Never Mind What I Said: Bring on an FBS Playoff!

A little over two months ago, I responded to a Sports Illustrated article detailing how unscrupulous business practices are keeping college football fans from a playoff system because bowl organizers are getting rich off advertising revenues and forced ticket sales. I defended the current system, citing a lack of hard evidence in the article that a playoff system would improve anything. I suggested that NCAA regulation of bowl-appearance bonuses for coaches and removal of conference profit-sharing could fix a system without forcing a radical change that I thought would be both costly and rocky in transition. But as the Joker said in “The Dark Knight:” “I’ve had a change of heart.”

I first realized my priorities might be wrong when I read some of the comments readers posted online. They struck me as surprisingly logical, and I found myself agreeing with them. Uh-oh.

In my pro-BCS article, I said “what makes Bowl season great is that for about a month… at just about any time on just about any day you can turn the t.v. on and find bushy-eyed youngsters in sunny stadiums playing great football.” Despite my shifting opinions, I still believed that my support of the BCS bowl system would be validated by all the great bowl games that I’d soon be watching.

Nope. Didn’t happen. Of all the non-BCS bowl games, I don’t think I watched a combined five minutes. Of the BCS bowls themselves, I only watched one: the Rose Bowl, which featured Wisconsin, the only college football team I actively root for. Maybe I watched a bit of the Sugar Bowl, too, just to see if Ohio State could restore some honor to Big Ten conference. I watched even less of the BCS national championship, changing the channel when the game failed to spark my interest in the first 45 seconds. I said that all the great football would justify my support of a highly exploitative system. But actions speak far louder than words, and my actions tell a far different story. If there was great football being played in the Houston Bowl, Emerald Bowl or Outback Bowl, I didn’t bother watching it.

I was perplexed by this rather abrupt about-face, but now I understand why it happened: lack of intrigue. Let’s compare the bowl season with the NCAA basketball tournament. In the 2010 championship game, Butler University faced off against Duke University in Indianapolis. It was the kind of match-up sports writers could only dream of. Here was Butler, a school of 4,500 students that has only sent four players to the NBA. Their opponent: Duke, one of the best college basketball programs in history. Three times as many students. Over 50 NBA draftees. A head coach who in his spare time wins gold medals with the Olympic team. And now the two would contend for a title on Butler’s home turf. Cinderella. David vs. Goliath. The Alamo. Other generic sports metaphor. Only in sports do we get these kind of stories, and they’re what make sports worth watching.

But if Butler and Duke had played just one random basketball game together and then gone their separate ways, would anyone outside of Durham or Indianapolis have cared? Unlikely. Butler needed to win all of those preliminary games to build an aura around itself, to let the media promote the team and convince fans that this was a team worth watching, maybe even worth “believing in.” Butler’s intrigue grew with each successive win. A college football playoff system would do the same thing. If Ohio-Wesleyan beats Brigham Young in the Motor City Bowl and then the season ends, who cares? But if Ohio-Wesleyan goes on and beats, say, Boise State? Then Florida? Then Oregon? Now they’re interesting! That’s the power of the playoffs: they create stories that can’t be told in a single game.

I still believe that losing neutral game sites and bowl credibility will cost the BCS money in advertising and sponsorship. But if they moved to a playoff system with games played at the stadiums of their schools, much of that revenue could probably be replaced with local advertising. Schools would not have to take a bath on ticket sales, and students wouldn’t have to take a bath on travel fees. No more of this “forcing schools to pay for bringing the marching band” crap, either. Perhaps the BCS could even compromise, playing the first couple rounds at school stadiums, then moving “Football’s Final Four” to a neutral site. Corporate sponsors would probably sponsor the semi-finals and championship if it was marketed the same way college basketball is.

As for the lengthened-season issue, all the BCS would need to do is get rid of the three weeks between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason. No other league waits that long to start its playoffs, because the game-play suffers because the players get rusty. Start the playoffs the week after the regular season ends, maybe throw in an NFL-style first-round bye for the best teams, and call it a day. Or, delay it just enough so that the BCS championship is in the off-week between the NFL conference championships and the Super Bowl. I would guess far more people would tune in to a college football game that mattered over the NFL Pro Bowl.

So down with the BCS, I now say! Bring on brackets and seeding and home-field advantage. All those number-crunchers can keep their jobs for the regular season, figuring out how OSU’s losing to Michigan State affects Auburn’s win over LSU. But when it’s time to crown a national champion, why should the chance be restricted to just two teams, especially when the climb to the top is far harder for some teams than others? Every other college and professional sport championship is decided using a playoff system. It’s time the king of college athletics falls in line with the commoner.

Red Sox Preview: Starting Rotation

The snow may fall (and fall) in Boston, but the sun shines warmly in Ft. Myers, Florida.

Eighteen days. After all the disappointment of the 2010 season, after all the excitement that followed it in the off-season, the wait is almost over: pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in just 18 days. But what can Red Sox fans expect from these pitchers, especially the starting rotation? In a winter of high-profile moves for the Red Sox, the starting rotation remains exactly the same as it was a year ago. Between the talent-level and the contracts of the starting five, there was simply no place to add another pitcher. The Red Sox, for better or for worse, are stuck with what they’ve got, at least until someone gets hurt or traded. So let’s take a look at the Red Sox rotation, including last year’s record and this year’s projected starting order:

1) Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA, 208.0 IP, 225 K, 83 BB): Lester’s hits-per-inning have dropped each year of his career, all the way to just .8 hits per inning in 2010. He’s pitched two complete games every year since 2008. In 2010, he struck out 225 batters for the second straight year. And both his earned run and home run totals dropped from 2009 to 2010. Lester has always had the power to be the ace of the rotation, but in the last two seasons (especially last year) he matched it with the necessary focus. A dominant pitcher has been born from the combination. Lester brings both power and knowledge to the mound and, in true Faustian fashion, you need both to be a true ace. The only red flag is his propensity for walks, which went up from 64 to 83 in the last two seasons. Lester already has the power and the concentration, now he just needs to match it with control. If he does that, expect 2011 to be Lester’s best season yet, one in which he once again finishes in the top five for Cy Young voting. Maybe even at the top.

2) Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33 ERA, 173.2 IP, 120 K, 67 BB): Every year, Buchholz has faced a new developmental challenge. In 2007, it was to find a way to meaningfully contribute to a championship-caliber team late in the season. He succeeded, and moved on to his next challenge: become a pitcher capable of contributing over an entire season. Due to injury, inexperience and pressure, he did not meet that challenge in 2008, then finished 2009 with a record that, while not bad, did not make anyone see success in his future. But in 2010, Buchholz put it all together, posting the best ERA of any Red Sox starter and a dominant record to match. He finished the season sixth in Cy Young voting. Having done it once, now he needs to show that he can do it again and again. A repeat performance from last season will cement in fans’ minds that he is for real, that last season was not a flash in the pan. Buchholz’s career is still building, so he will likely face several more challenges before he is crowned as a truly elite pitcher. Last year he proved he at least has the potential for major-league pitching glory. Now he must turn his potential into reality.

3) Josh Beckett (6-6, 5.78 ERA, 127.2 IP, 116 K, 45 BB): Even-numbered years have always marred Beckett’s time in Boston, but 2010 was especially bad. Injuries kept him to his lowest total innings, fewest starts, fewest wins and fewest strikeouts since 2002, but that didn’t stop him from giving up the third-most home runs of his career (20). His ERA was the highest of his career. Beckett lost his ace status last season, and he probably won’t say anything to the contrary before the season begins. But we know that Beckett is supremely self-confident, perhaps cocky even, and he will not take losing that title lightly. And that’s good news for the Red Sox, because they will need a healthy and hungry Beckett for the playoffs, when he takes his game to another level. Beckett wants to prove he’s worth the $17 million the Red Sox are paying him this season, and that should mean another bounce-back year for the 30-year-old. The only question is whether or not his myriad injuries will keep him on the disabled list again. Recurrent injuries like Beckett’s are impossible to predict. There’s no telling when a certain combination of stress, age and bad mechanics will cause one to flare up. Last season, injuries derailed him after just eight starts. His next start came 66 days later, and by then it was too late for him to regain a pitching rhythm. If it happens again this year, hopefully it comes later in the season, so Beckett will lose starts but not his timing.

4) John Lackey (14-11, 4.40 ERA, 215.0 IP, 156 K, 72 BB): Lackey didn’t deserve the $18.7 million he got last season. He was the best of a weak free agent list of pitchers, and the Red Sox needed an off-season deal to build interest in the team after getting swept by the Angels in the 2009 ALDS. Now the Red Sox are stuck with a pitcher whose ERA has gone up every year since 2007. Lackey’s primary strength is his durability. He’s started 32+ games six times in his career and pitched over 200 innings five times. For a #4 or #5 pitcher, this is great, because it means a fresher bullpen for the #1-3 starters, where low-scoring pitching duels are more likely. Lackey is also a far better pitcher at home than on the road, going 11-5 at Fenway Park. If the Red Sox have to start a playoff series on the road, his position as a #4 starter means he would likely make his start at home, making this slot even more ideal for him. Lackey brings less to the table than Lester, Buchholz or Beckett, but his pitching experience and predictability keep him from the bottom of the rotation.

5) Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-6, 4.69 ERA, 153.2 IP, 133 SO, 74 BB): Was 2010 a good year or a bad year for Matsuzaka? Who knows. In four years, Matsuzaka has pitched 204.2, 167.2, 59.1 and 153.2 innings pitched. Such fluctuation makes it hard to compare one season to another. And that’s what is so frustrating about Matsuzaka: you never know what you’ll get. Between his pitching inconsistency and his reserved demeanor, it’s impossible to tell whether or not Matsuzaka is ever bothered by his performance or learns from his mistakes. He doesn’t appear to, since he keeps making them… until suddenly he doesn’t…. until suddenly he starts again. Matsuzaka is not an entertaining pitcher to watch, and since sports is still an entertainment business at its core, this makes him one of the biggest busts in recent Red Sox history. His high price-tag only makes it worse. There’s no way to know what to expect this season, but putting him at the bottom of the rotation hopefully minimizes the damage he does to the team. Matsuzaka has won 15+ games twice in four years. If he can do it this season, he will be one of the most productive #5 pitchers in the league.

Lastly, keep an eye out for Tim Wakefield. The elder statesman of the bullpen, Wakefield will probably see most of his action as a long-reliever. But given Beckett’s and Matsuzaka’s injury issues, he’ll probably make a spot-start or two before his final season is over. Will he win 14 games and retire as the winningest pitcher in Red Sox history? Probably not. He hasn’t won that many games since winning 17 in 2007, and that was when he a) started all of his games, and b) had a catcher who could catch the knuckleball. Neither will be the case this year. Wakefield doesn’t want his final season to be as unsuccessful as 2010 (4-10, 5.32 ERA, 140.1 IP, 84 K, 36 BB), but it’s unclear whether he can do anything about it. Wakefield seemed to entirely lose his feel for the knuckleball after the All-Star Break, losing 13 of his final 14 decisions. Wakefield has always been streaky, but he’s never had as prolonged a losing streak as he did in the second half of the 2010 season. Will Wakefield return to form next season, winning decisions and putting together the long scoreless streaks of yesteryear? Or will his final season be marked by ineffectiveness as it was in 2010? No one will know until April.

The Red Sox rotation went 65-39 last season, which means a little over a third of their games were decided by their inconsistent-at-best bullpen. This resulted in an 89-73 record, their fewest wins since 2006. Experience should generate a few more wins for the starters, and the bullpen has been much improved. This should all translate to another season in which the Red Sox win over 95 games.

It all starts in 18 days.

Book Review: “A People’s History of Sports in the United States”

Dave Zirin’s “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” traces the development of sport in America. It starts with Native American lacrosse and ends with professional athletes reacting to the violent and racially motivated attacks at Jena High School in Louisiana in 2006. Zirin’s goal is to dispel the myth that sports and politics/political activism have never and should never mix. Instead, Zirin argues, sport’s abilities to appeal to human emotion, preach to a captive audience and mobilize large forces makes it ideal for causing social change.

A History of Activism Breeds a Call to Action

Zirin presents numerous examples of those athletes and organizations who  have historically attempted to use their power to cause change in society and speak for those they felt had been oppressed or marginalized. The classic examples are boxer Muhammad Ali, who perpetually clashed with the powers-that-be, especially over the Vietnam War, and baseball player Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the MLB. But Zirin delves just as much into other politcally active athletes, such as women’s tennis pioneers Billie Jean King (who once beat the sexist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes”) and Martina Navratilova (who was vocal about her homosexuality and her demand for better AIDS awareness), track stars Jesse Owens (who won four gold medals at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics), Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who raised black-gloved fists in support of their race’s struggle at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico), and Curt Flood (whose lawsuit eventually paved the way for free agency). Even those very familiar with the intersections of athletics and political protest will learn something new.

Zirin creates a compelling time-line of political activism in sport that is as entertaining as it is educational. This is a difficult book to put down, as Zirin successfully sets up the future even as he depicts the present. And both are grim. Zirin wastes no words in tearing down those who stood in the way of these political athletes, be they pro-establishment presidents like Ronald Reagan or Nazi-supporters like former International Olympic Committee president “Slavery” Avery Brundage. The frustration and hate these athletes felt as they fought (and often lost) against these bigots translates across the page. This book will make your blood boil, but you’ll find yourself unable to put it down, even as it makes you simultaneously angrier, sadder and maybe even guiltier.

Selective History

This book is not a work of journalism. The research and writing is top notch, but this book makes no claims to impartiality. Zirin has a strong opinion, and it comes through in his writing. And as much as his examples back up his point, there are some major moments in the history of sports and politics that Zirin overlooks. The most glaring example is the Miracle on Ice game, where a team of college students from the USA defeated the best of the USSR in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics’ hockey tournament. Zirin doesn’t leave this incident out, but he significantly downplays it. It gets just two short paragraphs, including a surprisingly unsubstantiated (his book is otherwise well-footnoted) claim about its result getting co-opted by the government, whereas a 1972 exhibition football game at the University of Washington gets four pages. Millions of people watched that hockey game, and the joy they felt in victory was palpable. Meanwhile, it’s doubtful anyone outside of Seattle was particularly impacted by a spring football game between the Huskies and some alumni.

Ali’s refusal to be drafted and Smith’s and Carlos’ “Black Power” salute are unquestionably two of the most politically important moments in sport’s history. But one can’t deny that the Miracle on Ice was also a critical moment in U.S. athletic history, and Zirin barely mentions it. In doing so, Zirin shows a bias. Had Zirin written a well-researched and convincing argument that, say, certain people saw the hockey match as an excuse for the government to justify political repression of the ultra-left, that would have been fine. Interesting, even. But in essentially ignoring the game, Zirin seems to be avoiding an event only because it doesn’t fit his argument. If he could ignore something this big, what else did he ignore? Is this “A People’s History of Sports in the United States,” or “A People’s History of Those Sporting Events Which Make my Point in the United States?” The latter title doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Which “People” Are We Talking About?

The title of Zirin’s book is somewhat deceptive. “People” really translates to “Black people,” with women not showing up with any real force until the last few chapters (Title IX, Navratilova, the women’s soccer team that won the world cup, and the women’s basketball teams at UConn and Rutgers). Focusing on these two groups isn’t a bad choice, since there is a long and storied history of oppression with these two groups dwarfed perhaps only by the Native Americans.

But America is not only made up of women and African Americans. The only white male to get any real coverage is former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman, whose death was exploited by the Bush administration to help justify the war until it was discovered that a) Tillman didn’t support the war, and b) was killed by his own troops. But this probably all right, since there’s a plethora of literature out there already about white men who have done great things.

Even further ignored in this polemic is the history of Asians in American sports. The only man of Asian descent in Zirin’s book is Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, whose grandfather was interned at an American internment camp for Japanese during World War II. But again  this is justifiable, since so far Asians have not achieved widespread penetration into American sports, with only a few high-profile Japanese baseball players making headlines.

But how do you write a book called “A People’s History of Sports” and leave out Latinos? Sure, Roberto Clemente gets a couple of pages. And yes, there’s a brief and again unsubstantiated assertion that Latino baseball players in part destabilized Black political power, especially in baseball. But when probably the majority of professional baseball’s superstars (discounting pitchers) are now Latino, it feels like they got short-changed in Zirin’s “history.” This is an ethnic group that has dealt with numerous social problems as well, often living in the same urban environments that African Americans suffer in. By leaving Latinos out, Zirin indirectly diminishes the reality of their plight in favor of African Americans’. And that is an act of racism as bad as anything Zirin might be railing against.

The Risk of Revisionist History

Is there value in re-examining history to find the voices of the oppressed and the silenced? Absolutely. But is it risky to replace the older form of history- flawed though it might be- with this revisionist strategy? Maybe so. Because the older form of history, written from the perspective of the “winners,” takes on a mythological component. Like myth, it is factually incorrect. But also like myth, it has been used as a means to teach newer generations about the world and their place in it. Whether these cultural values are flawed, they are essential to society.

Anthropologists and scholars of religion have often suggested that myths and mythologized history (sometimes also called the “master commemorative narrative”) are far more important to a society than a record of its actual events. Looking at other civilizations’ extant cultural productions (works of art, drama, literature, philosophical or polemic writing, etc.), there is far more of an influence of myth than of reality. Myth matters. And while understanding the “true” history of the United States has value, it might also have long-term negative consequences.

One of America’s problems is that it has never developed its own mythology (if we discount Native American mythologies… which pretty much every non-Native American has). Folk heroes like Johnny Appleseed and John Henry are children’s tales meant primarily to entertain, not to teach. And while superheroes like Superman and Spider-Man are certainly archetypal (and even mythological, in the case of DC’s pantheon), comics do not enjoy the widespread acceptance here that they have in Japan. America has no myths of its own, so we mythologize our own history.

Were writers like Zirin to argue that there’s a place in the educational system for both revisionist and mythologized history, there would perhaps be widespread acceptance of both. But the relationship between the two histories and those who teach them is purely antagonistic, similar to the Church of Scientology and the American Psychiatric Association. Revisionist historians would see the current system of history education torn down and replaced by their own. Such an act might make Americans more aware of the terrible price they’ve paid for the country they now inhabit. But it might also contribute to a nation becoming even more culturally vacuous than it already is. As for whether or not that’s worse than how things are now… only history will tell.

Five Thoughts From Conference Championship Weekend

As virtually every member of my immediate and extended family rejoices at the realization that the Green Bay Packers will be returning to the Super Bowl, I’m left to ponder how it is they and the Pittsburgh Steelers got there. Did the Packers and Steelers follow through on the winning playoff strategies I proposed two weeks ago? Here’s five thoughts:

5) It’s still hard to pick winners: 1-3 in Wild Card Weekend. 1-3 in the divisional round. 1-1 in the conference championships. 1-4 in the AFC, whose games I watch, but 2-3 in the NFC, whose teams I’m less familiar with. Had I gone 2-0 on Sunday, I would’ve been 4-6 and, thanks to the rules I just invented, could have gone .500 for the NFL playoffs. But such things are not meant to be. So for now I’ll just take this as a developmental stage in my sports writing career. When I predict the NBA playoffs (I’m not going anywhere near the National Association of Hockey Teams… or whatever it’s called), we’ll see how much I’ve improved.

4) Running backs matter: Both of Sunday’s winning teams won the ground battle. The Packers out-rushed the Chicago Bears 120-83, and the Steelers out-rushed the New York Jets 166-70, more than doubling them up. Each winning team also rushed for two touchdowns. Successful running allowed both the Packers and Steelers to generate long drives and control the clock, with each team winning time-of-possession by about nine minutes. And it’s a good thing, too, because neither winning quarterback had strong throwing nights. Aaron Rodgers went 17/30 for 244 yards, zero passing touchdowns (one rushing) and two interceptions, finishing with a 55.4 passer rating. Ben Roethlisberger went 10/19 for 133 yards, zero passing touchdowns (also, one rushing) and two interceptions, for an even worse 35.5 passer rating. Meanwhile, the Jets (who I predicted would fold if the game was in Mark Sanchez’s hands) had their running game completely shut down, and Sanchez could not quite get it done on his own. He came very close, but a Steelers’ strip of Sanchez provided what would turn out to be the winning touchdown. Against a quality defense like the Steelers’, Sanchez still struggles.

3) Turnovers- still not that big a deal, especially with veteran quarterbacks: Both the Steelers and the Packers turned the ball over twice. For the Steelers, that was more than the Jets. For the Packers, this killed a likely scoring drive (they were on third-and-goal from the Chicago 6-yard line). But neither team seemed particularly daunted by these turnovers. The Packers forced a three-and-out on defense and got the ball right back, while the Steelers forced a three-and-out after both of their interceptions. If you have confidence in your defense the way Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy do, you can continue to dial up plays that run a higher risk of turnover. Both winning quarterbacks had more playoff experience than their losing counterparts. Veteran quarterbacks shake off errors better than newcomers, and that is a crucial difference when it comes to the playoffs. A single mistake always has the potential to cost your team the game, but even if you’re defense gets a stop, if the mistake rattles the quarterback, his team is screwed. Even quarterbacks as veteran as Tom Brady can still be rattled by a single interception (as was the case in the divisional round). But the more experienced a team’s quarterback, the more likely he is to take the error in stride and come back just as strong.

2) The Packers and Steelers are really, really similar: The Packers and the Steelers play almost the exact same style of football, so their wins closely mirrored each other. Both teams went up by multiple possessions going into the half, then failed to score on offense in the second half (Green Bay scored on an interception that was returned for a touchdown). They can score in spurts, then go cold in the face of increased pressure. Both teams’ quarterbacks showed surprising mobility (Rodgers rushed for 39 yards, Roethlisberger 21), but their offensive lines showed some porousness, each allowing at least one sack and three tackles-for-loss (and in the Steelers’ case, seven TFLs). Their defenses, meanwhile, both used frequent blitzes to break up passing plays. Both the Packers and the Steelers recorded two sacks and four TFLs. The Packers defensed three passes, and the Steelers defensed four. Both defenses scored one touchdown on a turnover-return inside their opponents’ 20-yard lines. The Steelers had a better kicking day, nailing a field goal and three extra points while holding the Jets to just 10.2 yards per return, but the Packers had the better punting day, pinning the Bears five times inside their 20. To win the Super Bowl, each of these teams will have to figure out essentially how to beat themselves, then execute it better than their opponent.

1) Jets show their true nature in defeat: The Steelers showed Sunday that the way to beat a bully is to punch him in the face, and keep doing it until he backs down. You don’t ignore a bully, like the Patriots and Colts did, because bullies perceive a lack of attention as a lack of respect, so they re-double their efforts. The Steelers blitzed, pressured and hammered the Jets until they couldn’t take any more. But in losing, the Jets confirmed everything we suspected about their character. As the Steelers knelt to end the game, several players went up to Jets players to shake hands and show good sportsmanship. This is a practice that dates back to childhood, when teams line up, slap five and say “good game.” But the Jets- who celebrated their divisional-round victory in Foxborough by doing back-flips- would have none of it. When the Steelers went up to wish the Jets well, the Jets responded with pushing and shoving (they also rather over-aggressively jumped elbows-first over the line of scrimmage on the kneel-downs, seemingly to injure someone). The Steelers raised their hands in consternation, expecting better from grown men. But when a bully gets taken down a peg, he doesn’t take it like a man; he whines and cries. And that’s exactly what the Jets did, from their headset-chucking, profanity-screaming head-coach to their technical-problem-blaming quarterback: bitch and moan like the little children they are. Good-riddance to mean-spirited rubbish.

T-minus 13 days until the Super Bowl. Can’t wait.

Conference Championship Predictions

We’re down to the NFL’s Final Four. At stake for each team is a conference championship and a plane ticket to Dallas in February. But first they must prove their worth against the best their conference has to offer. The top seeds of each conference were eliminated after just one game, and the two-seeds will host their six-seed opponents on Sunday. The four remaining teams did not play the best regular-season football, but they’re playing the best football now.  So who will win?

At this point in the playoffs, the name of the game is “momentum.” The team coming into each game with the most momentum will have a distinct advantage over its opponent. Momentum will be evident on the very first play of the game. If the kicking team has the momentum, expect a small return ended with an emphatic tackle. But if the return team is the more aggressive, expect a return past the 40-yard line. Momentum should then carry over into the first offensive drive. If the kicking team has the momentum, expect heavy pressure and a likely three-and-out. But if the offense comes out firing, expect opening-possession points, and the team that kicked off will be playing from behind early and quite-possibly often.

This is not to say these games will be decided in the first quarter. All four of these teams play excellent defense, meaning either game could go into halftime with one team up just one possession. And if the losing team gets the second-half kickoff, momentum could be seized by a game-tying or lead-changing score. But if one team comes out playing far more aggressively, it’s just as conceivable that they go into halftime up by two or more scores, and then they can start controlling the clock with run-heavy offenses and “prevent” (also called “deep cover-2”) defenses. So there is tremendous pressure on each of these teams for a fast start before the game gets out of hand. But who will start the fastest? And once they start, can they finish? We won’t know until Sunday. Until then, here are my predictions (which are usually wrong):

Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears (Sunday at 3:00): The Packers have run a far tougher playoff gauntlet in reaching the NFC Championship than the Bears have. The Packers have had to win twice on the road. They began the playoffs by beating Michael Vick, who will likely finish second in the MVP race, and the Philadelphia Eagles. They followed it up by demolishing Matt Ryan, who had a reputation as unbeatable at home, and the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers were undaunted in the face of that challenge, beating them so thoroughly that by the two-minute warning, the Georgia Dome was nearly empty (and most of the fans left were Packers fans). It has been a trial-by-fire for the Packers, but they came through it playing absolutely fantastic football. The Bears, meanwhile, have not been tested nearly as much. They’ve played one playoff game… at home… against the Seattle Seahawks… who finished the season 7-9. The Bears are not as aware of where their deficiencies lie, and that makes them easier to exploit.

The game itself will be about whether Jay Cutler can repeat his performance against the Seahawks when faced with the far faster, smarter and stronger Packers defense. He is going to have pressure coming at him from all angles, and his wide receivers are going to have to fight through one of the two best cornerback teams in the NFL. Cutler can be goaded into making mistakes, and that’s what the Packers will try to do. The Packers offense, meanwhile, should be fine. Aaron Rodgers looks perfectly in sync with his wide receivers, which is good because the Bears don’t give up a lot of rushing yards. Rodgers has plenty of experience with the Bears, he knows how that defense operates, and he isn’t afraid to face them again. The Bears beat the Packers at Soldier Field because the Packers made too many mental errors and committed too many dumb penalties. This Green Bay team is nothing like that team that lost back in September. This team is firing on all cylinders, and they should prove it Sunday. Pick: Packers.

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday at 6:30): Just as the Packers benefited from the strong competition they faced during their wild card and divisional games, so have the Jets. To beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in consecutive weeks is a rare feat (or perhaps “feet”) indeed. This Jets team, much as we hate to admit it, is for real. They do the two things essential to winning in the playoffs: run and play defense. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene are very good running backs, able to burst through the line, beat defenders to the sideline and turn up-field, and catch check-down passes. They keep Mark Sanchez’s touches to a minimum, which is a good strategy when you have  a physically gifted but inexperienced quarterback. And Rex Ryan, for all of his bluster, is clearly a smart coach who can analyze opponents, realize weaknesses and game-plan around them. The defense can stop the run up front, pressure the quarterback and contest passes. Their secondary may be even better than Green Bay’s. The Steelers meanwhile, needed a second-half collapse by Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco last Sunday to win that game. That game was marked by penalties (15 for a combined 167 yards) and fights. The Steelers played ugly, sloppy football. They are lucky to have made it this far.

The problem the Jets have is that they are, simply, a bunch of jerks. Americans have a misguided notion that professional athletes are the best of humanity, men whose souls match their physical gifts. The quarterback has replaced the cowboy (as in “Brett Favre is a gunslinger”). We don’t mind physical violence (and we often encourage it) as long as the players play the game how “it should be played.” And the Jets don’t play that way. From the head coach down, this is a team that approaches football the way a bully approaches the schoolyard. They know they’re good, and they love putting their opponents down and humiliating them as much as they love beating them. There’s no glory in the Jets, just violence. They don’t respect any other team, the game itself, or really even themselves. But we’d forgive all that if they lost. What infuriates us the most about the Jets is that it works for them. We don’t want our (possible) Super Bowl champions to be just a bunch of douche-bags, but that’s exactly what they are. They’ve successfully bullied their way to two straight victories. After Sunday, it will be three. Pick: Jets.

Our Super Bowl will be between two six-seed teams that both play classic playoff football. Check back Friday, February 4, for a position-by-position comparison of both Super Bowl teams. Go, Pack, go!

Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2010”

The Best American Sports Writing 2010 is the latest in a series of collections dating back to 1991. In each collection, series editor Glenn Stout chooses a volume editor to sift through the many, many submissions in an effort to choose the very best sports writing of the previous year. Most articles originally appeared in print (either newspaper or magazine), although recent volumes have begun to incorporate online writing as well.

In the past, Stout’s choices for volume editor have been some the truly great sports journalists of the modern era. Recent editors have included Bill Littlefield (NPR’s “Only a Game”), Michael Lewis (Moneyball), Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights), and Richard Ben Cramer (“What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now,” which appears in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, reviewed here). For the 2010 volume, Stout chose none other than Groton’s very own Peter Gammons, of Boston Globe, ESPN and NESN fame. Gammons introduces the various profiles, columns and exposés with an essay that explores the way physical feats produce emotional reactions, and the timelessness of that connection. His essay is followed by 26 phenomenally well-written stories about sports ranging from boxing to golf, from skiing to basketball.

Highlighted Articles

There is also an emotional range to these articles that compliments their topical range, from Thomas Lake’s heartwarming profile of Mallory Holtman, the college softball player who made national headlines when she helped an injured opponent around the bases on a home, to Wright Thompson’s gut-wrenching quest to find a boxer who fought Muhammad Ali and effectively disappeared, to Pat Jordan’s laughably ridiculous attempt at getting an interview with Jose Canseco. Each story in this collection is evocative in the literal sense of the word- it evokes an emotional or thoughtful reaction. Eric Nusbaum’s “The Death of a Pitcher,” about a young Mexican pitcher kidnapped and then executed, is so tragic in its randomness that a sense of melancholy fills you upon finishing it. But Malcolm Gladwell’s “Offensive Play” is more cerebral, a comparison between Michael Vick and his dogs and NFL coaches and their concussion-riddled players. Both, Gladwell argues, are instances of a person in power (owner/coach) exploiting a subordinate’s (dog/player) desire to please him to the point that the subordinate willingly puts his life on the line. These exploitations, Gladwell says, are social evils, and they require acts of social compassion to fix.

Whether it makes you think, makes you feel, or both, there is not a single article in this collection that you read and just move on from. Every article requires time- a moment, an hour, or a week- to digest in your brain or heart. These articles stick with you, and that’s every writer’s goal.

A Sad, Crazy Time in Sports

If we think of sports as a cultural institution, then sports writing is a reflection on our culture, an analysis into the modern athletic zeitgeist (spirit of the times). And if these articles are the best representations of current sports writing, then the zeitgeist of sport is overwhelmingly negative. Of the 26 articles, there is only one truly uplifting article, and it’s the first (Lake’s “The Way it Should Be”). After that, there is nothing but sadness, injury and death for a very long time. There are three articles about concussions in the NFL- Gladwell’s comparison with dog-fighting, a history of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (long-term post-concussive syndrome) and the myriad ways the NFL has tried until very recently to deny it and silence any study supporting it, and a look at former Patriot Ted Johnson’s life after football (and many concussions). The Johnson profile directly follows the CTE history, most likely because one of the NFL’s ongoing arguments against CTE studies is that they’re all post-mortem studies, and you can’t connect concussions to all of these CTE-destroyed brains until you study them while they’re still alive.

There are two crushingly sad tales. The first is Thompson’s “Shadow Boxing,” about trying to find a man who fought Ali and then vanished from history. The story takes Thompson to one the bleakest, harshest parts of Miami, and his imagery is so brutally descriptive (such as crackheads looking under his restaurant chair while he’s still eating trying to find cigarette butts for the leftover tobacco) that your insides twist and knot. Thompson’s conclusion- that time and drugs effectively erased this person from history, because no one alive has any idea what happened to him- leaves you gasping for air.

But where Thompson goes for your guts, Boston Globe writer Bob Hohler makes your blood boil with outrage. “Failing Our Athletes,” subtitled “The Sad State of Sports in Boston Public Schools,” is about exactly that. At 34 pages, it is the longest article, but that’s because it leaves no stone unturned in a comprehensive examination of everything wrong with Boston high school athletics. And everything is what’s wrong with them. Funding is non-existent. Equipment is out-dated, broken or found in dumpsters. Training facilities are terrible, when there are any. Coaches are incompetent, and the trainer (one for the entire city) is beyond over-worked. Busing keeps schools from developing community support, and it doesn’t matter, since the communities are plagued by gang violence that often claims students’ lives. There is no support from the professional Boston teams, but that’s because no one’s gone to them with a legitimate grant proposal. When you read this essay, the overwhelming feeling is of despair. Given the sheer number of issues plaguing Boston athletics, how can it ever get better? There is no answer.

The sadness of sport eventually ends, but it doesn’t get happier. The best way to describe the last few articles of the collection would be “zany.” In Michael Lewis’ “The No-Stats All-Star,” about the Houston Rockets’ Shane Battier, Lewis departs from his usual “statistics are everything” mantra, arguing that Battier’s bizarre defensive prowess defies all statistical analysis but is there just the same. Richard Hoffer’s “The Revolutionary” is about the man who invented the modern high-jumping style, “The Fosbury Flop,” essentially mid-jump, and his kooky adventures in the 1968 Summer Olympics. Dan Le Batard’s “Life Throws Bernie Kosar for a Loss” is about former Cleveland Brown quarterback Bernie Kosar’s current lifestyle, and you come away from the article thinking Kosar, constantly in pain and on the verge of total bankruptcy, is completely delusional. And the collection concludes with Jordan’s “Chasing Jose,” which you come away from knowing Canseco is completely delusional, as is the company he keeps.

Final Thoughts

This is not a book for those seeking a fun read about happy-go-lucky athletes and game-winning home runs. This collection is a stark portrayal of the world and lives of real athletes, marred by injury, external violence, death, and sometimes just time itself. But every article, even the ones about professional cyclists, speak to the connections between sport and the rest of life. Sports don’t happen in a vacuum. What happens in sports affects the outside world, and vice versa. To deny this or attempt to sugar-coat it does a great disservice to the athletes who put their health, both physical and mental, on the line for our entertainment. Journalists are taught to seek the truth, and that’s what these journalists have done: presented the truth, and nothing but the truth. So help us, God.

Does Tom Brady Still Care?

Who is the best quarterback of the 21st century? Ask around the Northeast, it’s Tom Brady. Ask around the Mid-Atlantic, it’s Peyton Manning. But ask anywhere else and there probably won’t be a consensus. From 2001-2004, the differences between the two quarterbacks raised questions about what is most important in determining a player’s legacy. Brady had the trophies: three of them, and two Super Bowl MVPs to boot. But Manning had the statistics: more completions for more total yardage, more touchdowns, better accuracy and a higher quarterback rating, leading to two regular-season MVP awards.

But Manning’s claim to greatness was always hindered by his apparent tendency to shrink in the face of big games, never getting over the hurdles (often the Patriots themselves) necessary to win a Super Bowl. Brady, meanwhile, seemed able to raise his play to even higher levels in the playoffs, rising to every challenge. And his fiery attitude motivated his teammates to play some of the best football the NFL has ever seen. Brady was “clutch,” and Manning was not.

Consider this: from 2001-2004, Brady’s regular season average quarterback rating was 61.75. But in his nine playoff games during those four years (in which he went 3-0), his rating jumps all the way to 91.5. And in his three Super Bowls during that stretch, it climbs even higher, all the way to 98.97. Brady played at two levels, regular season and postseason, but Manning could only ever play at one. And he didn’t seem to care, whereas Brady did. But those contrasts now pale in the face of how close the two players have recently become to each other, both as friends (which they are) and as athletes.

Differences Become Similarities

Since 2005, Brady and Manning have come to resemble each other more and more. Manning has won a Super Bowl and been named its MVP, and has appeared in a second. Brady has won a regular season MVP and is the odds-on favorite to win a second. And their playoff resumes are startlingly similar. Let’s compare both teams’ postseason fortunes since the 2004 season:

• 2004: Patriots beat Colts in AFC divisional round; Patriots win Super Bowl

2005: Patriots and Colts both lose in AFC divisional round

2006: Colts Beat Patriots in AFC conference championship; Colts win Super Bowl

2007: Colts lose in AFC divisional round; Patriots lose Super Bowl

2008: Patriots don’t make playoffs; Colts lose wild card game

2009: Patriots lose in wild card game; Colts lose Super Bowl

2010: Colts lose wild card game; Patriots lose in AFC divisional round

Almost the same story for both teams, isn’t it? The Patriots and Colts are 1-1 in head-to-head postseason games since 2004. Each has one Super Bowl victory and one Super Bowl loss. The Patriots have lost three AFC divisional games and the Colts have only lost two, but the Colts have also lost one more wild card game than the Patriots. And the Patriots missed the playoffs in a season where they went 11-5 without Brady, just one win less than the Colts that season.

Even as the Patriots’ and Colts’ playoff records have become photocopies of each other, so have Brady and Manning come to resemble each other. Manning still has a tremendous edge in completions, total yardage and touchdowns, but that’s because the Colts have always been the team that utilizes the deep pass more. No matter what their similarities may be, Manning will likely always have the somewhat stronger arm. But even as Manning has racked up the yards, his accuracy and quarterback rating have dwindled. Manning is still slightly more accurate (64.9 vs. 63.6 completion percentage), but Brady is now the higher-rated career quarterback (95.2 vs. 94.9 quarterback rating). Manning broke the record for most touchdowns in a single season in 2004, then Brady broke it right back in 2007. Manning will likely break most of the all-time records for an individual quarterback, but Brady’s teams own several records of their own (including most points and most passing yards in a single season).

While Patriots fan may love the concept of Brady raising his regular-season game to the level Manning has consistently achieved, they should be petrified at the thought of Brady adopting Manning’s inability to win big. And if the playoffs are any indication, that’s a fear that might become reality. Brady has never matched the emotional energy with which he played his first nine playoff games. Since then, he’s gone just 5-5, a winning percentage that’s the exact same as Manning’s career postseason record (9-9). But worse than the record is the way he’s carried himself, especially in his last three playoff games (0-3, including Super Bowl XLII and two straight home losses). It’s not that he treats the playoffs the same as regular games; it’s that he treats them as another day on the job. And just as many of us pursue jobs with a level of emotional detachment, so does Brady. So we have to ask: no matter what he says to the contrary, does Brady actually still care?

The Reasons Why Not

Brady may say that he still hungers for another championship, that he has to win or nothing else is meaningful in his life. But the reality is, the rest of his life is pretty awesome. He has millions of dollars. His wife is a supermodel. He has a son. And he’s already achieved everything a professional athlete could dream of. Championships? Check. Individual records? Check, including one of the most hallowed records in all of professional sports. MVPs? Check. Superstardom? Check. A spot in the Hall of Fame? Undoubtedly (how many quarterbacks who won three Super Bowls haven’t made it to the Hall of Fame?). A retired jersey? Most likely (who else could ever wear #12? And who would want to?).

Is it possible that the same fire burns in Brady that it did 10 years ago? That he really still feels the need to prove himself to the world? That he still carries the shame of being drafted 199th overall? Sure, it’s possible. But isn’t it more likely that Brady has settled into a groove in his life, just as many do when they reach their 30s? Brady isn’t a young man anymore. Any doubts he may have once had about his potential to realize his dreams of playing professional football haven’t plagued him in years. The quagmire that 20-somethings often find themselves in has been replaced by the confidence born of knowing your purpose in life.

Brady was meant to play football, and he will continue to do so until he no longer wants to. But does he still need to win? Maybe not.

Chasing 2,000

John Holland (COM ’11) is a rare scorer in Boston University basketball history. He sits just 104 points shy of 2,000 for his career, a feat only one other Terrier- Tunji Awojobi from 1993-1997- has ever accomplished. He leads the America East conference with 18.8 points per game, as well as 48 made three-pointers, the offensive key to a Terriers team that has won three of their last four games, including two straight at home. But more impressive than the numbers themselves is how Holland has earned them despite every team BU faces trying to stop him.

“I think everybody’s focusing on him,” says men’s basketball head coach Patrick Chambers. “Until people start to really know who Darryl Partin is, and who D.J. Irving is, and Matt Griffin… people can key on him.”

But no matter what opponents do, nothing seems to faze Holland. Great scorers have the uncanny ability to forget a missed shot, or even several in a row, and keep taking shots until they find their rhythm again. Holland says this is essential.

“You have to have a short memory in the game [of basketball], and the confidence to keep shooting,” Holland says. “You always gotta think the next one’s gonna go in.”

Coach Chambers agrees that Holland’s ability to shrug off missed shots this season “shows his growth.” Chambers also points to Holland’s versatility as a scorer: Against Albany on Saturday, January 15, Holland scored 27 points by hitting 50 percent of his shots, including six three-pointers. He earned his sixth America East men’s basketball Player of the Week award with that performance.

But six days prior, against Vermont, Holland earned 15 of his 24 points from the free-throw line, driving through the lanes over and over again, drawing contact and putting the Catamounts in foul trouble.

The 6-foot-5-inch Holland plays both forward and guard, showing both the shooting guard’s ability to move without the ball and camp in the corners and the small forward’s ability to dribble into the lane, draw fouls and hit jump-shots.

*          *            *

The 22-year-old Holland was born in the Bronx, NY, growing up on the 27th floor of an apartment building in the Co-op City neighborhood. His father, John Holland, played basketball at Iona College, and Holland has been playing with him since he was six.

Holland has played basketball competitively since the sixth grade, going on to Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, and then doing a post-graduate year at Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, NJ. Holland picked Saint Benedict’s because of the school’s strong basketball program and competition, which would improve his game and national profile, increasing his chances for a scholarship.

Holland chose BU for its academic strengths and for the city of Boston, which he says “is a good fit” for him – – smaller than New York City but nowhere near rural, far enough away from New York City to have its own identity without being too far from home.

Both Holland’s father and his mother, Diana Mills-Holland, are retired schoolteachers. Holland says they instilled in him a strong commitment to academics. Holland says at some point he may consider getting a master’s degree or going into teaching. He works hard at his classes, but says it can be tiring trying to balance his schoolwork with the rigors of being a varsity basketball player.

“It’s basketball 24/7 most of the time,” Holland says.

When he’s not playing, practicing, or studying, Holland still finds himself in the world of sports. His favorite video games are the “Need for Speed” racing games. For television, he likes “The Game,” a BET sitcom about professional football players. His favorite movie is “He Got Game,” starring Denzel Washington and the Boston Celtics’ Ray Allen.

Holland is majoring in public relations, a subject that, along with psychology, he’s always found fascinating.

“Learning about how to interact with people, companies, to try and get your message across in different ways, that always interested me,” he says. Holland also enjoys his major because of its positive effect on his own communication skills.

*          *            *

Holland wears number 23, the hallowed number of Michael Jordan, but he didn’t choose that number; it was assigned to him. Holland says he originally wanted number 10, but it wasn’t available. But several other numbers, including 23, still were.

“Twenty-three is a great a number, so why not?” Holland says. His favorite NBA player, though, is the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade, who he admires for “how aggressive he is, how he attacks the basket.” Holland has tried to emulate Wade’s aggressiveness, both offensively and defensively. He leads the team in steals with 26, and is just the 10th player in America East history to score 1,800 points and grab 600 rebounds.

*          *            *

As with most competitive athletes, Holland doesn’t spend too much time thinking about the future, whether it is his job after graduating, playing in the NBA, or having his name hanging in the rafters of the Case Gymnasium.

“The main goal is winning,” Holland says. Regarding where he’d play professionally, even in the NBA Developmental League, he says, “I’d be happy if I could play anywhere.”

But his coach says Holland might have a future in the NBA itself, probably as a shooting guard.

“He has the tools, and the athletic ability, and the work ethic to at least get a chance [in the NBA],” Chambers says. “There’s no question in my mind he can play overseas and make some good money.”

In the coach’s two years with the Terriers, Chambers has seen Holland grow from a “gym rat” to someone who plays with “a sense of urgency, a sense of pride in the uniform across his chest.” But for Holland, a man grateful for the opportunities and education BU has given him, the future is wide open.

Big Words, Bigger Deeds: Jets Defense Stymies Brady in Foxborough

For six straight days, the New York Jets did nothing but talk trash, building up their third match this season against the New England Patriots while putting down the Patriots themselves. At times, their talk was goofy, at times it was nasty, at times it was threatening. But all of it would have been for naught without a victory Sunday in Foxborough. Lucky for them, their actions spoke louder than their words.

The Jets defense held the Patriots out of the end zone for nearly three quarters, sacking Tom Brady five times and recovering two late onside kicks to secure a 28-21 Jets victory over the Patriots. The Patriots have now lost their last three playoff games, including their last two at Gillette Stadium, dating back to Super Bowl XLII in February, 2008.

Defense Can’t Make Big Plays

All season long, the Patriots defense lived and died on its ability to force turnovers. Teams racked up yards, but every time the Patriots would force a fumble or an interception to shift momentum in their favor. But there were no interceptions against the Jets. There was barely any pressure. The Patriots could not sack or even hit Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez even once. The lack of pressure allowed Sanchez to complete 64 percent of his passes, including for three touchdowns.

Sanchez’s accurate passing and great protection allowed him to exploit a Patriots secondary that finally showed its youth and inexperience. On second-and-goal from the New England 7-yard line, running back LaDainian Tomlinson ran to his left and lined up behind other receivers. Gary Guyton lost track of him, and Tomlinson ran a quick corner route, catching the ball and beating Guyton to the left pylon, putting the Jets up 7-3 with 12:20 left in the second quarter.

In the fourth quarter, with the Jets up 14-11, Sanchez found wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery on a quick crossing route. Cotchery then leaped, juked and dodged his way for 58 yards, setting the Jets up at the New England 13. Two plays later, Sanchez floated a pass to Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone. It was a perfect pass, too high to be defensed, and Holmes leaped and caught it in the back-left corner, keeping two feet inbounds for the touchdown, extending the Jets lead to 21-11.

The Patriots had just as little success against the run, allowing 120 rushing yards and a touchdown. Jets running back Shonn Greene’s 16-yard touchdown run pushed the Jets lead to 28-14 with less than two minutes in the game, effectively clinching the victory.

Patriots Offense Finds Rhythm Too Late

It took the Patriots too long to figure out the Jets’ defensive schemes. They went without a touchdown for nearly three quarters of the game, finally scoring on a 2-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler. Brady dropped back to pass, then had to wait several seconds while receivers tried to get open. Although Brady was sacked five times and hit twice more, his protection held up this time, and he hit Crumpler in the back of the end zone. A direct snap to Sammy Morris added two more points, cutting the Jets lead to 14-11 to begin the fourth quarter. But the defense could not stop the Jets, and the Patriots’ next drive ended on a dropped fourth-down pass to Deion Branch that would have given them a first down.

Brady found Branch on a 13-yard crossing route in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, cutting the score to 28-21, but the Jets recovered their second consecutive onside kick, knelt once and ended the game.

The Patriots appeared to be picking up where they left off in December (a 45-3 victory) on their first drive of the game. Brady moved from his 16-yard line to the New York 28 on seven plays: four passes and three runs. But on first-and-10 from the 28, Brady was flushed to his right and overthrew BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Jets linebacker David Harris intercepted Brady and returned it all the way to the New England 12. That drive ended with a 30-yard field goal attempt that sailed just wide of the left goalpost.

The Patriots dodged a bullet, but the rare Patriots turnover made the Jets defense confident. They were unafraid to blitz and pressure Brady, who many times had to throw the ball away or rush his passes, at least twice throwing at receivers who had not yet turned to face him. Brady finished the game 29/45 for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His final quarterback rating was 89.0. Sanchez finished with a rating of 127.3.

Special Teams Gaffes

For much of the regular season, the Patriots special teams unit was one of its strengths. But against the Jets, it was a definite weakness. Although the Patriots converted both field goals and extra points, they also failed on two consecutive onside kick attempts, both of which could have been recovered with better execution. Instead, the Jets recovered both, returning the first to the New England 20-yard line and setting up Greene’s touchdown run.

The Patriots also muffed a fake punt attempt with a minute to go in the first half. On fourth-and-4 from the New England 38-yard line, Patrick Chung dropped the direct snap. He tried to scramble for the first down, but was tackled for no gain. The Jets took over and scored on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards, who dragged two Patriots defensive backs into the end zone with him for the score, extending the Jets lead to 14-3.

The Patriots looked like they might answer on their final drive of the first half, which began all the way at their 45-yard line. But a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty killed that drive, and the Patriots were forced to take a knee and hit the lockers.

Another First-Round Loss

The Patriots played sloppy, mistake-heavy football, and the Jets still had to play close to perfectly to win the game. This game came down to big plays. The Jets made more, and they won. For the Patriots, another season’s hopes for a fourth Lombardi Trophy die after just one game. The Jets played passionate, aggressive football, and they were rewarded with a trip to Pittsburgh and a second-consecutive appearance in the AFC Championship game.

Brady has a reputation as a player who always rises to the challenge of the playoffs, whose emotions carry him to a transcendent level on the national stage. But for two straight years, Brady has appeared to be the less interested, less emotional quarterback on the field. Even when the Patriots started scoring in the final minutes, the team lacked the Jets’ fire, their energy. The mechanical, business-like, formation-heavy style of the Patriots that won three Super Bowls may finally have worn off. To win big, perhaps you need more heart.

Division Judges [are] the Whores Who Became Madams

Some New York judge said that, apparently. You’d be surprised how few good quotes there are that contain the word “division.” This one seemed the most apt.

Last week, one third of the NFL playoff teams were cut out and cast aside. Twelve became eight. Now, eight prepare to be culled to four, with the conference title on the line next week. The best of the bottom-four seeds competed for the chance to challenge a top-two seed on its home turf. A tall task, indeed. But in a playoff that has already seen three road upsets, plus a sub-.500 regular-season team beating a defending Super Bowl champion, we can no longer assume the extra week of rest favors the home team. Perhaps the uninterrupted weeks of play has given the wild-card teams extra momentum. Perhaps not. We’ll know Sunday night. Until then, all we can do is predict:

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (Saturday, 4:30): The Ravens should not fear the Steelers, having already come into Heinz Field once this season and left victorious. But the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger for that game, and the Ravens won by just three points. But the two things that were important across the board last week were a strong running game and a playoff-experienced quarterback. And both of these factors favor the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger has already won two Super Bowls and played in 10 playoff games. Joe Flacco’s win last week was just his sixth playoff game, having never gone to the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger knows what to expect, and he’ll have the crowd on his side. Neither team has a great running game (Pittsburgh had the 11th best rushing game in the NFL, Baltimore 14th), but the edge goes to Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall, who outranks Baltimore’s Ray Rice in total yards and yards per game. Mendenhall is especially lethal near the end zone, tied for second in the NFL with 13 rushing touchdowns. Rice is not a particularly strong scoring running back. If Baltimore has to throw to score, they increase the chance for a turnover (Pittsburgh ranks second in the AFC with a plus-14 turnover differential). The Steelers stop the run better than any other team, and that should combine with Flacco’s inexperience to give the edge to the Steelers. The Ravens’ speedy defense may sack Roethlisberger a couple of times, but their offensive line has actually been even more porous than the Steelers’, with Flacco sacked more times than any other AFC quarterback. The Steelers might be weak at the line, but both sides should be disrupted equally by the opposing defense. If that’s a wash, go with the more experienced quarterback and better rusher. Pick: Steelers.

Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (Saturday, 8:00): This is another game that already happened once. The Packers went to Atlanta and lost in a game that the Falcons controlled essentially from start to finish. So what will change this time around? The Packers certainly were buoyed by their upset of the Eagles, but they’re a terrible road team playing a terrific home team. Matt Ryan has only one playoff game under his belt, but Rodgers has only played two, so experience is a non-issue in this game. Atlanta has a rushing advantage (12th best rushing offense and 10th best defense vs. 24th best rushing offense and 18th best defense for Green Bay), but there’s the question of how much the Falcons will try and run on the Packers. Atlanta’s Michael Turner is probably the fifth-best running back in the NFL, and he rushed for 117 yards on the Packers at the end of November. For the Packers, James Starks needs to have another good day, or the Falcons will tee off on Aaron Rodgers. The Falcons give up a lot of passing yards, but they also lead the NFC in turnover differential. Problem is, Green Bay sits at third with plus-ten turnovers, just three less than Atlanta. So then it all comes down to which quarterback has the better day. The Packers passing offense is better, and the Falcons passing defense is worse. Atlanta scores about eight more points than they allow, while Green Bay scores about nine more. But Atlanta also allows more points per game than Green Bay does. This is going to be a very close game, but in the end tie goes to the home team. The Falcons should make just a couple of more plays and hang on for the win. Whoever wins this game will be my pick to go to the Super Bowl. Pick: Falcons.

Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears (Sunday, 1:00): “You kind of suck, but my dad thinks you might be good some day.” That was Stan from “South Park” talking to Jay Cutler when he was quarterback for the Broncos back in 2007. Well, some day has come and gone, and Cutler… still kind of sucks. Seriously, his career passer rating is just 84.1. He threw 16 interceptions this season, which isn’t even the worst season of his career. With the Bears, Cutler has quarterbacked a team ranked 28th in passing yardage in the NFL. And his offensive line is awful, leading to 52 sacks, most in the NFL by a long shot. And the Bears don’t really have a good running game, either (22nd in the league). Their defense? OK, solid against the run, but not terrific overall. They took the ball away just four times more than they gave it away during the regular season. This is surprising, because the Bears defense is smart and can trick opposing quarterbacks. So how did they win so often? Good starting field position, thanks to Devin Hester, one of the best return specialists of the modern era. Cutler has had to do less to win more, and that’s disguised his inadequacies. And the Seahawks have already beaten the Bears once this season (their one win against a good opponent). Even with all of those factors in mind, it would still be hard to pick Seattle to win, except for this: Cutler has never been in a playoff game before. Never. And he’s going against Matt Hasselbeck, who’s now played in 10. That matters. If Marshawn Lynch can have another solid game, and if the Seahawks can keep Hester from starting the Bears at the 45-yard line every time, Seattle can absolutely carry their momentum from last week into Chicago and win again. Pick: Seahawks.

New York Jets at New England Patriots (Sunday, 4:30): Rex Ryan continues to try and raise the stakes and importance of this game. The Patriots continue to downplay it. Ryan hopes that by doing so, his team will rise to the occasion. The greater likelihood is they will crumble under the publicity… you know, like a month ago. The Jets are a team we should all be far more familiar with, so statistical comparisons are unnecessary. The Jets like to run the ball, and the Patriots will have to stop it. If they put the ball in Mark Sanchez’s hands, he’ll throw it away. Defensively, the Jets beat the Colts by shutting down their deep threat receivers. That’s what Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie do best. But what happens when you have Deion Branch and Wes Welker at wide receiver, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski at tight end, and Danny Woodhead in the backfield? Can the Jets defense shut down five potential throwing targets, all of whom can run anywhere on the field on any given play? It doesn’t seem likely. This won’t be another 45-3 massacre, but the Patriots should control this one start to finish. Tack on Damien Woody’s injury, which will give Vince Wilfork a much easier time trying to break through the line, and you should see at least a two-possession Patriots victory. Pick: Patriots (but you already knew that).

Last weekend, I split 50-50 between home and road team, and went 1-3. This time, I’m favoring extra rest and home-field, picking three home teams to win. The playoffs are usually better when the higher seeds remain, so hopefully this sets up at least one #1 vs. #2 conference championship. At the very least, I just want to do better than last week.