Pick a sports league surrounded by the most controversy, and the NFL would probably win by at least 20 hash marks. From Colin Kaepernick, to CTE, to Brian Flores to the lack of guaranteed contracts to COVID-19 protocols, there are incessant debates on league issues that take place outside the lines.
But there’s a reason the NFL machine never stops or shows any real indication of slowing down: What happens inside the lines is just too damn good.
On Sunday, the Rams beat the Bengals 23-20 in the Super Bowl thanks to an improbable drive anchored by quarterback Matt Stafford and receiver Cooper Kupp. It featured two superhuman stops by defensive tackle Aaron Donald in the final minute as Cincinnati fell just shy of game-tying field-goal range.
It was thrilling. It was compelling. It was … like, a below-average game this postseason.
Recency bias is real. The moment can make prisoners out of all of us. But can you remember a month of pro football that was this exhilarating? Outside of the first round — which featured four games in which the victor won by at least six points — there wasn’t a single contest that didn’t have its fans averaging a triple-digit heart rate.
The Bengals, Rams and 49ers all won their second-round matchups with walkoff field goals. But those games all paled to the second-round duel between the Chiefs and Bills, which ended with a Kansas City overtime win after a near-unfathomable comeback.
A week later the Bengals came back from a 21-3 deficit to beat the Chiefs with a walkoff overtime field goal, and the Rams rallied from 10 points down to beat the Niners by three and advance to the Super Bowl. Of the last seven NFL games played this season, six were decided by three points — and the Chiefs’ six-point win over Buffalo came after regulation.
You want parity? You want unpredictability? It’s hard to argue you’re going to find a greater abundance of those things outside the NFL.
This is part of the reason the Seahawks’ 7-10 record this season shouldn’t necessarily shake their fan base to its core. Yes, there were deficiencies — every team has them. But there were also three games in which quarterback Russell Wilson was out, three more games in which he was seemingly still recovering and five games in which they lost by three points (including two in overtime).
Is it that hard to think they could have been at least 10-7 — if not better — with Wilson and their running backs healthy?
The Bengals got into the tournament by going 10-7 before beating the top-seeded Titans and the second-seeded Chiefs. The 49ers got into the tournament by going 10-7 before beating the top-seeded Packers and falling three points shy of knocking off the fourth-seeded Rams — a game that should have ended in a San Francisco victory had safety Jaquiski Tartt not dropped a gimme interception.
Seattle might not be as far away as people think. I’m not saying the team can go 14-3 and run away with the division, but the league is designed that just about any squad above .500 is a threat. We saw it this season. We see it all the time.
The parity extends beyond the playoffs. We saw a 1-11-1 Lions squad beat Arizona, which was in first place in the NFC West. We saw a Saints team — which ended up missing the playoffs — shut out Tom Brady and cost him an MVP award.
Plus, the final game of the regular season mattered for about two-thirds of the league’s teams, as all were jockeying for position in the seedings or trying to sneak into the postseason. And when the then 2-14 Jaguars beat the then 9-8 Colts to send Indianapolis home? That’s all you needed to know about the NFL this year.
Take leagues such as the NBA or MLB, and viewership might largely depend on star power or tradition. LeBron James in the Finals or the Yankees in the World Series makes a world of difference in terms of eyeballs. The NFL doesn’t necessarily rely on the big names — not when it almost always produces big games.
Controversy will almost certainly follow this league into next season. Pundits and columnists and bloggers will produce a range of conflicting opinions on a number of issues. Fans will argue as well.
They might have problems with the NFL — many of which are justifiable. But they aren’t going to stop watching. The games are just too good.