Round-trip flights from Seattle to New York, departing on Jan. 30 and returning on Feb. 3, are currently available for less than $500.
Prices for flights from Denver to New York on the same dates are even cheaper. On Sunday night, I found a round trip for $368: easy midday travel times, manageable stopovers in Washington D.C.
Hotels in Manhattan are insanely expensive, but why should someone from Denver or Seattle stay in New York when the Super Bowl is in New Jersey? A quick survey of hotels found great rooms available for Jan. 30 through Feb. 3 in the $250-per night range. These three-or-more star hotels are just a short PATH or New Jersey Transit train ride away from Times Square, and just a few minutes by bus-taxi-rail from the Meadowlands.
I don't have to worry about planes or hotels in New Jersey; I spend every day in this paradise. But the cost-conscious Seahawks or Broncos fan should plan ahead for the ultimate Super Bowl experience. Now, those ferryboats to New Jersey's famous Statue of Liberty can be chilly in February, but …
What? You think I am jumping the gun? Have you been watching the NFL this season? The Broncos and Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl. They are undefeated. They have outscored opponents by a combined score of 288-138, which means the average Broncos or Seahawks victory is a 36-17 rout. They have defeated Super Bowl champions and conference champions, divisional foes and the quarterback's brother. Super Bowl XLVIII: Seahawks-Broncos. It's impossible to come up with any other prediction, unless you are going out of your way to be contrary.
So should we stop the season right now and hold a Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl while the Jersey weather is still nice? Should they start printing tickets and jerseys? Should fans in Denver and Seattle click through the phrase "non-refundable deposit" without worry?
OK, maybe not. This is the NFL, anything can happen, and the other 30 teams are not ready to roll over and play dead, though the Jaguars and Buccaneers are almost there.
Here are 10 reasons why we cannot skip straight to the Broncos-Seahawks Super Bowl. Some are better than others. None are as great as they should be.
- The Seahawks can be beaten. The Seahawks played without center Max Unger, left tackle Russell Okung and right tackle Breno Giacomini on Sunday. Any team would struggle against the Texans defense with three starting linemen missing. But the Seahawks did more than struggle: they generated just three first downs in the first half and produced only one drive all afternoon that netted over 40 yards. Robbed of the ability to pound Marshawn Lynch off tackle and counter with play-action and option goodies, robbed more importantly of the ability to play with a lead, they were unable to generate any offense at all.
The Seahawks offense also struggled against the Panthers in the opener, when their offensive line was healthy. The Seahawks defense is very good on its worst day and the 1976 Steelers on its best, but their offense is a freight train: it rolls nicely downhill with a lead but huffs and puffs uphill from behind.
The best way to beat the Seahawks, then, is to face them on the road, build a lead, don't fritter it away like the Texans (mmmm, Texas Fritters) did in Seattle's 23-20 overtime win, and stay out of reach of Russell Wilson one-play magic. Not many teams have the ability and opportunity to do that in the regular season; the 49ers and Colts (next week) are the most likely candidates. By the NFC playoffs, other contenders may emerge.
- The Patriots can do more than spawn-kill rookie quarterbacks. At the start of the season, the Patriots acted like those video game jerks who wait for novice players to enter a game and shoot them before they even know what buttons to push. EJ Manuel, welcome to the NFL … (pow), l8r, n00b. Geno Smith, it's great to see … (pow), taste the railgun, chump. Josh Freeman, you are not a rookie and probably spend much of your time playing video games, but … (pow) you're pwned, too.
But camping out at the rookie quarterback spawn point paid off. Not only did the Patriots pad their record, but Kenbrell Thompkins got to level-up from "super-raw talent" to "credible receiver." The Patriots figured out some offensive survival strategies while facing Jets and Buccaneers teams which were no threat to fire back. And Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola will soon return; this week's false and conflicting reports that they would play will become false and conflicting reports that they won't play by Week 6 at the latest. (Any accurate and definitive report that leaves Foxboro is purely accidental.)
The team that took a 30-10 lead against the Falcons on Sunday night (then got sloppy and needed to hang on for a 30-23 win) was no newbie-slayer: they looked good enough to beat most NFL teams. And they are about to get better. Brady-Manning is scheduled for Nov. 24. Let's not declare any Super Bowls until Tom Brady has his say.
- The Texans are not chopped liver. They are more like a gristly hunk of brisket: stringy but still capable of crashing the postseason picnic.
Houston outplayed the Seahawks for most of Sunday's 23-20 overtime loss. They were done in by the usual Texans issues -- red-zone settles, special teams mistakes, predictability that led to an ugly pick-6 -- but they also did many of the things that put them in the playoffs for two straight years. J.J. Watt is still one of the best defenders in the NFL; he joins Antonio Smith and Whitney Mercilus to form one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushes, with 13 sacks in four games. Keep in mind that the Broncos are already down one offensive lineman: if their line is more depleted when they face the Texans in Houston in Week 16, or in the playoffs, they will be in as much trouble as the Seahawks were on Sunday.
On offense, the Texans fight the exotic with the conventional and speed with steadiness. They challenge opponent's defensive discipline and slow the game down. These are better anti-Broncos strategies than anyone else has thought of this year.
- We cannot sleep on the Colts. Their 37-3 win this week over a directional school taught us little, but their win over the 49ers two weeks ago revealed a Colts team with a new personality that opponents are still getting to know. The Colts offense can now run inside and out, throw short and long, and execute play-action and screens productively, with bonus yardage from Andrew Luck scrambles. Last year, for all their success, the Colts offense was essentially "bombs away." Their defense is far better than last year's unit, and it plays better than it looks on paper.
The Colts host the Seahawks next week and can prove that their win over the 49ers was not the result of secret Stanford knowledge. They host the Broncos on Oct. 20, where we will learn if a secondary that stopped the depleted 49ers and Jaguars receiving corps can stop the Broncos, who would use Anquan Boldin and Cecil Shorts as their fourth and fifth wideouts. The Colts could make some noise in those two games. There is also a very good chance that they will be quieted for the rest of the season.
- The Saints and Dolphins are still undefeated. Both will stay that way until tomorrow night. This is election-night, "not all precincts have been counted" logic, particularly in the AFC: the Dolphins, for all their improvement and charm, are no playoff threat to the Broncos and face neither the Broncos nor Seahawks in the regular season. The Saints could potentially cause more trouble: proven champions, the chance to host a home game in the Super Dome instead of getting deafened, and so on. The Saints face the Seahawks on Dec. 2 in Seattle. We will know more then.
- Reid's Revenge is not what you suffer the morning after a Chiefs game and a dozen pulled-pork tacos. The Chiefs won't wrest the AFC West from the Broncos or beat them in the playoffs. But they are now good enough to (conceivably) engineer a split with the Broncos, which could affect tiebreakers and home playoff opportunities. The Chiefs secondary (Sean Smith, banged-up Brandon Flowers, Dunta Robinson, Eric Berry, Quintin Demps) has a better chance than most of matching up with the Broncos receivers, and the Chiefs can get a lot of pass rush out of a little blitz. The two Broncos-Chiefs games are wrapped like sandwich bread around the Broncos-Patriots game, so there is potential to exert a little pressure.
Andy Reid, you may have noticed, is on the most affably mumblecore revenge tour of human history. He just blasted through the Eagles and two more of his old NFC East foes. If he decides he wants revenge on John Fox, whose Panthers embarrassed his Eagles in the 2003 NFC Championship Game, then the Chiefs can make things interesting. Yes, that's a reach. THESE ARE ALL REACHES.
- The Chargers can also make things interesting. Philip Rivers has completed 73.9% of his passes and thrown 11 touchdowns this season. He was 35-of-42 against the Cowboys in a 30-21 win on Sunday. Rivers could hold his own in a shootout with Peyton Manning; he has done it several times before. Like the Chiefs, the Chargers are no threat to win the AFC West, but some spoiler wins could threaten home field advantage for the Broncos, who could find all of this September goodness foiled by a January trip to Foxboro.
- The NFC North could still throw up a contender. "Throw Up a Contender" would be a great name for Jay Cutler's autobiography, though "Sorry, I'm Not Sorry" is probably better. Cutler's back-foot-propelled satellite launch system activated on Sunday, with the usual disastrous results: three interceptions, a fumble, and a 40-32 Bears loss to the Lions that was only made close with the help of late-game nonsense touchdowns.
Cutler's vacation-of-the-mind notwithstanding, the Bears are tough. So are the Lions, now that they are consistently winning games while doing "Lions stuff." If the Lions keep scoring touchdowns immediately after (or while) recovering their own fumbles, as they did twice against the Bears, they will be unstoppable. And if they actually learn to stop making the same mistakes week after week -- they committed just three penalties on Sunday, which is usually their over-under just for 15-yarders -- look out.
The Seahawks catch a scheduling break this year: because they finished in second place in 2012, the only NFC North team they face in the regular season is the Vikings. That could work against them if they are forced to face an unfamiliar Lions-Packers-Bears foe in the playoffs. All three of the likely NFC North contenders are unpredictable, high-volatility monkey wrench teams. Of course, if those three teams keep wrenching each other, any playoff game will be in Seattle, where opponents cannot monkey around.
- The 49ers. Haven't forgotten.
- You have tickets to upcoming games. Or at the very least, you have earmarked the next dozen Sundays for all-day NFL-viewing funtime. Cancelling the rest of the season and going straight to the Super Bowl would rob you of autumn joy. Well, boo-hoo. The NFL doesn't have to go through the motions of an all-but-decided season just so you can have a few more tailgate parties, pal.
Oh wait, if the NFL goes straight to the Super Bowl, Sports on Earth will reassign me to cover the next sport to start its season. Which is … shudder … hockey.
Nothing is decided, folks! Plenty of drama for the next three months! The Seahawks and Broncos are totally vulnerable. Especially the Broncos! Do you smell double upsets against the Colts and Cowboys on the road next week? Neither do I. But if the rest of the NFL has not given up hope, than we shouldn't either.
(Seriously, Broncos and Seahawks fans: check those travel deals today!)
The stories of many NFL games are not told by long touchdowns, efficient drives, or game-changing defensive heroics. They are told by the little things: special teams blunders, strange decisions, a crazily bouncing ball that seems determined to land in a defender's belly. Here are some of the details that might get lost when the story of Week 4 is retold.
Tip-Drill Interceptions. These are completions or incomplete passes, transformed by fate, luck, and stony receiver hands into turnovers that change the outcomes of games, or at least lower quarterback ratings.
Antrel Rolle enjoyed the tip-drill pick of the day, hauling in a pass that caromed off Jamaal Charles, Spencer Paysinger, and Mark Herzlich, with Herzlich finally lying on the ground like a human linoleum tile to keep the ball off the turf while Rolle reeled it in. As this play represents the Giants sole highlight for September, non-Victor Cruz edition, we shouldn't pick it apart. But … Rolle told WFAN last week that he planned to play "Antrel Rolle" ball from now on. That play must be an example of Antrel Rolle ball! It looks like a cross between hacky-sack, Pachinko, and that game with the ball and paddle they make kindergartners do to improve their fine motor skills. Can we stop playing Antrel Rolle ball and go back to football now?
It wasn't technically a tip-drill, but Sean Lee's pick-6 for the Cowboys against the Chargers was aided by Jason Hatcher's harassment of Philip Rivers' throwing arm. Lee interceptions are noteworthy because of the quarterbacks he has intercepted. Lee has seven career picks: Peyton Manning twice, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Rex Grossman, Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez, and now Rivers. So Lee only picks off superstars or the worst regular starters of recent memory. Rivers has made a career of playing almost like the former while physically resembling the latter, so he is worthy of Lee's list.
Two of Blaine Gabbert's three interceptions were tipped to Colts defenders by his own receivers. Oh cruel, merciless fate. Here's the secret: Gabbert is really a sad-sack comic strip character, like Dilbert. Actually, he's more like Ziggy. Or possibly Sad Sack.
Two of Joe Flacco's five interceptions ricocheted off the hands of his tight ends. The Bills returned the favor once, with Daryl Smith catching a pick off the rebound from Steve Johnson's facemask. Give the Bills defense credit for three un-tipped interceptions, and for contesting the passes that Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark could not catch cleanly. But when a game is determined by the tipped interception plus-minus statistic, it was one of those games.
The Texans' first drive of the game ended with a beach volleyball tournament involving Owen Daniels and defenders K.J. Wright, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, and Earl Thomas; Thomas eventually came up with the ball after various set-ups and volleys by the others. This Seahawks interception briefly worked in the Texans favor: since four defenders all took part in stopping a tight end on one play, all of them stopped covering tight ends for the rest of the first half. The Seahawks defense eventually rediscovered itself, and the Texans learned once more that all of those little missed opportunities add up.
Special Teams Wackiness. Special teams big plays are like random lightning strikes, unless you are the Norv Turner Chargers, who walked around in thunderstorms waving radio antennas over their heads.
The Redskins opened the Raiders game up with a blocked punt that led to a Raiders touchdown. It was part of the Redskins plan to make everything possible go wrong, the football equivalent of a stomach pumping. It may have worked: the Redskins beat the Raiders 24-14, proving that NFC East teams are good enough to beat opponents who won four games last year and are starting their backup quarterbacks.
The Colts lined up for a 51-yard field goal before halftime after a Jaguars defensive stop; that's the far end of Adam Vinatieri's range these days, particularly on the road. The Jaguars did not try to ice him, which is wise, because what on earth could the Jaguars do that would "ice" Adam Vinatieri? He already watched the Jaguars offense from the sidelines, so its Medusa-like properties failed. Instead, the Jaguars jumped offsides, turning the kick into a manageable 46-yarder. Vinatieri managed it. Give the Jaguars some slack: their offensive highlight of the year is a blocked punt, so the special teams have adopted an "all on our shoulders" mentality.
The Broncos scored their second touchdown on a Trindon Holliday kickoff return touchdown. Holliday is a great return man, so these things will happen, but there is no excuse for a returnable kickoff in Mile High Stadium now that teams kick off from the 40-yard line. (Eagles kicker Alex Henery has just a 50% touchback rate this year, which is one of those little details this section is dedicated to.) On the plus side, the sudden touchdown allowed the Eagles to dominate the time-of-possession and "number of plays" statistics for the first quarter.
The hidden play of the Seahawks-Texans game was Shane Lechler's punt to the Seahawks seven-yard line to start the fourth possession of overtime. Lechler was signed explicitly to provide this kind of clutch kick, but Eddie Pleasant (whose name sounds like Eric Idle playing a swinging London lounge lizard) ran far out of bounds on his way to defend the return, resulting in a penalty. Lechler launched another bomb on the re-kick, but Golden Tate decided to return it from the goal line and somehow slithered 31 yards. That's a 24-yard field position difference, in overtime, in a game decided by a 45-yard field goal. Mister Pleasant is good, Mister Pleasant's OK, but it's not so pleasant after all, hey hey!
Bears punter Adam Podlesh fluttered a 40-yard punt that Michael Spurlock returned 57 yards, shanked a 33-yarder out of bounds from his own 18-yard line, and kicked a wobbly 35-yarder in the third quarter. The Bears responded to Podlesh's awful day by ending most of their drives with turnovers.
The Giants got an illegal formation penalty on a 53-yard Chiefs field goal attempt in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs drove instead for a touchdown that made the score 24-7 and burned four more minutes of clock. Have you ever imagined that you were sailing on a miniaturized submarine through Tom Coughlin's bloodstream? At the moment of that penalty, the whole ship lurches and gets slammed into the side of an artery, the sheer pressure causing fissures and leaks all along the hull. Though the force of the turbulence plops 1966 Raquel Welsh into your lap, so it's not bad.
These are the things I think about so I don't have to think about NFC East football.
Forces of Nature: Sometimes, Mother Earth herself has some action on the game.
Rain began falling soon after the Titans took a ten point lead on the Jets; it stopped sometime before most people (like me) stopped paying attention to the 38-13 Titans rout. This is the second game the Jets have played in the rain. A storm cloud is following them around, no longer figuratively. If they lose in Atlanta due to rain next week, it's time to be worried.
A flock of birds kept landing on the field during the Browns 17-6 win over the Bengals. They appeared to be gulls, and they were brazen, pecking about the field and taking flight when an offense threatened them, which was seldom. The Browns defense looked solid throughout the game, and the offense did just enough, but the whole Tippi Hedren thing was spooky. Browns fans should also be concerned about the postgame ceremony, when Brian Hoyer killed an albatross and hung it around Michael Lombardi's neck.
Adrian Peterson is a force of nature. Like localized storms and random Hitchcockian bird attacks, we will never understand what causes him.
Decisions, Bold and Otherwise. A little coaching can go a long way, for better or worse.
- The Bengals went for it on 4th-and-1 on the Browns seven-yard line, trailing 7-3 late in the second quarter. Percentage-wise, this is almost always the correct decision. Unless, of course, you decide to run up the middle with your second-best running back against a defense with excellent run-stuffing tackles. That's what the Bengals did, sending BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who cedes more duties to Giovani Bernard (including red zone touches) every week, into the heart of Phil Taylor, Desmond Bryant, D'Qwell Jackson, and the Browns defense from an easy-to-read I-formation.
Of course, 4th-and-1 decisions would not have mattered if Andy Dalton could throw deep with any consistency. The Bengals reached the seven-yard line because Mohamed Sanu got wide open on a flea-flicker, but Dalton's extreme underthrow turned an easy touchdown into a 40-yard pass interference penalty. Dalton's wide, wild and wooly deep passing is the reason the Bengals did not make it into the earlier Top Ten segment about threatening the Broncos and Seahawks.
- The Falcons have bungled constantly in the end zone this year, and Mike Smith and fourth-and-short are old nemeses. Put those two problems together, and you get second-quarter Falcons fail-magic. On 4th-and-2 from the seven-yard line in the second quarter, Matt Ryan attempted a short sprint-out pass to Roddy White on the left sideline. If you are not comfortable with the concept of Matt Ryan sprinting to his left, then you are a human. In fact, you may be Matt Ryan, who was so eager to make the crazy play go away that he rifled the ball far beyond White's arms.
- Bill Belichick is a longtime proponent of going for it on 4th-and-short, so it was no surprise when he tried to convert 4th-and-inches to run out the clock on the Falcons late in the fourth quarter. Having already criticized an I-formation handoff and a sprint-out pass, it sounds like we are just Mandatory Monday Morning Quarterbacking around here and declaring any play call the wrong play call. That said, "aborted snap" is always the wrong call.
- Fate decreed that the Falcons would yet again face a fourth down situation in the red zone at the end of the game, just as they did against the Saints. Once again, they could not convert, with Matt Ryan overthrowing a well-covered (maybe a wee bit interfered with) Roddy White. The highlight of the Patriots goal-line stand was Bill Belichick's Anti-Gonzo Defense: not one, but two defenders jamming the 37-year-old tight end at the line of scrimmage.
- The Ravens settled for 35- and 24-yard field goals in the fourth quarter against the Bills, which they entered trailing 23-14. The logic after the second field goal was to let their defense do its job against a rookie quarterback with over four minutes left to play. They are the Ravens, after all. The strategy nearly worked. The Bills fumbled at their own 22-yard line but recovered, and they punted with 2:32 to play. The Ravens even had two timeouts left.
Unfortunately, the Ravens were wearing their 2011-2012 road offense this week. Flacco threw his fifth interception (the second tipped one) to end the team's final drive. Like the Bengals fourth-down strategy, the Ravens learned that playing the percentages is futile when little else is working.
- The Colts drove to the Jaguars four-yard line in the second quarter and threw three straight passes, settling for a field goal. This is not proper use of Trent Richardson! Of course, they were facing the Jaguars, so it did not matter. The Falcons drove to the Patriots six-yard line and threw three straight passes. This is overreaction to the loss of Steven Jackson! But the Falcons rarely score in the red zone, so it did not matter. The Texans drove to the Seahawks five-yard line and threw two passes (one to tiny slot receiver Keshawn Martin!) around an Arian Foster plunge, settling for a field goal. This is not proper use of Foster or the other Texans offensive A-listers! Unfortunately, they were facing the Seahawks, so it really mattered.
- The Raiders decided to sit Terrelle Pryor after he had a flare-up of concussion symptoms on Saturday night. Or more appropriately, because the Raiders had a flare-up of conscience symptoms on Saturday night. Or even more appropriately, because the Raiders had a flare-up of phone calls from the league office about "compliance" or at least "making a show of compliance" on Saturday night. It was probably all three.
However the decision was made, it was the best decision of the week. Matt Flynn looked pretty bad and the Raiders lost, but Pryor did not take the field too soon after Monday night's concussion. The Raiders did not compound a terrible decision (to ignore Pryor's Monday night concussion for several plays) with an even worse decision to blue-sky through the concussion protocols; that's exactly the kind of institutionalized arrogance and winking "cooperation" that the NFL must defeat.
Sitting Pryor not only made good health, legal and human decency sense, but good football sense as well. The Raiders will be terrible with or without Pryor this year, but they could be very good with him in 2014 or 2015. They could also needlessly rush him back to play meaningless games, subject him to multiple concussions, and be back on the quarterback market. Sometimes self-interest is the same as everyone's best interest, though too many institutions are too focused on tomorrow's bottom line to realize it. Keep your valued employees healthy, for their sake and yours. Radical stuff, I know.
It was great not watching Terrelle Pryor on Sunday. Let's hope we never see him again until he is truly ready to play, then see him for a long time afterward.