What does a great football game look like? On Saturday night, college football fans had two models to choose from. In the SEC, No. 1 LSU outlasted No. 2 Alabama 9-6 in overtime in a game decided by defense and kicking. In the Big 12, Oklahoma State outscored Kansas State 52-45 in a game decided by which team got the least tired while running unimpeded to the end zone. There were no touchdowns in LSU-‘Bama; Okie State and Kansas State scored four touchdowns between them during a three-minute span in the fourth quarter. The Kansas City Star’s Kellis Robinett described the latter game as “one of the most exciting, back-and-forth college football games of the season.” Writing about LSU-Alabama in the New York Times, Pete Thamel explained that “some may consider a game with no touchdowns, four missed field goals, and four interceptions unwatchable.”
Others have tried, but I can’t make the case that a game with no offense is more fun to watch than a game with no defense. That doesn’t mean it’s a better game. Since the object of the game is to score, a soaring point total suggests competence—when people flipped over to watch Northern Illinois beat Toledo 63-60 the other night, they weren’t covering their eyes lest they witness the defensive horror show. A touchdown-less game between the two best teams in the country, by contrast, reeks of breakdowns and failure. What the LSU-Alabama game showed is that a tightly fought, hard-hitting contest between two fantastic teams will look like a total disaster when the guys throwing the ball are the least-skilled players on the field. The greatest interception in football history, depending on your perspective, is just another crappy throw.
So, football aesthetics can be a matter of taste—you say Alzado, I say Jim Otto. But during the final minute of Sunday night’s Steelers-Ravens game, I realized I was watching a perfectly balanced game. The stakes were high. Everyone was playing hard. The defenses showed why they were the best in the league, yet the offenses drove the field for four second-half touchdowns. On Baltimore’s last drive, Joe Flacco held up to the pressure from Pittsburgh’s blitzers, eventually floating the winning touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with less than 10 seconds to go—a beautiful throw to end a platonic four quarters.
Though the game itself was thrilling, much of the pleasure of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry is external to the on-field action. In its pre-game coverage, NBC played up the teams’ mutual antipathy, with Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs telling Bob Costas that he was going to war against the Pittsburgh “enemy.” In 2003, every pundit within shouting range of a green screen tut-tutted tight end Kellen Winslow for daring to compare himself to a soldier. Winslow’s mistake wasn’t comparing a silly game like football to actual warfare. His problem was that he didn’t play for the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens.
Suggs’ war cry—which came before his in-game explanation that he was “Sizzle” from “Ball So Hard University”—fit in with NBC’s labeling of the game as “4 Quarters of Fury.” Just before kickoff, the network spliced together Ravens-Steelers shots with images from the Thrilla in Manila, Hagler-Hearns, and Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas. And in the second quarter, Cris Collinsworth explained that this football night in America was different from all other football nights in America. Fines and penalties? “In this game, in talking to these players this week, I’m not sure they care,” Collinsworth said after Ryan Clark’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore’s Ed Dickson. “I think they are just going to play this game the way it used to be played 50 years ago.”
The not-so-subtle message, even from a relative football progressive like Collinsworth, is that the biannual Baltimore-Pittsburgh game is a one-night holiday from 21st-century namby-pambyism. In an age when quarterbacks are coddled and great hits are penalized, this is the one game where pre-modern, smash-cerebellum football is tolerated, and even embraced. If these teams meet again in the playoffs, the NFL will likely move the game to a penal colony surrounded by man-eating sharks and Raiders fans. The contest will be decided by a bare-knuckle brawl at midfield between Ray Lewis and James Harrison, and the winning team will murder the losers with team-branded samurai swords as Michele Tafoya reports from the sidelines with a microphone carved from a human femur. There will be no fans, there will be no referees, and there will be no replay challenges (except on scoring plays).
I’ll admit it: Whether it’s phony or not, the over-the-top He Hate Me-ism of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry totally works on me. Though it made me uneasy to see Hines Ward wobble off with “concussion-like symptoms”—that’s the NFL euphemism for a Ray Lewis brain impaling—I certainly didn’t change the channel. And now let us return to civilization, where dangerous play is frowned upon, and where—if the season ended today—the Bengals and Texans would be the top two seeds in the AFC playoffs.