A Homecoming Gone Wrong

The wall in pro football can be more formidable than any other in sports. Just ask Rex Ryan, the Kansas City Chiefs, or referee Jeff Triplette. Nor do they affect only coaches, players, and officials. NFL fans have a wall of their own, too.

I usually hit mine the week after Thanksgiving when Christmas shopping usurps my weekends and the college regular season ends. The NFL used to spread into Saturdays, and even though they stopped doing that in 2006, there is still an oversaturation of December football. Half the teams are mailing it in and we're forced to watch real contenders beat up on them before they finally get to play one another in January.

This year, however, my wall has come a week earlier than normal.

From Thanksgiving Day when the Packers got rolled for 37 straight points before the turkey was even carved, to last night's supposed NFC Championship preview that was over before the first quarter, Week 13 was the anti-climactic bookends to a college rivalry week for the ages. All the compelling games were played on Friday and Saturday, and they whipped fans into a January fever pitch that many of us were loath to abandon on Sunday.

That's not to say the NFL was without its moments of majesty. There was Peyton Manning throwing for five touchdown passes, and Justin Tuck sacking Robert Griffin four times. Josh Gordon became the first player in NFL history to log consecutive 200-yard receiving games. We even had a fair share of flying helmets and wandering coaches and phantom first downs that would normally spark enough controversy to make us forget the college games of the day before. Not in Week 13.

Maybe it's the tryptophan talking, but Jacksonville at Cleveland just couldn't inspire the same passion in me as did Ohio State at Michigan, and the two NFL games ending with field goals did not come close to matching the one Auburn/Alabama game that ended after a missed attempt.

We've entered the eye of the NFL storm that inevitably forms once the postseason pecking order has taken shape. The problem is, it came early this year. Contenders have already seized most playoff spots, and there remains only an assortment of 5-7 franchises scattered about looking for the last wild card slot or lower: the NFC East division title.

Calm set in too quickly, and we needed a little of that college spirit to shake things up. To be ahead of the entertainment curve this December, NFL franchises will have to think outside the box. And that just may be what the Houston Texans front office and those wonderful folks down at Reliant Stadium are doing.

The Texans' marketing department has gone big to create that smalltime collegiate football vibe that is filling the otherwise cavernous Reliant Stadium during most home games. For that real Division 1-AA ambiance, this place has it all: $10 parking, tee shirt canons, and third down reminders from the public address announcer intended to ignite a “de-fense” chant from the crowd. Watching Sunday's game, I half-expected to hear license plate numbers of illegally-parked cars announced over the loudspeakers as the CBS audience waited for Dan Deirdorf to think up more witticisms.

Texas is the one place where you'd think football could survive on its own merits, but apparently Houstonites need to be lured in with game themes and live halftime shows. Back in July, that same PR machine that rolled out letterman jackets for Texan players last year just before they were drubbed in New England decided on a Homecoming theme for Sunday's Patriots rematch.

In hindsight, Houston's forward-thinking attempt to go toe-to-toe with college football on their own turf has made Tones-tradamuses of the entire Texans front office, given the unparalleled drama surrounding this year's NCAAF rivalry week. Then again, I can't think of a better way to motivate the strongest opponent on your schedule, not to mention the team that handed you your two most painful losses the year before, than to designate them as your sacrificial victims.

But who knows? Save for the covert surveillance efforts Bill Belichick orchestrated from 2,000 miles away that broke the code of Wade Phillips' double-secret defensive scheme, it might have worked. In the end, the Texans let a ten-point halftime lead slip into a heartbreaking defeat by a 53-yard field goal margin, leaving mums wilting and Homecoming queens reeling over what almost was.

We all know the NFL is a copycat league, and everyone could use a shot of collegiate enthusiasm right about now. If the Texans don't figure out how to put that top-ranked defense to work in holding opponents under 34 points when it counts, and maybe get Vanilla Ice back in the house for these big games, they're going to find themselves the Homecoming date on eight teams' schedules come next year.

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