Thursday, February 1, 2018

LII - This Time is (In)Different

Just ten years ago, if I had told you that Vin Diesel would be the highest grossing actor at the box office, the President of the United States would be Donald Trump and running the country by doing something called tweeting while taking a dump and that the NFL would be losing popularity because a few players chose to kneel during the national anthem you would have looked at me as though I'd turned up to a black tie event in a crotchless mankini and a white tie. Our societal obsession with all three of these themes will probably boot the final score of Sunday's Super Bowl LII to page three in favor of the TV ratings which will be used to bash either Kaepernick or Trump depending not on the actual figures but the biased interpretation most will be sure to read.

Welcome to the Idiocracy, packaged and sold to you as a meritocracy. We may have arrived half a millennium early, but that's not surprising considering capitalism's economic imperative to constantly speed things up. With a little help from identity politics, this past year saw football become an even sharper reflection of society today, but at least we've got a game to watch Sunday as the New England Patriots face the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis. As every year in this space, that means it's time to look back on the year that was in football and by association, America, ever since the Falcons blew a 25 point lead with 17 minutes left in Super Bowl LI before getting to the prediction for LII. Buckle up, this could be a long and windy road!

It's cliché to say that injuries are part of the game, but it was clear from the get go that this year was, in fact, different. From David Johnson being lost in week one for the season to Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier's gruesome, life altering spinal injury, this year's injury report seemed both longer and more star studded than ever before. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the league's best running back, the aforementioned Johnson, best quarterback, Aaron Rogers, best wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr, best offensive lineman, Joe Thomas (and his 10,363-snap streak), and best defensive player, J.J. Watt, all missed most of the year due to injury.

Add to the list the leading MVP candidate at the time of his injury, Carson Wentz, the league's most exciting rookie QB, DeShaun Watson, Andrew Luck, Sam Bradford, Ryan Tannehill and Carson Palmer and that's just starting QBs. Running backs besides Johnson were of course well represented with the likes of Dalvin Cook and Spencer Ware missing all or most of the season. Beckham was joined by WRs Julian Edelman and Allen Robinson, more offensive lineman than you can shake a stick at shared IR space with Thomas and of course defensive players were also dropping like flies, from Eric Berry to Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman.

Sadly, at this point it's impossible to avoid the elephant in the room, CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease caused by repeated head trauma and only diagnosable with certainty in post-mortem examinations. Ruptured achilles, torn ACLs and broken collarbones heal, but alas, the brain doesn't, and getting it bashed week in, week out is literally killing people performing for our pleasure. Watching Colts tight end Brandon Williams go limp or Travis Kelce concussed are the visible manifestations, but it's more likely the hundreds of sub-concussive hits which aren't replayed from every angle that are the basis for the fact that in a recent study 110 of 111 deceased NFL players' brains exhibited CTE.

Knowing they've got a PR nightmare on their hands, in much the same way as the tobacco and oil industries created confusion about the links between their products and, well, killing humanity, the NFL's boardroom geniuses reaction has evolved from denial to deceit to damage control. Yet anyone watching how the so-called 'concussion protocol' plays out in practice would have to put paid to any belief that it is in any way effective, along the lines of putting filters on cigarettes or switching to diesel. Tom Savage's return to play after an obvious seizure or Russell Wilson's medical tent evaluation would like a word. What the hell is that stupid looking medical tent anyway? Now we've even learned that concussions, though playing a role, aren't even the root cause of the disease, it's simply about the accumulation of hits to the head.

Sure, this disease has led some to reconsider allowing their children to play football, but it couldn't have anything to do with the NFL's ratings decline, could it? By happenstance, the other profession most at risk of developing CTE is soldiers. I bring up the coincidence as television revolutionized the way America was sold violence, either war packaged for nightly news reports and eventually as fodder for 24 hour news filler, or football on Sunday afternoon, then Monday, Thursday and Sunday night brain bashing ratings bonanzas. The constant barrage of brutality makes it all but impossible to discern the pro-war propaganda let alone discriminate between GIs and players as their images overlap, veterans of wars and gridiron switch spots as the camera flicks from soldier presenting the colors, to defensive blitzes, from F-16 flyovers, to quarterbacks throwing bombs while Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN and the NFL network celebrate their role in making it possible for the service men and women sacrificing for our freedumbs overseas to enjoy the game.

The Cleveland Browns became just the second team to finish 0-16 after the 2008 Detroit Lions. For lovers of schadenfreude, here are the Browns lowlights but consider yourself warned, they're tough to watch. What other team could begin 2017 losing to a Landry Jones led Steelers team and close out the year the same way yet retain Hugh Jackson as coach despite a now 1-31 record. Their #1 draft pick, DE Myles Garrett started out the year hurt and that was the high point, while the low is captured here right after Corey Coleman dropped an easy catch that could've put them in position to beat the Steelers in week 17. They traded out of position to draft Carson Wentz a couple years ago, did the same on DeShaun Watson last year and couldn't even get the fax machine to work to finalize a trade for AJ McCarron at the trade deadline. In Cleveland, all this means it's time for a parade. Well, they do have the #1 and #4 picks next year. They were outscored by 176 points over the course of the season and had the worst turnover differential (-28) since the 2000 Chargers. Does that make DeShone Kizer the new Ryan Leaf?

The Browns, though exceptional, weren't the only bad team this year. In fact, there was a logjam of awful crowding behind them. The Andrew Luckless Colts were every bit as bad finishing 4-12 and getting their coach fired too. After losing Watson and Watt, the Texans fell off a cliff and finished with the same record. The biggest surprise in the bottom tier was the Denver Broncos as I can't remember a Broncos team ever being as straight up awful as this team was. Joining them at 5-11 were the Jets, Bears and Buccaneers where, respectively, Josh McCown had to play QB because no one else could (and did well enough to get his coach Todd Bowles a two year extension), #2 pick Mitch(ell) Trubisky wasn't the biggest problem, but his lack of targets and a seemingly done John Fox were, and Jameis Winston tried to eat a W instead of, you know, winning. The Odelless Giants were so bad that Eli Manning got benched putting an end to his league leading consecutive starts streak at 210; problem was, it wasn't Eli's fault, they were just horrible, getting coach McAdoo fired before the season even ended.

Speaking of turning tragedy into melodrama, if we're talking about the 2017 NFL season, we need to talk about the Ezekiel Elliott suspension soap opera. In the attention economy where clicks and eyeballs drive revenue, the NFL, like every other industry, no longer bothers with solving problems, but instead exacerbating, extending and monetizing them. For those living on Mars or with medium-term memory problems, Elliott was suspended prior to the regular season for six games after a year long league investigation into domestic violence allegations from the summer of 2016. His former girlfriend filed a police report but he was never charged with a crime. However, the NFL has its own parallel system of justice ruled over by one man, Roger Goodell, judge, jury and executioner.

Still feeling the sting of the Ray Rice scandal, Roger was likely eager to show the world the NFL had mended its ways on the domestic violence issue; evidence shmevidence when you've got a ticket to headline news. It's hard to say if they foresaw the fallout, but it did manage to stay in the news cycle a lot longer than just six weeks as what ensued was a legal roller coaster reminiscent of deflategate that saw Elliott suspended and reinstated on alternating days for what seemed like an eternity. In the end, Elliott wound up missing Cowboys' games nine through fourteen. Yep, pink gloves, shoes and towels in October and  a wall mounted trophy in Ezekiel Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys running back who led the league in rushing as a rookie in 2016, to prove how much he and the NFL care, I mean really care, about women.

Tyreek Hill. Ray McDonald. Josh Brown. Greg Hardy. Joe Mixon. Hypocrisy, thy name is NFL.

After beginning the season 0-9, the San Francisco 49ers went on the finish 6-10. Prior to this, no team had ever amassed more than three wins after such a horrific start. At one point, it had been over 700 days that they had beaten anyone not called the Rams. Yet they ended the regular season with the longest winning streak in the NFL. Guess, it might've had something to do with the Jimmy Garoppolo, just call him Jimmy GQ, trade. The Dolphins, who brought  in smokin' Jay Cutler to replace the injured Tannehill and the Raiders, who lured Beast Mode out of retirement, finished with the same records but not the same optimism as the Niners. It was a lost season in Washington which will exchange their double franchise tagged QB for Alex Smith next year, and it'll be a cold off-season in Green Bay after half a year without Rodgers; both ended up at 7-9. Ditto for the Bengals whose only achievement was helping the Bills into the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and snapping the longest drought in major professional North American sports. Yes, this is happiness.

Despite those Bengals somehow bringing Marvin Lewis back again next year the head coaching carousel was in full swing by year's end as Cardinals coach Bruce Arians retired after finishing as the only .500 team. The Raiders' Del Rio, Bears' Fox, the Lions' Caldwell and Colts' Pagano all found pink slips waiting for them to start the new year. I feel worst for Jim Caldwell, fired despite compiling the best record of any Detroit Lions coach in the Super Bowl era and delivering the first back to back winning seasons since 1993-95. Ah, but that playoff winning percentage. The Chargers really moved from San Diego to LA becoming the only team to play 16 road games, seriously, fuck Dean Spanos, but even more surprisingly, Keenan Allen stayed healthy, had a great year and almost dragged his team into the playoffs. The Ravens joined both at 9-7 on the strength of a defense that became just the fifth team in 30 years to post three shutouts in a season.

Good thing Goodell's contract was up for renewal so something could be done to fix what's ailing the league. Wait. What's that? It's actually in his job description to do stuff that makes him hated to distract attention from the owners? Is that why they voted unanimously in May to authorize the Compensation Committee to enter in to negotiations and offer him an extension of his contract through 2024? Well, one owner changed his mind, shocker, the owner of Elliott's Cowboys, Jerry Jones. Seems he was happy enough to watch Roger, well, roger other teams such as the Patriots during deflategate, but not so much when he was the victim. Despite Jones' ultimately failed coup attempt, his rabble-rousing did manage to wake the public to Goodell's contract demands: $50 million a year, lifetime use of a private jet and lifetime health insurance for his entire family. Well, they signed a deal, but we don't get to find out what's in it as since the NFL lost (or dropped depending how you look at it) its federal tax exemption in 2015, his salary is no longer public. We do know he was paid more than $205 million between 2008 and 2015 and reports peg the new deal at $200 million for five years, so I'm guessing he got the jet and insurance.

Here's where things get weird, America-specific weird. No, not because people are pissed off, but why they're pissed. It's not that, as the owner's memo revealing the deal stated, it is "fully consistent with 'market' compensation". A market that the public has been convinced has been guided by an invisible hand to inflate the ratio of CEO-to-average worker pay over a 1,000%, from around 20-to-1 in 1950 to over 300-to-1 today. Nor that, thanks to an awful CBA signed by the players union with the league, the best running back of our generation will likely be franchise tagged again, meaning he will "only" be paid the average of the five highest running backs and be left without a multi-year deal, meaning if he gets injured, he'll have no salary guarantee. Nor that Goodell's family will have better lifetime health insurance than not only pretty much every American, but also  former NFL players, who have a slightly higher risk of debilitating injury and related health problems than Roger's wife Jane. No, they're mad as hell because FOX News tell them it "has never been the American way to treat customers like the enemy", and he was in charge while the "NFL burned in flames as American patriots refused to watch games where players protested our sacred symbols". Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself, the Donald and his anger stick will have to wait until after we get through the last two non-playoff teams, the Seahawks and Cowboys.

It felt as though the Shithawks' window closed a little, but Russell Wilson played lights out most of the year; we also witnessed the end of the CenturyLink mystique as they went 4-4 at home. Here's a crazier stat. Total Seahawks rush attempts inside opponent 10 yard line - Russell Wilson: 3 carries for 3 yards and 2 touchdowns; all other Seahawks: 20 carries, -3 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 first downs. Including passing and rushing yards, Wilson finished the season accounting for 81.5% of all Seattle yards from scrimmage (bizarrely, second all-time behind Jon Kitna's 2006 season with Detroit at 81.8%). The Cowboys, meanwhile, couldn't get over the Elliott drama, watched Romolessly as Dak regressed, were overly reliant on Sean Lee and Tyron Smith being healthy, which they not always were, and seem to be stuck with Jason Garrett's uselessness cuz he's Jerry's guy despite seemingly never having heard the term 'half-time adjustments'.

The comeback player of the year wasn't even on the field but in the broadcast booth as Tony Romo took up the mic for CBS this year and won over football fans across the country, even Philadelphia. While the loss of Jon Gruden back to the coaching ranks might sting for a bit, Romo more than made up for it with his enthusiastic, scholastic and prognostic game calling. Sadly, for us Cowboys fans, he had to wait to retire before making it to the Conference Championship. If only Americans (and most of the rest of the world) had someone explain the X's and O's of politics and economics to them the way Tony does football. Instead we've got a media system that thrives on creating a hyper-partisan divide that in fact doesn't exist. Team Red and Blue agree on far more than they don't while doling out identity politics outrage to keep people tuned in and arguing about how the Russians stole the election, who should use what bathroom, the latest attack on Christmas, and who to blame for the government shutdown while the oligarchs syphon away their wealth, the corporations turn the internet into pay-per-view TV, their nation's treasure is used to attack, well most of the world, and, most worrying of all, the nation's life expectancy falls for the second year in a row. Good place to get back to the anger, the instrument of the master of distraction...

One day in September Drumpf took a dump and decided to tweet about Colin Kaepernick. Ok, not exactly, as first he had to tell folks in Alabama that the sonofabitch should be fired while he was telling them to vote for a child molester because their good Christians!?! You can't make this stuff up. Who knew that people could be worked into a nationalistic fervour by simply reminding them they voted for a reality TV host who got the job because he got rich by inheriting millions, cheating workers, and scamming the bankruptcy system. Remember that Colin explicitly, repeatedly, unequivocally said for the past year that his kneeling was a silent protest of savage police behavior towards Black people. Oh, and he switched to kneeling from sitting after speaking with a navy seal who suggested he should as a sign of respect. Yet, the short-fingered vulgarian managed to blow his identity politics dog whistle to twist his free speech choice into, "If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!"

Yeah, and so it goes. Fuckface Von Clownstick forgot to mention that had it been a decade ago, chances are it wouldn't even have been an issue as teams generally didn't even come out for the anthem except for special occasions. A cheque from the US government to the NFL changed all that and pumped up the paid patriotism to new levels, and a decade later, Kaepernick, despite being better than most backups and a few starters in the league, was blackballed. Yes, that's what you call it when guys named Taylor Heinicke are playing instead of the GQ citizen of the year. Amidst all the hoopla, leave it to Jerry Jones to look the most ridiculous as he tried to strike a PR-friendly balance by kneeling with his players before the anthem; too bad his frantic search for a cameraman made him look as phony as his intentions. Made for good hot takes though on the TV as commentators vied to be vilest. They needn't have tried as the Texan owner Robert McNair filled the bill when he made it clear the NFL wouldn't allow "inmates running the prison". Thus, a gesture meant as a plea for humanity was turned on its head and instead became a tool of oppression, a reminder of what happens if you step out of line. So it goes.

Those who managed to kowtow appropriately to their betters had plenty of ups and downs on the field this year. At 39, Drew Brees retook the mark for highest single season completion percentage, after losing it for a year to Sam Bradford, with an astounding 72%. He has now set the record three times as he broke it, broke his own record and then broke it again one year after Bradford broke it. Meanwhile, at 32, Adrian Peterson started the season as Brees' teammate but ended what seemed as it should be his last in Arizona. After 1,078 days, Josh "Flash" Gordon returned to the league, and though he didn't save every one of the Browns fans, he did, um, flash. Terrelle Pryor, who left Gordon's Browns for the Washington club, crashed and burned. DeAndre Hopkins made the catch of the year while it seemed Amari Cooper couldn't make a catch all year (besides one game for some reason!). Rob Gronkowski continued to be the best tight end in the game but also went wacky smashing a defenseless Tra'varius White.

The pendulum continued to swing towards rookie running backs from wide receivers in 2017 with Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara leading the way. Kamara's numbers were jaw dropping: 728 rushing yards, eight rushing TDs; 81 receptions, 826 receiving yards, five receiving TDs; 347 kickoff return yards, kickoff return TD. Alongside stable mate Mark Ingram, they became the first RB duo to both finish with over 1,500 yards from scrimmage. Hunt wasn't too bad himself: 272 carries, 1,327 yards, eight TDs; 53 receptions, 455 yards, three TDs. Fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette helped carry the Jags into the AFCCG with over 1,000 rushing yards while the eighth pick, Christian McCafferey of the Panthers, had over 1,000 all-purpose yards including 80 catches. Vikings' Dalvin Cook would've finished with gaudy numbers as well had he avoided the injury plague. Finally,  Joe Mixon mixed in with 4 TDs and over 600 yards on the ground on a pretty terrible Bengals team. Mixon also has a pretty potent right hook which he once deplorably unleashed on a woman which sadly brings us back to the NFL and women.

The tsunami following the Weinstein/#MeToo earthquake washed over the league as well as it was revealed that Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson had paid out hush money to at least four former employees to cover up "workplace misconduct" involving sexual harassment and racial slurs. It took just two days to learn he was putting the team up for sale following yet another trial by media. Don't feel too bad for Jerry though, to create the expansion team in 1993, his investment group paid $206 million; the upcoming sale is expected to fetch upwards of $2.5 billion. Add to this the former makeup artist at the NFL Network filing a lawsuit against the network for a hostile work environment, documenting stomach-turning stories of Marshall Faulk, Heath Evans, Eric Davis, Donovan McNabb, and Warren Sapp, among others, sexually harassing the plaintiff. There was also the head of NFL Media, David Eaton, resigning when Deadspin revealed he'd been seeking out prostitutes and porn stars on Twitter.

PR-wise, Cam Newton's brain fart in an October press conference was a disaster as it let slip the female equal opportunity mask the NFL had been donning. Asked by Charlotte Observer Panthers beat writer Jourdan Rodrigue a legitimate (definitely better than the majority) question about his receiver's route running, something clicked and he responded, "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes, like...that's funny", accompanied by the oddest contortions and most bizarre facial expression (pictured left). Things apparently only got worse when she confronted him afterwards. Upon losing sponsorship deals such as Danone, he posted a near two minute apology video, but forgot to mention Jourdan Rodrigue, who you know, was belittled for doing her job. Tangentially related, the whackiest story had to be Dolphins' now former offensive line coach Chris Foerster having the bizarre video cri de coeur he recorded for the model who had spurned him leaked by her to the public. Did I mention he was in his office? Doing cocaine? Awkward.

The league introduced one good rule change but has a glaring need of another. In an attempt to shed their No Fun League image, Goodell wrote in a letter to fans that the NFL wanted to allow players "more room to have fun after they make big plays" and thus was relaxing the rules on touchdown celebrations. While we may not have gotten anything as mesmerizing as the Ickey Shuffle or the Funky Chicken, the Ravens tug-of-war, the Eagles Electric slide as well as their bowling and baseball parodies, the “sack race” by the Chiefs, and the Vikings duck, duck, goose and Winter Olympic curling hat tip in the NFCCG were all good fun.

The missing change? Easy. What's a catch? Really, I haven't known since the Calvin Johnson non-catch; I was left more confused after the Dez Bryant non-catch; now I've got literally no idea. Jessie James may not have caught that touchdown according to the rule, but in the minds of many, had it not been for the poorly formulated rule, the Steelers would have beaten the Patriots, probably claimed the #1 seed in the AFC and we would possibly be seeing a different Super Bowl this Sunday. More cameras with better resolution isn't going to solve the issue, in fact, it's the technology that's making matters worse. Well, it could maybe help if it can do something about index cards being used to determine first downs

After all, that's how a sane system should work: identify the problem and formulate a solution. That's why I for one don't blame people for voting for Trumplethinskin. In fact, if I were as convinced as 90% of America that choosing between Coke or Pepsi will somehow effect positive change, there's no way I'd have voted for Shillary. Change, um, trumps status quo. However, the catch is you see, identifying the problem, as picking either Coke or Pepsi is itself the stumbling block as either will kill you in the long run, a Catch-22 if you will:
  • Don't vote for Hillary as she sent State emails with a private server.
  • Vote for Trump so he can put Agit Pai in charge of the FCC to eviscerate net neutrality and pave the way for conglomerates such as Verizon and Comcast to turn the already third world quality American internet into cable TV.
  • Don't vote for Hillary because the Clinton Foundation is simply a front for them to syphon millions into their pockets.
  • Vote for Trump so that he can overhaul the tax system thereby gifting those such as himself trillions which will somehow trickle down to the rest of society just like it did after the Reagan and Dubya tax cuts. Oh, you mean it didn't?
  • Don't vote for Hillary, she's a Goldman Sachs lackey, paid millions for speeches.
  • Vote for Trump so he can waive punishment for convicted banks such as Deutsche Bank whom he personally owes millions.
  • Don't vote for Hillary as she's a warmonger, just look at what she did to Libya.
  • Vote for Trump so he can engage in a little saber-rattling with a nuclear state, send more troops to Afghanistan, threaten Iran and, surprise, surprise, have his Secretary of State, Rex ex-Exxon Tillerson announce the US will be keeping several thousand troops on the ground in Syria until President Bashar al-Assad is overthrown. Shocker, despite his campaign pledge to not play the regime change game, that's exactly what this intimates (insert feigned surprise face here).
So, tell me, who cares who wins the taste challenge? Despite what seems like half the country living with their hearts in their mouths over fears Agent Orange is in cohoots with the Ruskies and might be mentally deranged, Democrats voted in lockstep with their supposed rivals across the aisle to increase his warrantless domestic surveillance powers. Oh no, Cheeto Benito just called some countries shitholes, guess we better increase the military budget by even more than he asked for, good work team blue! Yes, both of these in just the last week, seems #TheResistance is sure giving it to that bad Super Callous Fragile Racist Sexist NAZI POTUS. After almost 40 years of neoliberal policy, the unrelenting upward swing in inequality is causing cracks to form in more than just the nation's bridges as both the infrastructure and society itself are clearly cracking up. Restoring a Democratic Team Hillary status quo that was doing all the same horrible things but went about it in a more refined way won't solve the problem any more than Trump and the Republicans. Football results are comparatively comforting, especially in the playoffs where you win to stay in or lose and go home.

Wildcard Round

Titans-Chiefs
Seemed like the Saturday appetizer, but turned out to be the main course. Remember the once 5-0 Chiefs? Week one-Patriot-stomping Chiefs when Kareem Hunt fumbled his first NFL carry and then went on to gash New England for 148 yards and a TD on 17 carries plus 98 yards and two TDs on five catches? Early season whispers of Alex Smith for MVP were quashed by a four game losing streak. Well, the game reflected their season as they jumped out to a big lead and blew it, allowing the Titans to score 19 unanswered second half points. The Titans are not a good team but Mariota is the only QB/WR/RB/OL in the league. Double the fantasy points when you pull a Brad Johnson and throw a touchdown pass to yourself. My takeaway was the refs caused too much uncertainty as it seemed like every play had a conference that took away from losing myself in the action.

Falcons-Rams
Experience seemed to be the difference as the Rams seemed jittery and Falcons poised. The LA Rams went from #32 in scoring and year ago to #1 simply by hiring a coach named Sean. Ok, and Goff took a giant leap this year and his offensive weapons were lethal; Todd Gurley was good enough to be in the MVP conversation. Plus Aaron Donald anchored Wade Phillips' defense which helped power the Rams turnaround from a 4-12 to an 11-5 team. If they keep improving they just might get some attention in the LA market once they move out of the dump that is the Coliseum into Kroenke's new playground in a couple years on the former site of the Hollywood Park racetrack. They weren't ready for prime time Saturday as special teams sunk them 26-13.

Bills-Jaguars
Making their first playoff appearance since '99, the Bills became everyone's favorite underdog but underperformed in crunch time. The offseason talent firesale made it seem as though the Bills were throwing the season reinforced midway through when they started Nathan Peterman, who promptly threw five picks in about 11 minutes, but somehow they scraped in to the dance. Scenes of playoff starved fans waiting for hours in the snow at the Buffalo airport for their team to touch down after securing the wildcard birth were wild, but wildcard Sunday was beyond tame, in fact, quite lame, as Tyrod was not Tygod doing nothing to prove management was wrong not to trust him, while Blake just Bortled his way to the W thanks to a few timely scrambles and an amazing defense; 10-3. Blake ran for more yards than he threw (87)!

Panthers-Saints
I was never sold on Newton's health or his team's chances all year, but they both just kept doing enough to win. Sure, Cam's completion rate jumped to over 60% from 52.9% last year, but Devin Funchess and Christian McCaffery alone couldn't drag the offense above mediocrity. Sure the Luke Kuechley defense was among the league's best and did give the Panthers a chance as they kept it close by bottling up the Kamara/Ingram two-headed monster. Too bad they forgot that Drew Brees is a pretty good QB. Was it just me or did Cam Newton seem lackadaisical all game? 31-26. Three of the Panthers six losses this year were to the Saints.

Divisional Round

Falcons-Eagles
You gotta hand it to Atlanta bouncing back from last year's Super Bowl calamity. Unfortunately, new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkasian couldn't seem to figure out how to feed Julio Jones in the endzone and Matt Ryan came back down to Earth after his MVP season, but the young defense continued to improve helping them to a 9-7 season and wildcard win. Without Wentz, the Eagles were the #1 seed underdogs but their stout defense frustrated the Falcons all day as they managed to hold on for a 15-10 win.

Titans-Patriots
Did I mention the Titans were an awful playoff team, actually painful to watch most of the time, and we had to watch them twice? I mean, Mariota threw more picks (15) than TDs (13) this year. They got a bit lucky completing the season sweep against AFC South foe Jacksonville in a meaningless week 17 game for them to sneak onto the dance floor. Eric Decker was a bust. DeMarco Murray is done (and didn't dress in the playoffs), which left them to sink or swim with Derrick Henry; he looked like Michael Phelps in the wildcard game but a sunk like a stone against the Pats. The Titans actually had the lead following the one handed opening TD by rookie Corey Davis, but the Pats and Brady, who -yawn- moved on to his 12 conference championship in 18 years, were too much. The Pats defense sacked Mariota eight times. 35-14.

Jaguars-Steelers
All the talk surrounded the Steelers taking the Jags lightly and looking past them to the Pats. Why not with the best RB and WR in the league in Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger managing to stay upright for another year. Throw in a pair of game changing rookies, one with the best name and receiving stats, Ju Ju Smith Shuster, and the other helping the defense edge out Sacksonville for the league lead in sacks, T.J. Watt, and, yeah, most people figured they'd avenge the early season blowout loss to the Jaguars after which Big Ben pondered retirement. Yet, if you can't stop Blake Bortles you don't deserve to win and the Steelers didn't. Leonard Fournette bulldozed for three touchdowns in a wild 45-42 win. The over/under was 40.

Saints-Vikings
Wow! Sure, the game looked good on paper going in. The Saints had Brees and a rookie class that was the best of the century with Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara highlighting, but all seven draft picks made big contributions as the defense was much improved and the offense adopted a run-first mentality. Four lead changes in the last 3:01 have us all believing in Keenum and his scriptures. Crazy 61-yard Minneapolis Miracle to Stefon Diggs as time expired was a hail-mary-ish, whiff-six. One of the best games I've ever seen. Seriously, this happened on the last play of the game. Or here, try this one. Maybe one more as the expression on Everson Griffen's face is priceless. 29-24.

Conference Finals

Conference Championship Sunday is the best Sunday of the year. In ultimate bizarro world, the four starting quarterbacks are Nick Foles, Case Keenum, Tom Brady, and Blake Bortles: one of these things is not like the other. Bring it on.

Jaguars-Patriots
John Malkovich put it best. David v Goliath. Bortles v Brady. Sith Lord Bill Belichick, leader of the Evil League of Evil chalice holders, taking on the Jacksonville Jaguars. No contest, right? Wrong. Sacksonville, first in DVOA led by those DBs, Ramsey and Bouye (the league's lowest passer rating (31.6) in coverage among qualified cornerbacks), turned a 3-13 team into a contender. Brady's thumb was the pre-game focus but the first half saw touchdowns by Marcedes Lewis and Leonard Fournette, a concussed Gronk and a 14-10 Jags lead. Lack of faith in Bortles may have lost them the game as they had three time outs, 55 seconds and only 37 yards to get into field goal range at the end of the first half but opted to kneel. Mistake. "Brady is like a villain in a horror film. You don't kill the villain by being conservative. You've got to stand over the villain at the end and put 15 bullets into him just to make sure he doesn't get back up for one last scare." Even at 20-10 heading into the fourth quarter, we all knew TB12 would come back and win it. Fucking Danny Amendola. Pats 24-20.

Vikings-Eagles
The two franchises with the most playoff victories (20-16 respectively) without a Super Bowl title faced off in Philadelphia; Keenum v Foles: Warrior. Case Keenum and Adam Thielen came out of nowhere and clicked, helping the Vikings to the #2 seed in the NFC, but it was the defense that made it possible, particularly safety Harrison Smith who was the highest graded player in the history of Pro Football Focus and still didn't get voted into the popularity contest Pro-Bowl. The Vikings opened by driving the ball down the Eagles throat for an early TD and then forcing the Eagles to punt on a three-and-out. Then they remembered that since losing their fourth Super Bowl in 1976 to the Raiders they had lost five NFCCGs and proceeded to roll over and allow Foles & Co to roll to a 38-7 thrashing.

Football is a violent game, America's a violent country; maybe that's what makes the game so uniquely popular there. Yes, still. Despite the Chicken Little prophecies, football is still far and away America's #1 spectator sport. Faux anger and Twitter storms whirl around the latest outrage in the so-called real world as pundits weigh in with their pet theories on the latest once in a lifetime, black swan event. The sheer volume of information creates a volatile cocktail with the first to publish, hot take imperative of the media industry and our biases which determine which narrative most comforts us by allowing us to maintain our pre-existing beliefs making it impossible to come to any consensus on the cause let alone the solution. This is cognitive dissonance: Trump's election had to be the Russkies, and "people like George Soros and any other number of international financiers whose objective it is to take the United States out and down as a superpower" are using players such as Kaepernick in a plot to turn fans away from football because "[i]t's patriotic, you've got the flag, you've got the anthem, you've got uniformed military personnel, all the things that the left wants to erase from this country."

The real reasons are both more simple and complex; simple because it's obvious once you filter out the noise, complex because proving causality requires multi-variate analysis. Just as Obomber, a smiling, smooth talking black man, was the perfect candidate for his time as he spoke to enough of those who pined for a saviour to right the ship of state listing at sea thanks to military boondoggles abroad and financial shenanigans at home, the Donald's words resonated with those living surrounded by people dying from deaths of despair. This is what happens when propaganda convinces the masses they live in the greatest nation in the world, symbolized by the flag, national anthem and apple pie, but see that their lives are objectively worse than their parents and coastal elites.

Slow changes are hard to perceive but their cumulative effects can be lethal. Just as daily, imperceptible weight increases in the march to obesity shorten life spans, the slow, upward swing in inequality does exactly the same society wide. Not convinced? After all correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation, post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that? Well, it holds when comparing between countries AND within countries showing once a society reaches a certain level of development, increasing GDP does nothing for living standards but increasing inequality exacerbates every societal ill, from obesity to murder rates, recycling rates to life expectancy and will likely lead to societal breakdown and ultimately, revolution.

Until enough people realize that political and economic systems are man-made constructs every bit as much as football where the rules aren't immutable, the only change possible is for the worse thanks in small part to the NFL. Seeing how the NFL was able to hold cities to ransom and then get places such as Las Vegas to give them billions, Jeff Bezos put Amazon's HQ2 up for bidding by cities who stumbled over each other in the race to the bottom to give the world's richest man more than he plans to invest for the reward of being Amazombified. It's become a platitude to say Americans are stupid, but have you seen today's athletes? What's to blame for the uptick in them thanking god and all the praying? Now that's some indoctrination. Seriously WTF? Anti-vaxxers and anthropomorphic climate change deniers have their mirror image in the NFL in hucksters touting magic water which helps in concussion recovery and pseudo-scientific dietary plans to ward off ageing. At least Russell Wilson and Tom Brady have the excuse that they're trying to make a buck, how about wacky flat-Earthism? Yep, NFL stars Sammy Watkins and Darius Slay have joined the "scepticism makes me smart, derp" cult. College 'educated' NFL player, William Hayes, believes in mermaids but not dinosaurs. No wonder millenials are eating Tide pods or that Proctor and Gamble had to hire Rob Gronkowski to tell kids not to eat them.

The Super Bowl

If you had asked which two teams I didn't want to make it to the Super Bowl this year, I most likely would've said the Patriots and the Eagles. Never lose (except against the Giants) against never won. How to choose? Looking at the season stats there's not much to separate them: both teams finished with 13-3 records and a +162 point differential; the Pats both scored and allowed one more point than the Eagles. Both teams offensive lines surrendered 38 sacks over the year. The Chiefs opened the season thrashing the Patriots and then beating the Eagles in week 2. Seeing as the Eagles have won the coin toss in both their Super Bowls and of course lost, and the Patriots have lost the toss in their five wins, it really is a coin flip when it comes to picking the winner.


More minutiae? Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie grew up a Patriots fan and was outbid by Robert Kraft for the team in 1994. An Eagles win Sunday would make LeGarrette Blount and Chris Long the first two players in NFL history to win a Super Bowl one year and then win another one the next year against the team they won with the previous year. If the Patriots win they'll tie the Steelers for most franchise Super Bowl wins (6); if they lose they'll draw even with the Broncos for the most losses (5). Since 2008, when the Saints make the playoffs, the NFC wins, while the AFC wins when they miss. No player has led the NFL in passing yards and won the Super Bowl (0-5 record); Tom Brady at 40 led the NFL with 4,577 passing yards. So the smart money is on the Eagles, right? Until we remember that correlation ain't causation, and nothing's ever happened before it first did, and everything that's happened once did so for the first time.

Today's Patriots are spoken of in terms of a dynasty, but in fact they're more like a double dynasty. It was just 13 years ago that the Patriots beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX to cap their last three out of four year Lombardi run, and this Sunday could be their third in four again (looking at a bird trifecta: Seahawks/Falcons/Eagles) with a ten year gap in between, astoundingly with Brady and Belichick as the constants. All their coordinators left at the end of the first three year run, people predicted their downfall, and this time they're all leaving again. Other parallels in the two runs are even spookier. Twenty-somethings have only known an NFL dominated by the Patriots as their ascendancy began 16 years ago. Five rings, eight AFC Championships since, only missing the semi final game four times since 2001 (what happened between 2008-2010?). TB12 and BB have simply been peerless. Brady is only 279 yards away from 10,000 career post-season passing yards, the next closest is Peyton Manning at 7,339 then Roethlisberger with 5,256. Brady has more playoff wins than 28 NFL franchises, more Super Bowl victories than 4 teams have playoff victories in the Super Bowl era.

The Eagles lack the same pedigree, only having appeared, and lost, twice, of course 24-21 to the Pats in XXXIX and 27-10 to the Raiders in XV. This team carries none of that baggage though with both Doug Pederson and QB Carson Wentz joining the team in 2016. Most expected, or feared, the Eagles would be better this year, but off an NFC East cellar dwelling 7-9 season in 2016, predictions were in the 9-7, 10-6 range with a shot at the East but more likely a wildcard birth. Yet the only blemishes on their season were a week 2 loss to the red hot Chiefs, week 13 loss to Russell Wilson and a meaningless week 17 loss to the Cowboys. Sure, this is Napoleon Dynamite's Nick Foles' team now, but the results have been the same as with Wentz so far, and his league leading 122.1 QB rating in the playoffs means he's playing more like 2013 Nick Foles than the one who almost quit football last year. Still, remember that Brady playoff stat? 9,721 passing yards in the postseason in his NFL career; Foles has thrown for 9,752 passing yards in the regular season in his NFL career.

Beyond Brady, the Patriots #1 offense features Gronk, the best tight end in football, who should be recovered from his concussion suffered in the AFCCG. Despite injuries and a suspension he still led the team with 69 reception, and, yeah, he knew that. Other receiving targets are Brandin Cooks, a speedster acquired in a pre-season trade with the Saints, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola. Cooks seems more in sync with Brady lately, Hogan is finally healthy again and Amendola has been everything they needed to replace Julian Edelman. The running backs have been quietly productive becoming the first backfield with four different 5+ TD scorers in Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and LI MVP James White. Lewis, an Eagles fifth round pick in 2011, established himself as the bellcow as the season progressed and is possibly the most underrated back in the league. So long as the Patriots offensive line can contain the Eagles front four, the key likely being Shaq Mason slowing down Fletcher Cox, the Pats will put up points.

Despite Nick Foles gaudy NFCCG stats against the Vikings, the Eagles victory chances depend on the scheme of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and the play of their defense which begins with their front four, or better put, front eight as they rely on rotation to keep them fresh. With $71 million devoted to their offensive and defensive lines, no other team has a bigger investment, and it paid off as the defense was #1 in the league against the run. If Cox, Jernigan, and Graham all play at their best and get pressure without any blitz help it could be a hell of a show as the Eagles will be able to clog up the middle of the field and take away the Patriots' signature dink and dunk torture treatment. Safety Malcolm Jenkins could be MVP or goat as, though the Eagles play a lot more zone than man, he'll have the unenviable task of being most responsible for covering Gronk. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills at corner will have to avoid being burned by a double move by Cooks or Hogan at some point.

Zach Ertz is likely runner up to Gronk at TE in the league (ok, Travis Kelce is in the running, too), earning double digit targets five times this year and finishing with 74 receptions and the same number of TDs (8) as his Super Bowl rival. The Eagles didn't shy away from picking up offensive talent before or during the season. They rolled the dice on keeping Nelson Aghalor who had disappointed in his first two years, and picked up free agents Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. The latter still sucks but forces teams to respect the deep threat while Aghalor flashed and Jeffery nearly played up to the high expectations from his days in Chicago. Picking up LeGarrette Blount seemed like a luxury before they lost Darren Sproles (to an ACL tear and a broken arm in the same play), but picking up Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline cemented the team as the #3 rushing offense in the league. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement dazzled mid-season (4 TDs on the ground and 2 receiving) and could be the forgotten X-factor. Fun fact: Every Eagles point in the playoffs has been scored by someone not on the team last year. Of course the offensive line, led by C Jason Kelce and named the best in the league by PFF, played a big part despite losing Jason Peters early in the year.

The Patriots defense produced a tale of two seasons. Following a 2-2 start, questions abounded, even going so far as pointing fingers at Belichik's philosophy. After a month they were last in the league in total yards surrendered and the worst defense since 2006 according to fivethirtyeight's EPA (Expected Points Added) metric. Predictably, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia turned his unit around (he is a rocket scientist after all) and proceeded to go on a six game run where they allowed the least points per game. Bend don't break describes the Pats D as they finished 29th in yards but fifth in points allowed (and first in points over the season’s final three-quarters). They play mostly man in the secondary where the aggressive approach contrasts with the front-seven's strategy which is more read and react. The team splurged on their defensive backs in the offseason, luring Stephon Gilmore from the Bills and hanging onto Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler, but still struggled and are susceptible to being burned.

Those same twenty-somethings who have known nothing beyond Brady/Belichick/Patriot NFL dominance have also only lived in a world of perpetual war (now with troops in 183 countries, hooray!), a soi-disant war on terror. The former may be more mind-boggling as they've done it in a system, from salary caps to the draft, meant to create parity, while the latter is simply a Rube Goldberg machine designed to fan the flames of fear and funnel cash into the black hole of the military industrial complex. Now throw in almost 40 years of inequality boosting neoliberalism and the devastating aftermath of a financial crisis which "forced" central banks to print cash (quantitative easing) for almost a decade to further exacerbate inequality. Follow that up with the onslaught of new technologies delivering an incessant stream of information courtesy of a few oligopolistic corporations whose raison-d'etre is to perpetuate the system which enriches them, and you've got a recipe for incongruity as fantasy and reality collide.

Mixing metaphors, the cumulative effects on the population, at both the individual and societal level, are akin to those experienced by football players on the field as the chasm between reality and the fairy tale of freedom, prosperity and progress leaves them punch-drunk, exhibiting CTE-like symptoms: cognitive impairment, impulsive behavior, depression, apathy, short-term memory loss, difficulty planning and carrying out tasks, emotional instability, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts and behavior. Instead of the disease's tell-tale Tau proteins forming clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, clogging neural pathways and killing brain cells, we are witness to fear, anger and resentment metastasizing across the population engendering anomie and fragmenting society into warring camps with opposing world views. Propaganda only works because we all think we're immune to it thus allowing it to wheedle its way into our very being while isolation and desperation leave us susceptible to the soothsayer who will allay our fears thereby enabling a rash of populist/nativist/neo-fascist con-men to capitalize on our weakness from Austria to Hungary, Brexit boosters to the USA, Poland to the Philippines. Et-tu Czechia?

How can we unpack the indoctrination that goes into the belief system of someone who thinks Colin Kaepernick should be persecuted for his protest as he's not showing respect for those who have sworn to uphold the constitution which guarantees him the right to, um, protest? How can one not see that being forced to stand at attention with a boot on your neck isn't patriotism but tyranny? Besides, what's more primitive than idolatry? Equally deluded are those who refuse to accept the presidency of the man whose election was enabled, nay, caused by, the very policies of the party they support. The Ministry of Truth couldn't convince so many, so easily that it must have been the work of the devious 'other', in this case Putin/Russia, and erase from their memory the records of their own government not only meddling, but bullying, buying, rigging, funding, training, campaigning, assassinating and outright overthrowing governments who don't toe the line. 

Tell me again how politics has no part in sport. Never watched the Olympics nor remember the boycotts? Don't think Joe Louis, Jessie Owens and Jackie Robinson played a role in advancing civil and human rights in America? Forgot about Mohammed Ali? More likely you think it's ok to use the NFL to promote your politics, like using Alejandro Villanueva and even Pat Tillman's name to boost military enlistment. Of course, cities subsidizing stadiums and thus the bottom line of privately owned franchises is purely apolitical. Vince McMahon, yes, him, sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the anger fomented over a player with the gall to express his opinion, will be rebooting the XFL, yes, that, and went so far as to promise players will stand for the anthem when the league kicks off in 2020. Fun fact alert: Vince's wife Linda is part of Trump's cabinet as head of the Small Business Administration. Problem is he doesn't even know how the game will be delivered, meaning he's every bit as ignorant as Drumpf as to the main reason for football's ratings decline: cord cutting and internet streaming. All network TV ratings were down this year. All of them. NBC dropped 4%. CBS dropped 6%. ABC dropped 11%. Fox dropped 20%. As many people are turning away from football in support of Kap as they are in protest against him, it's just that folks are getting their entertainment outside the cable TV universe. Come Sunday, however, you can bet over 100 million Americans will be tuned in to the Super Bowl.

Is it time for a pick yet?

It's dynasty vs. 'dogs. The Eagles need to resist falling under the spell of the Patriots' aura; easier said than done amidst the two week build-up with its relentless media blitz which can rattle the most unflappable veteran. Vegas has the Pats as the deserved 4.5 point favorites, but the Eagles were underdogs against both the Falcons and Vikings and wound up feeding off it. The Madden sim predicted a 24-20 Patriots win, and before you scoff, note its 10 of 14 record and the uncannily accurate simulation in XLIX. Historically, I'd probably lean towards the Eagles against this spread as the Pats have played close Super Bowls; in the Brady years they've won by 3, 3, 3, 4 and 6 and have lost by 3 and 4, most of which were classics (the biggest margin being the only overtime game in SB history). Consequently, it could come down to the kickers, but there's not much to separate Stephen Gostkowski and rookie Jake Elliott; both are Memphis Tigers' alumni where the veteran once mentored the freshman, clearly Gost has the experience but Elliott's got the bigger leg.

Just as in the US election, seems as though my choice comes down to who to cheer most against: whoever wins, we all lose. The Cowboys fan in me is loath to lose having the ringless also-ran to kick around in the NFC East, and, yes, even I've been forced to find a little place within myself to respect the achievements of BB and Brady. Nevertheless, there's a certain attraction to silencing Steelers fans' six-ring gloating by handing the Pats their sixth and the distinct possibility of watching Philadelphia burn to the ground in celebration. All dynasties, like empires, must eventually come to an end, and a loss, coupled with the more-than-rumoured troubles in the Brady-Belichick-Kraft relationship could just do the trick. With the conspiracies about the refs favoring the Patriots whirling around, perhaps they'll have to play it straight, opening the door to an upset. Here's to hoping we all get to one day play on a level playing field. As is Pats tradition against the NFC East in the Super Bowl, an absurd catch by, um, Corey Clement puts the Eagles in position to win and they do, let's make it 27-24.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Kicking It 2017

Ok, here's a quick league to league run down for the upcoming 2017 NFL season.

AFC East

Starts and ends with the New England Patriots as the favorite team of any good fascist mostly got better since winning the Super Bowl after spotting the Falcons a 28-3 lead. Sure, they lost Julian Edelman and don't have an edge rusher but they added speedy wideout Brandin Cooks and another white guy, RB Rex Burkhead. Gronk is back. No, they won't go undefeated but you can pretty much guarantee 13 wins as they'll get almost half playing the rest of the crummy division. Smokin' Jay Cutler was on his way to the broadcast booth when he got a call from Adam Gase in Miami after Ryan Tannehill was knocked out for the year. He might guide the Dolphins to a .500 season so long as RB Jay Ajayi has more than 3 big games, WR DeVante Parker makes the expected leap and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh can avoid stomping related suspension. If it were any other division, the Buffalo Bills would have a strong claim on the cellar but they were out-firesaled by the New York Jets. Is there an adjective for 'almost completely bereft of talent'? LeSean McCoy is still great but might struggle with the new outside zone blocking scheme while QB Tyrod Taylor now doesn't have any targets to go along with his lack of accuracy: Bills get 3 wins. And those JETS? Quick, name a Jets receiver? QB? Yeah, 0-16 baby.

AFC North

Ben Roethlisberger's 35 year-old body may be 93, but he'll lead the league's best offense backed up by an improving defense. Le'Veon Bell's running style be simply described as patient? Imperturbable? Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant. Too many weapons to not win at least 8, maybe 11-5, so they can lose to the Patriots in the playoffs. The buzz around Baltimore is the Ravens defense might reclaim the best in the league title but I don't think bringing in Jeremy Maclin and Danny Woodhead will be enough to turn around the Joe Flacco led offense leaving them around 9-7. You know, maybe the Cleveland Browns finish above the Cincinnati Bengals provided rookie DeShone Kizer allows them to jump off the QB carousel of the past couple decades (by my count Kizer will be the 27th starting QB since the franchise was (re)awarded to Cleveland). Regardless, I like what they've been doing, creatively amassing high draft picks while the Bengals are even boring when they're good; well, AJ Green is a beast I suppose. Browns celebrate a 5-11 and the Bengals and their porous offensive line bemoan a 4-12.

AFC South

The Tennessee Titans quietly had a great 2016/17 and will take the next step this year, getting their first sniff of the playoffs in a decade. The offense that scored 30.8 points/game over an eight game stretch last year has added #5 overall pick WR Corey Davis and WR Eric Decker to catch passes with TE Delanie Walker from Marcus Mariota, who will by an MVP contender, and can also hand off to RBs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Did you know Dick LeBeau brought his defensive scheme to Dixie from Pittsburgh? 11-5. Meanwhile the Houston Texans have a defense featuring JJ Watt, Whitney Merciless and Jadeveon Clowney. That and the fact that Brock Lobster is not longer their QB gives them a shot at the playoffs at 9-7. Swapping in Scott Tolzien for Andrew Luck at QB wouldn't work for any team and I'm thinking Luck may be out a bit which will doom the Indianapolis Colts to a losing 6-10 season alongside the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars need to pray #4 pick RB Leonard Fournette can deliver a power running game to compensate for the erratic play of their QB, Blake Bortles, who visibly regressed last year. Heck, the Jags could wind up above the Colts if all their defensive talent gels (I say they'll feature the best cornerback duo in the NFL in A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey; about all I can see on the Colts D is rookie Malik Hooker.

AFC West

Beastmode is back, now in Oakland, where the Raiders (for a couple years) should take control of the division. Matching his power running (and TE Jared Cook, yeah, that Jared Cook) with the 2nd best offensive line in football could be fun to watch. Second half of last season (until the broken leg) MVP Derek Carr may get even better so if the defense is simply average they'll finish 11-5, even once again with the Kansas City Chiefs. WR Tyreek Hill electrifies the pedestrian Alex Smith-led offense with his world class speed, scoring from anywhere while the bend but don't break defense does enough to get them into the playoffs. I simply hate the sound of the Los Angeles Chargers, their new head coach, Anthony Lynn, even seemed to want to forget it when his hiring was announced to the press. Screw Dean Spanos cause otherwise I would've liked this team. 8-8. Yeah, the Denver Broncos' defense is still awesome, but Von Miller and Co. can't carry this team forever, they'll fall to 7-9.

NFC East

In bizzarro NFL parity world, the division went from NFC Least to Beast in a season led by the Dallas Cowboys and their rookie sensation duo, QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott. Enough of the offense returns to cover the immense holes on defense to keep them in the playoffs at 10-6. The Giants have added weapons to run alongside Odell Beckam Jr., but Eli's arm is slowly turning into a noodle and the sorry offensive line won't open holes for a running game to grind out the wins their (perhaps) league best defense will serve to them. Still should finish around 10-6, too. You can just as easily flip a coin to determine who will finish 3-4, the Philadelphia Eagles or the Washington Redskins. Both teams revamped their receiving package and have the same QBs coming back (though the 'Skins opted to tag theirs again instead of committing), but the Eagles brought in Lagarrette Blount to upgrade their running game and have the better defense, give them 9-7 and the 'Skins 7-9.

NFC North

Yeah, yeah, the Packers ran the table last year when they needed to and then did this a year after the whole RELAX thing, but they managed to throw away another season of Rogers excellence in the end. This year, they'll need a wildcard to get to the big game as the Minnesota Vikings will win the division thanks to overpaying to upgrade their horrible offensive line to try to keep QB Sam Bradford alive (the team's QB of the future, not Teddy Bridgewater) and open holes for rookie RB Dalvin Cook and Raiders import Latavius Murray. The defense is amongst the best in the league. 11-5. That's about where the Green Bay Packers will finish with the same old back shoulder throw to Jordy Nelson, horrible run play calling and a defense forcing Rodgers into miraculous comebacks. Meanwhile, the Lions will slip a little, but if 3rd year RB Ameer Abdullah can stay healthy for once, it might not be too horrible in Detroit. Well, at least in comparison to Chicago, where he Bears decided to pay a 10-foot giraffe who hasn't started a game in 3 years a bazillion bucks and then give up a boatload to the 49ers on draft day to move a spot to take a QB the Niners weren't taking anyway. Oh, and then proceed to let their best WR walk without replacing him. At least they've got RB Jordan Howard but they'll compete with the Jets for next year's #1 draft pick. 2-14.

NFC South

28-3. It'll ring in their ears all year, but the Atlanta Falcons should stay buck the Super Bowl hangover despite seeing offensive guru Kyle Shanahan leave for California. Too much talent on both sides of the ball. Julio Jones is a beast, too bad no one will remember this catch in the SB. Just when you think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are gonna make the jump, they learn they'll have to play 16 games without a bye, guaranteed recipe for injury disaster. I dislike Desean Jackson but have to admit he's able to take the top off defenses meaning Jameis Winston and WR Mike Evans are gonna have themselves a season. The defense went from giving up 29 points per game in the first half of the year to 17.1 in the second. 10-6. The division is stacked: the Panthers should have a wildcard shot as as well having added Christian McCaffery in the first round, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly are still around, 9-7; and even the New Orleans Saints as Drew Brees is still throwing darts and they've added Adrian Peterson and rookie Alvin Kamara to Mark Ingram to their running back stable. 7-9.

NFC West

Ughh, the Shithawks. Yes, the Seattle Seahawks should walk away with the division once again; Russell Wilson is healthy, he's got some targets, the offensive line should be better (well, at least it can't be worse, can it?) and one of the running backs should pan out while they still have a great defense. 12-4. In the desert, RB David Johnson will carry the Arizona Cardinals on his back on his way to an MVP and WR Larry Fitzgerald seems like he'll be good until he's 50, but the quietly dominant defense lost five starters and QB Carson Palmer ain't getting any younger. 8-8. There's lots of buzz that the bottom two teams from California will be better this year, and I suppose it's true, but let's pump the breaks. QB Jared Goff will be better for the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers made some great offseason moves, including fleecing the Bears on draft day where they also snagged a couple of potential defensive stars. It also looks like Aaron Donald has finally reported to the team, RB Todd Gurley will likely be somewhere between his rookie phenom and sophomore slump self and maybe new WR Sammy Watkins can be healthier than he was in Buffalo making the Rams a 6-10 team. You'll know things are bad in San Fran if C.J. Beathard becomes the starting QB, but having Kyle Shanahan instead of Chip Kelley coaching automatically doubles their win total. Unfortunately it was only two last year. 4-12.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

LI

It was 'post-truth' if you're an Oxford Dictionary type, 'xenophobia' if you're more into dictionary.com, 'surreal' got a shout out from Meriam-Webster, but it took the American Dialect Society to get 2016 right by naming 'dumpster fire' their word of the year. Well, at least for the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers who battled to the bottom for right to the #1 draft pick. And Hillary Clinton who battled it out to finish #1 with the 1%. Certainly, it is surreal that more folks in the US lost their shit when a quarterback took a knee than when a misogynistic used car salesman took the oath or office, both of which had a lot to do with the xenophobia enabled and propagated by our post-truth media. Is it time to send in the clown car? Sure, that too, but more importantly it's time for the annual Americana extravaganza as the New England Patriots will face the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, February 6th in Super Bowl LI.

The Donald and the NFL are even more intertwined than you may know. Yeah, there's the whole USFL thing. Remember when Trump bought the New Jersey Generals and then tried to orchestrate a merger with the NFL which wound up crashing the whole league thanks to his tremendous business acumen? Yeah, that was bigly when he said of his then-spring league "If God wanted football in the spring he wouldn't have created baseball." The man has simply tremendous instincts to go along with the best words. Even more germane, Trump himself so much as admitted that he wouldn't have even run for president had his 2014 bid to purchase the Buffalo Bills been successful. The winning $1.4 billion bid came from Terry Pegula beating Trump's even billion dollar bid; what a difference $400 million makes, as he reflected prior to the election, "I'm glad, because if I bought the Buffalo Bills, I probably would not be doing what I'm doing now [running for president], which is much more important ... I would have done a good job with the team, but I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now."

Ah, what might have been, something about 52% of America (and most of the world) along with 30 other NFL teams are pondering right now after a gruelling season which ended in disappointment. How did we get here? Well, when it comes to a Trump presidency, that's easy, as when asked on election day, 75% of voters polled said "America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful" and 72% agreed "the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful". So, they decided to drain the swamp by electing to put a billionaire in charge to nominate other billionaires into positions from which they'll be sure to change the rules of the game that made them billionaires. Um, right. Instead, the public will get more of the same shock doctrine treatment of the past 35 years, the bait and switch. Mapping the road to the Superb Owl is equally Byzantine, and, therefore, merits a quick look back at the dumpster fire xenophobic surrealness that made the NFL season feel every bit as post truth as the political one.

The Dumpster Fire or California Dreamin'

The season kicked off with a team in Los Angeles for the first time in 22 years but their week one 28-0 loss to the Niners was a portend of things to come. The Rams only managed to scrape together four wins all year (including a TD-less first victory) and San Francisco wouldn't win another until week 16, beating the, um, Rams again. Adding to the dumpster fireness of it all, in hindsight the Niners might even want to give that victory back as it cost them the number one draft pick when the Cleveland Browns picked up their first and only victory that same week. We pity the Browns, but no one really expected RGIII to rally this team. Also falling into this category were the Bears, Jaguars, Jets and Chargers finishing with a pair of 3-13 and 5-11 seasons respectively. Yes, the Bears biting really bad Cutler-less, the promising Jags being dragged down by Bortles' regression, and the Jets crashing after their pilot Fitzpatrick forgot how to find Marshall were all spectacular flame outs, but most of the smouldering stench from football wafting over America is coming from California.

Of course that quarterback who took a knee in the opening paragraph was San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, doing so as a sign of protest during the national anthem. Early season ratings woes had many pointing to his protest as the reason as some polls showed a third of fans were tuning out due to him. Just as an outsider looking in on America couldn't fathom the significance of such an act, those who took offence to such a seemingly innocuous act can't come to grips with the irrationality of their anger let alone understand his reasons for marking his indignation with the state of police on black violence in America. Most of the former crowd have never been exposed to the jingoism that comes part and parcel with being a true American, from daily pledges of allegiance to forced displays of supporting the troops to Trump's peon to North Korea, 'Day of Patriotic Devotion', while the majority of the latter have never been exposed to ideas that don't fall into the American Exceptionalism Pandora's Box of propaganda. It's easy to work people into a frenzy over someone choosing to make a silent statement of protest during a moment when most are supposedly celebrating the fact they live in a country that promotes the freedom to express oneself so long as they are incessantly bombarded with the message that those who conform succeed while those who dissent don't.

Meanwhile, as mentioned, Los Angeles, after being bereft of an NFL team for 22 years, now finds itself with not one but two teams. A year ago, NFL owners were seduced by Rams owner Stan Kroenke into allowing him to abandon St. Louis (leaving the city with the bill) with dreamy visions of building an LA football Shangri-La to host everything from Rams games to Super Bowls, and, as we learned 12 months later, San Die...er Los Angeles Chargers games. Yes, somehow by moving from San Diego to Los Angeles where they'll be about the 10th favorite sports team, the value of the club jumped a billion dollars, so, why not? Having grown bored with simply killing its players, the NFL seems to have decided to follow the nation's lead and turn the gun on itself. Much as electing Trump president will likely kick America's downfall into hyperdrive after a short lived bump, the NFL's franchise relocations are as sure to hasten its demise. One may feel pity for the country, as they really were left with no better choice, in fact, I could be convinced Clinton would have been worse just as I can buy some of the arguments for moving the Rams, but damn, did the NFL, or more specifically, team president and CEO Dean Spanos, have to move the Chargers to LA, too? While I'm sad for the city of San Diego and their fans, I'm proud that they stood up and said no to introducing a new hotel tax in order to pay for a new stadium.

While the need for a new stadium was the given reason for a move, it's a bit fishy given that there was clearly a lucrative option to build a Spanos-owned stadium in San Diego while this arrangement means the team will play in a renovated soccer stadium holding at most 30,000 for a couple of years before moving in to rent the Kroenke-controlled Rams stadium. Add in the Rams abysmally attended games last year and the almost given fact that the Chargers will garner even less enthusiasm as they aren't even wanted and the $650 million franchise relocation fee yet somehow still increase in value by a billion, you'd be right to ask, WTF? Stop me if this magic sounds familiar. Attendance revenue doesn't depend on selling tickets anymore, instead, the team sells licenses to buy the rights to buy tickets to sit in the seats. When the Niners moved to Santa Clara, the one-time cost for rights per seat varied between $2,000 and $80,000 earning the team $530 million. No, these aren't season tickets, it's the cost for the right to buy season tickets and it's a lifetime contract. The Chargers, drawing on a larger market will likely charge more, much more. Oh, and then there's the luxury boxes, again, the Niners made $400 million. Any wonder why Spanos doesn't care if they lose all their fans? Much as the Dow Jones reaching 20,000 thanks to the tiny slice of Americans who hold all of the wealth of the nation needing somewhere to put it, Tinseltown has enough well heeled suckers who will keep the Chargers coffers brimming. As with American capitalism, the problem is easy to diagnose: without a thriving middle class, nothing supports a 20,000 Dow; without a dedicated fan base, a $3 billion franchise has foundations built on sand. Outsource enough fans and just as if you outsource enough jobs, you eventually won't have enough customers to support your valuations.

A bright spot in this is that team's will no longer be able to play the 'we'll move the franchise to Los Angeles if you don't pay up' extortion card in negotiations with cities for better stadium deals. The NFL, with the artificial scarcity created by it's legal monopoly status, is a kind of microcosm of US 'capitalism' where rules are made to benefit the few at the expense of the many; in this case, using the leverage obtained by pitting cities and states against each other to force them to hand over ever more public money to subsidize billionaires. Making matters worse, the promised economic returns rarely materialize as new stadiums don't generate significant growth. Pharmaceutical companies fleece the sick with impunity thanks to patent laws preventing generic drugs from entering the market which enables the price of a pill to jump from $18 to $750 on a whim. The entire financial industry benefits from a nearly $100 billion annual implicit 'too big to fail' subsidy, not to mention the trillions skimmed from the public in bailouts back in '08. Tech firms get the same artificial protection as Big Pharma thanks to copyrights and are the most devious when it comes to taking advantage of deliberately created or neglected loopholes in order to avoid taxes. Oil companies take the cake, however, globally benefiting from upward of $5.3 trillion yearly in hand outs when externalities are taken into consideration. 

Given this, it should come as no surprise that Trump's first executive order was to kill people. Obamacare, or the ACA, was by no means perfect and was simply a Heritage Foundation created corporate giveaway to the insurance industry, but at the very least it gave tens of millions access to health care. With no plan in place to replace it, about 50 million Americans will find themselves unable to visit a doctor which should speed up the suddenly increasing mortality rate and start pushing down life expectancy. The glory of profit driven health care is that  a country with about 5% of the world's population spends between 40 and 50% of global spending on health with outcomes that fall well short of other developed nations. Depending on who's measuring, the US is also responsible for about 40% of global military spending. The bang for the buck of spending about as much as the next ten countries is hard to see when their military doesn't seem to so much win wars as create future enemies to justify further spending. The military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned of has even spawned its own mutant offspring in the prison industrial complex which seems to serve the same self-perpetuating purpose. Housing 25% of the world's prisoners has become big business that each American resident pays about $260 per year for, up from $77 in 1980 despite the fact that violent crime has dropped about 45% during the past two decades. I wonder where all this money is going? What was I saying, oh yeah, team's moving. Speaking of criminals, did I mention that the Oakland Raiders will probably be moving to Las Vegas thanks to $750 million in public money being put up. Yes, seems a perfect lead into...

The Surreal Reich

Sure, if you listened to the political pundits last year you would've been convinced the world had turned upside down, but really, there's nothing as bizarre as sports and the NFL is no exception. This year marked the first time since 2003 that both teams that made the previous Super Bowl missed the playoffs as both the Panthers and Broncos took a tumble. Cam Newton couldn't recapture last season's lightning in a bottle and the Broncos defense couldn't carry a rookie QB despite having Aqib Talib one-upping Plaxico Burress; not only did he shoot himself in the leg after winning the Super Bowl, but he managed to get voted into the next Pro-Bowl. Remember when the Minnesota Vikings were the last undefeated team? Yeah, in October it looked like their gamble to splash out on QB Sam Bradford to replace Teddy Bridgewater (he of the non-contact knee disintegration) was a stroke of genius. They went into their bye as the last undefeated team after disposing of the Texans 31-13 October 10th, meaning they were 5-0 when they next played on October 24th. Yeah, they missed the playoffs while the Texans made it to the party despite starting one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, a $72 million fiasco. Making it worse, they somehow won a playoff game thus ensuring two absolutely horrible post-season games to watch.

Speaking of post-season futility, the Bengals opted to skip the whole one-and-done thing by only scraping together six wins, while the Lions did make the dance only to lose to the Seahawks in the Wildcard round to add another year to their quarter century drought and setting a new record by losing their ninth straight playoff game. Bizarrely, the Bucs actually flirted with playoff contention, and, in fact, were theoretically in the hunt almost until the final whistle of the season. However, they would have needed to beat the Panthers, the Lions to beat the Packers and the Redskins to tie the Giants in week 17, apparently 60,000-to-1 odds. Why not in a year that featured ties in back to back weekends, including fittingly in one of the games played in London this year, one of four played outside of the US? Meanwhile, the window closed another year on the Saints to win with Brees and Luck failed to step back up to expectations and fell short of winning the worst division in football. And the Eagles, well, after going all in on a rookie QB, they started well but predictably faded as the year wore on.

Yeah, the football season was off the wall in more ways than just the sudden inability of kickers to hit extra points (12 on one Sunday alone), but the rest of the world proved even wackier. Nothing more so than the hooting and hollering from the so-called left on either side of the Atlantic as instead of recognizing their role in laying the groundwork for Brexit and Trump, they are instead behaving like children throwing their toys out of their crib. It was the neoliberal economic disaster their policies ensured that produced the poor and uneducated they blame for voting the wrong way. Eight years of supporting a man who's done nothing but stabilize and then advance the neoliberal world order followed up by flailing about for excuses why Clinton lost, from the electoral college to a Putin plot, will get about as much done as Obama's promise to close Guantanamo. Fascism is first and foremost a response to the structural crises of modern capitalism, regardless of whether it's the 1930s or the one that began with the financial meltdown in 2008. The consequences of transferring $14 trillion in public money to criminal enterprises on Wall Street, a landscape of endemic poverty, militarized police and prison industrial complex were Obama's Weimar Republic seedbed that sprouted Trumpkin. The Clinton camp and the Remainers failure was their refusal to challenge what Trump and the Brexiters promised to: the status quo governed by transnational capital and their technocratic minions.

The NFL eschews the term equality and instead uses the word parity to describe their goal of creating a league in which any team can find themselves playing in the Superb Owl in order to avoid being branded with the socialist label. Yet it is a level playing field that drives the success of the league, America's lack of which, in economic terms, best explains Trump's triumph. Think of what inequality and resultant poverty does to a society in terms of what CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, does to an NFL player. The severe repetitive blows to the head produce concussions which damage the brain and lead to the progressive, degenerative disease which drives many to suicide. Looking at counties which flipped from Obama to Trump we find a strong correlation with what researchers call deaths of despair, suicides, opioids and liver disease. These are people who were left behind, economically pummelled by free trade and deindustrialization, leaving them worse off than their parents and despairing for their children. The annual death toll from overdosing quadrupled between 1999 and 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recently reported that more than 33,000 people died of an overdose in 2015, but it's likelier closer to 50,000. The same year, more than 35,000 people died from gun violence, including 22,000 suicides.

Granted, it does seem a bit surreal to hand the nuclear football off to a man with such thin skin, orange at that, but sorry, it's not surprising given the alternative voters were offered. Yes, granting a con man known for bilking the public of billions and declaring bankruptcy the combination to a trillion dollar economy does seem a tad preposterous, but should we be nonplussed? Would you be surprised that one of the first people Trump killed as president was coincidentally the eight-year-old daughter of the first American Obama killed? Or that the Nobel Peace Prize winner had also later killed his American born son and dropped over 26,000 bombs in seven different countries in his final year in office? Remember war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.

Xenophobia, Racism and (the not-so-new) Americanism

No offence to the Ravens, Cardinals, Titans, Dolphins or Giants, but I've gotta shoehorn them in somewhere here. The former pair underperformed while the latter two outperformed expectations by sliding into the playoffs and the Titans gave the most hope for doing the same next year. The Ravens jumped out to a 3-0 start but sputtered down the stretch which is to be expected when your biggest offensive weapon is your kicker. A disappointing 7-8-1 season left Cardinals fans feeling let down considering they had to feel coming into the year that the Super Bowl was within reach. Getting caught drunk driving turned out to be the best way for a Cardinal to have a chance to win it all as WR Michael Floyd found out; another great lesson in morality taught by the NFL. Once Arian Foster finally called it quits, the Dolphins rode RB Jay Ajayi's four 200-yard games into a one and done post-season appearance and the Giants were forced to surf the waves of prima donna WR Odell Beckham Jr's periodic outbursts against man or inanimate kicking nets and were also dismissed in the Wildcard round. It's hard to figure how the Titans didn't knock off the Texans to win the AFC South until you remember they lost to the Jaguars on Christmas Eve; next year Mariota and co. should be ready to take the next step.

Year in and year out we've got the Washington Redskins to remind us of how xenophobia was used to help build America; asserting that Native Americans were different from European colonizers justified genocide. QB Kirk Cousins earned himself a big contract but his game ending 2nd half interceptions in week 17 against a Giants team with nothing to play for also ended Washington's season. It's in Buffalo, yes home of the very Bills whose purchase by Donald Trump may have averted his presidential bid, where we find the xenophobic thread to tie in to the story. On paper, another 7-9 Bills season is unremarkable (they're averaging 6.5 wins a season in the 21st century), but one could argue this year's version may have done better had the team not been torn apart by, yep, you guessed it, Trump.

Seems head coach/blowhard Rex Ryan, who took the Jets to the playoffs his first two seasons as head coach only to miss his next six post-seasons, was a vocal Trump supporter. So, in addition to having openly racist Richie Incognito in the locker room, you've got a coach actively inciting racists, "And so many times, you’ll see people—a lot of people—want to say the same thing. But there’s a big difference: They don’t have the courage to say it. They all think it, but they don’t have the courage to say it. And Donald Trump certainly has the courage to say it." No wonder an anonymous Bills player was quoted saying, "I see Trump as someone who is hostile to people of color, and the fact that Rex supports him made me look at him completely differently, and not in a positive way."

Unsurprisingly, a straw poll of 43 NFL players before the election had 21 white players all saying they planned on voting for Trump, while 20 of the 22 black players planned on voting for Clinton. Trumps idea of reaching out the black community was a meeting with NFL legends Ray Lewis and Jim Brown on the same day he sat down to chat with future presidential hopeful Kanye West. Lewis proclaimed "black or white is irrelevant" while Brown enthused, "[W]hat he (Trump) went through ... he got my admiration". Yeah, perhaps if Ray Lewis hadn't been an NFL star he would have found out how most blacks are treated by the American penal system for his part in murder. Meanwhile, no one better than Jim Brown to speak on behalf of black women in America, at least those who enjoy being beaten.

At the heart of nationalism, Americanism in the USA, is the belief that one country is somehow superior to others. It therefore follows that its citizens have exclusive qualities not found in the inferior others, an unsurprisingly easy sell for politicians. Fear is the most powerful weapon of the propagandist and so while sowing divisions in the locker room may not work, convincing people that the other is intent on taking your job or even your life motivates individuals to invest more in groups to which they belong and, conversely, to act more aggressively towards those with different cultural worldviews and national or ethnic identities. Whether it is test subjects who opt to more severely punish those who disparage their political views after being asked to think about death, Iranian students primed by writing about what it feels like to physically die being more supportive of martyrdom attacks than control groups, or Americans primed in the same way showing more support for extreme military attacks, Terror Management Theory best explains the vicious circle of violence the world now finds itself in. Yes, it even explains elections as it has predictably demonstrated that reminders of our mortality leads us to vote for more hawkishly conservative candidates.

Trump's salesman instinct in spotting his mark's weakness combined with his savvy for manipulating the media swept him into the Whitehouse and is now distracting his detractors while he and his supporters implement their agenda: Make America Great Again which simply translates to stop and turn back the clock, but instead of a mythical 'better' time, the destination is one out of time where most of the social, scientific and environmental gains of the last 30 years are erased or simply ignored. Enter an Exxon executive who will directly profit from lifting sanctions on Russia becoming Secretary of State to join other cabinet climate change deniers such as the energy and interior secretaries to push a pro-fossil fuel agenda to slow the green energy led transformation which, otherwise unimpeded, would soon turn black gold into worthless tar.

It would normally be phantasmagorical to have a Secretary of Education who doesn't believe in public education, and, in fact, profits from an already staggeringly large student loan industry of $1.3 trillion through her ownership of debt collection agencies. How about six Trump appointments from Goldman Sachs, the very vampire squid he railed against Clinton being too close to during the election, including a former Goldman partner as Treasury Secretary and the former president and “number two” at Goldman the top economic adviser and National Economic Council Chair. Guess it's no different than promising to give the power back to the people and then nominating a Supreme Court justice who favors increasing corporate power and taking away the power to control one's own body. An Attorney General who may or may not have protected KKK members accused of lynching in Alabama, but definitely did say he thought the Klan was "okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana."

A Secretary of Agriculture whose history, friends and beliefs show that he'll do everything in his power to promote the destructive practices of industrial agriculture and simply pray that the inevitable droughts and other disasters his policies cause will abate. Guess it's no more bizarre than feeding beef cattle Skittles. A Labor Secretary who hates workers, having created working conditions in which 2/3 of his female workers reported sexual harassment and paying them so little many are forced to go onto public assistance which cost tax payers $247 million a year; a drop in the bucket of the $153 billion a year low wage employers receive in such subsidies. A net neutrality foe to head the FCC. We could go on forever but would be amiss if we left out the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who himself launched 14 lawsuits against the agency and has fought tooth and nail against protecting drinking water at a time when Flint, Michigan has been without potable water for almost two years and at least 33 other municipalities have it just as bad.

Even National Park employees are enemies of the state so it wasn't surprising to see Trump's first week in office conclude by fulfilling a campaign promise by signing an executive order to temporarily ban immigration from seven Muslim countries. Trump was clearly trolling by timing it to coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day, or perhaps he was just highlighting his lack of human empathy. It's hard not to see the similarities of refusing to accept refugees today with the refusal to accept them in 1939; mainly Jews being herded into Hitler's gas chambers then, mostly Muslims destined to die today as a result of US interventions (ie. invasions, regime support or bombing). As this move is meant to keep America safe, it's uncanny that the seven banned nations don't include the four countries the 9/11 terrorists came from: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates; nor does it include Russia, the country of origin of the Boston Marathon terrorists. Maybe that's because instead of increasing safety, it will do the exact opposite and plays right into the hands of extremists. Serendipitously, no countries in which Trump has business dealings was included which must mean that Muslims are only dangerous if they don't sell us oil or help Trump build towers.

Post-Truth, Post-Season, Post-Mortem

Sure a couple other teams got in to the playoffs, but really, only eight had a realistic shot at winning it all: the Seahawks, Raiders, Chiefs, Cowboys, Packers, Steelers, Falcons and Patriots. Gotta say though, the post-season to this point has been, shall we say, deplorable? Seriously, only two of the games have been decided by less than 13 points, and one of those featured a team winning without even scoring a touchdown leaving the Super Bowl with a lot to make up for. The Seahawks limped through much of the year on Russell Wilson's bad ankle but navigated their way to the NFC West crown and a wildcard win over the Lions, but not having Earl Thomas proved too much as they were overwhelmed by the Falcons. Similarly, the Raiders couldn't overcome the loss of hitherto MVP candidate Derek Carr in a week 17 loss after a hugely promising 12-4 season as they fell to the offensively impotent Texans in the opening round. Thanks in part to Carr's broken leg, their methodical efficiency and a speed freak named Tyreek, the Chiefs were able to claim the AFC West crown but couldn't score more than the Steelers kicker in the Divisional matchup. And the Cowboys, what can I say? They were the better team against the Packers in the same round and should have years of success ahead riding Dak's arm, Zeke's legs and their offensive line, but saw their hopes evaporate thanks to a bit of Rodgers magic in a 34-31 barnburner.

The conference championship games were both snoozefests. The Packers had just enough to beat the 'boys but couldn't run the table all the way through Atlanta. Last year it was 'Relax', this year it was 'I feel we can run the table', and sure enough after making this claim following a 42-24 thrashing at the hands of the 'skins, Aaron Rodgers silenced the whispers of his detractors and went on a tear. No running game? Throw a wide receiver into the backfield. No defense? Just score more points than your opponent. Losing control of a divisional playoff game that was in hand but is now slipping away? Draw up a play in the huddle and do this. They had nothing left against the Falcons and were torn apart, 44-21. At least the Steelers kept it mildly interesting in the first half before fading in the 3rd quarter and falling to the Patriots 36-17. Any team with Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Rapelisberger will challenge, but I've got a feeling a piece might be missing next year, be it Big Ben retiring or Brown turning his talents to Facebook live fulltime.

The coulda, woulda, shoulda inside of me whispers if only Derek Carr hadn't broken his leg and the Cowboys fallen so far behind the Pack in the first half we might have had a pair of compelling games. Thing is, just because I want it to be true doesn't make it reality, and so I can turn my attention to the Super Bowl. Or not. Wasn't that holding on the last offensive play of the game for the Packers to set up the game winning field goal to beat the Cowboys? When else has a 22 yard gain been wiped out due to unsportsmanlike conduct being called for violating a little known substitution rule. The late game pass interference that might have been holding which nullified an interception seems a bit off, too. Come to think of it, the last time these teams met in the playoffs, it sure looked like Dez caught it to everyone but Packers fans and the zebras who overturned the call. Really? You're telling me there's enough evidence to overturn the completion call? Sure, the refs made a few questionable calls and no-calls in the Cowboys-Packers game, and the Pack seem to be the beneficiary of them more often than not, but it would be crazy and a distraction to blame a close loss on external factors that can't be proven, wouldn't it? Welcome to the world of Clinton supporters, from simple voter to media spin doctors, who've spent much of the last two months trying to convince us that those evil Ruskies not only infiltrated America's media landscape and polluted it with fake news but also hacked the election to swing it in Trumps favor.

The prevailing narrative is that we now live in a post-truth world where everyone has conflicting evidence to contradict alternative-facts, truths are twisted into clickbait canards and the very fabric of reality seems torn asunder. Seems Trumps election has spurred a resurgence in interest in Orwell's 1984, rocketing it to the top of best-seller lists. However, they'd be better off reading Brave New World as this isn't a post-truth world, it's nothing but what it's always been, a world of lies. Sure, we've got a real estate tycoon cum reality show star for a US President, but should that really be surprising? He took advantage of America's weakness to find success in all three roles: a credulous naivete in the promise of the American Dream. Frustratingly, we'll believe anything, but once we become invested in that belief we become fiercely loyal to it, thereby making it near-impossible to dislodge and easy to confirm, extend and further entrench. Trump repeating the fallacy that torture works is true for those previously sold the idea by Hollywood in Zero Dark Thirty. What was most likely a Democratic party email leak is easily conflated with fake news which we're told was produced by Russians who are easily transformed into Putin's online army that hacked the election results for 50% of Clinton voters who are blind to the proof the emails provided that the Democratic party not only conspired to smear Bernie Sanders but also worked to promote Trump as the Republican nominee in something called the Pied Piper strategy.

Politics is propaganda, which is simply public relations in the US and elsewhere to sell a principle-free liberal or conservative brand, much as sugar-free Coke or Pepsi to provide a simulacrum of choice. Many drink one brand or the other because it is a quick, relatively inexpensive beverage option in their otherwise harried struggle to make ends meet; simply repeating a lie makes it the truth to this group, an effect known as illusory truth. Others, because they have never been exposed to the idea that there are better options, aided and abetted by our media filter bubbles. Others still because they have been eternally bombarded with messaging on how bad the other brand is, here, think of the deluge of ad hominem attacks we are exposed to. Most dangerously, there are those who drink one or the other and not only think there is a difference, but stridently defend their choice and actively work to prevent other options from arising on the market, and here we find the big lie that America can be made great again by doubling down on the failures of the past. Economics trickles down every bit as much as Trump enjoys Russian golden showers but you'll believe the former if your conscience needs soothing for the violence your lifestyle inflicts on the poor and the latter if it helps your brain deal with the cognitive dissonance brought on by a Trump presidency you were assured could never happen.

It took under a year for the meaning of the term fake news to go from deliberately false stories circulated on social media for advertising revenue to deliberate misinformation from either Putin or Soros depending on your brand choice to anything that falls out of line with the liberal establishment or Alt-Right groupthink to "anything I don't agree with". Ironically, the freedom we've been afforded to construct our own realities thanks to the Internet has put us even more under control of the propagandists. Convinced that Al Gore's flying around in a jet makes climate change a hoax? You'll love Trump's restarting the KXL and Dakota Access pipelines. Believe Israel’s wall is a 'security fence' and its colonies are 'settlements' which are 'disputed' rather than illegal? You'll be certain Trump's wall is a security necessity. Certain that Planned Parenthood uses tax dollars to provide abortion services? You'll support the reinstatement of the global gag rule. Unless you're a true psychopath, cognitive dissonance makes it impossible to acknowledge the violence that all these positions entail, from the acceleration of extinction of life on this planet to methodically wiping out a culture, and condemning thousands or even millions of women to death.

The problem works on three interplaying, reinforcing levels in our brains, our media, and our economic system. Any information we are exposed to is believed at least momentarily in order to understand it and only then do we choose to accept or reject it. Accepting is easy, rejecting takes energy and given our natural biases we are susceptible to manipulation and once we've bought in, as mentioned, the backfire effect makes us believe certain facts even more fervently when presented with facts which contradict it. Modern technology has opened the floodgates of information and the constant deluge ensures that a lot of crap will stick, a result of what is known as cognitive load. The media, with its supposed objective approach to controversial issues, exacerbates the problem by routinely presenting falsehoods with seemingly balanced debate; think anthropogenic climate change, with a scientist on one side representing 97% of the field and another facing him expressing the views of 3%. When a newspaper issues a retraction, or runs headlines such as "Trump Claims, With No Evidence, That 'Millions of People Voted Illegally,'", they perversely reinforce the very claim they mean to debunk.

Add to that the built in subservience to power, courting the corporate kind to secure advertising revenue and the political to secure access, and we end up with WMDs in Iraq and Roundup in our cereal. Trump's penchant for making outrageous statements isn't a sign of lunacy but a ploy to grab headlines that he knows will be propagated by a media model ruled by online advertising where truth is whatever produces the most eyeballs. Steve "Trump's Goebbels" Bannon's claim that "the media is the opposition" and should "keep its mouth shut", is as duplicitous as the media's meltdown over Trump's looseness with the truth when their symbiotic relationship is considered. They helped him win the election and he delivered record audiences and readers: Fox +68%, CNN +128%, MSNBC +98% over last year during primetime and the NY Times saw a ten fold increase in new subscription shortly after the election versus the same period in 2015. So while we stand agape at Team Trump's tantrum over crowd sizes, illegal voters and 'alternative facts', we momentarily forget that actions speak louder than words and wind up with a Holocaust denier, a racist and a homophobe on the National Security Council.

You'd be hard pressed to find a team that elicits stronger conflicting beliefs than the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick is either a genius or a Sith Lord thanks in large part to 2007's Spygate scandal, Tom Brady is GOAT or a cheater thanks to Deflategate. Supporters shut out the hate and criticism by compartmentalizing it as jealousy of their success, after all, they've played in 11 of the last 16 AFC championships, including the last six, winning six of the eleven, and now have the chance to win their fifth Super Bowl over that time. As a hater, confirmation bias kicks in for any negative story regardless of whether the animosity stems from fantasy football frustration suffered playing Patriot running back roulette, the fact they don't represent a city but a six-state area or something legitimate like the Brady inspired 'Tuck Rule'. Nevertheless, even a few haters could be rooting to see Roger Goodell hand the Lombardi Trophy to Brady, Belichek and owner Robert Kraft the year Goodell suspended Brady the first four games of the season for his role in Deflategate.

Without Brady, the Pats managed to go 3-1, even winning a game in ridiculous fashion with their 3rd string QB starting. Another piece missing much of the season, and will be for the Super Bowl, was all-world TE Rob Gronkowski, making their 14-2 season and romp through the playoffs all the more remarkable. Brady passed Peyton Manning for all time wins, LaGarette Blount went over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and a seeming hodgepodge of pass catchers seemed to take turns coming up with big games. The 34-16 final score over the Texans in the divisional round is actually a little deceiving as the Houston defense was able to keep their team in the game for a while, but the 36-17 route of the Steelers was even more dominating that the score indicates. The offense will be there, but the key to beating the Falcons will be slowing the offense, and this might be the Patriots team to do it as they finished #1 in the league in defensive scoring by almost three points a game. Given that they finished eighth in yards given up, they seem to be the perfect bend but don't break defense to stop Atlanta.

Nobody's stopped the Falcons since the Chiefs eked out a 29-28 win December 4th in week 13. I kept waiting for them to fold this season but instead they just got stronger on both sides of the ball. It's the offense that gets and deserves all the attention but the defense, sporting four rookies and four 2nd year players led by Vic Beasley and his NFL leading 15 1/2 sacks, has come around, seemingly peaking against the red hot Packers in the Conference championship after smothering the Seahawks in the divisional round. Credit 2nd year Falcons coach, former Seahawk defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, for quilting this unit together over the year. However, it's the offense that is this team's calling card beginning with presumptive league MVP, QB Matt Ryan, and his favorite target, and possible best (definitely top 3) wide receiver in the league, Julio Jones. The one-two punch of RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman gives the offense balance while WRs Mohamed Sanu, a key offseason acquisiton from the Bengals, and Taylor Gabriel, a sparkplug picked up off the trash heap from the Browns, give Matty Ice even more weapons. Oh, and it didn't hurt that their five offensive linemen were the only group in the league to start every game this year.

In contrast to the Patriots consistency, the Falcons had never before in franchise history put together back to back winning seasons prior to 2010. Only one player on the roster, Dwight Freeney, has even been to a Super Bowl. The only other time Atlanta reached the Super Bowl was in 1999, XXXIII, when their safety, Eugene Robinson, was arrested the night before the game for soliciting a prostitute and they were blown out by the Broncos 34-19. These Rise Up Falcons feel more deserving than those Dirty Birds; they led the league in scoring with 33.8ppg (7th all time in the NFL) on their way to setting a franchise record with 540 points. Yet, the biggest factor that may be playing in their favor is, ironically, Atlanta sports franchises practically perennial patheticness. In a year that saw the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years and the city of Cleveland actually get a championship from the Cavaliers what could be more fitting that Atlanta winning the Super Bowl seeing as the city's franchises win a championship every 170 years. Yep, between the NHL's Flames (now in Calgary) and Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets), the NBA's Hawks, MLB's Braves and the NFL's Falcons, there's a total of one championship, the 1995 Braves. For pity sake, it's hard not to root for the underdog, especially given the Patriots run of glory.

Yeah, the Vegas line opened with the Patriots favored by a field goal. Even though 65% of the money has gone on them, the line's held steady, almost like the bookies know something we don't. Despite the over/under being a Super Bowl record 58.5, 62% of better are taking over. Not sure if it'll be a shootout, but I'm hoping it makes up for this playoff season and the harbingers are there. The Super Bowl wraps up 2016 sports, a year that gave us a 5000-1 EPL champion in Leicester, the Cubs winning the World Series after more than a century in extra innings in game 7, the Cavs, a team from Cleveland of all places, winning game 7 after down 3-1 while at Golden State to take the NBA crown, Villanova hitting a game winning buzzer beater in the NCAA Final Four, Clemson scoring the last second touchdown to win the college football National Championship to beat Alabama and even an exciting Grey Cup as the underdog Ottawa Redblacks pulled off an OT win. All signs point to a good game with epic potential as the #1 scoring offense faces the #1 scoring defense for the sixth time in NFL history.

It's almost a given the two QBs will perform but I think it'll come down to the ground game, or, more specifically, the running backs, running and receiving. On paper, it looks like a LaGarrette Blount game for the Patriots as the Falcons defense is fast but slightly undersized so if he can get going he'll be tough to bring down. At the same time, the Falcons gave up the most receptions, yards and receiving TDs to RBs in the league which should make Dion Lewis the key piece in Belichick's game plan. However, knowing Belitricks, he'll put the focus on James White or something. Both Falcons running backs will need to play big roles toting the rock and catching out of the backfield as the Patriots will focus on taking out teams' best players, in this case, Julio Jones, who will get his, but won't be allowed to dominate. Atlanta's three lowest rushing performances of the season (52 yards against Tampa Bay, 52 yards against Seattle and 48 yards against Philadelphia) accounted for three of their five losses. If the Falcons score early, which they've done scoring opening drive touchdowns in their last eight games, they'll be able to stay balanced enough to win the game.

Underappreciated Patriots' defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has remodeled his group after losing linebacker Jerod Mayo to retirement at age 29, defensive end Chandler Jones to a trade before the season started and then another linebacker Jamie Collins to another trade mid-season. Yes, despite losing their captain linebacker and their two best pass-rusher, the latter two of Belichick's choosing due to their upcoming free-agency, in about eight months, the unit finished #1 in points given up; yes, Patricia is an actual rocket scientist. Two years ago Dan Quinn's Seahawks defense couldn't stop the Patriots and now he's gotta do it without the Legion of Boom. While the Falcons defense compiled a lowly 27th ranked DVOA over the whole season they've gotten better since losing arguably their best player, Desmond Trufant; they allowed 28.7 point per game their first nine with him and just 20.8 their past nine having stymied Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers their past four games. If the big stage doesn't get to all the young first and second year players, they'll give the offense every chance to win even if the Patriots will be sporting the white kits. Let's just hope Belichick wears his red hoodie again with the sleeves cut off:


Oh, and two more reason I'll be pulling for the Falcons: Brady's bromance with Donald Trump and this, the only known picture to exist with Bill Belichick smiling:


Yeah, that about settles it. Falcons against the spread and even straight up. Maybe 34-31.