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The NFL playoffs are here! Who will win a fancy hat?

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills celebrates his team's NFC East championship, the only regular-season honor that comes with the award of a fancy hat.
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills celebrates his team's NFC East championship, the only regular-season honor that comes with the award of a fancy hat.
Photo: Kiel Leggere/Philadelphia Eagles
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The original plan was that football would simply continue forever. Every Sunday, the men would dress up in colorful clothes and smack into each other, for the enjoyment of polite society. Ad infinitum. But as time wore on, the men—the ones who were still alive—protested this endless horizon of mud and pain. So “football season” was invented. It was a formal arrangement to facilitate the annual cessation of playing football.

But the end of the season was too abrupt. One week, the whole nation would echo with the thrilling chaos and mayhem of gridiron battle. The next week—an eerie lull, as citizens returned to the chaos and mayhem of their daily lives. We needed a more gradual comedown from the high. Thus the creation of the “postseason,” a scheme to make men play more football after they have already stopped.

The eight teams that will take the field this Wild Card weekend are filled with athletes who probably would be content to sit at home, nursing their wounds and sipping a mass-manufactured beverage. Instead, fate delivers them to this stage, where they fight for glory. The losers will be forgotten. The victors will live on in the hearts of an adoring public for at least another week, maybe more. And the stakes only ratchet up from there. After this weekend, any team that wins two more games gets a fancy hat. Three games: a shiny trophy (and a hat).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves with all this hat talk. The 2019 Wild Card round—I know, it’s 2020 now, but the NFL prefers to live in the past—has enough excitement of its own. To help you navigate the (hatless) action, Block & Tackle is here with an utterly useless of preview of the playoffs’ opening weekend.

Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Texans—Saturday, 4:35 p.m. Eastern, ESPN

The game before the game

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once said that Sun Tzu once said, “Every battle is won before it is fought.” Those are wise words from Belichick, and his counterparts in Buffalo and Houston have taken heed. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and Bills head coach Sean McDermott (ironically, the only NFL coach not named Bill) both understand that the key to winning on game day is to make the most of your mandatory press conferences.

The NFL media practice of forcing head coaches to repeatedly address the media throughout the week—preferably while ensconced in corporate logos—may seem like a chore to generate filler for the local news’ 11:25 p.m. sports segment. But it is also an opportunity for a coach to fire up the team and the fans with a shot of white-hot adrenaline injected directly in the eyeballs of their veins.

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott addresses the press at his Tuesday pre-Wild Card press conference.
Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott addresses the press at his Tuesday pre-Wild Card press conference.
Screenshot: Buffalo Bills

To that end, Buffalo’s McDermott came out firing on Tuesday:

Reporter: What’s your biggest lesson from having been through this—your very first season here as a head coach, coaching a playoff game—[Continues stringing words together until the gist of the inquiry becomes clear, which is, “Coach, could you say some stuff?”]

McDermott: [Emits an extended guttural yell to rev up the crowd.] Yeah. I think it’s kind of what I’ve been saying. You know, with the consistency, the routine, the approach. [Destroys a wall of cinder blocks placed near the podium.] You know, I get that it’s not sexy. You guys want to hear more. Put meat on the bone. [A handsome woman in the front row places a hand to her forehead and faints.] But that’s what we do. At the end of the day, it’s how you play. […] We’ve got a lot of work to do this week to get our quality of play up to the level that it requires to win a football game. [Tears his sweatshirt open with his bare hands.]

Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien addresses the press at his Thursday pre-Wild Card press conference.
Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien addresses the press at his Thursday pre-Wild Card press conference.
Screenshot: Houston Texans

Not to be outdone, O’Brien made his own bid to stoke the Houston fanbase’s frenzy before he headed out to a Thursday practice session:

O’Brien: Buffalo’s a good team. A very disciplined team. So I think we’ve had a good week. We’ve got to have a good day today. [Conspicuously places his foot on a somewhat large stool made from the skulls of his vanquished enemies.]

Settle down, boys! This sort of unhinged saber-rattling and verbal grenade-throwing is best reserved for heads of state.

Depth matters

Just a couple of buddies, throwing some bread around.
Just a couple of buddies, throwing some bread around.
Screenshot: Buffalo Bills

Part of the Bills’ success story this season has been the relative lack of injuries among their starters. But that sort of luck can change quickly. Players on every rung of the depth chart have to be prepared this Saturday because anything can happen in the playoffs. For instance, what if Buffalo’s starting quarterback, Josh Allen, has to leave the game after a brutal hit? And furthermore, what if the referees run out of footballs, and the remainder of the contest must be played with a loaf of white bread from the supermarket?

To prepare for such eventualities, the Bills pitted second-string QB Matt Barkley against wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie to see how far the two men could throw a bunch of non-football items. The Bills bill the items as “unusual objects,” but in fact the video features an assortment of the most usual objects you could imagine: a piece of paper, the aforementioned bread, a large round ball. It is admittedly unusual to see large football men throw these things—and oddly captivating. Barkley, the quarterback, loses the throwing contest, which is embarrassing, although not as embarrassing as the fact that I watched the video all the way to the end to see who would win. What can I say? The video makes you think. At least, it made me think, “Gee, what IS the best way to throw a broom?”

Tennessee Titans vs. New England Patriots—Saturday, 8:15 p.m., CBS

The shameful secret of “No Days Off”

One cold, rainy Boston day in 2017, New England head coach Bill Belichick stopped quoting Sun Tzu for a minute so he could address the crowd at a Patriots Super Bowl victory parade. Belichick expressed the pride he had in his players, noting that they “came to work every day, and there were no days off!” The crowd roared in response. Belichick had an idea—he would start a chant. This is something he had seen humans do. You just take a bunch of words and say them loud and slow. It was a special day, Belichick thought. He would try something new.

“No! Days! Off!” Belichick bellowed, pumping his trophy, a large chrome phallus, to punctuate each word. Confusion spread among the players assembled near Belichick on the makeshift stage. They had never cheered for a lack of vacation time before—nobody had. Because it was an odd, awkward thing to chant. Yet Belichick continued: “No! Days! Off!” The players and the crowd slowly joined in, for Belichick’s chanting was as relentless as it was weird, and everyone was afraid to see what would happen if they failed to echo the dark wizard’s incantations. Even the free market was loath to cross Belichick: Within days, T-shirts bearing the coach’s dour phrase were being sold online to fans who had to accept that, somehow, “No Days Off” was now a thing.

For his part, Belichick must have been exhilarated. He started a chant—neat! But in the months and years that followed, he would be plagued by a lingering doubt. In all of their Super Bowl-winning campaigns, the Patriots ended the regular season as either the 1- or the 2-seed in the AFC, which earned them a bye from the Wild Card round of the playoffs. That is to say, they took that week off. You see the problem. Belichick’s chant was fraudulent.

As this season drew to a close, The Patriots were once again in line for a first-round bye. Entering Week 17, New England needed only to beat the woebegone Miami Dolphins to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC. But the Patriots played a listless and diffident game against Miami. Notably, with more than a minute to go before halftime, Belichick let the clock run down rather than let his six-time-Super-Bowl-winning quarterback try to score some points. It seemed as if the coach was throwing the game. Of course he was! As the No. 3 seed, New England will have to win four straight games to be crowned champion—the point being, they will get no days off. Having accomplished every other triumph the league could possibly offer him, this is Belichick’s last bit of unfinished business. He knows—he never should have started that darn chant in the first place! He should have left the chanting to the professionals. But it is too late for that. Now, he must make the chant true.

Ach! Die Titans sind sehr angemessen!

This may surprise you. The Tennessee Titans have a fan club—bear with me, that’s not the surprising part—in Germany. It is hard to figure how the Titans, a team whose greatest claim to fame is a Super Bowl in which they came inches short of a chance to lose to the Rams in overtime, could inspire dedication among the denizens of the Continent. But despite being separated from the Titans’ home turf by an entire ocean (not to mention France and Belgium squeezing in there, as usual), the members of German Titans e.V. are passionate—and official! And passionate about being official. “We are the official fan club of the Tennessee Titans for German speaking countries of Europe,” reads the club’s Twitter bio. “We’re a registered association,” the bio hastens to add.

One of the German club’s pastimes is to create Photoshopped versions of movie posters to preview the Titans’ big games. This week, the world’s most disciplined and efficient group of Titans fans riffed on Captain America: Civil War, placing Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the role of Cap himself. Accordingly, the Iron Man side of the faceoff is populated by Tom Brady and other members of the New England Patriots, who are depicted in various states of confusion. In fairness to the Patriots, if you found yourself on a poster made by German fans to preview the first-round playoff game of a Nashville-based American football team, you would probably be a bit disoriented yourself.

Most of the German Titans e.V. posters are faintly bemusing in this way, like a poster for “The Landalorian,” which reimagines Titans linebacker Harold Landry as a taciturn Star Wars bounty hunter (even though the Tannehill/“Tandalorian” wordplay is sitting right there).

When times are tough, however, the posters grow angry and verbose.

And sometimes downright inscrutable. So, fine work all around, German Tennessee Titans fan club. Your move, German Cleveland Browns fan club.

Minnesota Vikings vs. New Orleans Saints — Sunday, 1:05 p.m., Fox

Battle of the long snappers

Minnesota Vikings long snapper Austin Cutting (left), New Orleans Saints long snapper Zach Wood (right), and a lightning bolt emoji to connote excitement (center)
Minnesota Vikings long snapper Austin Cutting (left), New Orleans Saints long snapper Zach Wood (right), and a lightning bolt emoji to connote excitement (center)
Photo: Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints

Minnesota vs. New Orleans offers a David-and-Goliath narrative at the long snapper position. I’ll go out on a limb and say that is unlikely that any other game in this year’s postseason will offer such powerful long-snapping storylines.

In the Minnesota Vikings’ corner, you have your Goliath: Austin Cutting, a rookie who was the only long snapper selected in the 2019 draft.

It is rare for a team to use a draft pick on a long snapper, but watching practice film, you can see why the Vikings were willing to spend their precious draft capital on a semi-obscure roster spot. In the clip above, Cutting snaps the ball a long distance, and another man acts as if he is going to go retrieve the ball, but Cutting steps in, as if to say, “Oh no, you don’t.” Then this happens again, and again, and again, and then a few more times. Finally the other man gives up, and Cutting is allowed to snap the ball in peace. Surely the executives in Minnesota’s front office saw this tape and were wowed by Cutting’s ability to bore the opposition into submission. Now that’s Minnesota Vikings football. (I’m just joking, Vikings fans! The Minnesota squad plays an electrifying game! Sometimes I call them the “Minnesota Excitings” around the house, for fun, but also to make a sober point about how spectacular they truly are.)

Meanwhile, New Orleans long snapper Zach Wood gained notoriety in the offseason for earning the lowest player rating in Madden NFL 20: According to the Saints, Wood was rated a 36 (out of 100) by the Madden powers-that-be, although the official Madden site has him at 38. In any case, the Saints vented their righteous anger at EA Sports with a Madden-themed “skeet”-shooting competition, sponsored by EA Sports. The hijinks showed that the Saints are willing to stand behind their long snapper. That’s good: Standing in front of the long snapper is a foul.

Seattle Seahawks vs. Philadelphia Eagles — Sunday, 4:40 p.m., NBC

The taste of certain doom

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson goes on an amazing Candy Crush run while his colleagues look on.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson goes on an amazing Candy Crush run while his colleagues look on.
Photo: Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks suffered an ignominious end to their season, as the closing seconds of their Week 17 game against the division rival San Francisco 49ers—a contest that determined the division winner—devolved into a comedy of errors. Perhaps most galling for Seattle fans was a delay-of-game penalty that was issued after the Seahawks literally could not get 11 football players together in time to attempt a game-winning touchdown from the 1-yard line. “Oops! You wanted us to play football now? Like, right now?” said the entire coaching staff of the Seattle Seahawks, barely bothering to look up from the killer round of Candy Crush they had going.

The loss dropped Seattle from a potential No. 3 seeding down to No. 5, which may be a distinction without a difference. In the last six years, no team seeded lower than No. 2—i.e., no team that played in the Wild Card round—has made it to the Super Bowl. (Contrary to what Bill Belichick might have you believe, players really do benefit from having a week off.) In essence, Wild Card weekend has become a big fight to see which of the doomed teams will extend their hopeless quest the longest. Who can torture their fans the most? The Seahawks are determined to prove that they can, and last Sunday’s self-destruction was only a taste of what’s to come.

Just imagine you’re putting the football players in your mouth

Eagles running back Miles Sanders imagines that his belly is full of delicious Seattle Seahawks.
Eagles running back Miles Sanders imagines that his belly is full of delicious Seattle Seahawks.
Photo: Kiel Leggere/Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles are offering a taste, too—of the Seattle Seahawks. Philadelphia arrives in the playoffs solely by virtue of an obscure league regulation which states that the NFC East division must be allowed to submit at least one (1) team for postseason consideration. Sporting a 9-7 record that somehow overstates their excellence this year, the Eagles are that one (1) team. In anticipation of their loss against Seattle, the Eagles website invites fans to “Devour The Competition” by cooking up some delicious salmon chowder inspired by Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

Gently stir so as not to break up the salmon too much. Once heated to a slight simmer, taste and use salt and pepper, as needed. Add more hot sauce, if you like it spicier. You may not need any salt, depending on the saltiness of your capers and smoked salmon.

BOOM! Take that, Seahawks. The Eagles are going to heat you to a slight simmer this Sunday. And prepare to be gently stirred!

”Devour the Competition is an initiative created by the Flik Hospitality staff to help the players prepare for the game through delicious food,” explains chef Tim Lopez. “The chefs prepare a meal during the week of the game that is inspired by the Eagles’ opponent.” Then, presumably, the players eat that meal while pretending that the gustatory delights slithering into their gullets are actually the roasted flesh and sinew of their hated enemies. This motivational tactic works like a charm! Nine out of 16 times, it works like a charm. So if you want to get yourself PUMPED for this weekend’s game the same way the pros do, head to the grocery store for some fennel seeds and paprika before all the other Philly fans snap them up.

Your Wild Card QuantumPicks

Block & Tackle is the exclusive home of the QuantumPick Apparatus, the only football prediction system that evaluates every possible permutation of a given NFL week to arrive at the true victor in each contest. Put simply, Block & Tackle picks are guaranteed to be correct. When a game’s outcome varies from this column’s prediction, the game is wrong.

In Weeks 16 and 17, 22 games corresponded with the pure truth determined by the QuantumPick Apparatus, and 10 did not. The final record of the Apparatus is 155-101, or thereabouts. Not a great showing for reality, but what else is new?

Moving on, the Apparatus has divined the true winners of the 2019 Wild Card round, and they are as follows, rendered as always in screaming letters: THE HOUSTON TEXANS, THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS, AND THE SEATTLE PAPRIKAS. So it Jason Witten, so it shall be done.

Talk backle to Block & Tackle

If you’d like to contact me with an item for Block & Tackle, or just to say hello, you can email me: my first name, at symbol, my full name, dot com. You can also reach me via Twitter. Thank you for reading, and for the funny and smart comments. Keep on long snappin’.