In case you haven’t noticed, the NFL has been battling a rather serious public relations problem for the past few years.
There was the concussion thing and the domestic abuse scandal and years of crappy “Thursday Night Football” games and, of course, the national anthem controversy, all of which combined to create a level of cynicism among pro sports fans not seen since Major League Baseball tried to destroy itself back in the mid-1990s.
The impact of that widespread disenchantment on both attendance and the all-important network ratings defied the efforts of some of the best marketing minds in the world, leaving room to wonder whether anyone could lead the NFL out of this morass of its own making.
When baseball needed a savior to lure the fans back after the World Series was canceled in 1994, the sport turned to Cal Ripken Jr., who used his pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s supposedly unbreakable consecutive-games record to connect with fans on a personal level throughout the 1995 season.
The NFL doesn’t have that kind of hero right now. The biggest superstar left in the playoffs is Tom Brady, who was the central figure in the “Deflategate” scandal and currently is one of the central figures in an alleged power struggle in the New England Patriots hierarchy. He has been too much a part of the problem to be part of the solution.
He does, however, present the perfect possible foil for an already exciting postseason that features three underdog quarterbacks who are still in play to hoist this season’s Lombardi Trophy instead of him.
What the other remaining Super Bowl contenders lack in traditional star power, they make up for in the kind of everyman human interest angles that can’t help but capture the imagination of a lot of fans who are understandable weary of all the controversy and the competitive status quo.
Don’t get your hopes up too high, since the Patriots remain favored to further pillage the NFL with their irritating combination of arrogance and excellence, but Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum all have more than a puncher’s chance to show up in the Super Bowl and at least one of them is certain to get there.
In a weird sort of way, all that seemed to be wrong with the 2017 regular season has led us to a point that suddenly feels so right.
The first two weeks of the postseason have challenged the notion that parity equals mediocrity, though no one would dispute that major injuries like the one that sidelined Aaron Rodgers and likely kept the Green Bay Packers out of the playoffs affected the level of competition in several divisions.
The wild-card round featured a terrific comeback by the Tennessee Titans, who outscored the favored Chiefs 19-0 in the second half to score a one-point victory at Arrowhead Stadium. The Carolina Panthers also came close to overcoming a pair of double-digit deficits against the Saints, but were finally stopped after reaching the New Orleans 34-yard line in the final seconds.
Last weekend took the drama to the new level when Keenum completed that 61-yard “Hail Mary” pass to former Maryland Terps wide receiver Stefon Diggs as time ran out to save the Minnesota Vikings’ season. Earlier in the day, Bortles led the Jacksonville Jaguars to a 28-7 lead over the Steelers, then engaged in a terrific second-half duel with Ben Roethlisberger to hold off Pittsburgh in a game that featured 97 points.
Of the eight postseason games that have been played so far, only two have been decided by more than one score.
Whether this postseason provides enough of it for fans to allow the NFL to get a fresh start next season remains to be seen, but the league couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to turn the page on a very chaotic 2017.