It was hard to watch the Saints knock the playoff stuffing out of the Packers and shake the nagging thought: "How the hell do the Chargers tell Drew Brees to pack his bags?!" Nothing against Phillip Rivers, but you compound that decision with the switch from Marty Schottenheimer to Norv Turner, and suddenly the decision-making in San Diego looks a little cocky, doesn't it?
As much of a Saints fan as I am, in the bigger picture I was sorry to see the Packers lose because it put a serious hurting on one of this year's more titillating Super Bowl story lines: Favre vs. the Packers: Round Two. I figured the Jets would be the weaker half of this scenario, but as I live and breathe they are shaping up to be an elite AFC team with a serious shot at a trip to Tampa. You win two games back to back on the road in New England and Tennessee, and there is no escaping reality: You have replaced the Titans as the team to beat.
Without question, it'll be hard to beat Brett taking on his former team when it comes to awkward Super Bowls. People would have to sort out a silo full of conflicted feelings, hate would spew, fences would remain unmended, and we'd all have a real good show -- but a guy can still dream, can't he? And as the NFL hugs the rail and charges down the stretch, we still have a slew of interesting playoff scenarios shaping up that aren't lacking for uncomfortable story lines. Let's break a few down...
If season ended today, bye weeks would be awarded to the Titans, Steelers, Giants and Bucs, leaving us with a mixed slate including the Colts at the Broncos, a game that virtually guarantees we see the record for most playoff points scored by one team fall. The Bronco defense has actually found a way to look worse than it did when they went out and signed every D-lineman the Browns cut. It is one of the many reasons they also earn a separate, awkward distinction later in the awkward Super Bowl rundown.
In the NFC, you'd have the Redskins at Arizona in a rematch of Washington's 24-17 Week 3 win at home. This one is pretty tasty -- Clinton Portis and the power running game against Kurt Warner's awesome aerial attack. So much has been made about teams being incapable of winning in 2008 when they travel from West to East -- this time we'd get to see if home cooking is the answer.
Meanwhile, the Panthers at the Bears could be the best game of the week. They match up nicely, as evidenced by the Panther's 20-17 panther win at home in Week 2, although the score is a little deceptive as Carolina stormed back from 17-3 third-quarter deficit. The vibe here is that the Panthers still have the slight edge, based primarily on the fact that a strong case can be made that, now that the Eagles have, er, landed, the NFC South may have bumped the NFC East off its perch as the toughest division in the NFL. I mean, who wants to play Tampa, Carolina, Atlanta, or the Saints when they are clicking? Tough divisions mean tough and tested playoff teams.
Compelling matchups all, but there are a host of other scenarios that promise compelling games with that added, magical dollop of discomfort that elevates good TV to greatness. Of course, we will have to wait for Feb. 1 to see if any of our potentially uncomfortable Super Bowl confrontations materialize. (Wait, what?! Feb. 1? Wow that's a long way off!) But in the meantime, here's the way I see some of the juicier potential Super Bowl storylines:
The Rookie Head Coach Bowl
The fact is, Tony Sparano's Dolphins and Mike Smith's Falcons have done a lot more than merely shake off the ashes of their respective team's brutal 2007 campaigns -- they are in the hunt, baby! This one may not strike the average viewer as awkward, but think about the tension it creates in the front office of every single team that's watching the Super Bowl at home? What owner doesn't watch the Rookie Coach Bowl and think, "Wait a minute -- you can take two pitiful teams with a combined record of 5-27 and get 'em in the playoffs, maybe even the Super Bowl one year later?" It may not feel awkward for you, but believe me, you do not want to be Romeo Crennel or Phil Savage that week!
Watchability and quality factor: Actually pretty good -- the Falcons are surprisingly dynamic on offense, and the 'Fins pioneered the Wildcat, the trendy formation of the year.
Awkward factor: Huge inside the game, and I suspect it might lead to some fan unrest in places like San Diego and Houston and Detroit and St. Louis and K.C. and… well, you get it.
Probability: There's over-achieving, and then there is the impossible -- don't hold your breath.
In a related category, we also have to consider ...
Awkward factor: Zero -- it's actually a compelling story of two kids who haven't been in the league long enough to accrue any weird story lines -- although the Mike Vick stuff would have to rear its shameful head. (Anyone read those animal cruelty details this week on Smoking Gun? The depth of man's cruelty will singe your brain)
Probability: I'm actually going to say there is a slight chance of this coming to pass, which is a gentlemanly way of saying zippo.
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The "We Have No Right To Be Here" Bowl
This one, of course, would require the two teams that won their weak divisions by default to march their way to Tampa Bay, and right now that means Denver is a slam dunk in the AFC, whereas the NFC candidate has to go to Arizona, who have played terrific football this year, but with two games a year against Seattle, St. Louis and San Fran, what is real here, my friends?
Awkward factor: Pretty fantastic, as the Broncos get what they deserve as a team that shouldn't be in the playoffs to begin with.
Probability: Even lower than the Rookie Head Coach Bowl, which is to say none.
The Relocation Bowl
How painful it was to watch the Browns get ripped from Cleveland's heart, relocated to Baltimore, only to go on and win the only Super Bowl in Brown's history. It was enough to question the existence of the football gods. This year we have two scenarios - the Ravens do it again, or more probable, it's the Houston Oilers/Titans versus the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals.
Watchability and quality factor: Pretty great if it's Titans/Cards -- these are exciting teams, and when two franchises carrying all that bad karma accrued by breaking all those fans' hearts, the thunderbolts of fate are sure to be blasting. Staph infection thriving in the owner's box? Hmmm…
Awkward factor: Huge -- and yet we will see an entire two weeks worth of pre-game hype with nary a mention of the betrayal at this game's core.
Probability: Our highest yet, thanks to the increased odds of three viable teams in the mix.
Watchability and quality factor: No doubt it's a great game.
Awkward factor: A huge gut punch to every Cheesehead in America, and the most underreported factor of all will be the reality that the New York teams don't play in New York. This is really the Jersey-Bowl. It's an entirely different state, it makes me crazy. 'Nuff said for now -- I don't want to steal all the thunder from my Superblog!
Probability: Three weeks ago I would have said no way, but as of this moment, you can make a strong case this is the Super Bowl we will see.
And finally, we have the big daddy of 'em all…
The Super Bowl That Sets An All Time Record For Cutaway Shots Of Parents In A Luxury Box
Yes, my friends, it's Peyton vs. Eli in the Manning Bowl. They both have one ring apiece; this time it's personal as they go for the tiebreaker and family bragging rights.
Watchability and quality factor: Outrageous -- first of all, it's a great game. Second of all, they are so different in the way they deal with their emotions -- Peyton the whiner, Eli the stoic -- toss in America as judge and jury? Riveting!
Awkward factor: Humongous! We get to watch both starting quarterback's parents being torn in half emotionally, and let's not forget, this may be the first Super Bowl broadcast to feature the rival quarterbacks in every single commercial! Overexposure reaches a new zenith, heads explode, viewers weep for mercy, finally surrender and switch over to bowling on ESPN.