Even if you don't get a visceral thrill from the violent, steroidal ballet of professional football, you (and your relationship, if your partner's a football fan) cannot escape the NFL playoffs, which begin this weekend. Football has never been bigger. It's not just the most popular spectator sport in America, it's the hottest thing on all of television—eight of the top ten broadcasts in 2010 were NFL games. What, you ask, is all the fuss about?
Well, plenty. If you can't tell the difference between a flea flicker and a play-action pass, there's still something to cheer for. Like any serialized television drama, the football season features a cast of characters, and you can enjoy the playoffs—and the season finale, The Super Bowl—if you learn something about the protagonists. It wouldn't be fair to judge The Sopranos by a single episode at the end of the final season; so, too, with the NFL.
The first thing to know is that any team still alive in January has already been through plenty of fall drama. The league's 32 teams are divided into two equal conferences—think of them as two tribes on Survivor—and the past few months have already determined which six teams from each conference will get to stay on the island for another challenge or two. They now enter an elimination bracket in which a defeat means the end of the season, while a victory takes them one step closer to the Super Bowl. 10 Football-Free Activities For Super Bowl Sunday
In the first round of the playoffs, the lower-ranked teams slug it out for the right to play the two top dogs from each conference, whose regular-season dominance won them the immunity of a first-round bye. Here are the playoff teams' backstories.
Saturday, January 8, 4:30pm: New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks
The enduring image of the Saints' Super Bowl victory last year was star quarterback Drew Brees holding his infant son and grinning as confetti fell from the sky. If you're prone to cynicism about the wholesomeness of professional athletes, then rest assured that Brees actually is, true to his image, the greatest husband, father, and humanitarian on the face of the earth. People in New Orleans call him Breesus. This year, in the early part of the fall, he and the Saints suffered from a so-called "Super Bowl hangover," in which they took about half a season to regain their championship form. If the party people of New Orleans can forgive anything, it's a hangover, and they never wavered in their support of the Saints, who have become a symbol of the city's post-Katrina resurgence. Now the team has largely regained the form that won last year's championship.
The Seahawks have more losses than any team that has ever before made the NFL playoffs. The only reason they've gotten this far is that other teams were even worse. Seattle lost badly to New Orleans a couple months ago, and they'll lose again on Saturday. Think of them as the unwitting character at the beginning of a crime drama whose imminent murder sets the scene for the rest of the story.