SAN DIEGO – Tony Dungy stood in the hallway outside the visitors’ locker room at Qualcomm Stadium Saturday night, his facial expression lacking the usual serenity. Given that he had just lost an intensely contested playoff game in overtime that may turn out to be the last he ever coaches, pending his decision in the next week or so, he had every right to be more fretful than philosophical.
Yet the Indianapolis Colts coach knows from experience, good and bad, that postseason dreams are often realized and undone by a missed block or a fortuitous bounce or some other nearly imperceptible force that tips the outcome. And when asked, following his team’s 23-17 defeat to the San Diego Chargers, what he has learned after coaching 10 consecutive teams to the playoffs about how to identify a potential Super Bowl champion, Dungy managed a smile and said, “Well, it’s hard to tell, because what you have is a lot of good teams in the playoffs. Once you’re in, you can’t just play hard – you’ve got play smart as well, and you’ve got to execute.
“The bottom line is if you’re hot and healthy, it doesn’t matter where you’re seeded. Whether you’re talking about the Giants last year or us the year before or Pittsburgh before that, if you’re hot and healthy, you’ve got a real shot.”
Or, conversely, you could be the team that Dungy coached at Qualcomm, a 12-4 Colts squad with a nine-game winning streak and an MVP quarterback and virtually all of its important players in the lineup facing an 8-8 division winner with its star halfback barely functional, its star pass rusher on injured reserve and its star tight end playing on a bum wheel.
And you could still lose, in this case hot and healthy turning to done and anguished in the span of a Darren Sproles scoring sprint down the left sideline.
That’s the NFL in the 21st century, and if we learned anything from the first weekend of the 2008 playoffs – conveniently staged in 2009, just to add to the confusion – it’s that the conclusions we breathlessly draw during the four-month regular season mean very, very little when it comes down to what Jemaine and Bret from “Flight of the Conchords” would call business time.
Just ask the Baltimore Ravens, who on Sunday went on the road to defeat the Miami Dolphins in such ridiculously dominating fashion that it’s very easy to envision them joining the ‘05 Pittsburgh Steelers as a No. 6 seed that wins it all.
Or ask the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles, who in Sunday’s second game smacked around the NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. Philly muddled through an inconsistent regular season that included an embarrassing tie at Cincinnati, a benching of longtime quarterback Donovan McNabb that could have become permanent had second-year replacement Kevin Kolb not struggled in relief, and a lifeless 10-3 defeat to the Redskins in the second-to-last week. On the season’s final Sunday the Eagles needed upset victories by the Raiders and Texans to avoid elimination, yet upon earning an invite to the postseason, they behaved as though they were the party’s rightful hosts.
You could also ask the Arizona Cardinals, who after clinching the NFC West – their first division title in 33 years – tanked so miserably in their next two games (a 35-14 home defeat to the Vikings and a 47-7 road drubbing by the Patriots, who didn’t even make the postseason) that they were lampooned as the playoff field’s resident laughingstock. On Saturday the Cards looked sharp and fierce in subduing the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons, setting the stage for the Saturday night drama in San Diego that featured an even more impressive display by the other lightly regarded division champ from out west.
With LaDainian Tomlinson (torn groin muscle) limited to five first-half touches and tight end Antonio Gates (high ankle sprain) unable to push off with his right foot, and with outside linebacker Shawne Merriman (knee surgery) watching from the sidelines in street clothes, the Chargers made their doubters – and yes, that would be me near the front of the line, right behind Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler – do double-takes for 3½ hours.
As the gritty, inspired performance unfolded, we were forced to discard everything we thought we’d learned about the champs of the dubious AFC West in ‘08: the Chargers’ 4-8 start; the fact that they needed an onside-kick recovery in mid-December in Kansas City to stave off elimination; their 0-5 record against playoff teams and 2-7 mark in games decided by eight points or fewer.
Instead, we now recognize Sproles, a 5-6 halfback who until a playoff upset over the Colts in Indy last January was a third-stringer restricted almost exclusively to special teams, as the breakout star of the playoffs.
And we honor Mike Scifres for having, given the stakes and setting, what I would declare to be the greatest game by a punter in NFL history.
I could give you the numbers – Scifres put all six of his punts inside the Indy 20-yard line and four within five yards of the goal line; his astounding 51.7-yard net average was an NFL playoff record – but statistics alone don’t do it justice. I could tell you about the context, how Scifres’ final punt skipped out of bounds as if guided by a Norv Turner-held remote control and backed up MVP Peyton Manning at his own 1-yard line with 2:41 to go in the fourth quarter, inspiring a defensive stand that gave the Chargers one more chance to force overtime.
But what I really want to point out is that on Nate Kaeding’s 26-yard field goal that tied the game with 33 seconds left in regulation, San Diego’s Dave Binn – a 15-year veteran who may well be the best long snapper in NFL history – flipped the ball between his legs with a hauntingly low trajectory, an uncharacteristic slip that could’ve spelled disaster for San Diego and propelled Dungy’s team into the next round.
The holder who fielded it cleanly and, in one motion, placed it down so perfectly that Kaeding didn’t even realize the snap had been off-target? Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Scifres.
Then came the overtime coin toss, where hot and healthy took a backseat to lucky. The captains came to midfield, and Manning, before making the call, deferred to teammate Darrell Reid, who chose heads.
Up in a luxury suite, the quarterback’s wife felt her stomach drop.
“I don’t know why he did that,” Ashley Manning said afterward. “Peyton always picks tails.”
The coin came up tails, and 68,082 fans erupted, and San Diego defensive tackle Jamal Williams, who was also at midfield, yelled “Game over!”
It wasn’t quite that simple, but after a couple of key plays and three defensive penalties, San Diego was at the Indy 20, well within Kaeding’s range.
Now Dungy was helpless, and Turner, San Diego’s embattled coach, had a decision to make. On first-and-10 he ran Sproles off left tackle, and the halfback was slammed for a two-yard loss by linebacker Clint Session.
What next? Should Turner go ahead and send in Kaeding on second down? Should he run another play, and if so, what? There was a lot of hemming and hawing on the sidelines, and suddenly Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was in Turner’s field of vision.
“Iso! Iso! Iso!” Rivers screamed at his coach, urging Turner to call a running play that would isolate the speedy Sproles against an Indy linebacker off left end.
Turner obliged, and then Sproles was alone in space, where he burst forward and made a sweet inside cutback. Then he was in the end zone and the Chargers were in the divisional round (they’ll play the Steelers in Pittsburgh next Sunday) and Dungy, whose team won the Super Bowl as a No. 3 seed two years ago, was entering that dark decompression zone that may push him toward retirement.
“When you play football, the playoffs just drain you,” Rivers said afterward. “In other sports like baseball and basketball you get a series, and there’s a margin for error, but for us, if you lose one game, it’s just over. So yeah, anyone can win, and not everything is as it seems going in.
“We played so many close games this season where we had little things go against us – in Pittsburgh, in Denver, against Carolina – and we couldn’t overcome them. This time, we found a way. And here we are.”
And here the rest of us stand at attention, getting ready for what should be a highly entertaining divisional playoff weekend. Don’t worry if what you think you know turns out not to be so. Just sit back and enjoy.
(Source: yahoo sports)