An Ugly Victory in America's Worst City

MORE FEAR AND LOATHING: Jaguar meat tastes like chicken … The Wages of Sin in American Sodom … Is Charley Charger a mudder? ... War drums pound heavy along the Potomac.

"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-stained tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity …
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?"

- Yeat's "The Second Coming"

WADHAMS, Mich. – Tom Coughlin doesn't seem like the poetry type. I've no idea if he's ever read Yeats, but I've no doubt he would accuse the center of not only holding, but of chop blocking, too.

Coughlin and his glass-jawed Jaguars are still whining about Cleveland's aggressive behavior before, during and after last week's game at Alltel Stadium. This week's newspapers are filled with all sorts of bad noise that is a mixture of carping and surprise that Cleveland was so nasty. After all, the Browns rolled over quietly in last year's 48-0 debacle. Why couldn't they play nice this time, too?

The Jaguars have always been a motley collection of bitchy punks, and their spirit is easily broken. Sunday was proof of that. Jacksonville will be lucky to win another game this season and Mark Brunell will be selling used cars by next season.

The Browns are still in a bad mood, something that doesn't bode well for the Chargers. San Diego will be far from home Sunday. No more California sunshine. No more flaccid opponents like Washington, Dallas and Cincinnati.

Despite Cleveland's gutty road victory and impressive performance against Detroit, the line for Sunday's game still favors San Diego.

This fact, of course, brings us to one of my favorite subjects: Las Vegas. That stinking, putrid, evil hellhole in the middle of the barren desert … corrupt and decadent as Sodom and Gomorrah and vain as the Rome of Nero and Caligula.

Las Vegas, the new, last and only frontier. A proper burial place for the outlandish notion of an American Dream. A city where perspiring, clench-fisted hopes come to die on green felt tables and within the metal bowls of slot machines. A land of satyrs and Dionysian lust and greed where angels quite rightly fear to tread.

The city erupts from the trackless Nevada desert, sending suburban sprawl like lava from a neon volcano called Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as The Strip. It's this degenerate Mecca that draws disreputable characters and pious grandmothers like moths to the bright beacon of avarice in the night sand.

Highway 15 plugs Vegas straight into Los Angeles, like a main circuit cable drawing Hollywood's plastic people into a consequence-less playground for those with the right look. The kind of people who leave thinking to their East Coast rumpled-shirt counterparts.

They like Hollywood types in Las Vegas. Easy prey. Not a whole lot goin' on upstairs. Tinsletown isn't known for its intellectual gentry. And as any Vegas bookmaker knows, the truly stupid are easily parted with their money. I know, I've seen it in the sports books at Caesar's Palace, the Excalibur and elsewhere. They bet with their hearts, not with their heads. And they love the Chargers.

Bookmaking is legal only in Las Vegas, and the town's oddsmakers have installed San Diego as a 3-point favorite to beat Cleveland on Sunday. On the surface, this seems like a safe bet. After all, San Diego has amassed gratuitous yardage and touchdowns en route to a 3-0 start. The Chargers are the darlings of the NFL right now.

A closer look, however, reveals a different story. Victories over the Redskins, Cowboys and Bengals are not the stuff upon which Super Bowl seasons are made. The Redskins and Cowboys will be lucky to win a trio of games between them, and Cincinnati is still a not-ready-for-prime-time-player.

Even so, the Bolts come marching into Cleveland like a conquering army.

Make no mistake, San Diego has weapons. Quarterback Doug Flutie is a playmaker, rookie LaDanian Tomlinson can run the ball and tight end Freddie Jones is a big, tough target over the middle. The Bolts are averaging 30 points a game.

The victory over Cincinnati is deceiving, however. The Bengals' defense isn't bad, but its offense left it untenable positions because of turnovers (sound familiar, Browns fans?). San Diego's defense is very good, but it has no depth. And now, the cracks are beginning to show in this paper tiger's façade.

The key may be Jamal Williams, who along with tackle John Parrella made a formidable run-stopping duo. Williams, a 6-foot-3, 305-lbs defensive tackle, was lost for the season with an ACL injury against Cincinnati. His loss will hurt a defense that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown this season.

The Browns are averaging 108 yards each Sunday on the ground compared to 67.8 in 2000. If Jeremy McKinney can effectively replace the injured Tre Johnson at guard, there's no reason to think the ground game won't be able to blast holes through San Diego. Besides, Johnson wasn't a pulling guard because he lacked mobility. Cleveland pulls its tackles and off-guard on traps and sweeps. All McKinney has to do is beat the hell of the guy in front of him.

Overall, the Chargers have only four sacks, but that statistic is misleading because opposing quarterbacks are averaging only a 45 rating against San Diego. Tim Couch has a 72.2 rating through three games.

Browns castoff Ryan McNeil leads the AFC with five interceptions. The team has eight picks overall, but they come against John Kitna, Jeff George and Anthony Wright – not exactly a roster of future Hall of Famers.

Couch will be the first franchise quarterback to take on the Bolts. He's tossed several Brian Sipe-like interceptions this season, a trend that could doom the Browns against an opportunistic San Diego defense. Butch Davis knows this, so expect lots of James Jackson and Jamel White.

The formula to bear the Chargers is deceptively simple: score early. San Diego has outscored opponents 24-0 this season in the first quarter, which is a morale booster for SD. They've yet to face a situation in which the offense must overcome an opponent. The second halves of their games start much the same, with San Diego holding a 20-3 lead in third-quarter scoring.

Flutie is completing 60 percent of his passes and has generated more than 600 yards through the air. His favorite target is wide receiver Curtis Conway, who is averaging more than 14 yards on his 11 receptions. He's scored twice.

Tomlinson is running wild, but he's not faced a defense like Cleveland's, nor has he had to contend with a crowd that can influence a game. There's not many cheers these days in Dallas and Washington.

October hasn't been a kind month to either team since 1999. In that time, San Diego has gone 3-6 while Cleveland is a putrid 1-9. Ouch. That's a telling statistic.

THE YANKS ARE COMING: My joy last Sunday was tempered with anger and sadness. War drums are beating along the Potomac, and the sound is irresistible to those among us that hate the United States. The anti-war protesters were out in force, and it took some of the luster out of an otherwise fine weekend.

The peaceniks protest "indiscriminate bombing of the Afghan people" – which hasn't happened. Nor is it likely to. They caterwaul about turning the other cheek and seek peace at all costs. History buffs will recall that "peace at any price" often carries a heavy cost: war.

The protestors tell us that the attacks in New York City and on the Pentagon are the result of our foreign policies in the Middle East, especially our support for Israel. By that logic, if we withdraw our troops from the region, abandon our interests there and leave Tel Aviv to be pushed into the sea, we'll all be safe over here.

Of course, that's absurd and dangerous to think. Beasts like Osama bin Laden have little respect for a Westernized struggle like that in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. He's more interested in purifying Saudi Arabia. To him, Arafat is a Western tool of little use to his vision of Islam. Our limited influence in the Middle East only angers him slightly more than the fact we exist at all.

Israel certainly has recent warts, but that nation is still our closest ally in the Middle East and the only thing approaching a free society in the region. Dovies would have us hand it over to its enemies. Ring a bell? British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain once thought that giving Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 would appease him and give the world "peace in our time."

That peace lasted until Sept. 1, 1939. Nearly 100 million people would die before the United States won the war. Peaceniks would send us down that road again in a region that now has nuclear bombs and no love for democracy.

Teddy Roosevelt, a man with very distinct opinions on foreign policy, once described pacifists this way: "A traitor to his country and humanity." He also called the peace movement, "The unlovely, senile side of civilization."

Pacifism brought the world to the edge of total destruction. Let us learn the lessons of the past, and use war judiciously to give us safer peace.

The time for speaking softly is past. Bin Laden and the creatures around him are about to feel what Teddy once referred to as "a big stick."

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