The NFL is powered by a dozen different types of violence and monetized by light beer commercials in which men routinely choose macro-brewed fart soda over attractive women. But it’s also hugely sentimental. Each broadcast's narrative is driven by goopy, overstated stories of redemption and revenge, and players—flashy black wide receivers excepted—are treated to media coverage that's a combination of old-fashioned awe and a weird, weepy flavor of dad-emo. That's the easily-stereotyped NFL experience—a giant American flag flying over a bunch of gnarly knee injuries, set to the soundtrack of Dan Dierdorf malapropisms, the gay-panic bark of beer and truck commercials, and a bunch of grown-ass men treating ball-throwing hamsteaks like Philip Rivers as if they were Nobel finalists for Outstanding Achievement in Inspirational Awesomeness.
How could anyone seriously be sentimental about all this? Well, to a certain extent, because it's the easiest way to justify watching. If you’re trying to duck the reality of football's increasingly un-duckable human cost, or are so cynical as to regard players merely as millionaire would-be felons dealing out brain damage to one another, it helps a lot to see the men on the field as brave gladiators questing after the ultimate, non-monetary prize of a Super Bowl ring. But there are some things in the NFL that actually demand emotional overstatement. For example, there are the apparently rejuvenated Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills, who have both gone 3-0 in defiance of all collective wisdom.
The NFL season is just three weeks old, so the unexpected competence of two of the NFL's ultimate punchbowl-turd franchises may not mean much. The Detroit Lions got off to a good start as recently as 2007, at which time ESPN The Magazine wrote a hagiographic profile of journeyman quarterback/professional concussion-recipient Jon Kitna that made the evangelical interception-machine into a holy man. The Lions, under Kitna and a procession of progressively more terrified-seeming backups, proceeded to lose every game they played in 2008. While the Bills have never quite touched that level of suck, they've never missed it by much, either—the appropriate response to hearing that someone is a Bills fan is a heartfelt “I’m sorry.”
Both teams, on and off the field, have long been disconcertingly accurate reflections of their tumbledown hometowns. In Detroit, a franchise was driven to the NFL equivalent of bankruptcy by an ownership that was both spend-y and absent and a backslapping-imbecile-turned-GM. In Buffalo, a once-great organization simply rusted before fans' eyes, with a decade of slack sub-mediocrity providing the closest analogue to factory-shuttering de-industrialization that pro sports can offer.
That both teams are sharing first place at this point in the season makes even non-partisan fans feel good, especially since the Bills got there by knocking off the unctuously sadistic New England Patriots on Sunday in a comeback you’d scoff at for being unrealistic if you saw it in a movie. Whether that success has any greater football significance remains to be seen, although it wouldn't be surprising if it didn’t—Detroit hasn't beaten a good team yet, and Buffalo has trailed by three scores in both of their last two games. And of course, appealing though it is to think otherwise, nothing that either team does will do much to make the cities of Detroit or Buffalo less like their bleak selves.
But there's still something worth celebrating here, even if it's illusory and despite the fact that—broadly speaking—it’s all pretty resoundingly insignificant. The NFL's militaristic pomp and goony storylines are not, after all, the only way to understand or enjoy a football game. American culture is currently screaming profanities at itself from the bottom of a canyon-sized rut; everyplace, increasingly, feels like a cross between Detroit and Buffalo. So a stunning comeback win or two from the NFL's ultimate rust-belt no-hopers offers a very in-context type of escapism, and inspires a different and sweeter sort of sentimentality.
Previously - Exploiting Amateurs