NFL play-offs provide thrills and spills

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Shocking news: the National Football League play-offs are proving to be entertaining. After a soporific regular season that underscored the extent to which the league’s enforced parity, thanks to a stringent salary cap, has yielded mediocrity, there was every reason to think the post-season would also be a snooze. But that has not been the case.

True, the quality of play has been uneven and the legendary teams of the past are in no danger of having their reputations eclipsed by any of this year’s Super Bowl contenders. Nevertheless, last weekend’s quarter-finals produced some surprisingly enjoyable football. Sunday’s semi-finals, pitting the New Orleans Saints against the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots against the Indianapolis Colts, should offer more of the same.

The Patriots-Colts game holds the promise of a titanic clash and is the semi-final that is most likely to produce the winner of the Super Bowl on February 4 in Miami.

Although the Patriots have captured three of the last five Super Bowls and finished the regular season with an impressive 12-4 record, they were not expected to make it this far in the play-offs, and they almost did not. They reached the final four by virtue of a dramatic fightback last Sunday, away against the San Diego Chargers.

The Chargers came into the game with a 14-2 record, the best in the NFL, and were widely regarded as this year’s team to beat. Although it proved to be a blunder-filled afternoon for the home team, their defence prevented New England from taking advantage of the miscues for most of the game.

Apart from one stunning scoring drive late in the first half, the Patriots offence seemed hopelessly out of sorts. Quarterback Tom Brady, normally brilliant in the play-offs, had never looked so bad. Relentlessly harried by the Chargers, he struggled to connect even with wide-open receivers. When Brady threw his third interception of the game, with just over six minutes to play and the Chargers leading 21-13, it looked all over.

But no sooner did San Diego’s Marlon McCree haul in the errant pass than he was stripped of the ball, with New England recovering the fumble on the Chargers’ 32-yard line. Brady and his team-mates quickly took advantage of the reprieve, scoring a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie the game.

Three minutes later, Brady launched a glorious 49-yard pass to receiver Reche Caldwell, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski then nailed a 31-yard field goal with 70 seconds left on the clock to give the Patriots a stirring 24-21 victory and set up a showdown with the Colts.

It can fairly be assumed that the Patriots were the last team the Colts wished to find standing between them and a trip to Miami. They have lost seven of their past nine games against New England, and at this point one cannot help but suspect that Patriots coach Bill Belichick was put on earth chiefly for the purpose of tormenting Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning.

Belichick is a defensive maestro who seems to specialise in devising strategies that leave the supremely gifted Manning dazed and confused. Worryingly for the Colts, Manning has not played well in these play-offs. He has given up five interceptions in two games and against the Baltimore Ravens last Saturday the normally prolific quarterback failed to deliver a single touchdown pass.

The 30-year-old Manning has a tendency to falter in the post-season and the enormous pressure he will feel on Sunday to prove that he can win when it matters most could leave him even more vulnerable to Belichick’s black magic.

The oddsmakers have made the Colts favourites but that’s largely because the game is being played in Indianapolis. Whether Indianapolis’s home advantage can overcome New England’s psychological advantage is highly questionable.

The Chicago-New Orleans game offers less intrigue but it does have compelling storylines. The Bears finished the regular season 13-3 but never has a team amassed such a stellar record and looked less convincing.

That the Bears are the best the National Football Conference has to offer this season is testament to just how far the once-dominant league – every Super Bowl between 1985 and 1997 was won by an NFC club – has sunk.

Quarterback Rex Grossman has been inconsistent to the point of schizophrenic, producing dazzling passes one moment and jaw-dropping incompetence the next. His unpredictability has been a source of endless debate, speculation and angst in Chicago. Never in NFL history has a quarterback inspired more fear in his own fans.

And Grossman’s malady appears to be contagious. In recent weeks, the Bears’ defence, indomitable for most of the season, has become maddeningly unreliable.

About the only thing Chicago fans can count on at this point is the weather. The game is being played in Chicago, snow is forecast, and the upper Midwest in mid-January is traditionally a graveyard for teams from more southerly climes.

On the other hand, there is a whiff of destiny about this season’s Saints. Last year, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints went 3-13, a broken team from a broken city. The franchise returned home this year and went 10-6, a remarkable turnround that has given a bit of cheer to a community struggling to regain even a patina of normalcy.

The Saints are in a position not unlike the 2001 New York Yankees. The Yankees entered the play-offs that year against the ghastly backdrop of 9/11. The club, ordinarily reviled by fans outside the New York area, found itself in the role of America’s darling, the sentimental choice.

The Saints, representing another devastated city, can expect an equal outpouring of support should they reach the Super Bowl for the first time in the club’s 40-year history.

But to make it there, they are going to have to do better than they did last Saturday. Playing at home against a tired Philadelphia Eagles side (unlike the Saints, who enjoyed a first-round bye, the Eagles had just six days’ rest after an opening-round victory over the New York Giants), the Saints could only eke out a 27-24 victory.

The Saints’ problem was a brittle defence. The good news for them was that their league-leading offence, spearheaded by quarterback Drew Brees and running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, performed superbly.

If the defence can tighten up, this electrifying triumvirate could well carry the Saints past Chicago, irrespective of both the weather and which version of Rex Grossman happens to take the field.

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