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The Zak Zone

January 12, 2012

In the blink of an eye last Sunday, the Steelers' season and my hopes of a seventh Lombardi trophy traveling to Pittsburgh came crashing down when Steeler Nation was "Tebowed" on a quick pass that ended the first-ever overtime game in NFL playoff history that wasn't sudden death in sudden death fashion.

Steelers fans across the nation Monday probably complained of the need for a further-revamped overtime system, while Broncos fans probably pledged their full allegiance to the new system — a sign that the way you look at a situation really does depend on whose side you call your own.

The end of football season as a fan for me typically means it's time to focus on hockey, as the Penguins are usually finding their stride right about this time of year.

This year, though, the injury bug has struck the Pens in a way we fans would have never thought possible.
Sidney Crosby is out again with concussion-like symptoms; Jordan Staal recently suffered a severe knee injury; Kris Letang is still out with concussion symptoms; the injury report is almost as long as the active roster. The list goes on and on ... and on.

And yet, even with a depleted lineup, every time my Pittsburgh Penguins take the ice, I expect them to win.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not the overly optimistic fan who expects his team to go undefeated every year, but I certainly feel on any given day, my team should beat whatever team it is playing. It's the beauty of being a sports fanatic.

Entering Sunday's game at Denver, I was fully confident that the Steelers were capable of defeating the Broncos. Apparently, so was every other sports fan in the country.

But I also knew that in professional football, it truly is an "any given Sunday" kind of league.

Last season, the Seahawks snuck into the playoffs with a lowly 7-9 record and then defeated the defending-champion New Orleans Saints in a game most everyone thought would be a blowout in the Saints' favor.

Now that every possible sporting event from the college level up is televised these days, we're no strangers to upsets.

March Madness and the college football season are two prime examples of upsets running rampant.

In the NCAA basketball tournament, each team has a seeding from one to 16, so even the least-knowledgable sports follower can tell when an upset is looming.

If the team which is a 12-seed is beating a team with a little five beside their name, everyone knows an upset is on the horizon.

And the majority of the nation is pulling for all four of those 12 seeds in each tournament — mostly because their bracket is reliant upon the typical 12-5 upset.

In college football, the excitement that comes with each week, aside from following one's favorite team, is checking the schedule for potential upsets that might ruin a team's shot at a national championship.

NCAA officials are looking at changing around the BCS championship format and potentially giving the fans what they've been asking for for so long: A playoff.

Even if it's just four teams, a playoff allows for flaws in the system and doubles the chances that the nation's best team will fall into the top four in the BCS rankings.

Of course, there will always be those who say, "What about the fifth-best team? They could be the best, too."

But short of an elaborate 64-team, six-week playoff, those naysayers may never be happy. The four-team playoff format would be a welcome change.

And while it allows for a potential hiccup in a title-contending team's season, it still holds the team accountable, as a big loss will affect its standings enough to put them on the bubble for the top four.

The four-team playoff would find a balance between giving teams space to be imperfect and keeping the games meaningful.

I will not say that I am glad the Broncos, who were definitive underdogs entering Sunday's game against the Steelers, defeated the Steelers.

But I will say I'm glad upsets still happen in sports.

Upsets keep things interesting. Once in a while, the team that's not supposed to have anything for the big dog ruffles its feathers a bit and finds a way to pull out the win.

I have friends who are Cleveland Browns fans — nearly blasphemous, I know — and although their team has gone into a majority of its games over the past many years an underdog, they still expect and hope for a win every single week.

They may say, "Well, Pittsburgh might just be too tough for us to beat this week." But when they sit down to watch opening kickoff, I know every one of them just has a feeling today will be their day.

That's what makes watching so fun.

It even happens on the local level. If I had a dime for every time I've heard, "Surely Punxsy won't be able to beat those guys. They're too good," or vice versa, I'd be a rich man.

We all have gut feelings about games, but if we honestly felt that we knew which team would be the winner before the game, nobody would show up for the games. Whether Punxsy is the underdog entering a game, or the Chucks go in as the overwhelming favorite, there's still always a chance of an upset. It's why we watch.

As far as the NFL playoffs go this year, as much as I like Tebow, I just can't pull for the team that knocked us out of the playoffs. I also can't pull for the Patriots. So that game this weekend will be painful for me either way.

Looking for another underdog story to follow amidst all the Tebow hype? Check out the Houston Texans, who lost not only their starting quarterback, but also their backup this season and yet still finished 10-4. What are the odds of third-string, rookie quarterback T.J. Yates beating the Ravens this week?

Well, Vegas has them as a nine-point underdog. But stranger things have happened, right?

Oh, and injury-ridden or not, I still expect the Pens to contend for a Stanley Cup this season. Call me crazy ... Or, you could just call me a fan.

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