Dozens of men separate into two teams, muscled and angry and armored in pads and helmets and uniforms, gather inside an arena under an empty sky in Oakland. The groups stare at each other, stomping the ground and beating their chests, while tens of thousands of people who have come to the arena to watch roar in anticipation. Men in striped shirts bring the leaders of the teams to the center of the field. There is a pause, pregnant with violence, as the anticipation builds. Then…
“Why are we doing this?” one of the captains asks his counterpart.
“What do you mean?” the other captain replies.
“Why is football happening?”
“It always happens this way. Every week. Again and again and again. You know this.”
“But today…” He is confused. “Today there is no reason for football. We have no playoffs to strive for. Our fans expect no victories from either of us. We are the Chiefs and the Raiders—strong-sounding names which we do not deserve, for our teams together have more than a score of defeats and only a handful a triumphs. We shame our ancestors every time we attempt to play. No one is watching us on television. No one, save the hopelessly addicted, is wagering on this outcome. For what do we risk life and limb on this field?”
There is a pause as the men on the field consider this. The crowd goes silent. What’s happening? they wonder. Is there going to be football after all?
“We are football players,” the other team captain says at last. “We play football. That is what we do. It is our job, and what sorts of people would we be if we did not do our jobs? What sort of man shirks his duty? As frivolous as it may be, we must perform our function.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” the first captain replies. “All of these people have come here to watch us, after all.” He looks around at the crowd, which is becoming antsy. “I wonder why?” He smirks a melancholy smirk.
The other is offended now—his professional pride rises to the surface. “Well, I will say this, sir!” he snaps. “I consider it an honor to earn my living playing football rather than through carpentry or shoemaking, and though our accomplishments on the field may be paltry, I intend to give you no quarter, and battle as if this game was the pinnacle of my career, and I expect you to do the same!”
“Yes, yes, of course. I meant no offense, my brother. The winter season sometimes affects me this way and I wax philosophical when really, there is no time for it in the hurly-burly of the present moment. I hope one day to sit with you, when we are both old men with time for such things, and discuss this further—for in truth, if this game is meaningless, what gives a game meaning? Is the Super Bowl, that destination which is so distant from both of our toiling franchises, a more noble contest than this one? Will we remember this game any more or less than another when we are taking stock of our lives in our twilight years? Or is true meaning found in pursuits distant from the field: raising children, loving a wife, helping our neighbors in times of need? Ah, well, another day…” he concludes wistfully.
The old referee smiles. He has seen this all before, of course, every time there is a late-season game between teams with no hope of the playoffs. The players change faces and names but their dialogue never will, he thinks.
“Ready for the coin flip, gentlemen?”
Cincinnati (-4.5) at Philadelphia I saw an ad promoting this game last week that featured Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” Now I get that it’s a great song and has the word “Philadelphia” right there in the title, but maybe you shouldn’t be associating your sporting event with lyrics that are literally about dying of AIDS? Then again, maybe that’s appropriate, given the way the Eagles’ season has gone. Let’s take a moment to imagine an unemployed Andy Reid walking around Philly like Bruce.
New York Giants (+1.5) at Atlanta
The Falcons are 11-2, but in their last five games they’ve nearly lost to Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and Arizona, and they did lose, badly to Carolina last week. Is there a word in German that means “team that has a good record but is really shaky as it heads towards the playoffs and doesn’t inspire much confidence”?
PICK: New York
Tampa Bay (+3.5) at New Orleans
It’s been a disappointing, dull season for the Buccaneers, but this kid who danced with the cheerleaders the other day is neither disappointing or dull. Could we replace the normal cheerleaders with children from now on? Or is that illegal?
David Roth at the Classical
PICK: New Orleans
Minnesota (+3) at St. Louis
I have seen a lot of rap songs devoted to NFL teams, but this “St. Louis Rams Anthem” by some guys called Deuce is the worst. By a lot. And the lip-synching on the video is the worst too. And you should never, ever name your rap group after a euphemism for poop unless it’s clear that’s what you meant to do.
Green Bay (-3) at Chicago
This is going to be a good, hard-fought game between a pair of teams fighting for the division. We’re gonna see some goddamn smashmouth football, etc. etc. But try to tell me that this game will be more entertaining than just watching this over and over. PICK: Chicago
Washington (-1) at Cleveland
As of this writing, there’s a lot of confusion about whether franchise savior Robert Griffin III will play in this game. But you know what? I’d pick the Browns even if RGIII were playing, because they really aren’t that bad—they beat the Steelers! They destroyed the Chiefs last week! They’re 5-8, which isn’t terrible! Forget about Brandon Weeden’s initial interception-filled game and he has some respectable stats for a quarterback on a bad team! They’re the youngest team in the league and will be better next season! I’ll pick them this week, and for the rest of the season, because this column is part of BROWNS NATION now! I’m a Brownie, or whatever it is that you call a Browns fan! Now who wants to tell me why we dress up like dogs?
Jacksonville (+7) at Miami
Hello Jaguars. When your 12-year-old fans are making parody videos about how you are “Never Getting Any Better,” you are maybe not doing so hot in terms of being a successful and beloved franchise.
SBNation’s Jaguars blog
) (Side note: There are 12-year-old girls who are Jaguar fans?! Poor kids.)
Denver (-2.5) at Baltimore
I feel confident picking the Broncos here, as Peyton Manning is 7-2 against the Ravens in his career according to this site that has painstakingly compiled his stats against all NFL teams and that I’m sure is run by someone who is really mentally balanced and not an insane obsessive at all.
Indianapolis (+8.5) at Houston
Indianapolis is 9-4 and headed to the playoffs despite having a team consisting of Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, and 41 guys named Ron the team picked up at the gas station, migrant-worker style. It’s an inspiring story, but the Colts have been outscored this season—they’re gonna run out of luck sooner or later.
Seattle (-5.5) at Buffalo
I’m from Seattle so this sounds biased, but the Seahawks are actually fucking good this season: They’re number 2 in DVOA (which basically means overall efficiency) at FootballOutsiders; they’re undefeated at home; they haven’t lost by more than six points; they’ve beaten the Bears, Patriots, and Packers (OK, that last one was because of the phantom touchdown, but still); and Russell Wilson has developed into an actually good QB over the course of the season. Being from Seattle, I assume that this will all end in crushing disappointment, but for now I’m flying high like a seahawk, which I’ve always thought of as a cross between a seagull and a hawk—you know, a majestic raptor that eats garbage.
Pittsburgh (-1.5) at Dallas
Two legendary franchises square off as both teams vie for a spot in the playoffs—a must watch!!!!! Just kidding, these are maybe the most two unbearable franchises in the league and I hope they both lose and I hope Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger make out hard at midfield while all the gay-haters at Cowboys Stadium boo and puke all over each other. Here’s the Silver Jews track “Dallas,” which I guess is about the town, but as usual with their songs, I’ve got no goddamn idea what he’s singing about:
Detroit (-6) at Arizona
God, imagine being Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt. You opened the season with four wins, but have now lost nine in a row, the last being a record-setting 58-0 defeat. It is now news that you still have your job, but you probably will get fired as soon as the season is over. But you’ve got three more weeks of breaking down film and drawing up game plans—what do you do? Do you just sorta leave it to your assistants and coordinators while you smoke cigarettes in your car? Do you toy with absurd ideas like putting Larry Fitzgerald at QB and running some all-the-plays-are-runs system from 1922? Do you try to win more games, seeing as how it doesn’t matter? Can you win games, even if you try?
_PICK: Arizona _
Carolina (+3) at San Diego
Carolina has had a rough season, so it’s been easy to ignore Cam Newton’s immense fucking physical gifts. Here, as my gift to you, is a .gif showing off those gifts. PICK: Carolina
Kansas City (+3) at Oakland
PICK: Kansas City
San Francisco (+5) at New England
Last Sunday’s Houston-New England matchup was supposed to be a showdown between the best two teams in the AFC, but it went downhill for the Texans pretty fast. It was like seeing the two supposedly toughest boys in middle school face off after class, but instead of a fight, one kid just starts pummeling the other and knocks him down and kicks him and kicks him and it’s like, Whoa, someone get Mr. Davis, someone get Mr. Davis! Not picking against the Pats after that one.
PICK: New England
Tennessee (-1.5) at New York Jets
Weirdly, despite talk of how the Jets are so bad they might as well be a bunch of mounds of melted plastic trying to play football, the team is 6-7 and could even make the playoffs if Pittsburgh and Cincinnati collapse. It’s like an inspirational sports movie, only the players hate each other and the fans hate the team. Ah, football! PICK: New York
An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that the Raiders-Chiefs game was happening in Kansas City. It's actually in Oakland.
Previous week's record: 10-5-1
Overall record: 108-90-10
Previously: RGIII Is Number I in Our Hearts