The first weekend of the 2011 NFL Playoffs is in the books, and in the AFC, it's time for war. Before we get started, thanks to Andy Hutchins for taking over this column while I was on vacation last week, and a special thanks to Jim Caldwell for the idiotic timeout that gave us this weekend's outstanding lineup in the AFC.
In both games, the teams know each other, they hate each other, they've traded victories this year, and they want nothing more than to land the death blow that finishes off their rivals for good. This weekend, we get to enjoy the platonic ideal of NFL football. Basically, war.
"Everyone's a pacifist between wars. It's like being a vegetarian between meals."
For the record... War is beyond most of our comprehension, and comparing NFL players to soldiers does an injustice to the men and women that kick ass on behalf of our country. I understand if you think I'm an idiot for defending the concept of football-as-war, but before we dismiss all war analogies as ridiculous, think about war as a theoretical concept, rather than it's literal counterpart.
The soul-crushing reality of war tends to fade when considered in the abstract. When killing a man doesn't mean watching him slowly die, or when winning a war doesn't mean watching a country crumble and returning home to somehow reconcile the inhumanity of the experience.
In reality, war can destroy imagination. In the abstract, though, war sustains myth.
Which brings us back to football—probably the best running rendition of war in the abstract. Not in the way that Mark Schlereth might describe it, either; we're not here to wax poetic about any battle in the trenches. You'll hear a lot of war cliches thrown in the next few days, and really, for as long you watch football. The preferred intellectual response is to dismiss them as immature and criminally oversimplified. But think about the larger framework of the game.
"Never will those who wage war tire of deception" - Sun Tzu
"As long as men still feel they are nothing without a call to duty, they will look for a place in the world where they find themselves excellent at something. One of those places is, and has always been, battle." - Walter Owen
"War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory." - Georges Clemenceau
"In time of war the loudest patriots are the greatest profiteers." - August Bebel
The plays that change everything:
"When the pin is pulled, Mr. Grenade is not your friend" - U.S. Marine Corps
And finally, the playoffs:
"The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it." - George Orwell
People wonder how the NFL has gotten so popular these days, and as I wrote a few weeks ago, there are a handful of reasonable explanations. But this weekend's a pretty awesome reminder that the reason we loved it in the first place is because it sustains the myths that we've always romanticized about battle and war and victory. And make no mistake: in football terms, the Patriots and Jets will be a war on Sunday; Saturday afternoon, it'll be the Ravens and Steelers.
In between games like these, everyone's a pacifist when it comes to making war analogies about something as silly as sports. It's like being a vegetarian between meals. But this weekend? TIME FOR SOME RED MEAT. With that, let's get into the NFL Buffet.
GIVE ME A HEAPING HELPING
Ravens at Steelers (-3.5), Saturday, 4:30
"NO MEANS NO"
"NO MEANS NO"
"NO MEANS NO"
...Oh, sorry. I was just over here cheering for Ben Roethlisberger.
But yeah, back to war. These teams hate each other. Hate hate hate. We know this. We knew this before Terrell Suggs wore his awesome bootleg t-shirt this week. For what feels like a decade now, the Steelers and Ravens have been beating the living crap out of each other. How do you even predict a winner here? If the NFL is full of teams that are rock, paper, or scissors, these are two rocks. They succeed for the same reasons--brute force, sporadic fits of explosiveness on offense, and then more brute force.
Not the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object. It's the immovable object against itself, and it's almost guaranteed to be close to the bitter end. Since 2008, they've played seven games, and only one of them has been decided by more than a field goal.
The difference will likely come down to quarterbacks. Four months ago, the Ravens biggest weakness was supposed to be their secondary. Fast forward to January, and Ed Reed is playing as well as ever, while Josh Wilson has evolved into a capable shutdown corner on the edge. In other words, the Ravens supposed weakness is now a strength, and if Pittsburgh wants to win Sunday, it'll come down to Mike Wallace's ability to get free, and Ben Roethlisberger's ability to deliver the ball when he does.
For Baltimore, we still don't know whether Joe Flacco can come through in games like this. Flacco fumbled late in their second regular season game with Pittsburgh, and it led to a game-winning touchdown for Pittsburgh. The Ravens had a chance to tie with a subsequent drive, but Flacco one-hopped a fourth down pass to an open tight end and... That was it.
So for Sunday, it comes down to who you believe in more. Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace's ability to beat the Baltimore secondary, or Flacco's ability to rise to the occasion and finally entrench himself among the NFL elite. In between, of course, there will be lots and lots of ass kicking. Here's to hoping that something horrible happens to Ben Roethlisberger.
Jets at Patriots (-9), Sunday 4:30
Whoa whoa whoa. ***JOE NAMATH AS YODA***
So much about this Jets season has felt scripted and surreal, it's only appropriate that the biggest moment yet would be accompanied by yet another moment that makes us pinch ourselves. On that note, here's Wes Welker's press conference from Thursday:
When even Wes Welker can't help but join in on the fun, you know you're in the midst of something special. Or historically bizarre. Either one. In any case, that's the backdrop to this weekend's game, which, when you think about it, sort of favors the Jets.
It's easier than ever to dismiss New York as some surreal sideshow, but don't forget: before the 45-3 drubbing in Week 13, these two teams were considered co-favorites in the AFC. Yes, the Patriots used that win as a springboard to becoming the most dominant team in the league, while the Jets lost two of their next three games and backed their way into the playoffs. But still.
The Jets can't be that much worse than the Patriots, can they? They may still lose on Sunday, but the talent and the coaching in New York is too good to get humiliated the way they did a month ago, and if anything, there's a better chance New England underestimates them.
Unlike the Ravens and Steelers, most of the games between New York and New England haven't been very close. But we're due. The teams hate each other, it'll be ugly weather in Foxborough, and in the end, something tells me the mind games in the media is going to give way to something a lot more brutal on Sunday. It should be awesome.
...Oh, and the NFC has games too?
I'LL HAVE A SCOOP OF THAT, PLEASE
Packers at Falcons (-1), Saturday, 8:30 PM
Don't get me wrong; it was a great story when Seattle won last weekend, and Marshawn Lynch's run was maybe the coolest single play of the NFL playoffs since David Tyree's helmet catch. But did anyone stop to think about what they did to the NFC Playoffs?
I mean, God.
Without the Saints, the NFC doesn't have a whole lot of intrigue. Couldn't you make a case that any of the remaining AFC teams would be favored over any NFC team that advances to the Super Bowl?
Having said that, the Packers looked great in Philly last week, and there's still an outside chance that we've been unfairly overlooking Atlanta all year long. They came up empty against the Saints on Monday night a few weeks ago and we all sort of wrote off their chances in the long run. But what if they're better than anyone realizes? There's a young core in Atlanta that could wind up dominating for the next few years; the question is whether they can entrench themselves with a playoff run here.
Or maybe it's the Packers that are the young team ready to establish themselves... In any case, even if the NFC sorta feels like the consolation bracket right now, the Falcons-Packers game is as good as it gets, and whichever team survives Saturday will probably end up in the Super Bowl. I'm pretty sure I'm rooting for Green Bay, if only so we don't have to listen to this song ever again.
Oh yeah we want that title nothin less than that Lombardi,
Cuz everybody know ATL love to party
On the other hand... GUCCI!
I'LL TASTE IT FIRST...
Seahawks at Bears, Sunday, 1:00
If the Seahawks can pull of the upset Sunday, host the Packers next week, and somehow advance to the Super Bowl, it won't be the best underdog story of all time, but it'll definitely be the funniest. I mean, two weeks ago when the majority Seahawks fans rooting were against their team in Week 17, I texted one of my best friends, a Seattle native and Seahawks fan. His explanation:
I mean, we're Godawful but I can't outright root against them. I mainly want them to win because I don't Bradford to win his first start here. ... Talent-wise we're a bottom five team. We need a lot. But it's more embarrassing to lose a division this bad.
Ah, if only Bears fans had that sort of self-awareness... In any case, I'm rooting for the Seahawks and the anarchy that'd emerge if they somehow made the Super Bowl. And if Sunday's game turns out to be unwatchable, I suggest we all just keep watching this clip.