PHOENIX – Fifteen years ago in Pasadena, in the final stages of the first Super Bowl I ever covered, the Dallas Cowboys' Leon Lett came within inches of living out every defensive player's dream.
After recovering a fumble on the Buffalo Bills' 45-yard line, Lett picked up the ball and charged into the clear, rambling down the right sideline toward the end zone. When he got inside the 10 Lett eased up, holding the ball over his head and slowing down just enough so that hustling Bills receiver Don Beebe could catch up just before the goal line. Beebe batted the ball out of his unsuspecting hands and into the end zone for a touchback, and Lett became a poster child for premature celebration.
Never mind that this is the most overplayed blunder in sports history – the Cowboys were up 52-17 at the time, and Lett's missed opportunity was utterly immaterial to the outcome. The point is this: He did all of the legwork necessary to set up the climatic moment, only to lose his head at the last minute.
So now, as I sit here in my downtown hotel room on the verge of making a Super Bowl XLII prediction that is equally immaterial (as I often ask players and coaches I cover, "What does who I think is going to win have to do with you winning a football game?"), I wonder: Am I about to do the same, stupid thing?
Here's the analogy: Before the 2007 season began, I picked the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl. It wasn't exactly a stunning declaration. The Pats have the sport's best owner, coach and quarterback, and after a narrow defeat in last year's AFC championship game, New England had enjoyed the most prolific offseason of any NFL team.
So what happened? Patriots coach Bill Belichick became embroiled in a little videotaping scandal after a Week 1 victory over the Jets, and New England reacted by winning … and winning … and winning … and winning.
They crushed the Chargers and Cowboys, came back to beat the Colts, staved off tough challenges from the Eagles and Ravens, rolled over the Steelers and fought back from a 12-point deficit to defeat the Giants and complete an unprecedented 16-0 regular season.
In the playoffs, they got surprisingly stiff tests from the Jaguars and Chargers but survived both, and now here they are in the desert, getting ready for an unlikely rematch with the Giants on Super Sunday as 12-point favorites, a victory away from history.
And I'm thinking about bailing on them now?
Well, hey, I'm an emotional guy. I covered the Giants' overtime victory over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, and something about the way they shrugged off the biting cold and took it to what I thought was the best team in the NFC totally moved me. I saw a team that had faced so many potential crises over the course of a season in which everything could have come crashing down, only to emerge stronger and more defiant.
I saw a team playing loose and having fun and embracing the moment. In other words, I saw the anti-Patriots. Over in the AFC playoffs, New England seemed to be showing the strain of a season in which Belichick's "We will crush you" persona permeated the locker room.
The Giants, spurred on by a legless veteran who had embraced their journey, looked to me like a tight-knit group that would be impervious to the magnitude of the challenge that awaited them.
And as I walked outside the stadium in the subzero temperatures and assessed the situation, my visceral view was, I think they will beat the Patriots, because, well, they'll scoff in the face of 18-0 and overcome yet another massive obstacle.
I asked myself some questions:
Who was playing better football in January? The Giants.
Who had probably the league's most fearsome pass rush out of a base defense, the best possible hope for containing quarterback Tom Brady? The Giants.
Who had the audacity to treat the great Patriots as if they were just another team? Even before they showed up in Arizona with Plaxico Burress and friends exhibiting such sensationalistic swagger, I think you knew where I was going with that one.
If this game had been played the following Sunday, as some Super Bowls have been, I might have gone with my gut and picked the upset. But whereas normally, when there is a two-week break before The Ultimate Game, we spend the latter part of the fortnight trying to talk ourselves into the notion that the underdog can win, this time I've gone and done the opposite.
With more time to reflect, I'm thinking the Patriots are about to win their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons.
One reason is precisely because there is a two-week break. That plays into the Patriots' hands in every possible way, from allowing Brady's sprained ankle more time to heal, to giving the brilliant Belichick an extra week to game plan, to taking a hot opponent out of its rhythm.
There's also the weather factor. New England's high-flying offense, it can be argued, has been a bit wobbly since the wind became an issue in some games. That shouldn't be a problem at University of Phoenix Stadium, which has a retractable roof that will be closed should there be a threat of gusts or rain.
If the Patriots, recent performances notwithstanding, are indeed the dominators we believe them to be, isn't it likely that they'd do what the '85 Bears (46-10 over the Patriots) or the '89 49ers (55-10 over the Broncos) or, yes, the '92 Cowboys (52-17 thanks to Lett's let-up) did to the team that stood in the way of a title.
I don't know about a blowout – I still think the Giants will rise to the challenge – but I'm not going to do what Lett did and forget the basics at the worst possible time.
• Tom Brady is better than Eli Manning. That's no knock against Peyton's kid brother, who has been on an inspiring run since late in the regular season; Brady is better than everybody, and most everyone else who has ever played. When one Super Bowl quarterback is clearly superior, it's very, very difficult not to believe that quarterback will win the game.
• The Giants are likely to start making more mistakes, while we can expect the Patriots to cut down on theirs. New York, amazingly, has gone three consecutive playoff games without an offensive turnover, a streak that is difficult to imagine it continuing. The Pats, meanwhile, are 18-0 largely because they mitigate or eliminate miscues when it matters most.
• New England is the highest-scoring offense of all time, a unit that put up 38 against the Giants in the cold a little more than a month ago. What are the odds the Pats get held under 30 for a third consecutive game – and, if not, what are the chances that the Giants can match them score for score?
Sometimes, the act of trying to outsmart oneself turns out to be a futile one.
In August, I believed the Patriots were the best team.
At the start of January, I was sure of it.
All they've done is win, and on Super Sunday, I expect them to do it again.
Unlike a certain Dallas defender who will live forever in blooper-reel infamy, I'm not going to let (or Lett) my gut overrule my brain.
The Giants will put up a fight, but this is the Patriots' season; all the way to the goal.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
When a quartet of former 49ers greats takes the field to honor legendary coach Bill Walsh before the pregame coin toss, I will get misty-eyed. … Randy Moss will catch a deep ball on the Patriots' first possession. … Within three hours after the completion of the game, at least one 2008 power rankings column will be posted on someone's website.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Oh, believe you me, I'm already here. And so are the bosses, with those supervisory eyes of theirs.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Al Davis sent Lane Kiffin a letter informing him that instead of wearing a headset on the sidelines in '08, the coach must wear a pair of pink earmuffs.
2. Pregame singer Alicia Keys is less attractive in person.
3. I have an unlimited ability to secure Super Bowl tickets and invitations to the week's hottest parties – and, for that matter, a voice.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
If Britney Spears is a train wreck, are the paparazzi who continue to hound her the drunken conductors? This person needs serious help, and hopefully she will get it. In the meantime, please, paparazzi and the gawkers they serve – leave her alone.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
John Edwards, whose sincere and passionate quest for the presidency ended earlier this week. Even though he's out of the race for the Democratic nomination, I truly hope that Edwards' populist themes and advocacy for impoverished and working-class Americans will continue to be discussed as the remaining candidates in both parties vie for voter support. I'll also toast to Elizabeth Edwards as she continues her brave fight against cancer.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
Max Zhang Soulja Boy
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
The Reading Football Club summoned another stirring effort Wednesday against a superior side, but the Royals suffered their fourth consecutive defeat – and endured their eighth consecutive match without a victory – by a 1-0 score to Chelsea. A powerful header from German star Michael Ballack off a cross from teammate Paulo Ferreira gave Chelsea its goal in the 33rd minute at Stamford Bridge, and the Royals couldn't put one past keeper Petr Cech to equalize. Still stuck on 22 points and now in 16th place in the 20-team Premier League, Reading is only two points out of the dreaded relegation zone heading into Saturday's home match against 15th-place Bolton at Madejski Stadium. It's one the Royals can't afford to lose. (And yes, if my adopted team gets relegated, I'm sticking with them. It's the Cal in me.)
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
When asked at media day what he thought about the Super Bowl XLII halftime singer, Plaxico Burress craned his head at the questioner and exclaimed, "Who's Tom Petty?" But whether he knows it or not, Burress has been channeling a T.P. classic, "Breakdown." Now give us that timeless riff, Mike Campbell:
"It's all right if you love me
It's all right if you don't
I'm not afraid of you runnin' away with it
I get the feelin' you won't
There is no sense in pretendin'
Your lies give you away
Something inside you is feelin' like I do
I've said all there is to say
Baby, breakdown, go ahead give it to me
Breakdown, on a cool desert night
Breakdown, I'm callin' 23-17
Breakdown, it's all right
It's all right
It's all right"
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"See, everyone else in the media? Was that so hard? Michael Silver just found a very compelling story and told it brilliantly for the second week in a row. The war hero in the Giants' locker room; the failing health of the guy who taught Tom Brady how to throw a football – this stuff is gold, and you all are stuck on some boot on a foot. Mike, you should be required reading for any sports journalism student."
Thanks, and remember: To me, you're all honorary sports journalism students.
"Your Over-the-top Ephedrine-Laced Diatribe at 4:19 a.m. pieces are great but you might as well call them your Over-the-top Cocaine-laced etc. because both substances are illegal in the US. Just looking out for you buddy as I would not want you to have an asterisk attached to your accomplishments for using illegal, literary performance-enhancing substances, like (Roger) Clemens and (Barry) Bonds."
Brother, chill – it's not only legal, it's available over the counter. Now kindly hand me my Claritin-D and allow me to get back to work.
"I can't agree more with your view of Al Davis. I think either senility has hit him full force; he enjoys abusing the passionate Raider following; or this is his version of a 'late-life' crisis where he can't distinguish the responsibilities of an owner versus a coach. One should be left to the other, and he should stop trying to coach a team from his luxury box. Go Raiders! 'sigh' "
Don't hold your breath.
"I don't think that any athlete reading your article would need any encouragement from Bill B. around keeping things bland. You come off as a total shark, perfectly happy if the 'story' you discover becomes distracting enough to influence the game."
East Lansing, Mich.
I'm a shark because I'm looking for interesting, honest and compelling quotes? That's an interesting way of looking at it.
"I think my brain may have exploded attempting to understand the quotes from the Patriots on media day. In fact, it is what it is. I'm just gonna go about my sports reading one day at a time and try hard to understand more tomorrow than I did today."
Good news: At this point, it's a one-article season.
"You are so wrong about Belichick. He is very interasting when you talk about football. He doesn't play the press' game when thay ask irrelivant questions. That's what makes you all mad."
Russ L. Hixson
Say it, don't spray it.
"He is only the best coach in NFL history! You just have to do alittle more work instead of having a player write your column for you.(Poor you). I can't believe you get a pay check for the absolute nonscense you write. It is a joke … If more coaches did this they would be more successful, having the team only focus on the task at hand; not all the B.S. is a good thing. … Your still a moron."
You're still borderline illiterate, and your logic is dubious. What if every coach followed your advice? According to your theory, all of them would be successful. That would be really interesting: A league of 32 teams with winning records. Uh, yeah.
"I have been reading sports articles for a few years now and this is the first time I've ever commented on one. Your writing style is what sucked me in. It is simply genius. My favorite line: '(The Patriots have) spent this week doing what they've done all season, acting like a bunch of glass-eating eunuchs who keep their inner bravado in check until Sundays, when they rise up collectively to extend a middle finger to the world.' Hilarious. Keep up the good work! Go Pats!"
Thanks, and please keep the comments coming.
" 'Burris full of confidence. You are either the most retarded person on the planet, or you live in New York and cheer for a New Jersey team. If you do live in New York, I can see why you would cheer for a team that plays in Jersey. There isn't a winning team in New York in any sport and you New York fans have to fantasize and dream about something."
I live in California. As for the other part of your theory, that I am the "most retarded person on the planet," I feel like proof now exists that this is not so.
"You are such a moron – he did not guarantee the score, or the win. Bozos like you are: 1. Used to being regarded as bozos so I know this means nothing; 2. Unable to write anything but stupid crap like this. I know you're probably taking the hit for Yahoo!, which forces you to be such a shallow dumbass …"
No, you're wrong about that. I am very much my own shallow dumbass. He did, in fact, predict the score, and I heard him with my own ears agree with the assertion that he had made a guarantee.
"Bravo Michael Silver, for your column on Plaxico Burress' comment. In a world of crazy sensationalism, it's almost too refreshing to hear some semblance of reasoned writing. Honestly, I'm smiling my ass off because it's so rare and so nice to read a well-thought out column. Keep up the great work."
Thanks. I predict that I will, though I can't guarantee it.
"I've seen several Super Bowl predictions already. So far, those who haven't been predicting the Patriots are predicting the Giants will win. How can anyone claim there isn't an East Coast bias? …Thanks for another season of enjoyable reading. Good day."
Reader With Sense Of Humor Alert!
"I like your column a lot and after watching a few videos with you, Charles Robinson and Cris Carter, I think you would do well with your own show. Having said that, you and Charles need makeovers in a big way. You have an instinctive ability to be both witty and candid in a way that kind of reminds me of Skip Bayless (my favorite ESPN personality), but you literally look homeless on tape. Your words are meant for primetime, your look would better fit radio, so maybe we'll find you somewhere in between – FSN?"
Dude, if you ever compare me to Skip Bayless again, you may be the one in need of a makeover. (And yes, I'm joking. I'm a lover, not a fighter.) That said, do you know for a fact that Mr. Robinson and I aren't homeless?