Picture-perfect end brewing this season

A year ago, it was all about perfection. Heading into the third-to-last week of the 2009 regular season, the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts were 13-0 teams on a Super Bowl collision course, and everybody had an opinion about whether they should rest their starters or make a run at history.

The debate turned out to be moot: After a Thursday night victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars pushed Indy to 14-0, the Saints and Colts combined to lose the rest of their games – until, you know, they actually mattered. By the time February rolled around, the whole playoff-momentum theory had been irrevocably laid to waste, not that it will stop anyone from citing it the next time a team clinches early.

Still, I like the way the 2010 regular season has played out much better. Perfection was never an issue – every team had lost by Week 5 (the 3-0 Chiefs, who had an early bye, were the last survivors) – and the division races have been closely contested throughout, even in the miserable NFC West.

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Only one team, the Patriots, has clinched a playoff spot, and just nine have been eliminated from postseason contention.

Here we are headed into Week 15, and we're talking about a boatload of interesting matchups that will play out Sunday, rather than the prospect of Drew Brees(notes) sitting out or Jim Caldwell taking a run at 16-0 as a rookie head coach.

The NFL schedule is formulaic, and any league-initiated tweaking to position the most favorable games at optimal times is done amid a fog of parity-driven uncertainty – yet however it went down, football fans got lucky this time.

Among Sunday's offerings:


• Jaguars at Colts: Jacksonville (8-5) can clinch the AFC South by completing a sweep of Indy (7-6), and if you thought back in August, September or October you'd be reading that sentence, you're either psychic or a member of the Del Rio family. If the Colts win, however, they'd be in control of the division, needing only to close with victories over the Raiders and Titans to take the crown.

• Chiefs at Rams: Who knew the battle of Missouri would show me (and you) a game that meant something? With former doormat St. Louis (6-7) tied for the NFC West lead and fellow ex-laughingstock K.C. (8-5) clinging to a half-game advantage over the Chargers (who'd own the tiebreaker with a Chiefs defeat and a pair of season-closing San Diego victories over also-rans), this one is kind of enormous. Can Matt Cassel(notes) return to rescue Kansas City a mere 11 days after surgery to remove his appendix? If not, can Brodie Croyle(notes) get some backup, unlike last Sunday in San Diego? I'm totally intrigued.

Vick threw for 258 yards and ran for a TD in Week 11 against the Giants.
(Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)


• Eagles at Giants: They're each 9-4 and tied for the NFC East lead, and the winner will be in great shape to secure a first-round bye. The loser likely gets in as a wild card, though the Packers – who own a head-to-head victory over Philly and still have New York on their schedule – loom as a possible threat. Michael Vick(notes) has done some amazing things this season; pulling out this game on the road to complete a sweep of the Giants would be one of his more remarkable achievements.

• Saints at Ravens: New Orleans (10-3) still has a crack at catching the Falcons, who the Saints face in Atlanta the following week, for the NFC South title. More likely, they'll end up as the No. 5 seed – the exact position Baltimore (9-4) is staring at, unless the Ravens can make up a game and some tiebreakers on the Steelers. Whatever – either of these teams is capable of mounting a postseason run as a wild card, and I'm very eager to see what happens in this compelling clash of theoretical stylistic opposites.

• Falcons at Seahawks: Atlanta (11-2) hasn't lost to a team not based in Pennsylvania, while Seattle (6-7) – still tied for first in the NFC West – has been abysmal lately. Still, with the Falcons closing in on the top seed in the conference and a Monday night showdown with the Saints looming, this has potential letdown written all over it, and the Seahawks have been much more engaged at Qwest Field than on the road.

• Jets at Steelers: A few weeks ago, this battle between New York (9-4) and Pittsburgh (10-3) looked like it might be for the AFC's top seed. Instead, while the Steelers seem headed for the conference's No. 2 slot, the Jets are in crisis, coming off consecutive defeats (including a morale-busting blowout at New England), and with coach Rex Ryan publicly pondering a quarterback change from Mark Sanchez(notes) to 40-year-old Mark Brunell(notes). If the Jets lose this one, it's not implausible that they could be caught from behind by the Chargers or Chiefs, should the AFC West's second-place team finish 10-6. Oh, and Santonio Holmes(notes) is going back to Heinz Field, which should make things a bit more interesting.


• Packers at Patriots: With Aaron Rodgers(notes) unlikely to play after suffering a concussion last week, which would leave the untested Matt Flynn(notes) to direct Green Bay's offense, the Sunday night game appears destined to be a one-sided affair. New England (11-2) is playing the league's best football and seems to be improving each week, while the Pack (8-5) is suddenly in deep trouble, with games against the Giants and division-leading Bears to follow. A Packers defeat followed by a Bears victory over the Vikings on Monday night would clinch the division for Chicago, meaning Green Bay would need some help from Eagles and/or Giants opponents over the final two weeks to have a shot at the postseason. Something tells me that, no matter how rough things are on Sunday, Rodgers and the Pack will bounce back to make a run. In other words, Weeks 16 and 17 should be exciting, too, which would make an already appealing regular season even better. And that, football fans, is pretty close to perfection from my point of view.


It took me long enough to figure out that the Jaguars are pretty good, but now that I have clarity, look for Jacksonville to beat the Colts in Indy and clinch its first division title since 1999 … Michael Vick will crank up his game yet again to lead the Eagles to a road upset of the Giants … The Ravens' defense will resurface, and Anquan Boldin(notes) will make the biggest play of all, as Baltimore defeats the Saints.



Baltimore, where I hope to have half as much fun as I did the last time I visited (and watch a pretty decent December football game).


1. The noble guardians of college football's Bowl Championship Series cannot be bought under any circumstances.

2. When inclement weather recently forced the Redskins to practice at a Lifetime Fitness near their training facility, coach Mike Shanahan whipped out a white bandana, and the workout looked something like this.

3. Upon learning he'd been left off the list of "Ten Best-Mannered People of 2010" by the National League of Junior Cotillions, injured Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib(notes) put his elbows on the team's training table and screamed, "I'll hit all 10 of 'em in their [expletive-expletive] mouths."



One problem I've encountered with fantasy football is that when controversy strikes, it happens in the middle of a forest. There's no media coverage, barstool chatter or other outlet for arguing one's position. It's just a bunch of cyber-complaining between you and about a dozen others, even if it does occupy about 90 percent of your energy during a given workday. When it goes down in either of the two leagues to which I pay attention, the masses are free to get involved – despite my fallback position that NOBODY CARES!

Controversy raged in my buddy Malibu's Sex, Drugs and Fantasy Football league when six teams tied for second place with 8-6 records, meaning only five would make the playoffs. The tiebreaking procedure put Malibu's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which closed out the season with four consecutive victories, in fifth place. However, Malibu's son, A-Man, the league's defending champion, was the odd man out after his Man Up Beanie U suffered a narrow defeat (put it this way: When Aaron Rodgers got hit in the head, he felt nearly as much pain as the Packers' quarterback) and then learned from the computer he'd finished in unlucky seventh. The question: Why? The order of finish hadn't been determined by total points scored over the season (the most logical criteria, and one which would have favored A-Man) or by head-to-head records against the other five teams (he'd have made it that way, too). It had been a combination: Head-to-head records only applied when the teams in question had played the same number of games against everyone else with whom they were tied; if not, total points were used to determine the first available slot, second place, with the process repeating slot-by-slot. Man Up kept getting edged out until only two teams were left to battle it out for sixth, and even then he had the total-points advantage. However, he had lost head-to-head to that particular team, and that took precedence, ending A-Man's season.

"Total travesty," Malibu said. "I think Katherine Harris was doing the tabulating. You were right – we should never have switched from Yahoo! to ESPN. What a ridiculous default tiebreaking system. I'm disgusted." (Note to readers who play fantasy: Yahoo! is greater than ESPN. Duh.)

Vincent Jackson(notes) scored 3 TDs vs. the Niners on Thursday night.
(Harry How/Getty Images)


Life goes on, however, and Malibu made some tweaks for his playoff against You Are a Jerk, picking up the Cardinals' defense (at Carolina) and Browns kicker Phil Dawson(notes) (at Cincinnati) and reinserting Seahawks receiver Mike Williams and Chargers halfback Ryan Mathews(notes) into his lineup. Both A-Man and I tried to talk him out of Mathews (he could have played Marshawn Lynch(notes), Lance Moore(notes) or Donald Driver(notes)), but Malibu would have none of it: "He was my first-round pick. Just because A.J. Smith and I might have both goofed, we need to try to get some value at this point." Mathews scored nine points against the 49ers on Thursday night; however, Jerk's Vincent Jackson had 34.7, putting Sabbath in a major hole heading into the weekend. Facing a lineup that also includes Tom Brady(notes), Michael Turner(notes) and Darren McFadden(notes) won't help, either.


Hines Ward(notes), who was recently nominated for the inaugural 2010 United Nationals NGO Positive Peace Awards in the professional athlete category. The Steelers receiver, who has a Korean-American mother and African-American father, was recognized for his work in South Korea, where he has helped to change the perception of biracial people. (Last weekend Ward hosted eight biracial children from Korea, the fifth consecutive year his Hines Ward Helping Hands Korea Foundation has arranged such a visit.) In September, President Obama appointed Ward to his Presidential Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. So he's a credit to his profession – and he also happens to be one of my favorite players and interview subjects, and someone who I believe will end up in the Hall of Fame. Consequently, I line up shots, and look forward to covering him in the playoffs.



In a nationally televised show of force that brought the Golden Bears to the brink of their first NCAA volleyball title, Cal rolled to a resounding victory over USC in Thursday night's semifinal match. The seventh-seeded Bears (30-3) will face fourth-seeded Penn State – the three-time defending national champion, and the team that has eliminated Cal in each of those years – on Saturday night in Kansas City, with ESPN2 televising the match live at 8:30 p.m. ET. In avenging a pair of regular-season defeats to the Trojans, the Pac-10 champion Bears took control of the match from the outset, winning 25-14, 25-17, 25-20 to continue their run of not having dropped a set in the tournament. Rich Feller, named the AVCA national coach of the year earlier Thursday, watched his devastating duo of first-team All-Americans, senior setter Carli Lloyd and junior outside hitter Tarah Murrey, dominate the match. The Nittany Lions will be a formidable foe, but Lloyd and her teammates don't look anywhere close to finished.

Speaking of unfinished business, guess who's back? The great Natalie Coughlin, who set an American record in winning the 100-meter backstroke at the FINA Short Course World Championships in Dubai on Thursday. Coughlin's time of 56.08 seconds bettered the record she set in 2002 and was a clear signal that the Golden Girl, with all due respect to her adventures on the dance floor, is back in touch with her inner shark. Coughlin also broke Dara Torres' American record in Thursday's 100-meter freestyle preliminaries in a sizzling 52.27 seconds, and she and another former Golden Bear great, Dana Vollmer, will go for the gold in Friday's 100 free final.

Finally, congratulations to Alex Morgan, who on Thursday was named one of three finalists for the Missouri Athletic Club's Hermann Trophy, the most prestigious award in women's collegiate soccer. The winner will be announced Jan. 7 in St. Louis, meaning Morgan will have yet another reason to miss class. When the sensational senior wasn't scoring goals for Cal this past season (14 in 12 games) she was, you know, ensuring that the U.S. would qualify for next summer's Women's World Cup in Germany.



wizard causes stadium collapse


After watching Roger Waters perform The Wall in Oakland two weeks ago, I've been looking for an excuse to draw from the epic Pink Floyd rock opera. On Sunday, Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi provided it, sticking out his knee to topple Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll(notes) after a Miami punt and add new meaning to my trademarked term "Live Trippin'." That set off a trail of scrutiny which led the Jets to determine that Alosi, allegedly acting alone, had ordered five inactive players to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the sideline, an offense that ultimately earned him an indefinite suspension. Naturally, the Patriots got dragged into Wallgate, with old footage surfacing of Bill Belichick busting out dance moves on Colts wideout Marvin Harrison after a Peyton Manning interception. Personally, I'd rather rock out to Another Brick In The Wall Parts I, II and III and imagine Alosi's confessional vocals, with the injured Jets doing the schoolchildren's part, thick cockney accents and all.

As a boy in Massaepequa
Gastineau was king to me
Won sportsmanship awards at Hofstra
I came home to work for Mangini
Showed a few of his tricks to Rexy
All in all I was just a brick in the wall
All in all it was just bricks in the wall …

"You, Yes You, Stand Still Laddie!"

When I came to the NFL
There were certain coaches
Who would stop opponents any way they could
By filming others' signals or sneaking into walkthroughs
Exposing every loophole
Keeping it carefully hidden from the news

But in but in, but in the league it was well known that when they got home at night
their cold and unattended wives
Would thrash them within inches of their lives!

ooooooooooooo, oooooooo, ooooooooooo, ooooooooo, ooooooooo, ooooooooo,oooo.

We'll impede your operation
We don't need no fancy calls
Be careful sprinting down our sideline
Gunners you might take a fall
Hey! Gunner! You might trip and fall
All and all it's just another brick in the wall
All in all I'm just another brick in the wall

We'll impede your operation
We don't need no fancy calls
Be careful sprinting down our sideline
Gunners you might take a fall
Hey! Gunner! You might trip and fall
All and all it's just another brick in the wall
All in all I'm just another brick in the wall

"Wrong, Guess again!
Wrong, Guess again!
If you don't try to cheat, you can't really be trying
How can you really be trying if you don't try to cheat?
You! Yes, you behind the dumbells, stand still laddie!" …

"Goodell is hovering out there"
"This [expletive] snack-eater thought you'd like to know"

I don't need no team suspension
And I won't make another mention
I have seen the writing on the wall
Looks like I am gonna take the fall
Yes! Like Carroll I'm gonna take the fall
All in all it was all just bricks in the wall
All in all we were all just bricks in the wall