as a backdrop to the utter disgust the Pro Bowl defensive end displayed as we walked to Indy's team bus outside Qualcomm on Saturday night over the trio of penalties called against the Colts' defense that helped facilitate San Diego's winning touchdown drive in overtime. The rundown: Second-and-4 from the San Diego 43 – Sproles is stopped for no gain, but Eric Foster is called for defensive holding. Third-and-8 from the Indy 40 – Rivers throws incomplete to Chris Chambers, but cornerback Tim Jennings, who helped break up the pass, is called for defensive holding. Next play, first-and-10 at the Colts' 35 – Sproles is stopped for no gain, but Session, who made the tackle, is whistled for a 15-yard facemask penalty. In my opinion it could be argued that any of the three penalties was justified, and a case could be made that each was unwarranted. But to have all three of them called in that context was regrettable, and the fact that the Chargers were only penalized three times all game (and only once on offense, for an ineligible man downfield) makes it even worse. In Freeney's opinion, the flurry of calls that helped end his season was flat-out unconscionable. "Those were the worst [expletive] calls I've seen in a long time," he said. "To have a game of that magnitude taken out of your hands, it's just disgusting. It's not like they made one [expletive] bad call – it's three calls, in overtime. On one the ball's 50 feet over [Chambers'] head. And they have the nerve to call defensive holding? When they can't even call one friggin' offensive holding the whole game? What's going on? They need to start investigating some other [expletive]."

When I did my annual owners rankings last July, Randy Lerner (Browns) and Woody Johnson (Jets) failed to crack the upper half. They may drop even further this year if the early stages of their respective coaching searches are a sign of things to come. Lerner, who fired both general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel, has wisely attempted to hire Patriots vice president of personnel Scott Pioli to run his front office. But with Pioli also being wooed by the Chiefs, Lerner has gone ahead and interviewed coaches – and he's reportedly taken with Eric Mangini, whom Johnson recently fired as the Jets' coach. Given all the Spygate drama, it's unlikely that Pioli would want Mangini as his coach, so the likelihood is that Lerner is laying out a fallback option in case Pioli rebuffs him. On Sunday, the Browns received permission to interview Ravens pro personnel director George Kokinis, presumably as someone to pair with Mangini.

At this point, if you're a Browns fan, you have to be smacking yourself in the head with a heavy-duty dog biscuit. Isn't this precisely the same ill-advised course Lerner charted four years ago when he interviewed coaching candidates and settled on Crennel before finalizing his deal with Savage, essentially forcing a GM to work with a coach he didn't pick – and leading to a strained relationship that ultimately helped doom both men? Lerner seems to be following the prior script so closely that, as with '05, he's targeting a former Pats defensive coordinator (Mangini, who succeeded Crennel in that role) and thinking of pairing him with a Ravens executive (Kokinis, like Savage before him, works under highly regarded Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome). Cue laugh track. Oh, and the Browns canceled an interview with highly regarded Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz on Saturday because of a reported scheduling conflict, meaning he's now off limits until Tennessee is eliminated from the playoffs. Smoooooooth. Meanwhile, Johnson kicked off his coaching search by leaving the country, which according to the New York Daily News so turned off former Steelers coach Bill Cowher that he quickly withdrew his name from consideration. Johnson also wasn't around to meet with Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo or in-house candidates Brian Schottenheimer and Bill Callahan. Yes, that Bill Callahan. That sound you hear emanating from the heartland is the entire state of Nebraska chortling. Meanwhile, in Oakland, they're wondering if the Jets are "the dumbest team in America."

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. How the brand-new leather jacket I got for Christmas could disappear early Sunday morning from RT's Longboard Grill in Pacific Beach, where I joined celebrating Chargers fans and team employees (and yes, given my not-so-impressive prognostication effort, I bought a few rounds) after filing my game story. Given my high regard for the city of San Diego and its citizens, I'm going to assume that the jacket (like the suit jacket owned by chargers.com guru Casey Pearce, and a couple of others) wasn't stolen. Instead, I prefer to believe that a confused but well-meaning soul inadvertently took them home and has now come to the realization that the coats do not, in fact, belong to him or her. In the inner pocket of my jacket that person will discover a pair of prescription sunglasses, and inside the glasses case is my business card. So I am counting on that person to send me an email and put me back in touch with my belongings and restore the karmic balance to the universe.

2. Why Broncos owner Pat Bowlen would fire Mike Shanahan now. Bowlen is a good owner, and I can understand why he felt like a change was in order, because sometimes things get stale after 14 seasons. The Broncos blew a three-game lead with three to play and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season, and Shanahan had run off his share of assistant coaches and front-office employees while managing to remain large and in charge. But here's the disturbing thing: Shanahan finally has his franchise quarterback (Cutler) in place, along with a pair of gamebreaking receivers (Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal) and a stud left tackle (Ryan Clady), and there's no reason to believe Denver can't be an offensive powerhouse for years to come. And, I'm sorry, but Shanahan is a brilliant game-planner and has a better chance than almost anyone on earth of getting the most out of that talent. As someone close to Shanahan told me last week, "I can see if this had happened two years ago, but to get rid of him now – that's just crazy. I know he didn't see it coming. And I know he'll be eager to get back out there soon and take it out on the world."

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

Remember when Michael Irvin, shortly before being arrested by Dallas police officer in a motel suite with two "self-employed models" and a potpourri of street drugs, busted out his immortal "Hey, can I tell you who I am?" line? Well, that was restrained compared to the idiotic (alleged) utterances of a certain AFC East safety who, according to a Rock Hill, S.C., police report, was arrested outside a bar early New Year's Day after screaming, "I'm Ko Simpson with the Buffalo Bills. I am worth millions!" OK, Ko, I have a couple of problems with this. First, there's the accuracy issue. You made $445,000 this past season, so my suspicion is that "I am worth tens of thousands!" might have been a more appropriate statement. Secondly, when I hear the words "Simpson" and "Buffalo Bills," I'm thinking that you need to be in handcuffs, regardless of the circumstances. In fact, this might have been the most idiotic quote from a Simpson with Bills ties since O.J.'s infamous "I've still got my Heisman" bit of blather. But thank you: You have just come through with the most entertaining arrest of an NFL player since the Bengals' Chris Henry was hauled in while wearing his own jersey.

TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"All day. Welcome to the Party Baby!!"
– Email Sunday from Warren Sapp, noting the big-time performances of his fellow Miami alums (Lewis, Reed, McGahee) at Dolphin Stadium

"Bitach Pls!!"
– Follow-up email from Sapp after I reminded him of whose school has post-Emerald Bowl bragging rights

"[Expletive] yes brother ravens all the way"
– Text Sunday from UFC star Chuck Liddell, a longtime friend of Baltimore fullback Lorenzo Neal