- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

So I'm watching the NFL playoffs over the weekend all four delectable games and what do I see?
The sky. A Grantland Rice, blue-gray type of sky for the most part. That's right, folks, every one of the wild-card spectaculars was played in the Great Outdoors complete with snow, chewed-up fields, muddy uniforms, steam coming out of players' mouths, the whole schmeer.
Real football, in other words. Climate-uncontrolled. None of this dome dallying. (Or is it dillying?)
For the first time since '97, not a single game will be played under a roof during the postseason, and the results so far have been sensational. The Jets put on a clinic at the Meadowlands, cold-cocking the Colts 41-0. The Falcons an indoor team braved the snow and 30-degree temperatures in Green Bay to hand the Packers their first home playoff loss ever. The Steelers rallied from 17 points down in the second half to beat the Browns. And the 49ers came from 24 down in the last 20 minutes to beat the Giants.
And that's just for openers. Who knows what a Donovan McNabb-Michael Vick matchup might bring in Round 2?
Let's talk about the Jets first, in particular Chad Pennington. Does this kid ever miss a pass? In the last three weeks against such formidable competition as New England, Green Bay and Indianapolis he's led his team to one lopsided win after another, hitting 72 percent of his throws for 703 yards and 10 touchdowns, with no interceptions. Those aren't just good numbers, they're Montana-like.
In fact, only five quarterbacks in NFL history have completed a higher percentage of their passes than Pennington (68.92) has this season: Kenny Anderson in '82 (70.55), Sammy Baugh in '45 (70.33), Steve Young in '94 (70.28), Montana in '89 (70.21) and Troy Aikman in '93 (69.13). Not bad company.
And all those guys were much further along in their careers than Pennington is. Chad is in just his third season, his first as a starter. (If he seems unusually cool amid the zone blitzes, it's probably because he's an "old" third-year player. He was almost 24 the Mid-American Conference's answer to Chris Weinke when he finished up at Marshall.)
It's funny. When Bill Parcells agreed to coach the Cowboys last week, people talked about his history of leaving clubs in "disarray." Let me just point out that it was Parcells who presided over the drafting of Pennington in 2000 as well as Pro Bowl defensive end John Abraham before stepping down as director of football operations. In Dallas, they must be dying to be left in such "disarray."
Indeed, the Jets could be positioned for a good, long run. They've got a young quarterback, two young wideouts (Laveranues Coles, Santana Moss), a young pass rusher, a fairly young offensive line and a young coach, Herman Edwards. And while Curtis Martin might be closing in on the Big Three-Oh, LaMont Jordan, the former Maryland Terp, seems more than able to share the rushing load with him. Jordan racked up 102 yards and two TDs against Indy and bore a striking resemblance to the early Stephen Davis.
Which brings us to special teams play. It's hard to remember another playoff weekend when it figured so prominently in every game. The Packers lost, as much as anything, because of a blocked punt. The Giants botched the snap on two field goal tries in the last few minutes. The Steelers' Antwaan Randle El fumbled one punt and ran another back 66 yards for a touchdown. The Browns' Dennis Northcutt had a 59-yard punt return. The Jets' Chad Morton had a 70-yard kickoff return. It was wilder than Madden NFL 2003.
Especially with all the missed field goals. During the regular season, kickers make about 75 percent of their kicks, but in the four games over the weekend, with the tension ratcheted up and the temperatures ratcheted down, only 53.3 percent made it through the uprights. (And that's not counting the one at the end of the 49ers-Giants contest that never got off the ground.) Ah, the joys of outdoor living. The only kicker who managed so much as a 40-yarder was the Jets' John Hall, who booted one through from 41. The other eight attempts from 40 and beyond 47 was the longest were either wide, short, blocked or aborted.
What's truly amazing and little commented on is how teams are able to play tremendously entertaining games (and at a high level, too) despite wintry conditions. It wasn't always thus. Ask somebody about the '48 title game between the Eagles and Cardinals sometime. Better still, check out a highlight film of the Ice Bowl and watch Bob Hayes run pass routes with his hands in his pants.
But now, because of neoprene and gloves and heated benches and the like, we have Kelly Holcomb and Tommy Maddox combining for 56 completions, 796 yards passing and seven touchdowns on a 27-degree day in Pittsburgh. (Just as, a year ago, we had Tom Brady and Rich Gannon hitting an improbable 59 percent of their passes 83 of them in all in the snow in New England.)
This weekend the games move to warmer climes Tampa, Oakland and Nashville but there's still a potentially nasty 8 o'clock kickoff Saturday night in Philadelphia. I'll bring the marshmallows.

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