I knew a guy named Nook who was a whiz at a lot of things, like fixing cars and working the piano. Pool, too. Once he was in a saloon shooting a round when some guy swam up and slapped down some cash and wanted the winner. The house shark, apparently sensing red in the ocean.
The shark then swam to the bar, where the barkeeper handed him a long box, and the shark opened it and started screwing together his pool cue.
The game was high-low. Nook took the break and proceeded to sink all the balls into the leather, and then he put down the eight, and the shark got a real sour look and said, “Why don’t you just run the whole goddamn table?”
And Nook said, “Ok,” and he went and he ran the whole goddamn table.
The last scene was the shark unscrewing his pool stick and putting it away. “I think you’re trying to tell me something …”
I look at these strangers in the room — Redskins, Colts, Vikings, Seahawks, Bengals — and I see some hot teams shooting pretty good pool. The money’s on the wood. They’ve come this far. Why not run the whole damn table?
BENGALS (+4½) at TEXANS — A rematch of last year’s drab playoff, when Houston, operating with a third-stringer at QB, basically put the Bengals in a chokehold until they stopped squirming. A pair of sacks and two interceptions were the highlights of the Bengal second-half offense. A 31-10 suffocation.
Today’s story line is momentum. Ying versus Yang. Bengals up, Texans down. Cincy has won seven of its last eight. They’ve stacked up superbly against the run during this stretch … 46 yards to San Diego, 49 to Dallas, etc. Their front seven digs in early and tears up the soil, and they’ve had a year to sour on the 188 rush yards that Houston put on them in that playoff.
Offensively the Bengals don’t thrill you. Andy Dalton looks for A.J. Green first, his burly TE Jermaine Gresham next, and then …? The running game is straight-ahead Sally; nobody makes a cut. Still, the combination produced more than 24 points per game, which lifted Cincy to 12th best in the league in that department.
The real question is, what’s happened to almighty Houston? The warning lights flicked on November, when both Jacksonville and Detroit, a pair of mud-eaters, took them into overtime. Then they got bombed out of New England, and the Texans have looked lost or disinterested ever since. But then again, it’s tradition we’re talking about here. The Texans always look lost or disinterested in December.
Actually I think the whole Houston operation is tiring, especially the offense. Even Gary Kubiak, the coach, looks drained. It’s been Arian Foster or Andre Johnson all season. Matt Schaub has only three TD throws since Thanksgiving. Yes, the old Cowboys traveled that way for years — the Aikman-Irvin-Smith triplets. But Dallas had a defense stacked with killers that backed it all up. The Texans finished 16th against the pass and can barely force a turnover.
Still, it’s hard to invest in a Cincinnati postseason. One of those believe-it-when-you-see-it propositions. I think the Texans, with their comforts of home, will get Dalton on the ground and find enough fuel to survive this round. Houston and its tiring triplets are the pick. Texans 31, Bengals 16
VIKINGS (+7½) at PACKERS
Somebody look it up, the last time the Vikings had a playoff game in the bitter cold. My guess is names like Tarkenton and Rashad and Yary were on the roster, olden times, back when Vikes were consistent January operators. Winter used to be their domain. Ah, the memories, if you enjoy heavy frostbite and highway slush.
This year’s team was a 6-6 washout until it suddenly caught fire at the end. It’s been weird formula for these Vikings. They run the ball hard but they’re ranked near the bottom in time of possession. Typically the big ground teams can’t succeed without some fancy names and numbers on the defensive side of the ledger. But the Vikes have allowed over 400 yards of offense four times in December, and still managed to bang away with Adrian Peterson and get some scoring on the board and win their last four in a row.
The big uh-oh for Minnesota is Christian Ponder, a second-year man at quarterback. It’s his first playoff. Can he play on the ice? They can’t count on him for the big downfield throw, and his 74.0 passer rating on the road this year isn’t the type of data you want to carry into battle, especially when the site is Green Bay. Forecast for Saturday night is medium winds and a low of 15.
So how much should we read into the Vikes’ 37-34 win over the Pack last weekend? Not too much. Great bursts of action, indeed, but that was a playoff game for the Minnesota and just a seeding game for the Packers. An unbalanced mix of urgency out there. It was Peterson’s day, as he hit the edge and blew past the Packers for 199. Meanwhile, Ponder had some decent stats, but his three TD throws traveled eight yards, two yards and three yards, respectively. Lobs.
The Packers couldn’t like the way Aaron Rodgers got smacked around. Five sacks and a string of near-sacks. Harassment in the workplace. Get Rodgers on the ground and you have a chance, right? Worked for Seattle this year (eight sacks). And Indianapolis (five). And the Giants (five more). Minnesota will need another blast of inside pressure to control the Packers, who have little trouble putting up high scores in low temperatures.
Defensively I see Green Bay crowding the line from the get-go. They should tackle Peterson better than last week. They’ll get lower. They’ll pinch in those linebackers and a safety and beg Ponder to go to the air. Where his passes land should determine how this one ends. Packers 34, Vikings 15
COLTS (+6½) at RAVENS
The Ravens come in staggering, disheveled, tripping over the curb, like a guy who’s been jumped in an alley. Other than a recent wipeout of the Giants, they’ve acted this way for weeks, and a 9-2 start to the season closed out at 10-6. This is playoff-grade football?
Meanwhile, you keep picking against the Colts and their rookie passer, Andrew Luck, but the Colts keep achieving. Guess nobody told the kid he wasn’t supposed to win with that skeleton crew roster behind him. Guess he doesn’t care. He dodges and scrambles and ducks and goes about his business, and it’s been one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in league history. Yes, this IS playoff-grade football.
So why the heavy hand from the bookmakers, tilted toward the Ravens? What are they thinking? Do they know something we don’t? Actually, we know all of it.
For one, their quarterback, Joe Flacco, despite what you think of him long term, handles himself pretty well in these opening-round playoff games. He’s 4-0 in those settings. He maintains order and he won’t turn it over.
Second, the Colts own one of the worst run-stopping outfits in the football (5.1 yards per carry allowed). I watched the Chiefs blast them for 352 a few games back, and I’ve seen average runners like Shonn Greene and C.J. Spiller turn into Curtis Martin and O.J. against them.
Which tells us the Colts are going to get an overload of Ray Rice. Which means the Ravens will be working the clock and doing all they can to trap Luck over on the sideline, where the poor chap can’t hurt anybody. Right now the Raven run game is cooking — over 200 yards in each of the past two weeks. Ok, one of those games was against the Bengal backups, but it fits my argument anyway.
But with Luck you’ve always got one more bullet. Don’t leave your seat. I can see him coming down the field on the final drive, trailing by a touchdown, getting to midfield. He scrambles right, he comes back left. He guns one into a crowd toward Reggie Wayne, and it’s … oh golly, shucks. Intercepted. Ravens 28, Colts 20
SEAHAWKS (-3) at REDSKINS
Best game on the board, for so many reasons. First playoff ever between two rookie quarterbacks — RG3 vs. Russell Wilson. Win streaks? Skins have grabbed seven in a row; ‘Hawks have won 7-of-8. You want powerball? Alfred Morris bangs it in there for Washington (1,613 rush yards); Marshawn Lynch (1,590) works the hash marks for Seattle. Both clubs are very serious about their ground games.
The difference comes down to defense. The Skins are trying to get good at it. They can bite down hard against the run, but there is a quick remedy for that. You just bomb the hell out of them and get them backpeddling and soften up the line that way. At least that was the formula earlier in the season. Since then things have stabilized a bit.
Reed Doughty and Madieu Williams are the ‘Skins safetymen, DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson man the corners. The Skins held their own against Tony Romo last Sunday and intercepted him three times, which qualifies as a bit of consolation in that department. However, just the week before, Philly’s Nick Foles dusted ‘em for 345. Let’s see how they handle Wilson, not a great percent passer but low on the turnovers and 26 TDs.
The Seahawks display a much more serious style of fortification. They’re not a great sacking club (36 all year) but they’ve allowed the fewest points in football — 15.3 ppg. They held the Cowboys to 7 and the Packers to 12 and the 49ers to 13 — twice. I say Griffin will run around a lot and at the end his yardage numbers might look pretty good, but the Seahawks — football’s most imposing wild card — will keep the scoreboard under control. Seahawks 27, Redskins 19