By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It is, no doubt, a complicated time to be a football fan. At its most basic level, football is a very good game. A great game, even — one that creates an opportunity for men to prove themselves in new ways almost every snap.
It is, in many ways, the greatest sport on earth. The strategy, the physicality, and sometimes the sheer beauty make football uniquely football.
But, for various reasons (most involving profit margins), the NFL has decided to intervene in the simple enjoyment of the sport of football. From ignoring the impact of concussions and brain damage for far too long, to enabling and covering up for domestic abusers, to selling breast cancer merchandise and pocketing most of the sales money, to guaranteeing billions for owners while guaranteeing no money to the men who lay their bodies on the line, to billionaires holding cities hostage to pay for new stadiums, to an executive office that operates with an automatic setting of “deceit,” it can be quite exhausting these days to simply enjoy the sport.
And so, when someone spends much of his time examining the unprecedented hubris of the commissioner or discussing the clear and obvious absence of basic human decency or the league’s apparent addiction to telling lies, and when that same person laments the lack of an NFL prime-time game the Monday after Week 17, well, that person can feel like a big, fat hypocrite.
Alas, that was me, watching a Bruins game and the Rose Bowl but still feeling like something was missing from this past Monday evening.
Call what you will — addiction, dependence, obsession — but there’s no denying the lack of a proper substitute for NFL football.
It’s a rotten position to be in, you see, as it really should not be so difficult to celebrate football. One should not be presented with a moral quandary when it comes to enjoying a sport. But if you love the game and also can’t manage to shut out the rest of the nonsense, you’re left to pick a path in the yellow wood.
It was funny, then, to see the NFL’s vice president of communications offer some praise to Tom Brady via Twitter this week.
That’s the same Tom Brady whom the NFL machine worked relentlessly to turn into a bad guy for the better part of two years. From leaking false information to restricting what even Brady’s own team could know, to manufacturing lies and repeating them in a federal court, to spending millions upon millions of dollars to stack the deck against Brady and ensure he came out to look like a liar to the American public, the people at the NFL worked tirelessly to besmirch the name of Tom Brady. It was, after all, convenient to them at that particular time.
Now, with Brady leading the team that owns the NFL’s best record into the postseason, and with a possible Brady trip to the Super Bowl in the near future, the league is happy to shine a positive light on the man they hunted down for two years. Maybe there will even be a “redemption” angle. Whatever is best for business.
To repeat a phrase, it is utterly exhausting. But such is the life of a football fan in modern times.
As it relates to the slate of games scheduled to kick off the playoffs, one could argue that there is truly no worse time to be a football fan than this weekend. Some of the matchups for wild-card weekend are downright comical, but that’s not going to keep anyone from tuning in, or in this instance, making some 100 percent accurate picks.
(Home team in CAPS; Thursday lines)
Oakland (+3.5) over HOUSTON
I’m taking the Raiders because I don’t think either team can score more than three points in this game.
I’m kidding, but only a little bit. It probably warrants a full investigation to determine how exactly in today’s multi-billion dollar NFL we can get stuck with a Brock Osweiler-Connor Cook quarterback matchup in the postseason. But as it stands now, the early word is this: it stinks.
Of course, the quarterbacks aren’t the only players on the field. And if you’re matching defense-for-defense straight up, then you’d determine Houston’s to be far superior. But one area where Oakland had a major defensive edge over Houston is in the interception department. The Raiders picked off 16 passes, or one per game (no big deal but I’m a math whizz), while the Texans made just 11 interceptions all year. Nine different members of the Raiders had at least one pick, while only five Texans have an INT to their name. And when it comes to having a player who can change the game in an instant, Oakland checks that box with Khalil Mack.
Add in that Sebastian Janikowski has only missed one kick from under 50 yards all year, and that Brock Osweiler threw eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions at home this year, and maybe the Raiders can win this one.
But for as bad as everyone is saying this game will be, won’t that kind of make it beautiful?
SEATTLE (-8) over Detroit
An eight-point line is frightening, for sure. Seattle is just 3-4 when favored by more than a touchdown this year. They also just struggled to beat the 49ers, and they’ve laid their fair share of duds this season. At the same time, Detroit was just 5-5 against the spread when getting points this year. Neither is a safe bet.
I don’t like either team, and I really don’t like eight points. But what sways me is the track record of each team when facing a playoff opponent during the year. The Seahawks faced Miami, Atlanta, New England and Green Bay, going 3-1 in those four contests. The three wins were close (and in the case of the win over Atlanta, made possible by questionable officiating), and the loss was a blowout at Green Bay, but that resume is a whole lot better than Detroit’s. The Lions went a dreadful 0-5 against playoff teams, losing by an average of 10.6 points per game. The Lions compiled their nine wins against teams with a combined record of 56-87-1.
So, while I don’t believe Seattle is a real Super Bowl threat this year, I’m not convinced that Detroit can go to Seattle and compete. Detroit’s only road wins this year came at Indianpolis, Minnesota and New Orleans. Hard pass on trusting Jim Caldwell to get his team fired up for this one. Hard. Pass.
PITTSBURGH (-10) over Miami
I initially leaned toward Miami and the 10 points. That is a whole bunch of points after all. But in doing some research, there was literally not one reason to feel like the Dolphins can stay within two scores.
For starters, the Steelers are a better football team and will be at home, where they went 6-2. Those losses happened to come against the Patriots and Cowboys, who are the two best teams in the NFL. And Landry Jones started one of those games a quarterback.
Also, Matt Moore will be starting for the visiting Dolphins.
So we’ve got that going for us.
Then we match up some strengths and weaknesses. The biggest weapon on the Dolphins is Jay Ajayi, but the Steelers’ middle-of-the-road rush defense should manage to survive in that area, particularly with the aforementioned Moore not presenting the most lethal of challenges as a passer.
There’s also this: When the Dolphins lose, they lose. Their most recent four losses came by 21 points, 32 points, 13 points and 15 points. Among the 12 playoff teams, their minus-17 point differential on the year is better only than the Texans.
And while the Steelers do have some narrow victories, they also have six wins by 10 points or more.
I recognize that the Dolphins doubled up the Steelers in Week 6. But that was a long time ago, and it was hot out, and Ben Roethlisberger got hurt, and I’m willing to look past its relevance to the present.
GREEN BAY (-4.5) over New York Giants
This game is going to rule because neither team can run the ball, and both probably won’t even try. It will be a chuck-fest between Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning, and it should be spectacular.
Unfortunately for the Giants, there won’t be a repeat of the Tom Coughlin’s Face Is Falling Off Bowl. Yes, the Giants’ defense ranks 10th in yards allowed and second in points allowed, but their pass defense is ranked 23rd in the league. If the Giants do win this game, it will be because they intercepted two or more passes. But Rodgers threw just seven of those all year long. It’s certainly possible that his carriage turns into a pumpkin at this most unfortunate time of the year, but betting against him when he’s thrown 30 touchdowns and three interceptions in his last 11 games is probably not the smartest thing you can do.
Also, Ben McAdoo. That’s worth a few points right there. Ben McAdoo. Get out of my face with Ben McAdoo.
The worst part of the whole thing will be that the Giants will lose and it will have nothing to do with their little party cruise, but the blowhards who spent all week verbally farting everywhere they went will feel vindicated. And that’s never fun.
What also wasn’t fun was my Week 17, as I needed to go 10-6 in order to finish the year at .500. Instead, I went 7-9, thus keeping that regular-season record at a sub.-500 level. Now, if I were really worried about this, I’d probably point out that I went 44-29-4 from Weeks 11-15, before things went haywire at the end of the year. But I’m not, so I won’t.
Instead, I think a perfect 11-0 postseason showing will more than make up for any missteps that may have been made along the way.
Last week: 7-9