BIG MO AND THE JACKASS FACTOR: Kinda sounds like a '70s outlaw biker flick, doesn't it? But, alas, for our purposes, Big Mo' is not a sexually-confused enforcer, and the Jackass Factor isn't his loose cannon of a running mate. We aren't fighting crime, we aren't righting wrongs, we have no time to settle a score with "The Man." No, we are here to draw more connections between the fine sport of professional football and our own little lives.
As the holiday break approaches, I introduce you to Mo and Jack -- two realities every working American shares with the talented employees who fill the roster slots on every NFL team still alive in the playoff hunt. You most likely work for some larger entity, and in these disturbing days of economic blindside blitzes, your productivity might be peaking, giving you the sense that you are coasting into a much deserved break… or you are, as the kids used to say, sliding into home with your pants full o' foam. Everyday the wheels on your jalopy of a career/dreams/future are falling off, and you find yourself praying to simply find some shelter before the whole damn thing disintegrates beneath you.
That's Big Mo -- he's a bit of a bully, and he's oblivious to the haters. Anyone who caught the Colts in action Thursday night saw the NFL version. We all know that regardless of their situation, the Jags take pride in laying the Colts hard, and this game was no exception. Simultaneously, the Colts also stayed true to form. It seems like they have been allowing their opponents to think they actually have a shot at the win forever, only to snatch the dream back as the clock runs out.
Looking for big Mo? Try charging into a guaranteed playoff spot with eight consecutive wins and major steam. We all saw them struggle to a terribly out-of-sync 3-4 record, worried that it was more than Peyton Manning being out of rhythm after missing the preseason -- maybe the sun had set on a great run? Sure, some of the ensuing eight victories came against bottom-of-the-barrel dregs like Detroit and Cincy, but a string like that -- peppered with wins over the Pats, Steelers and Chargers -- count, baby.
That's how you want to head into the playoffs.
Another thing to track closely down the stretch is the Jackass factor, something else we can all relate to. Every job comes with the hell that is other people: narcissists, squeaky wheels, the empowered imbecile, huge stinking diaper-people -- call them what you want, they have the ability to mangle your noble goal of getting through your work day in a simple, mature, orderly fashion with your dignity intact.
Teams with players who insist on clouding the team mission have a harder time in playoffs, too. The Colts also got this one right. Ever since they shipped their "liquored up kicker" out of town a few years back, this has been a pretty controversy-free team… until Marvin Harrison screwed up by waving a gun outside his bar in Philly. Nothing really resolved there, however it should be noted the incident happened in the offseason, and the cloud was long dissipated by the time the games really started to count. See? The Colts do it right, even when they screw up. Needless to say, this is not a team you want to face in the playoffs.
With only two weeks left in the regular season, Mo and Jack can lend us some powerful insights into how the remaining contenders will fare in the postseason. The impact of these factors are all the more magnified when you consider the fact that our last three Super Bowl champs all had to fight their way into the postseason, and did it with a late-season surge sans an implosive jackass.
The '07 Giants, the '06 Colts, and the '05 Steelers all steamed into the playoffs without distractions on a wave of late-season winning. I'll even toss in last year's runner-up, the Patriots. Yes, they failed to secure a perfect season. Yes, they lost the big one, and yes, they were tortured by the endless scandal that spygate cast over their integrity. However, the big difference is all those stolen signals cast doubt upon the coaches and the organization, not the players -- and a strong case can be made that it served as an incredible team-bonding exercise. After all, New England was a long-standing tower of dominance, and the cheating angle was the only thing that could have possibly given them one more run at an increasingly impossible feeling: "The world is out to get us." Despite the fact that they lost to the Giants, there is no denying that a 16-0 record spells unity.
It's always interesting to actually break down who's streaking, who's fading and who has a jackass poised to screw up the festivities.
Jackass factor? Did somebody say "T.O.?" You can pretty much set your watch to this clown's meltdowns. He is the closest thing in the NFL to a spoiled kid crying because he covets his sibling's Christmas present -- in this case, Jason Witten's apparent chemistry on and off the field with Tony Romo. Now, in T.O.'s defense, I must say that I don't recall Witten ever sobbing on camera in defense of Romo, so I guess he wins the rapid-cycling award, but at the end of the day it's the same lament we heard from Owens in San Francisco and Philly -- I want more catches, I want all the attention, and I am not to blame when things go badly. Unfortunately for Sir Whines-A-Lot, this time his disruptive methodology is facing a unique challenge -- in Dallas, he plays for a team that has other guys who can get open and catch the ball. Witten's a given, but hey, Roy Williams, this means you! Time to step up to the paycheck and deliver.
As for momentum, well, only average here: They beat Seattle (along with the rest of the world), they lost to the Steelers, then they did a nice job beating a Giants team without its best RB and WR. Now they have to run the table and keep their fingers crossed. Next up? Baltimore, then at Philly -- I am not loving this scenario.
What a difference a year makes. Jackass factor is in the red zone, with Plaxico packing heat -- an event that also cast a shadow over Antonio Pierce, a huge part of the "D." And Mo is nowhere in sight, following consecutive losses to Dallas and Philly. Next up: The Panthers, then at the Vikings. That is tough sledding, and pending two big wins, forces another poor grade heading into the postseason.
Things are looking better for the Eagles: Yes they need things they can't control to go their way, but the controversy in Philly is always between the team and its own fans, and it might have slapped Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb awake. They are on an impressive 3-0 run with two tough wins over the playoff-bound Giants and Cardinals, and the not-so-playoff-bound Browns. If they muscle two more out at Washington, then home against Dallas, believe it or not, you are looking at the kind of team that has won your recent Super Bowls.
The Vikings get a tip of the jackass hat for this whole Starcaps problem -- but it hasn't hurt them yet. They also have a QB situation with Tarvaris Jackson in for Gus Frerotte, but it's all working out -- In case you weren't paying attention, they are on a roll with four straight wins (Jacksonville, Chicago, Detroit, Arizona). Next up: tough home games against the Falcons and Giants. Pull that off, and you've got another dangerous post-season team.
Speaking of dangerous, the Panthers are on an impressive three game streak (Packers, Bucs, Broncos) and look stronger than ever. It gets tougher, though, as they finish off the season with two rough roadies against the Giants and Saints. Keep an eye here -- two wins makes them scary indeed. Two losses could have Mo sitting in the corner pouting.
Tampa and Atlanta are both fighting it out, but the edge goes to the Falcons. No controversy, and a 2-1 record with the Vikings and Rams finishing things off. The Bucs are slipping at 1-2, and the Gruden-Garcia tension is festering once again. They finish with the hungry Chargers and the woeful Rams, so results remain very inconclusive. Ditto Arizona, which has sewn things up in the woeful West, but seems to be limping in with losses to the Eagles and Vikings, not exactly balanced by a win over St. Louis.
In the AFC, the Jets look like they are in trouble. They lost two straight to Denver and the Niners (!), then got a win served up on a "didn't earn it" platter by the Bills. Unimpressive. They should get healthy against the Seahawks this week, although things can get tricky on the road in Seattle, then they finish the year off against Miami? Ruh-roh!
No such worries for the Steelers, who look like serious contenders with a big 5-game winning streak that includes road wins against some very good teams (Chargers, Cincy, at Pats, Dallas, at Ravens). Next up they are at the Titans, then host the Browns. No controversy, just momentum. Beware Pittsburgh.
Might want to beware of New England, too -- they lost to the Steelers, then beat Seattle and Oakland on the road. Finishing off with the Cardinals and a road game at Buffalo, and you have a very good shot at heading into the postseason with a 4-0 run in hand. It's not Steelers good, but it still counts.
Oh, yeah, and then there's Denver. Deserving? No. Streaking? Not really. The Broncos beat the Jets and K.C., then they got whupped by the Panthers. With the Bills at home and a road game at San Diego to finish things off, I suspect the Broncos will ultimately be categorized in terms they deserve: A bonus regular-season win to get tacked on to a viable playoff team's record.
Jackass-wise, Tennessee got the whole Vince Young fiasco sorted out ages ago, went on a crazy run, and now it seems the only real issue for the Titans is how they tune up their passing game for the playoffs. Because they have yet to convince me they can bounce back from a two-touchdown deficit against an elite, playoff-caliber offense. They might get that chance with final games against the Steelers, then at the Colts. This year's candidate for the team that peaked too soon? We shall see.