One night not too long ago, I found myself watching an infomercial for a product I did not fully comprehend, and had no real use for; and yet I will admit the sales pitch was so compelling that I nearly bought it anyway, because how could I possibly live without a magical rag that can refurbish the paint job on the lawn mower I don’t own (largely because I don’t have a lawn)?
On Monday night, I watched the Broncos defeat the Bengals, and I felt kind of the same thing. This is what the NFL does, better than any other professional sports league ever has: It packages itself so effectively, and it transforms itself into such an ongoing operatic drama, that by December you find yourself tuning in to a game between two quarterbacks with little to no experience just because you have to in order to keep up with the narrative.
I realize I am writing about the NFL for a major publication, and this is the place where I should probably espouse some sort of wisdom about what I watched Monday night. But, after a week in which Seattle and Pittsburgh lost games that defied common sense, I am not willing to admit I know anything about anyone in the NFL at this point. That includes the Broncos, and it includes the Bengals, who lost to the Broncos 17-14 in overtime, thereby securing a playoff berth for Denver.
The Broncos are currently starting Brock Osweiler in the stead of the injured Peyton Manning, and Osweiler once again looked good last night; the Bengals are starting AJ McCarron in the stead of the injured Andy Dalton, and McCarron also looked pretty damned good last night. McCarron staked the Bengals to a 14-0 lead before the Broncos’ defense kicked into gear; Osweiler led his team to 17 straight points and an eventual game-winning field goal after fading out in the second half in his previous two games. And yet it was one of those contests that felt a bit like a vintage dead-ball era NFL game, where defenses were the dominant paradigm on both sides of the ball. And it’s possible, if not likely, that neither of these quarterbacks will start a playoff game for their respective teams, so maybe it doesn’t even matter how they look going forward.
Forget Tom Brady for a moment, and here are the current starting quarterbacks among the AFC teams qualified for the playoffs as of now: Alex Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Osweiler, McCarron and Brandon Weeden. That is to say: One man who has long served as the epitome of the baseline NFL quarterback (I imagine nearly every year he’s been a starting quarterback, Alex Smith would rank somewhere in the middle of a top-32 list); a Harvard dude who has bounced from team to team and has his current position because the original starter got sucker-punched; a very tall prospect who was essentially an unknown commodity until the Hall of Famer in front of him finally gave up the ghost; an ex-Alabama quarterback who was mostly famous in college for managing games and dating women that Brent Musburger found attractive; and one dude who was literally cast off by a floundering Texas team a few weeks back, only to find himself potentially leading another previously floundering Texas team into the playoffs.
What’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that in a league that is increasingly wearing and cutthroat and volatile, none of this shit makes any sense. Here we are heading into the final week of the regular season, and we still have no idea who’s good and who isn’t, and much of it (at least in the AFC) is dependent on which quarterbacks get healthy and which quarterbacks (with the exception of Brady) suddenly transcend their present station in life.
Maybe after losing two straight games, the Broncos – who clinched a playoff berth last night – have re-found their mojo. Or maybe the Bengals are just Bengaling, the way they’ve tended to flop in crunch time year after year under coach Marvin Lewis. The brilliance of the modern NFL is that the product is so stupidly addictive, so riddled with potentially game-changing injuries, and so replete with confounding parity, that it almost doesn’t matter who’s playing. Even when it’s Brock Osweiler and AJ McCarron, it looks so shiny and beautiful that we can’t turn away.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb