Whoops! I really meant Steelers and Seahawks

Jan 24, 2006 3:19 AM

Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Commission, sent me a letter last week telling how his 5-year-old son, Riley, watches horse races on television.

Riley picks a number, say number 6, and roots for tahat horse all around the track until the stretch. Then, if number 4 is in front, Riley says, "Oh, I meant number 4."

I thought of Riley last Sunday as my picks for the NFC and AFC championship games went up in smoke and flames. Is it okay with you if I now say, "Oh, I meant the Steelers and Seahawks?"

I was abysmally wrong about the Broncos and Panthers, who not only embarrassed me but themselves and their loyal followers with their dismal ineptitude.

They were outcoached, outplayed and outclassed, and the two Jakes were jokes.

Credit obviously must be paid to the well-planned and beautifully executed iron defenses of the Steelers and Seahawks, but both Delhomme and Plummer were pitiful and pathetic. Frustrated, futile, frazzled and flattened, their passing was hurried and inaccurate, and their frantic scrambling became almost comic to watch.

As for Carolina’s much ballyhooed Steve Smith, fuming and fighting with coaches on the sidelines and totally frustrated by Seahawk defenders, that story was told eloquently in the third quarter of the mismatch when a Seattle fan held up a large sign reading "Smithless in Seattle." It sure was.

We were humiliatingly wrong about the outcome, but we were dead right about our take on playoff games and Super Bowl hype. These playoffs frequently make for lousy football, and the eerily similar results Sunday, both starting at 10-0 and winding up with almost identical results, 34-17 and 34-14, illustrated that clearly.

Ben Roethlisberger reminds me of a good stakes horse that has matured into peak form, and Matt Hasselbeck has rounded into the quarterback that Mike Holmgren hoped he would. Both were given solid protection Sunday, and both performed up to advance notices. As for the enigmatic Plummer, his play was as scraggly as his appearance, and Denver fans had to be pining for John Elway during their long and punishing afternoon.

So it is on to Detroit, and I might as well make a total fool of myself. Pittsburgh will win, and I’ll be happy for the Rooney family. If patriarch Art is watching from on high, the only place that sainted man could be, he’ll have a big smile on that great Irish mug.

Besides, now that I know Riley Shapiro’s trick, I always can fall back and say, "Oh, I meant the Seahawks."

Elsewhere, the decline of the Williams sisters continues in world tennis, as Martina Hinges’ star ascends once more. It is tempting to think that success has spoiled the sisters, with their celebrity modeling and magazine appearances and social successes keeping them in that spotlight, while their tennis game fades into tournament mediocrity. What a waste of remarkable talent, but they obviously have concluded — and who can argue? — that there is much more to life than serve and volley.

In college basketball, it was heartwarming to see the son, John Thompson III, emulate his celebrated coaching father, as young Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas upset first-ranked Duke, with the elder Thompson at his side to share the victory.

And for those of you keeping track of the whereabouts and welfare of Vegas and Virgin Islands’ promoter Shawn Scott, here’s the latest evidence that no benefits will be held for him in the near or distant future. After his $110 million score selling Delta Downs to Boyd Gaming, he picked up another reported $40 million in little Bangor, Maine, population around 24,000, when he sold the tiny track and racino rights to Penn National Gaming. Now a federal bankruptcy judge is about to award Scott’s abandoned license at shuttered Vernon Downs to a buyer — probably harness racing breeder and New York City real estate mogul Jeff Gural — and when all is done Scott will add another $25 million or so to his kick. His mother, meanwhile, continues her political battle to get slots in Alaska. She has been rebuffed three times, but don’t bet against her. You may not know where Shawn is at the moment, but you now know where he got his smarts.