Thursday, January 1, 2004

Happy New Year

Well, last weekend's football sure started out on a sour note, before the miraculous turn-around at the end. Not only did the 49ers pretty much roll over for the Seahawks on Saturday (see my column last week), but the Cowboys proceeded to lose to the Saints in the early game, thus setting up the dreaded 3-way tie scenario we all had feared. As the late games started, we knew that the Packers could no longer get in to the playoffs as a Wild Card, and that they would have to win the division to keep playing. That, in turn, required BOTH a Packer victory over the Broncos, AND a Vikings loss to Arizona. Not bloody likely, I thought.

Oh, and to complete the ominous picture, when I went out to get the newspaper Sunday morning, I noticed that my Packer flag was missing. The flag and the flagpole were both missing, even though I moved the bracket much higher after the flag was stolen by (I assume) a 49ers fan a few years ago.

This time, the perpetrator would have either had to give a boost to an accomplice, or maybe jump just high enough to grab the lowest part of theflag as it hung. That is probably what happened, since the bracket was broken in the crime, suggesting that the flag and pole were pulled until the bracket broke. This time, was the thief a 49ers fan? A Raiders fan? Who knows. But my feeling was that this was a bad omen, since I always fly thePacker flag the day of a game.

Still, the Cardinals were leading the Vikings 6-0 in the first half, making all of us feel as if a miracle could happen. But then it was 7-6, then 14-6, and then 17-6 Vikings, with the time on the clock ticking away. Meanwhile, the Packers were beating the Broncos B squad, and when Ahman Green took off on his 98-yard touchdown jaunt, followed by the strip on the kickoff for another touchdown, it was obvious that more attention was neededto the Vikings game than to the Packer game. So I went into the other room,to watch the Vikings game on our second satellite receiver, because my wife hates it when I switch back and forth between games. So she watched the Packer game, I watched the Vikings game, training my full powers of negative energy on the Vikings players on the screen, and I would yell updates to her from the other room.

ME: "The Cardinals just scored a touchdown!"
JUDY: "Great, stay in there, keep working."
ME: "They missed the 2-point conversion."
JUDY: "Too bad, stay in there, keep working."

And on and on. I confirmed around the time of the onside kick that Judy is even more superstitious about Packer games than I am. When I told her that the Cardinals got the onside kick, I yelled that she should come in and watch the Vikings game with me. But no way! Things were going well, so she would stay exactly where she was, despite how utterly compelling the action was on the screen I was watching. Obviously, all of us were really starting to think that this thing might happen, when the second down sack, and then the third down sack and fumble happened. Oh, it was all just a horrible tease. They got so close to winning the game, but now it was fourth down,the clock was ticking toward zero, and, let's be honest, what are the chances of a game-winning, fourth and 24 touchdown pass on the last play of the last game of the season that knocks one team out of the playoffs and puts another one in? (Seriously, what ARE the chances? One in 1,000? Onein 10,000?)

Fortunately, the clock was running, so there were only a few seconds to contemplate those awful odds before McCown rolled right and unleashed that Favre-like toss to the end zone. Poole caught it (the catch reminded me just a little of the Dwight Clark touchdown catch against the Cowboys back in 1981), and was shoved out of bounds as he came down. I don't know about you, but I don't have a high degree of confidence that he could have gotten that second foot down inbounds. But by shoving him, the defensive back changed the equation, requiring the referee to make an instant judgment call, which he made in favor of a touchdown. I instantly thought to myself "Thank goodness that judgment calls like that are not reviewable." Anyway, after hearing me scream that the Cardinals won and the game was over, Judy came in to watch the replay of the touchdown. Then we noticed that the officials were reviewing the play, so she turned right around to wait in the other room. I was terrified that I was wrong, and that the judgment call WAS reviewable, but it turned out they were just checking to see if he maintained possession, which he clearly did.

A couple more thoughts. Later, I watched the tape of end of the Packer game, since I had missed it while watching the Vikings game. I was astonished by what a poor job the CBS crew did of keeping the viewers informed of what was happening in the Vikings game. Obviously, the announcers had given up on that game. With 9:10 left in the Packer game, the little box in the corner of the screen showed Vikings, 17-12. That was a big development, but the announcers said nothing about it for more than five minutes. They were too busy telling us the story about "old hammerhead", then showing the scoring plays from the Packer game, then just talking about other inconsequential things while a major story was developing in Arizona. I gather from what I have read that the Packers radio crew was doing a better job of giving play-by-play of both games at once, so the people in the stands, despite Mike Sherman's Vikings blackout, had a better idea of what was going on than the TV viewers around the country.

Also, not to wish bad things on another team or anything, but can you imagine a more perfect way for the season to end, from the standpoint of a Packer fan? The hated rival Vikings complete one of the most epic collapses ever seen, 2000 miles away, by getting knocked out of the playoffs in favor of the Packers, on the last play of the last game. That is just too sweet for words, and it will not be forgotten any time soon.

And now, the Packers play on, hosting the Seahawks, who will bring lots of old friends with them, including Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, and Matt Hasselbeck. It will be nice and cold, and it will probably snow during the game. There are more story lines in this game than in any other game this weekend. Which is a good thing, since I will be missing all the other games in transit to and from Wisconsin to see this one. As many have remarked, it seems as if something special is going on with the Packers right now, and so this game is not to be missed.

On one hand, it is not possible to have as much confidence in a Packer home playoff victory as we all had a year ago when it could be said that the Packers had never lost such a game in their entire history. But, as Mike Sherman said in the locker room Sunday, there is a big difference this year. The team is on the upswing, they have showed a lot of character by playing their way back into the playoff picture, and their best football of the year is being played right now, perhaps in part because of the emotion of Brett Favre's personal tragedy. Last year, the opposite was true, and so maybe we should not have been so shocked when they lost to the Falcons. Plus, thePackers are much healthier this year than last at this time. All of these factors point to a Packers victory. Probably something like Packers 28, Seahawks 20.

Dave McGinniss and the Cardinals deserve a slap on the back. When so many other teams were packing it in for one reason or another, including Shanahan's Broncos and Erickson's 49ers, the Cardinals played the game as if it was actually important to try to win the game. Which, for the Packers, it certainly was.

My New Year's resolution for the Packers. Now that you have been the beneficiary of the miracle in the desert, let's see if you can make the most of the gift. And try to win enough games next year that you don't need to rely on another miracle.

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