The NFL concluded one of the most thrilling post-seasons in its history Sunday night. In befitting fashion, the L.A. Rams defeated Cincinnati 23-20 in a game that, while not always artistically pleasing, featured big plays by big stars and another down-to-the-wire ending. It was the seventh straight post-season game that finished with a three-point scoring differential or in overtime, a streak of thrilling football surely unparalleled in league history. I have not done the research, but I cannot imagine another post-season where every divisional round game, conference championship contest and the Super Bowl ended with a walk-off or with the deciding play occurring in the final minute.
In the end, Pittsburgh native Aaron Donald willed the Rams to victory by single-handedly thwarting Cincinnati on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 plays with the Bengals near midfield in the waning moments. Some fans may have found the ending anti-climactic, given the fact it featured standout plays by a defensive tackle. I disagree. For me, a big man asserting his will in the biggest possible moments captured the essence of football. The fact it was Donald, with his Pittsburgh connections, derailing the dreams of the hated Bengals was simply poetic.
Over the past month, the NFL staged some of the most captivating sport mankind has to offer. While there was no signature game that will live forever in our memories, no “Miracle on Ice” or “Immaculate Reception,” the collective impact of this post-season seems indelible.
In the divisional round, the Bengals shocked top-seeded Tennessee on a walk-off field goal, while San Francisco bested Aaron Rodgers in the snow at Lambeau on a walk-off of their own. The Rams then put a stake through the heart of Tom Brady’s career with a third straight walk-off, after Matthew Stafford hit Cooper Kupp on a 50-yard pass in the final minute to set up the winning kick. Kansas City wrapped the weekend with the most improbable win, moving 40 yards in the final 13 seconds to kick a tying field goal before beating Buffalo in overtime.
In the conference championships, Cincy stormed back from a 21-3 deficit to stun the Chiefs on a (you guessed it) walk-off kick while the Rams intercepted Jimmy G in the final minute to hang on for a 20-17 win that punched their ticket to the Super Bowl. Their win over Cincinnati on Sunday lacked some of the excitement of the previous six contests, but only because it featured more defense than anticipated. The hitting was intense, both quarterbacks were battered, neither team could run the football, and in the end, with the game hanging in the balance, defense prevailed. To a purest like myself, it was a thing of beauty.
While the games were thrilling, this post-season reminded me how integral football is to our culture. When we get beneath the politics of the sport and the issues that cast it in a negative light, it has such unifying power.
Case in point: my wife and I hosted a Super Bowl party on Sunday with almost 30 people in attendance, ranging in age from 4 to 80. The food piled up so high in the kitchen we had to open an extra folding table. I mixed pitcher after pitcher of margaritas. People ate, laughed, talked about how we’ve all put on a few pounds over the winter. The kids were sent upstairs, where they were the kings of their domain. They ran every which way, playing tag and hide-and-seek, their footsteps pounding above us.
When the game began, we divided into two rooms. The football junkies in one, talking strategy, offering their highly-amateur analyses and prognostications. Those who were casual fans, or not fans at all but just happy to be there, like my mother-in-law, gathered in another. Their most serious conversations revolved around the pros and cons of the commercials, where the Meadow Soprano cameo drew the biggest raves. The prop bets were a hit. My friend Pete high-fived his son when the coin toss came up heads. Odell Beckham Jr. scored the game’s first points. My Mom had that on her card. She donated her winnings to the grandkids.
At halftime, we stormed the kitchen to load our plates again before returning to watch the entertainment. For many in attendance, this was the real show. My neighbor Jackie rocked a Public Enemy shirt and danced with her kids. My wife roared for Mary J. Blige. “You go, Mary!” she shouted. My father seemed confused. “Why are there cars on the field?” he asked.
At one point, I went off to the utility room to find trash bags. I heard giggling from inside the closet. When I opened it, my son was crouched into a ball, hiding. “Don’t tell anyone I’m in here,” he said. “They can’t find me.” I wished him luck and closed the door.
When the Rams scored to take the lead with 1:25 remaining, the house grew silent. Everyone packed into the living room for the final series. I took a moment to look around. Here was my family and some of my closest friends, my kids and their kids, none of us Bengals fans nor Rams fans, all of us riveted. What, I thought, has the power to do this other than football?
Afterwards, when everyone had departed, and the clean-up was done, and the kids had gone to bed, I collapsed onto the couch, exhausted. The house was silent. The T.V. had been muted but was still tuned to NBC, where the Olympics were being broadcast. I watched some ski-jumpers fly through the air. Their talent was remarkable and their courage as bold as any football player’s. This was their Super Bowl, the height of their sport. I was happy for them. And yet, it seemed so anti-climactic. They jumped, they landed, a few people cheered. I shut it off and went to bed.
Without demeaning our Olympians, or any of the other incredible athletes who have ascended to the pinnacle of their respective sports, nothing compares to football. It has captured us in a way no other sport can. It is brutal, even savage at times, and yet it is beautiful. Its physical nature appeals to one element of our being while its athletic brilliance, the ballet of its best athletes, appeals to another. It is yin and yang. Its ultimate game, the Super Bowl, has become both a spectacle and a holiday of sorts. It is inclusive and engaging. It captures our imagination. Few things can do this, athletic or otherwise.
It would have been better, of course, with the Steelers hoisting that sticky Lombardi. Still, what a post-season we just witnessed. It reminded us of the power of football, and its ability to captivate like nothing else.