Commentary: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

With the arrival of the new year come the most exciting weeks in all of sports: the NFL playoffs. Twelve teams enter the tournament, and only one comes out alive. This is where a handful of games can separate you from being a first-round loser and being the Super Bowl champion. What makes the NFL playoffs better than any others is, first and foremost, the format. Any team, no matter how good it is, can come out flat in one game and be demoted to watching the Super Bowl on the couch with a bucket of popcorn.

The 2011 playoffs have already gotten off to a great start with last week's wildcard weekend. In the first NFC wildcard game, the 7–9 Seattle Seahawks hosted the defending champion New Orleans Saints, who were heavily favored to dominate the game. Despite being the first losing team to ever make the playoffs, Seattle was able to win its division and secure home field advantage, and that's exactly what it was. Earlier in the season, Seattle went to New Orleans and got demolished by a score of 34–19. However, the Seahawks play their home games at Qwest Field, known for its unsurpassed crowd noise and for the fans’ ability to cause unnecessary false starts for the visiting team. Of course, no one gave the Seahawks much of a chance anyway, considering they could only muster seven wins throughout the regular season, and those who wrote them off were definitely shocked. In a game where they were the underdogs by over nine points, the Seahawks won by a score of 41–36, highlighted by Marshawn Lynch’s inhuman run of over 50 yards that featured an extraordinary seven broken tackles. Many consider it to be the greatest run in postseason history.

Later that Saturday, the underdog New York Jets went on to defeat the perennial Super Bowl contender Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning on the road in a thrilling 17–16 victory. This game was only the second time a playoff game was ever decided on a “do-or-die” field goal in the final seconds. New York Jets kicker Nick Folk, who had a shaky season this year, pounded in a 32-yard field goal as time expired to vault the Jets into a rematch with their hated rival, the New England Patriots.

The second day of wildcard weekend was a bit less exciting, as the Baltimore Ravens showcased their trademark defense as they manhandled the Kansas City Chiefs on the road. In the second NFC game, the upstart Green Bay Packers headed into Philadelphia to try and end Michael Vick’s magical comeback season. In a game mostly dominated by the Packers, cornerback Tramon Williams of the Packers intercepted a last-minute pass by Vick in the end zone to win it for Green Bay. However, with Baltimore and Green Bay joining New York and Seattle in the divisional rounds, fans got what they wanted, with all four playoff matchups featuring rematches between the two teams.

So, what else makes the NFL playoffs so great? First off, the intensity of the players seems to rise as postseason football hits. One fact many casual fans do not know is that NFL players get a $21,000 game check for each playoff game, which is almost 10 times less than what the average player makes each week of the regular season. Also, stars like Tom Brady end up making the same amount as the last guy on the bench, making the NFL playoffs the ultimate team sport. Everyone is in it to win it all, and money is not a factor. Secondly, with this added intensity, rivalries appear and bad blood fuels a whole week of anticipation. Take the two AFC matchups this week, for example. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, both members of the AFC North, have one of the greatest rivalries in the NFL. These two teams hate each other to the core, as seen by one of Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs’ wardrobe choices this week. Suggs sported a “Hey Pittsburgh, F*** You!” shirt, further increasing the tension of this battle that ended with a Pittsburgh comeback victory that had all the excitement it was supposed to. In the other AFC matchup, the Jets faced the New England Patriots, and I’m not sure there has ever been that much trash talk for a game in the history of sports.

Lastly, the NFL playoffs can almost never be predicted correctly. The Seahawks' victory over the Saints was a great example of how much variance there is in the NFL. The underdog is never a given loss, as shown by the 2007 New York Giants winning the Super Bowl over the then-18–0 Patriots in one of the greatest upsets in football history. No matter what, the playoffs will give you great games, and no team is ever going to give up.

So sit back and enjoy the NFL playoff ride, as you may not even get a season next year considering the potential lockout. I expect these next few games to live up to the hype and create one of the best NFL postseasons in recent memory.