Whatever the reason, something went horribly wrong for Green Bay at Lambeau on Sunday. It was as if, in a Freaky Friday-type incident, the Packers’ entire offense had switched bodies with the Bears from week six: No matter how well-placed Aaron Rodgers’s passes (some of them were not particularly well-placed), his receivers, with the notable exception of Donald Driver, simply refused to hold onto the football. Six different players dropped passes, all but forcing Rodgers to scramble for 66 yards and six first downs. You could sense his frustration; you could see him thinking, Do I have to do everything myself? In the second half, he fumbled: It was the first he had lost all season. The Pack’s defensive strategy—not particularly strong during the regular season—consisted mostly of players flinging their bodies in the general direction of the ball carrier. Yes, Rodgers is one of the only quarterbacks with a signature TD dance, but did that hubris really need to be punished so spectacularly? Because the Packers didn’t just lose a game, they lost a playoff game, in Lambeau, to the team who defeated them in 2008. To make the justice even more poetic: As in 2008, the Packers’ sealed their fate with an interception. To give Brett Favre some credit: At least the 2008 iteration of this match-up was close. The team Favre failed to take to the Super Bowl suffered a bitter and hard-fought defeat; the team Rodgers led on Sunday seemed to be performing in a Keystone Kops routine. One thing to be grateful for: Aaron Rodgers may have been cranky in the post-game interview (snapping, “I don’t appreciate that question” when asked about the number of dropped passes), but at least his hat, while ridiculous, didn’t look nearly as dumb as Big Ben’s did last week.
An unfortunate side effect: The Packers’ loss, and the subsequent cloud that descended (I may or may not have spent Monday in bed, watching old episodes of 30 Rock and getting crumbs on my comforter) soured my appreciation for the finest football game played this weekend. Not the Ravens/Texans defensive snooze-fest (even the commenters were bored by the meager offerings: four turnovers by the Texans, and a lot of typically wobbly passes from Joe Flacco). Not the boring blowout that was the Patriots/Broncos game (did Tom Brady really need to throw five TDs in the first half? What did the Patriots prove by racking up 45 points? I don’t particularly like Tim Tebow, but I’m glad that he has a strong faith in which he can take solace after such an unnecessarily humiliating loss). I’m talking about the 49ers/Saints game—a glorious, head-spinning, emotionally fraught contest between two exceptionally well-matched teams. Four lead changes in the last four minutes: I don’t know what else you can ask of professional football. You expect beautiful passes from Drew Brees, but not from tiny-handed Alex Smith (though this article claims his mitts are about the same size as Aaron Rodgers’s). Yet the much-maligned Smith delivered: Sure, a lot of his passes were short, jerky, ugly—but at least they hit their targets. And if you’re down three points in the last minute and 30 seconds of the game, having an effective clock manager as your QB is extremely exciting; I’ve never been happier to eat my own words. Watch the last drive in full: Knowing the outcome doesn’t make that final, perfect catch any less thrilling, or Vernon Davis’s tears any less affecting.
Of course, this is football, so the moments of athletic prowess were matched by moments of terrifying bodily injury—in this case, to the Saints’ Pierre Thomas, who was knocked out cold in the first quarter by the 49ers Donte Whitner. The announcers’ decision to completely ignore that Thomas had been knocked unconscious is the second scariest thing about the clip; his body goes limp before it hits the ground, but we hear only praise for Whitner’s tackle. “If he comes back into the game someone should be arrested,” a friend texted me. Thomas didn’t return, but that doesn’t make the elision any less uncomfortable.
NFC Conference Game: Giants at 49ers
Green Bay lost more than just a shot at the Super Bowl this weekend; they lost their narrative momentum. I’ll still love the Packers next year, but the 49ers are playing with clear eyes and full hearts. I’m not saying they can’t lose, but don’t try and tell me Coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t look a little like Coach Eric Taylor. And, judging by his pre-game pump-up techniques (excitedly punching Alex Smith a lot), I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s taken his struggling QB 1 out onto the field in the middle of the night to toss the football around and have a manly chat at least once or twice. Which isn’t to say the 49ers shouldn’t be worrying about the Giants; they should be. They’re an erratic team—there’s a reason they had to fight for a wildcard spot in the playoffs—but they’re incredibly hot right now. “Manning to Manningham” may be funny to say out loud, but it’s not funny at all on the field; it’s shockingly effective. The 49ers defense is much tougher, and I’m crossing my fingers for at least a couple Eli Manning sacks. But what really convinces me that San Francisco will be going to the Super Bowl for the first time since before I was allowed to see PG-13 movies is this commercial:
That smile Eli flashes, right at the end? That is not the smile of an NFC Conference champion.
AFC Conference Game: Ravens at Patriots
The choice between a team you actively dislike and a team you have no feelings for is easy, if vaguely upsetting. I sometimes wonder where Ray Lewis’ white suit went, but I can’t make myself root for the NFL equivalent of the schoolyard bully. The Patriots may have had the flavor of an underdog team during the regular season, but let’s not forget: Not only are they the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but they’ve won three Super Bowls with Tom Brady. A fourth would be as excessive as all the lopsided wins Bill Belichick so revels in (during the Broncos game, a friend texted me: “Is there a mercy rule in pro football?”). And there are things to like about the Ravens, if you look close enough: Ed Reed, for example, whose one-handed interception against the Texans was a bright spot in an otherwise dull game. (Reed is one of the league’s most exceptional players; even the perennially cranky Belichick called him “the greatest free safety” to ever play the game.) I don’t think the Ravens are going to beat the Patriots—neither does Reed, for that matter—but there’s no way I’m rooting for this smug millionaire. What’s more, Brady isn’t that fun to watch: Throwing perfect pass after perfect pass, he’s stiff, like a marble statue only recently and haphazardly animated. And if the 49ers and the Ravens both advance, the Super Bowl will literally pit brother against brother. That’s a classic narrative I’m unwilling to pass up.