Friday, January 5, 2018

The FGR's NFL Wild Card Round Preview

My almost lifelong relationship with the NFL was already hanging-in the balance when the Ravens took the home field to clinch a playoff spot by beating the nothing left to play for Cincinnati Bengals on New Year's Eve. I think it was about four years ago when I started to realize that the magic the NFL and I once shared was dying. I guess no one ever sees these things coming. One minute you're spending three plus hours every other weekend in a raging blackout screaming until your head explodes in support of fifty-three men in matching purple outfits and the next minute you're standing on the sideline of a kids soccer game at 1:15 p.m. on a Sunday asking the guy next to you "hey, who do the Ravens play today?" And when he responds with whatever team is not the Steelers (because that will always matter), you reply, "home or away?" because you just don't give a fuck anymore.

It never should've gotten to this. (If you just got the sinking feeling that I'm about to spend the next five weeks detailing my 40+ years of NFL fandom as a way to preview the playoff games, you know me all too well my friend). I've literally loved the NFL for as long as I can remember or at least since Thanksgiving Day when I was five years old at my grandmother's house in Virginia which is bigtime full-on douchebag Redskins country. The Cowboys were playing the Redskins at the height of what used to be one of the top five rivalries in sports and their future Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach had just gotten hurt (probably by a cheapshot).

"I can't believe you guys were rooting for
the Redskins. This party is such a joke."
They were down 16-3 and my aunts, uncles and cousins were beside themselves with joy. Then rookie 5th round pick Clint Longley* came in and threw two touchdown passes including a 50 yarder with 28 seconds left to win the game 24-23. As my despondent relatives sulked their way into the dining room to drown their sorrows in booze and gravy, I proudly announced that "I was rooting for the Cowboys!" at which point my aunt told me to go fuck myself. 

From that obnoxious beginning, a truly abhorrent and geographically misplaced fan was born but man, it wasn't just the Cowboys, I loved everything about the NFL. We had two TV's in my house and I would sneak back and forth between them on Sundays while avoiding my dad who I could hear yelling from the yard for "some goddamn help around here!" I remember doing a presentation to my 4th grade class about how the Seahawks had just beaten the Raiders for the second time in a season which was significant because "don't you understand people . . . that's never happened before!" (Picture blank stares from a dozen nine year olds and two crunchy granola teachers looking at each other and wondering "how are we ever going to get through to this asshole?").   

I would spend the next twenty-years rooting for Staubach, Tony Dorsett and Drew Pearson all the way through Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. (That second part still makes me feel rashy all over). The biggest highs were obviously the four Super Bowl wins (the 1972 win was before my time) along with two memorable road trips. One to Atlanta for a 1980 playoff game as the guest of a distant cousin who worked for the Falcons. The Cowboys scored three touchdowns in the 4th quarter to win 30-27 and I must have been running my yap pretty good because I remember him saying after the game "I'm going to need you to stop talking." I was ten years old at the time which answers the question, "has he always been like this?"

The second road trip in 1991 was to a late regular season game in Philadelphia when Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys were playing Buddy Ryan's Eagles in a win or go home game. The older brother of a friend of mine was a doctor in Philly and got four tickets for us to join him at the game. He's about a 6'5" Irish guy and one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. We drove-up the night before the game and got after it until about 3:00 a.m. and then got after it again the next morning. I didn't sport any Cowboy gear and I kept a pretty low-profile (because I didn't feel like dying that day). The Cowboys won the game 25-13 probably because the Eagles started a quarterback named Jeff Kemp who had a career completion percentage of 52% to go along with his 39 touchdown passes and 40 interceptions. As we were leaving the stadium to a torrent of F-Bombs coming from every direction, I started to speak and before I got my second word out, my friend's brother (the nice doctor) looked down at me in rage and said, "IF YOU SAY ONE FUCKING WORD I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU." Sometimes I think just my face is enough to piss people off (sometimes?).

"I'm going to need everyone 
to leave the room now."
There were some very low points. The two Super Bowl losses to Pittsburgh in '76 and '79 that had the added benefit of making that Steelers team one for the ages and Terry Bradshaw one of the voices of a generation. There was the NFC Conference Championship game loss to the Redskins in 1982 after which my middle school history teacher made me stand-up in front of the class as an example of what's wrong with the world (I did not make that up). But nothing compared to the goddamn mutherfucking "Catch" which literally occurred as my mother was cutting the cake for my 12th birthday. I probably deserved it.       

I hung with the Cowboys through their Super Bowl run of the early 1990's but my interest in the team started waning when they hired dickhead Barry Switzer to replace Jimmy Johnson as head coach. Jerry Jones was obviously a sleaze and I had never really forgiven him for the unceremonious way he ended Tom Landry's career. The hiring of the bombastic simpleton Switzer who was the anti-Landry along with the fact that the players had gone from young and brash to old and insufferable coupled with my own long overdue realization that you really have to be a prick to be an out of town Cowboys fan meant it was time to move on.

The question was where would I go? The two closest team geographically were the Redskins and the Eagles but I couldn't go in either of those directions because I would be a total hypocrite (never stopped you before). Same with the Steelers who I had been conditioned to hate almost as much as the Redskins thanks to the two Super Bowls where they tore my heart out (Lynn Swann was overrated . . . there, I said it). I was about to become one of those football nomads who just picks the team he feels like rooting for that day, a truly empty soulless existence if there ever was one. I think I'd rather be a Browns fan.

Of course this could've been averted if Paul Tagliabuttface (see what I did there?) and the league hadn't fucked over Baltimore when they gave a team to Jacksonville instead of us in 1989. Jacksonville? That place where you stop at the Waffle House thinking you finally made it to Florida before realizing that you have to drive another 4-5 hours to get to the good parts? If they gave a team to Jacksonville over us, then what other cities were ahead of us in line? Columbus? Portland? Toronto?!?! You mutherfuckers would go to Canada wouldn't you? Well we showed them. Turns-out I was about to become a Browns fan after all. To be continued. Let's make some picks.

Kansas City by 8.5 over Tennessee: The Pick - Chiefs

This is the kind of playoff game where you actually want Andy Reid coaching your favorite team. It's at home against an over-matched opponent and, most importantly, it's multiple games away from the Super Bowl so Reid should be less inclined to coach with his hands clutching his throat. Oh shit I think he just burned one of his second half timeouts while I was typing that. 

As for the Titans, they had a point differential this year of -22 thanks to convincing wins like 12-9 over the Browns and 15-10 in week seventeen when they needed it to clinch a playoff spot against a Jags team that had nothing on the line. They also had some doozie losses like 57-14 against the Texans, 40-17 against the Steelers and a more recent 12-7 loss to the Cardinals. We could be looking at an unexpectedly horrendous playoff team and a final score in Kansas City of the 30-7 variety. 

L.A. Rams by 6.5 over Atlanta: The Pick - Rams

I'm all in on the Rams. Maybe not all the way to the Super Bowl this year but certainly to glide past the barely above-average and still scarred from last year Falcons. They've only lost two meaningful games since week five and those were at the Vikings and against the Eagles with Carson Wentz. Kind of makes you wonder why more teams don't roll the dice on drafting a quarterback and hiring a young innovative head coach until you realize that, in any business with thirty-two companies competing in the same market, you're always going to have your Colts, Bears and Browns.

The Falcons shouldn't even be allowed in the playoffs after last year's debacle. Blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl should be like selling your mom's wedding ring to buy heroin. You just need to stay out of everyone's sight for awhile because "you disgust me and I really can't stand the sight of your fucking face" (not that anyone has ever said that to me . . . for buying heroin).   

Jacksonville by 8 over Buffalo: The Pick - Bills

Please name one thing  of value
that the Jags add to the NFL.
OK, name one other thing.
So let me get this straight. I get Blake Bortles and YOU get 8 points? Hmmmm. It is tempting but I think I'm going to go the other way and I don't really care if LeSean McCoy is healthy and I don't care that the Bills' only meaningful win was six games ago when they beat the Chiefs 16-10. It's Blake Bortles for Chrissakes. Before the season his head coach was asked what the ideal number of passes for him to throw in a game would be and he answered "zero." Probably because Bortles believes that "up for grabs" is actually written into the game plan as his second read on every play.

Meanwhile, how can you not root for the Bills? The last time they made the playoffs there were only four Star Wars movies and Cher had the #1 song (it was a bit of a musical dark age). Not to mention, it's going to be -5 degrees in Buffalo tonight. Remember, we are all Buffalo (if we were dumb enough to live there).       

New Orleans by 7 over Carolina: The Pick - Panthers

This one is a bit of a stumper. These two teams had identical 11-5 records (the similarity between the two records is almost uncanny) but the Saints swept the season series 2-0. Advantage Saints right? Wrong. One of the truest maxims in sports after "don't luge with your dick out" is "it's really hard to beat the same team three times in the same season." As much as I despise Cam Newton, I have a feeling that he's going to be the dominant story on the NFC side of the playoffs. (I just barfed a little).   

Footnote

* Here's one of the great Wikipedia entries of all-time about Longley, "after a training room incident in which he sucker-punched Roger Staubach during the 1976 preseason, the team suspended and eventually traded him to the Chargers." Holy shit Clint, you might as well have sucker-punched a guy dressed as Jesus on Easter Sunday.   

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