Monday, January 13, 2014

Is This The Best NFL Championship Sunday Ever?

The problem with playoffs is that we usually don’t get the championship we want.

brady manning
It has been one of the defining characteristics in the college football playoff debate – should we reward the best team for the whole season or the one that got hot at the end?

It has been one of the significant drawbacks to the college basketball regular season – there is such a low threshold to qualify and so many teams involved that we get a tournament champion, not a season champion.

It has been one of the reasons why international soccer is so treasured and why so many loathe Major League Soccer’s insistence on an American-style playoff to crown a champion.

I could go on and on but the point has been made. And for one glorious week, we don’t have to worry about that.

For the first time in a decade, the NFL’s version of the Final Four on Sunday will feature the regular season’s best four teams. Yes, San Francisco didn’t get a bye but that is due to the quirk of sharing a division with the Seahawks.

If you were Roger Goodell, sitting in your Manhattan corner office in August, this is the Sunday you would have scripted. Brady vs. Manning. Carroll vs. Harbaugh. The best rivalry of the 2000’s followed by the best rivalry of the 2010’s.

It is, simply, too perfect. The games can’t possibly live up to the hype, right?

As much as the Super Bowl has become a cultural event, the NFL’s Championship Sunday has become the defining day for football fans. There will be no Bruno Mars at halftime. The pregame show on Fox won’t start on Thursday. There will be no red carpet, no cheesy “how to cook crazy nachos!” segments and no tied-in programming like the mind-numbing NFL Honors show.

This week is all about football. It is about home-field advantages. It is about California residents prevented from buying Seahawks tickets. It is about X’s, O’s and oh-no’s.

Am I going over the top? You bet I am. What we see on Sunday is what college football is desperately trying to emulate on New Year’s Day 2015.

What makes this Sunday stand out among other Championship Sundays is how the storylines in play have been playing out for four months. That never happens, just look at recent history.

Did anyone think the 2012 Baltimore Ravens were the best AFC team?

Did anyone predict the Jets’ back-to-back AFC title game runs in 2009 and 2010?

The beauty of this Sunday is what we will feel as fans and viewers when each game starts. There is a difference between a championship game and a Championship Game.

You can picture them in your head – the championship games that became Championship Games because of the build-up. It usually happens when the two best teams meet.

For my money, no recent game has ever felt as big and important as the New Orleans/Minnesota title game from 2009. The Superdome felt so loud, I thought my television was going to explode. The tension was so great, it seeped through the screen. These teams had been on a collision course for four straight months and when it finally happened – it could not have been any bigger, almost literally. Nearly 60 million people watched that game, making it the most-watched NFC Title Game since 68 million (holy crap, right?) watched the 49ers/Cowboys game from 1982 that ended in The Catch.

Will the ratings reach those extraordinary heights on Sunday? I think if the games were reversed and Brady/Manning had the 6:30 p.m. slot, then definitely yes. As the schedule stands now – possibly yes. If either game is close in the fourth quarter, the ratings will be astronomical.

Is there any wonder the NFL is shopping a new Thursday Night Football package*?

*I still believe they are setting up for a Tuesday Night Football package on the NFL Network to solidify its global dominance.

Since I am so excited for this week’s games, I figured I’d make a couple of picks like I did for the college football season. I hit on 54% of winners during the regular season – just ignore, like, all of my bowl picks.

DENVER (-4) over New England
As a Jets fan, I am legally obligated to hate the Patriots and Tom Brady. As a football fan, I am forced to respect them. As someone trying to make a pick, I have no idea what to make of them.

The Patriots season can basically be summed up by the first game against the Broncos. They were severely outmanned on defense. They seemed to have no answers. They looked like they were going to lose by 30. Then, in a blink of an eye, the game gets close, they get a break in overtime and somehow they walk out with a victory.

The emergence of LaGarrette Blount means that there is probably a grand total of 1 Patriot skill player that would start for Denver, and that still may be a toss-up.

Is there any doubt this is the best collection of weapons Peyton Manning has ever had? He has four guys catching balls that could be legitimate #1 options on other teams – say, the offensively-challenged Jets, for example.

For all the flak Peyton has taken over the years for his playoff performances, he has almost always been forced to win the thing single-handedly. This year, Denver’s defense poses a problem but at least Peyton won’t have to go it alone on offense.

My only concern with this pick is that John Fox is a terrible playoff coach. He blew the game last year against the Ravens. And he was so very, very close to blowing it on Sunday before remembering he had Peyton F’ing Manning as his quarterback and throwing the ball is how they need to run out games.

I love Denver at home in this game against a Patriots secondary that look extremely vulnerable to the pass against the Colts on Saturday night. But betting against the Patriots in the playoffs is a horrible idea…if this were a decade ago.


russell wilson 49ers
San Francisco (+3.5) over SEATTLE
When the season started, I thought the 49ers were the best team in football. After week 3 and a terrible letdown loss to the Colts – a week after getting shellacked by the Seahawks – I thought I was wrong.

Then the season turned when they lost a tight, controversial game against the Saints two weeks before Thanksgiving. They were 6-4. They were by no means guaranteed a playoff berth. They were in trouble. 

They haven’t lost since.

It hasn’t always been pretty and they’ve had to eke out some close victories. But this is again the best team in football. And when the best team in football gets to play the “Nobody believes in us!” card, that’s troubling.

You know what else is troubling? The Seahawks’ inability to put away the Saints on Saturday. While the Broncos played terrible – for them – and were able to relatively easily dispatch of the Chargers, the Seahawks played great on Saturday as the Saints played awful. So why did the Saints have the ball with 20 seconds to go and a chance at a Hail Mary, before a Marques Colston (or Sean Payton) brainfart?

In a similar position Sunday afternoon, on the road, the 49ers put their figurative foot on the figurative throat of the Carolina Panthers and pounded them into submission. It was a Championship performance if I’ve ever seen one.

What scares me here? One guy – Russell Wilson. His performance against the Falcons in last year’s Divisional Playoff is one of the great games in NFL history that will be discarded from our collective memory since neither made the Super Bowl. Russell Wilson, if he delivers another A+ performance, could win this game by himself. I am essentially saying – I don’t think the 49ers let that happen.

You know what else I’m saying?

“Sunday can’t get here soon enough.”

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