Watching All the Drama Play Out

Four teams advance in the NFL divisional playoffs to their respective conference championship games with a berth in Super Bowl XLII on the line next weekend.
By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

These aren't just games anymore, not this deep into the NFL postseason. Rare is the playoff game that doesn't produce several days of drama. Each becomes a referendum on something grand, such as whether Norv Turner can coach, whether Eli Manning can go from chump to champ in one month or whether the quarterback of America's team should take a celebrity hottie to Cabo San Lucas for a few days with a playoff game looming.

Politicians aren't the only ones who can shed tears on command; T.O. was every bit as skillful as Hillary at using the crying game. Half the kids in Wisconsin will have the first name Brett 10 years from now if Favre keeps playing like this. And the Patriots' quest for perfection is sure to reopen the cultural debate on whether winning is everything or perhaps the only thing.

The competition actually becomes secondary to the fuss, the better to reel in millions of quasi-fans paying undivided attention to something so few of them understand or even notice until January. The professional football playoffs have become the be-all and the end-all in American sports/entertainment, those Saturdays and Sundays being the only times we're allowed to stiff-arm caucuses and primaries and polls. It's what college football could have, too, except the people who run it aren't smart enough to see the slavishly devoted audience for playoff football in this country can't be sated.

It would be easy to become cynical about the whole thing, except the NFL playoffs are too compelling -- all of it, the games, the themes, the people and their eccentricities. Where else can you find a grown man wearing a red jacket and sunglasses crying and pleading with reporters to leave his teammate be for the sin of carousing in Mexico? I suppose Terrell Owens's mini-breakdown was genuine; he and Tony Romo seem pretty simpatico. But it's hard to extend any benefit of the doubt considering what a back-stabbing weasel Owens was in recent years to Donovan McNabb and Jeff Garcia.

Each of the four teams remaining has its own dramatic story line, but nothing as crazy as eliminated Dallas. The Cowboys are the No. 1 draw in the NFL and therefore the No. 1 draw in American sports. Yet, that home-field loss to the Giants on Sunday means the Cowboys have now lost five straight playoff games. Twenty-five of the NFL's 32 teams have won at least one playoff game since Dallas last won one, in 1996.

This group of Cowboys has lost a pair of opening-round playoff games, meaning at the moment Romo, likeable as he is, is the football equivalent of Tracy McGrady when it comes to the playoffs -- unable to get out of the first round. There's anything but sympathy outside north Texas for a team that spends as much time as the Cowboys have flexing and preening and telling everybody how good they are. Not that the Giants are shrinking violets, but how many people had the embattled Manning going 2-0 in the postseason with four touchdown passes and no interceptions while Romo was making a series of mistakes that cost his team dearly?

So much for Patrick Crayton's mouthy contention that the Cowboys would see the Patriots again, meaning Feb. 3 in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots will be there, of course. San Diego put forth an enormous and resourceful effort to eliminate the only team that can go toe-to-toe with New England: the Colts. The man who gets the big credit for it has to be Turner, turned away years ago by the Redskins and then the Raiders. There's no more decent man coaching football. And for the first time in his three-stop career as head coach Turner will enter a game as such an overwhelming underdog he'll have essentially no outside pressure.

The annoyed Chargers say nobody gave them a chance to win in Indy, which is true. Even more annoyed, they say nobody is giving them a chance to win in New England on Sunday, which is also true. The Chargers have so little chance it might as well be zero, none. The bloodthirsty Patriots live for retribution. It's their season-long crusade. And surely they haven't forgotten San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson saying after last year's playoff loss to the Patriots that their coach, Bill Belichick, lacks class. It's possible no team in the history of sports has gotten more mileage out of bulletin board material than the Patriots. The fight doctor might need to keep a close lookout for head wounds on the Chargers on Sunday in Foxborough.

There's only one chance, a slim one, that there's a team remaining in the field that can beat the perfect Patriots, and that would be the Packers of Green Bay. God keep you from being rolled over by the hype machine if Favre and Tom Brady face each other in the Super Bowl. By kickoff the national media will have turned it into George Clooney vs. Patrick Dempsey. Every presidential candidate out there would die to get the kind of free face time Brady and Favre would get for two weeks. If there's such thing as a "fitting" matchup for the final dramatic Sunday of this overly dramatic season it would be that one.

Brady -- and this is difficult to swallow for those of us older than 40 -- is elbowing his way into favorable comparisons with Joe Montana and John Elway. A fourth Super Bowl and a perfect season vaults him past both. Favre is to Wisconsin what Michael Jordan was to Chicago and what Elway was to the entire Mountain time zone, which is to say, a god. The notion that Favre is going to lose the NFC championship game on Lambeau Field to a quarterback who three games ago people wanted to run out of New York is unthinkable. Yet, Manning's story is in some ways as compelling as Favre's, given that nobody in the NFL plays week after week with more pressure than Peyton's baby brother. On Sunday, Eli performed a lot better under pressure than his brother did.

There are plenty of times, usually in the NCAA basketball tournament, when upstarts and underdogs are not only welcomed but warmly embraced.

But the NFL playoffs, especially as they wind down, tend to make way for the high and mighty, which the Patriots and Packers can live with.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company