It's championship weekend in the NFL. After months of trench warfare and bomb passes and ground attacks and defense and blood, sweat, and tears, America's favorite sport prepares to reach a climax.
You will hear me moaning loudly around 5:30 this Sunday, either in destitute sadness or in orgasmic euphoria. That's how much I care about these Green Bay Packers. The same ones that I've watched be ladened with injuries and suffer a dangerous amount of frustrating defeats since September. We have persevered and earned our spot in the NFC championship game. Ahh, the anticipation is killing me.
Rooting interests aside, there are three other teams that have made it to this platform, all three of which have passionate fans that match my intensity and passion. The fact is, the four remaining teams are four of the NFL's upper-eschelon franchises, and serve as a testament that the NFL isn't as "evolved" as we all thought it was.
This season has been one of the more dynamic ones that I can remember, which isn't that crazy, because I can remember like seven seasons vividly. (Apparently the Browns made the playoffs in 2002. How did this happen? How do I not remember this landmark achievement?)
If you remember, we started this season with a very different outlook at who would be in the Super Bowl, and that has changed periodically.
Starting before the season, the Minnesota Vikings had "the look". "The look" is when you see a team and think, "damn, they are headed for the Super Bowl if they play like this." Before the year actually started, Minnesota had everything. Quarterback, running game, able receivers, defensive playmakers, scary special teams, you name it. The Vikings looked like a stout favorite. Then they actually started playing games.
By the fifth week of the season, everybody had a loss on their resume, and the team that boasted the best look about them was Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, whose only loss was a narrow defeat at the hands of top division rival Baltimore, was 3-1 and scary without the help of their franchise quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger's return would usher in an era of dominance and they would run over opponents from October to the end of January, or so we thought...
The Steelers, who started hot without Ben Roethlisberger, will try to avenge a Week 15 loss to the Jets.
By week 9, the league had a new top dog. The Baltimore Ravens, who themselves boasted "the complete package," were tied for the league's top record. They boasted a blossoming quarterback and a burgeoning group of Pro-Bowl caliber receivers. The return of Ed Reed from injury assured that this team wouldn't lose steam for the rest of the season. But, well, they did.
Shortly after the Ravens reached the top of the dogpile that was the NFL, they were deterred by Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, in a personal dethroning where Ryan's team drove downfield in the last minute of the game, scoring a touchdown and spurning the Baltimore fans who finally thought it was their year. This validated Atlanta, and they did look like a winner, I saw them take us down in the last minute of a game and stab us in the heart (for which we would get sweet, sweet revenge). Hell, they even had that catchy commercial where they're all on a bus with the kids and bobbing their heads in sync to the music that all of them can inexplicably hear. This team looked like they were having a year to remember.
But they weren't. They faded down the stretch, and New England began dominating fools like it was nobody's business. They thrashed the Jets on national TV 45-3, which is downright embarrilarious. They were playing football the Patriots way, where they nickel and dime you and score every time because Tom Brady's great and they weren't letting you outscore them by causing you to throw on their talented secondary. They had a clear path to the Super Bowl, but the feeling was temporary, as they could not hold on to their dominance, just like everyone else before them.
And thus the Packers inherited the seat of "NFL's top dawg". Destroying the Giants and eeking out Chicago in back-to-back must win games. Then we beat down the NFL's most dangerous offense in Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles (who themselves had a week or two where they looked like the NFL's best team). The Packers then dominated the Atlanta Falcons, sending them off with a spank on the ass in the form of a 48-21 thrashing.
And now we're down to four teams.
A team that certainly has never had "the look," and along with that, much of any respect, is the Chicago Bears. They don't have injuries, they had an easyish schedule, they got a bye and have only beaten Seattle thus far in the playoffs, and so they get slighted as the team who is probably the fourth most worthy of a spot in Championship weekend. This may be true, but only because of the difficult paths the other teams have taken. The New York Jets beat Peyton Manning and Brady back to back, Pitt played a quarter of the season minus their franchise quarterback and beat bitter rival Baltimore to earn a shot at the Super Bowl, and Green Bay, need we go over this again? YES. WE'VE HAD SO MANY INJURIES. WE'VE PLAYED SO MANY GOOD TEAMS. WE ARE THE WORTHIEST.
Side tangent: to those who discredit the self-inclusive "we" of sports fans, go die. We, the fans, invest a ridiculous amount of time into following these teams and expend an inexcusable amount of emotional investment in their successes, we benefit from it not at all; unless we win the Super Bowl. The least you can give us is the privilege of pretending that our passion matters as much as an inclusive "we". I watch every Packers game every week all the time. I would absolutely suit up, were I seven times the athlete and seven inches and seventy pounds greater in mass. But I'm not. God gave me the power to be a fan. So a fan I shall be. And I will not take the shit you give me for caring about my team to the point of senselessly including myself when I talk about our gameplan for the week. Just let me have my "we", Shiffman.
But back to worthiness. Don't discredit the Bears. They're here for a reason. If they win this weekend then there's no doubt left to have, but they earned a first round bye, and they dominated the Seahawks like a superior team should. They've proven doubters wrong all season, and they set out to do it again on Sunday as the underdog against a team that: A-they finished with a better record than, B-they beat in the regular season, and C-are playing at home. The Bears will have a chip–and 65,000 rabid fans–on their shoulder.
And so we're here! Championship Sunday! Winners go to the big game, losers suffer a feeling of depression that they won't forget for years! And honestly, oftentimes the conference championships are more intriguing match-ups than the championships themselves. I don't just mean in football either. Think about it, this theory is proven year in and year out with baseball. Red Sox-Yankees is more exciting than Red Sox-Astros. Part of this is because baseball is stupid and allows, like, a three-week window where teams from different conferences (or in this case, "Leagues") play each other. The sooner they change that, the sooner baseball can become more interesting. There's legitimately no reason to restrict inter-league play. Traditionalists be damned, it's obvious the way you like your baseball is plain boring. In basketball, with the rare exception of Boston-LA in the finals, the conference finals are just more playoff-y. I remember when the Lakers and Pistons were dominating their respective conferences in the early 2000's, it was a rivalry between DET/LA and a player to be named later. For LA- Sacramento, Portland, T'Wolves, San Antonio. For DET- Indiana, Cleveland, Miami. In the NFL, you have the great Colts-Pats match-ups and it's just always a battle. The teams are usually bigger rivals, and that is the central point of this paragraph.
That rings true this season as well. But, in the AFC we had our rivalry games in the Divisional rounds, not that the Jets and Steelers are friends. Well, maybe they are. However, in the NFC, we have an amazing occurence: THE BEARS AND PACKERS. FOR ALL THE MARBLES IN THE NFC. What's more amazing? Is that this never freaking happens. Usually one of these teams is good and the other fades out early. Proof? These teams have never met in the NFC championship game (save for 1941, but that was wayyyy before the current system). This game is the biggest Bears-Packers game yet to date, and it's the rubber game for the two teams after they split the season series. Part of the reason why this is traditionally such a classy and respectful rivalry is because of the see-saw effect these two teams seem to have on each other. No reason to be mad as a Packers fan when you're going 4-12 and against a Bears team destined for 10-6 and they kick your ass. They're the better team and took care of business. And even if an upset occurs, it's still like "Ha! We beat you! We'll be rootin' for you in the playoffs..." because these teams just never make the playoffs at the same time. In my 18 years of life, only 3 times have both teams made the playoffs in the same year, despite the combined 19 playoff appearances by the two teams. This very time is the only time since I've been alive that the two teams PLAYED each other in the playoffs. We may as well be playing this game in hell.
Oh wait we are.
The other game, in the AFC, is less enthralling. Jets-Steelers. Who do you want to win? The Steelers. Of course you do, nobody likes the Jets. We don't doubt you Bart Scott, we're sick of you. They have every aspect of unlikability on their side: Fat asshole coach, overpaid star-studded roster with a bunch of championship chasers, quarterback enviable for his celebrity and not his skills, trash talkers, from New York, they are cheaters, and what's worst, they're actually good. The Steelers can't make me hate them no matter how many Super Bowls they win, and I don't know why. They have great fans. James Harrison is a beast. Polamalu does funny hair commercials. Their quarterback may be a rapist. Uhh, erm, maybe that one's not so likable. Hines Ward is one of the most likable guys in the league, given that you aren't playing him on that particular Sunday. And frankly, we just want the Steelers in the Super Bowl to make it more interesting.
Life wishes it could be as important as the Super Bowl.
The possible Super Bowl match-ups have, to me, a distinct order of appeal.
Team with most championships versus team with most Super Bowls. Best fan bases in the NFL, playing for a title in the stadium of a team they both hate. Good quarterbacks. They had an unforgettable game last year that ended on a last second Steelers touchdown. An anguishing defeat for Green Bay, but one that stuck with them and I think has helped prepare them for big games like the one on Sunday. A rematch of that caliber will be sublime.
This is intriguing because these teams don't have much of a history, but they should. Two of the oldest most historically significant franchises in the NFL, and they have yet to meet in a Super Bowl or a big game. A Bears or Steelers fan may be able to remember a great one, but it would be a great rivalry-establishing game for two of the most respected teams in the league.
I put this third, not because I'm a Packers fan, but because the teams match up really well. The Aaron Rodgers versus Jets secondary battle will be one to watch, and the Jets star-studded offense that's weak point is the QB would be interesting to see take on a streaky but burning hot Packers D.
These teams played two or three weeks ago in a high-scoring but mildly entertaining affair. The stakes would be higher and the game would benefit, but this is setting up for a defensive struggle. If it is one, the game will lose interest, if it isn't one, it will be disappointing to the football die-hards like myself. However, if it's a tough defensive game, I would enjoy it (LIES–if the Packers lose this weekend I will hate the Super Bowl.)
This is how the Bears spell sex appeal.
Speaking of defensive battles, this post-season has been a testament to the dirtbags who proclaim "defense wins championships" because they sure as hell have gotten teams to the conference title games. The Jets have a swarming defense. So do the Steelers. So do the Bears. So do the Packers. These teams are equipped with ample offenses, but the teams that boast their offense (Eagles, Falcons, Patriots, Colts) fell short. You need both facets to win in the playoffs. The Bears, this weekend will try to prove that you need all three, because their special teams is vastly superior to ours and if it has its way, the Pack are in deep doo-doo.
Additionally, the offenses can't be pass-happy either. They can be pass oriented, but they need balance. Each game this post-season, the team that has ran the ball more times has won the contest. Now this is also true because you run when you are winning, but still, it shouldn't be ignored. The Packers, whose run game is the most questionable, found their guy (or so it seems) at the right time in rookie James Starks. His performance has allowed the team to outlast Philly and choke out Atlanta.
The emergence of James Starks has fans and teammates alike jumping for joy and dancing.
This game has me sweating through showers and unable to sleep. I'm dazing off in class and unable to watch Dragonball Z with the full attention that I prefer. There is nothing like the conference championships. And as I sit in my oasis of room 112 in a sea of Bears fans here in Champaign, it's so strange to grasp the fact that in the Super Bowl, it's either us or them. If it's not us, it's them. If it's not them, it's us.
Now I won't make picks, because they don't mean shit. But I hope we win. 2007 we got here and lost. If we got here and win I will be guaranteed 2 weeks of prideful euphoria, and if we lose I will be drained of so much. So much. The thing is, it is a game. You can't plan for everything. Especially with the Bears. But if we go out there and wallop them I will be Super Saiyan 3 shooting out Kamehamehas of love and happiness, because we've been here since August. Everything has built up to this. It's time to take the big stage, hold your breath, and go do it. My roommates a Steelers fan, but he has the Super Bowl he won 2 years ago to fall back on if his team goes to shame. Bears and Packers, everything's at stake. All or nothing. I can't stop imagining glorious/disastrous scenarios in my head, but I have all the confidence in the world. It's all about Sunday. At 2 P.M. on that frozen field. Making the biggest plays. Scoring the most points. Winning the game. Earning the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Breathe it in. And bring on the weekend.