Man Getting Hit By Football: Divisional Playoff Weekend

A plea to hold football games underground and far from fans, a fairly serious discussion of the semi-serious Chargers, and some picks.
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Illustration by Brad Beatson.

New Orleans (+8) at Seattle

Of all the major sporting events on the calendar, playoff football is the one most about misery. Much of the country is coming out of a cold snap so vicious and widespread that “Dang, it’s FREEZING out here, y’all!” became a national news story—also, it’s mid-January, so even if the cold wasn’t a historic event, it would still be, y’know, cold. It’s Winter Olympics season. It’s the time of year when those with serious cash vacation in mountain ski resorts or repair to beaches in regions that have never heard of frost. And yet football, a game that should probably be played indoors and has no pressing need to be out in the weather, soldiers on.

I say soldiers because there’s this sense throughout the football world that the players are not just dudes who entertain us by basically fighting and racing each other for money, they are warriors, symbols of masculinity, proud testaments to the swinging-dick aspects of the human spirit, whatever. Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook’s long-running long-winded ESPN column that delivers fewer insights per word than almost anything out there, has an old line about “Cold Coach = Victory” that asserts coaches who eschew bundling up on the sidelines lead their teams to more wins. I have no idea if Easterbrook is joking about that conflation of misplaced machismo and the ability to correct figure out when an opposing team will blitz—it’s remarkably hard to tell when that guy is kidding—but some people no doubt believe shit like that.

Anyway, three of the games last weekend were held in that hellacious cold, and those were notable for how much the running game mattered—Philip Rivers, one of the better quarterbacks in the sport threw just 16 passes, as the Chargers leaned on their running game; the Saints likewise kept the ball on the ground and Mark Ingram did that thing he sometimes does where he looks like a decent back. Aaron Rodgers looked shaky in the cold, Colin Kaepernick ran all over the Packers but barely completed half of his passes, and Andrew “Andy Dalton” Dalton, looked like, well, let’s just forget about him for a while, OK? It was a bad weekend to be a quarterback’s frozen hand, in short, and so a bad weekend for viewers who wanted to see the kind of aerial battle that’s come to define the NFL. (If you are a Ronnie Brown fan, however, watching him score that 58-yard-touchdown in garbage time was basically another Christmas.)

If you went to see any of those contests in person, God help you. You were probably that kind of cold where you want to get drunk but then you are drunk and cold and it’s no good and you should have just stayed home. Moreover, you could have had a better view of the game if you were at home. As Will Leitch wrote in Sports on Earth this week:

“Games are too expensive to attend, it's often cold, the beer is lousy and overpriced, football games have a dramatically higher lout-to-normal-human ratio than any other sport (and perhaps any other recreational activity, with the possible exception of a Wall Street bachelor party). But the main reason, clearly, is television. Put aside expense, or possible proximity to this person. Football is a sport that is more fun to watch on television than it is in person, and I'm not even sure it's all that close...

Football—both the NFL and college football—has given itself over so completely to television that attending the games makes you feel like a chump.”

That’s not a bad thing—football, the sport that’s always been the most ready to embrace technological innovations, needs to get past it’s meatspace origins. Roger Goodell keeps pushing the idea of the league’s expansion to London, but that’s moving in the wrong direction. We don’t need a bunch of NFL games being played in front of crowds in massive, expensive stadiums all over the world. Those stadiums are money holes surrounded by ugly windswept parking lots and anyway the more important crowds are the ones who watch the game from afar.

Play the games in massive underground complexes (or on the moon!), lose the crowds, release them to a football-hungry viewing public whenever you want. You could film a bunch of games in a day then televise them one or two at a time every night of the week. You could even invite a few freakish, drunken fans to cheer their squads on: they win a spot in the NFL Fan Cavern or Tackle Bunker or whatever. Who loses in that scenario?

You’d also effectively be playing the games in weatherless domes, which is actually the ideal place to play football. This New Orleans/Seattle tilt will likely be rainy, windy, and miserable—Seattle in January, in other words—and so we’ll likely see a lot of ugly football. That’s good news for fans of misery who love to see the players struggle with the elements on top of trying to play a difficult game. It’s also really good news for fans who like wearing team-logo ponchos over their team-logo parkas.

It’s also (probably) good news for the Seahawks, who have thrived in nasty weather lately and will be facing Drew Brees, who hasn’t looked great in his last few outdoor games. (“Drew Brees isn’t good in the weather” is the start of a not-very-fun argument, but he’s unquestionably better at home in the Superdome.) The weather’s interference will be bad news, however, for all of us that would really like to see Brees and his army of receivers matched up against the best secondary in the world in decent conditions, just to see who would win. Play this one in a well-lit, field-turfed cavern one mile beneath the desert and it wouldn’t be a problem, is all I’m saying.

PICK: Seattle

Indianapolis (+7) at New England

Last week’s only indoor game was also the most entertaining—a bizarre instant classic that featured the Chiefs losing several of their best players to injury in rapid succession and Andrew Luck being terrible, then being great, then scooping a fumbled ball up and running it in for a touchdown like a basketball player dropping in a layup after a stray rebound hits him in the hands.

The Colts’ insane 28-point second-half comeback simply would not have happened outdoors. The elements would have slowed Luck and T.Y. Hilton down—as a matter of fact, the elements would have slowed down Alex Smith and the Chiefs too. Instead of an entertaining blowout-turned-nailbiter-turned-miracle, we’d have had a flat, slippery game. Hilton wouldn’t have gotten 200-something yards. Smith wouldn’t have had that amazing first half. This game could have only happened in a dome. All football should happen in a dome. (Or, to reiterate, on the moon or underground.)

This game could have only happened to the 2013 Colts, the stupidest team in recent memory. By this I mean only that everything that happens to them is stupid. They’ve beaten the best teams in the league, been blown out by mediocre ones, traded a first-round pick for Trent Richardson—who has not exactly been a success, and had one carry on Saturday—and lost Reggie Wayne for the season in an injury that arguably wrecked their chances of being a dark-horse Super Bowl contender. Their messy, incomprehensible season defies all notions of “momentum” or “narrative” except for the narrative that the AFC South was an especially lousy division this year.

The Patriots, on the other hand, are never going to be a dark-horse anything. They’ve been winning for so long that the fact that their 12-4 season seems unremarkable. What distinguishes them this year is that they’ve dealt with a huge number of injuries, including, most recently, linebacker Brandon Spikes. At Grantland, Bill Barnwell has a great chart showing just how beat up the Pats’ defense has been this year:

Basically, the Patriots’ season has been about plugging guys hardly anyone has heard of into their lineup and having them work out well enough to win games, which is pretty amazing and a reminder of the ways in which football teams, with their massive pools of players and coaching staffs, are much more like corporations than teams in other sports.

But when you’re dealing with dozens of athletic young men and authoritarian old dudes, I imagine it really helps to have a terrific organizational culture, as corny and boring as that sounds. If the small, behind-the-scenes things are done right and people understand what their roles are and hate each other as little as possible, it stands to reason that it would be far easier for those people to integrate (and succeed) as a team. At the very least, we know this argument’s other side to be true. It’s a hugely dad-ish notion, the idea of middle management and organizational stability enabling heroics on the field, but there’s probably more than a bit of truth to it.

PICK: Indianapolis

San Francisco (-1) at Carolina

The weather won’t be especially brutal in Carolina on Sunday, but these teams can produce misery all on their own. Both have big, fast men on their respective front sevens and both specialize in grind-it-out football—the 10-9 Panthers win was the incarnation of that old line from "The Wire" about football, “No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.” (And yes, I know that this was really referring to the war on drugs. Everything from "The Wire" is about the war on drugs.)

The two teams are slightly different when you look at DVOA: the 49ers are much better at throwing the ball, the Panthers have stronger rush and (surprisingly) pass defenses, but essentially this game will be one of those ones in which many men get hit by other men, repeatedly. There are things to write about here, like how Michael Crabtree is back and Steve Smith is hurting, or how Ron Rivera’s “aggressive” strategy when it comes to going for it on fourth down is still too conservative according to some calculations. Instead I would like to address the ESPN article headlined, “Ric Flair Won’t Attend Playoff Game.”

The story is that Ric Flair, the former professional wrestler who is presumably normally occupying his time doing whatever former famous professional wrestlers do (avoiding arrest warrants, in this case), isn’t coming to the 49ers-Panthers game. This is news because he did go to the 49ers-Packers game and gave the San Francisco players a pep talk, which is controversial or whatever because he used to live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and some Panthers players really like him and his “WOOOOOOO!” chant, and Steve Smith apparently has one of Ric Flair’s robes?

It’s a stupid little thing, obviously, and these stupid little things get written about and it’s fine and fun and good. What sets this apart is that it’s really, really well reported. Two beat writers worked on it, there’s a lot of context, there are quotes from four people, there were at least a couple phone calls made, and by the end of it you really understand not only that Ric Flair isn’t going to this game, but understand why. People talk a lot of shit about ESPN, but would the kids over at BuzzFeed do the same kind of professional writeup on the Ric Flair situation?

That’s a rhetorical question, but allow me to answer it anyway. No. They would write two sentences about Ric Flair not coming to the game, put those next to a couple of brief stuttering .GIFs of him wrestling, then maybe note his association with the state of Carolina. Without the pictures, the piece would run about 50 words, including “Ric” and “Flair.”

PICK: Carolina

San Diego (+9.5) at Denver

The Chargers were an afterthought for most of the year—heck, they’re only in the playoffs because the Dolphins and Ravens lost in Week 17. (And, as incarcerated Steelers fans will tell you, they also benefitted from a blown call that let them beat the Chiefs’ backups.) They ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak, however, and unexpectedly dominated the Bengals on the road. If I were predicting the outcome of this game—which is, as I sometimes forget, the reason I’m writing this—I’d say the Chargers have a decent chance to win.

I guess I should explain that. The cliched but probably mostly correct line on how to beat Peyton Manning (and therefore whatever team he’s on) is to keep the ball out of his hands. This is done through long, clock-eating drives, gutting it out on the ground, tiring the defense out, blah blah blah—it sounds hacky but it’s not insane or wrong. Minimize his opportunities and the defense will only need to stop Manning a few times; give him a bunch of chances to score and you’re more than likely to get into a situation where it’s 17-3 and you’re forced to throw a bunch and all that earlier stuff about long drives is by the boards.

And as it happens, the Chargers have exactly that kind of run game. If you look at season stats for their average yards per carry or DVOA they look pretty bad, but they’ve rushed for 851 yards on the ground over their past five games, a result, mainly, of them imagining that Ryan Matthews is a powerful, defense-punishing running back and Matthews then somehow playing like one. They outrushed the Broncos 177-18 when they beat them in Week 15, and even if you don’t buy any old saws about “Teams have to stop the run and be able to run to win in the playoffs fuh fuh fuh fuh,” you have to admit that those numbers are pretty hard to overcome. The Chargers kept the ball for nearly 39 minutes in that game, compared to the Broncos’ 21, and they similarly dominated time of possession and rushing numbers when San Diego lost at home to Denver earlier in the season. If they just do what they’ve done in the past, the Chargers should cover the spread at the very least.

Of course, they also still have to play Peyton Manning, which means they will have to stop him from doing that Sudden 17-3 Deficit thing we just went over. The Chargers’ pass rush befuddled the Bengals’ protection schemes last week and forced Andy Dalton into making some very Andy Dalton decisions and Andy Dalton throws, but that’s not going to happen against Manning, who hardly ever makes Andy Dalton decisions or throws. The Broncos are what the Chargers want to be when they grow up: an offensive juggernaut that can drive down the field seemingly at will sometimes—Football isn’t hard, see? they seem to say as Demaryius Thomas walks into the end zone untouched again. And the Chargers have one of the worst pass defenses in the league. Oddly for a team that is so offensively-minded, San Diego’s best and only chance to win is making the game a 27-20 slog.

Which may not be fun, but which is also usually the recipe for playoff success: Don’t worry about anything but making the other team miserable. It doesn’t even need to be raining or snowing or 25 below for this to work.

PICK: San Diego

Last week's record: 2-2
Overall record: 123-115-6
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