“Football! Football football FOOTBALL!!!!”
Football had a bit of a rough year in 2014. There’s not been a lot of bright spots in the sport between the various horrific crimes perpetrated by players that we don’t feel particularly comfortable making fun of and the fact that if you told us that Roger Goodell was planted in a position of power in the NFL by North Korea to slowly turn America against one of their favorite games as some long-term espionage strategy, we’d probably believe you for a second.
But as we ring in the New Year, so too do we usher in a special time for Americans far and wide—desperately hoping that your least favorite team doesn’t win the Super Bowl. Yes, the NFL Playoffs are here, and while some of you might be cheering for your team to go deep into the 2015 playoffs, others of you might have the unfortunate handicap of being fans of, say, the Bears, or the Buccaneers. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.
Though it’s easy to assume that everyone has been following the highs and lows of the 2014 NFL season, some of you might not really like sports. We get it. You’d rather not waste your time getting emotionally invested in a team of millionaires whose sole connection to you rests in what city they happen to be playing for. But to you, American non-sports-fan, we’ll want to point out one thing. You say that shit while invited to a Super Bowl party, and you’re going to be pissing off everyone in the room. So, for you, Mr. sports skeptic, we’re going to delve into the twelve teams that will be playing starting on Saturday, with the hopes that you’ll learn a little something about this year’s best teams in America’s favorite sport. Also we’ll talk about the Panthers.
The 2014-2015 NFL Playoff Picture
The NFL playoffs, at its best, gives you the most intense, heart-stopping football action of the season. While there are must-win scenarios each week in the regular season, the single-elimination format of the playoffs means that anyone can go on a hot streak and take home the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy, even if you’re a 9-7 team led by Eli Manning. So we’re going to offer you a brief history of the eleven teams that hope to string together the wins they need to take home the greatest prize in the NFL, teams who have gotten this far through grit, perseverance, and sheer talent. But first we’re going to talk about the Panthers.
The Carolina Panthers
2014 Record: 7-8-1
4th Seed, NFC
In the history of the NFL, there have only been two instances of a team making the playoffs with a losing record—the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, and the 2014 Carolina Panthers, who crushed the Atlanta Falcons in week 17 to lose the season long NFC South game of Hot Potato, where they will get to host a playoff game against an 11-5 Arizona Cardinals team that is rolling their eyes so hard about this shit.
Founded in 1995, and based in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Carolina Panthers decided not to list “North” in their name as a way to successfully trick South Carolinians into thinking that they had their own NFL franchise. In their history, they’ve been to exactly one Super Bowl, where they learned an important lesson about trying to win a Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme as their quarterback while eventually losing to the New England Patriots in 2004.
The 2014 Carolina Panthers were the runoff byproduct of the 2014 NFC South, which itself was created as part of an experiment to see if it was possible for four teams in the same division to be equally unwatchable. They are led by Cam Newton, a sometimes-dynamic dual-threat quarterback who most recently was in the news for breaking his fucking back in two places during a terrifying car accident. Assisting this running quarterback who basically is recovering from the same injury that Bane gave Batman in The Dark Knight Rises is Jonathan Stewart, a player you might recognize from that six week stretch you saw he was on your waiver wire in your fantasy league, at which point you picked him up and never started him, and Kelvin Benjamin, a dynamic rookie who would have a long and fruitful career ahead of him if the Panthers weren’t giving off such a “cursed” vibe recently.
This Panthers team managed to surprise the league with a 12-4 playoff push last year before suffering a noticeable drop-off this year. Some might take this as a sign that they’re just now hitting their stride, having won their final four games of the season in order to earn their playoff slot. Those people are called “Panthers fans with unrealistic expectations” and Saturday is going to be really rough for you guys.
The Baltimore Ravens
2014 Record: 10-6
6th Seed, AFC
The Ravens are…tricky to talk about. On one hand, they had to pull off a come-from-behind victory against the hapless Cleveland Browns to squeak into the playoffs in the final game of the season. On the other hand, since Art Modell moved the then-Cleveland-Browns to Baltimore in 1996 and named them the “Fuck you Cleveland ha ha ha I’m an asshole I’m Art Modell!” Ravens, they’ve won two Super Bowls, including a title in 2012 led by current quarterback and occasionally hilarious auto-correct, Joe Flacco. On the third hand that no one wants to talk about because it isn’t natural for humans to have a third hand so let’s just ignore this point, the Ray Rice scandal has been looming over them all season long, and they kind of handled that a bit less than ideally.
Joe Flacco is coming off what is arguably his best statistical season yet, throwing for 27 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions. He’s ranked 12th in passing yards amongst quarterbacks, 12th in touchdowns, 16th in Passer rating, and 22nd in completion percentage. We should also point out that after his Super Bowl win, he was signed to a $120 million contract, so Joe Flacco is a really great reminder that football doesn’t really understand how Capitalism is supposed to work.
The Ravens are a boring team led by a boring quarterback that has won two Super Bowls because one of the greatest Linebacker of all time managed to avoid jail time for being an accessory to a murder, and the most exciting thing that happened to the team this season involved reluctantly dropping their running back because he beat his damn wife unconscious in an elevator. You can feel free to root for the Ravens, but outside of living in Baltimore, or living in Washington and desperately trying to avoid rooting for a team named after a vicious ethnic pejorative, you have to ask yourself if you really want to exert the effort watching Justin Forsett and Joe Flacco connect for five yard out routes for a white bread team that won the Super Bowl just three years ago.
However, the Ravens do have Steve Smith Sr., who might rip out the spine of a cornerback at some point during a touchdown reception, so they do have that going for them.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
2014 Record: 11-5
3rd Seed, AFC
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a storied franchise that has won six Super Bowl Championship. They’re also one of the only franchisers named after a blue collar profession with a high rate of workplace fatalities. Their 2014 team also holds the distinction of being the most “what the fuck do we make of this team?” unit in all of football. The Steelers managed to crush the Indianapolis Colts 51-34 one week, while two weeks later only eking out a 27-24 win against the Tennessee Titans, who were so bad this year that for legal purposes they had to be called an “American-based sports conglomerate” instead of a professional football team.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that could win the Super Bowl this year, and just as easily forget how many downs the rules call for to become to first playoff team to punt on a third down. In the two games they’ve played against their first round opponent, the Ravens, so far this year, they’ve won by 20 points and lost by 20 points, because good luck trying to figure out if a team is great or terrible when the team itself has no clue one way or the other. Their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has won two Super Bowls, was elected to the Pro Bowl this year, and most probably raped two women but got away with it because in 2009 and 2010 was a time where you could face multiple rape allegations, get suspended for six games, and then go on living your life as a millionaire as if nothing happened, because if you think the NFL has always been completely clueless about how to handle this kind of shit, you’d pretty much be 100% correct.
Ugh. We told ourselves we weren’t going to get into the murky side of the NFL in this thing. Just know that if you root for the Steelers, you better be a lifelong Steelers fan, and if you’re not a Steelers fan, you should probably find someone else to pull for.
The Arizona Cardinals
2014 Record: 11-5
5th Seed, NFC
The Arizona Cardinals were first established in 1898, when they were the Racine Cardinals, playing in Chicago. In 1960, they moved to St. Louis, where the locals apparently love cardinals so much they wanted both their baseball and football teams named after the damn bird, before moving off to Phoenix in 1988. They’ve been the Arizona Cardinals since 1994, and in their long, storied history, have never won a Super Bowl, making them the first historical underdog you could actually see yourself getting behind.
They also are a baffling playoff team that’s managed to sneak into the playoffs almost by the skin of their teeth. They rank 31st in rushing offense, 29th in opposing pass defense, and 1st in the new category of “making people turn on the TV and ask who the hell is Drew Stanton.” They’ve beaten exactly two teams that ended up making the playoffs, while managing to lose a game to the Atlanta Falcons, who was a team that decided they’d rather lose by 31 points at home to the Carolina Panthers than earn a playoff spot with a losing record.
The most well-known players on the Cardinals are Larry Fitzgerald, a 31-year-old wide receiver coming off one of his worst seasons to date, and Carson Palmer, an injured quarterback who is best known for being a number one draft pick who has pieced together a “just mediocre” career. They’re hoping to start Drew Stanton, since they were forced to start Ryan Lindley at quarterback the last two games of the season, who is of course a third year quarterback you recognize from this last sentence where you just read the words “Ryan Lindley” for the first time. They’re currently the underdogs in their first round match up against the Carolina Panthers, because the playoffs are anarchy and whoever wins this game gets to be offered up like a human sacrifice to either the Seahawks or the Packers in round two, and there’s nothing we can do to save them.
The Cincinnati Bengals
2014 Record: 10-5-1
5th Seed, AFC
The Bengals are another team with a long history of futility—in their 46 years of existence, they’ve reached the Super Bowl twice, with no titles to show for it. They’ve recently been a nearly annual playoff team, earning a postseason slot each of the past four seasons thanks to their quarterback, a red-haired 27-year old who was created in a lab to be the most perfectly average quarterback in the history of the league. If Andy Dalton played professional baseball, he’d be a shortstop who would bat .269/13/59 every year. If he played basketball, he’d be a shooting guard that averaged 13 points a game on 41% shooting. Andy Dalton doesn’t so much win games or lose games as he lets football happen around him, clapping his hands appropriately when something good happens, usually thanks to Giovani Bernard or A.J. Green.
The Bengals, who you’ll notice happened to be the team to give the Carolina Panthers their one tie for the season, have lost in the first round of the playoffs every time they’ve made the postseason since 1990. That’s likely to repeat itself as they’re going on the road to play the Indianapolis Colts, an incomplete team with a compliment-giving cyborg behind center. If there’s one playoff team that you totally forget made it to the playoffs this year, it’s the Bengals, because you probably had forgotten that they made it in 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2009 before reading this article.
We would be so excited if the Bengals won. They’re generally inoffensive, they seem to try very hard, and “Andy Dalton, Super Bowl MVP” is the funniest combination of words and letters we can think of at the moment. #Bengals4Life
The Indianapolis Colts
2014 Record: 11-5
4th Seed, AFC
The Indianapolis Colts basically have cheated their way to being one of the most successful franchises of the past 20 years. They didn’t actively cheat in any Belichickian way, but there’s something Faustian about nabbing Peyton Manning, one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game, making the playoffs every year save for two over the next thirteen years and winning a Super Bowl, just to have your quarterback get injured the year that your 2-14 team manages to get the best quarterback prospect since Manning, who just happened to be named Luck. But here you have it. Unlike many other teams that are so successful you just hate them out of obligation, the Colts don’t really seem to rub it in. They live in Indianapolis, so their fans can’t really be too cocky because they’re like, “Listen, we know Indiana is like, well, special, just let us enjoy this football team please?” They have Andrew Luck, a physical freak who somehow still manages to come off as a hugely affable dork. They can’t run the ball for shit, their defense is decidedly middle of the road, and they’re a wildly inconsistent and young team, yet they’re almost always a shoe-in for a playoff spot.
In all likelihood, the Colts aren’t going to win the Super Bowl this year. They’re great against bad, mediocre, and mildly good teams, but you put them against, say, the Steelers, or the Patriots, or, oh God, the Cowboys, and you watch a team get decimated about as ruthlessly and efficiently as the first teen to die in a slasher film. But, when you’ve got a quarterback who throws for 4,700 yards and 40 touchdowns in only his third season, you might just get lucky and catch a hot streak. And really, you might as well root for that to happen, mainly because it’ll make Patriots fans angry as hell, and Patriots fans are fucking insufferable.
The New England Patriots
2014 Record: 12-4
1st Seed, AFC
Ugh. The Patriots. The Patriots are a team that’s been around forever, has been extremely successful since the turn of the century, and who manage to be just incredibly unlikable when you get down to brass tacks. They’re anchored by Tom Brady, who by all accounts should be a feel-good success story. A sixth round draft pick who went on to be a three-time Super Bowl champion and two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Brady’s constantly taken less money than he’d get elsewhere to stay loyal to his team. This is why New England loves him, and it should make him as beloved as, say, Peyton Manning, except for the fact that he looks like this, he dresses like this, and his wife looks like this. No one cares that he started dating Gisele Bundchen literally the same month that he knocked up and then dumped Bridget Moynahan, but they do care that he doesn’t have a hard time looking kinda like the most stereotypically douchey version of a jock imaginable.
Now, Tom Brady is the most likeable member of the team. They otherwise have had an improbable run of success at the hands of Bill Belichick, a permanent scowl stuffed in a torn sweatshirt who is arguably one of the best head coaches of all times, but almost admirably makes every effort to avoid being likeable. There’s also Aaron Hernandez, but again, we’re not, just, okay? Just, no. Gronkowski is what would happen if you taught a bear to play football very well, but also cursed it to get injured semi-severely at least once a year. And every fan of the team is the kind of fan who doesn’t even get excited when their team makes the playoffs, they just get pissed off if they lose the Super Bowl and spend the next five years bitching and moaning about that one time Brady overthrew Wes Welker. New England Patriots fans have such thin skin that they’re personally offended by us writing this sentence, which you shouldn’t be allowed to have when you’re a fanbase who has won three fucking Super Bowls since 2001.
Please, please let the Patriots lose in the second round (they have a bye this week, to save us an extra week of ESPN talking only about how well the Patriots are “really clicking” right now). Please.
The Detroit Lions
2014 Record: 11-5
5th Seed, NFC
The Detroit Lions were founded in 1930, have never played in a Super Bowl, and haven’t won the NFC Central since 1993. They’ve had an improbably unsuccessful history, including becoming the first ever team to end a season 0-16 in 2008. With that kind of history, and bad luck, you’d think that you’d want to root for them to play well, except for the fact that they manage to find that strange balance between a likable offense (Stafford, when healthy, is a good quarterback, and Calvin Johnson is actually a giant robot pretending to be a wide receiver) with an amazingly unlikable defense (they had three players suspended in 2014 at various points for dirty hits).
Ndamukong Suh has established himself as one of the greatest defensive tackles in football, while also being one of the dirtiest. He’s already been fined over $200,000 for personal fouls during his career, had to get his suspension for the first round of the playoffs lessened to a massive fine for pretending that Aaron Rodgers’ calf was a door mat. They could make it deep into these playoffs, or lose in the first round, and no one would particularly feel anything either way save for maybe a hollow sense of pity for the poor residents of Detroit who have had to endure rooting for the hapless Lions their whole life lives.
The Dallas Cowboys
2014 Record: 12-4
3rd Seed, NFC
The Dallas Cowboys like to refer to themselves as “America’s Team” because “Listen, everyone but Texas, why don’t we make it really easy for you to hate us” was too long to fit on a T-shirt. This year is understandably confusing for many fans of the team, as 12-4 looks nothing at all like 8-8, but having the franchise mark for yards by a running back set by Demarco Murray probably did a lot to help buck that particular trend. Between Tony Romo having a season that was decidedly “better than we normally see from Tony Romo” and Murray coming to his own while Dez Bryant continues to do Dez Bryant things, the Cowboys are another team that could go deep into the playoffs. The question is, are we, as a nation, ready to embrace a Cowboys championship again, fully aware that it’ll totally go to their heads and make their fans insufferable?
Lately, the Cowboys have been almost adorable to watch, starting the season on hot streaks only to find themselves strangely allergic to the month of December. Even when they’ve done well, they’ve messed it up—remember that time that they lost in the playoffs because Tony Romo botched that field goal hold? That was great! The fact of the matter is, they’ve been bumbling, at best, the last few years, without being bad, which is that nice lukewarm territory where the team’s fans can’t act like they’re God’s gift to the league, while fans of everywhere else can’t feel sorry for them because they’re never doing poorly.
But then you think about the 1990’s. And Jerry Jones. And all the unlikeable parts of the Cowboys that mirror every reason why baseball fans hate the Yankees, and it’s just too much. Too much to root for them. We need more time. Or, at least, Jerry Jones to go away.
The Green Bay Packers
2014 Record: 12-4
2nd Seed, NFC
Oh, the Green Bay Packers. They’re a small market team with a history of success, a likeable quarterback, and a passionate fan base, and if you say anything negative about any of those three things, good Lord you will not hear the end of it. When we talked about how Patriots fans are thin-skinned against criticisms, we should have mentioned that Green Bay is downright manic bi-polar in that regard. We will say that they’re an incredibly scary team to go against, and when they’re playing at their best no one in the league can beat them. We will also face a wave of “well, but, I, how dare, what” stuttered responses when we say things like “Packers fans think that everyone should root for the team, and seem to be completely oblivious to how condescending that sounds to the person who roots against them” (“God, that’s just us joking, come on, we’re, like, you know?”). The Packers, more than any team on this list, has the largest percentage of their fans take it personally if you root against their team, or say anything negative about them. We know we have Packers fans reading this, and as they feel their anger rising in their chests, we’ll just say this—chillll the fuck out, please. Your team is arguably the front-runner to win the Super Bowl. Learn to accept criticism as a confirmation that your team is, in fact, good. Breath. Breath.
And hey, we get it. Wisconsin is a place that’s passionate about a lot of things, by which we mean to say cheese and beer which are pretty much the best things, but they love their sports almost as much as those other two things. And you’ve got a hockey-loving population that, for whatever reason, doesn’t have a hockey team to root for, and the Milwaukee Bucks are probably a team that plays some professional sport, we’ll have to check. For many Packers fans, Green Bay is the only sports team they root for throughout the year. You’re allowed to be protective of your team.
But they’ve got to learn to take things down a notch at some point—you have a team that won a Super Bowl with one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Brett Favre, had him leave the team just in time for Aaron Rodgers, the best quarterback currently in the league, to come into his own, and you never even had to suffer through one of those Colts 2-12 losing seasons, or God forbid a full rebuilding effort, to get another Super Bowl. And half of your fan base still hates Favre, who only gave you 442 touchdowns in his time in Green Bay, because he had the audacity to play two seasons for a rival team when you didn’t want him?
Packers fans responded to Brett Favre going to Minnesota the way an engaged guy responds when his serious ex starts dating a new guy—as much as he insists he’s happy with how things turned out, clearly he’s not over her, and he’s just gotta let shit go.
Now, as our writers barricade the doors to our offices and brace for the throng of irate Wisconsins to come barging at us (“WE’LL SHOW YOU WHO OVERREACTS TO MILD CRITICISMS!” the shouts will strain to the heavens) we’ll mention the good parts. Packers fans are some of the more knowledgeable fans in the league, they bleed for their team with more passion than you’ll get out of your average NFL fan, and when they embrace a member of the team they really embrace them. They field teams that are generally likeable, with solid personalities who keep themselves out of trouble (part of that is probably the Green Bay living keeping them in check. Brett Favre was a good ole country boy during his time in Wisconsin, but as soon as he joined the Jets and spent some time in New York, he was busy sending pictures of his dick to any reporter with a cell phone). Aaron Rodgers seems like a white-bread-but-nice guy who snagged himself a hot girlfriend. Edie Lacy seems to know how to play the position of “running back” which has been a foreign concept to the Packers for a few years now. And hey, you have to give credit to an organization that’s stayed in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a city of 100,000 people, since 1919, even in the face of the profitability that comes with moving to a larger market looming over them. No one would be surprised to see them make, and win, the Super Bowl this year, and the team would absolutely deserve it.
Just don’t expect the rest of us to cheer for y’all ‘cause, come on, you’ve been winning quite enough, why don’t you let someone else have a turn?
The Seattle Seahawks
2014 Record: 12-4
1st Seed, NFC
Considering the fact that they are the defending Super Bowl champions, it’s pretty remarkable how surprising it is to see them nab the number one seed here. Admittedly, they’re coming off a six-game winning streak to start their playoff run, but at the beginning of the season, it was looking a bit rough. They lost to the Cowboys, which makes sense because it was October and not December, but they also lost to the St. Louis Rams, who started Austin Davis at quarterback. If you don’t know who Austin Davis is, that’s fine, his parents aren’t 100% sure themselves (“he’s…is it our oldest or our youngest who plays football in St. Louis? Well, we love them both equally anyway.”) They also managed to lose a game to Kansas City Chiefs, who ended the season with a respectable 9-7 record, but also managed to complete the entire 2014 season without a single wide receiver catching a touchdown.
The Seahawks are allowed to go in with a little less urgency, because they’ve won it before. They’re still in championship hangover mode, as they should be, and we as a nation are already in our “let’s give it to someone else” mindset. It’s hard to get excited about the defending champions trying to ride their grossly-underpaid quarterback who chooses to do commercials for Microsoft while being as exciting off the field as a lukewarm glass of milk. Their best running back is about to get run off the team, and the most enjoyable members of their team are Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin, who do shit like this and…well, okay, we love Richard Sherman, and that video is the best thing to have happened during the entire 2014 NFL season. When the Seahawks won last year, everyone outside of Seattle shrugged and said, “Well, that’s neat. They haven’t won before, so good job.” If they win again this year, we’ll all shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s neat. They seem to be some very nice boys there.” But, if we’d answer honestly, we’d just be really bored.
The Denver Broncos
2014 Record: 12-4
2nd Seed, AFC
People seem to root for the Broncos more than most of the rest of these teams, and we honestly for the life of us can’t figure it out. It has to just be that we love Manning, right? And partly because he’s better than he should be at his age, but mainly because he’s goofy in commercials? The Broncos haven’t had a particularly rough drought of losing, apart from having to weather Tim Tebow as their starting quarterback in a playoff game, and in fact they’ve been one of the more successful franchises out there. But it feels like more casual fans want the Broncos to pull it off than anyone else. Don’t fool yourself, Denver, the only reason why people are cheering for you so hard is because Peyton Manning has a good enough of a sense of humor to do this.
The Broncos have two Super Bowl titles to their name, winning back-to-back in 1998 and 1999 due to the strength that was John Elway throwing at a high altitude. There are some Green Bay fans who hate the Broncos because they beat the Packers in the 1998 Super Bowl at the end of their 13-3 1997 campaign because of course they feel that way. For the majority of the country, however, the Broncos are a safe team to want to see win, because Peyton Manning seems nice. That’s a stupid reason to root for them, but it’s as good of a reason as most.
Will they avenge their brutal shellacking of last year’s Super Bowl, or will they stumble at some point in the playoffs? Why are you asking us, we’re not fucking mindreaders, goddamn. But the key to remember, for the Broncos and everyone else on this list, is that football is about America, and of course, having an excuse to day drink on the weekends. So no matter what team you choose, we wish you and your fans the very best. Also, we’ll say hello to the Panthers, feel free to pick another one of these guys to root for after you lose.