Tuesday, January 19, 2016

My Cliches Can Beat Your Cliches

If America's NFL national beat reporters wanted to make Peyton Manning the sentimental favorite in Sunday's AFC championship game between the Broncos and Patriots, they're doing a damn fine job of it. Even the most devout Manning-hater, and as with any great athlete in any sport there are plenty of them, would start pulling for the guy if he had to listen and/or read the dismissals of Manning and his team these guys have been throwing out there since last Sunday night.

There are two schools among national pro football reporters, those who deliver the conventional wisdom with "get me rewrite" breathless excitement and those who deliver the same with a sneer, as if to say, "anyone who doesn't know this is an idiot." The former now speak of Manning with patronizing pity, the latter with outright contempt. I have never met Will Brinson of CBS Sports, and after listening to his self-satisfied spiel on Toucher and Rich this morning I'm gonna make sure it stays that way.

The indisputable fact cited by these folks is that Manning is no longer anywhere near as good a quarterback as Tom Brady. This fact is no scoop. It's known to, oh, any and everyone who watched pro football in 2015. Manning should've retired last year, and has struggled so much in 2015 Papa John's had to bring in J. J. Watt and Joe Montana off the bench to help him in its commercials. Brady remains one of the top four quarterbacks in football at a minimum,. Many games this season, he was the best of 'em all.

And yet, here Manning is. He lost his starting job, then got it back. He's playing with a list of medical problems borrowed from the table of contents of "New England Journal of Medicine." One might think this would earn Manning a modicum of grudging admiration for his sunset season. For some reason, and this is indeed the fault of the sports audience, all praise has come to be associated with network broadcaster-level sycophancy. Admiring athletes is not a good career move in sports journalism except on the golf beat.

So we have the following spin cycle. Manning isn't as good as Brady. Therefore, the Broncos have no chance to beat New England. Denver's seven-point win in a home divisional playoff game was a lucky fluke. New England's seven-point win in ITS home divisional playoff game was the mark of an invincible juggernaut. The only rational basis for that assessment is that Brady had an excellent game, Manning a mediocre one.  The other 44 guys who wore Bronco and Patriot uniforms were mere window dressing, except for Julian Edelman, whose return to action was a big part of the invincible juggernaut theme.

Such is the power of NFL conventional wisdom. Cliche number one is "it's a quarterback's league."
It is the assumption on which all pre and post-game analysis is based. Like all cliches, it's based on truth. Quarterbacks are important, the most important players on their teams. Like all cliches, it contains an oversimplification. "Most important" is not the same as "all important."

This cliche, however, has utterly triumphed over the older conventional wisdom prevalent as late as the time of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Whatever happened to "Defense wins championships" anyway?

Nobody said it after the last Super Bowl, even though the defense turned in the game-winning play. Nobody said it after the Super Bowl before last, even after the defense of the Seahawks obliterated the highest-scoring offense in league history. The sight of countless regular season blowouts where good passers have their way with average or worse defenses has driven yesterday's cliche into hiding, probably in the attic of Mike Ditka's house.

If history or common sense are any guide, however, it's the old, discredited cliche that any team wishing to beat the Pats in January or February ought to make its watchword. Common sense is a simple proposition. Betting the house on your guy, even if he's Peyton, on outplaying Brady by a significant margin is poor risk management.

History offers numbers to back common sense. In the Bill Belichick-Brady era, the Patriots have always had a strong offense, sometimes historically so. In those 14 going on 15 seasons, they have lost only eight playoff games. The total number of New England points in those eight losses is 143, almost exactly 18 a game. Only once in those losses did the Pats score more than 21 points, the 34 they put up when losing to the Colts in the 2006 AFC title game against the Manning that used to be. The enemy quarterback in one of those losses was Mark Sanchez, fair proof that any conventional wisdom is a percentage, not a law of nature.

In short, the evidence supports the notion that the way to beat Brady is what I call the Strachan-Tuck game plan. Put him on his ass as often as possible. Understand your defense is going to have to supply the big plays that turn the game. Your quarterback must move the ball, sure. Most of all, however, he must not give it back to New England. I don't think I'm giving away any of Gary Kubiak's secrets when I assert that's exactly what Denver hopes to do come Sunday afternoon.

Easier said than done, of course. The Patriots also have a defense, and although it had its troubles with Brock Osweiler (a game conventional wisdom has now decided just didn't happen), it's no stretch to envision them holding the ghost of Manning and friends under 21 points themselves.

But the last time New England won a playoff game scoring less than 21 points was in the divisional round of the 2004 season, when they beat the old Manning and Indy 20-3. We'll call that another victory for yesterday's cliche, which could yet wind up being next Sunday's cliche, too.


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