Not Any Given Sunday
Speaking of tonight's game, you just know that Michael Eisner was feeling tingly all over. His company--Disney, I think it's called--happens to own another little outfit called ESPsomething-orother. Some kind of sports network. Anyway, ESPsomethingorother has that very same Ravens/Steelers game slated for its final Sunday-night broadcast of the year. Although Pittsburgh's been out of the playoff picture for some time now, Baltimore's right in the thick of things.
A win tonight against their fierce divisional rival, and the Ravens take the AFC North crown. A loss (coupled with a Bengals victory), and they miss the postseason completely. No division title, no wild card, no nothing. Just a VIP pass to the Losers' Lounge. As if that's not enough, tonight's game also features one of the more intriguing subplots a sports fan could ever want: Ravens running back Jamal Lewis needs 154 yards to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record (2,105). Lord knows, there's way too many statistics in the world of sport. Way too many contrived records that don't mean a damned thing. The single-season rushing record is not one of them. So as far as ratings go, you just know that Eisner had to have a raging hard-on. I know I did.
Yet here we are at 4:27 p.m. , and my dad's already rolling calls. "Moose, it's Phil Matz," he says, hollering into the phone. "Just calling to rejoice. And to discuss playoff tickets." Under normal circumstances, Dad speaks roughly five and a half times as loud as a normal human being should, his nasal and rumbling bass conspiring with his textbook Baltimore accent to wreak havoc on any eardrum situated within a 467-yard radius. I'm not exaggerating. And that's under normal circumstances. At 4:27 p.m. on this particular Sunday, the circumstances are far from normal.
Number one, we're in Florida, which unfortunately means that Dad's using his brand-new cell phone. Like most fathers, Dad has trouble grasping the fact that a cell phone carries your voice the same a way a normal phone does. (He also has trouble grasping the fact that a cell phone allows you to move while talking, but that's another story.) Number two, and more importantly, the Cincinnati Bengals have just been upset by the Cleveland Browns by a score of 22-14, which means the Ravens have won the division. Doesn't matter what they do tonight. They could lose 53-0 and they'd still be kings of the AFC North. It's the first time the Baltimore Ravens have ever been division champs. Add it all up and Dad's current phone volume is approximately 36 times that of a normal human being.
Four hours later, it's kickoff time, and I'm wondering whether coach Brian Billick will let his star running back go for the record. Smart money says take it easy on your workhorse--make sure he's healthy for the first-round match against Tennessee. I say screw the smart money. Run your workhorse and then run him some more. Go for the record, get the record, and send a message. Something along the lines of:
Dear Other 11 Teams in the Playoffs,
Everyone in the entire free world knew what we were trying to do against the Steelers, including the Steelers, and they still couldn't stop us. Neither can you.
Hugs and kisses,
Of course that message only gets sent if Lewis breaks the record, which as of 9:08 p.m. --after one quarter of football--looks highly probable. Despite the fact that in 206 games under coach Bill Cowher, the Steelers have allowed 154 yards or more to a running back just seven times, Lewis rumbles his way to 73 yards on seven carries. And there's still three quarters to go.
An hour later, with two quarters to go, things aren't looking quite as good. The Steelers D tightens up in the second stanza, yielding a measly four yards on four Lewis carries. For the half, that makes 11 carries for 77 yards. It'll take another 77 for him to reach the record books.
Strange goings-on in the third quarter: The Steelers fake a punt deep in their own territory, and it turns into an 81-yard touchdown. Also, Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller, barely back from an injured knee, fills in for punter Dave Zastudil, who broke his nose earlier in the game. Boller's punt goes 29 yards. Weird. Oh yeah . . . Lewis picks up 33 more yards--109 down, 45 to go.
Two stinkin' yards. That's all Lewis gains in the fourth quarter. Fortunately, after 60 minutes, the game's tied at 10. Thanks to two late missed field goals by the Ravens, we're going overtime. Lewis gets another chance.
So much for another chance. Three and a half minutes into the extra period, Matt Stover kicks a 47-yard game-winner. Baltimore 13, Pittsburgh 10, Lewis 114 yards. I suppose the Ravens winning is a good thing. In fact, I'm sure it's a good thing, what with the playoffs coming and all, but, man, it sure would've been sweet to see Lewis break the record. Even if it meant listening to my Dad roll some more calls.
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