Carbon copy or rewrite for underdogs?

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Stephen Cooper is not a subtle man. With his loud voice, prominent forehead and no-nonsense New England sensibilities, the San Diego Chargers inside linebacker is as forthright with his opinions as he is when pummeling opposing ballcarriers.

When I stopped Cooper as he ran off the Gillette Stadium field following his team's 38-14 drubbing by the New England Patriots on Sept. 16, the native of nearby Wareham, Mass., was defiant in defeat.

"(Expletive) it," Cooper said. "It's a long season. We'll see 'em again."

Sure enough, Cooper the Clairvoyant and his much-improved team will be back in Foxborough, Mass., to face the Pats in the AFC championship game. On what promises to be an exceedingly chillier Sunday, the Chargers aim to surprise a skeptical public (at least the oddsmakers that made them two-touchdown underdogs) by showing how far they've come in four months.

Later Sunday night at Lambeau Field, the New York Giants – 35-13 losers to the Green Bay Packers a couple hundred miles to the south on that same mid-September day that the Chargers got sliced up at Gillette – will attempt to do the same.

Who knew back on that final Sunday of summer we'd be seeing a pair of blowouts that served as sneak previews of what is traditionally the most compelling day of the season? Whereas the Super Bowl often tends to be an overhyped, anticlimactic dud, the conference championship games frequently feature classics such as the Indianapolis Colts' comeback triumph over the Pats last year.

Yet because of what we witnessed way back when, it's tough to imagine that either the Chargers or Giants (a mere one-touchdown underdog) will be competitive against their more esteemed foes. Throw in the fact that the Pats' Tom Brady and the Packers' Brett Favre are probably the two best cold-weather quarterbacks of this era – given Favre's 43-5 career record in sub-freezing temperatures, he's quite possibly the best of any era – and the task seems even more daunting.

Still, I have high hopes for these games, if only because I have grown to respect the two teams who, as recently as Thanksgiving, weren't supposed to be here. As much as any conference title participant in recent memory, the Chargers and Giants have bucked conventional wisdom and proved that what happens in September, stays in September.

The Giants' home defeat to the Packers, which dropped them to 0-2, had everyone assuming coach Tom Coughlin was a goner. New York had given up 80 points – eighty – in two games. In the 45-35 defeat to the Cowboys at Dallas in Week 1, quarterback Eli Manning sustained a sprained throwing shoulder that one report claimed could be season-ending.

By the time I caught up with the Giants in late-October, when they scored a blasé victory over the Miami Dolphins in London, the team had rejoined the ranks of playoff contenders with a six-game winning streak, during which the team allowed an average of 13 points.

"When our defense got off to a rough start, everybody failed to realize that all those guys were learning a whole new scheme," wideout Plaxico Burress told me at Wembley Stadium. "The past few weeks they've been lights out. If they can hold people to 17 points week in and week out, we can win a lot of games."

Added Coughlin: "This has been a very, very tight, close-knit group from day one. When we were down and 0-2 and everyone was questioning us, there was no bickering or complaining. Everyone stayed together and felt like we could turn it around. And when we did, it was great to see."

In that game against the Packers, Manning's shoulder was so conspicuously sore that, when Coughlin tried to give him a low-five on the sideline, the quarterback used his left hand. Playing him in that game seemed to be a panic-stricken move by a coach whose job was on the line, but it turned out to be the right call for the long run. Manning, after a string of solid late-season performances, seems to have fought through the inconsistency that plagued him for the first 3½ years of his career.

With a 9-1 road record and playoff victories at Tampa Bay and Dallas, the Giants remind me of the '05 Steelers, another team that rode its furious pass rush on an unlikely postseason run that took place entirely away from home. If star defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora can get some decent traction on what could be a mucky Lambeau playing surface – and their footing, or lack thereof, will be the key to this game – they'll have a chance to harass Favre the way they did Tony Romo in the pivotal moments of Sunday's upset victory over the Cowboys.

Twice the Giants have shaken off first-half deficits and rallied to win in the playoffs. I understand why they're underdogs against a team that has also improved greatly since Week 2 – especially in the running game, with ex-Giants halfback Ryan Grant emerging as an unlikely standout – but I believe they have it in them to make this a competitive game.

The Chargers, too, have shown amazing resilience, fighting back from a second-half deficit to beat the Colts despite injuries that sidelined quarterback Philip Rivers and superstar halfback LaDainian Tomlinson. And though Rivers, if he playss at all, will likely be hobbled and susceptible to further damaging an already gimpy right knee, LT almost certainly must bounce back from his knee hyperextension and summon a transcendent performance for his team to topple the 17-0 Pats.

When I talked to LT in the locker room after that Foxborough flameout, he was far less bold than Cooper had been walking off the field.

After agreeing that the Patriots were the team to beat, Tomlinson added, "We've got a long way to go."

The Chargers improbably covered that ground, riding improved efforts on both sides of the ball. San Diego can make a case that it is a vastly upgraded team since the last time it faced the Pats, with the elevation of cornerback Antonio Cromartie to the starting lineup, the midseason acquisition of wideout Chris Chambers and the recent emergence of big, physical Vincent Jackson at the other receiver position.

During the regular season, the Chargers forced an NFL-best 48 turnovers, and they had three more takeaways at Indy last Sunday. If that trend continues Sunday, can they take away the Patriots' opportunity to complete the first 19-0 season in league history?

It's tough to imagine, especially given that, deep inside, the Chargers know their season can already be termed a success. The same can be said for the Giants – and, to be fair, the Packers to a lesser degree – which makes me wonder if either of these road underdogs will check out if they fall behind.

Back in September, the Chargers and Giants lacked the will to overcome sizeable deficits; neither team could summon enough energy to make things interesting. But that was a long time ago.

On Sunday, even in the bitter chill of winter, I expect to see these determined teams bring the heat and keep it coming.


Regardless of how the allegations against Randy Moss play out in court, the Patriots will manage to turn their team into the victim … After getting lots of attention – and loads of additional cash from owner Paul Allen – Mike Holmgren will return to coach the Seahawks … Oh, yeah, the games: Both underdogs will put up a fight, but in the end Brady and Favre will give the fans their dream Super Bowl matchup.


The coldest place on earth – and the most wonderful place to watch a pro football game in the universe. It's even nicer from the toasty, spacious Lambeau press box.


1. Forced to do without his favorite TV show Saturday night in Appleton, Wis., Eli Manning will rely on hotel pay-per-view offerings to become the master of his domain.

2. From now on, the seven-year-old son of Pardeeville, Wis., resident Mathew Kowald will answer to the name "Oedipus."

3. Igor Olshansky is a mean, mean man, and the Patriots should be deeply offended by the comments he made after the Chargers' victory over Indy.


Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr, the NBA's all-time most accurate 3-point shooter, proved to be pretty spot-on in his predictions as well – until he, too, fell prey to the near-universal underestimation of the Chargers. San Diego's upset ended Kerr's six-week run in this space, and with only three games remaining in this memorable season, I'm going to thank him and fellow guest prognosticators Luther Campbell and Brandi Chastain and call it a year. (Unless, of course, I can get Jessica Simpson on the phone between now and the end of this column.)


Read this quote from Holmgren in last week's Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and tell me he's not channeling Nigel Tufnel from the very end of "This Is Spinal Tap": "I've always wanted to buy a bookstore. You know, sell some of those muffins and a little coffee. I don't care if we make any money. I don't want to lose a lot of money, but we could visit with people and get books. People say I could never do that. The cynics in the world say if you've been in this business, to all of a sudden do that, you can't do it. I would say, 'Maybe, maybe not.'" (Nigel: "Well, I suppose I could, uh, work in a shop of some kind, or … or do, uh, freelance, uh, selling of some sort of, uh, product. You know … like maybe in a, uh, haberdasher, or maybe like a, uh, um … a chapeau shop or something …"


Keyshawn Johnson and the Cal women's basketball team. The former (and quite possibly future) wideout met up with the eighth-ranked Golden Bears at Oakland Airport on Wednesday night before their flight to Phoenix, posing for photos and debating the relative academic merits of his alma mater (USC) and the world's greatest institute of higher learning with reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year Devanei Hampton. The next night, Hampton took No. 25 Arizona State to school, helping the Bears (16-2, 7-0 Pac-10) jump out to a 16-0 lead and scoring a career-high 28 points – and letting out several Sharapovaesque screams in the process – in a 64-51 victory. "Dev was a beast," assistant coach Lindsay Gottlieb said late Thursday night. "When she plays like that, it's haunting." Hampton also had nine rebounds in Cal's eighth consecutive victory, which put the team alone in first place in the conference. Coached by the unparalleled Joanne Boyle, the Bears are off to their best start since 1983-84 – and this team, which has a trio of stars in Hampton, fellow post Ashley Walker and guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, is much, much better than that one was. Point guard Natasha Vital (one turnover in 36 minutes) lived up to her last name against the Sun Devils, and Lauren Greif, Rama N'diaye, Kelsey Adrian and Shantrell Sneed played key roles as well.


Gay Everest


It was a rough week for the Reading Football Club, which lost a Premier League match at Aston Villa last Saturday and, three days later, was eliminated from the FA Cup by Tottenham on its home grounds. The 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, currently sixth in the league table, was a lopsided affair, with James Harper tallying the Royals' lone goal in second-half injury time. John Carew scored a pair of goals for Villa. Back at Madejski Stadium on Tuesday, the Spurs' Robbie Keane had the game's lone goal in the 15th minute as Tottenham advanced to the next round. It gets no easier for 13th place Reading (6-4-12), which hosts first-place Manchester United at Madejski on Saturday.


This one's for the Colts fans at the RCA Dome who, prior to the fourth quarter of last Sunday's playoff defeat to the Chargers, rained boos upon Punt, Pass & Kick champion Anna Grant, the 14-year-old New Hampshire girl who had the gall to wear a Patriots jersey. This one's to the tune of the Beatles' "Run For Your Life," with various grumpy horseshoe heads taking turns butchering John Lennon's vocals:

"Well I'd rather see you hurt, little girl
Than to cheer for another team
You better change your shirt, little girl
Or I'll yell something obscene

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the stands, little girl
Catch you little Patriots fan
That's the end'a little girl

Well you know that we're devoted fans
We were born with some jealous minds
And we don't have the best of tans
But Indy does host the Combine

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the stands, little girl
Catch you little Patriots fan
That's the end'a little girl

Let this be a sermon
I love Dungy through and through
But I think Belichick's a vermin
And I'll take it out on you

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the stands, little girl
Catch you little Patriots fan
That's the end'a little girl

Well I'd rather see you booed, little girl
Than to cheer for another squad
You better watch your 'tude, little girl
Or go back to Cape Cod

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the stands, little girl
Catch you little Patriots fan
That's the end'a little girl
Na, na, na
Na, na, na
Na, na, na
Na, na, na"


"You haven't given the Chargers much credit for being a good team all year long. Every chance you had to discredit their ability as a good football team or Norv's ability to lead this team as their coach, you have taken a shot. You called them pretenders. Even up to the game against the Colts you said they didn't have a shot. You were wrong all along. This team and coach have character and passion. I don't know if they'll win in New England but they have a real chance. It's OK that you now come over to the light side. Hop on board. You must stay up all night thinking of reasons the Chargers will flub it up. What will it take short of winning the Super Bowl to make you a believer?"

Steven Nickus
El Centro, Calif.

If I pick the Patriots to win their 18th consecutive game, does that mean I don't "believe" in the Chargers? I believe that the victory over the Colts was momentous, and that I've been wrong all along about them. Is that good enough?

"Yea … i remember at the begining of the year, u were putting our team down (Chargers)! Talking bad about us how we werent gonna do anything! Looks like your eating your words now! For the future i would suggest that you not open your mouth so wide! And u can mark my words … were gonna kick the (expletive) out of the Pat's next week too! But well see how everything u said … has been wrong!"

San Diego

Yes, Charles, I am eating my words. But you are butchering yours. Good luck in Foxborough. And remind me: What position do you play?

"Do you have a man crush on Turner? That man is a choke artist about 75 percent of the time. He wins one and suddenly he is JC himself? What a crock of (expletive)."


Now I've seen everything.

"Yes I question your ability too know anything about football – Headline Manning stumbles – If you had any damn sense – and you don't Marvin Harrison was on the bench – he has a very weak Offensive Line – and a Weak Defense – but You and Your mighty pen make Peyton (Manning) the Scape-goat – Why don't you try writing for comic's!"

Ken Turner
Bellnap, Ill.

Dude, be honest: Were you still drunk when you typed this? OK, time for Journalism 101. I don't write the headlines. And for what it's worth, the Colts had a highly-rated defense, Harrison played the first three quarters, and the offensive line has been solid all season. Other than that, I hear what you're saying.

"Love your stuff on Yahoo! – glad you came on board this year. I think you are missing the point, and the context, regarding LSU fans chanting 'SEC' in the final moments of the BCS Championship game. It's not a specific Big Ten or Civil War thing – though we're no Jim Delaney fans – but rather a result of hatred of this whole BCS mess. We in the SEC believe the SEC is the strongest conference top to bottom, and we believe SEC teams play the hardest schedules because they play each other every week. So when the BCS ranks teams on record, we believe we in the SEC get screwed. Yes, LSU got in with two losses, but LSU was clearly a better team than Ohio State, which was ranked first in part because of the ease of their schedule. It's nothing personal against Ohio State – they're just taking care of their business. It's personal against the BCS. Give us a playoff, or go back to standalone bowls, and we won't feel the need to defend our conference against a system stacked against us. Keep up the good work."

Russ Garrison
Augusta, Ga.

I think BCS hatred might be the one thing that can unite college football fans across the nation.

"I was sorry to see you leave SI last year. I just started reading your articles and those by (Peter) King when, suddenly, yours were gone. Thanks to King mentioning that his old buddy was now at Yahoo!, I am able to read your column again. Keep up the good work. Green Bay should be even more insane this week. I'm sure that someone will recognize you. If I see you, the Patron Silver shots are on me."

Stephen Young
Green Bay, Wis.

Hmmm. Maybe I'll carry around an "I'm Mike Silver" sign.

"Glad to have you back in Titletown next week to watch the Pack. I have the perfect way for you to get noticed – score me tickets to the game and I will follow you around with a giant sign that says: 'World's Biggest Packer Fan: Michael Silver.' I'll even complete the outfit with your very own cheesehead. Go Pack!"

Location unknown

That's another enticing option

"Thanks for the great season of reading. Your columns are the anti-productivity drug for me. From the Morning Rush to 32 Questions, and all the stone-cold locks in between. I find it hard to believe that nobody recognized you. However, I find it hard to believe somebody has subscribed to more RSS feeds than I have as well. Be that as it may, if you come back to De Pere, the first round of Spotted Cows are on me."

Julian White
De Pere, Wis.

Awesome. Do you know where I can score some hand-warmers?

"As you are fond of pointing out the typographical errors of your readers, I thought that I would point out that it was Lou Gramm who was the lead singer for Foreigner, not Lou Graham. Still a good column, though."

Dave Gugliotta
East Hampstead, N.H.

Ouch – you're as cold as ice.

"You wrote ' … Jessica Simpson, who'll be Yoko-ized but will retain her considerable skills as an actress and singer.' Please advise what planet you are really from, as here on Earth it is well known that Jessica Simpson is thoroughly talentless, as she can neither act nor carry a tune to save her life."

Location unknown

The Planet of Sarcasm.

"'Favre step closer to desert.' Great article. I was at the game and you captured the essence of Favre. Farve is quoted as saying, 'I want to be remembered as a football player, not a Quarterback.' Competition is what makes this game a great game and Favre is the ultimate competitor. He may not have the throwing motion of Manning or (Tom) Brady or (Joe) Montana but every team would die to have him on their team. What a competitor! By the way, I'll be at Lambeau Sunday for another chapter."

Ron Binning
Whitewater, Wis.

I hear you, but just one question: If a team would die to have Favre, what good would his services be?

"I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment about the recent history of AFC teams peaking a year later than expected. I would even take the precedent back further. Remember how everyone was planning on the Elway vs Favre Super Bowl in 1996? Jacksonville came into Denver and won one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. Denver came back and went through the top two seeds in the AFC, beating Kansas City and Pittsburgh on the road, to get to (and win) the Super Bowl in 1997. As a Chargers fan, I hope that they can emulate this pattern."

New Milford, Pa.

Yeah, great call. I watched extended highlights of that game (thanks to NFL Films) in my room in Green Bay before I went to the stadium last Saturday, and it reminded me just how shocking that upset was. I also remember that, in a playoff rematch the following season, the Broncos ran for 310 yards in a 42-17 victory. If you want to go back further in history, check the Minnesota Vikings' upset of the top-seeded 49ers in 1987 – and the consecutive championships that followed.

"I'm not gonna stop … the Cowboys should be No. 2 in your rankings! Ha, ha. Anyways, I enjoyed reading your work this season and will continue to bookmark your work for seasons to come. I also wanted to point out that your theories ring true for this season's 'Boys. Not only did they seem to read too many of their press clippings, but their coach decided that he would point out their record when things got sour in the last part of the season. That 'Hey, we're 13- 3!' crap did not fly for me. I would also point out that for most of the season, Tony Romo was a smiling, happy guy (so much so, I even named my fantasy team 'TonyRomo'sDimple'). But before the Giants game, he was all scowls and serious faces. I think he needs to learn (though, I thought he learned after the 'Seattle slip' and how he played this season) that this is a game first and he should enjoy the ride. Maybe next season he'll learn to stay loose and just play his game, like he did all season. Take care."

Darius Soriano
Oakland, Calif.

It seemed to me that Romo was pretty loose heading into the playoff game. Or so I've read. Either way, thanks for the bookmark, and I hope that neither I nor the Cowboys let you down next season.

"Look, you can tell from your recent column that you do not like the Patriots. Your article 1/16/08 was full of nothing but negatives towards the Pats. You must be a Patriot hater. It figures."

Location unknown

I wrote about a curious trend among AFC No. 1 seeds, and it's proof that I'm a Patriot hater? The column included phrases like, "Never pick against Tom Brady in a big game," but it's full of nothing but negatives toward the Pats? Wow. To borrow from Frances McDormand in 'Fargo,' that's some pretty fine police work there.

"In the Patriots-Indy (playoff) game (last year), why is it that all of you reporters don't have the guts to print that Indy won that game on a fluke. They were losing until the officials decided to do something about it and either made bad calls or just totally missed the real ones they should have made. As everyone who can read knows, the Patriots were overmatched on paper in that contest yet as you said yourself, they were ahead by a substantial margin at the half. So much for the vaunted Colts. They won by default; they didn't earn it!."

Daniel Clark
Manchester, N.H.

Dude, I love it – it's not enough that your favorite team has won every single game this season. Now you're trying to score a retroactive victory over the '06 Colts, too. My humble advice: Get over it. Deep breath. Enjoy historic season.

"Regarding the Packers in your "4 Questions" … I think if Brett Favre does it again on Sunday, not only will it start snowing in Glendale on Feb. 3, but Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny will be in the stands next to a teary-eyed Vince Lombardi. Go Packers!"

Bellmore, N.Y.

Will Santa be wearing a cheesehead?

"For Patrick in Palm Beach: Not only are you probably a white male, you must have been raised in the South as Kelly Tilghman was. I'm a white female who has lived in the South for over 20 years, however, I was raised in the Midwest. The word 'lynch' is not even in a Northerner's vocabulary. Further, how many people have been 'lynched' in alleys over the centuries? People get stabbed, shot, beaten, etc in alleys, but, in my recollection of history, I haven't heard of many 'lynchings' taking place in alleys. So, suffice it to say that Ms. Tilghman's use of the word 'lynch' demonstrates that she has clearly not managed to triumph over a War-Of-Northern-Aggression Southern upbringing. Suspension wasn't enough – she should have been fired. On a lighter note, does anyone else think that Ed Hochuli's referee uniforms are tailored by a wetsuit manufacturer?"

North Carolina

Thanks for the perspective, and for the great imagery: Hochuli should get an O'Neill endorsement.

"OK, first off man, thanks for backing the next Brett Favre, Tony Romo. As a Cowboys fan, I'm sick of all the media BS about his off-the-field distractions. Off the field being the key words. Anyway, love your column; hilarious jabs at the illiterate here in America. As for your female fans, they like your writing and they have as much loyalty to their teams as any male, but dude, they're not interested in you. Stop with the flirtatious responses to their emails like you are God's Gift to Women and not Cro-Magnon Man."

Brandon Ray Riggs
Louisville, Ky.

Well isn't that special? And here I thought dropping all those hints about my wife and three kids was helping my game.

"I just came across your article for the first time, and I have to say I'm kind of disappointed. The football season is almost over! You are probably my favorite sports column I have ever read. Rock on! And Go Pack!"

Kenosha, Wis.

You have come late to the party, but you are a very perceptive reveler. Don't worry, you'll be sick of me soon like the rest of them.

"Aside from your career as a sports columnist, do you see yourself as a song writer next? For Jessica Simpson, maybe? Hahahahaha! (I just love your songs!)"

Jan Manaog
Manila, Phillippines

Thanks. I prefer to think of myself more as a song rewriter .

"Have you ever wrote anything thats funny?"

Nate P.
Southington, Conn

Have you ever written anything that's intelligible?

"Let me start by saying that I've gone from hating your column and your need to correct trivial grammatical errors, (you once posted a Mark Twain quote on spelling that I sent) to making Yahoo! Sports my homepage, so that I can enjoy your unique column; particularly the way it's structured. However, using Tom Brady's playoff game against San Diego as evidence that having your girlfriend nearby is not a distraction is not a legitimate claim. Brady threw 3 interceptions, posted a 57.6 QB rating and threw 24 incompletions that game. New England won that game because of a fumble – on a Tom Brady interception of all things. They won in spite of Brady, not because of him."

Joshua Wright

Hmmmmm. Was his problem Gisele, or was it Reche Caldwell?

"I always enjoy reading your column – your wit and intelligence stand out in every article, and I applaud you. As a former 'California girl,' I do want to bring attention to your wishing all girls were Texas girls. While I do appreciate that Texas is a lovely state, there's no girl like a California girl."

Las Vegas


"Why did I not discover your column before now? Your commentary is so easy to read and dare I say, elegant, that I wish I had had the pleasure of savoring your insight and wit long ago. You have a fan for life."

Cheryl M.
Rockwall, Texas

Then again …

"Thank you for the entertaining column. I am a new fan of your work, and look forward to the laughs that I get out of your column each week. As a self-proclaimed female sports know-it-all, I find your work to be genius! So, although it may be human nature, here's to the hope that all the praise won't make you lose your edge. Do you write for other sports? Would love to see year-round columns from you. Maybe a little baseball coverage, or perhaps some MMA? Thanks (or Mahalo, as we Hawaiians would say)."


Perhaps. But I think I'd rather just come to Hawaii, cover 'The Eddie' and chill. Mahalo.