The highlight of last year’s World Series was the offensive explosion of Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena. The mostly unknown outfielder had only played 42 games in his career before he began launching home runs with Ruth-ian frequency, smashing 10 in the postseason and three in the World Series. The thrill of his incredible run was that he had come out of nowhere: It was as if a superstar at the peak of his powers had been dropped from the sky.
The NFL has had two of those this month. The first was Los Angeles Rams quarterback John Wolford, who had never thrown a single pass in the NFL until a Week 17 playoff-clinching victory over the Arizona Cardinals; the only professional team he’d ever played for was the Arizona Hotshots, of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football league. He ended up starting the Rams’ first-round game against the hated Seahawks over the much more heralded first-round pick Jared Goff. Instant human-interest story!
The second was Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke, a journeyman quarterback who had most recently been a rostered player in the also-now-defunct XFL for the St. Louis BattleHawks. When that league ended its run because of COVID-19, Heinicke returned to the college where he played football, Old Dominion, to finish his engineering degree. But last month, Washington, because of injuries and COVID, found itself short on quarterbacks and signed him to its practice squad. One month later, after starter Dwayne Haskins was cut in part because he broke COVID protocols to attend a birthday party maskless, with strippers, and backup Alex Smith was injured, Heinicke got the start against Tom Brady and Tampa Bay in the playoffs. And he played terrific, the best play his team got at the position all year, in a hard-fought loss, securing his feel-good underdog story. Another human-interest story!
But the real world is tough and complicated.
How did Wolford’s story end? In the first quarter, Seahawks safety Jamal Adams hit him so hard that not only did it knock him out of the game…but he was taken out of the stadium in an ambulance, wearing a neck brace.
How did Heinicke’s story end? After his valiant effort, people wanted to learn about this scrappy underdog. And that meant digging into his past. Heinicke’s big breakthrough, after years of striving, happened the very week there was a violent insurrection at the nation’s Capitol. And it turned out Washington’s new football hero was a loud, outspoken MAGA guy. In the Twitter parlance: He got Milkshake Duck’d.
In the NFL, remember, if you find yourself wholeheartedly and unrestrainedly enjoying something…just wait.
For the first time in the history of the NFL, a playoff game was shown on Nickelodeon. Thanks to some clever Viacom exec’s perpetual quest for corporate synergy, the Saints-Bears “Super Wild Card” playoff game aired on the kids’ network (as well as normal, staid CBS) on Sunday, and it was an undeniable success. Kickers aimed at SpongeBob’s head, there was a kid sideline reporter, and when someone scored a touchdown, the end zone exploded in slime.
It was a blast—particularly if you were watching the game with a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, like I was—and you can probably count on the experiment becoming an annual playoff fixture. Much of the credit could be laid at the feet of the announcing team, particularly color analyst Nate Burleson, a former NFL wide receiver and current “NFL on CBS” pregame show host. Burleson was the perfect person to talk about football to children for three hours: He’s knowledgeable about the game but light on his feet, funny and blessed with that rare gift of being able to talk to children without talking down to them. My favorite moment was when he explained how a play clock worked by saying the clock was like your grandmother counting down from three when she wanted you to do something. “If you don’t do what she says by the time she gets to zero, you’re in trouble,” Burleson said. You know: That would make me hike the ball faster.
The whole broadcast was a reminder, as Conor Orr noted in Sports Illustrated, that every other NFL broadcast is way, way too serious. (Hearing the nasal senatorial tones of Jim Nantz makes one even drowsier after listening to a 12-year-old do a Cardi B impersonation during a kickoff.) But there remained one fundamental disconnect on the broadcast: It was kid’s programming of a program that, as much as it would love to scrub itself clean, isn’t really for kids.
It wasn’t just the F-bomb that sneaked its way onto the air (though one did.) You just can’t hide the inherent brutality of the game—brutality that will always be vital to its appeal—no matter how much you try to wrap it up in cartoons. That crunch you hear at the beginning of every snap is a collection of 300-plus pound men smashing their heads into each other, after all. Burleson did yeoman’s work attempting to explain away an ejection—“it’s like when you’re getting into it with your friends on the playground and it gets out of hand”—but football is inherently violent, and somehow, a broadcast made for kids accentuated that fact rather than hid it. Burleson did yeoman’s work attempting to explain away an ejection—“it’s like when you’re getting into it with your friends on the playground and it gets out of hand”—but it didn’t change the fact that kids were watching adults solve their disagreements by punching each other.
Though that may not necessarily be a problem with allowing football on Nickelodeon. That may just be a problem with allowing adults on there.
To close, one can make an argument that the only way this strange, disjointed and unusually dangerous NFL season could be salvaged, or justified in a cosmic sense, would be if either the Cleveland Browns or the Buffalo Bills, the two most tortured fanbases in all of sport, won the Super Bowl. Well, there are only eight teams left. The Bills and Browns are two of them.
On Saturday, the Bills outlasted the Colts to win their first playoff game in 25 years, in front of actual fans in Orchard Park. (Governor Cuomo allowed fans at the game if they got a COVID test before entering; 1.9 percent tested positive.) They’ll face Baltimore on Saturday for the right to play in the AFC Championship Game. On Sunday night, Cleveland, a team racked with COVID issues (including their coach contracting the virus and having to watch the game in isolation from his basement), surprised everyone, including themselves, by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers for their first playoff win since 1994. It set up a game with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday.
The world is a dark, harrowing place, but if the Bills and Browns still have a chance to win the Super Bowl, there must be some sunlight and hope left in this world. After they lose, though, we’re clearly doomed.
*Will Leitch will be writing weekly for GQ during the NFL playoffs. He is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, national columnist for MLB, a writer for Medium and the founder of Deadspin. Subscribe to his free weekly newsletter and buy his upcoming novel “How Lucky,”out from Harper Books this May.
Originally Appeared on GQ