[Setting: the Metrodome, late January 2014].
Joe Buck: "Welcome to the NFL on FOX. I'm here with my partner Troy Aikman to announce what should be a very exciting NFC Championship game between the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers. Of course no matter how exciting the game actually gets, you can bet that I'll keep the same insufferable monotonous tone throughout. Thankfully I have naked pictures of a FOX network chair, so you're not getting rid of me any time soon, folks."
Troy Aikman: "You're exactly right, Joe. Those pictures are horrifying. Speaking of horrifying, how bad were these two teams in 2011, the rookie year for both Christian Ponder and Cam Newton?"
JB: "Horrifying, that's a big word for you Troy. I hope you didn't concuss yourself thinking it up. Anyway, yes, both quarterbacks took their lumps in their rookie campaigns, but now one of them stands poised for a Super Bowl berth in just his third season in the NFL. And after all this Minnesota franchise has been through in the past five years, wouldn't it be fitting for the Vikings to win their first NFC Championship since the 1976 season in the very last game in the Metrodome?"
TA: "You're exactly right, Joe. Of course this is the last game in the Metrodome because the Vikings move into their new digs in Arden Hills next season, which looks to be an amazing stadium."
JB: "Yes, the Vikings will head to Daily Norseman Stadium for the 2014 season, which of course is named after the humble blog that finally talked enough sense into fans and state legislators alike to get an Arden Hills stadium deal done back in late 2011. In fact, there are the members of the Daily Norseman team."
[Camera cuts to Chris, Ted, Eric, Skol Girl, Kyle, and Mark sitting in the press box, attentively tending to the 15,000-comment pre-game thread as fans jump and wave at the camera around them.]
JB: "We'll be back on FOX with the kickoff between these two NFL MVP candidate quarterbacks, right after this."
TA: "You're exactly right, Joe."
JB: "Yeah, I know. You've never disagreed with anything I've ever said. It makes for even less thrilling commentary."
[Ed. Note: Speaking of Joe Buck--that "We'll see you tomorrow night" line you dropped in Game 6 of the World Series last night belongs to your late father and the people of Minnesota. What are you going to do for an encore in Game 7? "Do you believe in miracles?" What an effing hack.]
Hey, a guy can dream, can't he? So maybe they won't name the new stadium after us, but everything else is feasible, isn't it? Two rebuilding teams with some great pieces in place and promising rookie quarterbacks could definitely make that kind of leap in just a couple years, couldn't they?
The Vikings and Panthers currently have a combined record of 3-11. Not exactly a Game of the Week candidate at first blush. But thanks to two first-round quarterbacks, both fan bases are daydreaming about a much brighter future--with good reason.
As Chris pointed out earlier this week, the raw numbers don't exactly give Christian Ponder's debut justice. His quarterback rating was well below average, but his ability to come through in big spots made all the difference in keeping the game against the Packers competitive until the very end.
But for Cam Newton, the numbers are doing just fine, thank you.
He's averaging a smidge over 300 yards passing per game. A Viking quarterback hasn't had a single 300 yard game since Week 9 last year. He has seven rushing touchdowns--more than 22 NFL teams currently have. Each game he wins of the remaining nine contests will be an improvement over his team's record last year. (Granted, a low bar, but still not bad for a rookie). There's a reason that you're hearing crickets from all the naysayers after Newton was drafted--the dude's good. Like, real good. Like, I've already been beaten a couple times in fantasy football this year thanks to him good.
Of course, Newton and Ponder won't technically be playing against each other on Sunday. There are other players on the field and some of them might have even more impact on the game's outcome than the quarterbacks. For instance, Adrian Peterson is much better than any running back on Carolina's roster. (Sorry, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.) Likewise, the resurgent Steve Smith trumps anything the Vikings have to offer. (Sorry, Percy Harvin.) Both defenses have been suspect at times but they still have playmakers that can turn the tide of a close game. The Panthers and Vikings are two very evenly matched in two very similar situations, which could make for a great game this weekend.
Before I give my prediction, I want to acknowledge that I was quite the Debbie Downer on Monday. I expressed my displeasure with losing even though Ponder looked promising against the Packers. I'm just too competitive to ever be OK with losing, especially to them. Believe it or not, I still have a lot of faith in this team and its future--I was just a little upset that so many Viking fans seemed to be OK with losing if it was somehow for the "greater good".
I expect a hell of a game on Sunday with lots of back and forth action, but ultimately I'm afraid I'll have to play the pessimist again. Don't get me wrong--I think Christian Ponder showed more promise in four quarters last than Donovan McNabb could show in the next four years at this point. It's truly exciting to watch what could be the future of your franchise, just like Carolina fans are certain they're watching the future of theirs.
However, history is not on Minnesota's side. The Vikings' last two games in Carolina have been absolute disasters--the 2005 game where the Daunte Culpepper era effectively came to an end when he blew out about 17 ligaments in his knee and the 2009 game where Brett Favre had his infamous shouting match with Brad Childress as the Vikings got embarrassed on national TV. Obviously the 2011 versions of both teams are markedly different, but I think Cam Newton's six-game head start of experience over Ponder will be the difference. Ponder is still learning how to be his team's leader; Newton might already be there.
Either way, I have a feeling this game will leave fans of both teams impatiently waiting for "Newton vs. Ponder II: The Stakes Are Higher".
Prediction: Panthers 30, Vikings 24
I wouldn't worry too much that I picked against the Vikings again this week. The way my picks have gone so far this year, there's a very good chance I got this one wrong. Here are the rest of my Week 8 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
TITANS over Colts: These teams got beat by a combined score of 103-14 last week. Let's just move on before we can't wash the stink of the AFC South off us.
GIANTS over Dolphins: This is a classic "play down to their level" game for the Giants, just like they had in the Survival Pool-killing loss to Seattle at home earlier in the year. But Miami is straight up trying to lose and you can't convince me otherwise.
RAVENS over Cardinals: Speaking of Survival Pool, this is my pick this week. I'm 6-1 after correctly picking the Saints to eke out a victory over Indy last week. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that John Harbaugh
pulls his head out of his ass gives us a lot less Joe Flacco and a lot more Ray Rice this week.
SEAHAWKS over Bengals: I cannot justify this pick except for the fact that Seattle is a lot better at home. However, I can justify this pic--the Gratuitous Picture of the Week!
Patriots over STEELERS: According to these maps, the west coast and Ohio are really getting screwed with their viewing options for the late game on Sunday. They'll have to watch their local teams instead of this one unless they have Sunday Ticket. Sucks to be them.
Cowboys over EAGLES: Could go either way, but I can can guarantee one thing: the outcome of your fantasy match-up this week will be greatly impacted by this game.
Chargers over CHIEFS: Yeah I know, total upset potential here since the Chiefs are on a roll and the Chargers are the worst 4-2 team in recent memory. But I'm a huge wuss. Plus I have a mediocre pick record to uphold.
Last week: 7-6
Season so far: 63-40