Dallas-Carolina: Oh Boy! A fervent pet peeve I've somehow never publicly bitched about, the most over-rated, over-talked subject in professional sports: The vaunted "home-field advantage." Flashback: The place? Soldier Field. The event? The '88 NFC title game. Bear opponent? San Francisco. The weather? "Bear Weather." The coldest day of the year in the icebox of the Midwest. I know. I was there. Final score? The most lopsided 28-3 49er victory imaginable.
In the regular season, the home team wins something like 60% of the time. An advantage, yes, but not overwhelming. In the playoffs, the home-field advantage goes higher. So, whose case am I making? There's an excellent reason home teams win so often in the playoffs. It has nothing to do with familiar sod or sleeping in comfortable beds or the wife's meatballs. They're playing at home for a simple reason. They're almost always the better team! That's why they're playing the game at home. Duh! Why this very elementary, obvious fact is always overlooked goes past me.
But not always the better team. The Bears, with every so-called home-field advantage under the snow, were not close to the better team. Dallas didn't beat the Packers seven straight because they played in Dallas. The Panthers are at home. They're not the best team. Bing-Bang-Boom. The Coach is (if you didn't know) a rocket scientist.
Which brings me to the Carolina Panthers. Don't know how many times I've read about how "invincible" Carolina (8-0) is at home. About as many times as I've read the sappy story of the amazing second-year Panthers. As Roger Daltry sang in "Magic Bus," "No. Too much!" I don't want to hear it anymore. Okay, the defense is, on paper, impressive. Only 13 second-half points allowed at home all year, la-de-da. And there are the two victories over Frisco. Okay, that's good. Unmentioned, inflated defensive stats compiled against many of the league's least proficient offenses. Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans, New York, Tampa Bay, Houston, Baltimore and, yes, Pittsburgh.
Do you think Dallas will be intimidated by the Carolina Panthers? Carolina's only chance is to hope the Cowboy offense reverts to its regular season form (I do). To pray the defense is as good as advertised (I pray). To create points off of turnovers (Go Lamar. My man!). More likely scenario: the young, inexperienced Panther offense will hand Dallas cheap touchdowns and another Dallas win. Playoff wins on the road are no big deal. It happens all the time.
Jacksonville-Denver: I was in Colorado this summer while the Broncos were in training camp. Nobody anywhere thought Denver would be any better than a .500 team, if that. Yet, here they are. A 13-3 record is the best in the AFC, assuring home-field advantage (in the one stadium where, due to Denver's altitude, there really is one) for as long as they stay alive. John Elway, recently bitten by a vampire, leads the AFC in passing. They can run. Shit, they even have a few guys who can tackle. The Jacksonville Jaguars win the look-what-I-found-in-my-glove trophy for '96. A few weeks ago, they were 4-7. Then, spookishly lucky things started happening, mostly involving field goals hitting uprights. A Jag win in Mile High would be an upset of Gulliverian -- that's too mild, but it's the best I can do -- proportions.
Pittsburgh-New England: A snapshot of the Nineties. For two years, everyone said Bill Parcells was washed up, finished, a horse-and-buggy guy in the jet age. Now, his team is playing like they were supposed to and Parcells is a genius. The second coming of Knute Rockne. Vince Lombardi reincarnated. Jesus -- no, The Good Lord himself! -- strides the sidelines in Foxboro. You gotta love it. Looks to be the best match-up of the week. Though neither team exactly steamrolled into the playoffs, I like New England. They match up well against the Steelers. They play good run defense. Running is all Pittsburgh can do. They have a terrible pass defense, but no problem, the Steelers, no slight to Mike Tomczak intended, can't pass worth a shit. Bledsoe can be brilliant or horrible. Cordell Stewart should play quarterback simply because Tomczak can't take the Steelers much further and maybe Stewart can. Think Bill Cowher reads my column?
Green Bay-San Francisco: And then there's Lambeau Field, the ultimate home-field advantage. Did you ever wonder about that? Do you think Brett Farve, a coon-ass from Louisiana, likes blowing snow and minus-10-degree wind chills any more than Steve Young? Don't Reggie White's toes get cold? Do you think they even practice outside if the weather's bad? Well, anyway, I know Farve is supposed to be God, but I'll be damned if I've ever seen him have a good game. Too many Dallas memories I guess. Likewise, I can't believe Steve Young is the league's top-rated passer. Seems like every time I watch, he's being carried off the field. Yet Farve is a god and Young is the best passer, so selective television-watching lies. The cold won't beat the 49ers but the Packers will.
Hope for a nasty, cold weekend with no temptations to play golf, walk with the wife, or mow the lawn. Playoff weather.