The Colts lost and I don't care. In fact, I may have subliminally cheered against them, selfishly, to avoid the post-dramatic stress disorder I would have suffered in the wake of a Colts vs Peyton match-up. My boys beat three of the twelve playoff teams (Packers, Vikings, Texans), won eleven games (nine more than last season), and delivered one of the most memorable seasons I've ever been a part of, reminiscent of the 1994 Jim Harbaugh year, which created an awesome full-circle moment, since 'Captain Comeback' went on to coach Andrew Luck at Stanford.
A little bit of me wants to be happy for Ray Lewis, celebrating his final home game - an honor Peyton and Colts fans were denied. Despite Lewis's checkered past, I get why Ravens fans love him. After the Colts left for Indianapolis, football disappeared in Baltimore for around fifteen years. When the Ravens were brought back, Ray was their first franchise player (selected in the Ravens' first draft). And his first career sack was on Peyton Manning. Again, we come full circle.
And speaking of dear Peyton, I make no secret of what I want to happen next - a Broncos/Patriots AFC Championship game, if nothing else for old times sake, followed by a Broncos Super Bowl victory in Peyton's home town of New Orleans. That would make this my personal dream season; the only thing missing is Eli for the all-Manning final, but we've got to have a reason to keep watching next year.
If you haven't been following this season, there's still time to jump in. Here a cheatsheet to catch you up before Super Bowl party season.
(4) Baltimore Ravens at (1) Denver Broncos
Saturday Jan 12, 4:30pm EST CBS
A game of grizzled-old-falling-apart veterans. Peyton Manning has a frankenstein neck. Ray Lewis has a cyborg arm where his torn-tricep used to be. Peyton's running an eleven-game winning streak, and Ray's team was the preseason favorite to make the Super Bowl (they were a sneeze away from making the Super Bowl last year).
These two teams played each other December 16th in Baltimore, and the Broncos won 34-17. This game is in Denver, a mile above sea-level where the air is thin and dry and chilly, and Peyton likes to play fast. The Broncos can score more quickly than the Ravens (unless Boldin makes multiple long plays, like he did against the Colts last week, or Ed Reed picks Peyton off and runs the ball all the way back). Chances are the Ravens will have to play from behind and the Broncos will just grind them into something they can then sell at one of their special corner pharmacies. And once again, for the record, I will continue to believe Joe Flacco is an animagus until presented with irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
(3) Green Bay Packers at (2) San Francisco 49ers
Saturday Jan 12 8pm EST FOX
These two teams met the first week of the season, and the Niners won 30-22. That game featured replacement referees and quarterback Alex Smith, who used to make me irrationally angry until he was 'kaepernicked' by his backup, Colin Kaepernick. Now Alex Smith sideline-sightings just makes me sad. He lost his gig because he got a concussion, and the NFL's new kick (rightly so) is to protect guys who get concussions. Alex sat out, Kaepernick won in style, and the rest is history. For people like me on the look-out for sports-karma curses, watch this space.
And speaking of sports-karma, for the season to be complete, the Packers must win, and they must play the Seattle Seahawks in a rematch of the week 3 game that ended the use of replacement referees. The game must be replayed, and the prize must be the Super Bowl. It's the only logical thing to do.
(5) Seattle Seahawks at (1) Atlanta Falcons
Sunday Jan 13 1pm EST FOX
I hate watching the Falcons. I can't explain why, I just can't make myself do it. They've been the best team all season, at least in terms of wins and "on-paper" things. Matt "Matty-Ice" Ryan is a fine quarterback, but all of the Manning comparisons make my skin molt. Tony Gonzalez is a hall of fame tight end, and Julio Jones seems like a delightful addition to any 4th place fantasy team, but I can't get excited to watch them. I don't hate this team, I just want them to go away. That's why it's PERFECT that this may the only game I'll actually be able to watch this weekend.
In a year where rookie quarterbacks have been the sparkly storyline, Russell Wilson, Seattle's quarterback, is the last rookie standing. Every time he wins, I consider it a win for the Big Ten (we have to take what we can get). Wilson's a short, baby-faced, baseball player who was drafted in the thirty-sixth round of the NFL draft (or thereabouts), and was lucky enough to fall to a team that not only gave him a chance to play, but also had outstanding defense and special teams that helped him stand out.
All that being said, this team also features Golden Tate (receiver from Notre Dame responsible for the catch against Green Bay that ended the referee lockout), and coach Pete Carroll (the dude who fled USC like Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Catch Me If You Can' when they were slammed with NCAA violations). I can't WAIT to watch Green Bay beat them in the NFC Championship game.
(3) Houston Texans at (2) New England Patriots
Sunday Jan 13 4:30pm EST CBS
As a Colts fan, I feel terrible for the Texans. They've been in the league ten years, and for most of that, they had to face Peyton and the Colts twice each season. I learned recently that they consider the Colts their top rivals - we're their Patriots. And, because we beat them in week 17 and blew up their season, the camera zoomed in on the faces of the players on the bench like a Cinderella losing at the end of a March Madness basketball game. These guys are better than they get credit for. They (with Atlanta) were at the top of the standings all season, but they've never in franchise history won a game in Indianapolis, and so, they have to go play in Foxboro in January to keep their season alive. You don't have to be a Texan fan to see why that sux.
The Texans were booed by their home crowd during last week's wildcard game against the Bengals, even though they ended up winning. I feel like they've earned a shot at the Super Bowl, and lord knows I don't have it in me to root for the Patriots. Last season, I congratulated Houston on winning the AFC South and joked, 'Take good care of that playoff spot, we're gonna want it back soon.' Now, I can see Texans/Colts turning into a legit, two-sided rivalry, and I'm not sure I like it. Will we make each other stronger, like Duke and North Carolina? Or tear each other apart, like all the football teams in SEC not coached by Nick Saban? I don't know - and I'm not sure I want to find out.
Ergo, I'll be rooting for the underdog Texans, all the while secure in the knowledge that Manning v. Brady is just a week away. But the Texans aren't going anywhere. One of these seasons things will click into place for them, and they won't be a 'cute' little underdog anymore. I'm not looking forward to it.