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Big Weekend
Football gets serious.


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There are a lot of things that go on way too long, and one of them is the professional football season. There are too many games, between too many teams, over too many weeks. It is hard for the prudent fan to keep up or even truly care. Spend twelve hours in front of the television on a lovely September weekend, watching football, and the least you will feel is slothful.

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Last weekend, though, football began to seem less like a guilty pleasure — a pointless diversion — and more like something worth your time. You didn’t watch merely to be distracted; you watched and became involved. Playoff football is the real goods that way; sport doing what it can do. This is what the Greeks, I suppose, first tumbled to. Games can be a form of drama and even reveal character.

Many New York Giants fans doubtless experienced that funky old-time catharsis of fear and pity last Sunday. But even if you don’t take your football that seriously, the playoffs are still a hell of a show. Last weekend was good: one boring blowout (unless you are a Jets fan). One startling upset. Two nail-biting comebacks.

This weekend should be better.

It begins late Saturday with the Pittsburgh Steelers playing the Titans in Tennessee. The Steelers’ quarterback, Tommy Maddox, has traveled a long, tough road to get to this game. For ten years, he bounced around football, trying to catch on like an actor endlessly auditioning for a part. He played in the Arena league, which is like doing soap operas. Then, the XFL, which is like doing commercials. At one point, he even sold insurance, which is like … selling insurance.

Then, this season, he was hired by the Steelers to back up Kordell Stewart, who was coming off an all-pro year. The Steelers were considered Super Bowl material by a lot of people, but they started badly and with the season on the brink, Coach Bill Cower yanked Stewart and put Maddox in.

He took the Steelers to the playoffs but the gods weren’t about to let up entirely on Tommy Maddox. In a November game, against the Titans, Maddox was knocked unconscious and when he woke up in the hospital, he could not feel his legs. The paralysis — caused by concussions to the head and spinal cord — turned out, blessedly, to be temporary. Maddox was starting again three weeks later.

Tennessee is favored but it will be hard not to pull for the upset. You can imagine the guys in the insurance office rolling their eyes when they heard Tommy was heading off to the Steelers camp for another tryout. “Come on, man. Grow up. Get real. It’s over. Time to hang it up and get a life.”

Maddox wasn’t hearing it and how can you not like that?

The other Saturday game has the Atlanta Falcons playing the Eagles in Philadelphia. The Eagles are favored but if you have been paying attention at all this season, you have to wonder if Michael Vick, the Atlanta quarterback, might not be able to make magic again. Vick is everything that Maddox is not. He is young and astonishingly gifted. He has a powerful, accurate arm and he is not merely a nimble, instinctive runner but almost always the fastest man on the field. No quarterback since John Elway has been such a running threat.

Last weekend, with Vick at quarterback, the Falcons did something no team had ever done — beat Green Bay at home in a playoff game. It seems unlikely that he will do it again — the Eagles might have the best defense in football — but who knows. There is something about Michael Vick, when he is on the football field, that seems not quite mortal.

The first Sunday game has the San Francisco 49ers playing the Buccaneers in Tampa. The 49ers either mounted a great comeback or got lucky when the Giants — and the zebras — gave them a gift. This week, however, they are looking at a defense that is probably faster than their offense and isn’t likely to run down the way the Giants did last week. A Buccaneer win would be welcome since it would mean fans would not have to endure any more of Terrell Owens this season. Last week, the Giants Jeremy Shockey got his comeuppance. His trash talking and showboating seemed almost to set him up for the second half pass he dropped in the end zone, one which would have put the game away even for the spent Giants.

Like Shockey, Owens is a great athlete and an insufferable exhibitionist. He recalls the comment of a New York Yankee who said of his teammate Reggie Jackson: “Man, there isn’t enough mustard in the world to cover that hotdog.”

There is a purity about the playoffs. Hubris will be punished.

The last game of the weekend will be played in Oakland. Raiders against the New York Jets who are both lucky to be here and the hottest team in football. In the last week of the regular season, the Jets crushed Green Bay. Then, in the first week of the playoffs, they did the same thing to the Indianapolis Colts. Beat them, as they say, like a rented mule.

It was a remarkable turnaround. Early in the season, the Jets looked so dead that reporters asked coach Herm Edwards if the team wouldn’t just give up and focus on next year. Edwards said, with some passion, “You play the games to win. You play the games to win.” He went with a new quarterback, Chad Pennington, who gets by more on a quick brain than a strong arm and he took the Jets to the playoffs.

The Raiders started fast, hit a rough patch, and then caught fire again. Their quarterback, Rich Gannon is a former journeyman who was named the Most Valuable Player in the league this season. He is a quiet professional and a team guy; the antithesis of Owens. He throws passes to Jerry Rice who is 40 years old and still … Jerry Rice. The Raiders, then, are a “veteran” team — a sports euphemism that, translated, means … they are old.

This season, it seems like that might be an asset, an advantage, even a gift. We’ll find out this weekend.

— Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.



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