Thursday, January 2, 2003

Ready for Prime Time?

I had looked forward to a quiet week of watching wild card games, waiting for the Packers to play next week, after their bye week off. Everything had been set up so perfectly. First, the Buccaneers lost last Monday night, giving the Packers an opening as wide as a barn door to claim the number 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, and a bye week to rest up and get healthy. Then, my daydream came true, and the Giants beat the Eagles at the Meadowlands on Saturday, opening the way for the Packers to claim home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

Now, I knew that the Jets were a good team, and that they were playing extremely well, and I knew that they were playing the Packers at the Meadowlands. So I figured that there was a good chance the Jets might win the game. But I also expected (or at least hoped) that the Packers would rise to the occasion, given everything that was on the line. The 2002 Packers are not a dominant team, and it is doubtful that they would be dominant even if they had not suffered the injuries they have endured. But most if not all of their margin for error has been eliminated by the injuries. This is why I have assumed, for some weeks now, that the Packers would not end up in the Super Bowl this year. But the one thing that could have changed all of that was home field advantage. The Packers in their current beat-up state may not be invincible, even at home, but the odds of a Super Bowl appearance would have improved dramatically with a win against the Jets on Sunday.

This year's struggle for home field advantage was truly bizarre. Nobody seemed to want it. First, the Buccaneers gave away their own shot at home field by losing to the Steelers. Then the Eagles failed to nail it down, by losing to the Giants (despite the Giants’ friendly efforts to fumble away the game). Then, when the Packers had it sitting right at their feet, they could not take advantage, and could not even keep the game close, so the Eagles ended up with home field by default.

So instead of a week off to rest up, the Packers go from the frying pan (Chad Pennington) into the fire (Michael Vick) and a game against the Falcons on Saturday night. And I find myself on a plane to Chicago with my son as I write this, so we can be there way up in Row 58, Section 128, in the chilly night air (and maybe snow!) to watch the game. Early in the season, before most people knew who Chad Pennington was, Michael Vick was already becoming the young, exciting phenom at quarterback. He almost beat the Packers in a brutally hot opening day game at Lambeau Field. The Falcons, after lots of early excitement, ended up backing into the playoffs, after their own problems in the last few weeks were not quite enough to knock themselves out, but only because the New Orleans Saints were losing even more games than the Falcons. The Falcons could not score a potential game-tying touchdown last week against the Browns after four shots at it inside the 5 yard line, seemingly frittering away their playoff hopes, but their season was saved when the Saints also lost their game.

So the Falcons meet the Packers Saturday night, with neither team exactly on a roll. The league's experiment with Saturday night playoff games last year turned out to be a smashing success, given everything you could ask for in the Oakland at New England game, a good matchup, a close game, heavy snowfall, and even a controversial, game-deciding call. I suspect the league thinks that all the elements are present again. Brett Favre, the aging superstar, gunning for one more Super Bowl ring before retiring. Michael Vick, the next generation of superstar quarterbacks. ABC's own superstars in the form of the Monday Night Football crew. Lambeau Field, on a night when the tundra actually might be frozen, and now with the likelihood of snow.

I'm not saying it will be easy, but I think the Packers will win this game. The conditions on Saturday night should be such that Michael Vick will be slowed down, hopefully enough for the Packers' defenders to keep up with him. I would feel a lot better about this game if I knew that Driver and Sharper would be ready to play, but as of this writing they are both listed as questionable. I also think the Giants will easily defeat the 49ers. The Giants are on a roll, and the 49ers are not. The 49ers' defensive backs are not very good, and I keep thinking of the Giants carving up the Vikings' defensive backs in the NFC Championship game a couple of years ago.

If these predictions come true, it will be Green Bay at Tampa next week, along with the Giants at Philadelphia. There are lots of interesting story lines there, but that is a subject for another column, next week, if and when my predictions pan out.