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My idea, for the National Football League’s North Division of the NFC, is to bypass the upcoming playoffs and instead stage a separate tournament. The winner of the Green Bay-Chicago game Sunday would face the Vikings, while the loser of the Green Bay-Chicago game faces Detroit. Then the winners could play, and the winner of that game would be the Northern Inept Tournament. Yes, we could establish our own NIT.
It might actually be exciting, and for sure we would spare the rest of the league from having to step over the fallen forms of North Division foes when they do their actual playoffs. Of course, the plan would go awry if Aaron Rodgers comes back and returns to form right away, because that would lift the Packers to viable competitive stature.
When we have a proper Christmas, complete with a lot of snow and cold weather, sports fans can justify the opportunity to sit around the Christmas tree with family and friends, munch on a few Christmas cookies, stay cozy inside, and tune the big flat-screen to some sort of football game.
Pro football tends to dominate the sports scene throughout the fall and up to the Super Bowl, but college football makes its concerted effort to take over when it comes to bowl time. This year, we have both coming together right now, and when you grow weary of shoveling your driveway or sidewalk, those games can provide some great entertainment.
This weekend,the University of Minnesota is playing in something called the Texas Bowl, which last year was called the Meinecke Car Care Bowl. And yes, that’s the same bowl the Golden Gophers played in last year. It’s really pretty much of a nothing bowl game, compared to the New Year’s Day bowls, but it’s the best we’ve got. The Gophers have surprised everyone this season, and they should cap it off by beating a mediocre Syracuse (6-6) team in the 5 p.m. Friday contest.
Highlighting this weekend, of course will be the conclusion to the NFL regular season. The Vikings will play the final game in the Metrodome, with Detroit coming to Minneapolis for a game that might have been huge, but instead features two of the most disappointing teams in the entire NFL. The Vikings played out their odd quarterback rotation most of the season, and every time coach Leslie Frazier named somebody his starting quarterback for the rest of the season, that player -- whether Christian Ponder, or Matt Cassell -- immediately suffered the NFL equivalent of a pratfall.
I thought the quarterbacks were unfairly criticized sometimes, but it was the Vikings who set them up to fail. Why does a team need to tell its media and fans that a quarterback is the starter for the season? Why not start one, then see how it goes? We have no idea who should start against Detroit, only that someone will. And we have no idea if he’ll be the right guy for the day.
The Detroit Lions finished high above the Vikings 4-10-1, but not far enough above it at 7-8 going into the final game. I was certain the Lions would win the division when the Packers lost Aaron Rodgers and the Chicago Bears lost Jay Cutler for several weeks. Both teams needed their starting quarterbacks, and couldn’t be expected to be at their best without them. However, the Lions remain the NFL’s masters of self-destruction. With six games to go, the Lions were in perfect position to cruise to the division title. Instead, they lost five of their last six games, and in all five losses the Lions were leading in the fourth quarter but blew the leads, and the games, and the title -- and even a spot iin the playoffs.
The title will instead come down to Soldier Field in Chicago, where the Bears (8-7) face the Packers (7-7-1) Sunday in a game that is winner take all.
That sounds pretty regal, doesn’t it? But when the season ends, it will be merciful for the North Division of the National Football Conference, which exhibited the true definition of mediocrity last weekend. Starting from the bottom, the Vikings didn’t just lose, they were humiliated 42-14 at Cincinnati. The Lions dropped to next-to-last, out of the final chance at a wild-card spot, by managing to lose 23-20 to the New York Giants, and are 7-8. The Packers, right now a close second, lost 38-31 to Pittsburgh as Matt Flynn got outdueled by Ben Roethlisberger. But the prize fold of the weekend belonged to Chicago, as the Bears went to Philadelphia and were drubbed 54-11 by the Eagles.
The four members of the once-proud North Division, which we used to call “Black and Blue” division, went 0-4 by a combined 157-76 points.
There are, by luck, some extremely interesting season finales this Sunday. Several division titles are still up for grabs, and two specific games will determine two titles: Green Bay plays at Chicago for the North title, and Philadelphia plays at Dallas at High Noon in a game that will earn the NFC East title for the winner.
Meantime, we can hope that the NFL will somehow find a way to stabilize three things -- the rules, the officiating, and the guys in the replay booth.
Watching the flurry of games last Sunday, I watched two star quarterbacks victimized. First, one of the QBs dropped back, pump faked, then pulled the ball back to try an alternative target. While starting to pull the ball back, it came loose from his grasp and hit the ground. The other team smothered it, having a surprising fumble recovery. But wait! The referees, who called the fumble properly, went to review. In slow motion, I saw his hand start to pull back before the ball came loose, but the replay reviewers said his hand was moving forward when the ball came loose, therefore it was an incomplete pass and NOT a fumble. Incredulous, I changed channels, and the other quarterback in question did exactly the same thing, losing his grip on the ball as he pulled it back, losing the fumble, and then regaining possession when the slow-motion review -- which showed the play clearly was a fumble -- was misread and the ball was declared an incomplete pass, with no loss of possession.
What’s happening is too much slow motion. When a play is broken down to minute detail by being slowed so much, it’s easy to lose track of what happened at full speed. A firm catch at full speed can be dissected to show the trace of ball movement in super-slow-mo, and it seems that more and more each week we see calls that don’t seem questionable become questionable by the replay review. I don’t think that was the intention of the move to video reviews.