Man Getting Hit By Football: Wild Card Weekend

It's the postseason, which means all the lousy teams are at home, firing their coaches. Well, except for the Chargers.
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Illustration by Brad Beatson.

Kansas City (+2.5) at Indianapolis

With another NFL season wrapped up, it’s time to look back on it in the semi-fond way of a young person looking back upon a whiskey-splotched night that was, probably, pure giddy fun except for the moments of extreme/extremely blurry ugliness. The yards, the touchdowns, the advanced stats, the tackles, the interceptions, the nauseatingly violent hits, the ensuing concussions and their ensuing consequences, the various injuries and rolling garbage-waves of commercials, the shitty pregame and postgame blather… well, it happened, it’s over. Good times, more or less, to the extent that we remember and can feel okay about those good times. And now we just sit back and wait for the playoffs.

One way to pass the time until Saturday is to make predictions about who will win the awards ritualistically given out each year to officially mark the guys who were really, really good at football. These awards include corporate gobbledigook like the GMC Never Say Never Moment of the Year and the FedEx Air and Ground Players of the Year, but the ones humans actually care about are:

MVP: Traditionally, this is pretty much just given out to the quarterback with the best stats, unless a running back broke a bunch of records. This year it’s obviously Peyton Manning, who will be winning for the fifth time—prepare yourself for yet more thumbnail hagiographies for the mush-faced Papa John’s spokesman who admittedly is possibly the best ball-thrower to ever throw a ball. None of what will be written about him will likely top this great portrait by Grantland’s Brian Phillips. All of it will probably feel kind of weird, even though you know it’s mostly right.

Offensive Player of the Year: Somehow, this award doesn’t just get handed out to the MVP, who has been an offensive player ever since 1986, when Lawrence Taylor terrified the league. How is the most valuable player not also the best offensive player? This award is stupid.

Defensive Player of the Year: This one really exposes how crazy these award categories are in the first place. Unlike in baseball or basketball, where the players all perform similar tasks—hit the ball, put the ball in the hoop—football is broken down into narrow specializations that can’t really be compared, and which all matter a lot and are for the most part dependent upon each other. Manning is the best quarterback, but does that really make him more valuable than the best left tackle, or the best safety? How do you quantify the relative merits of a middle linebacker line Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, a defensive end like St. Louis’s Robert Quinn, or a defensive back like Seattle’s Earl Thomas? What’s the point of trying in the first place? This award is stupid too.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: The rookie-related fields are usually less crowded than their grown-up cousins—in this case, the award will like go to Eddie Lacy, the workhouse of the plodding Aaron Rodgers–less Packers offense, or Keenan Allen, a key cog in the not-plodding-at-all Chargers passing attack. If I had a vote, it’d go to Allen based on pure .GIF-generating quality.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: According to most NFL writers who make it their business to predict such things, Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson is the favorite here, and Sheldon Richardson agrees. So, sure.

Coach of the Year: The best coach in the league is Bill Belichick, but this award is actually for coaches who had a surprising amount of success, so it should go to Ron Rivera, who was hated by some Carolina fans a few months ago but is now leading what’s probably the best Panthers team in franchise history.

Comeback Player of the Year: Honestly, I don’t understand what this award is for. It certainly makes sense when a player returns from a horrific injury (like when Peyton Manning won it last year) or gets out of prison (Michael Vick won it in 2010), but without such an obvious candidate this season’s CPOY might fall to, say, Philip Rivers, who is “coming back” from being perplexingly and uncharacteristically shitty last year. So, not exactly a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit.    

No doubt it’s great to receive these awards, or even to be named the FedEx Ground Player of the Year. But really they exist to give ESPN and ESPN-esque talking heads a few more consequence-free topics to argue about. MANNING OR BRADY, WHO YA GOT? Lord knows people (mostly men) love to watch other people (again, mostly men) invent categories for competitive greatness and then declare various athletes worthy or unworthy of occupying those categories. Who is ELITE is always going to be more interesting than What is ELITE for these (mostly) dudes, and anyway it’s easier to argue about.

The good news is that, with the NFL now shrunken down to its better/luckier teams, it’s easier than ever to skip the yelling and simply watch the playoffs, where the yelled-about narratives of achievement mercifully fall apart in the face of actual football. What is left, now, are just some good teams playing football until there’s only one team left; the NCAA may want to try this idea out in the future. So nothing but high-quality, high-stakes NFL football: a pure, uncut supply that will last for about a month before it dries out after the Super Bowl, at which point ESPN’s resident leatherfaces can safely go back to arguing about who’s ELITE again.

This is, admittedly, maybe not highest quality football, exactly—the Colts and the Chiefs are a combined 8-8 over the last half of the season, and Kansas City muddled its way to a 23-7 loss at home against Indianapolis just two weeks ago. Also the Chiefs have a lousy history with kickers in the playoffs. But the rest of these games are good, I promise.

PICK: Indianapolis

New Orleans (+2.5) at Philadelphia

The first round of playoffs games can feel like undercards, warm-ups before the top four teams get involved, but even if the Saints and Eagles don’t have much of a chance to march in/soar/whatever-other-verb-signifying-progress-you-prefer towards the Super Bowl, it’s still a great match-up. By DVOA, the Saints’ defense is 20th in the league against the run and the Eagles’ is 25th against the pass, so it’s not hard to imagine LeSean McCoy skating his way past perpetually-falling-down Saints while on the other side of the ball, Drew Brees has one of those games that makes everyone watching think, Hey, being an NFL quarterback isn’t so hard! All of those guys are open! I throw passes roughly like that to my cousins on the beach while wearing flip-flops!

Speaking of making it look easy, is there no way Nick Foles can get an award for his season? I suppose technically he didn’t “come back” from anything so much as he came out of nowhere, but wherever he’s coming from or to, dude completed 64 percent of his passes for an average of over nine yards per attempt, and threw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions. If he doesn’t get at least an ESPY for that, the city of Philadelphia should get together, throw him a party, and make him a cake that says “HI NICK FOLES, IT’S US, THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA. WE JUST WANT TO LET YOU KNOW YOU ARE REALLY GREAT AND COOL. DON’T GET TOO UPSET TEN MONTHS FROM NOW WHEN WE BOO YOU FOR HAVING A BAD GAME OR EVEN JUST A MEDIOCRE GAME, IT JUST MEANS WE LOVE YOU AND WE WANT YOU TO DO A GOOD JOB OUT THERE.” Although they’d probably forget to get him a cake and would just show up late, clearly drunk, and with a Wawa hoagie that has one small bit taken out of it.

PICK: New Orleans

San Diego (+7) at Cincinnati

Is it possible to have a humiliating win? If so, the Chargers had one last Sunday, barely beating the Chiefs’ backups and even then needing help from a potentially game-changing bad call. The problem, if I may get a little bit analytical here, is that San Diego’s defense is extremely bad. The secondary allowed Chase “Five-Year Backup And My Last Name Isn’t Even Plural” Daniel to complete 21 of 30 passes, and Sports on Earth’s Mike Tanier described the linebacking corps this week as “an anonymous unit sandwiched between two other anonymous units on a defense whose only saving grace is the fact its next opponent employs Trent Richardson and Tashard Choice.”  

Except the Chargers are actually playing Cincinnati, a team that employs the very fun Giovanni Bernard and very BenJarvus Green-Ellis-ian BenJarvus Green-Ellis, not to mention A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. The issue, for the Bengals, is the guy throwing the ball. This year Andy Dalton set single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns by a Bengals quarterback, and inspired some ridiculous “Is He an Elite QB?” speculation. He was also streaky and has a history of throwing the ball to the wrong place at the wrong time. (Dan Shaughnessy, the Boston Globe columnist who’s the favorite sportswriter of old mops and sculptures made of cigarette butts everywhere, recently called Dalton and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis “twin tomato cans ripe for the kicking,” which is like one of those things your grandpa occasionally says that feels a bit racist but is probably just an obscure old-guy-ism.)

Cincinnati has been gnashing its teeth about Dalton all season, and if the city baked him a cake it would probably say, “YOU’RE WONDERFUL, YOU’RE THE BEST QUARTERBACK WE EVER HAD YOU CAN SLEEP AT MY HOUSE I’LL DYE MY HAIR RED ALSO DON’T FUCK THIS UP ANDY PLEASE I NEED THIS, I’M FURIOUS WE NEED TO WIN JUST ONE PLAYOFF GAME FINALLY PLEASE PLEASE COME THROUGH PUT IT ALL TOGETHER OR I’LL GUT YOU STRAIGHT UP THEY WILL NEVER FIND YOU. LOVE, CINCY.” The cake has a lot more blood in its batter than cakes normally do. Don’t eat this cake. Cincinnati has been going through some stuff and it’s not safe.

That’s not the point, though. The point is that if Chase Daniel can have a very good game against the Chargers, Dalton can throw a couple decent downfield bombs, no matter what kind of creepy baked good his “fans” are sending him.

PICK: Cincinnati

San Francisco (-2.5) at Green Bay

When Green Bay played San Francisco in Week 1, the back-and-forth game looked like it could be a playoff preview—Colin Kaepernick looked unstoppable and threw for over 400 yards and Aaron Rodgers was only marginally more stoppable as he threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns. Kaepernick at the time looked like an freakish combination of speed and throwing ability, having just come off a playoff run that included a shellacking of the Packers in which he ran for 181 yards, and the Packers looked like they’d be contenders once again thanks to Rodgers just generally being magical and the defense looking marginally less shitty than 2012’s version.

Well, Rodgers got hurt and the Packers became just another flailing NFC North team. More to the point, they were a flailing NFC North team that played in some of the worst games of the season, including a 26-26 tie with the Vikings that was purely the result of neither team quite wanting to win. The 49ers, meanwhile, played less well when faced with defenses stouter than the Packers’—which is, more or less, any other NFL defense—and looked shaky before cranking out a six-game winning streak to end the season.

Despite all that, this game is the weekend’s best matchup on paper. The Packers’ offense is healthy, the 49ers look scary again, and even recently avenged a couple terrible losses to the Seahawks. Also, this could be the coldest NFL game ever played, and so a landmark moment in the NFL’s hilarious ongoing Linemen Not Wearing Sleeves To Show How Tough They Are sub-drama. The only thing that’s missing from making this a perfect first-round playoff game is a bizarre coach freakout, and with Jim Harbaugh in the mix, we may get that as well.

PICK: San Francisco

Last week’s record: 7-9 (from Week 16)
Overall record: 121-113-6
All lines taken from FootballLocks.com


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