Sunday, January 9, 4:00pm: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Green Bay Packers
The biggest story of this NFL season has been the redemption of quarterback Michael Vick. Redemption, you ask? Michael Vick? Yes. The same Michael Vick who did time in prison for the organized killing of dogs. As it turns out, in the court of public opinion, the best antidote to bad publicity is winning, and Vick's Eagles have been making other teams look downright foolish. What makes him so good is his versatility. Normally in football, you give the ball to the quarterback when you want to throw it and to the running back when you want to run it. Vick does both, better than almost anyone else at either position. But should his skills clear him of his past crimes, which extend beyond dog-fighting? This question has already been answered by fans in Philadelphia, who famously lack good judgment and love winning nearly as much as they hate Santa Claus (they once booed him out of their stadium). But hey, on the bright side, Vick did just give his fiancée a Porsche. Who says you can't buy love?
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In contrast to the Eagles' Faustian bargain with the thug life personified, here come the Packers carrying on their shoulderpads the wholesome hopes of Green Bay, Wisconsin. They are literally owned by their community, a tiny city (by pro sports standards) of about 100,000 whose residents hold shares in a non-profit parent company called Green Bay Packers, Inc. Packer fans wear silly foam hats that look like giant blocks of Swiss cheese, because they're proud of their state's dairy industry. Their star player is quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has cashed in his nice-guy cred with the ladies to date a swimsuit model, country music star, and now reportedly a Gossip Girl. Will Jessica Szohr be on the sidelines cheering on Sunday? Can the boys from Green Bay overcome a hostile crowd in the depths of Philly? You know you love them... XOXO!
The big dogs: these four teams did so well in the regular season that they earned first-round byes. Next weekend, they'll play the four winners of this week's games.
Saturday, January 15, 4:30pm: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers' lumbering oaf of a star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has competed with Michael Vick for the worst reputation in the NFL. Most recently, "Big Ben," as he is called around Pittsburgh, has been accused by a few different women of sexual assault—charges which garnered a four-game suspension by the NFL and caused him to lose his sponsorship deal for a product unfortunately named "Big Ben's Beef Jerky." Yet, as with Vick, Roethlisberger's skills on the field have won him second, third, and fourth chances with fans in Pennsylvania. If you're looking for a reason to root for the Steelers, focus on their defense, which is led by Troy Polamalu. You might recognize him from commercials for Head and Shoulders, which has taken out a million-dollar insurance policy on their pitch man's voluminous mop of black hair. The guy is also among the smartest defenders in the league – something of a defensive equivalent to Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, who will line up against Polamalu if the Colts can get past the Jets.
Saturday, January 15, 8:00pm: Atlanta Falcons
Back in 2001, the Falcons began building their then-defunct franchise around an unbelievably talented young quarterback named… Michael Vick. When Vick went to prison, everyone thought the team wouldn't win for another decade. When Vick was released, Atlanta decided not to let him back on the team. Instead, they drafted a new quarterback named Matt Ryan. He's sort of like the Chiefs' Matt Cassel—a young guy who's marrying the sweetheart he met playing varsity sports in college—except he's better at football and he hasn't embarrassed himself on YouTube. Ryan isn't as explosive as his predecessor, on the field or off, and Atlanta seems to like it that way. If both the Falcons and Eagles make it past this round, then Ryan will play against Vick the following week. Nice Guy vs. Bad Boy. Old scores to be settled. Drama!
Saturday, January 15, 4:30pm: Chicago Bears
The Bears' quarterback is Jay Cutler, better known to some as Mr. Kristin Cavallari. He also has two identities on the football field. One is the transcendent player who threads risky passes through impossibly small windows in amazing feats of unflappable self-confidence. The other is the hapless idiot who fails to thread risky passes through impossibly small windows in moronic acts of self-delusion. Mostly, the good Jay Cutler has shown up this season. As a result, the Bears have earned some big wins against good teams, including both of their potential playoff opponents – though they've lost to some bad teams, too. There's an old saying in sports that you haven't really proven you're a star player until you've sunk your own team. For better or for worse, Cutler will be the star of the Bears.
Sunday, January 16, 4:30pm: New England Patriots
Let us take as an article of divine faith that the Olympian quarterback Tom Brady with his flowing chestnut locks and supermodel wife will play football as flawlessly as he smiles. The only drama surrounding Brady is whether the men in your presence think he's a "douche bag" or the second coming. Either way, please forgive their obsession: it's the jealousy talking. The new and interesting feature of this year's Patriots team is the one-two punch of their very different running backs. On the one hand is BenJarvus Green-Ellis, aka "The Lawfirm," whose raw power, like his name, is equal to that of many men. Danny Woodhead, on the other hand, is tiny and explosive. He can jump 38 inches from a stand-still, which is well over half his height. Woodhead, whose surname must have helped him develop resilience in the face of ostracism, had been rejected by the New York Jets in the preseason, but then earned a roster spot and now a feature role on an even stronger team. That has to feel good, even if he now has to keep company with a quarterback who thinks it's OK for a man to wear a scarf when it's not cold outside. Is Your Man Too Girly?
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