By Jason Keidel
Since we’ve long since violated the holy tenets of the holiday season, as football becomes our nation’s de facto Sunday sermon, we can publicly cherish our NFL slate this weekend, with three games played to determine division crowns, and two games stuffed with NFL monoliths, tucked under our trees.
The NFC and AFC North titles will be fought for by iconic franchises, in sacred arenas; just 60 minutes of mayhem in old, cold NFL towns.
First, the Cincinnati Bengals (10-4-1) battle the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) in the Steel City, for the AFC North championship. My beloved black & gold beat the Bengals, in Ohio, by three touchdowns, making the rematch violent, visceral, and vital. And it doesn’t help that the woman I love is a Bengals fan. (Seriously.)
Cincinnati is back on track after defeating Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Monday night. Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense looked quite potent while hanging 36 points on the improved Broncos defense. The question, as always with Cincinnati, is whether that potency can carry over to Pittsburgh and the playoffs. The HC/QB duet of Marvin Lewis and Dalton have racked up myriad wins during the regular season, but have yet to win one playoff game for the Queen City.
As the typically, wildly neurotic football fan, I see endless holes in my Steel Curtain. We – yes, I still speak in the collective – are no longer a firewall of run defense, don’t get a consistent pass rush, and have wide chasms in our secondary. Troy Polamalu is a fraction of his former brilliance, and is rarely healthy enough to prove it. Our pass rush was so impotent we summoned the ghost of James Harrison, who has gulped a gallon from some magic fountain and given us a crucial spark on the defensive line.
Offense isn’t an issue. Big Ben is having one of his best seasons. Antonio Brown has been a beast. And the surprise jewel of our offense has been Le’Veon Bell, who has barreled his way into the discussion of the NFL’s best running backs. Between his bullish running, blocking, and threat to catch short passes, Bell has been the difference between a decent and dominant offense.
And it helps to play the game at Heinz Field. Or does it? We gagged a game there to Tampa Bay, who couldn’t even score more than three points at home last week. And we got gutted by the Saints, who have fallen apart this year. The Steelers are now trendy, Super Bowl chic, to those who must pick a sleeper team. Some of us are too paranoid to even think more than one week ahead.
Then we have the Lions (11-4) playing the Packers (11-4), in Green Bay, at Lambeau Field, on the blessed, Frozen Tundra. Despite my jaded loyalties to all things black & gold, I concede that the Packers do business on the most sacred soil in pro football.
And it helps to have Aaron Rodgers, who is just a savant slinging a pigskin. A few weeks ago, I wrote that Rodgers was playing the best brand of quarterback the NFL has ever seen. And while he lost shortly thereafter to the Buffalo Bills, his performance in Tampa, on essentially one leg, was more than enough to back my assertion.
Rodgers is particularly venomous now that he has Jordy Nelson in full bloom, as well as the rugged RB Eddie Lacy. When the Packers stumbled out of the football gate this season, Packers fans panicked. Then Aaron Rodgers delivered his famous monologue, punctuated by a spelling lesson: R-E-L-A-X. Since then, the Packers have lost just one game, vaporizing teams and a very entertaining, if not telling, victory over perhaps the sport’s best team, the New England Patriots.
Not that the Lions should lie down and play dead. They have the best defense in the NFL, a new coach, and a new attitude. Throw in the best wideout in the league (Calvin Johnson), a newly focused QB (Matthew Stafford), and a rejuvenated Reggie Bush, and Detroit is a rather formidable foe.
The Lions hadn’t won a cold weather game since the Korean War, until they beat the Bears last week at Soldier Field. Now that that annoying number is behind them, they can play the Packers with a cleaner conscience. Because it will be frigid in Green Bay on Sunday, with temperatures sure to plunge well below freezing.
And isn’t this exactly what we want? An army of athletic beasts, dressed in our favorite flavors, pounding each other in the frosty dark of December, whispers of white breath puffing from their mouths.
Even if you don’t specifically cheer one of the aforementioned, four teams, it’s hard to keep your eyes and ears off four rugged teams, in two rugged cities, crashing into each other between the snowflakes, while well-lubed fans wave their Terrible Towels or don their cheese heads while their beloved, helmeted heroes do the Lambeau Leap into their open arms.
Maybe the term Frozen Tundra isn’t quite grammatically correct, but everything else about this weekend feels quite right.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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