National Lampoon and Clark Griswold definitely had it right. Hip hip hooray for Christmas Vacation.
I had all last week off from work, and I was amazed at how effortlessly I transitioned away from getting up early, bathing, putting on pants, and slogging through that violent yet delicate dance that is known only as Corporate America. For me, last week was a beautiful journey back to the good ol' days of sleeping late, getting good and hydrated, and wasting the day away napping, eating, watching bad movies on cable, eating, and then napping some more. Anyone who says that staycations are overrated clearly doesn't know how to do it right.
But alas, the holiday break can only last for so long, so now it's back to the grind for me and the rest of the
suckers working world. Of course, if you're anything like me, it's back to the grind strictly in the sense that you are at your place of employment and your butt is in your desk chair (it's a little tighter squeeze as well now, isn't it? Stupid egg nog). And, if you're like me, you're finding that it's significantly harder to get back into work mode than it was to get out of it. Sure, I've been at the office every day this week, but I really can't classify anything I've done so far as "work." Rather, I like to think of myself as "easing back into the swing of things," which of course is Alecspeak for slacking off on the job and daydreaming about the upcoming NFL playoffs. I can't wait for this weekend; there should be some fantastic games all across the board, and think that the Patriots have as good a shot as anyone to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Plus, there's that added excitement of not knowing who the Pats will play come next Saturday.
It's kind of like Christmas Eve all over again, isn't it?
Of course, it's difficult to think about the upcoming playoffs without reminiscing about years past. While the memories have been less-than-stellar as of late, there are still some absolutely incredible Patriots postseasons that, in the grand scheme of things, really didn't happen that long ago. The Tuck Rule Game, taking out the Jets in the Wild Card round, beating the Titans when it was like 25 below zero, Ty Law's 4 picks against Peyton Manning, pretty much every playoff game against the Steelers - and of course, those three glorious, glorious February Sundays when all was right with the world and the Patriots brought home the Lombardi Trophy.
The truth is, though, that I'm sick of dwelling in the past. I'm a Pats fan, which means I'm a spoiled, obnoxious, shortsighted, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately buffoon that can take a 13-3, #1 seed in the AFC season and spin it to make it seem like I'm forced to root for a Pop Warner team with a defense comprised almost entirely of players who wore floaties to the pool until they turned 21. I'm not satisfied with a phenomenal regular season, NFL records, 61 TDs, a +17 turnover ratio, and a 5,200 yard quarterback coming off one of the greatest seasons of all time. Nuts to all of that. I want some playoff wins, and I want them now.
That's why yesterday afternoon, when I was supposed to be listening in on a conference call, I put together my ideal AFC playoff picture. None of what I'm about to relate to you should come as any surprise - but that doesn't mean it isn't still fun to think about. Now there may be some people out there who have revenge on their minds or want to earn a Super Bowl berth by playing the best possible teams. Some of you may be of the ilk that in order to be the best, you have to beat the best, and you don't want anyone to have any excuses for how the Patriots' get to Indianapolis. If you're one of those people that hope we play Pittsburgh and then Baltimore to prove to the world that we are officially the best team in the AFC, bully for you. But that just ain't me. I want to win the AFC via the easiest road possible. The more blowouts the Patriots are able to win, the more confident they will be and the better off my booze and Christmas ham-clogged ticker will be. So here is my dream AFC playoff tree, which I scribbled down on the back of my corporate handout during yesterday's conference call, with a little bit of an explanation as to why I think some of these upsets could actually happen.
NOTE TO THE JINXING GODS: I am merely sharing a daydream I had the other day with my fellow Pulpiteers. In no way is what follows to be considered a prediction, a guarantee, a likelihood, a certainty, or anything else that could come back to bite the Patriots in the patoot. For the love of Tebow, just let the Pats play, will you? Jeez...
Pittsburgh at Denver. Under different circumstances, this game isn't even close; on paper, the Steelers are the most complete and well-balanced team in the playoffs, and Tim Tebow is...well, Tim Tebow. However, the reality is that Ben Roethlisberger is hurt worse than he is letting on, Rashard Mendenhall is out for the year, and safety Ryan Clark won't be playing due to a sickle cell affliction that could be exacerbated by high altitudes. The Steelers are all kinds of banged up, and Big Ben simply hasn't been the same since the injury. In the past few weeks, he has gone 56 for 96 (58.3%) for 729 yards, with one touchdown and four picks. He can no longer follow through his throws, and his ability to extend the play by scrambling is extremely limited. Now he has to go into Denver, where he will face a proud, powerful defense and an absolutely rabid home crowd. Even when healthy, Denver is a tough place to play, and Roethlisberger's limited mobility should allow edge rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller a little more liberty in their pass rush. If Pittsburgh goes another week where they only put up 13 or so points, the Broncos have a very legitimate chance to pull this one out. Denver takes this game 16-13 and heads to Baltimore.
Cincinnati at Houston. In reality, I think this game can go either way. The Texans have one of the best defenses in the NFL and a very solid running game. The Bengals have been one of the surprises of the season with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green each having impressive rookie campaigns. Defensively, Cincy is no slouch either. The X factor in this game, I think, is how each team is coming into the playoffs. While Cincy may have backed in with a Week 17 loss to Baltimore, the Texans have now lost three straight and may be experiencing confidence issues. In a head-to-head quarterback battle, the edge, in my opinion, goes to Dalton; if Cincy can tighten up against the run and force Yates to throw (although Andre Johnson should be back, and even hobbled he's a beast), the Bengals should take this game and set up a divisional game against the Patriots.
So, my ideal Divisional Round is:
Cincinnati at New England. New England isn't going to lose at home in their first game of the playoffs again. Last year's loss to the Jets will be fresh in their minds, and the Pats will come out pissed off and stay pissed off to the tune of a 42-24 beatdown. Playoff pressure finally gets to rookie Andy Dalton as Tommy B reminds everyone why he is one of the best to ever play this game. New England's defense will likely give up a quick 14 points, as expected, but then will tighten up until 10 garbage time points make the game seem closer than it really is. New England wins this one handily and shuts up all the critics and the haters who are just DYING to see the Patriots go one and done for the third consecutive postseason. Because let's be honest - at this point, hating on the Pats is all most fans have left this season. Sorry, Jets fans (But not really).
Denver at Baltimore. An amped up Broncos D, still foaming at the mouth after their upset of Pittsburgh, completely shuts down Ray Rice. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed continue to have difficulty as they struggle through their respective age and injuries (neither have quite been the same this season), and the Broncos are able to run the ball with some degree of success. With the Ravens running game not working, Joe Flacco is forced to throw, and while he continues to look like me when I play quarterback, he does just enough to get Baltimore a series of field goals as the Ravens offense sputters in the red zone. Down 12-3 in the 4th quarter, Tim Tebow engineers a TD drive to make the score 12-10 with four minutes to play. Denver gets another defensive stop, and Tebow drives the Broncos to the Ravens 33 yard line to set up a game-winning field goal. Broncos take the game 13-12 and Tebowmania once again makes a nauseating comeback, much to my chagrin.
Bring on the AFC Championship!
Denver at New England. The Broncos make the game closer than it should be as Tom Brady and the offensive line take some time to figure out Denver's staunch defense. New England, in typical fashion, allows the Broncos to control the ball with the running game and a few well-executed playaction passes through most of the 1st quarter. I can see a score along the lines of 10-3 Denver after 1. But once Tommy B figures a defense out - and it's always just a matter of when, not if - he turns it on in the 2nd quarter and the Pats offense continues to roll. Beauty and the Beast (I'm still trying to coin that phrase to describe the Brady to Gronk connection) hook up for two touchdowns and force the Broncos to throw as they have to play from behind. And we all know what happens when Tebow has to throw. Tebow ends up Tebowing himself right out of the playoffs, and New England goes on to win by two scores - but all anyone talks about is what a great effort the Broncos put forth in this postseason, once again allowing the Pats to fly under the radar and avoid any media hype going into February.
Are we likely to see the playoffs unfold this way, with a Denver vs. New England AFC Championship game? Highly, highly, highly doubtful. Odds are that the divisional round will most likely feature Cincinnati vs. the Patriots and the Ravens vs. the Steelers, with Big Ben's ankle healing just in time to come to Foxboro to challenge New England for the right to go to Indianapolis to play against what I think will be the Saints. But hey, a man can dream, can't he? And it's not like any of the scenarios I described are totally off the wall; every Wild Card Weekend always seems to see at least one upset, so who knows. Stranger things have happened in the playoffs - a fact Pats fans know all too well.
I suppose I should get some actual work done now. Then again, it is almost the weekend, and I haven't really thought too hard about how I'd want the NFC to unfold...