"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
22 Jan 2004
Guest Column by Dan Riley
When I went to bed after Tom Brady, aged 24, had taken the New England Patriots on a 53-yard drive to win Super Bowl XXVI, I was 55 years old. When I woke up the next morning, I was 12.
It was 5 a.m. PST. My transistor radio was by the side of my bed. I reached over, picked it up, put the headphones over my ears and dialed in ESPN on the East Coast where I knew everyone would already be up and rubbing their eyes in wonder at what at happened the night before.
The radio voices that had been filled with ridicule and disdain for the Patriots a scant 24 hours earlier were suddenly giddy with that blend of cheer and amazement that arises whenever humanity gets to witness the world joshingly tilted off its axis.
When I heard those voices, I knew it was true. The 70-to-1 shot Patriots actually had won the Super Bowl, and the trace memory of such that was drifting through my brain was not the product of my increasingly desperate and eccentric dream state.
I had been following the Patriots for a very long time -- throughout a goofy history when they were generally regarded as the Patsies of the National Football League. The reputation was well earned.
Two of their head coaches quit on the team -- not in the midst of losing seasons -- but on the eve of championship games. Not that a coach would have mattered. Some of the more notable scores in Pats big game history: Green Bay 35, Pats 21; Bears 46, Pats 10; Chargers 51, Pats 10.
Then there was the notorious case of Lisa Olsen, a sports reporter of the female persuasion. When she ventured into the Patriot locker room, a gang of jockless jocks tried to intimidate her with what Victor Kiam, their obtuse owner at the time, jokingly referred to as their Patriot missiles.
Another time the team tried to draft two players with dubious futures in the NFL -- one was in the hospital having a knee operation on draft day and the other had died in a car crash two weeks prior.
When it started, the 2001 season didn't look like it was going to do anything to fumigate the memory bank. As a New Englander transplanted on the West Coast, I had come to rely upon Direct TV to bring me games from home. The Pats' 2000 season had been like a 16-week spinal tap, however, so I decided not to renew my subscription for 2001. Ten dollars a game was just too much to spend to satisfy my swiftly diminishing appetite for masochism.
So I would take the Pats in 2001 in quick, painless ESPN doses -- a score scrawled across the bottom of the screen during the Women's Logrolling Championships, perhaps. If I liked the look of the score, maybe I'd check in with Primetime and watch the game highlights. Occasionally the Pats would play a team worthy of national media attention, and I would keep the whole game on while getting a head start on my taxes or waxing the floor.
That was the case on a Sunday night when they got to play the mighty, invincible St. Louis Rams. It was the first time I had gotten to watch them from kickoff to final whistle since the Drew Bledsoe sheared-blood-vessel game against the Jets in Week II. The team in that Jets game had a spooky similarity to the team from the previous year. I was happy to be using my discretionary Direct TV funds on the Playboy Channel and the Hot Network. But the Pats in the Rams game looked a lot different. Though they lost the game, one might dare to say that they looked a little dangerous.
As it turned out, it would be their last loss of the entire year. From that point on they proceeded to beat Saints, Dolphins, Bills, and Panthers. And when the calendar turned to 2002, there they were hosting the Oakland Raiders in the AFC playoffs.
That's where Miss Sunnyside-up, the love of my life, comes in.
Miss Sunnyside-up is like one of those Ukrainians who periodically appears on TV to tell the world that they just turned 100-years old and did it by smoking a carton of cigarettes and drinking a quart of vodka a day. For decades, Miss Sunnyside-up has been sleeping side-by-side with my disappointment, bitterness and pessimism -- bred over a lifetime of being a fan of not just the Patriots but the Red Sox as well. Yet she remains maddeningly positive, upbeat, optimistic, and chipper about all things great and small. She's a rose garden blooming out of the toxic waste dump that has become the depository of my hopes and dreams.
During the week leading up to the Pats-Raiders playoff game, Miss Sunnyside-up was busily spreading her joie de vivre across America. She was conducting her consulting business in Atlanta, Nashville, and Chicago. While she was cheerfully enduring delays, strip searches, and rampant paranoia at the nation's airports, I was home diligently surfing the Web -- CNN/SI, The Sporting News, ESPN.com, the Weather Channel -- accumulating critical data on the big, upcoming game. Everything was neatly in place for a grand time in front of the TV on a Saturday afternoon with beer and buffalo wings.
No buddies though. I prefer to watch my teams' crucial games in grim solitude. Browns-49ers? It's a party. Eagles-Giants? It's a party. Patriots and anybody else, and it's church. No talking. No fooling around. No taking phone calls, side-bets, trips to the toilet, or the remote to check out the guest on The Capitol Gang.
Two events then happened to seriously alter my solemn Saturday scenario. First CBS had the brainstorm to run the game in primetime, with kickoff at 8 p.m. EST. Second, Miss Sunnyside-up called to say that because she missed being home and -- more ominously -- missed being with me, she had managed to get an earlier flight out of Chicago.
Surprise! She would be landing in San Diego at 7 p.m. PST.
Factor in the two-hour difference between Midwest and West and that would put Miss Sunnyside-up's arrival right about the start of the 4th quarter. Factor in my drive to the airport to pick her up, and we're talking beginning of the third quarter. Factor in marriage vows, bearing children, conjugal rights, and the always-unnerving specter of Lorena Bobbit that hovers over every happy household in America, and what I was facing was a combustible conflict of interests.
Love and football do not mix. I believe it was Vince Lombardi who once said that. Maybe it was Papa Bear. Or maybe it was The Tuna. I'm not sure which, but I know one of the geniuses of modern day football said it. Love and football do not mix.
It is because of circumstances like these that the VCR registers in my mind as the foremost technological advance of our time. Greater than picture-in-picture, greater than surround sound, greater than the moonwalk, which they say gave us Velcro. Maybe Velcro can keep your pants up, but only the VCR can keep your marriage together.
So I would watch the first half of the game and turn the second half over to my VCR while I gallantly performed my spousal duty and picked Miss Sunnyside-up up at the airport. That was the plan anyway.
Before I walked out the door at halftime, however, the Pats were behind 7-0. During the year they had already overcome halftime deficits (as well as some pretty uninspired play on their part) to beat the Chargers and Jets. Seven points then wouldn't seem to be so big a hill to climb -- under normal circumstances. Except there wasn't anything normal about the circumstances of this game. It was being played in a blinding snowstorm. The Pats had gone into the game in the unfamiliar (and for me, uncomfortable) position of being the favorite. Not only did they have home field advantage, but supposedly they had the weather going for them -- at least according to the experts who thought the Oakland Raiders wouldn't take their mittens and galoshes off long enough to mount a credible challenge.
Those of us who had been following the Pats, especially during the sweet, latter part of the year, knew otherwise. We knew the Pats' game was hitting. Putting a hurt on their opponents was what had gotten them into the playoffs and was what would get them through the playoffs. Playing in a virtual snow bowl put a serious kink in that strategy. You need traction to put the other guy in traction.
So 7-0 looked huge at halftime. In those conditions it looked like it could be a one score game. I said as much to my brother when he called after Gannon's pass to Jett went for a TD. He was happy to hear my near concession speech. He's a Raiders fan. He's also a lawyer. Mom insists we really are brothers, but that's a story for another time.
The story at this particular time was this: The Patriots were in dire straits, and I was helpless to do anything about it.
I met Miss Sunnyside-up at the airport. It was like Casablanca in reverse. The plane arrived. We kissed. And she whispered into my ear, "Let's go somewhere nice for dinner."
""Hmm," I think, "a sports bar?"
We were eating veal by candlelight. Actually she was eating. I was nervously picking at mine, preoccupied with worry that the snowstorm might knock out my satellite dish. "Don't you like your veal?" she asked.
"Isn't there something unethical about eating this stuff," I replied.
She looked out the window at the Pacific dancing under moonlight. "It's so good to be back in friendly San Diego weather again."
That's when it hit me: The snowstorm's in Massachusetts. My satellite dish is in California. What am I worried about?
So I tore into my veal with gusto. Washed it down with what Hannibal Lecter might describe as a nice Chianti, and we were out the door.
By the time we got home, I was pretty confident that jet lag would soon be taking over, and Miss Sunnyside-up would be bidding me goodnight. So dear. So sweet. So in the frickin' nick of time.
I could then resume Saturday night as it had begun -- in front of the damn football game! But first to make absolutely sure that the game was over. For me few things are more ruinous to good VCR time than to learn the score before you've watched your tape. I've gone as much as a week avoiding sports news until I can watch the game I've taped.
I've been largely successful -- with one notable exception. Red Sox Yankees, Memorial Day weekend, 2000. We were vacationing in Wisconsin. Back home two VCRs were set to tape the Sunday night match-up between Pedro and Roger Clemens (contemptuously known around our house as The Firecracker).
Wisconsin in May. Everybody's busy shopping for new cheeseheads for the next Packers' season, right? What would be the chances of running into anyone who cares about sports news from Boston or New York?
The housekeeper at our B&B came into our room the morning after the game, looked at the Sox cap hanging on my bedpost, and exclaimed, "How about those Red Sox?"
Huh? What? I was so dumbstruck; I couldn't stop her from saying another word.
"Nixon homers in the ninth. Sox win, 1-0," she exclaims, "What a game!"
I know there are different points of view on this. Miss Sunnyside-up for instance cannot believe that I will sit and watch a game from beginning to end when the entire world already knows the outcome. She thinks I should have better things to do with my time.
Oh, really? To clean the garage, perchance? Weed the garden? Write my mom? I can see the booby in that trap a mile away -- and it ain't me.
For me, as long as I can keep the outcome of the game a secret from myself, the resulting experience is positively H.G. Wells. When I sit down in front of the VCR, it's like a time machine -- and I'm going back to where the earth stood at the moment I turned away from the game.
And so it was that Saturday night. As I went to get Miss Sunnyside-up's suitcase out of the car, I asked her to turn on the TV to check to make sure that the game was over. When I came in with her suitcase, she announced, "They're still playing."
I looked at my watch -- couldn't be. Must be highlights, I said. I told her I was going to the bathroom. I asked her to check again and see if it wasn't highlights. I knew this wouldn't be all that easy a task for her since Miss Sunnyside-up has never actually watched a football game -- only highlights. It was possible she didn't know what a game played in real time looked like.
As I emerged from the bathroom, I noticed the message light blinking from the answering machine. Uh-oh. Could be some "wassup" buddy calling in with the score. Then again it could be one of our daughters calling in for help -- stranded in a foreign country with no cash and terrorism in the air.
"Message... message... message," blinked the machine. It was one of those moments like when Keeanu Reeves has to decide if he cuts the green wire or the red wire to defuse the bomb.
I wanted to call Miss Sunnyside-up to listen to the message for me, but I knew where that would lead. "That could be one of our daughters trapped in a foreign country with no cash and terrorism in the air," she would scream. "And you won't take the message because of a damned football game? You are sick!"
I hit the play button on the answering machine. My brother came on with his Perry Mason voice, like he had me on the witness stand in the closing minutes of the trial: "Tell us the truth. Aren't those your fingerprints on the bloody weapon?"
"Seven-nothing at the half, Patsy," he's saying. "Thirty minutes to go. Tick... tick... tick."
I ran down the stairs, yelling to Miss Sunnyside-up, "OK, turn it off, I'm coming back into the room now!"
She did. And I did. And she said, "They're still playing."
I was incredulous. I looked at my watch again. If she was right, it could only mean one thing. And I didn't even want to entertain that thought because if it were so then there would be one true thing I would know -- which I definitely did not want to know.
At that very moment I knew I had to be like the man who had taken the Patriots to these unimagined heights in 2001. I had to be like Coach Belichick. What would Little Bill do at a time like this? He would try to get into his opponent's head. That's what. Only trouble was, I wasn't sure who my opponent was any more. Was it the Raiders? The head of CBS? The weatherman? Miss Sunnyside-up?
Or had I become my own worst enemy?
I decided to exploit Miss Sunnyside-up's weakness for romance and invited her to join me for a nightcap while I let the tape run for another half hour. Miss Sunnyside-up didn't drink nightcaps (neither did I) but she was, as I game planned, charmed by the suggestion and chose to fight off jet lag for another half-hour to enjoy some precious bonding time with her hubby.
As I drew it up on the chalkboard, when the oven timer went off she would be there to be my canary in the mineshaft. That is, she would be there to turn on the TV again to see if the game was over.
She did. And it was.
As I eagerly listened to the hum of the rewind, Miss Sunnyside-up perked up and asked, "Who's NE?"
Now there are things in Miss Sunnyside-up's world that I freely admit to being clueless about -- QCM, E-mythology, ROI, just to name a few. So the fact that she wouldn't understand all the shorthand in my particular world is not altogether shocking. Even though she was raised in NE. Even though we both went to college in NE, met in NE, were married and had our first child in NE. Even though I've been a fan of the NE Patriots for all our lives together.
"New England, Miss Sunnyside-up. NE stands for New England."
She laughed. And as the tape stopped rewinding, she bubbled, "I know something you don't know."
I looked her dead in the eyes. Jet lag had been replaced by playfulness.
"Don't play with me," I warned her.
I hit the play button and settled in to watch the game.
With the Pats behind in the fourth quarter 13-3, the tension in the room should have been suicidal. The snow was coming down in blankets. Scoring of any kind was going to be extremely difficult. Yet as bad as it looked, I found myself lying there on the couch unusually calm. No knots in the stomach. No sweaty palms. No mad thoughts running through my brain, like how come I couldn't have been born in Pittsburgh and grown up a Steelers fan. Sure, maybe my father would have lost his job in a dying industry and we'd have been forced to move to godforsaken Texas, but at least I'd already have four super bowl championship memories to fall back on.
I was experiencing none of my usually neurotic behavior and was beginning to feel uneasy about it. Did I have all that much confidence in the Pats' ability to pull this game out? Or had I subconsciously resigned to the fact that they were going to lose, and we, their loyal fans, were just going to have to settle for being happy that they'd made it this far?
Or could it be that the blinking neon-like glow of positive energy emanating from Miss Sunnyside-up was disorienting me? She had delayed going to bed to sit there and watch a football game. To what end, I wondered? What was she up to?
"How many points do they get for a touchdown?" she asked out of absolutely nowhere.
"Six!" I yelled, as Tom Brady ran in for the score, and I joyously leaped from my seat. When I stopped dancing around the living room, I caught my breath and explained the P.A.T. to her. "The kicker comes in and kicks the extra point after the touchdown, so most touchdowns are really worth seven, not six. If the kicker misses the P.A.T., then he usually gets a visit from the INS in the morning and is soon on a jet back to Eastern Europe. Then of course there's the two-point conversion, which is tougher to pull off than a P.A.T., but worth twice as much. You can generally make a pretty good evaluation of an NFL coach's manhood by the number of times he goes for the two-point conversion..."
She was hanging on to my every word, and my suspicion was mounting. Not only does Miss Sunnyside-up not like football, she does not like unhappy endings. Try as I might, the obvious was beginning to impinge upon my self-imposed ignorance.
"Miss Sunnyside-up," I finally asked, "Since you already know the score, why are you watching this?"
"Are there really just 2 minutes and 50 second left?" she asked.
"Forty-seven seconds," I said, eyes glued to the monitor.
"I just can't see how they score as much as they have to score in order to win this," she replied.
I was livid.
"That does it!" I said, hopping up from my seat again. "Don't say another word. Don't utter another sound. Don't smile. Don't frown. Do not gesticulate! Do you hear me? No frickin' gesticulation."
"I love the little boy in you," she smiled.
Oh, my God.
The Pats had a third-and-10 from their own 32. Normally I'd be down on the rug licking up dog hairs on a play like this, but now I'm cursed as the man who knows too much. I know they're going to make it. If they are going to force overtime -- and at this point I simply cannot deny the inevitability of that -- they have to make this first down.
They don't make it.
They have to punt.
Okay, I say to myself, if this game's going into overtime -- and I know it's going to overtime -- there has to be a fumble on the punt.
Raiders' ball. They have the ball. They have field position. They have the clock.
What do the Pats have?
They have Raider running back Charlie Garner trapped behind his own 35-yard line for a five-yard loss -- but it's a tease. Garner breaks through and turns it into a seven-yard gain. For all intents and purposes, it is the play of the game, the play of the year. The Raiders have two plays to make three yards. Then they get a first down; they run out the clock; they win.
They get two of the three yards on second down. One yard left. The length of Miss Sunnyside-up's arm. The distance between her nose and her navel. How can they not get it? The success of their entire season is just 36 inches away. Forget the playbook. Sheer force-of-will should be enough to get it.
There's a measurement.
They don't make it.
The Pats held them. Stuffed them! Force-of-will, Patriots.
I should have known, given what I knew. But even knowing what I knew, I didn't dare believe. The Pats were going to get the ball back. They were going to score three. They were going to push this game into overtime and win it.
Was it possible that knowing the delirious outcome was making the pleasure of watching all the more exquisite? I know a guy who tapes all of his teams' games, but will only watch the games he knows they've won. I used to think this is not the kind of guy you want to be stuck with inside a foxhole, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe he'd found the key to bliss.
The Pats did indeed get the ball back. And they surely looked like they were going in for at least three, which would tie the game and send it into overtime. All was unfolding neatly according to the unsolicited clues Miss Sunnyside-up had been recklessly dropping all over the place.
And then Charles Woodson hit Brady.
And Brady fumbled.
And the Raiders recovered.
According to an expert on the scene, CBS broadcaster Greg Gumbel, "Biekert falls on the ball and has pretty much sealed an Oakland Raiders victory."
That was it. Game over. Raiders win.
I looked over at non-gesticulating Miss Sunnyside-up, staring sphinx-like at the screen. How could she have been so cool? I mean, "I just can't see how they score as much as they have to score in order to win this?" What kind of hustle was that? Had I been sleeping with a con artist all these years?
And how could she have been so cruel? What reserves of resentment had she built up over the years to torment me as she had?
In the midst of my doubts and self-pity, Gumbel announced, "Well they're going to review whether it's a fumble."
Review? Were they crazy? Brady's fumble could have been part of a training video for aspiring NFL refs. The screen goes black and this James Earl Jones-like voice intones: THIS IS A FUMBLE as we cut to Brady fumbling. What was there to review?
In the announcing booth, Gumbel's partner, Phil Simms, assured a bewildered nation that it was a fumble.
"Of course it's a fumble, any idiot can see that," I shouted at the TV, before realizing that I was railing against myself, against the Patriots. I sheepishly turned to Miss Sunnyside-up.
"May I speak," she asked.
"Yes," I said, too humbled by the bizarre turns in Foxboro to protest.
"Why don't you just fast forward to the good parts?"
I don't know if she intended to provoke me all over again, but I couldn't get upset. I realized that what she was giving me was her philosophy of life. The same philosophy that corporations all over the US paid her handsomely to articulate for their employees: Fast forward to the good parts.
I looked at the TV where the referee still had his head under the replay screen, and I pressed the fast forward button. Suddenly the good parts started coming at me in waves. Referee (and great American) Ben Coleman overturned his own fumble ruling. The Patriots got the ball back. Adam Vinatieri kicked an epochal 42-yard field goal into the snowstorm to tie the score. The Patriots won the overtime coin toss. They plowed their way down field. Jermaine Wiggins caught a pass at his shoe tops after it had ricocheted off another player. David Patten caught a pass down on his knees in the snow on fourth-and-four for a first down. Vinatieri kicked another clutch field goal. Lonnie Paxton made a snow angel in the end zone. The Patriots won!
Since then I've watched my tape of the game maybe 48, 50 times. It's my favorite of all videotapes. I cherish it more than my tape of the game where Pedro beat the Firecracker on Trot Nixon's home run. More than the tape of our millennial New Years celebration at the top of Machu Picchu. More than my tape of the Beatles last concert at Candlestick Park. More than my director's cut of Bound, the girl-on-girl mob thriller starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilley. More -- dare I say it? -- more than the tape of the birth of our first child... in a tent... in the rain... at Woodstock... while Jimi Hendrix played the Star-Spangled Banner with his teeth.
And I realize that this tape wouldn't even exist if Miss Sunnyside-up hadn't called from Chicago to say she was coming home early because she couldn't wait to see me. I realize, too, that I could have lost my mind in front of that crazy game without her calming presence beside me. And I realize, most profoundly, that it was her chirpy, never-say-die disposition that actually guided the Patriots to their most improbable victory that snowy night in Foxboro.
Who says love and football don't mix?
Dan Riley is the editor of a number of baseball anthologies, including The Red Sox Reader, The Yankees Reader, and The Dodgers Reader. If you are interested in writing a guest column, something that takes a new angle on the NFL, please email us your idea at info @ footballoutsiders.com