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In NFL playoffs, unpredictability reigns supreme

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The New Orleans Saints were one of four favorites that failed to cover the spread during the NFL’s Wild Card weekend. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

America loves an underdog story, the saying tells us.

The cousin of that quip: We love being bamboozled even more. The 2018 NFL Playoffs prove it. A quick survey of betting odds and “expert” predictions show that we’re utterly clueless.

On Monday before Wild Card weekend, three of the four home teams were favored by at least six points — the Rams were relatively small favorites at -4.5. All four of the lines moved higher over the course of the week, which is to say that bets were coming in slanted toward the favorites. I’m in a picks pool where approximately two-thirds of players picked all four favorites to win.

Of course, all four underdogs covered the spread. Two of them won outright, the Falcons by 13 (which means they beat the spread by 19 points).

Sure, gambling is tough and there are a lot of dummies making bets, but the pros didn’t fare so well, either. Look at ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News predictions, and you’ll find the majority of them picked all four favorites to win. Most who addressed the line, picked them to cover. Kansas City in particular was a near-unanimous selection, with headlines like “Pro bettors all over Chiefs vs. Titans” and football geniuses like Steve Young saying the Rams are “ready to go the distance.”

It may be counter-intuitive, but this apparently senseless chaos serves the NFL, and the best explanation is a fanbase that secretly relishes the sense of confusion; a fanbase that actually likes to be wrong. It’s why the savvy NFL decision-makers have pushed for parity — because the closer everyone is to each other, the harder it is to know what the heck is going to happen.

Viewed through that prism, the NFL is operating at peak level right now. Not only do we have the aforementioned inscrutability of the results, we have quarterbacks — the most focus-grabbing and debate-inducing position in sports — who provide a noteworthy quantity of mystery and unpredictability on a play-to-play basis.

The Divisional Round will feature Nick Foles (a backup bad enough to turn a significant favorite into the biggest underdog in the playoffs), Marcus Mariota (whose inconsistency is as maddening as his talent is tantalizing), and Blake Bortles (case in point). Defending MVP Matt Ryan has looked lost at times this year without Kyle Shanahan at the helm. Likely Hall-of-Famer Ben Roethlisberger literally said, “Maybe I don’t have it anymore” after the last time he played Jacksonville.

NFL Twitter was littered with complaints about QB play Sunday, and the internet this week should be replete with takes about how most of the weekend’s football was crappy. But the truth is, we love this stuff. Perhaps we’ll experience some disgust that a clearly
mediocre team like the Tennessee Titans has somehow advanced to the second round of the playoffs, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s no fun if we know what’s going to happen. That’s why #SpoilerAlerts are a thing.
That’s why surprise parties are a thing.

If this particular quality of the NFL appeals to our basest, least-nuanced instincts for entertainment, that’s par for the course. Ultimately, isn’t the popularity of this league just an expression of our national desire to yell at the television screen, whether out of anger or excitement?

This is already a game that admittedly (after years of denials) puts the health and safety of its athletes in great peril. In the Saints-Panthers game alone we saw a 24-year-old rookie break his fibula and a former NFL MVP skirt the concussion protocol to lead a potential game-winning drive.

We have persisted in watching the NFL more than anything else despite domestic abuse scandals, despite greedy owners treating players like objects and despite not having the slightest inkling of what a catch is; if we don’t outright enjoy all of those alleged deficits, we certainly enjoy screaming about them between Sundays.

The NFL-consuming public is here for the drama. It’s here to be fooled. It’s here to declare a game over at halftime only to watch Marcus Mariota lead a historical comeback by playing quarterback and wide receiver on the same absurd touchdown play.

I’m not a horror movie fan, generally speaking. But in July of 1999, I walked into a theater with some friends to see a little flick called The Blair Witch Project. In the mostly pre-internet age, I knew nothing about it except that it got a good review and someone in the group wanted to see it.

I left that theater a couple of hours later flabbergasted and terrified. We had no idea what we had just seen, whether it was real or not, or how to make sense of it. I’ll never know what my experience might have been if the reality of the filming had been spoiled for me beforehand, but as is it stands as one of my favorite movie theater experiences.

When it comes to entertainment — like watching movies or sports — we don’t want predictability. We all just want to be a clueless 17-year old walking into The Blair Witch Project.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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