Overcrowding plagues NFL pregame shows   

Updated: January 12, 2008, 2:35 PM ET

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When the Giants-Bucs game finished Sunday afternoon, I flipped over to CBS and inadvertently stumbled into a historic six-guys-at-the-same-table pregame show: The usual suspects (James Brown, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino, Shannon Sharpe and Coach Cowher) were crowded behind their desk with Charley Casserly, who should be dressed in a Mario Williams jersey that has two middle fingers sewn on the back at all times. And for the next few minutes, those six guys attempted to have a round-table "conversation."

Now ...

Joe Montana

Larry Marano/Getty Images

Joe behind center? Great. Joe behind the mic. Hmm ... well ...

I avoid the pregame shows unless I'm searching for a specific nugget of information, usually a weather report or an injury update for fantasy/gambling purposes. Before the Internet took off in the late '90s, these shows had real value because die-hards lacked the resources to follow 30 teams at once and needed as much information as possible, even if it came in the form of uninformed opinions from the mouths of Brent Jones and Joe Montana. Now? We have the resources. Thanks to the 24/7 sports cycle, we digest an inordinate amount of information and opinion heading into the morning of the games. What else is left to say? Even if the pregame shows still rate well, I don't know anyone who feels fully satisfied by them, and I don't know anyone who goes out of the way to watch them. We turn them on because it seems like the right thing to do. There's a reason nobody would ever think to release the shows on DVD after the season.

Of course, if you're watching with friends, the same two comments will always be made.

"Why are they all laughing when nobody made a joke?"

"Why are there so many people?"

As it turns out, the questions are related: They're laughing because there are too many people and it's the only reasonable way for everyone to communicate at once. Remember when Floyd Mayweather Jr. was showing us his car collection on "24/7," and he pointed out his Maybach, and then he pointed to another car ... and it was another Maybach? That's what happened to these pregame shows. Every network exec thinks like Floyd: They have too much money, there's too much money at stake and they desperately want to impress us, only they're not exactly sure how to do it. So instead of sticking with one Maybach, they buy two to be safe.

That leads to ...

Bill Cowher is coming to CBS!

Tiki Barber is coming to NBC!

Emmitt Smith is coming to ESPN!

Barry Switzer is coming to Fox!

When you add a fifth person to a four-man studio show, and you're not getting rid of any of the other four people, by my calculations, that's too many people. Think of it as the power of four. Unless you're putting together a poker night or a group to play pickup hoops, in nearly every other conceivable scenario, you're better off with four people than five or more. Dinner always works better. Vegas works better. Cabs work better. Sporting events work better. Road trips work better. Local newscasts and morning shows work better. Rock bands work better. The most successful sitcom ever ("Seinfeld") centered around four friends, and the most popular female comedy series ("Sex and the City") did the same. If you keep the number at four, you'll always have enough people to make it interesting and everybody has a chance to shine.

Let's take a trip down Memory Lane. When I was growing up, Brent Musberger, Phyllis George/Jayne Kennedy, Irv Cross and Jimmy The Greek made up CBS's groundbreaking "NFL Today," the first "modern" pregame show that worked because Brent was so good and CBS was smart enough to keep it to four people. The non-Brent talent was sorely lacking. Phyllis and Jayne were cute enough, but they didn't know much about football and admitted as much. Irv smiled a lot and never said anything even interesting -- in fact, he's the first broadcaster I ever made fun of on a regular basis. And Jimmy had the TV persona of a drunken uncle who crashed your Thanksgiving family dinner, then made long-distance bets on your phone, complained about an itchy colon and yelled at you for accidentally changing the TV. Needless to say, I loved him. But not everybody did.

Once Jayne left the show and CBS overexposed Brent, "NFL Today" lost some viewers (and some public steam) to a young Bob Costas and NBC, then suffered a debilitating scandal when Jimmy the Greek destroyed his career by unveiling his convoluted "theory" about slavery causing black athletes to be superior to white athletes. (Note: If a similar moment involving a similar TV personality of the Greek's stature happened today, the Internet would briefly explode.) After the Greek's public disgrace, no pregame show resonated until 1994, when Fox launched its "NFL Sunday" show with James Brown, Jimmy Johnson, Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw.

Brent Musberger

George Rose/Getty Images

The pioneer of the pregame. No Sunday was complete without Brent.

(Let's see ... one, two, three, four ... that's four guys!)

Here's when the pregame shows reached a tipping point as a genre. First, most fans liked the revamped Fox show and enjoyed the chemistry of the four guys, which meant the show rated highly, which meant the show made money for Fox.


Second, the four guys really got a kick out of one another, so there was more joking and laughing than we'd ever seen on a pregame show. In the beginning, all of the joshing was genuine and didn't seem contrived or forced.


And third, the show lasted for an hour instead of 30 minutes.


Naturally, the Fox guys became too comfortable and played up the joshing and overlaughing a little too much. ESPN blew out its show by adopting the "more hours, more people, more more more!" concept. NBC broke the five-man barrier with the delightfully bumpy group of Greg Gumbel, Mike Ditka, Ahmad Rashad, Joe Gibbs and Montana. (Sadly, all tapes have been destroyed by Dick Ebersol.) CBS launched the "Unintentional Kings of Comedy" in 1998 (see sidebar) and changed its cast more often than "Law & Order" -- in 10 years, they've had three hosts, three information guys and 13 different ex-coaches or ex-players. NBC splashed onto the scene in 2006 with so many characters that it eventually had to split them up in different parts of the studio. Even Fox started adding comedy segments, weather segments, insider segments and finally, Switzer as a fifth guy.

Now each of the four shows is overproduced, overstaffed and overlaughed, only whenever an appealing "name" comes on the market (Bill Parcells, Jerome Bettis, Barber, whomever), the networks pursue him for the same nonsensical reason Mayweather bought two Maybachs. Maybe I don't need it, but what the hell, I'm rich! And that's the part I don't get. From 1975 to 2000, we just established that only two pregame shows stood out -- "NFL Today" in the late '70s (four people, likable host) and "NFL Sunday" in the mid-'90s (four people, likable host). So why would all four Sunday shows in 2007 feature five-man casts? Why would they willingly create the following six problems?


One good thing about pregame shows: For whatever reason, the Sunday morning characters are always more mockable. I can't remember a time when we didn't do this for pregame shows, whether it was Joe Montana, Brent Jones, Irv Cross, Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott, George Seifert, O.J. Simpson, Joe Gibbs or anyone else funny to watch for the wrong reasons.

The perfect storm happened when CBS won AFC rights in 1998. They trotted out a pregame show with Jim Nantz, Seifert, Allen and Jones that could have toured as "The Kings of Unintentional Comedy." Nantz was so happy to have football back that he spent the first season wearing his same demented grin from every Masters handing-the-jacket ceremony. Allen had a petrified look on his face, like he was thinking, "Damn, I felt great until that red light went on." Seifert carried himself on TV like a serial killer who had just been caught by police; I don't think he smiled once in 20 weeks. Meanwhile, Jones was so giddy and incoherent that he might have been the real-life inspiration for "Borat." Every time Jones finished one of his irrational points as Nantz grinned and Allen tried to figure out when he should start fake-laughing, I always expected Seifert to calmly remove his eyeglasses, then repeatedly jam one of the ends into Jones' neck as blood spurted everywhere. Never happened.
Problem No. 1: A historic amount of overlaughing, fake-laughing and abstract laughing (when someone laughs at something that doesn't possess a single shred of humor, you either assume they're stoned or crazy).

Problem No. 2: Scripted "arguments" in which one guy makes his seemingly unrehearsed comment, then awkwardly stops and turns to the person who's supposed to make the next seemingly unrehearsed comment as the cameramen struggle to keep up. Even porn movies have smoother transitions.

Problem No. 3: The increased possibility that two of the guys won't get along -- and not in a fun way, but in a wildly uncomfortable way, like when Deion Sanders and Boomer Esiason openly despised each other a few years ago.

(Actually, what am I saying? That's a great outcome! Gimme a re-do on No. 3.)

Problem No. 3: Relentless attempts by everyone to make over-the-top comments and predictions, then shamelessly flip those same predictions at halftime in the opposite direction. You might remember Shannon Sharpe pulling this off to perfection before and during last Sunday's Chargers-Titans game.

Problem No. 4: In a misguided effort to give everyone air time during the halftime shows, both CBS and Fox have their nonhosts doing highlights. In other words, there's a trained professional on hand with command of the English language and a natural ability to narrate what's happening, and we have to listen to people such as Sharpe, Bradshaw and Marino stumbling through highlights like they're doing a Foster Brooks routine? And this makes sense ... how?

Problem No. 5: A never-ending effort to convince us that, yes, this show is gonna have some personality and we're gonna have some fun! YEE-HAH!

(My favorite gimmick here: CBS's "live" commercial during games that shows the five studio guys standing uncomfortably next to one another, laughing for no real reason and flipping a football around the semi-circle as Jim Nantz does the "Coming up at halftime ..." voiceover. Invariably, someone drops the ball and everyone else laughs hysterically. Apparently, this sequence is supposed to get me psyched to hear some football talk or something.)

Problem No. 6: The alpha dog analyst never getting enough time to make his points. For instance, Cris Collinsworth does the most homework, watches the most tape and has the most insightful/provocative comments of anyone, with the possible exception of Parcells. And he's fighting for air time with Tiki Barber and Jerome Bettis on NBC? Really? That's what America wants?


Craig Blankenhorn/Getty Images

How many analysts can recap a half? We may never truly know.

Knowing these problems -- and let's face it, they're problems -- why wouldn't at least one network return to a four-person show? The simple answer: they don't like firing people or eating contracts, but they loooooooove hiring people. Nothing makes a network exec happier than announcing, "We're bringing in so-and-so!" And the sheer power of numbers makes shows feel like a bigger event than they actually are, so instead of choosing between Emmitt and Keyshawn, or Marino and Boomer, or Tiki and Bettis, they just keep both under the "bigger is better!" premise. Even if it inadvertently clogs up their shows and flies against the face of everything that has ever worked well on a Sunday pregame show.

Anyway, that's how we arrived at CBS's watershed six-guys-at-the-same-table pregame show last week. Six people! That's a lot of people. That's the cast of "Friends." That's the number of people you're allowed to play in a hockey game. That's enough people to rent an off-campus house in college. That's the "Brady Bunch." That's nearly an entire table at a wedding. If you can explain to me how six people could attempt to discuss a football game when only one person can talk at a time, I'd love to hear it.

Did CBS stop and think, "Wow, maybe this was a bad idea?" Of course not. For about four minutes, they aired a round-table "conversation" that made all of Spencer's and Heidi's scenes in Season 3 of "The Hills" look unscripted and off-the-cuff by comparison. The amazing part was the sheer volume of people sitting at the same table. How did they even fit six people on the same screen? Did they discuss having Casserly sit on Shannon's lap? Did they have to buy smaller chairs? Now I'm wondering what the limit will be. I never thought we'd see six on camera at the same time. Will we reach seven? Is that even possible? What if we did an eight-man show with two rows of tables? Where are we headed? I'd believe anything at this point.

One last note, and this is the funniest part: Fox dominated the ratings from 1994 to 2005 with James Brown as its host, winning 132 of 134 straight shows at one point. Before the 2006 season, JB switched to CBS ... and CBS edged Fox for the first time ever. This season, CBS whupped Fox even more handily. Could you credit the change in power to JB? Actually, you probably could -- he's the best studio host alive and has been for years. Like in the '70s with Musberger and CBS, on-the-fence viewers are gravitating toward a pregame show because of a host and not because of the four ex-players and ex-coaches sitting next to him. Really, it's not rocket science. The host matters the most. Chemistry matters second. That's it. And you can't have chemistry when you have too many people trying to talk at once.

(And yes, if this was a Sunday pregame show, everyone else would wait a beat to make sure I was finished, then they'd start laughing hysterically for no discernable reason.)

Let's quickly blow through the awards for Wild Card Weekend:


The Sports Gal refused to rant again this week in protest of the fact "nobody made it clear to me that having two kids would suck this much." She's about two weeks away from being wheeled out of the house in a gurney like Britney. Fortunately, she did find time to make her Round 2 picks: Seahawks +7.5; Pats -13; Colts -8.5; Giants +7.5.

Playoffs: 2-1-1
Reg. Season: 136-111-9
The "I Am Legend" Award for "Best story that completely fell apart with no real warning"
The Redskins had me regretting my Seattle pick after they scored the go-ahead touchdown, had the ensuing kickoff stop in midair and drop straight to the ground like it had been shot by Dick Cheney, then prompted Cris Collinsworth to briefly lose his mind and start beating the "these Redskins players really believe that Taylor is on the field with them" card into the ground. Hey, I was totally sold. They had me. Then Shaun Suisham missed the 30-yard gimme and everything fell apart. So much for dead guys altering the outcome of playoff games.

The John Madden Award for "Most obvious explanation by an announcer that was described like it was a revelation"

Madden rehashed Jack Del Rio's choice of David Garrard over Byron Leftwich and capped it off with this beauty: "When you have a quarterback controversy, if you waive a guy, there's no going back." Now that's why he makes the big bucks, folks.

The Andy Reid Award for "Best job by a coach of undermining a potential playoff win without any real disapproval from the announcers"

To Mike Tomlin for greenlighting the now-infamous 12-yard, 2-point conversion (can we call that "pulling a Tomlin" from now on?) and failing to go for the kill when his team needed one clinching first down at the end of the game, bringing back memories of Jon Gruden in the Tuck Rule Game (if you're a Raiders fan) or the Snow Game (if you're a Pats fan). On the bright side, he inspired a reader named Rachel to write, "As a Bengals fan, it is my duty to hate everything related to the Steelers. Despite this, I have to give Mike Tomlin props for his amazingly smooth skin. Really -- it's beautiful! And this is what half a bottle of wine and HD television will get you." So he's got that going for him. Which is nice.

The Lorne Michaels Award for the "Random football moment that made me miss 'SNL' "
To NBC's decision to gear Saturday's pregame show around Keith Olbermann and Bob Costas. Now THAT could have been a potentially funny "SNL" sketch.

We come back from commercial with Costas and Olbermann sitting behind the "Football Night In America" desk.

    Costas: Welcome back ... to "Football Night in America ..."

    Olbermann (smirking): Or in this case, "Football DAY IN AMERICA!"

    Costas (smirking): Keith ... we just spent the break ... taking the Wonderlic Test.

    Olbermann (smirking): It took me 90 seconds to outscore VINCE YOUNG!

    Costas (smirking): Not hard to do ... more importantly ... neither of us miss Cris Collinsworth ... who's in Seattle right now ...

    Olbermann (smirking): That's right, Bob, he's in Seattle doing the game with Betty White!

    Costas (smirking): Tom Hammond ... he's doing the game ... with Tom Hammond.

    Olbermann (smirking): I CAN'T TELL THE DIFFERENCE!

    Costas (smirking): Well, we traded Cris for nothing this weekend ... basically ... it was addition ... by subtraction.

    Olbermann (smirking): Just like Karl Rove resigning!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    They spend the next five seconds smirking at one another.

    (And ... scene!)

The Patric Verrone Award for "Worst and most indefensibly damaging long-term strategy"
To Jon Gruden for tanking the end of Tampa's regular season to play the Giants, then completely ignoring the two most logical ways to beat them: Throwing out of the shotgun to buy Jeff Garcia extra time against a great pass rush, and blitzing the living hell out of Eli Manning. I thought he spent three weeks preparing to play the Giants! Didn't he see the second half of the Pats-Giants game? What the hell? Seriously, what the hell?

The Steve Perry Award for "The hairdo that made me feel most like it was 1980 again"
Phil Simms, whatever your hair stylist is doing, please, let him or her keep doing it. And that goes for you and your makeup lady as well, Tom Hammond.

Steve Perry

Jon Sievert/Getty Images)

Think your pics from the '80s are bad? Could be worse, you could be Steve Perry.

The Raptor Truthers Award for "Most Deranged Fan Base"
To all the Giants fans who flooded my mailbox last weekend after my "I can't take Eli Manning on the road" Bucs-Giants pick with a relentless stream of "He's 7-1 on the road!!!!" e-mails. Jeez, I didn't realize he won his last seven road games against Philly (scored 16 points), Detroit (ditto), Miami (13 points, 59 yards passing), Buffalo (four turnovers and nearly killed the G-men), Washington (played one good half), Chicago (ditto) and Atlanta (congratulations). What was I thinking? The man was a road warrior!

Now, if you're going to make the argument Eli has a better chance of succeeding on the road because he doesn't have to worry about his own fans turning on him, that's somewhat logical. Just don't tell me that seven up-and-down road wins against an easy schedule meant that I shouldn't have been afraid of him in Tampa Bay. (Yes, that was a triple negative.) He needed to show up in a big road game, he did, and now we know he has it in him. I think.

The Sports Gal Award for "The unexpected reminder that I should be humiliated for finishing 17 wins behind my wife this season"
While half-heartedly watching the Redskins-Hawks game, she decided to root for Seattle once she found out Matt Hasselbeck was Elisabeth Hasselbeck's brother-in-law.

The Don Denkinger Award for "Worst Blown Call"
On Garrard's season-saving fourth-and-2 QB draw, did you notice the hole opened up because Jaguars left tackle Khalif Barnes was holding his defender with both hands, even though the defender was turned away from him and trying to plug the hole, and at the last second, as Garrard was cruising through, the left tackle threw his hands up as if to say, "I never touched him?" Thank God this didn't happen to the Patriots -- you'd still be reading my 115,000-word column about it.

The Dan Dierdorf I'm-Not-So-Sure Award for "Broadcasting crutch that seems to be catching on"
I love when a studio guy could start a sentence by saying, "Tennessee's offense loves to run the ball," but instead, he doubles the number of words by saying, "When you look at Tennessee's offense, here's an offense that loves to run the ball ..." This is catching on like wildfire, isn't it? When you look at the number of overmatched NFL announcers, here's a genre that loves to take too many words to say something.

The Wendy Torrance Award for "Single scariest moment when you realize that all hell could potentially break loose"
For anyone who picked the Chargers or teased them with another game, then watched San Diego start slow and Tennessee look totally confident, followed by the obligatory shot of a serenely confident Jeff Fisher on one sideline and the Norv Turner Face on the other one. That was chilling. Let's just move on.

The Where-Did-Andy-Dufresne-Get-A-Ziploc-Bag Award for "Best out-of-nowhere revelation I had about a movie that I had already seen 300 times"
During breaks in the Skins-Hawks game, I was flicking over to "Beverly Hills Cop" on one of the HD channels, and maybe it was seeing Jenny Summers' come-hither smirk in high definition for the first time, but how did I never notice the smoldering sexual tension in the scene when Axel brings his old friend Jenny back to his Beverly Hills hotel room and she lays down on his bed and bats her eyelashes at him for a couple of minutes? For God's sake, she did everything but take her clothes off and assume the missionary position, and yet Axel was more interested in ordering room service for Taggart and Rosewood. I don't get it.

Which leads me to my $64,000 question: Was Axel Foley secretly gay?

In the first two "Cop" movies (I refuse to admit that "Cop 3" happened), Axel didn't have a girlfriend, and we never saw him hook up with a single girl. In "Cop 1," he convincingly pretended to be Victor Maitlin's lover in a public restaurant. In "Cop 2," he ruined what could have been a fantastic time for his buddies at the Playboy Mansion by starting a fight for no real reason with a suspected bank robber. In "Cop 1," he made Taggart and Rosewood follow him to a strip joint, almost like he was overcompensating, then spent more time looking around the club than looking at the girls. In both "Cop" movies, he ably served as a platonic friend for Jenny and Lt. Bogomil's daughter (without ever making a move on either of them); he clicked with two obviously gay characters (the ones played by Damon Wayans and Bronson Pinchot); and he loved playing a perverse cat-and-mouse game with Taggart and Rosewood (two guys). And he was willing to risk his job and his life to avenge the murder of his old "buddy" Mikey, who just happened to be coming back to "crash" at Axel's apartment on the night he was murdered. We're sure Axel Foley was straight? We're sure?

(Here's how we'll get an official answer once and for all: If Logo starts running either "Cop" movie. That's how we settled the "Was Bull Durham a chick flick?" argument years ago, when it started running on Lifetime. As far as I'm concerned, the ball is in Logo's hands. They would know better than me.)

The Robert Frost Award for "Biggest fork of the weekend"

To poor Shaun Alexander, who caused me to write in my notebook, "How small would a tackler have to be for Alexander to break his tackle? 140 pounds? 150 pounds? POSSIBLE ESPN REALITY SHOW!"

Speaking of Alexander, we need to get to the Round 2 picks (home teams in caps):


Searching for help with his picks for the NFL divisional playoffs, Bill Simmons talked to Aaron Schatz from footballoutsiders.com, Cousin Sal, the Mysterious Brad and his buddies Geoff and J-Bug in another deluxe playoff edition of The BS Report
PACKERS (-7.5) over Seahawks
In case I didn't make it clear two paragraphs ago, Alexander is running around with a pitchfork in his back right now. His backup? The player Seahawks fans know as "Triple M," Mediocre Maurice Morris. They're not running the ball Saturday. And after Hasslebeck's rollercoaster performance against the Skins, or the way he kept shaking his right hand because it was bothering him, or the lingering injuries to D.J. Hackett and Deion Branch, do you feel even remotely confident about Seattle playing from behind in Lambeau? I certainly don't. On the flip side, the Packers started taking care of business after their Week 7 bye, when Ryan Grant gave them a running game and they won their last seven games by 11, 34, 14, 11, 31, 19 and 21 points. You know what that tells me? That they can protect and expand a lead.

Playoff Manifesto 4.0 gives us Rule No. 10 ("only pick an underdog if you think they have a chance to win") and Rule No. 14 ("don't be a hero, just try to win money"). The Seahawks were fortunate to beat a 9-7 Redskins team that blew a couple of special teams plays and dropped some killer passes; why would anyone think they can hang with a 13-3 team on the road when they haven't had a good road win all season? Besides, we have a team that never gets calls (Seattle) going against the current America's Team (the Packers). Which umpire or line judge wants to be the one who made the shaky call that screwed up Brett Favre's storybook season in January? Come on.

The Pick: Green Bay 31, Seattle 15

PATRIOTS (-13) over Jaguars
According to Rule No. 10 of the manifesto, you can't pick an underdog if you don't think they can win the game. So let's look at the numbers here.

    • Belichick's playoff record in New England: 14-2
    • Brady's playoff record at home: 6-0
    • Belichick's record against Jack Del Rio: 3-0
    • New England's lifetime record against Jacksonville: 7-1
    • New England's 2007 regular-season record: 16-0
    • Number of '07 Patriots wins by 14-plus points: 11
    • Record of '07 Jags after falling behind by more than seven points: 0-4

For anyone playing the "Jacksonville can control the clock and pressure Brady" card, didn't we see the Steelers drop 19 points on the Jags in about five seconds last weekend once they started chucking the ball every down? What about the fact Jacksonville relies on its defensive line for pressure and isn't one of those Philly-type teams that blitzes from all angles -- if anything, the Jags are pretty predictable -- which makes them exactly the type of defense Brady chewed up and wore down this season. (Remember the Redskins game?) Also, who's covering Wes Welker on the Jags? Have we figured this out yet? Do you really think Randy Moss -- someone who always shows up for big games -- isn't coming out of Round 2 with one huge play? Hasn't Belichick always been able to shut down one-dimensional offenses? Do you feel even remotely confident in Garrard trying to match points with Brady if he's down by double digits in the fourth quarter?

Maybe the Pats can be beaten, but not by these guys. In fact, I'm insulted that you even think this might be close.

The Pick: New England 42, Jacksonville 15.

COLTS (-8) over Chargers
I see this game resembling the Pats-Chargers game in Week 2: Indy coming out like gangbusters at home, Phil Rivers looking lost, Norv Turner looking shellshocked, LaDainian Tomlinson sulking by the second quarter and, eventually, San Diego rolling over and playing dead. With the exception of the rain-soaked Sunday night victory over a depleted Indy team, San Diego took too long to get going against every other quality opponent, falling behind to New England by 24, Green Bay by 10, Jacksonville by 14, Tennessee by 14 and Tennessee by six in the playoffs. Why would Round 2 be any different?

Nope, you can't fall behind to the Colts in Indy unless you have Tom Brady and Randy Moss on your team. And normally, that would be enough to take Indy ... but in this case, a whopping five Manifesto Rules point to the Colts (No. 2, No. 10, No. 14 and No. 15), and if you think the Manifesto doesn't love grabbing Dungy and Manning at home against Rivers and Turner, you're crazy. For the Chargers to keep it close, they need TWO special teams touchdowns. Not one. Two. I can't even take this game seriously, especially after seeing Norv react in the last minute of the ugly Titans game like they had just won three Super Bowls at once.

The Pick: Colts 34, Chargers 17

Giants (+7.5) over COWBOYS
Normally, I'd worry about getting sucked in by the Team That Looked a Little Too Good In Round 1 (always a red flag), but that's offset by the "Any time two teams play for a third time, it's usually a war" rule that's a mortal lock for Manifesto 5.0.

Here's my problem with laying the points: Without a healthy Terrell Owens (whether he plays or not), the Cowboys offense doesn't look so imposing anymore, and their collective limp to the finish looms as an enormous red flag (as well as a direct violation of Rule No. 6). Plus, didn't the Giants play them tough in the previous two games? Don't we need one underdog covering in Round 2? Could there be something to the whole "Eli looks better on the road than at home" thing? Could the wave of Giants running backs eventually wear Dallas down? What if Dallas needs to keep Jason Witten in to block and T.O. can't go -- who becomes Romo's possession receiver? How good do you feel about Wade Phillips in the playoffs? Couldn't the Giants absolutely win this game outright?

I say yes. And since the Giants are peaking at the right time, it was already a no-brainer to take the points before I realized it would be sweet revenge following a weekend's worth of cranky e-mails from the Tri-State Area. You wanted me to believe in Mr. "8-1 On The Road," Giants fans? Fine! I believe in Eli Manning! I was wrong! Now I'm on the bandwagon and you can't kick me off! Come on, Eli! TAKE US TO THE PROMISED LAND, ELI!!!!!!!!

The Pick: Giants 33, Cowboys 30.

Playoffs: 2-1-1
Reg. Season: 118-129-9

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column -- as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more -- check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.


In a rematch of their Week 17 game, the unbeaten Patriots will play the red-hot Giants in Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz.
Super Bowl Central
Clayton: Eli's managing fine
Chadiha: Focused Giants
AccuScore simulation: Pats to prevail
Chadiha: First Look | Playoff schedule

Conference Championships (Jan. 20)

Patriots 21, Chargers 12

• Merrill: Questions linger about Moss' postseason
• Wojciechowski: Whatever it takes, Pats win
• Pasquarelli: Patriots' offense grinds it out
• Pasquarelli: Chargers squander opportunites
• Pats make fourth SB in seven years
• The Last Call: Mike Sando's observations, more
•  Zoom Gallery: AFC title game | Pats' season
• Playoff page

Giants 23, Packers 20

• Clayton: Burress burns Harris, Packers
• Chadiha: Bitter pill for Packers to swallow
• Zoom Gallery: Giants edge Packers
• The Last Call: Mike Sando's observations, more
• Garber: Coughlin's personality makeover intact
• Playoff page


• What is Tom Brady's legacy?
• Eli and Burress lead Giants
• Patriots avoid distractions on way to Super Bowl
• Resilient Giants advance to SB
• Red-zone efficiency fuels Patriots

Divisional Round (Jan. 12-13)

Packers 42, Seahawks 20
• Recap | Playoff game page
• Clayton: Ryan Grant sticks to the plan
• Sando: Disastrous play at TE for Seattle

Patriots 31, Jaguars 20
• Recap | Playoff game page
• Pasquarelli: Patriots have too many weapons

Chargers 28, Colts 24
• Recap | Playoff game page
• Wojciechowski: Did Chargers get Pats' attention?
• Clayton: Colts can't overcome mistakes

Giants 21, Cowboys 17
• Recap | Playoff game page
• Chadiha: Manning maturing at right time

More divisional playoffs
•  Saturday's Last Call: Pack, Pats advance
•  Sunday's Last Call: Giants, Chargers surprise


• Pasquarelli: Tip Sheet | NotesInsider
• Smith: Special teams loom large
• Scouts: Kryptonite for top four teams Insider
• Playoff upsets: By the numbers
• Page 2: Handicapping the wild-card winners

Wild-Card Round (Jan. 5-6)

Seahawks 35, Redskins 14
• Recap | Playoff game page
• Clayton: Cool head Holmgren
• Sando: Redskins inspired by Taylor

Jaguars 31, Steelers 29
• Recap | Playoff game page
• Chadiha: Jaguars pass character test

Giants 24, Bucs 14
• Recap | Playoff game page
• Pasquarelli: Manning delivers for Giants
• Pasquarelli: Giants' D rises to occasion

Chargers 17, Titans 6
• Recap | Playoff game page
• Clayton: Turner, Rivers silence their critics

More Wild Card Weekend
• Saturday's Last Call: Hawks, Jags escape
• Sunday's Last Call: Giants, Chargers rule
• ZOOM photos: Saturday | Sunday


• Sando: Controversial history of replay
• Clayton: First and Goal, Wild Card
• Sando: Playoff mantras
• Numbers crunching: Wild-card weekend
• Sunday Countdown
• TMQ: Do the Pats need to run more?
• Joyner: Steelers, Giants adjusting on the fly Insider
• Clayton: Handicapping possible Patriots foes
• Clayton: Key playoff questions for the AFC
• Pasquarelli: Key playoff questions for the NFC


• Chargers bolt past Titans, 17-6
• Eli Manning silences his critics
• Seattle's Hasselbeck is underrated
• Phillips not concerned about late-season slide

Scouts Inc. Insider

• Ranking the playoff teams
• Ranking the playoff coaches
• Off. rankings: Overall | QB | WR | RB | OL
• Def. rankings: Overall | DL | LB | DB | ST
• Green: Smith's absence hurting Steelers
• Williamson: Unknowns powering Bucs