Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone, which can only mean one thing: those holidays intended for amateurs have given way to a festive season of incomparable magnitude — the NFL Playoffs. Each year, football’s second season eclipses the overrated winter holidays in raucous celebration of watching freakishly large speedy men in tight pants battle for the right to play on our nation’s most hallowed holiday, Super Bowl Sunday.
To the neophyte, it may seem odd that millions of crazed pigskin fanatics shun the traditions of days past, such as caroling, egg nog, and donning gay apparel in favor of masking beer bellies under oversized jerseys of their favorite player(s) (who are often years, if not decades, their junior), washing down fatty hydrogenated snacks with several gallons of watered-down light beer, and yelling obscenities at a flat inanimate object in their living rooms at the top of their lungs. In addition to sharing indifference and even disdain toward yuletide cheer, this growing legion of initiates has something else in common — an unbridled desire to cheer, eat, drink, and dream their team on to the Promised Land on the first Sunday of February.
For many, the NFL post-season has replaced the idea of embracing the American Dream which, having decades worth of soggy dust blown away in a swirling din over the past ten years, has been revealed as nothing but an eroded myth with no happy ending. For some, it is the sole beacon of enlightenment in an otherwise bleak, empty sea of foreclosure, divorce, and a vanload of a half-dozen crying children who are crushed by the banishment of McDonalds Happy Meals. But make no mistake — there is no better escape from the drudgery of the bitter cold winter than vicariously living through our agile muscular heroes of the gridiron. NFL Playoff football is indeed the drug of choice for nearly all American sports junkies.
But why is this so? Allow me to explain…
Unlike its other professional sports league counterparts, the NFL boasts a system with unparalleled parity and provides the viewer with a level of suspense unmatched by that of the NBA or Major League Baseball — sports where you can accurately predict the champions and contenders before the season even begins. In addition, the NFL Playoffs blow the college football bowl season completely out of the water because it has the ability to produce an undisputed champion — a concept rejected by the conspiracy between wealthy swine at ESPN and the faceless BCS committee who get rich by selling a product that is the very antithesis of sport: an illegitimate winner determined by polls and computers. Wisely, the NFL leaves that load of tripe to the so-called scholars in the NCAA and the U.S. political arena, offering John and Jane Q. Footballfan a month-long roller coaster crescendo which will satisfy millions of followers, regardless of who is crowned Super Bowl king.
This year promises to be more of the same. While many people are lining up to coronate the New England Patriots as this year’s champ, don’t put your chips on Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the cast of 50-plus hardworking no-names revered by Massholes and New Englanders alike just yet. Furthermore, some of the best action is sure to happen on Wildcard Weekend while Mr. Congeniality is cuddled up on his couch in his trademark Snuggie and ol’ Golden Boy is having his shoulder-length locks caressed by the smooth stroke of wife Gisele’s meticulous hair brushing.
We’ll save our best cheap shots at the Patriots for next week in favor of taking a look at the promising lineup featured this Wildcard Weekend.
Jets vs. Colts
Story lines abound in this matchup, already dubbed as a personal battle between Jets head coach Rex Ryan and the entire Indianapolis squad. Ryan, who confessed he hasn’t let go of being ousted in the AFC Championship game last year at the hands of a spectacular performance by Peyton Manning, resembles the boorish brute in all of us who seeks revenge against the squeaky clean choir boy and son of privilege in Manning (a choir boy weenie who is also very good at quarterbacking — Rod Flanders with a pinpoint laser for an arm, if you will).
But seeing how Rex Ryan is inherently relegated to waddling up and down the New York sideline, he has no choice but to entrust his sophomore-seasoned passer, Mark Sanchez, to exact vengeance on the elder Flanders, er Manning. This is where the game will be won or lost. The solid defense of the New York Jets should keep Manning and his band of fill-in offensive replacements in check; whether Sanchez and the Jets offense can muster enough points to eclipse the Colts’ output remains to be seen. I think the Jets are a year or two away from being serious contenders and am picking Indianapolis to hold court on their home field. Still, I hold out hope that Rex Ryan provides some fireworks as a last ditch effort for payback, perhaps channeling his father’s fury when he threw a haymaker at fellow Oiler coach Kevin Gilbride (pay attention to clip at 0:34). Hopefully Rex, in said scenario, will have the wherewithal to direct the blow toward somebody on the other team.
Final score: Jets 13 – Colts 24
Ravens vs. Chiefs
The Baltimore Ravens are the most boring team in the playoffs. Every year. With a perpetually average offense anchored by one of the league’s top defensive units, the Ravens bank on shutting down the opposing team so Joe Flacco can “manage” the game by not screwing up too much and handing the ball off to Ray Rice at a steady rate. The formula has netted Baltimore an impressive 12-4 record in the regular season and forces teams to make big plays to beat them. This is where I believe the Kansas City Chiefs actually have an edge on the Ravens.
Quarterback Matt Cassel and receiver Dwayne Bowe provide the Chiefs’ offense with a deep-ball threat tempered by the dual-headed Kansas City running game of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones — one of the best in the league that demands respect by defenses to commit to stopping the run. While KC is the clear underdog, I think they have the ability to deliver a few surprise blows — a la Buddy Ryan — to take down the team with arguably the ugliest uniforms in the league, the Baltimore Ravens. If for anything else, my prediction is also based on the Golden Rule of Spectator Sports: when watching games as a neutral observer, always cheer for the underdog.
Final score: Ravens 17 – Chiefs – 38
Packers vs. Eagles
If there is a Wild Card Weekend game that promises to be a shootout, Green Bay and Philadelphia would be my odds-on bet to be most enjoyable to watch from an offensive standpoint. Philly’s D has had more holes than a Hollywood plot line and Green Bay has been hit-and-miss all year. The real story here — in line with perhaps the story of the year — is the resurgence of Michael Vick.
Fresh off a Pro-Bowl and potential MVP season, not to mention a call for his execution by Fox “News” blowhard Tucker Carlson, Vick may easily be the most exciting player to watch this playoff holiday season. For this reason, the Eagles are the trendy pick to emerge from the pack to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Not so fast, I say. While I think the Eagles should be able to dismantle the Cheese Heads this weekend, I think the porous O-line of Philly will cost the Eagles down the road (like next week).
Aaron Rodgers has proven to be tough-as-nails and a competitor of the highest order, but the lack of a competent running game will cost the Pack any shot at doing damage in this year’s tournament of champions. Next year might be a different story, but for now, I’m buying what Vick is selling.
Final score: Packers 37 – Eagles 41
Saints vs. Seahawks
New Orleans’ chances of repeating as Super Bowl champs have taken a serious hit in the wake of placing both running backs, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, on the injured reserved list this week. Left in their absence is Reggie Bush, who is better as a flex back catching screen passes and dating reality TV stars rather than exploding through holes in the defensive line, and former Dallas Cowboys rusher Julius Jones, who coughed up the ball in a critical red zone situation during last week’s home loss to Tampa Bay.
Without a balanced attack, the Saints still boast a potent offense with Drew Brees at the helm — at least potent enough to knock off the lowly Seahawks, who enter the playoffs with a losing 7-9 record (the first team to ever win their division with a losing record). But without a serious threat to run the ball, these Saints remind me more of the inconsistent squads of 2007-2008 who were forced to throw the ball too much, resulting in too many turnovers to overcome.
Still, with a wide open field among NFC contenders, I see the Saints in a showdown with Atlanta in the Georgia Dome. And as a born-again Saints fan, I am pulling hard for the Black and Gold to go all the way. Who says miracles can’t happen twice?
Final score: Saints 27 – Seahawks 13
In summary, the Playoffs are here and it’s time to hit the road, Santa Claus. Time to box up and burn O Tannenbaum, sweep up the confetti leftover from New Year’s Eve and wash away the horrific memories of Dick Clark’s zombie countenance presiding over performances by the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block. It’s time to deck the halls with NFL Playoff football and time to don our jerseys, pajamas or boxer shorts. Put the drinks on ice, light up the grill and stoke the flames in preparation for a sizzling succulence that only NFL football and red meat can so adequately provide.