Thursday, December 22, 2016

Regular Season's Greetings: A Yawn

There are two given Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays left in the 2016 NFL season. For most fans, the stretch run will conclude in a crescendo of impatient boredom.

Oh, I imagine diehard followers of the Texans, Titans, Buccaneers and Falcons, should such exist, are both thrilled and filled with anxiety about the AFC and NFC South divisional races. Can't pretend to share their excitement, and it's a safe bet I'm in the majority in that regard. Experience has taught us all to disregard the struggle for supremacy in four team divisions where a 9-7 record is enough to bring home the crown.

The Falcons are the league's highest scoring team by a wide margin. That franchise's entire history has taught me to ignore them no matter what. Aside from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, I couldn't name a single Falcon. This might make me a poor excuse for a fan. But for fans outside of metro Atlanta, it makes me a normal one, too.

For sheer drama, the Lions have been the team to watch this year. All those fourth quarter comebacks. So I watched the Lions play the Giants last Sunday. That is, I tried to. The game of two playoff contenders was a dreadful display of offensive tedium. If it weren't for Odell Beckham, Jr., I wouldn't remember a single play today.

Time for honesty. How many readers of this post think the Lions will somehow hold off the Packers in the NFC North? Me neither.

Steelers-Ravens on Christmas night might be a good game if they hold the war crimes down to five or six a side. But those two teams are ancient rivals and, above all, an old story. They were expected to compete in the AFC North and they did.

That's been the trouble with pro football in 2016. What was expected to happen, has happened. The regular season has been disturbingly cut and dried.  Any given Sunday has become "what we took as a given" Sunday.

Major happy surprise teams of the season: The Cowboys.
Less major/minor happy surprise teams of the season in descending order of surprise: Raiders, Dolphins, Falcons, Giants, Titans.
Surprise still in doubt: Lions
Unhappy surprise teams of the season in descending order of shock: Panthers, Cardinals.
They are who we thought they were, except those that were even worse than we thought: Everybody else.

The story in the Globe this week on how the Patriots are 11-3 against the spread was the story of the NFL. It's been a year for chalk. The Pats and Seahawks are among the Super Bowl favorites? There's a shocker. The Browns and Jaguars were beyond horrible? Get me rewrite! The Broncos have struggled on offense with a first-year quarterback? Well, I'll be! Even my unhappy surprise teams aren't that surprising. A Super Bowl loser struggling the next year is hardly unprecedented. How can any bad season for the Cardinals be startling?

It's no surprise that here in New England it is assumed by everyone that the Pats will return to the Super Bowl. That's the assumption every December. The level of overconfidence isn't even as high as it was last January before the AFC title game. But all commentators from Terry Bradshaw to the quants at Football Outsiders share the assumption, too. Four months of action have conditioned to expect the expected.

There are seasons where the favorites prevail, most of them in fact. But I have to go back a long ways in my memory to recall a year where the favorites prevailed with so little fuss and muss along the way. That would be 1989. Everyone knew the 49ers were the class of the NFL in August. Everyone was right, too. They cruised through the regular season then won their three playoff games by a combined score of 126-26, including their 55-10 squeaker over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

The Patriots are the favorites to be the champs when Super Bowl LI is over. If that comes to pass, good for them. Not so good for anyone who likes football in general rather than the home team in particular if they do so by walking over postseason opponents as they did the Rams, Bills and Browns. It's been a long time, 14 years in fact, since there's been a blowout Super Bowl. I've been to my share of those, and watched even more of TV and they remain one of sports' most singularly depressing experiences.

So in this season of chalk, I cling to one statistic as my NFL hope for January-February 2017. In the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, the Patriots have been in six Super Bowls. They've won, and they've lost, but they've never bored. All were at least good games. Five of the six were genuinely thrilling. Three were historically so.

Unless you were a 49ers fan, that season wasn't much fun. Spectators adore champions, but they also want to see the champ put to the severest possible test.


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