The 5 Best Games of 2016

 

Welp. If you’re reading this you’ve managed to survive one of the weirdest, most divisive, celebrity-death-filled years in human history. Congrats…I think? 2016 was full of surprises to say the least, and we’ve reached the squares of the calendar that remind us of our favorite and least favorite parts of the year we’re leaving behind.

Most best-of lists you’ve read this month are focused in the arts–best albums, films, books–and admittedly, it’s tough to put together a sports-focused list that makes any sense. Hell. I felt like anything more than five would be long-winded and guarantee I’d overlook some great game that I probably didn’t even see. Perhaps that’s still the case–I watched every game on this list. 

This short list was created without any difficult decisions, and using simple criteria: The games needed to be nationally viewable, meaningful, (they’re all postseason contests,) and entertaining AF.

With every effort to be as objective as possible, these are the five most entertaining games of 2016.

5. NFL Wildcard Playoff, January 9th–Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals

There’s nothing better than a rivalry game in the NFL–except when it’s also a playoff game.

This game had everything–violence, rain, a quarterback knockout followed by a triumphant return, a comeback, another comeback, and an iconically bitter IG post to sum up one star player’s disappointment.

These two teams genuinely hate each other, and it showed in January when the Steelers stole this playoff game from the bengals, and literally needed police protection to escape from Cincinnati.

Whether it was a coach grabbing a player’s dreads on the sideline, Martavis Bryant’s summer-saulting-butt-catch, or vontez burfuct’s attempt to murder Antonio Brown— this game was ugly and beautiful all at once.

The Steelers baited the Bengals into emotional self-immolation–low-key, this may be Mike Tomlin’s best effort as an NFL head coach–and won on a chip-shot walk-off field goal after the Bengals committed 30 yards of penalties on a single play.

4. American League Wildcard, October 4th– Baltimore Orioles @ Toronto Blue Jays 

While this game didn’t quite have the drama of the greatest inning of all time, in which the Blue Jays participated a year earlier–it was a fantastic baseball game. 

The Baltimore Orioles survived the first ten innings at Rogers Arena–this being the second game on this list in which a visiting player was assaulted with a full beer–but the Blue Jays won in the eleventh when Edwin Encarnacion walked-off against Ubaldo Jimenez while the game’s best closer sat idly by, awaiting a chance to pitch that never manifested itself. 

After watching how two league champions used their best relievers throughout the postseason, Buck Showalter’s decision not to use Zack Britton in this game will be second-guessed in Baltimore for years to come.

3. NFL Divisional Playoff, January 16–Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

It wasn’t the Super Bowl, but let’s face it–unless you’re a hardcore football nerd, or won money gambling, Super Bowl 50 was pretty boring.

This NFC divisional playoff game was not the most well-played game of the postseason–but it was easily season’s most enthralling.

This game was fucking insane–Multiple hail-marys, a coin that didn’t flip, playoff overtime. 

Needing a touchdown and an extra point just to tie, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers found himself taking a snap on 4th and 20 from HIS OWN DAMN END-ZONE with no timeouts, and under a minute to play. Even mister-I-bang-Olivia Munn-while-launching-game-winning-passes-and-negotiating-world-peace-with-my-dope-ass-mustache couldn’t overcome this hopeless situation. This game was fucking OVER.

Consider that prior to this play, during the previous two seasons, teams had attempted to convert on forth-and-twenty 36 times with a success rate of ZERO.

THIS SHIT WAS RIDICULOUS.

Not only does mister hero-face convert the 4th and twenty, seconds later–with zeros hanging on the game clock–he goes ahead and completes ANOTHER HAIL MARY to tie the game. 

The part of my soul which hates Aaron Rodgers as much as Cancer, Soccer, and Mayonnaise combined (and if you know me, I reaaaallly hate mayonnaise,) wanted to vomit–but god I love American football. And chaos.

This shit was riveting.

The story had a happy ending, though. Thanks to Larry Fitzgerald–who probably secured a bust in Canton, OH on this Saturday night–the Packers lost in overtime, and their fans were made to suffer in the worst possible way. Which was totally awesome.

2. Game 7, NBA Finals, June 19–Cleveland Cavaliers @ Golden State Warriors 

I will share two of my dirtiest sports secrets here:

A: In my younger days, I loved the Cleveland Browns. The loins of Clay Matthews Sr. may have produced one of my most hated athletes on earth–but he was one of the best middle linebackers ever to play the game. Also, Bernie Kosar is one of my childhood heroes. 

I once wrote him a letter and–undoubtedly from some Browns PR intern–received an autographed photo in return.

B: I really don’t care about basketball, and despite being a native Chicagoian–Michael Jordan had zero influence on me.

While pounding down a bag of Doritos, I watched ESPN’s, “Believeland,” two nights before Game 7 of the NBA championship. 

My roommate is originally from Cleveland, and loves basketball.
These are probably the only two reasons I chose to watch game seven of the NBA finals, rather than a nationally televised Cubs/Pirates Sunday night game (although I did tune in briefly, and was lucky enough to see Willson Contreras hit a home run in his first major league at-bat.)
This game was on some next-level shit, and I’ll never forget it.

To watch this game in the company of a great friend, whose interest in sports spawned at least partially from my own geekary, was fascinating entertainment in spite of my general lack of interest in its outcome.

However, for pure competitive drama, there are few games that will ever compare with this one–an entire city hanging on its outcome while a native attempts to right the wrongs of history and overcome his own misgivings.

Opine what you will about LeBron James, but the passion with which he played this final game of the NBA season was thick enough to tar your roof. 

This championship meant everything to a city that hadn’t experienced one in over half a century, and appreciating its beauty from a competitive and sociological perspective was immensely satisfying. Not to mention the difficulty of overcoming a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series…

1. Game 7, World Series, November 2–Chicago Cubs @ Cleveland Indians 

Obviously it was difficult to be objective when choosing the best game of 2016. However, while there have been some amazing games seven in the history of American sports, this was arguably the greatest game ever played. 

In any sport. 

Ever.

There are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe game seven of the 2016 World Series.

If someone were to write a fictional depiction of what actually happened in Cleveland on the night of November 2nd, it would be disregarded as over-the-top, melodramatic bullshit. 

But it did happen. Real-time.

There’s a reason this was the most-watched World Series game in decades, and if you weren’t on your feet or the edge of your seat for most of it, you’re either taking too many drugs or not enough of them.

Obviously we expected a dramatic conclusion once The Cubs erased a 3-1 deficit to force a decisive final game between the teams with the two longest championship droughts in baseball. I’m not a religious person, but I’ve imagined that before Corey Kluber took the mound to deliver the game’s first pitch, the Baseball gods held a quorum during which it was deemed necessary–regardless of the outcome–for fans of both teams to squirm in agony for a few hours. 

“Guys. I got this. How bout’ right before the tenth inning starts…rain delay. BOOM. Not a long one or anything–just a few minutes. Make em’ really sweat that shit.”

Game seven of the 2016 World Series was a microcosm of all of the cool stuff that sports are to those of us who care about them–the essence of competitive spirit, displayed by fifty dudes who wouldn’t have quit if the game lasted until 2017. 

I can’t imagine a better game ever being played, but there’s always next year.

Texts From the Ledge

The best part about when your favorite team wins the World Series are all of the awesome personal moments. 
Some of my strongest memories are attached to Baseball–probably a large part of why I’m so geeky and nostalgic about the game–and over the past month I’ve created memories that will last a lifetime. 

The ups and downs of October Baseball were a lot more fun with the support of some other wonderful Cubs fans–whether close friends or total strangers. Intentionally or otherwise, Cubs fans share a unique support system–especially over the past two seasons–and it’s pretty cool to be a part of.

Beginning some time in 2014 I became something of a personal baseball therapist for one friend who’s emotions are particularly volatile.

 These messages provided comic relief during some of the more difficult moments of the Cubs World Series run. 

These are texts from the ledge.

Remember that time it seemed like the Cubs were never going to score another run again?


It was definitely a rough couple days…


Remorse…

 Blame, and other coping mechanisms…

John Lackey induced angst…

Projection…

  Irrational ideas spawn from fear and anger…

Acceptance…

 Well-being checks…
Fucking previous engagements…
Overreaction…
 

Depression leads to anger, anger leads to hatred…

But yeah, fuck the Marlins, still..
Jed Hoyer DID draft him…

They’re never there when you need them…
Don’t get so worked up…It’s just a game, right?
Because let’s face it, it wouldn’t be as fun if they’d lost…

Mission accomplished, John

Tonight is Everything. I Love you All. Let’s F-cking GOOOOO!!!

We root for laundry. We’re suckers for brand loyalty, desperately seeking the distraction of that which we cannot control–but sports are just the essentially just the same things happening over and over, again and again, right? Just the silly satisfaction of supremacy and needless disappointment of loss dancing awkwardly together in different costumes depending on the season.

I can’t explain what it is to emotionally thrive or suffer because of the uncontrollable actions of those who wear a particular color pattern to someone who’s disinterested–I’ve tried and failed. I’ve realized there are things I don’t care for–and will never fully empathize with those who care for them. I’ve learned it is unfair to judge the interests of others. But there are moments when the act of investing all of one’s emotions into the act of strangers playing a children’s game transcends distraction and entertainment and tomfoolery. And, these moments–to those who care–are fleeting, and unforgettable and misunderstood like life itself.

Somehow, I found myself within the confines of Wrigley Field on Saturday, October 22nd–surreal, considering I woke up that morning unsure where I’d even watch the game, let alone that I’d be lucky enough to possess a lottery ticket of epic proportions. However, I can, in one word, describe how it felt to be present during the sports equivalent of the moon landing.

Whoa. 

In spite of a breezy, dominant performance by Kyle Hendricks and the Chicago Cubs, and the overwhelmingly positive vibes that ebbed and flowed throughout the concourse for three plus hours, as Keke Hernandez came to the plate to begin the Dodger half of the 9th, I suddenly felt as though I was on an elevator that had dropped 50 stories without warning. 

I looked to the left at my friend–who, like myself, hours earlier had ridiculously, and impulsively committed to the risk of entering the bleachers knowing we may be leaving them not only financially, but emotionally broken–all four of our eyes already wet and reddening–and said, “whoa. Whooooaaah, dude.” 

If, instead at that moment I’d reached the top of Mount Everest, or was myself stepping on the surface of the moon, I can’t conceive a greater level of awe.

It’s been ten days since the Cubs clinched their first National League title since 1945–three years before my dad was born–and we now live in a world where the Chicago Cubs are the champions of baseball. There are few people–even few sports fans–who can comprehend the meaning of that fact. 

Fact: The Chicago Cubs won the Fucking World Goddamn Series.

For 37 years and 343 days, the only planet on which I’ve lived has been square. Today it is round, and for the rest of my days, it will always be round. 

There are no words, typed or written or spoken. 

There is nothing but transcendence and joy and love. 

There is nothing but a phone call to my dad. Nothing but the same bleachers where I’d sat at 15 years of age–a bag of McDonald’s cheeseburgers tucked under my seat. A 120 minute bus ride to watch a mediocre baseball team wearing the appropriate laundry, representing my chosen brand, in the city where I happen to live on a small patch of grass on a square planet.

The Sammy Sosa cork game. 

Doug Dascenzo chasing a a fly ball.

Jose Guzman’s 8.2 innings of no-hit ball.

But here I am. Telling the kids in front of me, “Don’t count outs, you know better,” from the same outfield at the same address where we became the worst versions of Cubs fans, mercilessly booing LaTroy Hawkins–who happened to be a human being–as the Cubs were eliminated from contention. 

This can’t be the same place.

And I am so lucky to be here–not just at Wrigley Field the night the Cubs broke the glass ceiling– but to have suffered long enough on this square planet to appreciate witnessing the Cubs win, perhaps, the greatest World Series ever played. 

To have dropped to my knees–sobbing in public–without a moment of embarrassment.

To have embraced some of my favorite people while we cried tears of joy.

They’ve never made it easy, but they’ve always made it fun.

Let’s. Go. 

Be Thankful for Arrieta..

If this is truly to be the year in which the Cubs right all of the wrongs–undoing the pain of an endless pattern of disappointment–regardless of how good they are, winning the World Series of baseball will require some luck. Or at least the avoidance of bad luck.

Playoff baseball is a crapshoot, a dart toss and a small sample rolled into a few cold weeks of October. The 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 regular season games, only to see their record tying effort rendered meaningless in five short games against the New York Yankees. 
Before the season began, I started telling people the Cubs would win 120 games. About this prediction, I was only half joking. These Cubs could win more games than any regular season team in baseball history and follow up with a heartbreaking October. 

I don’t mention the possibility of an October collapse cynically–my intention is quite the opposite. Even considering the Cubs crazy-good start to the season, it’s a bit presumptuous to assume in May that these Cubs will be a playoff team. But I am very confident in that presumption, and I intend to enjoy the ride however deep into the calendar it travels.

These Cubs have the opportunity to correct the misfortunes suffered by generations of Cubs fans, and there are plenty of incidents which need correcting.


 
Any Cubs fan of my generation will probably tell you that the infamous game six and resulting loss of the 2003 NLCS was the worst thing that ever happened, but if you pull the lens back to view the big picture, the greater disappointment was that the Cubs had so few rolls of the dice with the talented core that collapsed in that series. Just as we’d begun to expect ritualistic playoff baseball on the North side, the Cubs had sunk back into irrelevance. The two major reasons for the organization’s success in ’03 can also be implicated for their failure  to follow up with with another autumn dart throw–Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.  

In July of 2013, the Cubs acquired Jake Arietta from the Baltimore Orioles–along with Pedro Strop and his left leaning flat-brim–for veteran pitcher Scott Feldman and Catcher Steve Clevenger. Arietta was viewed by the Orioles as a failed fifth round draft pick–all stuff, no results. In nearly 350 innings with the Orioles, Arrieta posted an ERA in the mid-fives, and showing no sign of progress at the major league level. Jake arrived at Wrigley’s doorstep like a baby in a basket–stealthily and without much fanfare, he and Strop joined the organization under baseball’s ubiquitous umbrella term, “prospect.” Even the most educated of Cub fans were likely unaware of Arietta’s existence before the deadline deal was announced.  


Kerry Wood and Mark Prior had eerily parallel beginnings to their respective Cub careers.
Both players zoomed through the minor league system–Wood arriving with the big club in 1998, and Prior making his first major league start in 2002 only months after being selected with the second pick of the MLB draft. Each had incredible success in their first full major league season. 

Prior undoubtedly had his best year as a professional in 2003, winning 18 games for the NL central champions. Wood arguably did his best pitching in 1998 when he led the team to its first ever wildcard berth, was elected the National League’s best rookie, and pitched perhaps the most dominant game in baseball history. 

Even before their wildly successful campaigns, fan expectations of Wood and Prior were unreasonably high. After watching Wood suffer through injuries in 1999, and 2001, Cubs faithful were even projecting those expectations on Prior’s future health, buying–incorrectly–into a widely held notion that Prior was impervious to arm trouble due to his physical build and throwing mechanics. 

Prior was first injured in 2004–and in spite of some dominant performances at the end of that season–was never the same nearly unhittable monster he was before the 7th inning of that ill-fated game six. Prior and Wood will forever be linked together in Cubdom–not so much for who they were, but who we wanted them to be.  

We wanted Prior and Wood to be consistently dominant pitchers who were fun to watch, logged a lot of strikeouts, won a lot of meaningful games, and occasionally threw some no-hitters. And even as it should have become clear that neither pitcher would ever live up to our expectations, we just sort of pretended they were the aces we expected, as if we could somehow will them into being the players we so desperately wanted them to be. 

Cub fans are sometimes delusional. It’s a defense mechanism. Without these delusions, the painful truths would have, by now, broken us completely.

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether Arietta will be a Cub beyond this season. That remains to be seen. Joe Maddon would remind us to live in the present–the present is a very good time to be thankful for Arietta, because he is exactly the pitcher we wanted Wood and Prior to be.  
Be thankful because he is the anti-towel-drill. Because you can’t wait to watch him pitch again. Because He’s already won 2 postseason games, and completed a pair of no-hitters. 

Because he came from out of nowhere.

And thanks again, Baltimore. You guys are the best.

Eternal, Hope Springs: V. 2016

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Face-down and full of whiskey on the front lawn of my childhood home was where I hit rock-bottom. Hammered and heartbroken, I rested my face in the cold suburban dirt for thirty or forty minutes, lifting my head only to take another drink, or send a cryptic text-message—desperately seeking solace and support from the dungeon of my personal dystopia.

It was October of 2008—almost 100 years to the day since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series. Earlier that night, the Cubs had been swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers, abruptly ending their winningest season in my lifetime. It was a stunning ending to a fantastic summer of baseball, and one I wasn’t prepared for.

On the verge of a quarter-life crisis—my 30th birthday just weeks away—I was drunk, broke, and living in a basement that occasionally flooded. And while I have fond memories of the summer of ’08, I felt as though everything was broken that night. Smashed to pieces, and there was nothing I could do to fix it. Baseball season was over, winter was coming, and I was tired of being disappointed by the Cubs. I felt betrayed, and I was angry at everyone who’d gently nudged me into this dysfunctional baseball relationship. I shook my fists at the sky, taking aim at my dead grandmother—WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO YOUR BELOVED GRANDSON???

They say you can’t truly love another until you love yourself. I decided during the spring of 2009 that I needed some space, so for the next couple of years I kept my distance from the Cubs. I wrote a rather cathartic letter and tried focusing on other things—Chicago is beautiful in the summer—I spent afternoons on the lakefront that would otherwise have been spent in front of the TV. I got a new job, and started dabbling in other sports. While I knew I’d never be able to leave completely, it was important to take that step back for the purpose of personal development. If I was ever going to break the cycle of this dysfunctional relationship, I needed to accept disappointment without completely losing my shit. Not to mention, you know, it’s really hard to watch bad baseball—and from 2009-2014 there was a lot of bad baseball played at Wrigley Field.

Eternal, hope springs—and while I’m watching tiny snowflakes drift outside the window as I write this—spring is here again. Cub fans have been anticipating opening day 2016 with a type of fervor I can only recall sensing once before, twelve years ago.

In 2004, the Cubs were coming off a season in which they were six outs from the World Series—perhaps you’ve heard a thing or two about that. During the offseason they’d added a soon-to-be MVP caliber first baseman named Derek Lee to an already potent offense, as well as veteran relief pitcher (and future pariah) LaTroy Hawkins to stabilize their bullpen. Sports Illustrated slapped Cub’s pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior on the cover of their annual baseball preview issue with the headline, Hell Freezes Over, proclaiming the Cubs would win the World Series. 2004 would prove to be a particularly aggravating season of Cubs baseball—There’s a terrific book called Cubs Nation, by Gene Wojciechowski detailing the entire season—and the team itself ended up being pretty unlikeable. In spite of their 89 wins, the 2004 Cubs missed the playoffs after an epic collapse during the final ten days of the schedule.

However, our hope this spring has a different timbre than it did twelve years ago—if the spring of ’04 was white-knuckled anxiety and towel drills, April ’16 is clear eyes, full hearts and Anthony Rizzo playing piano.

One of the many oddities of Cubs culture over the years has been the almost metaphysical way in which the team has reacted to, or performed on the field, in a manner reflective of exactly how their fans felt—whether it was Moises Alou’s rabid reaction during that infamous eighth inning of game six, every member of the infield needing a serious dose of Xanax during game two of the 2008 NLDS, or Michael Barrett punching A.J. Pierzynski in the face. In the current climate, we can expect exactly none of this behavior to be exhibited by THESE Chicago Cubs. Rooting for this team is always fun, sometimes straight-up goofy, and makes us better people.

It is entirely possible, even likely, that the Cubs will disappoint me once again, and I am prepared for that possibility. But I know that 2016 is going to be an enjoyable voyage down the aisle of the church of baseball. I know the pressure will not exceed the pleasure. Clear eyes, Full hearts… you know the rest, right?

Happy opening day, ya’ll. Embrace the target. Let’s go. All that.

 

 

February is a Violation of Human Decency.

 February is an abyss of desolation where I grind away each day hoping that eventually I’ll again be motivated enough to leave my apartment–or my bedroom for that matter–for any reason other than pure necessity. To my knowledge, only one good thing has happened in February. Ever. My mom was born on the 22nd, and she’s a pretty damn cool lady. If she wasn’t born, I wouldn’t exist. So, by my count, it’s been more than half a century since anything positive happened during this black hole of a calendar page.

Plenty of terrible shit has happened in February, though. The St. Valentine’s day massacre. The space shuttle Columbia. The sixteenth amendment.

 Hunter S. Thompson killed himself shortly after Super Bowl 39. The first line of his suicide note reads, “Football season is over.”

Preach the fuck on, brother.

  
Sure, the Super Bowl is in February. But that’s just one day during the first week of the month—I don’t even realize it’s February until the day after the game, and that’s when I’m like “OOOHHH FUCKING NO IT’S FEBRUARY AND EVERYTHING IS MISERY I WISH I WAS A BEAR SO I COULD BURRY MYSELF IN MUD AND WAKE UP IN SPRING FUCK THIS SHIT WHY DO I LIVE HERE WHAT IS EVEN MY PURPOSE ON EARTH BUT TO EAT DORITOS IN BED”

Oh, and then we’ve got Valentine’s Day—on the surface, a well-intended day meant to celebrate love. Obviously, this whack-ass “holiday,” was created to boost restaurant sales during a month where people have zero desire to leave their homes, and have barely recovered from the thousands of dollars in debt they  accrued during the Christmas season—Alright, after paying my credit card bills the last two months, I’ve finally got some breathing roo—OH FUCK there it is, the fucking  fourteenth day of the month and I’ve gotta take Sally/Edna/Rosita  to Mortons/Sizzler/Olive Garden/some other shit I can’t afford and it’s back to the maxed-out motel for this guy.

Of course, the only thing worse than being in a relationship on February fourteenth is being hopelessly, desperately single. You spend the week or two leading up to v-day trying to find someone who doesn’t think you’re so ugly they can barely chew their Red Lobster biscuits without gagging while looking across a table at you, and even if you DO find this equally sad degenerate, by that time all the decent establishments are overbooked and you’ll have to take them to Chipotle.

Once, I was in a wedding party for which the ceremony took place on Valentine’s Day. I had been dumped about a month prior, and despite my efforts to find a date, I was unsuccessful. Furthermore, the bride did not want the members of the wedding party to drink until we’d all arrived at the reception—which was exactly as miserable as it sounds. Upon further review, I have no idea why I didn’t bring a flask. I suppose I was trying to be respectful. New rule—If I can’t drink during every part of your wedding, we’re not friends anymore.

There are few people on this earth for whom I’d participate in the dog and pony show that is one’s wedding, and even fewer for whom I’d allow myself to be paraded around and photographed in strange clothes at aesthetically pleasing locations WHILE FUCKING SOBER. But, we all make grave sacrifices for our closest allies. Of course, as soon as I was allowed to consume, I guzzled every poisonous beverage I could reach as though I’d returned from a 2 week vision quest in some desert and was on the verge of death from dehydration. I was asleep on my friend’s couch by 11pm after I threw up and used his toothbrush. I hope cupid gets unwillingly gangbanged and skull-fucked with his own arrow.

Sure, there’s hockey—but it’s not even playoff hockey. And the fact that my favorite team is led by a kid from a rich family who probably got away with rape at least once has soured me on the sport for the time being. Or maybe I’m just so used to rooting for losing teams that I don’t know how to properly enjoy a winning one. Spring training? Sure, cool. Ever tried to watch a spring training game? They’re worse than pre-season football games, and there are more of them. Like, hundreds more.  NOT GOOD ENOUGH FEBRUARY. DO BETTER.

The absolute best thing about the second month of the year is that it’s also the shortest. While the Caesars were excellent at self-aggrandizing by lengthening the months dedicated to them, they knew how to take care of their people. An extra day in August, an extra day in July, fuck—September’s not a bad month! Throw September a bone! By the time the calendar had been permanently altered, we’d whittled February down to 28 measly days. That is, until some jerkface decided to add a 29th every four years and call those “election years.”  Whoever made this decision has a goddamn cruel sense of humor.

Well. Eleven down, eighteen to go. I’ll see you in March if I don’t develop bed sores by then.

http://youtu.be/i-iS9Qxa-RM

A Tragic (relative to the importance of sport) Lesson in Accountability

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself 

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knew his enemy on Saturday night.  Since his first season leading the black and yellow, Tomlin had faced the Bengals and Marvin Lewis 18 times—but this would be the first meeting of these two long-tenured coaches in a playoff game.

The teams had faced each other in the playoffs once before—under eerily similar circumstances. On January 8, 2006, The sixth seeded Steelers defeated the third seeded Bengals in the wildcard round of the playoffs en route to Pittsburgh’s first NFL title since 1979. Steelers coach Bill Cowher would retire following Super Bowl 40, and little-known Tomlin was named his successor.

Tomlin couldn’t have possibly known an enemy better than Lewis’s Bengals. Since 2007, no two head coaches have faced each other as often. And while, in theory, Lewis should have had equal knowledge of his opposition, the events of Saturday’s game would indicate otherwise.

Is it possible that Tomlin and his staff implemented psychological elements into their game-plan in an effort to cause the Bengals to implode? Was Mike Munchak’s slick pull of Reggie Nelson’s hair premeditated? What made Domata Peko come running on to the field—in full cape—to blindside Randall Gay?

The entire game seemed to be about the Steelers passively taunting the Bengals, and innocently raising their palms as they watched Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones—two immensely talented players who have a history of making poor choices–completely lose control of their emotions. Tomlin hacked into the epicenter of the Bengals spiritual leaders, and used their weaknesses to his team’s advantage.

This was football’s version of Shakespearian tragedy. It was Violent poetry. Psychological warfare. It was prime-time drama which built to one of the most engaging fourth quarters of football ever.  My instant reaction to the end of the game was to type out a text that read, “What the fuck did I just watch?”

The Bengals implosion was complete when Burfict and Jones managed to combine for 30 yards in penalties on the final play from scrimmage.

Joey Porter had been on the field monitoring Pittsburgh’s star receiver Antonio Brown. Having already benefited from Burfict’s out-of-control play, and a 15 yard penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit which may cause the league’s best receiver to miss the rest of the playoffs, Porter decided to push Jones for more. Suddenly a 50 yard field goal attempt was a 35 yard attempt. Chris Boswell quickly nailed the short kick, and the Steelers sprinted into the tunnel to avoid a potential hail of bottles from Bengals fans who’d already thrown things on the field earlier. Quite literally, Pittsburgh escaped Cincinnati with a win on a night that set the single-game record for arrests in an NFL stadium.

Not only had the Steelers caused the Bengals players to implode, Cincinnati fans were losing their shit, too.

And then.. The fallout…

 

The following day in Minnesota, the surprise division-winning Vikings played host to the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. While under normal circumstances, most would have expected the more talented Seahawks to handle the upstart Vikings. And while nothing is easy in the NFL, the third-coldest game-time temperature in NFL history created the perfect environment for an upset. In what has been a maddening, nearly weekly tradition, Adrian Peterson’s fumble helped Seattle take control of the game. But somehow, with only seconds left in the game, Minnesota found themselves only needing their reliable kicker, Blair Walsh, to convert a 27 yard field goal to prevent Seattle from playing a fourth consecutive division round playoff game.

In typically tragic Vikings fashion, Walsh’s kick immediately fluttered to the left of the goal-posts, temporarily destroying the lives of Vikings fans everywhere.

One cannot imagine how devastating it must be to lose a game like this.Walsh has doubtlessly spent his entire adult life preparing for the opportunity to convert a playoff game winning kick. To watch him fail, for anyone with the slightest interest in the game, or any capacity for empathy, was heartbreaking.

Walsh could have blamed his holder, Jeff Locke, for not properly spinning the football into a proper position. He could have blamed his long-snapper for not appropriately getting the ball into Locke’s hands. Walsh’s reaction to his failure, however, was slightly different from that of Jones or Burfict. “I’m the only one who didn’t do my job,” Walsh calmly stated on camera, before, reportedly, suffering a complete emotional breakdown down once the bright lights had been shuffled away.

What it means to compare these two events which occurred a day apart, I’m not entirely sure. In the big picture, sports are a meaningless distraction for most of us. But for a lucky few, they are one’s livelihood. It feels like there is a lesson in accountability to be learned from Walsh, Burfict, and Jones, who all made horrible mistakes during one of the most important moments of their respective careers. Jones could have made the conscious choice to walk away from an altercation, and saved his team 15 yards. But could Walsh have done anything to prevent his body from going haywire while doing something he’d done thousands of times before? Could Burfict have turned the volume down on the violent part of his brain–the part that makes him a great football player?

The Steelers gave assisant coach Porter the game ball after he struck the detrimental blow to Jones’s psyche, and I wonder if we’ll ever know what Porter said in that moment that made Pacman destroy the final hopes of his own team’s season. Hours and weeks and months of effort by 53 players–undone by one teammate’s need for immediate retribution…

The truth is that everyone fucks up–but it’s probably better to fuck up with dignity.