Illustration by Brad Beatson
Miami (-3) at Buffalo
We don’t watch sports because the people playing them are especially big, fast, agile, or good at throwing a ball. I mean, we like it that our sports feature the best athletes in the world, but let’s assume that no one is sitting in front of a television taking joy in the pure technical beauty of the running and the catching. This is a giant human doing something both graceful and violent and then doing a silly belly dance, not Michelangelo’s David.
We watch sports, as a comic strip once noted, because the running men compete against each other to create numbers, and those numbers in turn create narratives. We watch sports to follow stories that unspool—unscripted and unpredictably—in real time. Sometimes the stories are about individual players or plays or games, sometimes they’re about teams or coaches or trends throughout an entire league, sometimes, not to get all weepy-old-sports-columnist on you, they’re about ourselves and how we watch the things we’re watching.
The NFL is as full of narrative as any other sport, but it goes by so fast it’s impossible to understand what each team’s year-long arc is until the season is over. Sixteen games is barely enough time to get to know the 32 teams that run out onto the white-lined grass in September and disappear to nurse their injuries or prepare for the playoffs in December—each week a huge chunk of the season goes by without us really noticing how close it is to being over. It’s like a huge, delicious meal you can barely remember eating, though you do feel full and vaguely sick and your mouth stinks of meat after its over. It surprises me every year how fast the season goes by and how little of it can be properly understood even by the press people whose job it is to understand football. Teams are unbeatable until they’re not; preseason contenders reveal themselves as overrated, then simply terrible; squads pegged as eternal losers surprise everyone by competing with the best, then losing horribly to teams they should beat.
This week, with the season winding down, I figured it’d be appropriate to look back at some teams just to find out what the heck happened in the NFL. For instance, the Dolphins, almost without anyone noticing, have been pretty good—good enough, anyway, to probably get into the playoffs, though that’s more of a story about the AFC’s blah-ness this year than anything else
New Orleans (+3) at Carolina
The story here is so simple it might as well be written on giant signs held by boozed-out fans wearing elaborate themed helmets: The Saints offense is very very good and occasionally has a kind of beauty to it when all the deep passes are working. The Panthers’ defense, especially the big guys at the front of it, is also very very good and excels at making offenses look ugly and maddeningly ineffective. The game is pretty much for the NFC South championship and a first-round bye. Either way, both of these teams are in the playoffs, and those of us who like football should all be pretty excited about watching this.
Dallas (-3) at Washington
Some people are going to be watching this game instead of Saints-Panthers, which is a dang shame. For the past few years the Cowboys have been a weird, unfunny joke Jerry Jones keeps playing on the fans, while the Redskins have gone from being merely disappointing to a gossiped-about mess without a first-round draft pick next year. At least this matchup will feature very little defense. Good luck to everyone in a fantasy football championship game.
Tampa Bay (+4.5) at St. Louis
When the Bucs were 0-8, it looked like Greg Schiano was not just another red-faced sackful of rage and management-oriented General Patton biographies, but the worst NFL coach of all time. Now they’re 4-10 and just another lousy team that’s probably no fun to play for. Schiano might even conceivably keep his job after he saved the season from his own terrible coaching. We’ll always have this billboard, though:
PICK: Tampa Bay
Cleveland (+2) at “New York” Jets
The story of this game will not be a very fun one. It should be told not in a highlight reel or a recap, but in a Ken Burns documentary many years later, with black and white photos of the participants and excerpts from handwritten letters. The game will last several years and a winner will be declared, but the players will go home with the knowledge that there were no true victors. They will just have to rebuild their lives as best they can.
PICK: “New York” Jets
Indianapolis (+6.5) at Kansas City
In an alternate universe where kickers get the credit they deserve, the story of the Colts’ season is dominated by Adam Vinatieri, the greatest kicker of all time, the oldest player in the NFL, a man who can win games single-handedly (or should I say “single-footedly,” he chucked to himself) and deserves to have statues of himself outside the stadiums in both Foxboro and Indianapolis. In this universe, people are fucking sick of hearing about Vinatieri. “He’s great and all,” fans fume, “but I’d really like to hear more about Andrew Luck and his chances against the Chiefs defense.”
PICK: Kansas City
Minnesota (+8) at Cincinnati
The story of the Vikings season is a story about how hard it is to find a good quarterback. It’s kind of like one of those romantic comedies where the heroine will try anything—even signing and starting Josh Freeman—in order to find Mr. Right. But in the end, he was there all along: Christian Ponder. Sorry, I meant, “whatever fresh arm you can get in the draft.” Also Vikings fans are Kate Hudson in this scenario, so congratulations on that.
Tennessee (-5) at Jacksonville
Both of these teams are too boring to talk about, so here’s a photo of a guy who painted his car like the Jaguars logo:
— Phil Hecken (@PhilHecken) December 12, 2013
Denver (-10.5) at Houston
The 2013 Texans will one day be summed up as “the team so bad they gave their coach a stroke,” which will be in poor taste but also they’re terrible and before they got him fired they did indeed do that to Gary Kubiak. But for now we should take their season as yet another example of how impossible it is to predict NFL storylines in advance—three out of seven Sports Illustrated experts picked the Texans to get at least as far as the AFC Championship game.
Green Bay (NO LINE) at Pittsburgh
Which isn’t to say that Sports Illustrated is particularly bad at analyzing the NFL, it’s just totally laughable to make soothsayer-esque picks in the preseason for any sport, let alone one where horrific and unpredictable injuries happen all the time. Before Aaron Rodgers fractured his collarbone during Week 9, it would have been pretty reasonable to talk about the Packers’ Super Bowl chances and Rodgers being a dark horse MVP candidate. Now, well...
PICK: Pittsburgh, whatever the line ends up being
Arizona (+10.5) at Seattle
I’m honestly not sure what the established Media Narrative is when it comes to the Seahawks other than, “Boy, how ‘bout them Seahawks?” But they should be looked at as the most arrogant sports team in Seattle history—it’s a fairly modest history, but this is a cocky bunch of dudes who party too much and at the wrong times, who beat themselves with penalties on the rare occasions when they lose, and are in general so talented that their screwups may not matter. They’re really good, and pretty good as bad guys, too.
What other team could lose two corners to drug suspensions, then have the replacement, Byron Maxwell, step in and get three picks in two games? For another example of the talent/arrogance combo in action, go to 6:50 of this video, where Richard Sherman is like, “Oh yeah, me and Earl Thomas practice plays where I tip the fucking ball to him for an interception.”
“New York” Giants (+9) at Detroit
If the Seahawks are an example of dysfunction being overcome through talent, these teams are what happens when you take the second part of that equation out. Reggie Bush admitted that the Lions are undisciplined, and Ndamukong Suh is essentially a nimble, giant and supremely enraged man who walks onto the field each Sunday without a clear understanding of the rules. Meanwhile, the Giants are openly accusing each other of dogging it. A fight might break out during this game, either between the Lions and the Giants or just between the Giants, or between Suh and a goalpost or sedan or whatever’s nearby.
PICK: “New York” Giants
New England (+2.5) at Baltimore
I know no one wants to admit it, because the Patriots are basically a bunch of cartoon villains—a gang of brutish henchmen led by a sneering male model and a withered, hateful old man—but the team has had one of the more inspiring stories of the year. Most of their defense has been lost for various periods of time to variously serious injuries, Tom Brady has been fighting through hand issues, yet they’re going to get into the playoffs and may even pick up a first-round bye. Despite everything, they’re Super Bowl contenders—though, again, that’s probably just because of the AFC’s blah-ness.
PICK: New England
Oakland (+10) at San Diego
Speaking of the AFC’s blah-ness! The Chargers have been entertaining while battling their way to a mediocre record, but the Raiders, man… They may not be the worst team in the league, but shit just keeps happening to them, like getting into a 3rd-and-48 situaish, or letting the Chiefs score 56 points on them. At least they, like every NFL team that existed in the ‘70s, have a bunch of ridiculous, pompous YouTube videos that make it sound like they conquered Normandy. Here’s something for Raiders fans to listen to while they’re googling “2014 and 2015 draft any good quarterbacks offensive line defensive line wide receiver bourbon”:
Chicago (+3) at Philadelphia
The preseason talking point of,“Will Chip Kelly’s offense succeed in the NFL? Remember to look serious, guys, we get paid for this,” has died out, because obviously the Eagles’ offense has succeeded, mostly thanks to its talented players, including Nick “Best Quarterback in the NFL” Foles.
"We're running the same plays that a bunch of different NFL teams are running. We just do it quickly, and with different, more streamlined terminology,” tight end Brent Celek said a couple weeks ago, proving that he’ll never make it as a studio analyst. You gotta make things more complicated than that, Brent. I’ll tell you what.
Atlanta (+12.5) San Francisco
Since next week is a traditional time of celebration and gathering together with one’s clan, at least in Judeo-Christian societies, I’m going to take next week off—it’s Week 17, so it’s not like shit’s going to happen anyway. I’ll be back in this space for the playoffs, however, so here’s one last piping hot take to tide you over until the New Year: The 49ers are pretty good.
PICK: San Francisco
Previous week’s record: 13-3
Overall record: 114-104-6
All lines taken from FootballLocks.com