What dose of defeat tastes most bitter?
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Well, now I'm distracted, and now all I can remember is the agony of 2007, when the Patriots went undefeated through the regular season and playoffs and then lost it all on an improbable catch in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. I think there's a bit more weight to the punch when it's delivered in the closing minutes of a championship game than when it comes courtesy Kyle Orton and the 6-8 Chiefs near the end of an otherwise remarkable regular season.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are going to be just fine. (It would have been a real joy, though, to see the '72 Dolphins grudgingly change their obnoxious "Welcome To Perfectville" sign had Green Bay pulled off an undefeated Super Bowl run this year.)
But I say that as a fan of a very good NFL team, which is one of the most out-of-touch perspectives in all of sports. Barring any season-ending injury to Rodgers or to Tom Brady, Green Bay and New England fans alike should have at least a few more years of ambrosia—or ambrosia-flavored Kool-Aid—ahead of us. We're very lucky that our greatest anxieties in recent team history have to do with single losses instead of many, many losses. We forget, though, just how quickly a team can become the Indianapolis Colts, with its fans forced to rally around the possibility of drafting a 22-year-old who could, possibly, be great.
Still, I think that both the fan bases of the one-loss team and the one-win team have a better time of it than, say, those that are stuck following the middling fuck-ups of the NFC East this season. So long as the Colts continue to Suck For Luck just enough, their fans have something to look forward to. But what of the most disheartening division in football, the NFC East? The Eagles, Redskins, Cowboys, and Giants aren't on any sort of trajectory toward present or future glory. The Eagles, Redskins, Cowboys, and Giants are merely Sucking.
There may have been worse divisions in football history, like last year's NFC West, which gave us the 7-9 Seahawks as division champion. But has any division ever inspired such evenly balanced loathing and frustration, top to bottom, among all its member fan bases? The East's teams have traded around pages in a rotating script of buffoonery for 17 weeks. Every Sunday, Twitter becomes a kind of competitive face-off to determine which set of fans can appear more forlorn over its team's fate, and the local papers are struggling to square the reality of each team's terrible performance with the reality that one of them will nevertheless end up in the playoffs.
It almost isn't fair, what the Eagles are doing to their fans. A mish-mash of improbabilities has set a dubious trap that many fans don't want to get lured into. I can't blame them for not wanting to believe.
From New York:
All right, everyone! Who's ready for some New York-New York football in six days? Anyone? Anyone? How about the quarterbacks?
"Disappointed," Eli Manning said, describing his three-interception afternoon. "Upset."
From Washington, D.C.:
But don't be deluded that the Redskins' 5-9 record is an illusion. The biggest reason for their plight is their minus-13 turnover ratio, the worst in the NFL to start Sunday's play. And the principal reason for that, even after you rationalize some of his mistakes as the fault of others, is still Grossman.
And from Dallas:
How confident are you in Dallas beating the Eagles this weekend?
Not very. Right now Philadelphia is playing better and, after the first meeting, this will be a confident bunch of Eagles coming to town. The Cowboys haven't beaten a team with a winning record since the 49ers in Week 2.
As it now stands, Dallas will represent the division in the postseason should they win their remaining games against the Eagles and the Giants. Unfortunately, though, for the few Cowboys fans who still have any trace of faith in Tony Romo, the only divisional opponent Cowboys have figured out how to beat so far this year is the Redskins, who have already been mathematically eliminated. Behind the Cowboys are the Giants, who have been outscored by 38 points on the year and who just got pounded by Washington. And behind the Giants are the Eagles, who are 3-1 in the division but 3-7 against the rest of the league. Philadelphia's Dream Team of August can still make it to January—it's just that the dream now involves ending up in a three-way tie at 8-8.
Fans can know exactly what to expect from a 1-13 squad like the Colts. Far worse, I think, than the distant ends of the NFL playoff spectrum—from Green Bay to Indianapolis—are those stuck with disappointment and mediocrity each week. A terrible team can focus on being rewarded in the draft and eventually making its way back towards relevance. A great team knows that it's experiencing something wonderful, if potentially fleeting. A mediocre team just wonders where the year went.