In a practical sense, familiar storylines of the regular season carry through seamlessly to the playoffs. Rivalries, injuries, quarterback controversies, inter- and intra-squad squabbles—they’re all hashed out on the pregame shows, and after kickoff they’re hashed out some more, peppered throughout the broadcast as the action permits. If a player snatches an opponent’s jewelry this weekend, as Denver cornerback Aqib Talib did to Oakland receiver Michael Crabtree on Sunday, the networks’ researchers will be ready as always with clips to illuminate the history of the beef.
In a dramatic sense, though, every storyline is now magnified because, for heaven’s sake, it’s the playoffs. Narrative threads that are mere matters of circumstance in the regular season become matters of fate in the postseason. The portent of imminent doom is a powerful scene-setter that way. Talib’s petty larceny in the Oakland-Denver game was an exchange between a competitor whose season was ending (Talib) and another who was already guaranteed to play on (Crabtree). It was a funny, forgettable diversion since the stakes were relatively minor. If that happened in the playoffs, the slow-motion shot of Michael Crabtree’s gold chain twisting in the air would have the trappings of myth—a flash of bling tantamount to the shearing of Samson. We might end up remembering Denver’s 24-6 blowout win as The Necklace Game.
It’s the same phenomenon that makes a king’s stray glance mean more at the conclusion of a Game Of Thrones season than it does in, say, episode five. When we sense that the end is looming, every moment feeds the narrative crescendo. That’s why I love the NFL postseason. In each game, one team’s season ends, so it’s a show where every episode is a season finale. We just don’t know whose finale it is until they play the game, which is the exhilarating uncertainty of sports.
Beyond the sheer excitement of do-or-die playoff games, I reliably end up transfixed by the somber quiet on the losing sideline when a game’s outcome is clear. Inevitably, the broadcast shows defeated players gazing out onto the field. You can tell that they’re actually looking past the field and back into time, as months filled with training camp drills, cross-country flights, dreary practices, and punishing games—and flashes of glory—coalesce into a story that’s suddenly complete.
I empathize with the losers whose seasons flash before their eyes, and of course I live vicariously through the exultant victors, too—the ones who get to continue their tale. I want to have all the feelings. So I steep myself in both the life and the death, two inextricable fundaments of the human experience, played out in miniature by giant men. This is the promise made by every playoff game: Someone will live, someone will die, and maybe we get to feel something along the way.
I don’t mean to suggest that every playoff game is created equal. For instance, the Saturday afternoon game on Wild Card Weekend is usually a stinker. This is the NFL’s throat-clearing time slot, where the league places its least enticing first-round matchup so you have something to put on the TV while you’re warming up cheese dip for the game you really want to see.
Saturday afternoon could also be known as the “Houston slot.” In the last six Wild Card rounds (including this one), Houston has played on Saturday afternoon in four of them—the team missed the playoffs the other two years. It’s clear that the Texans don’t draw much of a national audience, which is why the NFL makes them play first. That way, when you have that moment of realization on Saturday—“Oh, shit! I forgot the playoffs start this weekend!”—it will be followed immediately by the happy news that all you missed was the Texans game. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has your back.
This year’s Saturday-afternooner is an especially dire matchup. Oakland will start a moth-eaten scarecrow at quarterback, and likewise, the Texans’ star passer will either be a pile of tin cans or Brock Osweiler, whoever plays better in practice. This is a sad turn for the Raiders, who returned to playoff contention this year thanks to sterling play from quarterback Derek Carr, the erstwhile MVP candidate. Carr broke his fibula late in a Week 16 victory over Indianapolis, so his backup, Matt McGloin, got the start for the Raiders’ Week 17 game against the Broncos.
Then McGloin was injured, and that was certainly unfortunate, but it didn’t quite explain the reaction of the CBS broadcast team, who acted as if the football pope had been stabbed.
There were shots of Matt McGloin grimacing in pain.
We saw Matt McGloin walking dejectedly down the sideline.
At times, Matt McGloin was touched in ways that he did not want to be touched. CBS was there.
When Matt McGloin hung his head in frustration on the bench, the network helpfully put up a picture of Matt McGloin in case you forgot what Matt McGloin’s face looked like.
Some people viewed moving pictures of Matt McGloin, and CBS decided that we should watch them, too, in case they pantomimed any crucial Matt McGloin insights.
Finally, Matt McGloin left the field with a man whose job is to look important while he walks players to the locker room.
Throughout all of this, CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms spoke in rueful tones, like the loss of McGloin was a serious blow to the dynamic Raiders offense. I kept looking at the scoreboard and rubbing my eyes, with my fists making a squeak-squeak noise like in the cartoons, to confirm that McGloin had racked up a grand total of zero points for Oakland in the first half. His understudy—rookie Connor Cook—could hardly do worse. Cook will start for the Raiders this Saturday.
Meanwhile, since February’s Super Bowl LI will be played in Houston, the Texans have a chance at becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. I tried to write the previous sentence with a straight face, and I made it all the way to the word “since,” which makes me pretty proud. The Texans are not going to the Super Bowl, but they might manage to slay this considerably hobbled Oakland dragon. Can Houston secure the victory? We’ll find out Saturday night, when NBC shows the highlights before the Seattle game. The Block & Tackle “never wrong” prediction: Houston 19, Oakland 16.
After they were defeated by the Packers in the final game of the season, the Lions also lost the NFC North division title, forcing them to begin their playoff journey with a road game against the Seattle Seahawks. As a result, the matchup this Saturday night will be the latest chapter in one of sports’ greatest rivalries: teams named after cats vs. teams named after birds.
In the wild, cats have the upper hand. A 2013 study published in the journal Nature estimated that American domestic cats kill up to 4 billion birds each year, although that analysis involved a great deal of statistical guesswork—which is to say, it was propaganda disseminated by the insidious bird lobby.
In the culture, birds are dominant. Observe how birds’ preferred form of communication, tweeting, has brought a great democracy to the brink of ruin. Sure, some people cite the self-serving ignorance of the right or the smug complacency of the left as root causes for our current political despair. I say birds are to blame. Scurrilous birds.
On the football field, birds had only a slight edge in 2016. There were nine cat-vs.-bird games played this season, with cats accruing a record of 4-5. This presents an auspicious opportunity for Detroit. Should the Lions beat the Seahawks in the Wild Card round and then the Cowboys in the Divisional round, it’s possible they would meet up with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship. A win there would mean that cats’ record against birds for the 2016 NFL year, including the postseason, would be 6-5, and the superiority of cats would be restored. There might be hope for our nation yet, if only that hope didn’t lie in the hands of the Detroit Lions. The Block & Tackle “never wrong” prediction: Seattle 26, Detroit 16.
Corresponding by email, loyal Block & Tackle commenter Whovian passes along a link to video of a big New England Patriots play from last Sunday, as narrated by German announcers. “I don’t know German, but they have more enthusiasm and insight than Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts,” Whovian writes. While I like Eagle and Fouts just fine, I can’t argue with Whovian’s review. The German commentators’ nigh-deranged call of a crushing block is hilarious and maybe a touch unnerving. My highlight moment is “Hallo! Miami calling!” I can’t embed the clip, so you’ll have to follow the link the old-fashioned way, but I believe it’s worth a precious click.
While cats vs. birds is one of the all-time great grudges, the rivalry between marine mammals and blue-collar factory workers is somewhat less legendary. That might explain the football-watching public’s general lack of enthusiasm for the Dolphins-Steelers game. Or it might be that Miami hasn’t won a playoff game in the 21st century, and they appear due for another shellacking:
That’s a screenshot of an NFL.com mini-preview for this game. Observant readers will note that the Dolphins’ offense and defense are ranked so low that in some jurisdictions, they would not be permitted to operate a football without the supervision of an adult. But even more observant readers will note that special teams are not considered in these statistics (probably because their inclusion would not leave enough room for the gigantic helmets). That’s a glaring oversight, as special teams can be pivotal in the playoffs. Thus the task of assessing the third phase of the game is left to me, using the traditional Block & Tackle method: a comparison of the kicking specialists’ Twitter feeds.
Let’s start with the home team. Pittsburgh placekicker Chris Boswell had a career day in mid-December when he went 6-for-6 on field goal attempts against the Cincinnati Bengals, including five kicks from 40 yards or beyond. Later the same week, Boswell found a note on his locker informing him that the league had, coincidentally, summoned him out for a drug test. Above we see Boswell making light of the situation—or maybe his cousin is his supplier, and this is a legitimate complaint. Makes me laugh either way.
The Steelers’ Australian punter doesn’t offer the same level of wit. The best tweet I could find in his feed was this picture of his TV displaying a cricket match. See, a cricket match is called a “test” because it offers no entertainment value and is broadcast only so home users can test their television equipment. (I’m allowed to make that remark because I write about American football, which is internationally renowned for its nonstop thrilling action and easy-to-understand rules.)
Miami punter Matt Darr has a much sharper tongue than his Pittsburgh counterpart, and he isn’t afraid to work a bit blue. In addition to the innuendo, Darr seems to have selected a picture that, in the context of his caption, invites the viewer to sneak a peek at kicker Andrew Franks’ balls. And maybe you’re judging me for that admission, but I know as soon as I said it, you took a gander, too, so let’s not kid each other.
As for Franks himself, his Twitter feed features an adorable picture of him with his mom taking a walk in the park while they play a game for children. I sure feel like a creep for glancing at his crotch now.
In conclusion, Miami’s kickers have superior microblogging skills, and by that metric they are destined for an upset victory. But I’m not going to base the Block & Tackle prediction on tweets—what the hell do you think I am, some kind of goddamn bird? The Block & Tackle “never wrong” prediction: Pittsburgh 34, Miami 18.
Boy, you know Michael Crabtree
I’d say, “You’re playing right into Aqib Talib’s!”
Right into his hands
He’s got you
thinking about him
Instead of just playing the game
Too much at stake to get in personal battles
for the Oakland Raiders
—Phillip D’Artagnan Simms
All The News We’ve Heard
was just running the scout team
probably got his first few reps of the whole year
in practice, this week
That one hit
His right hand
his left shoulder, we thought
maybe he had a concussion
That was some big hit
How surprised are you?
Just how Denver’s playing this game
with all the news that we’ve heard here today
—Phillip Brantellus Simms
And Jack Del Rio not taking a timeout?
I woulda gambled here
Seventeen to nothing?
I would gamble
If they think they can use our timeouts
if you know
try to make a drive out of it
You’d hope to make a play—so!
He’s elected to just to go
In at halftime.
In this situation.
—Phillip Quincy M.E. Simms
It’s easy to say,
whaddaya got to lose?
But when the contest starts,
you wanna win
—Phillip Veronica Simms
This is by far the best matchup of Wild Card Weekend, so naturally America’s football press spent the week digging deep into the matchup between the rejuvenated Green Bay offense and the resurgent New York defense. Ha, nah—instead, they obsessed over some players enjoying themselves on a boat.
Reports emerged on Monday that Odell Beckham Jr. and his fellow Giants wide receivers marked the end of the season with a celebration in Miami. They spent Sunday night clubbing with well-wishers like Justin Bieber, and by Monday morning they were apparently hanging out on the aforementioned boat—as seen in the picture above, which will someday serve as the cover of Beckham’s first album (feat. Trey Songz).
And so the frenzy was afoot. “LOOK,” shouted the headline on CBSSports.com, because flat-out begging you to “LOOK” is the level of desperation we have reached in the web media. “LOOK: Odell Beckham parties with Justin Bieber in South Beach.” Under this heading, CBS Sports writer John Breech lays out the basic facts of the night, concluding on this ominous note: “If the Giants lose to the Packers, there’s a good chance fans will blame Odell, Bieber, and anyone else who decided this trip was a good idea.” But wait, I think it was a fine idea for these grown men to do something fun on their day off—does that mean the fans will blame me, too? Oh, brother. I hope the Giants win.
At no point in his story did Breech bother to explain why the trip was implicitly a bad idea, because he knew the outrage would be manufactured for him. He could hear the screeching gears and wheezing bellows of the sports controversy machine as it lurched into action. A cirrhotic malcontent at the New York Post wrote a column excoriating the Giants receivers, and his opposite number at the New York Daily News did the same. Skip Bayless chided Odell and his friends on Fox Sports 1. Surely someone echoed Skip’s bullet points on ESPN. The substance of the criticisms is irrelevant in any case—only the sense of grievance matters. And that’s how we scold pro athletes/elect presidents.
The whole affair annoys me not just because I’m exhausted by the empty-calorie outrage that encroaches on every corner of our discourse but also because, look, this is some weak sauce as far as boat scandals are concerned. Have we already forgotten the 2005 Minnesota Vikings lake orgy? Now there was a boat scandal that justified the smelling salts.
As recounted in police reports published by The Smoking Gun, veteran Vikings players set sail on picturesque Lake Minnetonka one evening with a bunch of bewildered rookies and a handful of strippers. What ensued was a pleasant night of double-ended-dildo play and bartop cunnilingus—an altogether novel take on “Minnesota nice.” That Caligula cruise may have taken place 11 years ago, but it’s still fresh enough in memory that I can’t quite rend my garments over a picture of Odell Beckham sitting on a boat, looking a little sleepy. Especially since he always looks a little sleepy.
The Extra Mustard blog on SI.com offered the most reasonable criticism of the Giants’ Miami excursion, arguing that Beckham committed a “fashion crime” by wearing boots on a boat. This is at least the proper debate to have, even if Extra Mustard takes the wrong side of the issue. Okay, he’s on a boat, but I don’t care if he’s on a Final Fantasy airship. Odell Beckham is hot in those Timberlands. The Block & Tackle “please don’t blame me” prediction: New York Giants 23, Green Bay Packers 20.
Block & Tackle prediction record for 2016 season: 256-0
Untruthful games in Week 16: 7
Untruthful games in Week 17 (picks posted to Twitter): 1
Final truth-untruth ratio for 2016 regular season: 168-88
Well, here’s the thing. I don’t think so, but Inside The NFL didn’t put Phil’s stats up on the screen this week, so I can’t be sure. Hopefully we’ll find out next week. For the cause of truth.