The NFL generates roughly the same amount of noise every week, which is impressive when you think back to, say, Week 7. I chose that particular insignificant week at random, although it turned out to be a good choice, highlighted as it was by an unwatchable Sunday Night Football game that ended in a 6-6 tie and a game in London between the Giants and Rams that transcended the usual dreamlike shittiness of those games to attain a state of pure Sinus Headache; the Cleveland Browns used their sixth quarterback of the season that week. Geno Smith got hurt. It was not worse, really, than any other week during this NFL season's long and dim doldrum months. It wasn't really any different, although it's safe to say it was slightly worse for Geno Smith than usual.
Not a single interesting thing happened in the NFL that week, give or take how interesting you find Kevin Hogan, the aforementioned sixth Browns quarterback in seven weeks, setting a franchise record for the longest touchdown run by a quarterback. During this week of all-beef meaninglessness, the NFL's multi-platform noisemaking apparatus—imagine a jet engine blasting gales of Buffalo wing breath at you, except it also sounds like a Kid Rock song; imagine this goes on every hour of every day for five months—roared on as usual. That is how it's supposed to work, incidentally. There is no off switch on the Kid Rock Hot Wing Breath Machine, and that is by design. This is just how the NFL talks about itself.
And it is how the NFL talks about itself all the time, not just when it matters. Now that the NFL season has begun to narrow towards the Super Bowl, it is ... still pretty obnoxious in its overstatement, honestly, but at least a little bit easier to understand. There are only so many games left in this season, and none of them are insignificant. The NFL's humorlessness and soaring grandiosity means that every week is talked about this way, which is why we get all those jarring and accidentally hilarious mismatches between tone and meaning throughout the season—a black-clad Carrie Underwood groaning "oh Sunday night" with church-y solemnity before every Sunday Night Football broadcast, right before two teams launch into a four-hour puntfight that ends in a 6-6 tie. But just because the words "the road to the Super Bowl begins here" are arriving in Kid Rock's voice and swathed in a damp mist of wing breath doesn't make them untrue. We really are into the interesting part of the NFL season.
Because the NFL is how it is and football is what it is, the foremost question at this point in the season is how much anyone has left. The NFL's windy insistence on the world-historical significance of every goddamn thing makes it hard to trust; the simple physical attrition born of the game's violence makes it hard to survive. Even under ideal conditions, a NFL game can be a challenge to watch. They stop and start and are frequently interrupted by voice-over actors bragging at you about what J.D. Power and Associates said about a given truck's warranty, they are simultaneously over-coached and defined by willful checked-out dumbassery, there are too many rules and too many penalties and entirely too much legalistic fine-parsing going on given the candlepower of all involved. There is, in a universe slightly to the left of ours, a version of the NFL that is goofier and somehow even dumber and definitely more fun than this one; Steve Smith is still playing there, and Rex Ryan is still coaching in it, and everyone at every level has lightened the fuck up considerably. We live and watch in this one, though, and in this one we get a few dazzling moments of grace and awe per game, studded at random into the interstices between the advertisements for trucks and long periods of watching fat guys walk around.
We'll have those moments of awe and surprise this week, if also the usual amount of the J.D. Power-related shouting and pacing fat guys. But while the playoffs are the fun part of the NFL season, it's probably too much to say that the fun will start this weekend. Because of all that natural human attrition and all those administrative legalisms, Wild Card weekend features a handful of flawed and floundering teams. Some of these teams backed limping into the playoffs; the Lions entered the postseason with the grace and purpose more commonly associated with falling down a long flight of stairs. For reasons having to do with Brock Osweiler's essential Brock Osweiler-ness and injuries to Oakland's top two quarterbacks, respectively, the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders will present what has to be the worst postseason quarterback match-up in the history of the sport. Even the better teams playing this weekend were dysfunctional or lopsided or otherwise weird enough not to get a bye. The Green Bay Packers currently look like one of the best teams in the NFL, for instance, but they're still stuck playing this week because they spent whole months of this season playing like a better-dressed version of the Tennessee Titans.
Some of these pairings are more promising than others in terms of unstoppable force/immovable object conflict, but all of them have the potential to be bad. There are different ways for football games to be bad, and NFL fans have had many opportunities to familiarize themselves with the various substrates and tiers of badness that football games can deliver. This has mostly been an enervating and unsatisfying season, a year of glaring problems and multiple backwardness and righteous denial; this could be said of most recent NFL seasons, although there has been something flat and fun-free about this one even by those standards. The NFL is as rich and powerful as any sports league on earth, but it is also depressed. Not in the can't-get-out-of-bed sense, not quite, but certainly in the just-sad-enough-not-to-do-anything-about-it one. The flat-affect grimness and self-thwarting stubbornness of this season bear this out. All that noise doesn't quite conceal a league-wise case of ennui; the obvious of the latter adds a sort of mocking poignance to the former.
As we enter this lame NFL season's best weeks, we can take the lessons of those earlier awful ones with us. Maybe you have been depressed yourself, or maybe you just watch a lot of AFC South football; I have spent a good deal of my life grappling with the first, and more time than I should have subjecting myself to the second. But I find that what works for me, when it works, is refusing to deny the suck of it all. A long, low flatland slog just is what it is, and while I don't know how to whistle, I know enough to know that whistling through it wouldn't do much more than annoy the other people sitting near me on the subway. Learning how to be bored is one of the great skills of adult life; learning to be sad is another one. But the one that matters most, and the thing that sometimes jars me back into the present tense when I'm down, and into awareness of all the good things around me that I'd let fade down to gray, are the periodic bright moments of grace that flit through even a shitty, shitty football game. This is not to say that the one or two moments of beauty that blunder through grunty puntfests justify or redeem every other thing around it. It's just useful to remember that they're there, and that they're worth appreciating, and that there are more of them waiting over the horizon.
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