Not everyone in the UK understands NFL. They see its growing popularity as some kind of American scourge – muscling in on the great British sporting weekend like Starbucks invading shopping centres. However, if they gave the game a chance – like millions of British people already have – they’d see that American football is a welcome addition to our sporting calendar. It’s not just the drama of the sport itself, it’s the fact that money doesn’t buy success. Every team has the same salary cap. If you’re good, it’s because you’ve got better coaches, scouts and strategists than your opponents.
If you can get past the constant interruptions for TV commercials (not exactly the sport’s fault) NFL is an enthralling game. It has everything sporting purists need: brute force, athleticism, grace and multiple tactical dimensions. Even defensive battles, when point scoring takes a backseat to ferocious tackling, are gripping in a way that football (soccer) couldn’t possibly match. A defensive stalemate in football, as two Italian sides play out a 0-0 draw, is worse than watching paint dry. At least a defensive battle in NFL involves two teams playing to their physical limits with bodies diving everywhere.
Last night’s AFC Championship game (essentially a Super Bowl semi-final) was a perfect example. It was touted as the battle between two living legends of the sport: quarterbacks Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos’ Payton Manning. However, it was the defences who stole the show. The game went down to the final seconds, with the Patriots needing a late touchdown and a two point conversion to send the game to overtime. For once in his career, golden balls Brady wasn’t able to deliver. He produced a spectacular touchdown (I don’t think anyone doubted he would) but the afters went begging. Denver, who were clear underdogs before the game, marched onwards to the Super Bowl.
Denver won because their defensive is one of the best in recent league history. It’s possibly as good as Seattle’s all conquering team of two years ago. Tom Brady is usually as cool as iced tea as he sits in the pocket and dissects opponents with precision passing, but he was on the run all night. Von Miller, the Broncos’ star pass rusher, was everywhere. Brady never settled, had a horrible night, and was hit more times than any quarterback this season. He’ll be as bruised as Brian Close after a close encounter with the West Indies.
Few people will cry for Brady and the Patriots after the controversies of the last year. Neutrals will be delighted that Payton Manning, the classy 39 year old who seemed to wear out his last legs twelve months ago, will get another shot at glory – it still seems bizarre that his younger brother Eli, who is too erratic to be classed in the same league as Payton, has one more Super Bowl ring than him. However, the Broncos will have to play even better in the season finale. Their offense played well in the first half but vanished in the second. Their opponents, the Carolina Panthers, are potent on both sides of the ball and have been the best team in the league by far this year.
Talking of the Panthers, they absolutely destroyed the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship game. It wasn’t too much of a surprise. From the moment that their talisman Cam Newton – one of the most flamboyant and entertaining players in the NFL – ran on to the field doing his Superman act, their swagger and huge self-confidence was evident. The Cardinals, on the other hand, just couldn’t match their opponents physicality.
Arizona’s veteran quarterback Carson Palmer didn’t cope with the pressure well (possibly because he isn’t used to playoff pressure) and therefore his team never got going. I also sense that Arizona have something of a soft underbelly. Their big loss to the Seahawks three weeks ago revealed more about the Cardinals’ place in the pecking order than we’d originally thought.
So who will win the Super Bowl? All logic points to Cam’s Panthers. Newton is a nightmare for opposing defences – even though he has few quality receivers to throw to – and their defence is as hard as nine inch nails. But then again, the Broncos were supposed to lose to the Patriots too. After a number of sob stories down the years, perhaps someone up there likes Payton Manning after all. Do you believe in fairy tales?