By F. Stupidity, Jr.

Next week, the final push for the playoffs begins, and it figures to be pure madness, at least in the NFC. Twelve teams have at least a puncher’s chance at one of the six playoff spots available. In the AFC, it’s looking more and more like the Steelers and Patriots are on a collision course for the conference championship game – but they’ll have a dress rehearsal for it in two weeks at Heinz Field. As of this writing, no one has clinched anything yet, so this season’s final four weeks figure to be quite dramatic.

But again, that all starts next Sunday. With week 13 being the relative calm before the storm, let’s look back at the career of one of the NFL’s greatest players, Barry Sanders.

AFC WEST

Kansas City @ NY Jets – I’m officially off the bandwagon

Denver @ Miami – just don’t make me watch it

NY Giants @ Oakland – Geno Smith is no kind of answer for the Giants’ woes

Cleveland @ LA Chargers – Sure, they’ll boff it up in the playoffs, but they are ROLLING now

We’ve all got our favorite football team; for most of us, it’s the hometown team. If not, it’s the team we rooted for before we moved. Others jump on the bandwagon of whoever the team of the moment is. Usually, the custom for sports fans is to overly praise their team’s best players while barely acknowledging the other stars of the game.

Some players are so good they’re exempt from this. In the 1990s, if your favorite team wasn’t the Detroit Lions, chances are you were a fan of their running back, Barry Sanders. Whether Sanders was the best running back of all time, or even of his own era, is open to question; the entertainment value of his running style was not. For ten years, Barry Sanders dazzled football fans from coast to coast with an inimitable running style. Only a handful of players past and present could claim even a vague similarity, as Sanders’ approach demanded imagination, risk-taking (no Hall of Famer ever lost more yards while trying to gain yards), a pair of legs that can execute any change of direction his brain could throw at them, and the ability to accelerate like a dragster.

AFC NORTH

Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati – Next week is the trap game

Cleveland @ LA Chargers

Detroit @ Baltimore – close game to the home team

Barry Sanders was no less unique in between plays. In the 1990s, the practice of celebrating after every play was rapidly becoming the norm. Players like Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin were establishing the template for the modern NFL star; Barry Sanders was more of a throwback in terms of temperament. Sanders just simply jogged back to the huddle regardless of whether he’d lost five yards, gained five, or gained fifty. After a touchdown, Sanders’ signature celebration was to simply hand the ball to the nearest official.

If anything, Barry Sanders was probably too humble considering his abilities. Maybe humility was the key to his success; perhaps a refusal to revel in success spurred him to keep working, to fight for yards, to pursue excellence. Maybe he was working against a native complacency. In any case, it’s clear that the roots of Barry’s demeanor came from his father, the late William Sanders. This profile of the elder Sanders by TJ Simers certainly helps make the son’s behavior between the lines a little more understandable.

AFC SOUTH

Indianapolis @ Jacksonville – Jags bounce back at home

Houston @ Tennessee – Titans keep pace with Jags

In a 1993 interview in SPORT Magazine (that I can’t find online), the subject of rushing for 2000 yards came up. Barry talked about how special OJ Simpson was in his playing days, noting that Simpson’s 2000 yard season came in a 14-game schedule. The other 2000 yard rushers had gotten there in a 16-game season. (Simpson was primarily a north-south runner, but even well into his forties he could still slash through a double-team)

Barry Sanders’ Hall of Fame contemporaries were Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas. While Sanders was arguably the best of the three, Sanders was inarguably in the worst situation. Emmitt Smith ran behind the greatest offensive line ever assembled. If opposing defenses put eight men in the box to stop him, he had a HOF QB in Troy Aikman throwing to HOF WR Michael Irvin. Emmitt Smith was a huge talent, but huge talent around him helped him gain more yards on the ground than any running back in history. Thurman Thomas had comparable assistance in HOF QB Jim Kelly and WR Andre Reed. Barry Sanders, by contrast, didn’t have the same kind of talent to work with. WR Herman Moore had several great seasons playing with Sanders, but not a HOF career. Sanders’ QBs were a bigger step down: Bob Gagliano, Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer, end-of-career Dave Kreig (who wasn’t top flight in mid career), Scott Mitchell, and Charlie Batch. The 1990s belonged to Emmitt Smith’s Cowboys, who won Super Bowls in the 1992, 1993, and 1995. Thurman Thomas’ teams went to four straight Super Bowls.

Barry Sanders didn’t have an opportunity to play in even one. Sanders was in his third season when the Lions lost the 1992 NFC Championship game. In the 25 years since, the Lions haven’t gotten past the wild card round since then, losing eight times.

AFC EAST

New England @ Buffalo – The most gut of gut-feeling picks I could ever make

Denver @ Miami

Kansas City @ NY Jets

After two weeks had gone by in the 1997 NFL season, the Detroit Lions were 1-1 – but no one was talking about Barry Sanders rushing for 2000 yards. Through two games, Sanders had gained 53 yards on 25 carries. A more relevant question at that time might have been: Is Barry Sanders done? Sanders was 29 years old, in his ninth season, with more than 11,000 rushing yards on his odometer. (Of course, in week two he had caught 8 passes for 102 yards, which probably kept the naysayers from speaking too loudly). Heading into week three, Sanders would need to run for 322 yards just to get back on to a 2000 yard pace.

NFC WEST

LA Rams @ Arizona – Like the Jets most weeks, expect the Cardinals to keep it close in defeat

Philadelphia @ Seattle – The Eagles aren’t going to finish 15-1

San Francisco @ Chicago – DUUUUH BEARSSS

In week three of the 1997 season, Barry Sanders looked like his old self, rushing for 162 in a 32-7 win at Chicago’s Soldier Field. And over the next few weeks, Sanders piled up the yards while his team alternated wins and losses like a see-saw: 113 in a road loss at New Orleans, 139 in a home win over Green Bay, 107 in a road loss at Buffalo. Thru six weeks, the Lions were 3-3, but after an unrecognizable first two weeks, Barry Sanders had gained 574 yards.

Then Barry Sanders stepped his game up.

NFC NORTH

Minnesota @ Atlanta – Just when I thought the Falcons were fading, they’re surging late

Tampa Bay @ Green Bay – Rodgers, Hundley, doesn’t really matter against Tampa

Detroit @ Baltimore

San Francisco @ Chicago

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had built one of the best defenses in NFL history. From 1997-2005, the Bucs defense was the envy of the league. With Tony Dungy’s Cover 2 scheme executed by the likes of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, and Ronde Barber, Tampa’s defense ranked in the top five in either Points Against or Yards Against, usually both, seven times in those nine seasons. In 1997, the Bucs were #2 in Points Allowed and #3 in Yards Allowed. In week two, the Tampa defense held Barry Sanders to 20 yards on 10 carries in defeating the Lions at the Silverdome, 24-17.

Sanders’ revenge was extraordinary. In the rematch at Tampa, Sanders was magnificent against Tampa’s stout defense, gaining 215 yards on 24 carries in a 27-9 road rout. Whatever had plagued Sanders in the first two weeks was a faded memory. Five weeks later, Sanders notched his second 200 yard game of the year at home against the Colts. Through 15 weeks, Sanders had run for 100+ yards in a league record 13 consecutive games. And he needed 131 yards in the final game of the season to become just the third player ever to rush for 2000 yards in a season.

But at 8-7, the Detroit Lions needed a win to get into the 1997 playoffs. So did their week 16 opponents, the 9-6 New York Jets.

NFC SOUTH

Carolina @ New Orleans – the Game of the Week goes to the home team

Tampa Bay @ Green Bay

Minnesota @ Atlanta

Sometimes, real life makes its way into a football game. The threat of serious injury hangs over every game, over every play, but rarely does a life-threatening injury take place. More rarely does such an injury follow a simple two-yard run, but with just under 12:00 left in the 4th quarter, with the Lions leading 13-10, Lions linebacker Reggie Brown came up to stop the Jets’ Adrian Murrell; the collision resulted in a spinal cord contusion for the Lions LB. Wikipedia:

[Brown] lay motionless for 17 minutes on the turf at the Pontiac Silverdome, briefly losing consciousness, with CPR saving his life.[2] Emergency surgery saved him from using a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

The incident sent a chill through the stadium. Players on both teams were visibly shaken and upset, but the game had to be finished. A playoff spot awaited the winner.

NFC EAST

Washington 14 @ Dallas 38 (F-11/30)

NY Giants @ Oakland

Philadelphia @ Seattle

Neither team could make progress on offense throughout the fourth quarter. After a Jets interception and a pair of punts, the Lions had the ball at their own 42. Barry Sanders, who had gained 129 yards on 21 carries to that point (extending his league record to 14 straight 100 yard games), needed just two yards to get to 2000 for the season; he got exactly two with his next carry. Naturally, with the game being played in Detroit, there was an acknowledgement of the moment. Sanders appeared to be exiting the game…but then he lined up in the backfield again. And Sanders fans were nervous. Everyone who was familiar with Barry Sanders at all knew that one more touch might mean lost yards. One of Sanders’ weaknesses lay in his willingness to give up yards to gain yards; sometimes those strategic retreats were stopped in the backfield.

Sanders next carry was not stopped in the backfield.

Following that run, three more kneel-downs sealed the Lions’ trip to the postseason. Barry Sanders finished his season with 2053 yards on 23 carries. In the process, Sanders had done what he praised OJ Simpson for – gaining 2000 yards in 14 games.

PICKS

Week 12: 11-2

Total: 78-55