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Image courtesy of NFL.com

Let me start by saying that I completely recognize his greatness. I willingly acknowledge that he is likely the single most accomplished athlete in the history of professional sports. But. All the same, I just can’t stand Tom Brady. From his perfect, gleaming-white teeth and unfairly drum-tight, wrinkle-free middle-aged skin, to his frosted-tip, cool youth minister haircut that practically shouts, “You know who was a really rad dude? My man Jesus!” from a megaphone atop his head, to the fact that he says he’s never had caffeine in his entire life (and that ridiculous claim is totally believable), the man elicits the same boiling rage within me that a big brother does by grabbing your hand and repeatedly slapping you with it while taunting, “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”

I know it’s petty, but as a football fan, his recent retirement announcement is a relief on par with positive biopsy results. Though I know there’s always the chance that after six months he decides to get off the couch or whatever weird, rigid, bespoke bamboo posture-benefitting apparatus he sits on at home to unretire and take another team to postseason glory, I never have to worry about Tom Brady being in another Super Bowl again. As a Cowboy fan, I am naturally bereft of the luxury of cheering for my own favorite team late in the postseason, so the lack of Brady admittedly removes perhaps the largest portion of my perennial rooting interest in the NFL’s championship game. With the exception of the Eagles versus the Pats in SB LII, when I was simply rooting for a giant chasm to open midfield and swallow the entire stadium into an agonizing, flesh-searing, hellish eternity, my Super Bowl cheering has pretty much been locked to the default of whatever team was without TB12.

This year, as the Los Angeles Rams host the Cincinnati Bengals — the second year in a row the host city’s team has made it to the championship — I have a new level of excitement entering the game. It’s not just the lack of the haunting natural-wellness-supplement-store-clerk specter of Tommy Boy. It’s also that these two teams have intriguing storylines in their own right. Setting aside the already compelling thread of two premier quarterbacks who happen to be on opposite ends of their respective careers squaring off, the entire milieu of each team highlights the severe contrast between them. It’ll be fascinating to see which proves to be the better approach.

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One the one hand, you have the Rams, who come with all the stereotypical glitz and glamor of Southern California. Based mainly on the way Los Angeles built their team through sacrificing long-term stability for immediate gains by dumping draft capital for top-name talent, including QB Matthew Stafford, who somehow retains a calf-roper’s drawl despite an elite Highland Park education, the Rams couldn’t be more L.A. if they were rostered with self-important celebrities making movies about the perils of climate change. There’s also the bile-forming sci-fi look of their highlighter-yellow and beryl laser-blue unis and SoFi Stadium, itself a monument to otherworldly technology and excess.

Across from L.A. on the field will be the embodiment of the blue-collar Midwest, a young team built the way good teams are traditionally built, i.e., through the draft. Beginning with native Buckeye Joe Burrow at quarterback, barely a year removed from a season-ending knee injury, the Bengals are made up of plucky upstarts, perpetual underdogs who seem to win through sheer grit and determination as much or more than talent — but they don’t lack much in that regard either. Ja’marr Chase and Joe Mixon are as electric as any on the offensive side of the ball. Even their uniforms scream made-up-team-from-a-small-budget-sports-comedy. It’s certainly easy to find yourself with pom-poms in hand for Burrow as Cincinnati’s own Shane Falco. Sure, the former national champion/Heisman Trophy winner hasn’t necessarily been following a washed-up, down-and-out redemption arc, but in facing the Rams’ nightmarish defensive front, it’s easy to imagine him as Aragorn in Return of the King, leading the final charge to certain death into the sea of Uruk-hai legions.

Sadly, unlike Aragorn, I don’t predict a stunning against-all-odds victory. The Bengals’ offensive line is a sieve, allowing a record nine sacks in their AFC Divisional game alone. And that was against a fairly mediocre Raiders D-line. Imagine the torment Burrow will be under when going up against Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd, not to mention that trio being bolstered by the time afforded them to get home by All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey shutting down routes in the secondary. It could definitely be a very long day for Joe Cool 2.0.

I think Chase will help him keep the Bengals hanging around and make it interesting, but I don’t think more of Cincy’s signature cigars will be in order after the game. I ultimately look for the Rams’ multiple high-dollar lottery tickets to cash. Give me L.A. 33-27. Either way, it should be an enjoyable game and for more than just that. I’m guaranteed not to have to endure Tommy Boy’s punchable smile at the end of it.

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