Man Getting Hit By Football: Conference Championship Weekend

Four good teams. A couple of dumb narratives surrounding the games between those teams. It's the NFL!
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Illustration by Brad Beatson.

San Francisco (+3.5) at Seattle

In December, I went back home to Seattle to spend Christmas with my family and found myself in the middle of the special thing that happens when a city’s sports team suddenly becomes very, very good. There were always people who loved the Seahawks, but now it was like the Seahawks had just liberated the town from the Nazis—logos and that distinctive neon/Gatorade green everywhere, a palpable sense of excitement in the air before that Sunday’s game. When I went in to a shop in the University District that sold hippie-ish candles and hand-woven handbags, the proprietor was listening to sports talk radio, on which someone was complaining that the defense had “given up” in the team’s 17-10 loss to the Cardinals. The Seattle Aquarium has a hermit crab named Marshawn Pinch. A community news blog that covers Capitol Hill, the most traditionally “hip” neighborhood in Seattle, has a post up today that is just the words “Go Seahawks!!” and the team logo. And then, of course, there’s this:

Being caught up in a cocoon of fandom like that is invigorating. It’s almost a religious feeling, only imagine that or much of your life you watched your god lose a lot of supernatural battles against other, more popular gods, and then all of a sudden he’s winning and people in the media who write about gods are going, “Hey, this god is really good! Like, the best in the pantheon, maybe!"

So maybe not that much like actual religion, actually. But intoxicating, anyway, especially when everyone in your town is feeling the same way. Riding that wave, you can hold up your hand when you’re walking down the street and people will high five you. It’s the best feeling a fan can have.

Outside that cocoon, I understand that the Seahawks are not the friendliest team in the world. I know opposing fan-bases complain that they (I almost wrote “we” there, that’s where I am right now) get too many calls; I get why Richard Sherman’s trash-talking and Golden Tate’s grandstanding are negatives; if I wasn’t a ‘Hawks fan Pete Carroll’s smug, I’m-gonna-tell-the-boys-at-the-law-firm-my-boy’s-banging-a-hot-sorority-chick-at-Arizona-State grin would get on my nerves. And yes, I’m well aware that the “12th man” thing did not originate in Seattle, and that Russell Wilson isn’t a candidate for MVP, though some looking-for-pageview boners have made that argument.

But the exhilaration you feel watching your team win has nothing to do with the players’ likeability—it has nothing to do with the players at all. This is football at its most tribal, and that’s what we’re getting in the game against San Francisco.

Professional sports teams consist of millionaires who are imported by billionaires to entertain TV audiences on behalf of a few massive media conglomerates. The magic of professional sports is that we can forget this for a while and imagine, at times, that the guys in our uniforms represent the best football dudes in our town, and the guys in the other uniforms represent the best football dudes in their town, and that the winner of this ritual violence will hold their head up high and receive some kind of psychic concession from the loser. On Sunday, San Franciscans and Seattleites will watch a lot of tough tackling, penalties both called and uncalled, and probably lots of that thing where guys touch facemasks and bark obscenities at each other. There will likely be that crackling, dangerous undercurrent you feel when you realize that a football game, no matter how professionalized the sport becomes, is just a few moves away from an honest street brawl.

For a moment, it’ll be possible to imagine that Seattle and San Francisco are competing city states, instead of similar West Coast cities with similarly snobbish coffee cultures. It will be very easy to pretend that our gridiron representatives are out there not because there’s money and fame and status in it, not because they’re playing in front of millions, but because they plain don’t like each other and wish to express that through football. Then we will snap out of it, because it’s not that and we know it. But still, it’s an exciting time.

PICK: San Francisco

New England (+5.5) at Denver

As we all know, the AFC Championship is not so much a game as it is a vessel for the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry. There are some decent football-related reasons for that—the game may come down to which quarterback does the best against which injury-hobbled defense—but really it’s just an opportunity for those who wish to do so to worship at the altar of the quarterback. The Patriots and Broncos both have good running games, and that type of offense is going to be important on Sunday, but running games do not endorse products, or hoist MVP trophies, or stand in front of hundreds of reporters after games.

It’s a funny kind of rivalry. Unlike boxers or tennis players or even basketball stars, Brady and Manning are never directly competing against each other, just their respective opposing defenses. They’re like architects in distant cities building increasingly impressive monuments—competing, but only by demonstrating their abilities to the public. There’s never going to be any objective way to measure their accomplishments against each other. Manning has gaudier stats, likely because he’s played with better receivers for most of his career; Brady has more championships, likely because he’s had better coaching and defense behind him. “Brady or Manning?” is a truly unanswerable question, one that’s gotten debated so many times on ESPN that the Worldwide Leader is now resorting to oddly convoluted ways to ask it.

The differences between the two men largely come from the media surrounding them. For instance, this is how Peyton Manning is called upon to sell credit cards:

And this is how Tom Brady is called upon to sell cologne:

Here’s Tom Brady on a magazine cover:

And here’s Peyton Manning on a magazine cover:

Without knowing Tom or Peyton personally, the impression we’re left from the media is this: Manning is a goof, just like you. He goes home at night from his job and eats leftover beef stroganoff and then gets frustrated when he accidentally updates his iTunes. (He was planning on listening to a playlist he made called “Lyle Lovett Slow Songs.”) The big difference between you and him is that his job is setting NFL passing records; you like to imagine that if you had his job, that’s how you would carry yourself too.

Brady, well, you imagine him coming back from the photo shoot he had after practice to a penthouse made entirely of colored glass. A supermodel is waiting there for him and together they drink an exotic liquor you haven’t heard of, then read aloud from an unproduced screenplay sent to them by an Academy Award winner, then retire to have the kind of sex that, if you saw it, would make you go, “Hm. OK, I guess. I didn’t know that sort of thing actually happened.” You can’t picture yourself in his shoes, because he’s the type of man who leaves one supermodel for another and appears on magazine covers with angry-looking dogs, all apparently without chuckling at how silly it all is. (You can picture Manning chuckling, maybe when he realizes the vacuum cleaner won’t turn on ‘cause the dang thing isn’t plugged in; Brady never chuckles.)

When you’re rooting for Manning, you’re rooting for a kind of everyman, a doofus you could eat meat with. Brady is not an everyman, and rooting for him means acknowledging that, no shit, he is a guy who’s earned fame and fortune by throwing a ball. NFL quarterbacks are not like you or me, and Brady has just taken advantage of the strange opportunities life has presented to him. You might even argue that Manning’s aw-shucks image is largely just that: an image, one that has been cultivated by a bunch of corporations who want to use him as a well-polished charmingly-unpolished pitchman, just as Brady is used to sell perfume by being a handsome staring dude.

If you have no geographic tribal interests at stake, it makes sense to approach both Brady and Manning as space aliens with a bunch of football gibberish flying around inside their heads at all times. When they step behind their centers—which is the part that makes us care about them in the first place—they are striving to be as robotically perfect as possible, to “execute,” if I can borrow a word from athlete media-management training. Who’s better? Who cares? What matters is that they’re both great, and both down there on the field putting on a show for us. There’s nothing to argue about.

PICK: New England

Previous Week’s Record: 1-2-1
Overall Record: 124-117-7
All Lines Taken From Footballlocks.com


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