OK, time to react in sagely fashion to the AFC and NFC Championship Games:
:: I was rooting for the Saints, like everybody else, but the Bears' advance to the Super Bowl doesn't bother me one bit. Since 1985, that franchise has had intermittent flashes in which they'd get pretty good, but mostly they've been mediocre. Living in Buffalo and watching nearly every play JP Losman makes (or doesn't make) scrutinized as evidence of his growth or retardation as an NFL quarterback, I have some sympathy for the constant tone of Bears coverage: "Will Grossman kill their chances? Tune in for kickoff at 3:30 Eastern!" Fact is, this is a team built around a defense that, when clicking on all cylinders, is fast and very physical. The Saints may have been the sentimental favorite, but the Bears pretty emphatically proved that right now, they're the better team.
The Saints' year this year looked like the Buffalo Bills in 1988. That team emerged from years of being not very good to go 12-4 and got to the conference championship game before exiting with a decisive defeat; that team was also quite young and had to endure another year of growing pains (9-7 in 1989) before becoming the AFC's dominant franchise for the beginning of the 90s. The Saints have a lot of young talent; all they need is to get better on defense and they might be knocking on the door of a run of excellence.
:: To think I very nearly watched Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip last night (via CTV in Toronto) instead of the conclusion of the AFC Championship Game! Wow, that was a game. Utterly amazing.
The question before me now is: did the StuPats choke yesterday?
Now, I've never been fond of the "choke" label. Somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose, and it usually seems to me a bit over-the-top to say that one team or the other "choked". But sometimes it's a useful label. The Chargers choked last week. They put themselves in position to win that game, and then they committed a series of errors that resulted in them losing. That's choking. Did the StuPats do the same thing? Not exactly. They didn't make all manner of mental errors as did the Chargers.
"Choking", in sports, is more a matter of the after-the-fact narrative perpetuated by sportswriters and whatnot than anything else. Considering the exact sequence of events in yesterday's game, it feels odd to say that the StuPats "choked"; but if the game had unfolded in exactly the same way, but with everything reversed, so that it was the Colts who had gone up 21-3 and it was Peyton Manning who threw the interception at the end to seal the loss, you can absolutely bet that the media coverage today would feature the word "choke" all over the place, in reference to the Colts.
The StuPats are the mighty dynasty that came up just a bit short. But had the Colts done the exact same thing, they'd be the "chokers". So what does that mean? I don't know, really. What it comes down to, for me, is that in the recent years when these two teams met in the playoffs, the StuPats were simply the better team, while yesterday the Colts were. That's all.
:: Of course, having said all that, I have to note that I'm not surprised at all that Tom Brady didn't pull it out at the end. There's a vast difference between those last-minute drives he led in those Super Bowls and the task that confronted him yesterday. Coming into a drive knowing that a field goal wins it, but as long as you don't turn it over, you'll at least get another shot in overtime is different from coming into a drive knowing that you must score a touchdown or you will lose. Sure, "FG or OT" is a clutch situation. But you don't get more clutch than "TD or lose". And that's when "Captain Clutch" threw an interception.
And while I'm on the subject, I'm a little fuzzy on what we call "comeback wins" in football. We all know that John Elway was the "Comeback King", but a while back, I actually found online somewhere a list of every one of his "comeback" wins, and quite a few of them were simply games in which he came in with the score tied and drove for a winning field goal. That doesn't seem like a "comeback" to me. "Game winning drive", sure, but "comeback"? Not so much. (And this complaint of mine refers to everybody, not just Tom Brady.)
In the schaedenfreude department, I have to say that I enjoyed the stunned expression on Brady's and Bill Belichick's faces after the game -- especially when Belichick gave a two-sentence "interview" to a CBS sports reporter afterwards. They looked like the possibility that they might actually lose had never once crossed the transom of their minds. And in the "saying something nice for once" department, I will admit that Brady's absolutely one of those guys who elevates the players around him, and that Belichick gets more out of guys who would suck on any other team than anybody else. (But I still hate them so much!)
:: So it's Colts versus Bears. I'm happy that Ruben Brown, drafted by the Bills in 1995 to shore up their sagging line and let go a few years back, will finally get a chance to see what the Super Bowl is all about. But I'm really hoping that Bill Polian, who built the Bills of the 90s and was unfairly let go, finally discovers that he's built a Super Bowl Champion.
UPDATE: In comments, Sean says that Belichick's definitely a sore loser, but Brady isn't. Well, it now appears that Brady didn't shake Manning's hand after the game, and you can see right here how when Manning came up to Belichick on the field after the game, Belichick wanted nothing to do with him and only gave him the briefest of handshakes. (His body language is all "Fine, fine, you won, get the f*** out of my way.")
Not a huge deal, but I think it gives the lie to the narrative that's been woven about the Patriots for the last five years or so, the deification of Brady and Belichick. Here they came up short, and they couldn't even be gracious to the team that had beaten them. And this comes on the heels of their behavior in last year's playoffs, when they were pouting about not getting enough "respect" before getting beaten by Denver.
Were they and awfully good team for a few years? Sure. Are they still going to be near the top of the NFL? Probably for another couple of years at least. But they've been unmasked as an ordinary team now.