Criticize the game all you want, but two epic plays explain why football is still king

Two desperate passes, sent skyward six days and 1,100 miles apart. Two plays nobody saw coming. Two endings you could never script.

A college touchdown on Jan. 8. An NFL touchdown on Jan. 14. They explain the beguiling, enduring allure of football.

One was launched in Atlanta, from the left hand of a Hawaiian teenager who wasn’t supposed to be in the game, delivering another title to a program that always seems to win the big one. The other was in Minneapolis, released from the right hand of a journeyman pro who has never been part of anyone’s championship master plan, delivering playoff glory to a franchise that resolutely fails to win the big one.

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Quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama and Case Keenum of the Minnesota Vikings didn’t have much in common before their sport randomly stitched them together in a six-day span of January 2018.

Two receivers who were not the most likely candidates for immortality. The one who caught Tagovailoa’s bomb had a career collegiate reception total of seven up to that point. The one who caught Keenum’s prayer had seen his reception total decline precipitously from the previous season. Yet there were DeVonta Smith and Stefon Diggs with the ball in their hands, in the end zone, instantly heroes for life within their fan communities.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum celebrates following a 29-24 win over the New Orleans Saints in an NFL divisional football playoff game in Minneapolis. (AP)
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum celebrates following a 29-24 win over the New Orleans Saints in an NFL divisional football playoff game in Minneapolis. (AP)

Two safeties who will have to live with their misreads of those passes forever. Because the brutal and uncompromising reality is this: last-play touchdown passes of 41 and 61 yards cannot happen unless mistakes are made. There were many, many errors by teammates beforehand – but coverage lapses by the last line of defense, by Dominick Sanders of Georgia and Marcus Williams of the New Orleans Saints, ended games and ended seasons and ended dreams.

Two walk-off touchdowns that triggered eruptions of euphoria and dejection. Helmets belonging to players on the winning teams were hurled toward the heavens. Players from the losing teams fell to earth. In the stadium stands, and in homes and bars nationwide, fans bared their souls in glee or distress.

Two shocking moments instantly etched into our collective memory. You’ll remember where you were, and what you did, when those receivers reached the end zone with no time remaining. You’ll remember it for a good long time.

Two thunderbolt plays that tell the story. Two touchdowns that reinforce the maddening truth about American tackle football. A sport riddled with flaws always finds a way to redeem itself. Always.

(Via ESPN)
(Via ESPN)

Despite the fearsome physical toll the sport exacts upon its participants, the games are just too good to let us quit. Despite the political rhetoric that has attached itself to the NFL and the division over the unpaid labor in college, the competition is too captivating. Despite the incessant complaints about officiating and the tedious replay reviews and the confusion over what the hell is a catch, the highs are too exhilarating. Despite the corporate avarice sluicing it all, the on-field product is too emotionally powerful.

Give us the great athletes. Give us the great plays. Give us the great games. It’s enough to overcome the savage imperfections.

Other sports have their mesmerizing moments. The Cubs rally to win the World Series for the first time in more than a century. LeBron James blocks a shot to win a championship for Cleveland. Kris Jenkins drops a bomb at the buzzer to lift Villanova to an NCAA tournament title. They all have their places in the American sporting pantheon.

But playoff football, man. It packs a payload the other sports cannot and do not.

Other professional sports decide their champions in multi-game series. Lose one, or two, or three – there is another chance. There is not often a zero-sum, gladiator dynamic at play, with a single competition to declare winner and loser, once and for all.

Game 7s are more the exception than the rule in basketball, baseball and hockey. In playoff football, every game is a Game 7.

NCAA tournament basketball comes closest to capturing the same win-or-go-home urgency. But even that is blunted by the sheer repetition that precedes it – roughly 30 regular-season games followed by a conference tournament, then those selected for March Madness must navigate six more games to win a national title. There is little time for communal buildup between games, fewer hours and days to sharpen the emotional edge. Less anticipation.

Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa holds up the championship trophy after overtime of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Georgia. (AP)
Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa holds up the championship trophy after overtime of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Georgia. (AP)

That’s why the impact delivered by games like Alabama-Georgia and New Orleans-Minnesota is so percussive. Because the emotional investment is there.

And even for casual fans who are not attached to any of those four teams, the allure is strong. The drama pulls us in, over and over. We tune in hoping for exciting competition, hoping for fresh excellence, hoping for something we haven’t seen before – and so often the playoff product manages to exceed our lofty expectation.

Think of the Super Bowl last year. Of a dynasty on the ropes, trailing a perpetual hard-luck franchise by the prohibitive score of 28-3 in the late going. Think of every remarkable thing that had to go right for New England and wrong for Atlanta to produce a result that was both bewildering and fatalistically inevitable.

Think of the games this season that preceded the walk-off touchdown passes. The double overtime Rose Bowl between Georgia and Oklahoma was epic. Philadelphia’s defensive stand inside its own five-yard line to hold off Atlanta was amazing. Jacksonville’s upset of Pittsburgh was a succession of revelations. Kansas City’s slow-motion collapse against Tennessee was mesmerizing.

All of them remarkable. And yet they were mere prelude for two unforeseeable and unforgettable passes more than 1,000 miles apart.

It’s greedy to ask for more, of course. Christmas presents don’t keep appearing on Dec. 26, 27 and 28.

But there are three games left this football season. Three more chances to leave our jaws slack and eyes wide. We’ll be watching and hoping, and perhaps in a small corner of the soul hating our addiction to a borderline barbaric game.

Gen. George Patton was talking about war when he said it, and war analogies to football have rightly gone out of vogue. But the guilty pleasure aspect of this quote is applicable here.

“God help me,” Patton said, “I do love it so.”

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