The NFL post-season brings the most wonderful time of the year: the Football Party Season. Thanksgiving is merely a prelude to this season, a so joyous of a time. After the ritual stuffing oneself with a stuffed bird, the family gathers 'round the flatscreen to watch the ritual of some team stuffing the Detroit Lions. This is fun and all, but a pre-season for football parties at best. Winter hasn't begun yet; we aren't all cranky and ready to fight at the flip of the ref's coin; no one's going to throw their sand 'n snow-encrusted boot across the room at the jerk rooting for the wrong team...well, maybe in some families. This attitude thrives during the Football Party Season. The playoffs are life or death. And life or death are what gets served up during this time of year.
In the Football Party Season, even the non-sports fans get involved. Wives, kids, random friends will tag along and suddenly get into the games. Maybe it is the lure of the Parties; maybe it is the unbridled excitement of life or death competition that thrives in the Roman Gladiator-American Sports Culture we are a part of. Perhaps the Football Party Season is its own unstoppable force, like other seasons of the year that people inevitably celebrate subconsciously (springtime, holidays, summer BBQ, etc.), whether we like it or not. It is part of our lifestyle as Americans.
Here we have men, women, children, grandparents, everyone in the family and on the block, poppin' snacks, snappin' pops, chugging beers, and consuming large amounts of any sort of animal that has been grilled on the back porch by a gracious host, whose team better damn win or you're all his first victim, as his mooching, liquored guests.
The major differences between the Football Party Season and any other time of year for football-watching gatherings are few, but important. First, no one tends to chat freely about non-related topics. It is THE GAME or nothing. This is mostly because everyone in the room is screaming at the TV and you have no chance to get sidetracked. Everyone in the room is enthralled by the finer details of the game and its outcome (even the non-sports fans), compared to a regular-season game. As I said before, there is something primal and alluring about life or death scenarios. Every drive matters. Anything can happen, and it will be more dramatic than ever before. If your team's QB sneezed on the sideline, you'll get a little edgy until he's out on the field again. Perhaps there is a post-season record for it -- most sneezes by an NFL QB in a post-season game. What is considered exceptional play in the regular season becomes elite record-smashing madness in the NFL playoffs. Everything is on the line, Gladiator-style, and there isn't much time left. This brings us to the third difference.
The Football Party Season is smack-dab in the middle of winter. Once the holidays end, there is nothing left to do except watch football and wait for the feeling to come back into your fingers and toes. The Football Party is our last effort at camaraderie and good times before holing up for a few months more. It is the end of the sports year for many. It is the grand celebration of trash-talking, beercan-crunching, geographically-located pride-mongering, and chest-pounding mayhem that we so clearly enjoy as football fans. Hockey may be football's little brother, and baseball is a sport where the fans can chat about the wife and kids between pitches, but football is war. It is during the Football Party Season that we can righteously celebrate our built-in human instinct to kill and maim in the spirit of competition and revel in the enjoyment of seeing our opponents literally shatter in shame and sadness upon defeat. It's a wonderful thing.
Football Party Season does not begin in the Wildcard Round. No, no...half of the teams that make that round probably only made the playoffs because a better team lost the last game of the regular season, therefore balancing out their records. Take for example this year's Minnesota Vikings. It came down to technical details for them. If the Bears won, the Vikings wouldn't have made it. Chicago was probably a more formidable opponent to challenge Green Bay and instead of a 24-10 rout against a team starting their backup QB, it may have been a slightly lesser loss, or even an upset at Lambeau Field. Perhaps Green Bay would have played tougher and built some strong momentum going into San Francisco. But this is all butterfly-effect nonsense. The Vikings were statistically better than the Bears and that is that. A win is a win in the NFL. My point remains, however, that the Wildcard Round is not as exciting as the rest of the playoffs.
The Football Party Season begins with the Divisional Round. This is when the teams who prove during the Wildcard Round that they deserve a crack at the elite teams who earned Bye Weeks get that crack. This is when the games matter. One can almost always predict who will win the Wildcard Round games. The Divisional Round instantly becomes more competetive, no matter who wins the prior Wildcard game. The Wildcard winner is instantly tougher than they were a week before. A fine example of this would be in the Divisional Round matchup between the Wildcard winner Seattle and the Bye-Week winner, Atlanta. At one point, the Falcons were dominating the Seahawks, but then the Seahawks caught up and took the lead by one point, only to give up a field goal and the lead by two points with thirty seconds left in the game. The Seahawks made it to within fifteen yards of a fifty-yard field goal attempt that would have won the game in a miraculous fashion. This is what the Football Party Season is all about.
The Football Party Season continues into the next weekend, the Conference Championship Round. Even the most loyal fan of a team in this round paces nervously for the week leading up to the game. This is because he knows all of his trash-talking, beercan-crunching, and chest-pounding can't help him now -- yet it could mean everything. Either team can win. However, the losing team of this game will be splayed upon the cold turf crying; the winners will be wearing special hats and shirts with their names and the words "Conference Champions" on them...they're going to the Super Bowl. The losing team will not get their hats and shirts; those are incincerated, or at least shipped out to some third world country to be worn by people in need. Only there is that team a winner.
And, of course, with the Super Bowl comes the biggest holiday of the year in the United States of America. Nowhere else in the world will more chips be eaten, more alcohol consumed, more seats be edged on any day of the year than Super Bowl Sunday. It will start early, and it will run late. It is the Blowout of Winter Celebration and from the Monday afterwards, no one will care about sports until April, or possibly even September. It is the Monday after the Super Bowl that Football Party Season ends.
This Year's Playoff Theme: Redemption
The storylines of the regular season really shine during the playoffs. Often there is redemption involved. Every team has a chip on their shoulder. This season, three formerly bad teams with rookie QBs and fresh starts had something to prove: Indianapolis, a former powerhouse in the AFC finally turned it around with the performance of Andrew Luck. Washington finally returned to the playoffs with the magic of one called RGIII. Then there is Seattle, who had an amazing season stealing wins from teams that should have obliterated them. All three teams will get better in the future and any of them can be winning Super Bowls in the years to come.
We then have the class of teams led by young groups who have proved they can compete but still have their necks stepped on by the boots of their elite foes: the Bengals and the Vikings. Their storylines are still developing, but expect great things from these teams in the future. The Bengals have a tag-team of QB and WR that will blossom into a great relationship down the road, but are missing something to get past their veteran rivals Baltimore and Pittsburg and the re-born Indianpolis -- a tough as hell division. The Vikings, while suffering some bad luck this post-season with the injury to QB Christian Ponder, also witnessed the miracle season of RB Adrian Peterson, almost breaking the single-season rushing record. The Vikes have some steam to blow off next year, and it will be good for fans of good football.
The redemption theme continued into the Divisional Round. The Houston Texans are an excellent team who lost their #1 seed late in the year due to their starting QB Matt Shaub faltering when he was needed most, all of which began when he was spanked by the team he was about to face: the New England Patriots. Something to prove? Hell, yes. Unfortunately, the naysayers are correct in pointing out Matt Shaub's flaws. Will Houston be a formidable threat again next season? Of course they will, as always. JJ Watt and Adrian Foster and the rest of this team wants to kill everyone right now, I am sure. They will start strong next season as they always do and run deep into the year as a favorite. But for now, goodbye.
The Patriots are the reigning champions of the AFC. However, this entire season has been about redemption, as they lost their second Super Bowl to the stealthy New York Giants. It didn't matter who they played all this season; it has been all about the Super Bowl or nothing. Belichick and Brady are dead inside if there is no Super Bowl appearance. When the Patriots defeated the Texans in the Divisional Round, Tom Brady became the winningest QB in NFL playoff history, passing the great Joe Montana. When you are the paradigm, there is nothing less that can be settled for. Brady was asked about his legacy this week and his response was that he does not care -- there must be a Super Bowl victory. Something to prove? Oh my, my. Oh hell, yes.
Speaking of Super Bowl wins, the next best QB of this generation -- Peyton Manning -- only has one. He's lost another. He missed a whole year to play football due to an injury and finally returned to John Elway's Denver Broncos -- a fitting match, for he is the John Elway of this generation. He was given a chance for...ready for it?...redemption. He took the AFC West to task and Denver landed the #1 seed in the AFC. While the Broncos perhaps looked a little better on paper than they really were (the division they took to task wasn't very good), they had something to prove, oh yes.
Unfortunately, they were eked out by another team with a single Super Bowl winner: the Baltimore Ravens, emotionally charged by their franchise star and team leader Ray Lewis, who announced he was retiring at the end of this season, and dammit, the Ravens are going to win the Super Bowl. Even though Baltimore only claimed the #4 seed and had to crush, kill, and destroy their way through the Wildcard and Divisional Rounds, they really are laying it all on the line for this season. If there is a team who wants this Super Bowl as bad as the Patriots, it is the Ravens. That is why they will be playing each other in the AFC Championship game. The winner will deserve their Super Bowl bout. This will be a rematch of last season's AFC championship. Perhaps there is redemption in mind for the Ravens? Of course. Heck yes. This might be the most important game in a few years for the NFL.
In the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons definitely had something to prove. QB Matt Ryan has taken Atlanta to the playoffs three times before and hasn't won a game until this year. This year was the fourth time and his legacy was on the line. Their opponent was the wily, win-stealing Seahawks. Ryan finally got his first win (barely) and now has the chance to get a second, and a Super Bowl bout as his third, if the Falcons can eke out the 49ers. Hopefully for Matt Ryan and his Falcons, the pressure to win in the post-season is gone and the Falcons can be the elite team they seem to be during the regular season.
The team with the least exciting redemption story in this year's playoffs was Green Bay. They can still enter a golden era and string together some Super Bowl wins ala the Patriots, but it wasn't this year, due to a team that didn't show up for the playoffs. After a freebie against the Vikings, they were picked aparrt by the only team in the NFC that has shown up for the playoffs and is pacing like a lion in a cage to get the Super Bowl over with already. That team is the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers are the team to beat for passage to New Orleans in the NFC. They lost the NFC Championship game last season to the New York Giants, which no doubt stings. This season, backup QB Colin Kaefernick stole the starting role from Alex Smith and the 49ers ran away with their division. After a Bye Week, Kaefernick literally ran all over the Packers, rushing for the most yards by a QB in any post-season NFL game ever, then eventually breaking the all-time NFL record for rushing by a QB in any game ever. The 49ers are one of the most legendary sports franchises of all time, with a great winning culture that aches for a return to Super Bowl glory. With their hometown brethren the Giants having recently won baseball's World Series, the 49ers want badly to keep the champagne flowing in San Francisco.
This year's NFL playoffs is a lot more intense than years of recent, and this year's Super Bowl has the potential to be one of the greatest brawls in history. It is at the Football Parties that we will experience this great moment in sports history..
Oh my my, Oh hell yes, honey put on that party dress...
I've decided to relate some of my Football Party experiences from this year...
On Saturday, for the Divisional Round, I visited some family. I was the only Broncos fan in the room that night. As I defended the eskimo-dressed Peyton Manning in the ten-degree Denver weather (though seriously, did you see the little old granny in the front row? Peyton needs to man up next year) and his legacy against the much-hated Ravens, I was written off as a loon. Of course, everyone there was truly a Patriots fan and will be in the Ravens-Patriots game next week, but most Patriots fans loathe Peyton Manning. For this, I do not blame them. However, my logic was thus:
If Baltimore can beat Denver
in Denver, then Baltimore can (and they have) beat New England in New England.
Also, if Baltimore can put up a fight (and they did win)
in Denver, then New England can beat Denver (or at least put up a fight) in Denver.
A Denver win for New England would equal a Super Bowl bout. Plus Denver is overrated and Baltimore is underrated. Also New England beat Denver in the regular season and Baltimore beat New England.
Why are these people rooting for Baltimore?!
Oh yeah...Ray Lewis. Instead of watching Denver ruin this guy's last season, I got to watch everyone feel good inside as the storyline played out. Ray Lewis falls to the ground and cries; he gets an exclusive interview; everyone cheers. "Didn't he only have two tackles or something?" I asked aloud to no one. I think the player of this game was the kicker. He won this one. Remember when the kicker was the player of the game in last year's
AFC Championship game? Miss! Can't wait...can't wait...
Sorry, I like to trash talk.
The room lost interest in the 49ers-Packers match, since there was not as much emotional investment. I like both teams and wanted either to be the NFC champ: The Packers because I root for them every year and the 49ers because they are the best team in the NFC. In my dream Super Bowl, the Patriots and the 49ers clash like dinosaurs in a bar fight. Redemption would surely be in mind for the Patriots after that crazy match earlier this season, when the 49ers blew them apart, until the Patriots tied it up, and then lost in the last minutes. The 49ers would want to prove themselves by ensuring they are the better team in this historic matchup.
The following day I was invited to the epitome of the Football Party. Big TV, big grill, big beer cooler, lots of people and lots of swearing. We witnessed the amazing ending to the Seahawks-Falcons game (there was a devoted Seattle fan in the room and we all felt his pain), but the real show was yet to begin for us rowdy Pats fans.
Now, I am mostly the observer. I had my ration of drink and obscenity, but I mostly enjoyed the ruckus.
Before the game, CBS featured JJ Watt, Houston's militaristic, wrecking ball-like, linebacker. He wanted to tear Tom Brady's pom-pom hat off and stick it in places only pom-pom hats belong. This guy was doing push-ups on the side of the field, to the delight of the camera-operator. He got his takedown of Brady, followed by his final salute to whomever, a final hurrah -- have fun in Hawaii, buddy.
Every good Football Party must have three elements (four, if you count me: the historian):
1. The Statitician: Here is the one who fills in the gaps of information to the rest of us, the awesome tidbits and factoids that make the experience of the game more gratifying. He is the guy who reads the papers and recites the quotes of the players we worship. He is sort of the play-by-play guy. He is telling us, between plays, the things we didn't know. I like the Statitician. He gets us to really take every play seriously, and admire the little things about the game.
2. The Pessimist: In our case, it was our gracious host. Between stocking up on the burgers or beers, he'd step up to the TV and swear about a play. Lines such as "They're gonna blow it!" were common. Pessimism is a crucial element to enjoying a playoff game. If you aren't on the edge of your seat, reeking of sweat and fear, you're not into the game. Might as well go read R.A. Dickey's autobiography and drink a latt
é. What a great game. What an inspiring story...You get my point. I like the Pessimist. He grilled a good burger. It was an angry burger.
3. This is the final element. The mandatory element to the Football Party. He is the Drunk Guy. Consider him the color commentary, if you will. Between "Did you know..." and "!@#$% you!", we all need a little "Woooooo Tommy Boy!" or "Snap a neck and cash a check!" (translation: it is the playoffs, stupid. It will be worth it to play a little tougher). The Drunk always slows down before the third quarter ends, so you won't miss the end of the game...unless he throws something at the TV, which I think might have been in this guy's history? I wasn't entirely sure. He still hooted and hollered at Tommy Boy, but so did we all. Our beer-swilling friend was simply a little beyond us at that point. We managed to leave before he could get a round of karoke going after the game. I like the Drunk. He is the one who keeps us all radical in our love for our favorite team.
That wrapped up my Divisional Round weekend. This week's matches will be good ones. I think it's a true toss-up between the Patriots and the Ravens. Both teams played better than expected in the Divisional Round and I think we can expect both sides of the ball to be fierce for both teams. However, I think the Patriots gave a big old F.U. to the Texans last week, and a nice big F.U. to the rest of the NFL that Sunday night. They are a team that is doubted by the rest of the League, and I think they will eke out the Ravens (as they did last season) and take it to the streets in New Orleans.
I think the NFC Championship match will be ugly. The San Francisco 49ers will blow out the Falcons. Atlanta's only advantage is that they finally won a playoff game and maybe they won't blow this one. The 49ers were ready for the Super Bowl weeks ago.
This week has been long and tense for the fans of four excellent NFL teams. We will take it all out this Sunday at our select Football Parties. 'Tis the season. Have fun. -RM