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Bengals Up, Packers Down, Plus Hail to the White Sox and Spurs

By Bill Peterson · November 2nd, 2005 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Baseball season is finished now and basketball begins this week, but neither of those is a local story in Cincinnati. So let's stick for the moment with the Bengals, who bookend an emphatic phase of football history.

That history began on Sept. 20, 1992, when the Bengals ventured to Green Bay, Wisc., the land that big-time sports forgot, hoping for a genetic miracle from the son of Don Shula. At 0-2, the Green Bay Packers were the same operation that tacked up three full-length winning seasons in the previous 25 years. David Shula's warm honeymoon as the Bengals head coach began with two wins in the season following the death of Paul Brown, so he looked almost certain by end of day to match the Bengals' win total from that awful 3-13 campaign of 1991 and return the Bengals to winning ways.

Once the game began, the flailing Packers lost quarterback Don Majkowski to injury and turned to a head case named Brett Favre, whom the Atlanta Falcons cheerfully traded away after a night of carousing caused him to miss the team photo. Few events in sports have simultaneously reversed the long-term fortunes for two franchises.

Favre rallied the Packers to a 24-23 victory, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining. Neither the Packers nor the Bengals would ever be the same.

The Bengals lost their next four games, then suffered another five-game losing streak after winning a couple. They ended with their second straight losing season and still haven't managed a winning season or a playoff berth since.

Favre started the next week for the Packers, beginning a streak that has reached 232 games, playoffs included. In 1995, he won his first of three straight MVP Awards, becoming the only NFL player to win it three times. He took the Packers to the Super Bowl as the 1996 and 1997 seasons ended.

Now a staple of football Americana as the quarterback with a linebacker's mentality, Favre is the personal deity of Chris Berman and John Madden whose every misfortune is lamented as a crime against decency.

We fastforward now to last weekend's meeting between the Bengals and Packers at Paul Brown Stadium, which ended with Favre fallen to his back in exhaustion after a botched, desperate try for a game-saving touchdown. The Bengals won 21-14 on an afternoon during which we witnessed the changing of history -- the Bengals, once set to the path of ignonimy by the moment that launched Favre, now blown toward the playoffs with the misshapen play of an aging Favre as the wind at their backs.

Passing for 290 passing yards, Favre topped John Elway for second place on the NFL's all-time passing yardage list, but he couldn't make his 35th fourth-quarter comeback against the team he foiled with his first. A 36-year-old gunslinger no longer wields the 23-year-old gunslinger's arm that once allowed him to zap his throws through coverage.

Once Favre's ill-advised throws became touchdowns. Sunday, they became interceptions, five of them, a personal record.

Favre has always guided the Packers more by guts than by cunning. Experience hasn't vested him with the wisdom to win a winnable game without weapons, even though it was there for him against the Bengals.

Favre could have won the game the same way lots of teams can beat the Bengals -- by running the ball. But that's not Favre, and that's not the Packers since he became their quarterback.

Trailing 14-7 early in the third quarter, the Packers tore right for runs of 12 and nine yards to the Bengals 25, but Favre couldn't resist checking his arm, so he under-threw a pick to the Bengals' Deltha O'Neal at the 2. Next possession, the Packers hit the left side of the Bengals defense for two runs of eight yards before O'Neal picked Favre again at the Cincinnati 37. Next possession, Favre threw on the first snap, intercepted by Tory James.

Right out of halftime, the Packers ran four times at the Bengals' left front for 29 yards, then ran right only one more time for the rest of the game.

The gunslinger took his boys 88 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, bringing the Packers within 21-14, then fell short at the end, even after the officials gifted Green Bay with 48 yards on a terrible pass interference call against Bengals cornerback Ifeanyi Ohalete.

The 6-2 Bengals walked off with a win they might have lost. Favre walked off with his 1-6 teammates, an all-time great winding down his career in defeat. The end is always sad, but new beginnings are exciting.

On Sept. 20, 1992, we saw a sad end and an exciting beginning at the same moment. On Oct. 30, 2005, we saw the same moment in reverse.

* * * * *

Put it on the board? ... Yes! Good guys win! Too bad the Hawk wasn't there to say it.

Baseball fans often chafe at Ken Harrelson's announcing, but he lent humor and camp to the Chicago White Sox telecasts, which otherwise featured dull ballclubs struggling for identity. Once the White Sox went to the playoffs this year, the Fox Network took over with its reliable cast, which narrated a terrific 11-1 run, ending with the first World Championship in 88 years for the South Siders.

In addition to conveying the milestone for Chicago, always a great and faithful baseball town through nearly a century of failure, the World Series also showed itself for the first time in Texas, where the sports pages showed their respect by playing it ahead of football. But the Houston Astros didn't deliver much for their fans to cheer, losing in four straight games.

The Astros will accentuate the positive, as is their due after rebounding from a 15-30 start. They stuck to their guns and went a long way.

But one's tempted to say the Astros either were happy to be there or they just forgot how to hit. Then again, the temptation to say they forgot how to hit subsides on remembering they were never an especially good hitting club.

In their last 19 innings of at-bats, the Astros delivered only one hit in 20 attempts with runners in scoring position. Astros manager Phil Garner repeatedly said he was "ticked off" and "embarrassed." He shouldn't be. That's the Astros against good pitching, especially good left-handed pitching.

The Astros batted .249 against lefthanders this year, worst in the National League, and their OPS reached only .713, second worst. It's no coincidence that the two pitchers who put the Astros away in the last two innings of their 14-inning, 7-5 loss in Game 3, when they still had a chance, were lefthanders Damaso Marte and Mark Buehrle.

With Lance Berkman in left field, the Astros are one of the NL's two or three worst offensive teams at first base, shortstop, center field and catcher. They still made it to the Fall Classic, taking down the two best NL clubs, St. Louis and Atlanta. That says a lot about good pitchers, namely Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt.

But the White Sox said even more about good pitching all the way through their starting rotation and bullpen. The White Sox bragged about themselves as a team without stars, which gives too little due to starting pitchers Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland and Freddie Garcia. Every one of them did 200 innings or more and kept runners off the bases all year.

Paul Konerko, who played briefly with the Reds in 1998, hit 40 homers, a meaningful stat in this almost-post-steroids era. And Jermaine Dye's persistent, tenacious at-bats showed the world how a good hitter should behave. On a team allegedly without stars, Dye won the World Series MVP Award, quite justly.

* * * * *

Ordinarily, good teams add good players and people begin wondering about chemistry. But you don't hear a lot of that about the San Antonio Spurs, who've added Nick Van Exel, Michael Finley and Fabricio Oberto to last year's NBA championship team.

The Spurs have won 70 percent of their games in the last five years, the best such track record in pro sports, and now own two of the last three championships. Today they're even better, if the new fellows follow the roles to which they've agreed. Few doubt that will be the case, for the Spurs, along with the New England Patriots, have established one of the most envied cultures in sports.

In just more than two years since winning the 2003 championship, the Spurs have turned over all but four key players -- the great frontliner Tim Duncan, spectacular swingman Manu Ginobili, still-young point guard Tony Parker and defensive stopper Bruce Bowen. As always, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will make the other pieces fit.

So everyone's looking to the Spurs as the NBA season opens this week, in part because the other contenders come to the year with more questions and more foreboding questions. In the West, it remains to be seen if Kobe Bryant is ready to cooperate with Phil Jackson and truly become the next Jordan. In the East, Miami did a substantial makeover while Detroit is trying a new coach, Flip Saunders, in place of Larry Brown, who took over in New York.

Saunders is a nice coach, but he never went very deep into the playoffs with Minnesota, not even with Kevin Garnett. Brown's outcome with Stephon Marbury is the new drama in New York. If Marbury becomes Brown's kind of point guard, the Knicks might be a sleeper, though a lot else would have to go right. No one is predicting it.

The only prediction made with much confidence in the NBA is that the Spurs will repeat for their third title in four years. And even if you're already bored with the outcome, the Spurs will be a delight to watch.



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