Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Travel Ball Compendium of Mad Libs

My sincere thanks to this woman right here for inspiring the first TBG post in six months! I'm not even sure if any of you remember "Mad Libs". They were ostensibly meant to make random words funny in an age before blogs and Facebook status updates from your mom. Well, I am NOTHING if not here for obscure references that only eight of you will understand.

Travel ball is __________ (adjective). 

Truly, travel ball is ALL of the adjectives. Simultaneously.

…close-knit: My son Jalen started playing travel ball in 2012 at the age of eight. One of the managers in his Little League division put together a team to play in a two-game charity exhibition. The squad lifted its name from a Cleveland Indians minor league affiliate – the Mahoning Valley Scrappers – as Jalen made baseball history by being the first African-American to be ascribed with scrappiness. You see, for generations, this trait was reserved for Lilliputian players of an exclusive…demographic.

With their inherent proximity in age, geography and affection for farts; the boys bonded quickly, holding their own against teams that had been together longer. They played so well, in fact, that the Scrappers entered a tournament in Lakeside later that summer. For those of you who don't know, Lakeside is roughly 30 minutes southeast from Stately Bootleg Manor. In August, the average high temperature is a million goddam degrees. The entire area is nestled between the surface of the sun and the city of Santee – which, in some circles, is better known by its nickname. During the tournament, Mrs. Bootleg and I noticed the conspicuously high ratio of confederate flags to front yards. Fun!

Oh, speaking of my wife. Before the start of this tournament – just after sunrise on a Saturday morning – Mrs. Bootleg had spent the previous evening on a celebratory pub crawl throughout Pacific Beach. At an adorable 4'8", she had passed the limits for her liver (usually a half-glass of wine) early in the evening. She showed up on Saturday in abject agony, in desperate need of the inexplicable alcohol-absorption properties from a really greasy breakfast. Using her feminine wiles and seductively batting her eyelash – from the one eye she could open – my wife convinced the snack bar attendant to start the grill FOUR hours early and prepare ONE double cheeseburger for her…at 8:00 AM.

…cutthroat: I don't harbor any illusions about my son's skill level. He's a decent enough hitter for his age and can help out a team on the mound, behind the plate and at the infield corners. He does have a higher baseball IQ than most kids and, without fail, often wears the filthiest uniform after games. There are better players, there are worse players and I'm fine with wherever J sits on this spectrum. So, it was kind of surprising when the travel ball coach from a team that had just defeated my son's approached me in the parking lot after a game. "Your son did a helluva job behind the plate today", he offered. "We're not supposed to actively recruit players away from other teams, but if your son's interested in moving up, here's my card."

More recently, it would appear that someone passed along my e-mail address to another travel ball program. A few weeks ago, I received an unsolicited missive that read, in part: "We've been watching Jalen for a long time and would love to make him part of our family." In or out of context, that might be the single creepiest sentence I've ever read.

…infuriating: In the summer of 2014, J was swinging the bat as well as he ever has. He was leading off on the second day of a tournament down in Chula Vista when he was hit on the left hand by a fastball that drifted too far inside. The umpire, unfortunately, completely missed the call. He ruled the pitch a ball and ordered Jalen – who’d trotted down to first base – back to home plate. He would ultimately ground out. In the bottom of the first inning, J went in to catch. As he stood right next to the umpire, just after warm-ups and within earshot of everyone, I couldn’t contain myself:

“J! J! Where’d that ball HIT you?”

“Which hand, J? Which hand? The right or the left?”

“Oh, it HIT you in the left hand? It HIT you in the left?”

“OK. Let coach know if it starts hurting. And, let that umpire know, too.”

I'm pretty sure it took two – possibly THREE – moms to restrain me.

…inspiring (and not parental negligence AT ALL): Since the posts have been awfully sparse on this lightly-read blog, I'm going to liberally lift from a piece I wrote more than a year ago. If this is your first TBG experience, it's new to you!

J had spent the months since the end of the 2013 Little League season playing on a travel ball squad.  His game had made real improvements -- both at the plate and on the mound -- but, the most noticeable change was a newfound toughness that he lacked in the past.  To be clear, Mrs. Bootleg and I would never dream of pushing our only child beyond his physical or emotional limits.  But, at some point, J needed to start pushing himself.  Mommy and daddy can't do that for him.

Near as I can tell, the turning point occurred in October.  J's travel ball team was playing in a tournament down in the South Bay.  As usual, the start of southern California's autumn meant dry desert winds whistling in from the east and temperatures in the high 80s.  J pitched the second game of the day after an early-morning two-hour tilt.

Since he was six-years-old, Jalen has been susceptible to migraine headaches.  He's been seeing a specialist for the past several months and while we've seen improvement, warm weather and physical exertion -- together -- are two of J's biggest triggers.  His symptoms are easy to spot: glassy eyes, sluggishness, and slightly slurred speech.  After pitching the top of the first inning, I could see the first two from the bleachers.  I spoke to J briefly between innings and his barely coherent mumbling confirmed the third.

We notified his coach, but Jalen insisted he could keep pitching. As I paced nervously from foul pole to foul pole, J pitched five innings -- giving in to gravity as he collapsed on the bench between innings and dragging himself back to the mound with an internal tank that teetered towards empty.  And, after figuratively pitching his guts out for five innings, he did so literally for pretty much the entirety of the sixth while I relayed game updates to him from the visitor’s side of the wall in the bathroom stall.

See? Totally NOT worth a call to Child Protective Services, you guys!

…antagonistic: With all due respect to the kids and coaches, the adults on the "audience" side of the fence sometimes contribute ALL the entertainment. At a tournament last summer, the opposing manager was especially chirpy, loudly complaining to the umpires about any and everything. One of the OTHER parents on my son's team essentially shouted back "sit down and shut up". Of course, the opposing manager thought it was ME who called him out, so he – understandably – threatened to climb the fence and kick my ass in front of two dozen 10-year-olds. Here's a recreation of the scene in the stands with actors hired to play the parts of me and my wife.

During a tournament a few months later, my son's team was losing its grip on a late lead. With the winning run on first base, the batter sent one to the wall. The runner on first rounded third with a full head of steam and absolutely obliterated our catcher. Here's a recreation of the scene on the field with actors hired to play the parts of our valiant catcher and the sniveling little sh*t who instigated EVERYTHING. From there, it was ON and CRACKIN' (as the kids used to say…or, do they still say it?...whatever) Our coaches stormed the field in search of an opposing coach to serve as the proxy for the ass-whipping their prepubescent baserunner so richly deserved. Our team's parents – mostly the moms, as I remember—were wild-eyed and collectively pantomiming the universal posture for "parking lot…unless you a PUNK".

…offensive…?: J’s team once played against an all-Hispanic 10U squad from Los Angeles. The team was called – I am not making this up – the "Frijoleros". The nickname’s definition, as lifted from Urban, is "[R]acist term applied to Mexican (and Mexican-American) residents of the US. Translates roughly as 'one who prepares beans.'" I assume this insignificant travel ball blurb has already been used by Fox News in their rock-solid defense of Donald Trump by the time you've finished this sentence.

…confusing: Try to follow along, IF YOU CAN. Jalen currently plays for the San Diego Longhorns Baseball Club – BLACK. (I know, right?) Not to be confused with the San Diego Longhorns Baseball Club – ORANGE. Ironically, the ORANGE team is considered the classic collection of Arnold Jacksons while the BLACK team is essentially Sam McKinney. Previously, J played for the Scrappers and then the Aztecs. The Aztecs name was aped from the mascot of San Diego State University where my son’s manager played baseball collegiately under Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. And, J's manager? He’s now the Longhorns BLACK skipper after parting ways with the Aztecs last summer. The Longhorns, of course, take their name from the ubiquitous University of Texas team. BUT, word is that the Longhorns (the college) are cracking down on unauthorized use of their name and logo, so the current rumor around town is that J's team will STOP violating the Longhorns' trademarks and START violating the Aztecs' trademarks. Again. And, the Longhorns. Apparently. Again.

…fun: Some of the ballparks that occasionally host tournaments serve an assortment of craft beers on tap! And, here are some great non-beer-related things:

J's had some fantastic coaches over the past few years. Coach Andy was the first to give him an opportunity to play at the competitive travel ball level while Andy's assistant Clark taught us all the different ways an entire case of Natural Light could be smuggled into a dugout. Jalen's received hitting lessons from former minor league all star Tracy Sanders and pitching lessons from 24-year Major League reliever Jesse Orosco.

My son's coach for the past two-plus years has been Brandon Decker. J will never have a better coach, even though – as most of San Diego County knows – I did coach my son's team to back-to-back second place finishes in the Rancho Bernardo Little League Minors Division tournament AND guided the 2014 9/10 All Star team to third place in the entire district. (Well, NOW you know. Jerks.) Decker has patience in spades and teaches the game from the perspective of someone who learned from a Hall of Famer. His players would run through a brick wall for him – with J leading the way.

Travel ball parents are a different breed, baby. One – ONE! – of our moms is tasked with running the administration of a travel ball team. In no particular order, she collects monthly dues, balances the books, makes and distributes the schedule, tracks down lost caps, replaces outgrown jerseys, sends out emails...oh, and her husband brings Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale to the games, so they're BOTH valuable! There's the one-armed man who brings his work with him to every game, but stops everything when his son's on the mound, confounding kids with an assortment of old-man drop balls. And, I can't forget the parents of J's hyper-polite teammate who have opened their home to my son, treated him like family and introduced him to new and unusual things, such as cooked carrots.

The travel ball experience wouldn't be possible without Mrs. Bootleg and Jalen, obviously. And, while my wife graciously drives us home from those ballparks that (over)serve craft beer, it's our son who has brought both of us along on this wonderful ride.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

2015 NFL Pickery -- Super Bowl XLIX

Happy Super Bowl Sunday! My improbable playoff pickin' run continued two weeks ago, as I'm an unconscious 8-2 against the spread (and 9-1 straight-up). Joe, meanwhile, remains one HELL of a writer. You can find his work on Tumblr and -- in 140-character form -- on Twitter. Like me, he went 2-0 in last week's games, but in the standings, we're still sending our love down the well (ALL THE WAY DOWN) to him.

Joe: I'm just going to say it: I loved the h*ck out of Deflate-gate. It was wonderful. Two weeks of Boston sports fans being put through the wringer, having to figure out ways to be defensive about the scandal without appearing to take it too seriously. Because those were the twin secret weapons of Deflategate: hilarity and stupidity. Nobody actually thought that deflating the balls (which they probably did) was the actual reason the Patriots beat the Colts two Sundays ago. It would've been way less fun if there were actual victims here. Instead, we had a victimless crime that made the perpetrators look small and petty and foolish and squirrelly. All terrible things! All now applicable to the New England Patriots and, by extension, their fans! Sure 70% of the op-eds were self-serious drivel, and the other 30% were self-righteous bashing of the ones who were taking it seriously. But I didn't tell you to watch SportsCenter every night. That's on you. I just got to sit back and snipe on Twitter and imagine Bill Belichick giving a secret order to execute Action Plan Charlie, which is the code word in the Patriots' organization for delating footballs. The whole thing would have been worth it even if Bill Simmons hadn't written a 180,000-word column on why the Pats are now in FU mode and Cobra Kai and Ewing Theory and click this link to a Jimmy Kimmel segment. But OF COURSE he also did that, and it was great. It's gonna be such a bummer if the Patriots win. Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

Aaron:​ As we all learned from Clint Eastwood's latest fever dream for flyover country, this…is…AMERICA. You're free to root for either team, bet on either team or just watch the game for the camaraderie, commercials and Katy Perry. You're also free to hate either team. Keep in mind, though, that if you hate the Seahawks you're wrong, wrong, WRONG. You hate Richard Sherman for his lack of nationally televised postgame decorum? Please, tell me more. Marshawn Lynch makes BILLIONS, you say. Possibly TRILLIONS. He should be GRATEFUL the press wants to talk to him. Someone should tell him to quit giving non-answers! Yes…yes…go on. The Seahawks fans are NOTHING but a bunch of bandwagoners who only arrived after their team won a world championship. Oh, go find your own pictures of the 2004 Red Sox and 2002 Patriots. YOU GET THE IDEA. Anyways…this spread makes no sense. None. The Seahawks opened as slight favorites, within 24 hours it was a "pick 'em", the Patriots emerged as slight favorites and now it's sliding back towards a "pick 'em". The Seahawks defensive front just might obliterate Tom Brady, 58, once and for all. There's no real answer on the Pats' side for Lynch's systematic manslaughter of run defenses, either. The Seahawks are doing you a FAVOR, America. You're welcome. Seahawks 24, Patriots 20

Sunday, January 18, 2015

2015 NFL Pickery -- AFC/NFC Championship Weekend, SON

With another 3-1 (against the spread) weekend, I'm now 6-2 with my NFL playoff picks and 7-1, straight up! And, my friend Joe wrote ANOTHER wonderful post on the Academy Awards! Read it several times or as often as it takes to remove the taste of an 0-4 against-the-spread weekend from Joe's mouth.

Green Bay at Seattle (-7.5)

Joe: It's tough not to simply remember back to September, when the Seahawks creamed the Packers on opening day, and it looked like these two were in completely different classes. And the Packers have looked shockingly vulnerable at times this season, or do I have to remind you all yet again about a little team called the BUFFALO BILLS? Anyway, what kind of non-football comparison can I make to help me with my decision? Green Bay is too small to be the setting for any TV shows. No wrestlers hail from there. Food, I guess? Seattle is famous for its commercial-chain coffee (by far preferred by me over that pungent brew known as actual coffee) and for its fish markets. All that gets stacked up against ... cheese. Delicious, life-giving, artery-clogging cheese. Salty, creamy, spreadable, edible, ideal for parties both casual and fancy, pairs as well with wine as it does saltines. Can't f*ck with cheese. Cheese covers. Seahawks 26, Packers 23
​Aaron: Well played, Joe. You get cheese AND knowingly back me into an infinitely dorkier corner​. *sigh* You sonofbitch. Joe damn well KNOWS...there IS a pro wrestler who hails from Green...Bay...Wisconsin. He performed in WWE at the same time as Joe's BFF Buffalonian Beth Phoenix. JOE KNOWS THIS. And, since we're down the faux sport rabbit hole, the obvious Seahawks proxy is Seattle's own Greg "The Hammer" Valentine. The Hammer won often, won ugly, and was one of the best dressed competitors in the circuit. See? Just LIKE the Seahawks! Similarly, The Hammer's breakthrough as part of a team came when he aligned himself with a flamboyant pretty boy. Russell Wilson IS Brutus Beefcake, people! See what happens when Joe gets to the good analogies before me? SEE?! Seahawks 23, Packers 20

Indianapolis at New England (-7)
Joe: Gahhhhh we were so close last week. Damn it, Joe Flacco. But I knew it was too much to hope that the Ravens would cut this Patriots season short. Now we have to put all our hopes in the hands of Andrew Luck and whatever folks he happened to load onto the plane with him from Indianapolis. I'll say one thing for that Ravens game: it got us to the Brag Point in New England. That fanbase is so superstitious and so in love with tragedy that, Patriots fans especially, they get cagey when they think their team is good. But inside, there's a braggy Masshole just waiting to bust out. And when that finally happens, when the team starts winning enough that New Englanders start to feel like their team is jinx-proof, the resulting boastfulness is so good. Because now they have someplace to fall. (See: both Giants Super Bowls; that time the Jets beat them in the playoffs.) So did the Ravens game push Pats fans past the bragging point? Uhhh, not sure. Did it? Patriots 31, Colts 20

​Aaron: It's inevitable. You can't escape it, America. The Patriots are heading back to the Super Bowl. Six months of personal investment in the NFL season...for this. Did you know that Tom Brady is married to a supermodel? Did you know that Rob Gronkowski is a free spirit? Did you know that Bill Belichick is a grumpy, monosyllabic sourpuss? Well get ready to learn it all over again! And, who'll be the first sports journalist with the hard-hitting "From Super Bowl to The Hole" piece on Aaron Hernandez? Hahaha...just kidding. We all know it'll be Jeremy Schaap. And speaking of least we all have something that we collectively root for: the post-Super Bowl Patriots loss Bill Simmons post.​ Unfortunately, that means two weeks of podcasts and columns with Bill, his dad, Jacko, House, Ralph Malph and the rest of the Little Rascals. Cracked eggs & omelettes, y'all. Patriots 44, Colts 14

Saturday, January 10, 2015

2015 NFL Pickery -- Divisional DEVASTATION

Welcome back! Hopefully, some of you took our advice last week in furtherance of your casual gambling addictions. I was 3-1 against the spread (and 3-1 straight-up) while Joe was 2-2. But, he did post a wonderful cinematic piece on his blog this week, easily making up the one-game difference. Then, again, he also picked Ryan Lindley on the road last week which wipes out every good thing Joe's done or said so far this century.

Baltimore at New England (-7)

Joe: We're well familiar with my feelings about the New England Patriots by now. I'm every bit as irrational, spiteful, and petty on the subject of the Patriots as Cam is about his beloved San Diego Chargers. I'm also well aware of how my fervent desire to see the Patriots upended can sometimes lead me to being more optimistic about their opponents than I should be. It's true that Baltimore has had New England's number in the playoffs in the past. More realistic: the Ravens last beat a playoff team in September; six of their ten wins came against the AFC South, the Titans and the Jaguars; and two more against the Cleveland Browns. There's no way I'm this lucky. Patriots 38, Ravens 10

Aaron: Handsome Joe Reid and his overt reverse jinx, ladies and gentlemen! He also dances for nickels! And, what's all this noise about me and my "irrational...spiteful" pettiness towards the San Diego Chargers? Moments after the Chargers 2014 season came to a GLORIOUSLY inglorious end, I tweeted out heartfelt sympathies on behalf of me and my 10-year-old son. 

ANYways...these random Joe Flacco factoids (Flac-toids?), you guys. 166 consecutive pass attempts in the playoffs without an interception! His postseason record is 7-2 since 2010! In his last five playoff games, Flacco and the Ravens have defeated Andrew Luck(!), Peyton Manning(!!), Tom Brady(!!!), Colin Kaepernick(?) and Ben Roethlisberger (hell, I don't know..."ampersand", maybe?). As for the Patriots, it's pretty lazy to turn every piece of their playoff analysis into "Brady-to-Gronkowski", but it's early, I've only had one cup of coffee and I don't feel like looking up the names of anyone else on their offensive roster. Patriots 21, Ravens 16

Carolina at Seattle (-11)

Joe: Fine. Wonderful. The Panthers have climbed their way up to 8-8-1, though they'll have to reach the Super Bowl if they want to end their season with a winning record. Clearly, with the Seahawks' home-field advantage, the gravy train stops here. The question, though, is that point spread. Aside from their two recent games against the Cardinals (which we can set aside as highly compromised), the Seahawks only beat a team by 11 or more points four times all season. The Panthers played them to a rather ugly 13-9 decision in October. Splitting the difference is probably foolish at this stage, but hell, I've got some ground to make up for being the idiot that bet on Ryan Lindley to win outright. Seahawks 27, Panthers 17

Aaron: Damn it. Joe pretty much encapsulated all of my concerns with this point spread. If Seattle gets out to an early blowout lead, aren't they likely to take their foot off the gas pedal? Cam Newton is one of the more fascinating players of this era. He's criticized for silly things like body language and his press conference attire -- and I mean THOUSANDS of words have been written about this nonsense -- but, is rarely praised for things like, y'know, taking downfield hits from safeties while scrambling for a first down with broken bones in his back. The Panthers field two septuagenarian running backs, none of you could name their starting wide receivers and I'm supposed to believe that Cam Newton is the problem? Child, please. Seahawks 24, Panthers 14

Dallas at Green Bay (-6.5)

Joe: The wind on Sunday is going to make it feel like 3 degrees on Sunday. Maybe those kinds of cryo conditions will keep Aaron Rodgers intact (though remember that doesn't always work out). After last week's national outrage over the Cowboys winning after a botched defensive-holding no-call (like Jim Caldwell wouldn't have found a way to screw up regardless), I'm kind of rooting for the Cowboys. Particularly if Jerry Jones can keep goading right-wing politicians into alienating their voters every week. Could be a fun gimmick! Too bad the Cowboys don't have the defense to pull it off. Packers 24, Cowboys 7

Aaron: The conspiracy theory exercise is SO silly. This idea that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell -- whose incompetence at, y'know, COVER-UPS, came to light during the Ray Rice fiasco -- could mastermind a confidence game involving entire officiating crews, television networks and the mummified remains of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones...I mean, who thinks this is plausible?! WHO?! This is another interesting spread in that it opened before news of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and his (partially?) torn calf muscle broke. I'm not subscribing to the current narrative that the Packers are a team of mediocre pieces held together by Rodgers' moxie, but the cold conditions can't be conducive to an elite athlete with a leg injury. That said, until Cowboys QB Tony Romo wins a second round playoff game on the road, I ain't picking him to win a second round playoff game on the road. Packers 20, Cowboys 17

Indianapolis at Denver (-7)

Joe: We're getting another Manning/Brady AFC Championship Game. We just are. Now let's all work on getting Andrew Luck an actual football team to back him up for next year. Broncos 35, Colts 21

Aaron: Not so fast, Joe! Have you forgotten who's the quarterback for the Broncos? It's Peyton Manning. You might remember him from such disappointing January playoff performances as a home loss to the hapless Chargers in 2008, a road loss to the hapless Chargers in 2009, a home loss to MARK SANCHEZ in 2011 and a home loss to Joe Flacco (remember? we covered this...) in 2013. Manning's arm strength never really returned after his umpteenth neck surgery and he looks even more noodle-armed than ever before. The Colts aren't a very good team, but Andrew Luck IS a very good quarterback who, at this stage of his career, is better than the orange-clad, aging QB who's obviously on the descent from his previous Rocky Mountain high standards. Feel free to use that on Monday's First Take, @RealSkipBayless. Colts 24, Broncos 23

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2015 NFL Pickery -- Wildcard Weekend

Hello! Welcome back to the Bootleg! It's been awhile! Again!
I'm Aaron. I started this lightly-read blog way back in December 2006 after writing a weekly music column for three years and picking up two writer-of-the-year awards. Shameless? Hells yeah! Seriously, of my favorite takeaways from that time was meeting the ridiculously talented Joe Reid. We started writing on the same website, then Joe went on to write for The Atlantic, Grantland and a bazillion other sites. You can also find him on Twitter and Tumblr.
(I'm on Twitter, too! And, Instagram! Indulge my self-indulgence!)
Wait, back to Joe. He's a dear friend and a wonderful writer and I'm grateful he can turn away from journalistic fame and fortune to (occasionally) remember where he came from. These football playoff picks are the closest thing we have to an annual tradition around here. Try not to focus on the picks -- especially MINE, you jerks -- and, instead, enjoy the snark, sarcasm and timeless Simpsons references.
Arizona at Carolina (-5.5)

Joe: Man, I hate picking playoff games for teams with losing records. History already seems to be waving its middle finger at all of us with this thing. It stands to reason that any and all prediction attempts will be met with a similar response. The inclination not to want to underestimate Carolina (they managed to win at the end of the season when it counted, after all, including a road thrashing of Atlanta; plus they have Cam Newton, played this season by Bruce Willis from Unbreakable) may well lead to underestimating the Cardinals even more. The state of Arizona hasn't seen the kind of carnage this injured Cardinals team has gone through since Kurt Russell mowed down all the scenery in Tombstone ... but they still managed to win a few games. And honestly? At least the Cardinals' season made sense. There was no rhyme or reason to the Panthers' playoff push. I'll take the points and avert my eyes. Cardinals 19, Panthers 17

Aaron: It could be argued that TWO professional football teams desperately missed aging, peg leg QB Carson Palmer -- the *2002* Heisman Trophy winner -- during the 2014 season. While the Raiders continue to limp along with their inconsistent lottery ticket behind center, the Cardinals were forced to turn to San Diego State alum Ryan Lindley -- who, later today, will make history as the worst QB to ever start a playoff game. How bad is Ryan Lindley? His career QB rating is 50.3 -- three-tenths of a point better than Ryan Leaf. How bad was Ryan Leaf? Historically terrible! Some people -- like the affable bearded guy in the paragraph above -- are gonna overthink this a wee bit. Sometimes, in fact, NFL games simply play out like an episode of The Simpsons -- specifically, this episode. Panthers 33, Cardinals 3

Baltimore at Pittsburgh (-3.5)

Joe: Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Two hardy northeastern cities. Each one boasting hallowed places in the football firmament (Unitas! Bradshaw! Dilfer!). More importantly, these cities were the setting for the two most trenchant, hard-hitting, Emmy-ignored TV series of the 21st century. Of course I'm talking about The Wire and Queer as Folk (U.S.). Okay, I'm having some fun. In truth, in a very real way, this matchup boils down to the team that jettisoned Ray Rice at the beginning of its season, versus the team that's been paying Ben Roethlisberger's salary steadily ever since his ... I guess we can say "indiscretion." Viva football! Steelers 27, Ravens 13
Aaron: Hee! One of my favorite running jokes from when Joe and I used to pick games and write up to 32 paragraphs EVERY SINGLE WEEK was that it seemed the Ravens and Steelers played each other eight times per season with an average final score of 14-12. (Oh, shut up...not EVERY running joke is going to be gold.) Anyways...are we sure Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin is a good coach? He's racked up the regular season wins (.641 career winning percentage) but has some embarrassing January losses on his resume -- including Tim Tebow's only playoff win! Remember Tim Tebow? He was your rebuttal when I called Ryan Lindley the worst QB to ever start a playoff game. I stand by my earlier assertion! Steelers 14, Ravens 12
Cincinnati at Indianapolis (-4.5)

Joe: Two teams who looked fantastic in the first half of the season and at times godawful during the second half. Colts beat the Bengals 27-0 back in October. The Bengals can run the ball when the Colts cannot. Cincinnati was the site of the seminal 1970s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Indianapolis was the setting of the seminal 1970s sitcom One Day at a Time. One Day at a Time had a better opening credits theme song. Colts 31, Bengals 20
Aaron: Joe is not wrong. Although, I would argue that WKRP wins if the category is "most memorable post-show career by an alumnus". Howard Hesseman seamlessly transitioned from DJ Doctor Johnny Fever to schoolteacher Charlie Moore on ABC's Head of the Class, while Valerie Bertinelli's run as overwrought thin-lipped imp-in-peril in those Lifetime TV movies drags down her current work on Hot in Cleveland. So, clearly, that..wait a minute. WAIT A MINUTE. From Howard Hesseman's Wikipedia page: "[Hesseman] also played Sam Royer, the man who married Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) on One Day at a Time. *mind blown**BLOWN* Colts 27, Bengals 13

Detroit at Dallas (-7.5)

Joe: I think these are probably the two best teams playing on Wild Card weekend. One of them will have to lose so that the Carolina Panthers might advance. That is super fucked up. Regardless, I think everybody's been waiting for the other shoe to drop with this Cowboys team, but they kind of seem incredibly solid and put-together. Even scarier? If I can forget that Jerry Jones is the team owner, I ... kind of like these Cowboys? I know. I feel alone in a cold and unfeeling universe too. Cowboys 27, Lions 24
Aaron: Yeah, I'm also kinda-sorta OK with this Cowboys team and don't hate Tony Romo nearly as much as you mouth-breathers with your "#hotsportstake" tweets. Then, again, I also liked those cocaine and strippers-fueled Cowboys teams of the mid-1990s -- mostly for the muted humility of CB/WR Deion Sanders. Yes, head coach Barry Switzer was a scrunchy-faced buffoon, but America quickly forgave his imbecilic ways when Switzer joined another erstwhile Cowboys head coach (Jimmy Johnson) to form a modern-day Statler & Waldorf for Fox Sports' NFL pregame show. By my count, that's, like, three nearly watchable things that the Fox family of networks has given us since 1997, so...yay? Cowboys 30, Lions 20