Sunday, January 22, 2006


It's game day. I didn't anticipate being this involved in the AFC Championship game this year -- earlier this season, it looked as if the Pittsburgh Steelers had lost their shot at a playoffs berth, after heart-breaking injuries put the creaky Tommy Maddox in the starting quarterback slot and he proceeded to do everything in one man's power to scuttle their season... much the way he did as a rookie, when he stepped into QB for the Denver Broncos, who had been on a six-game winning streak. The Broncos couldn't win a game after that, and what had looked like a sure lock for the playoffs was dashed between the slippery fingers of a guy who now has to wear a black Abu Ghraib style hood when he goes out for groceries in Pittsburgh.

But here we are, and it's the Steelers facing off against Maddox's first NFL team at Mile High Stadium in Denver. The air up there is thinner, it's harder to maintain an all-out push or sprint with the same ferocity as one might muster in stadiums closer to sea level.

I'm going to Applebees to watch at least the first half. There are few other places where I can order drinks and smoke at the same time without being relegated to some plexiglass fishbowl that smells like an airport smoking "lounge" or a chilly outdoor "designated smoking area," which usually have no overhead cover. And when it's raining like it is today, smoking in a place like that could be a miserable experience anyway.

We smokers will go there anyway, though, if that's the last option we've got. I saw a "Truth" ad on television a couple years ago that said that nicotine was more addictive than heroin -- which as far as I'm concerned is as good an excuse as any to keep puffing away. I saw "Trainspotting," and I know heroin's a tough one to break. If my coffin-nails are worse than that, well... I can hardly be blamed for facing the elements for a puff.

This is going to be a good football game. But after so many trips to the AFC Championships without a win, it's hard not to feel a very distinct sense of dread in the background. It's the playoffs, and I seriously don't know what will happen. Even ESPN's Bill Simmons (who I've been a little more skeptical about since only now has he decided to give the Steelers some well-earned respect; before this, if he mentioned them, it would only be to say how unimpressed he was by the team or how fat Jerome Bettis has gotten) has decided to take his years-in-development Playoffs Gambling Manifesto out behind his garage and burn it.

Before I head out, at least one more point: as the darkhorse team who have beaten AFC favorites Cincinatti and Indianapolis, the Steelers have amassed quite a backlash sentiment -- bitter Colts and Bengals fans who now are rooting for Denver just so they can see the Steelers lose. Stupid. If you're going to lose to someone, I'd say it's better to be knocked off by the Super Bowl champions... or at least a team that makes it there. Choke on the ashes, you turncoats... it wasn't your year. Just like it wasn't the Patriots' year. Or the Giants'.

With that, I'm off. To Applebees, like I said... which makes me feel slightly guilty, because in theory I hate everything about that place. In large neon letters out front it says "Neighborhood Grill & Bar." Telling that it's right next to the Super Wal-Mart -- which could just as legitimately be described as a "Neighborhood General Store." But I'm not heading out to think about how corporate conglomerates have ruined American culture... what I want to see is some football.