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29 Dec 2003

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Bowled Over

by Russell Levine

For any true football fan, this is the best time of the year. Starting with the weekend just past and continuing right through Sunday, Jan. 4, is a football festival including NFL playoff spots determined by frantic finishes, the meaningful portion of the college bowl season and the opening of the NFL playoffs. There are even some intriguing matchups in the lower-tier bowls that are worth watching. And if you're shaking your head over that last statement, well then you obviously missed two of the most entertaining games of the entire year -- college or pro -- in the Insight and Hawaii bowls last week.

There is nothing quite like the Hawaii Bowl to warm the hearts on Christmas night. Hawaii (who else? The game was created specifically for them) and Houston engaged in a spirited shootout that featured a game-tying 81-yard touchdown pass by Houston in the final minute and an eventual 54-48 Hawaii win in triple-OT. That's when the real Christmas cheer began. Apparently Hawaii coach June Jones was on to something when he ordered the word "Rainbow" stricken from the team's nickname (leaving "Hawaii Warriors") a few years ago because it didn't sound tough. For the second time in as many seasons, the no-longer-the-Rainbows engaged in a nasty post-game brawl at Aloha Stadium. This one was particularly ugly, with plenty of helmet swinging and nearly 200 participants. How's that for a merry Christmas?

In the Insight Bowl -- a game worth watching if only to see the wacky field configuration inside the Bank One Ballpark -- Cal topped Virginia Tech, 52-49, on a last-play field goal. The game featured 98 points, 1,081 yards of total offense and 14-point comebacks by both teams. It also featured a noteworthy performance from Marcus Vick, VaTech's backup QB and younger brother of Mike, who moved to wide receiver in one of those, hey, it's bowl season so let's tinker with everyone's position moves. Vick responded with four catches, including a touchdown.

By this time next week, we'll finally have a college football national champion. Or two. USC gets first crack at a share of the title when it takes on Michigan in the Rose Bowl. I expect a high-scoring game as both secondaries could have a hard time containing the wideouts. USC has the best receiver on the field in sophomore Mike Williams, who is every bit as good as the more-heralded Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh. But Michigan has better depth at the position with Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston, who all look like excellent pro prospects.

Following the Rose Bowl on New Year's day is the rematch nobody wants to see: Miami-Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Two predictions for this game -- the stadium will be half-empty, and there will be either a pre- or post-game brawl. Other than that, this game holds no interest for me. The next day offers another BCS also-ran game, as Ohio State takes on Kansas State in the Fiesta. These two games are among the many ugly downsides of the BCS -- matchups with no impact on the title and little interest other than to fans of the respective teams. Can you remember a single non-championship BCS game from the last five years? Me neither.

Only the Rose Bowl, with its rich tradition, can manage to present an attractive matchup when it's not hosting the BCS title game, provided it's Big 10 vs. Pac 10. Tradition is the one thing that sets the Rose apart from the other games, which is why they will never agree to serve as a semifinal game in some sort of "final four" tournament. The Rose can sell out Iowa-Washington any year, but give them Texas-Miami in the national semis, and there are sure to be 20,000 empty seats. As the game's directors love to point out, they don't even have a ticket office. They just assume the participating teams will buy up their full allotment of seats every single year.

Finally, on Sunday night, following four NFL Wildcard games in two days, we get Oklahoma-LSU in the Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma was exposed in the Big 12 Championship game, but given that coach Bob Stoops has had a month to prepare for this game, I expect the Sooners to be back to the dominant form they showed over the first 12 games. One thing to look for -- the new AstroPlay field at the Superdome, installed at mid-season, has been terrible, with players regularly slipping and falling on the surface. Once the field gets painted with giant Nokia logos every 10 yards, I expect the footing to get even worse.

* * *

Meanwhile, when I lamented the lack of Week 17 AFC playoff drama last week, I obviously had no idea what the NFC had in store for us yesterday. Vikings fans, I hope you're still with us. You don't bounce back from a loss like that right away. As the Viking defense melted down in the final two minutes against Arizona, it was the team's biggest weakness -- its secondary -- that reared its ugly head. Even as Chris Hovan was showing up for the first time all season, harassing Arizona QB Josh McCown on the final drive, the secondary, which had been so opportunistic early in the year, fell apart. Denard Walker mugged an Arizona receiver for a 30-yard pass interference penalty. And Nate Poole somehow found some open space in the back corner of the end zone on the game's final play.

Still, the last play was more a miracle on the part of the Cardinals then it was a letdown by the Vikings. McCown showed remarkable poise just moments after his lack of it appeared to have cost the Cardinals their shot at victory. After taking back-to-back sacks, the second one with the Cards out of timeouts, McCown faced 4th-and-25 from the 28. Yet even with the clock rolling toward triple zeros, he managed to get everyone lined up and set for a legal snap. When the pocket was again collapsed by the Minnesota defensive front, he bought time by rolling out and heaved a perfect pass to Poole between two defenders and the sideline. The officials ruled a force-out (debatable, but looked like the correct call), Arizona had its improbable victory and the Vikings were unceremoniously ejected from the playoff picture.

The Vikings have always been high on my list of least likable teams, but even I found some sympathy for them at that moment. Had that been Tampa Bay, I would have spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out how my head got stuck in the TV. Minnesota safety Corey Chavous summed it up best when he said "you don't have any clue how much this hurts." No, I don't.

* * *

One of the most entertaining things about Week 17 was that several teams with nothing to play for but pride rose up to have their say in the playoff picture. Aside from the Cardinals, there were the Lions, who erased a 10-point second-half deficit to knock off the Rams and hand the NFC's top seed to the Eagles, the Texans, who put a major scare into the Colts before falling on a last-play field goal, and the Saints, who bounced back from last week's heartbreak to beat the Cowboys and allow the Seahawks to get in.

Of these results, the Texans were the least surprising. They have been playing teams tough all year and are too young to have learned how to roll over when things go bad as many veteran teams do (see Giants, New York).

Most surprising were the Saints, who seemed to have perfected the art of choking in games that actually matter over the last three years. I figured they were a good bet to put a stamp on the season and mail in the finale against Dallas. Instead, they played hard and gave Quincy Carter a chance to play like, well, Quincy Carter.

I suppose it's a great story that Bill Parcells has the Cowboys back in the postseason, but I can't remember being less excited about a playoff matchup than I am about the Saturday night Dallas-Carolina tilt. To borrow from ESPN.com's Sports Guy, "Delhomme! Carter! It's the playoffs on ABC!" I mean, how in the world did hat end up being the choice for the Saturday prime-time game? Is there a bratwurst convention booked at Lambeau Saturday night? (And to my wife, if you're reading this, that last sentence doesn't mean I won't be watching.)

The Lions are also deserving of credit for their effort against St. Louis. The Rams managed to go 12-4 this year while looking underwhelming a lot of the time. I think I can speak on behalf of all fantasy owners of Marc Bulger when I say that he makes me nervous. At times, he looks terrific, but I think, on the whole, he was better last season. If NFC seeds hold form, the Rams will host Carolina in the divisional round, and I can't see them having much trouble with that game, but losing home-field for a potential NFC title game against Philly completely changes the complexion of that matchup. St. Louis went from a probable solid favorite at home to a solid underdog on the road, and we all know (thanks to this site) the track record of dome and warm-weather teams playing in the cold this time of year. Of course, that trend failed miserably last season as Atlanta won at Lambeau and the Bucs closed down the Vet, so who knows what will happen this time around.

Back to the Giants for a second, I'm glad that the players threw a nice sendoff party for Jim Fassel Saturday night before going out and quitting on him one final time.

* * *

After promising myself I wouldn't, I stayed up late watching the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game Sunday night as Jamal Lewis took his shot at the all-time rushing record. I couldn't help but notice how much the camera loves Eric Dickerson. Perhaps someone should give him a sideline-announcing gig. But I digress. Did you happen to catch the halftime tribute to Art Modell? That had to be the first-ever retirement ceremony for an owner. Hard to believe that Art has hung on this long -- I seem to recall him clinging to Jim Nantz in fear of the exploding confetti as he accepted the AFC Championship Trophy in 2000. Perhaps he thought one of the disgruntled Browns' fans had finally come to get him.

I'll be back with a BCS wrap-up next week. Enjoy the football feast!

You can read an archive of Russell's columns from earlier in the season, before he joined us at Football Outsiders, here.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 29 Dec 2003