You watched your favorite team all year. You lived and died with them every Sunday. Mostly, you died. Your team wasn't very good. Awful, really. They missed the playoffs. This is a good thing.
There are all sorts of reasons to love the NFL playoffs, but number one is that if your team's not in it, you get to choose a brand new team that doesn't totally suck. Look at this way: If your team did make the playoffs, you're all but guaranteed to walk away from this experience unhappy. Only one team wins the Super Bowl, and everybody else ends up lost in a world of "what ifs" and "maybe next years". For the rest of us, those "what ifs" that drive us crazy are long gone--now we get to just sit back and enjoy football like normal people.
We spend 17 weeks during the regular season trying to see the silver linings in our dysfunctional favorite teams, then when they fail once and for all, it frees us to adopt whoever we want. Your favorite team is like family. You can't choose family. If they're dysfunctional and hopeless, those are just the breaks. But wouldn't it be cool if you could just adopt whichever family seems the coolest and most interesting, then ditch them when they stop being cool and interesting?
That's the NFL playoffs. For one beautiful six week period, we can forget how dysfunctional our real favorite team is, and live vicariously through somebody else's family. We can pick favorite teams, root for them to win, but not be crushed when they lose.
This is how I imagine sports works for people more emotionally balanced than me, but at playoff time, we all get a taste of what it's like to watch sports like a rational human being. So with that in mind, let's break down the most attractive teams to root for in 2012.
We'll break them down by category.
The Dynasty-ish Contenders
Patriots – C’mon now. Just because you can root for anyone doesn’t mean you go out and pick a team like the Patriots. Make it interesting. Make it fun. Make it so that you don’t unwittingly align yourself with the purest personification of evil the NFL’s ever seen.
Besides, the Patriots haven’t beaten a winning team all year. And even if you think that statistic’s going to become so overblown that New England’s probably gonna end up being underestimated, they’re still ripe for an upset somewhere over the next few weeks. We can do better.
Packers – Really? You’re going to go out and pick the team that nearly went undefeated this year, won the Super Bowl last year, and has the best group of young talent—by far—in the entire league? You could’ve jumped on the Packers bandwagon last season, but this year, if you root for the Packers you may as well wear a Miami Heat jersey while you do it.
Bengals – Everybody loves an underdog!
Broncos – Unless that underdog is a good bet to self-destruct as soon as you start rooting for them. Both of these teams could be fun in an Oliver Twist kinda way, and it’s always fun to root for redheads (Andy Dalton) and/or hipster linebackers (Von Miller) to succeed. But in the end you’re probably just wasting your energy because they'll be out of it after this weekend.
Also, if you’re gonna root for Tim Tebow to succeed in the playoffs, prepare to alienate roughly 70 percent of friends. It was all fun and games when he was winning during the regular season, but if he goes on a run the next few weeks, people will be FLIPPING OUT on both sides.
- Fan #1: "Can he work his miracles all the way to Super Bowl??? Maybe???
- Fan #2: "NO he’s the worst f**ing quarterback of all time ARE YOU PEOPLE BLIND?"
- Fan #1: "But maybe!
- Fan #2: "HOLY S**T I’M GONN--"
- Fan #1: "Have a little FAITH, pal."
- Fan #2: "WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT DID YOU SEE--"
- Fan #1: "Hey hey hey take it easy man. Did YOU see? This is the best story in sports!"
- Fan #2: "I’M GONNA MURDER YOU AND SET YOUR BODY ON FIRE."
(Note: This is actually kind of a good reason to root for the Broncos.)
Steelers – As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "F**k the f**king Steelers, man."
(Note: That might not be an exact quote)
The Hipster’s Choice
Lions – Everybody loves Detroit because they haven’t won in a million years, their light blue has the so-sad-it’s-kinda-cool quality that the Bucs’ creamsicle unis have taken on over the years, and it’s just fun to quote @DadBoner and pretend to be a Lions fan each week. Plus, if someone asks why you’re rooting for them you can sound perfectly knowledgeable just by gushing about Megatron and Ndamukong for 90 seconds.
The problem(s): Dad Boner is way more fun when the Lions lose and Karl gets suicidal, and for as cool as Calvin Johnson is, Matt Stafford is every bit as frustrating, and Ndamukong’s really kinda insane. And more generally, Detroit just seems a little too pleased with themselves these days. Take this Yahoo! Sports story this week:
It’s January. It’s the playoffs. The Lions refused to even acknowledge that they’re the underdogs. They want no part of the oldest and easiest motivational ploy in sports.
"Screw the disrespect card," said center Dominic Raiola.
"I doubt New Orleans is taking that approach," linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "You take that approach into the game against us, we’ll come out on top … Drew Brees is a great player, he’s an elite player. Yes, he’s going to make plays. [But] you’ve got to have a swag and an attitude about yourself when you get on that football field. You’ve got to have that mentality that you’re the best and teams can’t score on you. That’s the approach you’ve got to take."
We get it, okay? These guys have ATTITUDE. They don’t play by anybody else’s rules and they aren’t your same old Lions. But they KINDA are.
The Dark Horses
Falcons – They’ve been just decent enough over the past 10 years to make people forget how genuinely awful that franchise has been over the course of their 55 years in Atlanta. They’ve never won a Super Bowl, they've only won 4 division titles EVER, and the only two times they’ve flirted with real legitimacy were the ’98 Super Bowl, when Eugene Robinson got busted with a prostitute the night before the game, and the Michael Vick years, which… You know. Teams like the Lions get all the love, but Atlanta’s every bit as depressing. If you want to root for an underdog, take Atlanta.
PLUS: The Falcons are actually good. Julio Jones gave us three or four of the most insane catches we saw this season, Roddy White’s criminally underrated, John Abraham and the defense is solid, and Matt Ryan might use these playoffs as a springboard to joining Brees, Rodgers, and Brady among the NFL’s elite QBs. He might not, obviously, but with Jones and White, it’ll be fun to watching him try.
Giants – A Grantland story on Kwame Brown this week included a line that had nothing to with Kwame Brown or even basketball, in general. As Jay Caspian Kang writes:
I've never understood why the loudest sports fans identify so exclusively with excellence and achievement — why, in real life, Shooter McGavin has won out over Happy Gilmore.
God this is true, and it makes no sense. But that's a discussion for another time.
For now we'll just say this: On the Shooter-Happy continuum, there's no NFL quarterback closer to Happy Gilmore than Eli Manning. He drinks to excess, he's a shockingly obsessive prankster, and some of the decisions he makes on the field are so stupid and incomprehensible that all you can do is smile and shake your head. He may not actually be good, but he's always entertaining one way or another, and if the Giants can get past round one, New York and their goofy ass QB have a chance at sneaking up on everyone all over again.
Texans – The Texans are the one team in the playoff that can credibly play the "Us against the world" card. Once Matt Schaub went down, everyone in the NFL just quietly crossed them off the contenders list. Having them in the playoffs is sort of a formality, if anything. And maybe all the skeptics are right. But if you're looking to pull for a dark horse... Take the team with a defense full of killers, an offense full of playmakers, WADE PHILLIPS running the defense and looking goofy as ever on the sidelines, and T.J. Yates under center--the rookie who's in so far over his head, you can't help but root for him to pull this off. We should all love the Texans.
The Fun Contenders
49ers – Patrick Willis trying to decapitate people on defense, Aldon Smith and the best sack celebration we've seen all year, Michael Crabtree coming back from the dead, Jim Harbaugh biding his time in coaching before running for president, and a team that's been TERRIBLE over the past few years and deserves this as much as anybody. There's a lot to like about the 49ers. And even if it's true that they're not quite as good as their record (13-3) suggests, that just means that every win will feel like an upset. Rooting for Alex Smith in the playoffs will be terrifying in a "roller coaster that might fall apart at any moment" kinda way, but hey, some people like that kinda thing.
Ravens – If you can't root for an all-Harbaugh Super Bowl, what CAN you root for? True, willingly investing yourself in Joe Flacco is always dangerous. But Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are about as badass as football players get, and not only is it fun to root for them, but it seems like they're due for one, last run. Now we'll get out of the way now and let Ray Lewis talk.
Saints – What are you looking for in a new favorite team? A team that's gonna be entertaining every week? (Check). A bunch of crazy fans who aren't totally obnoxious? (Check). A superstar that's impossible to root against? (Check). A team with a legitimate chance at winning it all, but not quite dominant enough to not make you feel like a frontrunner? (Check). If you're looking to pick a new favorite team for the playoffs, aren't you looking for Shaun Rogers and the Saints?