Friday, December 28, 2007

Reason #77 Why I Feel Alienated from the Rest of America

Reason #77: People actually give a crap about the National Football League. Put aside for a minute Michael Vick's ongoing criminal enterprise and Pacman Jones "making it rain." Put aside the fact that they continue to rewrite the rulebook to protect the antiquated "dropback quarterback," who would be a bloody smear on the field right now if he were allowed to be hit and knocked over like the other 21 players on the field. Put aside the fact that there are 130 teams and 70 divisions. Put aside the de rigueur pregame kaffeeklatsch on every network, wherein the washed-up players and retired coaches rib one another for an hour and celebrate their effervescent jacked-for-TV "personalities." NFL pregame shows are like live jazz performances: the people on stage are having a hell of a lot more fun than the audience, and the entertainment gap is not just disquieting — it's flat-out aggravating.

Let's forget all that and talk about why this league really sucks. Right now Cleveland and Tennessee are tied for the last playoff spot in the AFC, going in to the last week. They have identical 9-6 records. On Sunday the Browns play the 49ers and the Titans play the Colts. There might be room for some drama here — except that the way the tiebreakers work, only one of the games needs to be played. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition. Cleveland and Tennessee didn't play this year. We proceed, then, to the second tiebreaker, which is record against AFC opponents. Cleveland is 7-5 right now against the AFC and will end the season that way, because the game against San Francisco is out-of-conference. The Titans are 6-5 and will be 7-5 — tying the Browns — if they beat the Colts. If the Titans don't beat the Colts, the Browns make the playoffs even if they lose, because they win on the second tiebreaker. But if the Titans win, we proceed to the third tiebreaker — common opponents, which favors the Titans, regardless of whether the Browns beat the 49ers.

In short, nothing Cleveland does on Sunday has any bearing on the playoff picture. They aren't in the playoffs, and they aren't eliminated. They are very much alive, going into the final week of the season, and the game they play will be completely irrelevant nonetheless.

It's absurd in any case that these tiebreakers decide the fate of teams on the playoff bubble. People complain about the BCS deciding teams' fortunes off the field, but the NFL playoff tiebreakers are about as arbitrary and arcane (if not as subjective). And it's certainly never the case that the outcome of the final game of a college team contending for the national title would be completely irrelevant going into the game.

If I'm Browns head coach Romeo Crennel, I'm calling a press conference to ask league officials why I shouldn't forfeit the game to get a higher draft pick.

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