I believe in karma and retribution. I believe in the possibility of ghosts and premonitions. I am totally receptive to psychics and fortune tellers. I would never discount Ouija boards and voodoo dolls. I am freaked out by exorcisms and haunted houses. I fear the supernatural. Over the years, there have been too many anecdotes or experiences that couldn't be adequately explained.
So we might as well start there. I don't act on any of these beliefs, rarely think about them, keep a safe distance from them. Of course, I'm the same person who remains convinced that I can affect the outcome of games by remaining in a particular sitting position or wearing certain clothes. On the Saturday of Week 15, I invited two friends over to watch the Bucs-Pats game. One sat next to me on the sofa, the other on the recliner to the right. Pats 28, Bucs 0. Last Saturday, they came over again for the Jags-Pats game. Same crew, same seats, only I was wearing my undefeated Pats ski cap this time. Pats 28, Jags 3.
This Saturday? Let's just say that we're getting the band back together.
I know I'm not alone, either. When I was writing about my Bird Poop shirt and the ski cap during the 2004 Red Sox run, some of the readers seemed almost relieved. I do this stuff, too. I haven't showered in a week. I have been wearing the same pair of sweat pants since Game 4 of the Yankee series. I am not shaving until we lose another game. And so on. Maybe we aren't making a difference, we just think we're making a difference. Maybe the collective karma of hundreds of thousands of people thinking they're making a difference swells into its own game-altering karma. Or maybe I'm insane and haven't realized it yet.
That brings us to last week's Giants-Panthers game. Seinfeld had Newman, I have the Panthers. They are my nemesis. They were put on the earth to destroy me. During the 2003 playoffs, I touted their virtues and rode them all the way to the Super Bowl ... then picked my beloved Patriots to wallop them in the big game. In the first half, the Pats seemed poised to blow them out. The Panthers held on. Guys started going down on the Pats defense. Carolina kept coming and coming, ultimately falling short on Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal, although the Panthers covered the seven-point spread. For the first time in the history of my Sports Guy column (seven years to that point), I picked a Super Bowl game incorrectly.
Things had fallen apart with me and Carolina; I just didn't realize it yet. The following season, I predicted a rematch of the Pats-Panthers Super Bowl and drafted Steve Smith over Terrell Owens in the second round of my West Coast fantasy draft. Smith broke his leg in the first game, killed my fantasy team, launched a rash of injuries and caused the Panthers to miss the playoffs. In my 2005 NFL Preview, I picked another Pats-Panthers Super Bowl and stubbornly stuck to my guns, waiting and waiting for Carolina to assume control of the NFC. The Panthers ended up costing me more money this season than the Sports Gal at a half-season sale at Nordstrom's.
By the time we reached the playoffs, my Panthers antimojo was cresting to the point that I honestly felt like I controlled the outcome of the Giants-Panthers game. And maybe I did. I picked the Giants to cover ... and the Panthers killed them. Shut them out, even. By that time, I was too frightened to wager on or against them. For the first time since college, I watched an entire NFL playoff game without having even a dollar riding on it.
(All right, that's not exactly true -- before the season in Vegas, I wagered on the Panthers to win the NFC at 15-2 odds and play the Pats in the Super Bowl at 40-1 odds. Combined with my 80-1 wager on the Bears to win it all, and my 8-1 wager on the Patriots to win it all, let's just say that I have some sticks in the fire right now. Just remember we had this conversation when the Colts are playing the Seahawks in three weeks.)
Of course, readers like Texas native Dustin Ray have been fascinated by my ongoing struggles with the Panthers: "Please, PLEASE continue to pick against Carolina. They are so inconsistent except in the fact they want to screw you over. Some stats for your displeasure, since I apparently have no life: The Panthers are 9-2 when you pick against them ... against the spread, you are 4-12-1 on picks that involve the Panthers ... you have not correctly picked a Panthers game since Week 8."
Just to put that last statistic in perspective, Week 8 finished on Halloween night. Ten straight weeks without picking a single Panthers game correctly? Ten? How is that possible? Could you flip a coin and predict the wrong outcome 10 straight times?
I'm telling you, there are larger forces at work here. Maybe Jake Delhomme and I were enemies in a past life. Maybe John Fox is my real father and he's trying to hurt me. Maybe I inadvertently insulted the wrong Panthers fan in Houston during the week of Super Bowl XXXVIII. Maybe I shouldn't have made that joke about Rae Carruth marrying Fred Lane's wife back in 2001.
Whatever the case, the Panthers are my version of Newman. They live to make me miserable. They live to defy me. And if this giant Reverse Jinx column doesn't work for this weekend's Bears game, then it's time for me to make a Jake Delhomme voodoo doll, break out a Ouija board and consult a psychic to find out whether Steve Smith and I were mortal enemies back in the 1400s. You never know.
Some leftover NFL questions from the readers before we tackle the Round 2 picks:
Q: I'm going with the stomach punch on the levels of losing, but does that even fully describe what just happened. Seriously, it only took us 15 years to get back to the playoffs, only to watch Carson [Palmer] go down on the SECOND [EXPLETIVE] PLAY. In the immortal words of the Bishop from "Caddyshack," "There is no god."
-- Joel Beall, Cincinnati
SG: That Palmer injury was so crushing on so many levels, I might create another Level of Losing for it. When was the last time a tortured fan base waited 15 years for a home playoff game, watched in horror as his franchise quarterback was carried off on the second play, then watched someone like Jon Kitna sprinting onto the field to save the day? I thought about naming the level the "The Drive-By Shooting" before settling on "The My Boyfriend And I ..." You know, for those moments where somebody's hitting on a girl for like 20 minutes, followed by the girl casually dropping a dagger line like "My boyfriend and I went to the Bahamas last month, we loved it," and then the guy keeps up another 10 minutes of token flirting before realizing that he doesn't have a chance in hell. That's a little how the Cincy game unfolded. Palmer went down, the Bengals kept playing well for another hour, but deep down, you knew it couldn't last. And it didn't.
Q: Your gambling advice is like Sex Panther cologne -- 50 percent of the time, it works every time.
-- JB, Los Angeles
SG: Thank you, thank you very much. We're getting Sex Panther to sponsor this column next year. Great product. Quite pungent. Formidable scent. Stings the nostrils, even.
Q: Watching the Giants go down the tube, a thought occurred to me: Does Eli Manning get his own face? Since it is identical to Peyton Manning Face both genetically and situationally, shouldn't we just call it "Manning Face" and dispense with the first names?
--Bob Bettendorf, Florida
SG: Sure. We'll just call it the Manning Face -- kinda like when Tiffani Thiessen dropped the "Amber." I'm cool with that. Now my goal is to see them get thrashed in a doubles tennis match and make that face at the exact same time.
Q: I saw that the Chiefs gave away a fourth-round pick in this year's draft in order to get Herm Edwards. Do you think the Jets' front office kept a straight face during the negotiations? My guess is the conversation went something like this: "So not only do we not have to fire Herm and eat the last two years of his contract, but Kansas City is going to GIVE us something for him? What, a kickoff tee? A fourth-round pick? SELL, MORTIMER, SELL, SELL!!!!!!"
--Patrick Callahan, Danvers, Mass.
SG: I loved that the Jets pretended to be outraged by the whole thing -- they were like college roommates who decide to throw out their junior year sofa because it smelled like holy hell, and then the guy across the hall stops by during final exams and asks, "You guys keepin' that sofa?" And suddenly they're selling him the sofa for two cases of Miller Lite, three bags of pretzels and three packs of Marlboro Lights. That was Herm Edwards. I'm sure the Chiefs fans couldn't be happier.
Q: I was disappointed to see your 11-0 dream blow up so quickly this year. It got me thinking, how would going into the Super Bowl 10-0 rate on your anxiety meter compared to the Pats playing in the Super Bowl or the Red Sox playing the Yankees in a Game 7?
--Sean O'Reilly, Walpole, Mass.
SG: Honestly? It would be right up there with a Super Bowl win or a Game 7 win over the Yanks. Slapping an 11-0 on the playoffs would be the single greatest accomplishment I could have as a gambler ... well, other than organizing the next Boston College point-shaving scandal.
Q: As a fellow Patriots fan, why haven't you added an "Under no circumstances bet on a warm weather road team (e.g. Jacksonville) playing in a cold weather stadium (e.g. Foxborough)" to The Manifesto? I was there when the Pats destroyed the Bucs a few weeks ago and knew we were going to walk over Tampa Bay. Same thing with Jacksonville. Do you really think anyone who thinks 50 degrees is cold can play when they can't feel their fingers? That's like betting on an American to beat a Kenyan in a marathon ... in Kenya ... in August. Do it all you want; I'll take your money ... In fact, leave it out. Nevermind I said anything.
--Ben Yates, Chicago
SG: Consider it done. There's absolutely no excuse for the Warm Weather/Cold Weather Corollary not to be in there. We'll add it for Playoff Manifesto 5.0, along with these beauties ...
1. Never fully trust anyone named Manning.
2. Never wager on a Giants game in which a crazy-looking LT might be prowling the sidelines and looking like he's about to ask a bummed-out Carl Banks for money during every timeout.
3. Beware of young quarterbacks at home or on the road, especially anyone who calls Phil Simms "Dad."
4. If you have a large amount of money wagered on a team that loses its starting QB within two plays, and Jon Kitna comes off the bench to replace him, just throw some clothes in a bag and start driving south.
Q: I have this theory I like to refer to as the "Brad Pitt Phenomenon." In short, I believe the quality of a Brad Pitt film is inversely proportional to his cleanliness in said movie. When he looks like he needs to be scrubbed down by a hazmat team ("Fight Club," "Snatch," "True Romance," etc.) the movie will be awesome, but when he's all prettied up ("Meet Joe Black," "Thelma and Louise," other crap chick movies) it will obviously be something that will make me want to gouge my eyes out. I think it's a pretty rock solid theory, and my question is this: Has this phenomenon been applied to Jake Plummer this season? If so, as a Pats fan, are you at all worried?
--Brian Pierce, Bowling Green, Ohio
SG: Actually, no. Your theory doesn't account for "Seven," which was probably the single-best Brad Pitt movie other than "Fight Club." So it's moot. But you had me scared there for a nanosecond.
Q: When did the old, over-tanned lady from "There's Something About Mary" start coaching Penn State?
--Bob Labaczewski, New Jersey
Q: I haven't gotten around to e-mailing -- there was about five hours of shock and about five days of rolling around on the floor gut laughing. The ESPN guys were doing the game and ended their run with a single quote near the end of the game that summed up their years together. Third down, Skins trying to run the clock out, hand off to Clinton Portis, and Joe Theismann comes up with this gem that got "Save until I delete" status: "What Clinton Portis wanted to do was gain as many yards as he could, so when you punt the ball you want to take that Buc offense as far back as possible." Wow, just wow.
-- Keith G., Madison, Wis.
SG: (Fighting off 50,000 watts of current being pumped through my body.)
Q: So, me and my friends are sitting around discussing the Carson Palmer season-ending injury and how some sportscasters were labelling it a dirty hit. My friend pointed out that Kimo Von Oelhoffen looked real sad on the replay when he realized what he did. Then we realized, it was the same face that Bobby gave Daniel-san right after he "swept the leg"! Doesn't Bill Cowher have enough Kreese in to order this? I know you get the idea, so feel free to rewrite this if you want to post it, cause we're kind of [messed] up and this might not make sense to the average fan.
-- Russell Jarem, West Hartford, Conn.
SG: Congrats, that was my 10,000th e-mail this week comparing Kimo's hit to John Kreese and the "Sweep the leg" moment. But you're right, the post-hit reactions by the perpetrators were more than a little suspicious. Regardless of whether Kimo's hit was intentional or not, it's been fun to put Steelers fans on the defensive all week by making "You guys cheated!" jokes. Almost as much fun as making fat jokes about Jerome Bettis.
(That reminds me, I know the extra bulk is part of the Bettis package, but isn't there a difference between "carrying a little extra weight" and "looking like Chris Farley doing the Motivational Speaker sketch?" How could Bettis possibly be in shape? He's all stomach fat and butt crack at this point. What happens if they need a few extra carries from him in an overtime game or something? It's acceptable to be a professional athlete with a 49.9 percent body fat percentage? Nobody has a problem with this? Poor Jerome is crammed into that XXL Steelers jersey like Kelly Osbourne trying to slide into one of Hillary Duff's Juicy Couture cutoff T-shirts. Does he have to pay William "the Refrigerator" Perry royalties every time he scores?)
Q: What was worse, the fact that "Cold Case" was promoting last Sunday's show with the "it's an entire episode fueled by the music of Bruce Springsteen" hook, or the fact that I was thinking, "Cool, I might have to watch!"
-- Jabaal Abdul-Simmons, Boston
SG: Actually, that was me -- I wrote that e-mail to myself. That "Cold Case" ad was my one of my favorite dopey NFL moments from the past week, right along with these:
• NFL Films catching Joey Porter going over to Troy Polamalu near the end of the Steelers-Bengals game and dropping the Jeff Daniels line from "Dumb and Dumber" -- "Just when I thought you couldn't get any dumber, you go and do something like this ... and totally redeem yourself!" line. It was funny in the movie and 10 times funnier when repeated by a 250-pound linebacker in Round 1 of the playoffs. You can't put a price on this kind of comedy. You really can't.
• John Madden pointing out that Jags linebacker Mike Peterson had trouble tackling a Patriots player because his left hand was immobilized in a cast, then adding, "It's tough to play football, it's even tougher to play without a hand."
• On "Inside the NFL," Cris Carter calling Sean Taylor the secret weapon of the Skins-Hawks game and adding, "He's gonna need a few more spitting incidents this weekend," leading to this exchange:
--Costas (incredulous): "He's gonna need a few more spitting incidents this weekend?"
--Carter: "It makes sense on TV."
--Costas: "It does? I'm not so sure about that."
--Carter: "It's HBO."
(Don't worry, it played 20 times worse than it reads.)
• Four-and-a-half sacks for the great Willie McGinest, who might be the second-greatest New England Patriot of all-time at this point (right behind John Hannah). Tom Brady probably passes them both someday. For now? Willie is No. 2. Andre Tippett is No. 3. And Duane Starks is No. 345,653.
All right, enough foreplay, let's get to the Round 2 picks (home teams in caps):
SEAHAWKS (-9.5) over Redskins
Rule No. 10 of the Manifesto applies here: "Only pick an underdog or a road team if you're convinced it has a chance to win the game outright."
Four reasons why the Redskins seem cooked to me ...
1. After they grabbed that two-touchdown lead in Tampa, Joe Gibbs clearly shifted into "I'm not taking another chance" mode. He doesn't trust their offense. It's obvious. There's a reason Washington's best drive on Saturday was 10 plays for 40 yards -- for the entire second half, they were playing not to lose.
2. There's a difference between "a little banged up" and "laboring and suffering" ... and Clinton Portis was laboring and suffering with that bum shoulder last weekend. He looked miserable. Don't see that one getting better in a week.
3. Six straight must-win games for the Skins ... that adds up after awhile, doesn't it? Let's say that Edell Shepherd hangs onto that game-tying touchdown pass in Tampa (and I'm not sure how he dropped it) with three minutes to play. Did anyone think the Skins had enough left in the tank to win that game? Now they have to fly cross-country and play in one of the toughest stadiums in the league? Against a well-rested team that puts up 30 points a game at home?
4. Let's say the Skins fall behind by double-digits in this one. Have you seen anything from their offense lately to make you even remotely think they could come back? There's always one blowout in Round 2. Always. And this looks like the one.
The Pick: Seahawks 30, Washington 6
Patriots (+3) over BRONCOS
Rule No. 5 applies: "Don't bet heavily against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick under any circumstances."
But even beyond that, isn't this just Basic Gambling 101? Here's the first rule you learn as a gambler, whether you're betting on sports, blackjack, craps or whatever: Never bet against a streak. It's the dumbest move you can make. And considering Belichick and Brady are 10-0 in the playoffs ... don't they need to lose one first before anyone starts throwing money against them?
I'm not saying that the Pats look like a juggernaut or anything. They struggled running the ball all season, capped off by a discouraging effort against the Jags in which Corey Dillon was moving with the zip of a woman trying to walk on ice in high heels. The Pats drop an inordinate amount of passes, especially on third down, a nagging problem that just won't seem to go away (both Deion Branch and Ben Watson had killer drops against the Jags last week). And their banged-up secondary just isn't that good -- those 12-yard passes are open all game, no matter who's throwing them, and the fifth/sixth/seventh D-backs right now are Troy Brown, Artrell Hawkins and Hank Poteat. Not good.
Still, I think the Pats can pull this one out Saturday night. Both defenses should shut down the respective running games, both quarterbacks should throw with some success, there will be more points than people realize and the final quarter will come to Brady vs. Plummer. I'll take the guy with the rings. At least for this week. Regardless, this has all the makings of a classic.
The Pick: New England 28, Denver 27
COLTS (-9.5) over Steelers
A toss-up between Rule No. 10 ("Only pick an underdog or a road team if you're convinced it has a chance to win the game outright") and Rule No. 14 ("Don't try to be a hero, just try to win money").
The Steelers look like a fun pick this week: They're riding a nice little streak, have some playoff experience, looked borderline dominant in the second half of the Cincy game, and if the Colts come out rusty and allow Pittsburgh to hang around, the Steelers could imitate San Diego's Week 15 performance and hang tough until the end. Fine. I see it. Just two problems:
1. When these teams played in Week 12, the Colts dominated and would have won by about 40 points if they didn't keep making dumb mistakes in the first half (including four 15-yard penalties). At the start of the third quarter, trailing 16-7, Bill Cowher tried an onside kick that seemed woefully desperate. I just remember turning that game off and thinking, "Wow, those two teams aren't even close." So the spread doesn't bother me. At all.
2. Everyone seems caught up in how the Colts ended the season ... just remember, they went 13-0 and had the conference clinched before they blew that Chargers game. Maybe the 16-0 season was at stake, but was anything really at stake? Probably not. Then they rested everyone, and Dungy lost his son, which became its own subplot because it was such a tragic story. And then they had a bye. So we really haven't thought about the Colts in "Unstoppable Powerhouse" terms since Week 14, which happened five full weeks ago.
Here's my point: The Colts are a great team. They aren't crapping the bed at home to a team that they already handled by 22 points. That's ridiculous.
The Pick: Colts 41, Steelers 19
BEARS (-3) over Panthers
Heading into the playoffs, I promised myself something: No matter who the Bears ended up playing (Giants, Bucs or Panthers), no matter how good one of those three teams looked in Round 1 ... I wasn't going to be swayed. All season long, I thought the Bears would be unbeatable at home in January with their running game, defense and fans. Just because Delhomme and the Panthers looked great last week doesn't mean I'm changing my mind. Besides, these two teams played in November and the Bears manhandled them. On Sunday, it happens again.
(In other words, bet the house on the Panthers.)
The Pick: Bears 23, Panthers 10.
Last week: 2-2
Regular season: 124-124-6
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His book, "Now I Can Die In Peace," is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.