Pro Football Pleasures

The exterior of the Riviera Cafe, at the corner of 7th ave and 4th street in lower Manhattan, offers no hint of the pleasures which lie within. There’s no view of the water. There’s not even a sign that says “Sports Bar.”

You have to pass through the main level, midst the scent of omelettes and eggs benedict, down the stairway, and to the right before you come upon a sight more beautiful than the chorus line at the Follies Bergere – seven flat screen tv’s, each tuned to a different game, lined up in a row for the ten or so lucky patrons who have secured their seats at the bar for NFL Sunday.

What distinguishes this venue from the sports books at casinos or the gaudy sports bars which have sprouted up like weeds are the intimacy of the surroundings and the close proximity of the televisions. Without crooking your neck, by a mere roll of the eyeballs, it is possible to digest four games at once from the comfort of a bar stool a few feet away. With a nod to the left, or a slight turn to the right , the other three games come into view. Truth be told, one game was left uncovered. On this full house Sunday, with eight games kicking off at 1:00, there was no screen available for Philadelphia-Tampa Bay.

Because the Patriots were playing Monday, there was a smaller crowd than usual at this Boston-leaning bar; and though arriving late, I was able to secure a prime seat center court. Things were heating up. I had invested more than usual in the outcomes of several of these encounters, and felt good about my bets. Throw in multiple Dewars and sodas, an order of chicken wings, and the Sunday New York Times for slow moments, and I was set.

Early on there were setbacks. Pittsburgh fell behind big early, dooming my teaser. My straight plays on Washington, Cincinnati, and the Jets were going back and forth like a pinball. Because of line movements, I had live middle shots on Chicago-Minnesota, and Indianapolis-Tennessee. Of the seven games on the screens, I had action on six.

When you’re watching games like this, you develop an awareness of the teams which transcends what you read in the write-ups or see on the highlights. Last-second victories have a way of obscuring mistakes. For example, lost in the euphoria of the Redskins comeback win against Baltimore was D’Angelo Hall’s feeble attempt to dislodge the ball from Anquan Boldin rather than tackle him on a critical play.

At third and four from the Washington 35 late in the fourth quarter, Boldin caught a short pass near the left sideline and turned downfield. Hall latched on early, but instead of forcing Boldin out of bounds, or, God forbid, tackling him, Hall punched several times at the ball. But Boldin’s grasp was firm, and he ran 28 yards to the 7-yard line setting up the Ravens’ go-ahead touchdown. Had Baltimore’s lead held up, Hall would have received his rightful roasting.

Dallas was hailed for its emotional comeback road win over Cincinnati just a few days after two of its players were involved in a fatal car accident. But had the Bengals taken care of business and not muffed several scoring opportunities, the ’Boys would have been sent packing. A.J. Green bungled a sure touchdown pass in his breadbasket which would have clinched the game.

Even the Jets received plaudits for their second consecutive victory, a snorefest win over Jacksonville. The tabloids praised Sanchez for playing a mistake free game, but the Jets offense was as somnolent as ever. Rarely taking a chance, Sanchez accumulated a less than robust 111 yards through the air, which was an improvement over the previous week , when he was replaced by third string quarterback Greg McElroy. The Jets are so bad on offense that when they get inside the 20, the Red Zone Channel ignores them.

But no discussion of quarterback ineptitude would be complete without mention of Arizona’s signal callers who have strung together, in the words of Mike Francesa, “ the worst quarterbacking performances in the history of the NFL. “

Against the Jets two weeks ago, a 7-6 loss, Ryan Lindley, a rookie drafted in the sixth round out of San Diego State, went 10 for 31 and zero for 15 in third down opportunities. His replacement last Sunday, John Skelton, threw four interceptions in a 58-0 loss to Seattle. After starting the season 4-0, the Cardinals have lost nine straight. The most compulsive gambler in the universe could not bet this team no matter the spread.

At this late stage of the season, several of the contenders are revealing themselves to be pretenders. After its thrashing by Carolina Sunday, 11-2 Atlanta cannot be taken seriously. Pittsburgh lost a game which one diehard called “the Steelers’ worst home performance in his lifetime.” And he’s 50.

Despite their explosion against New Orleans, the Giants defense relinquished 350 yards on the ground the past two weeks and appears vulnerable. Houston was decimated by New England Monday night. Chicago, after starting 7-1, has lost four of five. Only the Patriots have demonstrated the consistency of performance of a potential champion.

By 4:30, all of the one o’clocks had been decided, the Redskins’ overtime win being the capper. Fittingly, after an afternoon of wild game (and mood) swings, Kai Forbath’s field goal on the last play of the early games provided the winning margin for the Redskins and for me (-2.5). Three hours of unrestrained debauchery had ended on a high note; but I was tired, a little bit drunk, and in need of a nap.

After all, I needed to be ready for Giants-Saints at 8:30.

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