Intrigue, relevance stick through final weekend

Michael Silver

Two nights before Christmas at Miami's American Airlines Arena, Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson seemed to be overcome by the holiday's charitable spirit.

Warriors point guard C.J. Watson had just nailed a three-pointer to cut the hometown Heat's lead to six points with 29.8 seconds to go. Instead of fouling immediately, Nelson instructed his players to back off until most of the 24-second clock had wound down. Asked after the 96-88 defeat if he'd considered a more aggressive strategy, Nelson told reporters, "Um, no, not really. I was very happy with the way that we played."

Probable translation: Um, no, we're tanking. I was hoping for some extra ping-pong balls in the draft lottery.

So there you have it – the Warriors (8-22), the 2006-07 NBA postseason's most thrilling surprise and a winning team which narrowly missed last season's playoffs, are already in zombie mode … with 52 games left to go in the regular season!

And people say the NFL's approach to choosing its postseason participants is flawed?

Say what you will about the prospect of two 8-8 teams winning their divisions while the New England Patriots potentially go 11-5 and miss the playoffs, but the people calling for the NFL to revamp the way it does business need a reality check.


Will Rod Marinelli's Lions avoid a winless season?

(US Presswire/Brian Spurlock)

Here we are heading into the final weekend of the regular season, with all 16 games set for Sunday, and 10 of them are guaranteed to have playoff implications. Three others feature teams that already have qualified for the postseason but are locked into their respective slots, meaning they're at least interesting from a let's-see-who-gets-injured standpoint. Then there are the 0-15 Detroit Lions, who are attempting to avoid the worst season in history by stealing a victory at Lambeau Field.

That leaves two games, out of 16, which are utterly useless. In terms of engaging fan interest right down to the bitter end, that's a pretty impressive state of affairs.

So stop complaining about everything from the NFL's scheduling formula to its tiebreaking procedures to its divisional alignments and start appreciating the only pro sports league that makes you pay attention to the majority of its games from start to finish.

I'm certainly not averse to exposing some of the league's flaws, but in this case there's no reason to mess with success.

From a business standpoint, what's not to like? Free agency works. The draft works. The Rooney Rule works. Flexible scheduling works (as you'll see Sunday night when the AFC West is decided on national TV). Be it at home or at a sports bar, NFL Sunday Ticket works – especially this Sunday.

Even the wild-card system works, though fans of the Patriots won't want to hear that if they beat the Buffalo Bills yet lose the AFC East to the Miami Dolphins and become the second 11-5 team (behind the 1985 Denver Broncos) to miss the playoffs since the schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978.

For that to happen, the Baltimore Ravens will have to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars at home, and the Dolphins will have to beat the New York Jets at Giants Stadium, where the visitors are a three-point underdog.

I'll just say this: If New York cuts the Miami lead to six late in the game, Bill Belichick had better hope Eric Mangini doesn't pick up the sideline phone and place a quick call to Don Nelson.

Here are Sunday's five most compelling story lines:

5. Kill Bill, or Ill Bills?: Six years ago, in Tom Brady's second season as starter, the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots scored a dramatic victory on the last day of the regular season but missed the playoffs when Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers rolled over and played dead against the Jets. Now, with Matt Cassel filling in for the injured Brady, coach Bill Belichick and his players hope to be in the same position come late-afternoon Sunday: rooting for the Dolphins (against Favre) or for the Ravens to stumble at their expense. To get to that point, they'll have to go to Buffalo and beat a perplexing team that was 5-1 at one point, then went into a 1-7 death spiral that knocked the Bills out of playoff contention. Then, with quarterback Trent Edwards back from a groin injury, Buffalo went to Denver and shocked the Broncos last Sunday. Coach Dick Jauron has reportedly signed a contract extension, yet owner Ralph Wilson won't say whether the coach will be back next year. Who knows anything when it comes to the Bills? As for the Pats, three weeks ago they needed a late comeback to subdue the lowly Seahawks in Seattle. Logic says they'll find a way to pull this one out, though I'd feel a hell of a lot more secure about it if Brady were healthy. Either way, Belichick and his players should be saluted for performing so well despite the loss of the league's best player in the season opener – and if the Bills play hard, it'll be fun to see how Cassel handles the pressure.

4. Drama in the Dome: After last season's stunning run through the playoffs and Super Bowl XLII victory, numerous New York Giants players and coaches credited their all-out approach in a theoretically meaningless regular-season finale – their narrow defeat to the Patriots, who completed the NFL's first 16-0 regular season – as the momentum-building catalyst. Now, having clinched home-field advantage in the NFC after last Sunday's draining overtime victory over the Panthers, New York coach Tom Coughlin has a decision to make: Stick with the same approach, or chill out and keep his starters healthy. Speaking of decisions, the Minnesota Vikings' Brad Childress (a.k.a. Coach Chilly) is going with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback over Gus Frerotte, which some people in his locker room aren't convinced is the right call. The Vikings can clinch the NFC North with a victory or a Chicago Bears defeat to the Houston Texans (both are early games), which would buy Childress a lot of goodwill. If Minnesota gets left out in the cold, many fans in the Twin Cities will be calling for his dismissal.

3. Hochuli Bowl II: Contrary to what some people are telling you, the fact that the Denver Broncos (8-7) and San Diego Chargers (7-8) are playing a winner-take-all battle for the AFC West title in San Diego Sunday night doesn't get referee Ed Hochuli off the hook for making the horrendous call that tipped the first matchup in the Broncos' favor. That's only true if the Chargers win; if Denver prevails Hochuli should get plenty of cases of Coors delivered to his home, for he will have helped bring joy to fans all over the Rockies by facilitating a Broncos playoff appearance. (Were the two teams' records reversed, San Diego would have already clinched.) Whatever – stuff happens, and if the Chargers, who needed a successful onside kick against the Kansas City Chiefs and a Broncos collapse against the Bills to be in this situation in the first place, can't close the deal, nobody will want to hear them complain. Since this is the only game Sunday in which we know each team has something at stake, I have no intention of missing it.


It was not a friendly reunion for Pennington in Week 1.

(US Presswire/Steve Mitchell)

2. The Ballad of Don and Romo: Two big-name quarterbacks with a lot to prove square off in Philly in a game that will leave at least one of them very, very disappointed. For Tony Romo, the task is simple – lead the Dallas Cowboys, a preseason Super Bowl favorite and a slight underdog in this game, to victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, and he'll have a chance to atone for consecutive postseason disappointments in his previous two seasons as a starter. For Philly's Donovan McNabb, it would take a bunch of help (the Oakland Raiders beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and either Minnesota or Chicago also losing) to put his team back in control of its playoff fortunes, and he should know by kickoff whether there's anything for which to play. Either way, this could be the end of the McNabb-Andy Reid era, and I expect the Eagles to play exceptionally hard.

1. The Ghost of Chadwick Past: After the Jets traded for Favre, the release of longtime starting quarterback Chad Pennington was viewed as an afterthought. Some NFL personnel were surprised that the Dolphins gave Pennington a relatively lucrative deal, and when Favre outplayed him in the Jets' season-opening 20-14 victory over the Dolphins in Miami – which ended when New York's Darrelle Revis intercepted Pennington in the end zone with five seconds remaining – it seemed to underscore the belief that the Jets had upgraded the position. As recently as a month ago, New York was being talked up as a legitimate Super Bowl contender while Miami was considered unlikely to make the playoffs. Now here we are in late-December, and things couldn't be set up any better for Pennington. Win the game against his former team in front of the fans that once cheered him, and the Dolphins go to the playoffs as AFC East champions. Even if the Patriots defeat the Bills earlier Sunday, the Jets will still have a shot at the wild card if Jacksonville upsets Baltimore (played concurrently). I can't wait to watch this game.


The Texans, now that their hopes of a first-ever winning season have been extinguished, will play like champs and eliminate the Bears from playoff contention. … Drew Brees won't break Dan Marino's record, and the Saints won't keep the Panthers from winning the NFC South and securing a first-round bye (they'll still party in New Orleans, though, because, hey, that's what they do). … Favre will have his moments, and Pennington will have his moments, and, in the end, the Dolphins will be toasting their good fortune on a jubilant flight back to Miami.


San Diego, so I can attend my second Broncos-Chargers game of 2008 and watch the AFC West title be decided on a glorious Sunday night at Qualcomm Stadium. That's a stadium which a few weeks ago I never dreamed I'd be visiting in late December – not that I'm complaining. Street tacos and deep posts, anyone?


1. The only way a team that already has clinched its optimal playoff seed can succeed in the postseason is to play as hard as it can in its final regular season game – otherwise the players will be too rusty.

2. Before seizing guns, ammunition and a pair of bloody pants at Plaxico Burress' New Jersey home, an NYPD detective took a messy bite of the wideout's Big Kahuna Burger.

3. Asked by Italian law enforcement officials why, after breaking into AC Milan star Ronaldinho's house, they didn't steal his Golden Ball trophy, the leader of the gang of thieves replied, "Actually, we were looking for his trophy babe."


After a six-week run of prognosticating excellence, rap legend Luke Campbell – like just about everyone – was duped by the Broncos, whose second-half collapse against the Bills ended his dreams of surviving all the way to Super Sunday. While Uncle Luke and I turn our attention to Saturday's Emerald Bowl and all that we (and some of our friends) are risking, I'm calling in a man whose ability to make big-time NFL picks is unparalleled – just ask him.

You last heard from my dad, Steve, over the summer, when I gave you his top 10 classic rock songs of all time. Now he's restricted to a single pick, and here it is: "The easy thing to do would be to take someone like Atlanta, which needs to win, over St. Louis. But anyone can get fat by picking against the Rams and Lions and Bengals and Raiders. And unlike many of the people who've occupied this space before me, including my old over-the-line partner Steve Kerr, I refuse to wuss out. I'm going to focus on a game that matters and take an underdog on the road – the Cowboys over the Eagles. Why? Well, since I don't pay that much attention to pro football these days, I tend to root for the people who were especially nice to me when I've come with you on training camp trips. So yes, I'm rooting for Jerry Jones and Tony Romo – and, most of all, Tony's parents, who I had a great conversation with in San Antonio two summers ago. I'm sick of hearing about how Tony can't win a big game. I think he's going to win a lot of them, starting with this one. Also, I know my favorite person in NFL history, Barry Switzer, wants the Cowboys to win. So even though I spent most of my adult life as a 49er fan, I'll be cheering hard for the 'Boys on Sunday."


I didn't see it coming, and thinking about it makes me throw up in my mouth a little. After all, I pride myself as a reality guy. Yet there I was Monday night, watching the climatic moments of the Bears' overtime victory over the Packers on TV while nervously charting a fantasy matchup on my MacBook that could not have been any closer, and I actually let out a little "woo-hooo" of relief when Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal soared through the uprights.

As I told you last week, my buddy Malibu was so disillusioned after Hand of Doom's defeat in the Sex, Drugs and Fantasy Football semifinals that he gave me power of attorney for the third-place game against Pure Hell – with actual money at stake. I decided to shake things up, benching No. 1 overall draft pick LaDainian Tomlinson and Tim Hightower for Darren McFadden and Kevin Faulk and replacing Neil Rackers with Joe Nedney. And going into Monday night, it looked like I'd gotten away with it: What I lost in production from LT (relative to McFadden) I made up for in output from Faulk (relative to Hightower), and Nedney outscored Rackers by a few points. Big games from Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Steve Breaston and Antonio Gates put us up 18 after Sunday, with only Bears Devin Hester (for our team) and Matt Forte (for Pure Hell) still in play. Malibu assured me we were safe, but as Forte began to pile up the yards and then scored a late touchdown, the anxiety set in – and when Alex Brown blocked that potential game-winning field goal by Mason Crosby, I knew sweating out overtime would be an uncomfortable experience. Thankfully the Bears decided to kick the game-winner on third down, leaving Hand of Doom ahead by a 148.2-147.2 margin.

"I'll give you credit – the Nedney for Rackers move was a season-saver," Malibu said. "And considering that LT had such a disappointing year, I'm pretty happy with the finish. This is the third straight year I've come in third, and given how much luck is involved in fantasy, I'd say that shows I'm not totally clueless."

OK, back to reality. I promise I won't devote another second of thought to this subject until next year's drafts, when Malibu and UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb will have a slightly less reluctant advisor than they did this past summer.


I'm proud to say that some of my best friends are Steelers fans – and I tend to get along with most of the ones that I don't know very well. This year many of you have noticed that I've successfully picked Pittsburgh to win a number of big games, and covering the storied franchise has always been a pleasure. But this whole Terrible Towel vendetta against the Tennessee Titans that some of you have going makes y'all seem a little moist. Whether you're a fan of ostentatious victory celebrations, can you really say, with a straight face, that the sight of those Titans players stomping on a Terrible Towel toward the end of their 31-14 victory last Sunday was offensive? For starters,it's a towel. Not the American flag; not the Bible; not Dan Rooney's personal handkerchief.

There were approximately 15,000 Steelers fans at LP Field, which to their credit is not unusual when Pittsburgh plays on the road, and many of them spent much of the day expressing their support for the visitors by waving yellow towels. Picture a rival team's fans doing that at Heinz Field, and tell me whether after a few IC Lights you might be tempted to show your displeasure with the Towel – the blessed, sacred cloth of devotion – after a satisfying victory. If Joey Porter or Greg Lloyd had done it for you back in the day, you'd have thought it was funny. So perhaps you can understand why the Titans would want to give it back to the towel-waving masses, and you need to realize that, however they might claim to use this alleged slight to motivate them in a potential rematch, Steelers players really aren't that worked up about it. I was on the field after the game, and as usual it was hugs and dap and a prayer circle and "how's so and so?" and "good luck with the rest of the season" between the two teams. That's what football players do; it's the fans who get their Terrible Panties in a bunch and express their outrage about the desecration of the blessed Terrycloth hand-drying device. You need to get over it.


Dock Ellis, the former major league pitching standout who died last Friday of liver disease at the age of 63. Famous for having thrown a no-hitter on LSD – which might have been both the greatest achievement in sports history and the greatest accomplishment in psychedelic drug history – Ellis had a vivid existence that became even richer when he got sober after his playing days. The man devoted himself to drug and alcohol counseling and was revered by many of the people he helped, and I know from speaking to some of them that Dock will truly be missed. As one of my final assignments for Sports Illustrated, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Ellis in the summer of 2007, and we spoke on the phone several times thereafter. I plan on writing more about his experiences in a column after the NFL season ends. In the meantime, I'm hoping those of you who didn't know much about Dock – or who saw him as a caricature – will take the time to do a little research and learn more about his exceptional life.


The Golden Bears' volleyball team, which had its season ended by eventual national champion Penn State for the second consecutive season (this year in the NCAA quarterfinals, last year in the semis), had a pair of players honored as All-Americans: junior outside hitter Hana Cutura (first team) and sophomore setter Carli Lloyd (second team). So yeah, Cal will be right back in the mix in '09.


War Is Over Christmas


Thanks to a jubilant text message from my fellow Reading devotee Dan the Man, my Saturday night in Nashville last weekend rocked that much harder. The text brought news of the Royals' biggest victory since stunning Liverpool in December of '08, a 3-1 road triumph over Birmingham City that moved Reading past Blues and into second place in the Football League Championship table. If the season were to end today – and there are 22 games remaining, so I realize that's kind of a silly statement – the Royals would earn automatic promotion back to the Premier League after a one-season absence. A brilliant Noel Hunt free kick in the 12th minute gave Reading a 1-0 lead at St. Andrew's, and after some shoddy defending led to a Kevin Phillips equalizer on the hour, Kevin Doyle fought through traffic to glance in a spectacular header off the far post off a Stephen Hunt cross. The Royals clinched it in the 82nd minute when Doyle's cross was headed in by Kalifa Cisse, sending 1,400 visiting members of the Blue Army into a cacophonous celebration. Now comes a big holiday weekend for Steve Coppell's squad, which hosts Cardiff City on Friday (Boxing Day) and travels to Southampton on Sunday.


Note: Live Trippin' returns from holiday hiatus on Tuesday, Dec. 30.

"Hey Silver, The Terrible Towel is like the American flag in western PA. So yeah, you jackass, it is a horror when the Titans decided to stomp on it. That, my friend, is disrespect and will be easy bulletin board material for when they meet again in the AFC championship. How would you like it if I stomped on your child's birth announcement or your marriage certificate? … In my eyes, it is the same exact thing."

Ann Arbor, Mich.

Three words: Seek help now.

"Great article on Ray Lewis, Michael. Sadly, when Ray retires, I fear that may be the last of the throwback players who play the game for team and town first and self and success second. He is the last of an almost dead breed and I see no worthy replacements on the horizon. I grew up a Giants fan (I can recite the o-line from Super Bowl XXI – Benson, Ard, Oates, Godfrey and Nelson with Bavaro at the TE). LT [Lawrence Taylor] was the linebacker of his time and minus the [drug] problem [and the fact that the guy was a major league (expletive), off the field] he played the game with a ferocity, passion and dominance that no one had ever seen before. That's what I remember about my Giants of the LT days, and it's what I will always remember about Ray Lewis."

Jason Schwartz
Freehold, N.J.

Thanks for the cool trip down memory lane. The original LT and Ronnie Lott were certainly the two greatest defensive players of their generation, and I know Lewis would be flattered by the comparison.

"Nice prediction on Saints vs. Lions. Had Detroit had a 36-point play in their playbook, you would have been right on (again). As you stated, you are the king of predictions, well take this prediction back to your hair salon: 42-7, 42-7, 42-7, 42-7! So were you there to witness the big upset? I hope so. I just wanted to drop by and point out that you were wrong. In the meantime, you might want to think about giving up 'writing,' or at least making foolish predictions that make you look more ridiculous than your mug shot. 42-7 Saints win!"

Brad Coverstone
Anna, Ohio

Dude, you and a bunch of your fellow emailers seem a tad emotional about this prediction, one of the 240 (including the Bengals-Eagles tie, which wasn't counted in the standings) I've made this season – and one in which I was picking a big underdog. If you think I get overly invested in the outcome of any sporting event that doesn't involve Cal or one of my kids, you haven't been "reading" closely.

"Scott Fujita succinctly summed up what I was going to write to you about. I laughed on Nov. 25 at your Saints-Lions 'insight,' if you could call it that. And I did 'mark it down.' How people the caliber of you get recurring paychecks to write about sports is a mystery to me. Just like how the Fords think they can run a football team. Seems like incompetence is the name of the game in the American business landscape these days. BTW … I predicted 34-17 Saints, so I'm not perfect either."

Eric Cooper

Here's one difference between you and Scott Fujita: He was joking, because he knows how silly it is when people take predictions so seriously. He also knows that the reason I get recurring paychecks is because I bring you the best NFL coverage on earth (as well as the most humble … but I digress). If you ever compare me to the Fords again, I'll use my massive influence to take away your Thanksgiving game. Any questions?

"Seeing you that upset about Brad Childress benching Gus Frerotte was very touching. Too bad gay marriage was banned in California, huh?"


Gus and I will get a good laugh out of this. Our wives will laugh much harder. For what it's worth, in my and Gus' opinion, they would make a much better couple than we would. That's a story we'd love to describe as "touching."

"Hey Michael, I'm a big fan of your column, but I must admit, the minute I read your 'Take it to the ATM' segment in your last column, I was already mentally drafting the 'what now!?' message I'd send you once the Steelers beat the Titans to all but secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. … You definitely hit the nail on the head with that prediction. The turnovers, particularly the goal-line fumble and the multiple fumbles in Steelers territory, killed our chances of keeping the game within reach and taking it to the Titans in the fourth quarter. At the same time though, the way [LenDale] White and [Keith] Bulluck stomped on the Terrible Towel at the end of the game leaves no doubt in my mind that if we have a rematch in the AFC championship game, that classless move is going to come back to haunt them. I'm not a great believer in the 'bulletin board material' crap, since playing with intensity is what these guys get paid to do every down, but you still don't want to aggravate a dominant defense like the Steelers. I doubt we're going to see the same teams in the playoffs that we saw this week (Tennessee too, with Haynesworth back). Ben will show up to play ball with the playoffs on the line. Do you still stand by your statement that the AFC championship game will be a more hotly contested battle, or has this game changed your opinion of the Steelers' chances this season? I'm sure as hell unfazed (it helps that we most likely won't have to play the Ravens early in the playoffs …)."

Rish S
Arlington, Va.

I absolutely believe that if the Titans and Steelers meet again, it will be an epic game. I also think that a potential divisional-round game against the Colts sounds pretty daunting, as does a possible Ravens matchup for the Titans. It's not hard to see any of those four teams as AFC champs.

"Can I date your daughter? I'm in the seventh grade, too. … Maybe you could also write a sports article on my school's basketball team!"


I'll tackle the second question first: It's highly unlikely I would write an article on your hoops team, but I appreciate the offer, and I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors. The answer to the opening question: No!

"You're a flipping reject. Nobody gives the Bolts any credit for still being alive in the playoff race even after about a half dozen, last-second losses, and another loss that solely occurred because of some of the worst reffing in the history of really bad reffing. F.U.M.S."

San Diego

You know that woman in the commercial who asks her friend with help in a crossword puzzle, then gleefully exclaims, "He went to Jared!"? I'm pretty sure she's rooting for the Broncos on Sunday.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am glad to finally hear someone take a stand against the likes of Mel Kiper Jr. Draft experts!? What does Mel really know, and does anyone [until now] ever go back and evaluate their evaluations? Draft experts are right up there with weather forecasters – they don't have to be accurate, just somewhere in the ballpark. Thank you for bringing their greatly over-valued opinions to light."

Grand Canyon, Ariz.

This Jared, however, is a diamond in the rough.

"Your lyric altered song of the week switching up Kanye's latest single was [expletive] brilliant! I read your articles all the time and I'm always telling my friends to read them too. Unfortunately, I'm kind of young (18) and some of the songs you pick are from before my time. This one, however, I understood completely. I actually have Kanye's album and it was fun to hear it reading your lyrics. I don't know how you do it, but you continue to write fresh new pieces that are intriguing. I must say, you're a true genius and I'm glad you joined Yahoo! Sports. You write in a completely objective manner and tell it like it is (something few people do anymore be it professionally or in their private lives). Keep up the good work! It's gonna suck when the NFL offseason starts cause there's not going to be anything interesting to read on the internet until September. P.S. Ignore the haters! Oh yeah! Can you start a movement to get an NFL team here in LA?"

Alberto Contreras
Los Angeles

I don't know about the team in L.A. thing – it's tricky, though I'm definitely hoping it happens before too long – but I can promise you that I'll continue to write The Gameface, and other columns, through the offseason. Thanks to you and the less effusive readers for tuning in during 2008, and happy holidays to all.


With a pair of playoff contenders set to tangle at Giants Stadium Sunday, we turn over the mic to this year's Super Bowl halftime singer, Bruce Springsteen, who has something to say about a special someone's return to Jersey. And whether you're Brett Favre, Eric Mangini or even Woody Johnson, you'd better listen to the Asbury Park icon (as he and the E Street Band rework their version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" – he is, after all, The Boss.

You'd better ball out, you'd better not spy
And watch the go route, I'm telling you why
Pennington is coming to town
Pennington is coming to town
Pennington is coming to town

He's making a list, he's flexin' his gun
He's gonna find out who thought he was done
Pennington is coming to town
Pennington is coming to town
Pennington is coming to town

He's comin' for Mangini
He'll target Tannenbaum
He knows Brett Favre is lookin' old
Hell, Laveranues Coles might root him on
(Laveranues Coles might root him on)

You'd better ball out, you'd better stay dry
And watch the snap count, I'm telling you why
Pennington is coming to town
Pennington is coming to town
Pennington is coming to town

He knows what Shaun is smokin'
And when Revis will break
He knows when Rhodes is cheatin' up
You'd better watch out for his pump fake
(Better watch out for his pump fake)

You'd better ball out, better recognize
He'll throw the deep out – now that's a surprise
Pennington is coming to town
Pennington is coming to town
Pennington is comin' (all right!)
Tannenbaum is bummin' (oh yeah!)
Pennington is coming to town