UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Unlikely heroes, goats emerge in conference championship games

SAN FRANCISCO -- I laugh when people call me an idiot for my predictions.

I shake my head when gambler friends ask me who to pick. Poor saps.

Sunday was a perfect example of why you shouldn't put a nickel down on big football games. Or any football games, really. These four players had huge parts in the Patriots and Giants making the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons:

1. Sterling Moore.

2. Billy Cundiff.

3. Kyle Williams.

4. Jacquian Williams.

Many of you never heard of three of those four before Sunday. Some of you still haven't. But the Patriots and Giants are meeting in Super Bowl 46, a reunion of Super Bowl 42, because their 53 men are better -- at least more reliable -- than the teams they vanquished Sunday.

In the AFC Championship Game, an unknown cornerback from New England (cut off the Raiders practice squad early in the season) and Baltimore's kicker made the two decisive plays of the game. The corner slapped the potential winning touchdown pass out of wideout Lee Evans' hands. Billy Cundiff shanked a chip shot. In the NFC, punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. not playing cost the 49ers 10 points and likely a trip to the Super Bowl. One Williams (Jacquian) stripped another (Kyle) on a punt return midway through overtime to hand the Giants a field goal -- a quarter after Kyle Williams' muffed punt led to a Giant touchdown.

Nice crowd the 49ers have on Twitter. One of their "fans'' tweeted to Williams (@KyleWilliams_10): "Jim Harbaugh, please give @KyleWilliams_10 the game ball. And make sure it explodes when he gets in his car.''

It's only sports, people. Only sports. Around here, the fog will come up tomorrow.

***

So much to talk about this morning, including the Chip Kelly and the Tampa Bay coaching job, the story of what led Joe Philbin to the NFL, how Chuck Noll and Joe Paterno will be forever linked, the yappy Jets, the lucky Saints, and the two teams that should make it an awful lot of fun in Indianapolis next week, when, as I write in Sports Illustrated this week, Peyton's brother faces Peyton's (friendly) arch-rival in The House That Peyton Built ... with Peyton, I'm assuming, watching from a luxury suite ...

How about this incredible Xerox of fate for the Giants.

In 2007, the Giants started the playoffs by beating an NFC South team. Then they beat the No. 1 seed on the road. Then they beat the No. 2 seed in the conference title game when the foe turned it over in overtime and gave the Giants a short field and the Giants won on a Lawrence Tynes overtime field goal. Then they moved on to face the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

In 2011, let's see ... NFC South team, No. 1 seed, No. 2 seed, overtime, turnover, Tynes, Patriots. Check.

One more thing:

2007: Giants lose to Washington 22-10 in Week 15.

2011: Giants lose to Washington 23-10 in Week 15.

It's 13 days early to say this is a team for the ages. But the Giants will be underdogs to New England again in the Super Bowl, just like they were four years ago when they won by a Velcro catch and three points. And if the Giants win, they'll go down as one of the most remarkable stories of our era. Imagine Coughlin and Manning beating Belichick and Brady three times in four years -- twice in the Super Bowl, the other time in Foxboro. It'd be extraordinary.

In the championship game Sunday, I counted 23 pressures on Manning. This San Francisco defense deserves to be playing in a Super Bowl. The two ends in the 3-4, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith, are every bit as impactful as the best ends the Steelers have had in their 3-4 prime, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. Justin Smith was a lion Sunday. He was a lion all week. Last Monday, he walked into the 49er trainers room and saw a slew of players, maybe 15 in all, getting treatment after a rough game against the Saints. "Nobody's hurt this week!'' he yelled. "Everybody plays! I don't care if you have to tape it up, whatever. Nobody misses this game Sunday.''

(Maybe Ted Ginn Jr. wasn't there.)

For the second straight week, Smith got such good leverage and force on a left tackle he ended up blocking the left tackle back into the quarterback and yanking him down for a sack. Last week it was Jermon Bushrod and Drew Brees. This week, David Diehl and Eli Manning.

How cruel is it for San Francisco that the Niners prepared for most every contingency during the season, Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke plugging most of the personnel holes they could. Who spends cap money and significant time on the backup punt returner? But if a team's only as good as its 45th man, the NFC Championship was decided on that adage. Because Williams' fumble and muff cost San Francisco 10 vital points in a 20-17 defeat.

Onto the Giants. They'll be hard to beat. There's something about Manning that's hard to put a finger on, but also very hard to beat. The best quarterbacks are usually the ones who play the best with the most on the line. Manning's had some embarrassing regular season losses. He was swept by the 5-11 Redskins this year, both by double digits. The Giants were routed at home by Seattle and had a four-game losing streak. But when it matters, the kid's been money. Let's look at Manning's last five seasons:

Overall record: 56-32. (Eight more wins than Philadelphia, eight more wins than Dallas.)

Playoff record: 7-1.

Playoff record outside of New Jersey: 6-1.

Super Bowl record: 1-0.

Record against New England: 2-1. (Lost 38-35, won 17-14, won 24-20.)

The Giants don't have the sick regular season record of the Patriots, but they've played better than New England in January and February. They've got a superb pass-rush, and they've got Manning. "We have grit,'' said Tom Coughlin. "We're battle-tested. We've had five straight single-elimination games. Somehow, some way, we've found a way to scratch our way to a win.''

***

Suddenly the Patriots don't look like a sieve on defense.

Granted they were helped by The Tebow Factor, but New England's defense is getting well when it counts. Thirty points allowed in eight postseason quarters, with only 50-percent completions. What's been most impressive is the defensive front. Vince Wilfork was a monster Sunday, and what's helping him get free more than he has recently is the play of no-names like Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick and Mark Anderson and Gerard Warren, who pushed the pile Sunday and only occasionally gave Ray Rice and Ricky Williams enough creases to run.

The Giants will enter the Super Bowl with the advantage on the defensive line, but what the last two games have shown is the Patriots will have a good chance of stopping the Giants from running ... and then it'll be in Eli Manning's hands against the patchwork secondary as to who will win the Super Bowl. Brady against Manning. Should be terrific.

***

Questions, questions, questions from Foxboro.

1. Why'd the Ravens, down 23-20 with 2:53 left with 4th-and-6 on the New England 33, go for the first down instead of kicking the 50-yard field goal?

Because Billy Cundiff, according to an excellent graphic from CBS, has missed nine of his last 10 field goal tries from 50 yards and beyond. Coach John Harbaugh certainly felt he didn't have any choice.

2. Should the replay assistant, Mark Burns, have stopped the game for a replay review on the Lee Evans catch/non-catch in the end zone with 27 seconds left?

I thought so. Mike Pereira on FOX and a league statement both had Burns acting properly, but my question is: What's the rush? That's a season-altering play right there, the difference between making the Super Bowl or going home for the winter. I've watched it 10 or 12 times now and it looks very close -- though it certainly would have been difficult to overturn even if you thought it appeared that Evans had two feet down and exhibited clear possession. I just thought the gravity of the situation should have mandated a review. God knows the game is stopped for elbows hitting the ground and 12 inches of real estate on poor spots. "I'm surprised they didn't look at it,'' said John Harbaugh. As am I. Now, for the many of you wanting to crucify Evans for the play: I don't. Should he have lock-gripped the ball to prevent stripping? Yes, of course. But New England cornerback Sterling Moore has a job to do there too, and that job is to chop down on the hands of Evans as soon as the ball is in his grasp. Evans didn't have time to secure it well enough -- though it's obviously going to be a play that will tear at him for years. Evans went to Baltimore after a career of frustration in Buffalo, just hoping he could get to a Super Bowl. He had that Super Bowl trip in his hands, and he had it stripped away.

One other official's call, this one from San Francisco, brought up tuck-rule memories from Foxboro 10 years ago. I didn't like the call that Ahmad Bradshaw's forward progress was stopped deep in his territory with 2:29 left in the game. Bradshaw fumbled on the play, seemingly while he was going down, and the officials said he was down. "Every play in the game except that one was played out to the conclusion of the play,'' said coach Jim Harbaugh. I agree. I think the fair play would have been fumble and San Francisco ball.

3. Why didn't Harbaugh call a timeout as the field-goal team came onto the field to try the tying kick -- and it appeared kicker Billy Cundiff was slow in getting on the field?

Harbaugh certainly should have. What was he saving it for? "That never occurred to me,'' said Harbaugh. "Look back on it now, maybe there was something we could have done. But in that situation, it didn't seem like we were rushed on the field.'' Cundiff was, and his duck-hook left ended another Baltimore season prior to the Super Bowl. Eleven of those in a row now.

***

Three Degrees of Separation.

"It's the best of times, it's the worst of times,'' new Miami coach Joe Philbin told me Saturday, and of course it would be, being anointed the head coach of an NFL team exactly one week after burying son Michael, who drowned in Wisconsin.

Getting through this period will be difficult, obviously. And no one should pretend to tell a coach and his family how to mourn, or when to move. Those should be personal calls. But that's not why I'm writing about Philbin this morning. Miami's hire of the Green Bay offensive coordinator as head coach Friday probably never would have happened without Matt Birk, Kirk Ferentz, and two Massachusetts establishments of higher education with significantly different reputations -- Worcester Academy and Harvard.

"But never without Matt Birk,'' said one NFL scout Friday. "And never without Harvard.''

And never without Kirk Ferentz.

Everyone's life, personal and professional, has a certain degree of kismet to it. Every coach can look to one point in his career and say, That's when it all changed for me. Peeling the onion on Philbin's career shows the same thing.

In 1979, Philbin, a high-school tight end, enrolled at Worcester (Mass.) Academy for a post-grad high school year before going on to a four-year college. One of the assistant coaches on the team was a young kid just out of college, Kirk Ferentz, who actually performed nightly bedchecks on Philbin and got to know him well. Fast-forward to 1997. Philbin was climbing the coaching ladder, and took a job coaching the Harvard offensive line. At the time he took the job, Philbin inherited a good but technically raw starting center, Matt Birk. Excellent size and flexibility. But not technically sound. "A reacher and a grabber,'' recalled Philbin. "He would get outside the framework of his body and start reaching and grabbing. Once he learned the fundamentals of punching and pass-protecting the right way, I think some people in the NFL felt he was certainly a prospect worth investing in.''

Here came the scouts, in the late winter of 1998, a month or so before the draft. One of those scouts, Ferentz, was the offensive line coach at Baltimore. "When I came in for a visit,'' said Ferentz, "I looked at Matt and right away I could tell he'd been coached to do things the way we wanted them done. Coaching makes a huge difference. You work guys out, and you can see which ones have been schooled and which ones haven't. Matt had a great head start.''

Ferentz had a good visit with his former student, Philbin, and thought: I knew he was a good kid. Now I can see that he's a really good coach. Birk got drafted, but not by Baltimore. The Vikings picked him in the sixth round, and Philbin went back to work molding another offensive line in 1998 at Harvard. Before he left Harvard, though, Birk went for a barbeque at the Philbin home, with kids running around the house and Philbin and wife Diane (who eventually would have six children) looking so happy to be living the football life. When he left, Birk thought he'd just seen the classic all-American family.

The next spring, Ferentz got the head-coaching job at Iowa. When he formed his coaching staff, he tried to talk veteran line coach Joe Moore out of retirement. Nope, Moore said. So he turned his attention to a young and hungry coach he got to know again at Harvard a year earlier. Philbin jumped at the chance. "Let's just say hiring the line coach from Harvard wasn't exactly greeted with the red carpet when we announced that,'' Ferentz said. The line is important to Iowans. They didn't want some egghead coming in and teaching it; they wanted a physical pounder. But Philbin changed their minds. Soon he developed one of the best offensive lines in the country, with transplanted tight ends Bruce Nelson and Robert Gallery joining Eric Steinbach to help Iowa win a Big Ten championship. And after every win, he and Diane and the brood would host the offensive line for dinner at their home on Thursday nights, a new crew of linemen experiencing the special bond Philbin built with his players.

Four years later he went to Green Bay, and climbed the ladder there, and that job begat the Miami head-coaching job. Why? Teaching, and the personal connection owner Stephen Ross and GM Jeff Ireland saw him exhibit.

Now back to Harvard.

"There is absolutely no question he helped me get where I am,'' said Birk. "I doubt sincerely that I'd be here right now, and had this career that I've had, without that one year of learning the position and all the other things he's taught me over the years.''

"I just know from what I saw he was a huge part of Matt getting to be a pro,'' said Ferentz.

"It was huge,'' said Philbin. "Huge. I just don't think I'd have ended up here, without that experience.''

Now to the tragedy.

Birk asked coach John Harbaugh if he could take a day to go to Green Bay to mourn with the Philbin family, and Harbaugh, in the middle of a playoff week, gave Birk a day. He went to the wake on Thursday night, the night before the funeral, and got to tell Philbin how much he'd meant to his career, and his life, and to tell him how sorry he was. He wasn't alone. Ferentz went to the funeral, and the outpouring from Iowans touched him. "Dallas Clark didn't even play for Joe,'' said Ferentz. "Dallas was a tight end. But he drove seven hours to pay his respects. That just showed the respect he had, and so many of the former players had, for Joe.''

"The outpouring of support from the Kirk Ferentzes, the Dallas Clarks, the Matt Birks, all the Packers, all the friends in our lives, without that, I don't know how we'd have made it,'' said Philbin. "This was a tough call, in a very tough time. When Mr. Ross told me things were looking good on Friday, I told him I had to go home and look my wife, my kids, in the eye and see how they were with this. Is it the right thing at the right time? So I went home. I talked to them all. My children said this would be what Michael would have wanted.''

"Good things happen to good people, at a time they really need good things to happen,'' said Birk.

One other thing Birk shared with Philbin.

Six children. They both had six children.

***

Think what would have happened if Dan Rooney's wish had come true back in 1969.

Sad news, however you fall on the Joe Paterno spectrum, with the news of his death Sunday at 85 ... 85 days after he coached his last game at Penn State. My feeling is that he could have done more, by his own admission, to bring the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal to light. He hung on too long to a job, when clearly he wasn't up to the physical demands of it anymore; he should have left the job six or seven years ago for the good of the program. But all of that doesn't erase the enormous good he did on a growing campus and for the lives of the players he coached.

The following has gotten some play over the last few weeks, but I thought I would sum up his three biggest flirtations with the NFL over the years.

In 1968, the Steelers went 2-11-1 under coach Bill Austin, and owner Art Rooney and son Dan decided to make a coaching change. Not long after the season ended, they made an offer that Paterno seriously considered -- because it was for $70,000 a year, $50,000 more than he was making at Penn State. At the time, Paterno was a hot property. Penn State had beaten Kansas in the Orange Bowl and finished the season (Paterno's third at Penn State) ranked second in the country.

"I thought he was going to come,'' Dan Rooney once told me. "We had him in my kitchen in Pittsburgh having lunch one day. We had a great conversation. I thought there was a good chance he'd want to coach our team.''

But Paterno felt he hadn't stayed at Penn State long enough, and he felt indebted to the school for giving him the job three years earlier. The Steelers hired the defensive coordinator from the Baltimore Colts, Chuck Noll, prompting disgruntled Steeler fans to complain they couldn't even get a college guy to coach their team. It turned out to be the best decision, arguably, in the history of the franchise.

The pursuit of Paterno happened again in 1973 and in 1982 with the Patriots. Twice Paterno was offered the coaching job in New England, and he verbally accepted in '73 -- but backed out because he reportedly was skittish over the shaky ownership and management of the team.

Imagine if Paterno had taken the Steeler job and Noll hadn't. My first question is whether Paterno would have taken Joe Greene of North Texas State, as Noll did, as the first draft pick of the club in 1969. Greene became the cornerstone of the Steel Curtain, and is probably the single most important draft pick in club history. We'll never know if Paterno would have liked quarterback Greg Cook enough to pick Cook and build his offense around him, or maybe even his own tight end from Penn State, Ted Kwalick, over a player from a smaller school. Noll never feared the college players from schools outside the power conferences; in fact, many of his cornerstone players came from the lesser schools and predominantly black colleges. Would Paterno have shared Noll's affection for the less famous?

1. New York Giants (12-7). There's something about getting hot at the right time. The Giants have played five straight elimination games and won them all, which sounds a lot like the last time they played the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

2. New England (15-3). The Patriots are going to their fifth Super Bowl in the last 11 seasons. If they win, they're immortal. If they lose, Eli Manning has their number.

3. San Francisco (14-4). Niners will be in the dumps about this one for a while, because their backup punt returner cost them the NFC Championship. But going from 6-10 to 14-4 in one season? How can they have any real sorrow about what was a great start to an era of contending? "Right now we're just in disbelief,'' said Patrick Willis. Tomorrow, they'll realize what a great base they've laid for the future.

4. Baltimore (13-5). Lee Evans didn't sleep much last night, I bet.

5. Green Bay (15-2). All of a sudden, Mike McCarthy has a raided coaching staff to worry about -- though Joe Philbin told me Saturday he hadn't yet discussed who, if anyone, from the Packer staff he'd be allowed to take with him. And it could get worse if Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie takes one of the Pack's defensive coaches.

6. New Orleans (14-4). Just an educated hunch, but I don't think Gregg Williams could have stayed as defensive coordinator had he wanted to.

7. Houston (11-7). Now the question for this franchise is whether they fight to keep free agent outside linebacker/defensive end Mario Williams away from the market. The way this team played defensively at Baltimore, and as many talented young defensive players as the Texans have, and as many guys as they have to think about paying with a flat cap in the next two offseasons, I bet they're seriously considering letting Williams walk.

8. Pittsburgh (12-5). Mike Tomlin (secondary) and Jim Caldwell (quarterbacks) coached together at Tampa Bay under Tony Dungy in Dungy's last season with the Bucs, 2001, if you're looking for a clue on the next offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh.

9. Detroit (10-7). End of the season shows Lions need to be in play for Jim Schwartz's old buddy Cortland Finnegan in free agency.

10. Atlanta (10-7). Mike Nolan, who prefers the 3-4 but has run the 4-3, takes over the defense. That's good news for Kroy Biermann, a big man who should be able to rush the passer better than he did under Brian Van Gorder.

11. Denver (9-9). John Elway owes Tim Tebow nothing more than the starting job entering training camp. If he loses it, that's on Tebow.

12. Philadelphia (8-8). Someone Who Knows told me a major roadblock to Steve Spagnuolo taking the defensive coordinator job in Philadelphia was the presence of very strong personality Jim Washburn on the defensive line.

13. Arizona (8-8). Got a long way to go to catch the Niners.

14. San Diego (8-8). Not such a long way to go to catch the Broncos.

15. Miami (6-10). I like the Dolphins a little better today now that they're the leaders in the clubhouse for Matt Flynn.

Offensive Player of the Week

Baltimore QB Joe Flacco. No player entered the weekend with more pressure on him, and Flacco, in a championship game on the road, played better than the best quarterback still standing, Tom Brady: 22 of 36 for 306 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. He led scoring drives of 67, 80 and 78 yards, and should have led the game-tying field goal drive for 65 yards ... except that Cundiff missed it wide left. A great performance by a player under legit fire.

Defensive Players of the Week

New England DL Vince Wilfork. He'll look back someday and think this might be the best game he ever played: six tackles (a lot for an interior defensive lineman), one sack, three tackles for loss, three quarterback pressures. He was brilliant, as was the New England defensive front for about 80 percent of this title game.

New York DL Justin Tuck. As usual, you could name two or three guys from the Giants' defensive front to this august honor. Tuck's 1.5 sacks and three pressures helped keep the Niners out of scoring position for 11 of their last 13 drives.

Special Teams Player of the Week

New York LB Jacquian Williams. In overtime of the NFC title game, Williams stripped punt returner Kyle Williams at the Niners' 24-yard line. Devin Thomas recovered, and the Giants kicked the winning field goal five plays later.

Coach of the Week

New York head coach Tom Coughlin. For a guy who's been fired at least 65 times in the last five years, Coughlin sure can organize, plan, motivate and game-day-coach exceedingly well. That showed with a poised team that understood the basics of how to win this game: Don't turn it over ... punting is fine ... you'll be in position to win at the end. And the Giants were.

Goats of the Week

San Francisco PR Kyle Williams. In the last 20 minutes of the biggest football game he's played in, Williams let one punt bounce off his knee, leading to a Giants touchdown, and then had the ball stripped from him on another punt return, leading to a Giants field goal. With a defense on fire the way San Francisco's was, it has to be particularly heartbreaking to know if you simply held onto the ball, your team would be going to the Super Bowl.

Baltimore K Billy Cundiff. Some misses haunt kickers. For as long as Cundiff kicks, shanking a 32-yarder wide left with 11 seconds left that would have sent the Ravens into overtime of the AFC Championship Game ... that's about as low as it gets for a kicker.

"Crappy.''

-- San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith, asked his general feelings after losing the NFC title game.

"To let Ray Lewis down -- you don't know how many games he has left -- is pretty tough."

-- Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff.

"All people suffer loss. When you lose someone, it's part of life, but you have to be resilient. You have to take the bad things and difficult times and turn them into good, and that's what we will do. And we'll do it with the Miami Dolphin family."

-- Diane Philbin, wife of new Miami coach Joe Philbin, as the Dolphins named Philbin the 10th coach in club history on Saturday, eight days after the Philbin family laid one of their six children, Michael, to rest after he drowned in Wisconsin.

"Let's go win a Super Bowl."

-- Steve Spagnuolo's first words to New Orleans coach Sean Payton, before "Hello'' or "Hi Sean, this is Steve,'' when Spagnuolo called Payton Thursday afternoon to tell him he was taking the Saints defensive coordinator position.

Wednesday

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson, to Showtime, about the atmosphere fostered by Jets coach Rex Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum, and the feud between quarterback Mark Sanchez and wideout Santonio Holmes:

-- "I've been around some locker rooms and quarterback-receiver situations and what-not, but it was as bad as I've been around. I think the players could no longer do anything about it.''

-- "[The Jets organization) created this. This is the type of football team that they wanted. Mike Tannenbaum, Rex Ryan are both brash, in-your-face, say-whatever-you-want, just-get-it-done-on-the-field style. And then it leads to other things, as guys are calling each other out and saying I'm not getting the ball or whatever it may be.''

-- "I would say [Sanchez] is a bit pampered because he has no competition.''

Thursday

Owner Woody Johnson, to Jets beat reporters, on many things, including cooking and toxicity:

-- "Confidence is a very, very important thing in cooking and also in managing quarterbacks. How many starting quarterbacks are pulled?''

-- "I don't feel a toxicity of the locker room. Would you love to have total harmony? Maybe. But maybe it's good to have a little disharmony too.''

-- "Do we overprotect Mark, or coddle? I don't think we do. He's obviously a critical part of the team, so you spend more time with him. Is that coddling? I don't know.''

Asked if Sanchez would be the 2012 opening-day starter, Johnson said: "Barring whatever, yes.''

Friday

Rex Ryan, to WFAN:

-- "Clearly, when you have a team that went to back-to-back championship games, what else is there to go for? It's Super Bowl or bust. Well, we busted."

-- "What I tried to do initially is put things on me, on my back. If it doesn't work, it comes down on me, it doesn't come down on our players. I tried to take pressure off of our players, but in actuality, maybe I was putting more pressure on our guys.''

-- "Let's face it: The only thing I do well in my life is coach football.''

-- "I think we need to take a hard look at each other.''

On the weekend, their mouths rested.

Super Bowl 46 will feature the third quarterback rematch in history. And history will be on the side of Eli Manning in 13 days:

When Joe Philbin did his post-graduate high school academic year at Worcester (Mass.) Academy in 1979-80, the two English teachers at the small school 35 minutes west of Boston doubled as assistant coaches on the school's football team: Kirk Ferentz and Mike Sherman.

Ferentz, the future coach at Iowa. Sherman, the future coach of Brett Favre with the Packers.

I flew from JFK to San Francisco Thursday on a mid-morning Delta flight. The flight wasn't packed, and I'd arranged for a bulkhead window seat midway through coach of the long aircraft -- three seats to the right and left of the aisle.

When I approached my row, a 35ish man was sitting in the aisle seat with headphones on, reading Harper's. The other two seats were devoid of people, but not of crap. In the middle seat was a McDonalds bag, crumpled, with an empty drink poking out of the top, with three used red blankets left on the seat. Another blanket with discarded newspapers was on the window seat I was to occupy. On the floor was a plastic bag with a water bottle, empty, and other garbage, along with another blanket. I surveyed the situation. The guy in the aisle seat took off his headphones and said, "Guess they didn't clean the plane.''

"Yup,'' I said. He put his headphones back on and read, and I took the two bags of trash, plus the newspapers, into the bathroom and shoved them into the garbage hole. Then I took the blankets and deposited them under a row of seats.

So now we don't get meals on the 6-hour, 40-minute coast-to-coast trips. We pay for the bags we check, in most instances. And now, evidently, we have to bus the planes ourselves.

"Florida Evans > Lee Evans.''

-- @GeorgeFoster72, the former NFL offensive lineman, comparing the longtime Good Times leading lady with the Ravens receiver who had the potential winning touchdown pass stripped from his grasp in the end zone in the AFC title game.

"Overheard from a Giants fan at the SF Wharf: 'Is there literally a Golden Gate?' ''

-- @StevePoliti, sports columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, on Saturday in San Francisco.

"I know he can shoot in the 60s, a matter of shooting them when it counts.''

-- @TigerWoods, on the possibility of his friend Tony Romo qualifying for the U.S. Open.

"Happy 72nd birthday to @JackNicklaus. Fifty years ago, he earned his first check as a pro: $33.33 at the L.A. Open.''

-- GD_MikeO, Golf Digest executive editor Mike O'Malley ... an ode to Jack on Saturday.

1. I think this is what I liked about championship weekend:

a. The gigantic cooked carrot at Bob's Steak and Chop House at Montgomery and California streets in San Francisco.

b. Riding three cable cars. Touristy, I know. But really fun.

c. Nice coverage at the goal line on Wes Welker, Ray Lewis.

d. That being said, didn't it seem the Patriots loved when Lewis was in coverage against Welker or the New England tight ends?

e. The push New England's defensive line got all day.

f. Lardarius Webb's third pick in three halves.

g. Great graphic by CBS: John Harbaugh's the first coach in NFL history to win playoff games in each of his first four coaching seasons.

h. New England corner Sterling Moore, whose rags-to-riches story will be a good one at the Super Bowl.

i. Vernon Davis, for his 10-catch, 292-yard, four-touchdown postseason.

j. Giants punter Steve Weatherford, who was as good as All-Pro punter Andy Lee in a field-position game.

k. Victor Cruz, who demolished Carlos Rogers in an eight-catch first half.

l. Justin Smith. Ray McDonald. NaVorro Bowman. Patrick Willis. They're just too good to be going home. "What a defense,'' Eli Manning told me at his locker. "They create so many problems on every snap.''

m. I love offensive coordinator Greg Roman's brain. He comes up with some weird stuff, confusing stuff, like the monster formation with Justin Smith to run behind.

n. Good to see Peyton Manning at Candlestick to support his little brother.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about championship weekend:

a. The traffic on US 101 at 4:20 p.m. Friday. In rain varying from steady to a heavy mist, it took me 2 hours and 55 minutes to drive 43 miles from the 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara to my hotel in downtown San Francisco. One crazy, maddening ride.

b. Michael Irvin, Kurt Warner in a dunk tank. That's the kind of insightful analysis I want 40 minutes before the start of the AFC Championship, NFL Network.

c. And the James Brown E-trade baby interview on CBS. Grim scene.

d. Pats rookie right tackle Nate Solder will be hearing about the poor pickup of Baltimore defensive end Paul Kruger around the corner on the early Brady sack. And he should.

e. Not a good decision by Brady, trying to wedge one into Julian Edelman with Webb in front of him and Bernard Pollard over the top, supplying more help. Webb's acrobatic pick set up a Baltimore score.

f. As good as Alex Smith was last week late in the divisional round, that's how lacking he was this weekend.

g. San Francisco's inability to replace a punt returner. I mean, how valuable does Ted Ginn Jr., look this morning? Had he played, there's a very good chance a different team is going to Indianapolis next week.

h. I feel for Kyle Williams, but I can't imagine Jim Harbaugh keeping a guy he can't trust next year.

i. The lighting at Candlestick. Strange that the place didn't seem nearly bright enough looking down from the press box. Looked OK on TV, from what I saw, but trust me. Not enough candlepower at Candlestick.

3. I think my friend Andrea Kremer gets my nomination for Journalism of the Week with her story on the pain-killer Toradol on Tuesday's HBO Real Sports show. Toradol is the ultimate pain-killer, a non-addictive substance administered to multiple players in the league -- and it has been for years.

Kremer found a Toradol user, retired 11-year center Jeremy Newberry, who described a scene in the 49er locker room early in his career. A line of players, he said, "all lining up right before pregame to get a shot ... I've seen lines of 20 or 30 of them [players] standing there, waiting for a shot ... Everybody walks in and gets injected and walks out.'' Newberry told Kremer he "felt like a dope fiend, standing, waiting for your fix.''

Kremer interviewed a former team doctor of the Seahawks, Piers Scranton, who claims continued use of Toradol risks ruining their joints and causing liver and kidney failure. And in fact, Kremer reports Newberry, now 35, has been diagnosed with stage three kidney failure. That won't require a kidney transplant -- yet -- but it may in time.

Kremer also got a revealing interview with Brian Urlacher, a regular Toradol user. Even after Kremer tells Urlacher the risks of Toradol use, he says, "Even know, knowing the risks, yeah, I would still take ... the Toradol shot.''

A great job by Kremer shining a light on a dark part of the game that absolutely needs a light shined on it. The NFL absolutely must further educate its doctors and trainers about the regular use of Toradol.

4. I think if I'm a Rams fan, and I'm already skittish and skeptical about my team's long-term future, and not really thrilled about what I just saw in a 2-14 season, how do you think I'm going to react when I hear the best of the eight games on my home schedule in 2012 -- New England and Tom Brady at home, likely the last time in his fabulous career that Brady will ever play in St. Louis -- has been shipped to London?

Let the record show that if the Rams-Pats game is shipped to Wembley, the only Brady game in the Edward Jones Dome will be the 40-22 New England victory in 2004 ... unless Brady becomes the first 43-year-old starting quarterback in the NFL since George Blanda. He'd be 43 the next time New England is slated to play the Rams on the road.

Now, I don't yet buy that the move is a precursor to moving the team to Los Angeles or London; if Jeff Fisher builds a winning team, the fans will come and support it.

One league office source told me a major selling point to the teams playing overseas is if you give up a home game, the league will compensate the team with a payment above and beyond what it made for a regular home game. That payment, I'm told, will be at least $5 million per home game lost. So if the Rams can pocket an extra $15 million to $25 million over the three years of the deal, they shouldn't have any excuses about paying out the kind of guaranteed money that some teams in the bottom quartile of NFL revenue -- which the Rams are in -- have to pay to attract and pay legit free agents.

5. I think the best outside-the-box thinking about football this season comes from noted 93-year-old American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Lynn Zinser of the New York Times found Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, enthused about the 49ers after the tremendously exciting end of the Saints game nine days ago -- but knowing that there still is something about the game he finds too ferocious.

"Seriously, they have to do something to change the basic rules of the game," he told Zinser. "Too many of the players are getting concussions. It's murder out there. A couple of years after they retire it all catches up with them. I prefer European soccer. It's much more interesting than American football. It's like chess when you really pay attention to it. The more you know about it, the more interesting it gets. Football is just not that interesting. Every time they line up, it's going to either be a run or a pass. They stop all the time. In soccer, they never stop."

The powers-that-be can't do anything about the basic structure of the game and all the stops and starts. They can, and are trying, to do something about the brutality of the game that leaves so many players affected for the rest of their lives -- without ruining the game. It is, of course, the ultimate sporting high-wire act.

6. I think the everlasting moral of the San Francisco 49ers over the last 30 years is this: It's not just having a good quarterback on the roster. It's having the quarterback, plus coaching him.

7. I think there's a reason the franchise in this town has been good, and bad, and good again, and it revolves around just that -- teaching the quarterback you have. Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan did it with Montana and Steve Young. Jim Harbaugh and his offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, have done it with Alex Smith, making sure the offense they run is built to his strengths. "I like to think that everything we do on offense has Alex's strengths in mind,'' Roman told me Friday. It shows.

8. After it seemed like he'd be leaving Oregon for the NFL, Chip Kelly had a change of heart about taking the Buccaneers' head coaching job. I'm told part of the reason he turned it down is that the news of Kelly's possible departure leaked, killing his recruiting efforts.

9. I think Sean Payton's pursuit of Steve Spagnuolo was a smart one, during which Payton emphasized three things that were better than his competitors for Spagnuolo's services. One: New Orleans won more -- 41 victories over the last three years, including a Super Bowl. Two: Drew Brees. Three: Total autonomy.

The third wouldn't have been different at the two other suitors, Philadelphia and Indianapolis. But Brees over Mike Vick -- easy call. And the winning part -- easy call. Spagnuolo can now mold the Saints defense in his likeness, which will involve less cover-zero and risky blitzing than the Saints ran under Gregg Williams.

10. I think these are my non-playoff thoughts of the week:

a. Wow. Yu Darvish is one big boy. Bet he throws hard.

b. Marco Scutaro to the Rockies for Clayton Mortensen, a bottom-of-the-rotation candidate. Stupid, stupid, stupid trade. Did GM Ben Cherington watch the end of the Red Sox season, when Scutaro played hurt and played brilliantly -- the best player on the team over the last two weeks (when the team was dying and drinking) other than Jacoby Ellsbury, at a time when too many big-money players stunk up the joint?

All I heard after the deal was the Red Sox were clearing salary space to pick up Roy Oswalt. Oswalt turns 35 this year. He broke down last year, when he went 9-10 with a 3.69 ERA and missed 12 starts. Wait: The Boston Red Sox have to clear salary space? What?

Scutaro's not the centerpiece of a World Series winner, but he's the kind of rub-some-dirt-on-whatever-hurts gamer with good talent. He obviously was undervalued by a team that now seems to value more the guys who drink in the clubhouse in the seventh inning than those scratching and clawing to try to win games.

c. RIP, Sarah Burke. Sounds like the kind of athlete who lived for her sport and who we all should admire.

d. Do not lose your zeal, Shannon Magrane. I'm no American Idol fan, but I did see this the other night, and Magrane is one cool, confident kid -- like her dad, former Cardinals pitcher Joe Magrane. Interesting clip.

e. Happy birthday, Benny from the Bronx. No one loves the NFL more than Benny.

f. Check out this piece by CSN's Matt Maiocco on the kindness of inactive 49er cornerback Shawntae Spencer.

g. Now there's a guy who's showing teammates how to pass it on -- the right way -- the way Bryant Young showed him.

h. Coffeenerdness: Tried a latte at Blue Bottle Coffee in the San Francisco Ferry building Saturday -- and it was worth the 15-minute wait in line. I've been to two of these individual coffee makers in San Francisco now, and the care really shows in the product. This espresso was incredibly smooth, and the barista took 10 to 15 seconds making some sort of tree-like art on the foam. Didn't much care about the artwork, but the coffee was great.

i. Beernerdness: Had a couple of Lagunitas New Dog Town Pale Ales on tap Saturday night. A beautiful caramel-colored ale, easy and delicious to drink, slightly fruity. Now I know why so many of you tell me to drink the Lagunitas beers all the time. I've had this one and the Czech pils, and both were terrific.

j. Wish my father were around to see these Giants. He'd love Coughlin.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.