Let the Games Begin!

For many Pagans autumn is about the harvest, Samhain, and cooler weather. Those are all good things, but the reason I really love the fall is because it marks the return of American football (and also possibly because of ACE Pumpkin Cider, the autumn nectar of the gods). Liking football has always made me a bit of a Pagan pariah and my love of football is often seen as frivolous, or completely disposable. Why is “Dr. Who is on” a legitimate concern while “I’m watching the Saints/Falcons” game isn’t? (And no, I’m not implying that all Pagans watch Dr. Who, it’s an example.)

I’ll admit that watching the National Football League makes me feel a little bit dirty. The football world is often conservative, and despite the best efforts of many (thanks Chris Kluwe!) there’s still a huge homophobic streak running down the middle of it. Money is a huge problem within the NFL too, with cities being blackmailed into building billion dollar fortresses for billionaires. Football is also a dangerous sport; we know today that “getting your bell rung” is not a trivial thing and that concussions can lead to permanent brain damage. I fully realize that I love a sport that’s often barbaric, but I love it just the same.

For all of its shortcomings football is an amazing piece of drama. People often dismiss sports as “games,” but what they are is entertainment. There’s no difference between watching Glee or watching Sunday Night Football. One story plays out in scripted fashion, and the other one plays out through great feats of physical skill and genius-level placement of X’s and O’s. Football also has one thing scripted television lacks, the ever-looming possibility of complete and utter chaos. Injuries, freakish plays, referee error, Mother Nature playing tricks . . . . the best teams don’t always win, and sometimes the villain even comes out on top (I’m looking at you Bill Belichick).

In what is now a yearly tradition I present my NFL (and some college) picks for the 2013 football season. It’s all meant to be taken in good fun, and I’m only right rarely, so don’t put too much stock into this. For the record, I’m a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I’m an avid hater of the New England Patriots. For more of my thoughts on why the NFL is important check out The Autumn Wind Means Football and feel free to join the Pagan chorus who hated The Super Bowl and Pagan Disconnect. For the record, if I had my life to do over, I’d probably try and avoid sports-fandom, but it’s my vice and I’m not sure I could ever give it up.

AFC East
New England Patriots 11-5
Miam Dolphins 6-10
Buffalo Bills 5-11
New York Jets 5-11

By default the Patriots again win the worst division in football. In a real division the Pats would be 9-7 and fighting for the playoffs, in the AFC Least they are a continual Super Bowl threat because they end up with home field advantage year after year. As soon as they end up encountering a team with a legitimate NFL defense in the playoffs they tend to lose, but sometimes that doesn’t happen until the Super Bowl. After going 7-9 last year I was hopeful that the Dolphins might take the next step into NFL relevancy. Despite making some big moves in free agency I think they did the exact opposite, losing everything about their offense that kept it from being awful, and replacing those five components with an over-priced wide receiver who didn’t even reach 1000 yards last year. This should have been the year they took the next step, instead they took four steps backward. Judging by media attention the New York Jets are Super Bowl contenders, reality is something else entirely. When they fire Rex Ryan at the end of the season they’ll be firing the best coach they’ve had in a couple of decades. This is a completely dysfunctional team whose self-destruction has been painful to watch.

AFC North
Cincinnati Bengals 11-5
Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7
Baltimore Ravens 8-8
Cleveland Browns 6-10

For years the Bengals have been one of the league’s doormats. Their owner is among the worst in the NFL, not just because he’s an insufferable jerk, but because he’s notoriously cheap. The smallest scouting department in the NFL? It’s based in Cincinnati! Somehow they’ve managed to overcome that and put together an extremely sound defense along with a competent offense. Their biggest problem? The quarterback position, where Andy “Shawshank” Dalton rates as painfully average. Not horrible, not great, just average. It’ll be enough to get out of the first round of the playoffs, but not much more. The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a rebuilding year and 9-7 is probably being overly optimistic. My favorite team could go 6-10 or 12-4 and I wouldn’t be surprised either way. The Ravens are due for a Super Bowl hangover (they won it all last year) and the Browns, well, they play in a city where a river once caught on fire.

AFC South
Houston Texans 12-4
Indianapolis Colts 8-8
Tennessee Titans 6-10
Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11

Maybe the Patriots don’t play in football’s worst division, but oh yeah, the Bills. Still, Jacksonville could give Buffalo a run for the money in the futility department. The Titans have a quarterback who would have trouble starting on some college football teams, it’s one of the many reasons they’ll be below .500 again this year. Speaking of .500 that might be generous when it comes to the Colts. Just two years ago they were 2-14, and while I think their QB (Andrew Luck) is destined for great things, statistics say he was lucky last year making the playoffs as a rookie. The Texans are strong on both sides of the ball, have one of the five best players in the NFL (J.J. Watt) and a two-headed rushing attack that looks like it might have come from Greek myth (Arian Foster and Ben Tate). They should win this division going away.

AFC West
Denver Broncos 14-2
Kansas City Chiefs 10-6
San Diego Chargers 6-10
Oakland Raiders 4-12

In a weird sort of way I was kind of glad to see the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl last year. For the last eight years the same few AFC teams have been knocking at Lombardi’s** door: The Steelers, Patriots, Ravens, and whatever team Peyton Manning was playing for. Last year Manning left his longtime team, the Indianapolis Colts, for the snowy promise of Denver and the Broncos. In his first year there he led Denver to a 13-3 record before losing at home in overtime to the Ravens. I expect Denver to be even better this year, even if their defense regresses a little bit. Last year’s Kansas City Chiefs went 2-14, and yet somehow eight players from their roster made the Pro-Bowl (NFL all-star game), hmmmmmm. I’m guessing they’ll be this year’s “turn around” team, due in large part to new coach Andy Reid (who works wonders in the regular season) and new quarterback Alex Smith. Smith isn’t a game changer, but he’s not a screw-up either, and the Chiefs have a lot of talent around him. I pay about as much attention to the Chargers as their fans do in San Diego, which means not very much. The Raiders should be horrible this year, but new QB Terrelle Pryor should be fun to watch. (I’m also dreading that they’ll probably beat my Steelers for the second straight year in Oakland.)

Are you a college fan? I’ve got you covered too!

National Title Game: Stanford Cardinal 35 Louisville Cardinals 28
SEC Winner: South Carolina
PAC 12: Stanford
Big 12: Oklahoma State
Big 10: Wisconsin
ACC: Clemson

The Other BCS Teams: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oregon, Alabama, South Carolina, Clemson, Oklahoma State, Florida State

AFC East
New York Giants 10-6
Washington Football Team 8-8
Dallas Cowboys 7-9
Philadelphia Eagles 7-9

Do you like .500 football? The NFL is sure hoping you do because they showcase teams from the AFC East on a near daily basis, which is hard since the NFL only plays on three days of the week. I get it, New York is a huge media market, and I’ll always have a soft spot in the heart for the G-men after they beat the Pats in two Super Bowls, but I’m sick of seeing the Cowboys and Eagles. Both teams have been mediocre for several years now, just let it go. This division could go either way, and I wouldn’t be surprised if last year’s winner (Washington) repeated, it’ll all depend on the knee of one Robert Griffith III (or RG3 as he’s known to fans). Seriously, RG3 is awesome to watch, he’s the Twilight Sparkle of the NFL (seriously, he’s amazing!). It’s hard to pick Washington to win anything since the name of their team is basically a racial slur against Native Americans. The Eagles break in a new coach and a new offense, and Dallas is so 1995. I just can’t pick either team.

NFC North
Chicago Bears 11-5
Green Bay Packers 10-6
Detroit Lions 8-8
Minnesotta Vikings 8-8

This (along with the AFC North) is the best division in football. It contains the NFL’s best player, Aaron Rogers (Quarterback of the Packers), along with what has consistently been one of its best defenses (the Chicago Bears). It also has the NFL’s best wide receiver (Calvin Johnson, Lions), the NFL’s best return man (Devin Hester, Bears) and the NFL’s best running back (Adrian Peterson, Vikings). How good are those three guys? Every time Detroit takes the field on offense Johnson is double and triple teamed and he still averages over a hundred yards a game. It’s the same thing with Peterson in Minnesota, every defense he faces puts eight men against him in the box (which means they dedicate eight players to stopping him) and he still runs for over 2000 yards. He might be a homophobic idiot, but he’s a great football player. Hester has only run for more touchdowns on kick-off and punt returns than any NFL player ever. This is a terrifically entertaining division, only this year I think Chicago might have an offense to finally match their defense. I picked the Bears to go to the Super Bowl last year and they started 7-1, and then their QB went down and their season exploded. Hopefully an improved offensive line is the difference. Oh, and Eddie Lacy in Green Bay is going to rush for a 1000 yards and win me a fantasy football championship.

NFC South
New Orleans Saints 11-5
Atlanta Falcons 10-6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8-8
Carolina Panthers 7-9

Like any good drama, the NFL has plenty of conspiracy theories. Several years ago the New England Patriots were caught taping the defensive signals of opposing teams. Instead of putting those tapes into evidence or at least storing them in the archives, the NFL destroyed said tapes and then made a statement saying that the tapes offered New England “no competitive advantage.” Of course while they were taping signals they won three Super Bowls. It’s just fishy. Last year the NFL suspended Saints head-coach Sean Payton over allegedly paying his players to hurt their opponents. Statistically, the Saints weren’t penalized any more than the average NFL team the year of the “Bountygate” scandal and the NFL never bothered to release any of the evidence against Payton or his players either. See what I mean about conspiracy theories? Payton was essentially suspended for an entire year for nothing, and his team imploded without him. I think they go on a tear this year just because of, you know, revenge. The Atlanta Falcons got within minutes of going to the Super Bowl last year and then watched it all fall apart, I think the scars will still sting in 2013.

NFC West
Seattle Seahawks 12-4
San Francisco 49’ers 11-5
St. Louis Rams 8-8
Phoenix Cardinals 4-12

Most people who write about the NFL are picking the 49’ers to go back to the Super Bowl and win it this year. I’m not going to do that because teams that lose a Super Bowl rarely even make the playoffs the following year. The Niners are too talented for that to happen, but the trend is too significant to simply overlook. Both Seattle and San Francisco have talent to spare on both sides of the ball, and should for the next five or six years. Both teams are so loaded that it’s almost sickening, especially when you aren’t a fan of either. Russell Wilson. Colin Kaepernick. Get used to both of those names because you are probably going to be hearing them a lot over the next ten years. If the Rams were playing in the NFC East they’d probably be division champions, but because they have to play Seattle and San Francisco four times this year they’ll only be fringe playoff contenders. By not writing about the Cardinals I’m doing the world a favor.

Round One AFC
Steelers 28 Patriots 18
Bengals 30 Chiefs 15

Round One NFC
Niners 42 Giants 19
Bears 34 Falcons 21

Round Two AFC
Texans 28 Bengals 14
Broncos 49 Steelers 10

Round Two NFC
Seahawks 30 Niners 27
Bears 42 Saints 38

Conference Championships
Seahawks 27 Bears 24
Broncos 35 Texans 24

Super Bowl
Broncos 31 Seahawks 24
MVP: Peyton Manning

Yes, that’s me in the second picture at the beginning of this long article. I waited in line over 90 minutes to meet “The King” at “The NFL Experience” the day before Super Bowl XL in Detroit. For the uninitiated the Steelers ended up winning that Super Bowl and it remains one of the five best days of my life. The cheerleaders with the King and I are from the Ravens. Didn’t care about them.

*NFL Footballs haven’t been made out of pigskin for several decades now, but it’s an old term. Today’s ball are generally made out of cow leather.

**If you’ve made it this far you are probably a fan and know that the Lombardi Trophy is awarded to the Super Bowl winner. If you got this far without knowing that I say kudos to you ma’am or sir.

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