Of perhaps slightly greater significance, as we look ahead to this weekend’s Divisional Playoffs: It turns out that clichés, just like dreams, sometimes do come true—in this case, the old saying that on any given Sunday, any team can win and any team can lose. This is obviously true in the case of the Broncos/Steelers match-up. The Broncos, coming off a three-game losing streak, not only defeated the Steelers, but did so on the strength of some spectacular bullets from the once-and-future fumble-machine, Tim Tebow. The passes he didn’t complete seemed barely aimed, but when he did connect it was strikingly beautiful, the ball spiraling into outstretched hands 20, 30, 40 yards down the field. And maybe there’s the explanation for the Steelers’ failure to tackle Broncos receivers after the catch with any consistency: They were simply in awe.
And neither the Falcons/Giants nor the Texans/Bengals games turned out quite as expected. Sure the Texans had a slight edge going in, but Andy Dalton’s rookie jitters resulted in a truly lopsided win. (They also made for a less-than-thrilling game, with one notable exception: Houston rookie J.J. Watts’s one-handed interception. Dalton’s face after the pick—he actually rolls his eyes in disbelief!—is comically hapless.) And Falcons/Giants should have gone down to the wire, but poor Matty Ice’s playoff curse (apparently he has trouble with crowd noise, which, considering his day job, is a little bit touching and a lot problematic) proved more powerful than the stats. In fact, the only game that followed the pre-set script was Saints/Lions—and even that was oddly close until the half, at which point the Lions turned back into the Lions—hello, fourth-quarter interceptions—and Drew Brees remembered he was Drew Brees—goodbye, decades-old passing records.
In four quarters, almost anything can happen. It’s why I’m often sweaty and out of breath after watching a football game, and it’s why the underdog narrative in particular continues to be so powerful. Sometimes the Colts beat the Bears in the Super Bowl and no one is surprised because, after all, it’s the Bears. But sometimes the Kansas City Chiefs, starting a quarterback the Broncos traded partway through the season, beat a Championship team who seem headed for an undefeated season. A Hall of Fame quarterback like Dan Marino can go an entire career without winning a Super Bowl, but Trent Dilfer, whose QB rating never got above 77, gets a ring. David Roth, in his excellent football column for The Awl last year, compared a football game to an exercise in socialism—and I think that’s exactly right. Every single play requires 11 players to move in concert, separate but equal parts of a machine; it may look like a hulking mess, but each successful down requires a stunning degree of precision. Keep that in mind as you throw salt over your left shoulder while wearing your game-day jersey; I’ll be listening to this song and taking deep, deep breaths.
Saints at 49ers: Before I was converted to the cult of Favre (and it is a cult: In a ceremony that involves fake Southern accents and sincere use of the phrase “He’s like a kid out there,” we swear everlasting devotion to beard stubble and lost causes) I was, growing up in the Bay Area, a 49ers fan. But even if red and gold don’t make you feel a little bit homesick, this is a great time to root for the team. In the years following the much-concussed Steve Young’s retirement, San Francisco had a string of disappointing seasons; last year, they went 6-10. What’s changed since then? Their head coach. Jim Harbaugh, who inspires delighted articles filled with charming anecdotes about what a nice guy he is, has made an actively bad quarterback—Alex Smith—into merely a boring one (he’s good at controlling the clock, an important but not especially exciting skill), and crafted a stellar defense (second in the league overall). And though Drew Brees seems determined to break every passing record he doesn’t already hold, there’s always the chance that high winds at Candlestick Park will affect his accuracy. If the 49ers can contain Darren Sproles—which isn’t out of the question; they’ve allowed the lowest number of rush yards per game in the league this season—and summon the ghosts of Championship seasons past, they just might have a shot at victory.
Broncos at Patriots: My hatred for the New England Patriots is not totally rational. Sure, Bill Belichick is an ethically questionable grump who ripped the sleeves off of all of his sweatshirts in what I assume was a fit of rage. But he also likes to go for it on fourth down more than most coaches—both a statistically sound strategy and fun to watch. And sure, Tom Brady is a petulant pretty boy, who left his pregnant girlfriend for Gisele and then grew his hair long as if to flaunt his ability to remain attractive while looking objectively terrible. He’s also a stunningly talented quarterback who wasn’t drafted until the 6th round and used to look like this. And the Patriots, Super Bowl victories notwithstanding, are kind of a scrappy team. One of their key running backs, Danny Woodhead, is adorably floppy-haired and only 5-foot-8. Their defense—which, yes, ranks as one of the worst in the league—is almost entirely rejects and ex-receivers. They’ve also already beaten the Broncos once this year, ending Tebow’s six-game streak. I’m not happy about it, but my uterus and I will be rooting for the Patriots on Saturday.
Texans at Ravens: As much as I love football, I can’t really bring myself to care about this match-up. The Texans should inspire, if not devotion, then at least some affection: It’s the franchise’s first time in the playoffs, they’re starting a third-string rookie at QB, and running back Arian Foster shaved the team logo into his head. But even their win against the Bengals was somehow lackluster. And the Ravens only inspire pity: They’re the team Baltimore had to settle for. The Ravens defense is third overall in the league on points allowed, but in a season where the number-one seeds in both conferences have the two worst defenses in the NFL, and the team with the best defense overall was just eliminated by a team that went 8-8 in the regular season, that seems almost beside the point. So I’m picking the Ravens based on this adorable letter, the fact that Jim Harbaugh’s brother coaches the team, a lingering distaste for Houston (I once spent a very humid summer there), and nothing else whatsoever.
Giants at Packers: This game worries me. The last time the Giants went to Lambeau in the playoffs, the year was 2008, the quarterback was Brett Favre, and the result was heartbreaking. This time around, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers at the helm, and his league-best QB rating and refreshing aversion to interceptions is reassuring. Still: With Greg Jennings questionable, an offensive line decimated by injuries, and a less-than-impressive defense (the absolute worst in the NFL), the Packers are far from unbeatable, and there are plenty of good reasons to root for them. They’re the only team in the NFL collectively owned by a city—a pretty big deal in a league whose power structure is basically designed to enrich owners and leave players crippled and broke. There’s wide receiver, Donald Driver, who not only seems like a genuinely nice guy (look at that smile!) but also has one of the most legitimately inspiring rags-to-riches stories in professional sports. There’s also one good reason not to: In the summer of 2010, a number of Packers players, including backup QB Matt Flynn and defensive lineman Clay Matthews, were accused of sexual assault (charges were later dropped). It’s a fact I like to explain away by asserting that the problem is with professional sports in general—that if you treat young men like conquering heroes out of a medieval epic, they’ll start to act the part a little too faithfully. Will I be cheering for the Packers this Sunday? Indeed I will be. But that queasy feeling in my stomach will be the result of more than just too many nachos.