It’s Wild Card week in the NFL, and for the casual watcher, it’s about now that things get interesting.
American Football has become increasingly popular for Irish audiences, thanks to its omnipresence each 6pm on a Sunday night on Sky Sports, September through January.
The nature of the sport and the time slot it occupies lends itself to the sports fan who has slightly less attention to give. The tea can be eaten, children bathed, dressed and put to bed by the halftime report.
In truth, you could watch six hours of the NFL on a Sunday night without another person in the room even noticing.
The appeal of the sport goes far beyond its convenience.
It’s easy on the eye, and has become a very offence (attack) focused in recent seasons, resulting in more touchdowns and dramatic finishes.
The Quarterback remains king. Unlike GAA, soccer or rugby, no team dominates year after year. There have been nine different winners in the last 10 seasons.
The catches are sensational. The comebacks epic. The blazers in the studios outrageous.
If you want to be the cool kid around the water cooler this Monday morning, you better know your first downs from your tight ends.
Despite it being the first week of the playoffs, it was a wild card of a different type who dominated the news cycle this week.
Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, the league’s highest paid wide receiver, pulled a stroke any hero of the high stool junior footballer would’ve been proud of when he informed his coach through a series of proxies that he wasn’t quite feeling it for last Sunday’s decisive clash with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Despite his earlier overtures, Brown woke on game day saying through his agent he was ready to play. By that stage, his coach Mike Tomlin had had enough and gone “with the lads that were down training all year”.
The Steelers stumbled to the win they needed, but results elsewhere ended their season. Antonio Brown meanwhile appeared on Fox Tv’s Masked Singer reality show some 72 hours after the loss, singing dressed in a hippo costume.
The Steelers pay him roughly $19m per season.
On the field, the matchups are intriguing. The Wild Ward weekend is like the last round of the of the GAA qualifiers before the quarterfinals – the worst best teams over the sixteen game regular season face off.
Recent history says Wild Card teams are unlikely to win the championship as they face more road games from here until Super Bowl Sunday against better-ranked opposition on consecutive weeks.
In January, when things get serious, home field advantage is everything. In each of this weekends fours games, the home team is the bookies favourite.
The defending champions the Philadelphia Eagles, who rallied late in the regular season to secure a playoff berth, will travel to face the on-the-up Chicago Bears, led by young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who sounds and is playing like a character from a Frank Deford novel.
While Vegas has them favourites, the Bears may be one season away from a deep postseason run.
The Eagles are again relying on their miracle man Nick Foles, who started this season as backup quarterback despite being the MVP of last season’s Super Bowl. His form in the final weeks of the regular season has been nothing short of cartoonishly good.
The Seattle Seahawks make the trip to Texas to face the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas are laced with talent, especially when wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back Zeke Elliot catch fire, but are wildly unpredictable.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson, on the other hand, has dragged an understrength Seahawks to this weekend. Crucially, Wilson has a ring, and if things tight in Arlington, it could be his elan that proves the difference.
In Maryland, the Baltimore Ravens host the San Diego Chargers. This game pits Chargers starting QB Philip Rivers, 37 – widely regarded as the best playing QB not to have a championship ring – against the youngest QB to ever start a playoff game, 21-year-old Lamar Jackson.
The rookie has been sensational this season, playing under centre like a running back with a rocket arm. History dictates such an attritional style does not age well, but he’s a joy to watch.
As Al Pacino said in Carlito’s Way, he has a bright future if he can live past next week.
In Houston, the Indianapolis Colts visit the Texans in a game where home field advantage matters least. These teams are divisional rivals and the road team has won four out of the last 5 meetings.
Behemoth defensive end JJ Watt has recovered from a career-threatening injury to lead a Houston defence with 16 sack sacks in as many games.
If he lays his sizeable mitts on Colts QB Andrew Luck, his comeback season should extend at least another week.
The fun starts here. Whatever happens, it’ll be worth putting the kids to bed for.