The 2021 NFL Playoffs: A Hater’s Guide

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” So lamented the corrupted Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, and so laments a corrupted me, right now, on the morning of the second round of the 2021 NFL playoffs But I was a hero, once. At least insofar as I am using the term here, meaning I was once an NFL fan with a pure heart and noble intentions.

You might disagree. You might say there can be no such thing as a purehearted fan when it comes to an institution that has often displayed a reckless disregard for the wellbeing of its players and has traditionally led from behind when it comes to matters of social justice; an institution that unjustly excommunicated Colin Kaepernick for a peaceful protest; that has turned more than one blind eye to players who have been accused of domestic violence; and that waited far too long to take concussions seriously.

Fine. Yes, okay, you’re right. I was a hero who made some moral compromises.

If you’re more familiar with my backstory, your face might scrunch in further skepticism. Some moral compromises? From a fan of the New England Patriots, a franchise plagued by scandals and -gates lo these twenty years; a dynasty so suffocating that their successive Super Bowl appearances became inevitable, commonplace; an organization whose most recent moral victory came when the coach surprised everyone by declining an honor from a seditious, insurrectionist President, despite being a member of said President’s golf club?

Alright, again you have a point, but you don’t have to be so mean about it.

Maybe I don’t have a claim to any kind of principled high ground, maybe I haven’t always aligned myself with the most sympathetic of causes. But for as long as I can remember being a football fan, I could always say with confidence that at the very least, I always rooted for my team, and never against someone else just for the sake of it. I was never one of those haters Taylor Swift sings about. Please note that tense is hella past. Because without my beloved Patriots in the playoffs this year, it turns out that hate is all I have.

Believe me, I wish this wasn’t the case. I wish I could muster up some genuine enthusiasm for one of the teams still in it, some sincere investment in one outcome over another. But my heart is an empty husk. It can now only be animated by spite. Spite for particular teams, for particular fanbases, for particular players. Spite for rivals real and imagined, spite for no reason at all.

I wasn’t sure what the right way was to order this kind of list. Should I count up from ten, starting with the teams that I am more or less indifferent to, and ending with the ones I loathe? Or would that confer undue honor upon my enemies, to rank them at number one? The answer of course is that it doesn’t matter, but hatred is a serious, humorless endeavour, and these things must be considered. In each case, I’ve attempted to justify my ill-will, to make my whining sound like wisdom.

And in the end, you might be as surprised as I was to learn that not every one of the grapes on my plate are sour; that there are some forces out there — like loyalty, affection, nostalgia– even more powerful than hate. Perhaps I don’t quite have the shrivelled heart of a total villain after all.

The Kansas City Chiefs

Hatred level: one thousand

I feel towards the Kansas City Chiefs what Cersei Lannister must have felt when she was warned by a fortune teller that she would be replaced by one “younger and more beautiful.” They represent everything I used to have: the prolific offense, the generational quarterback, the ability to steamroll other teams en route to consecutive Super Bowls.

Do I wish I could be more like Kate Moss, graciously partnering with Cara Delevingne for Burberry, embracing the next generation while being confident in my own team’s legacy? Obviously, everyone wishes they could be more like Kate Moss. But I can only be me, jealously guarding the Patriots’ playoff records and muttering incoherent things like: sure Travis Kelce is talented, but he is certainly no 2011-2015 Gronk.

The Buffalo Bills

Hatred level: 900

It’s not personal, Bills, but as an AFC East rival, obviously I cannot wish good things upon you. And the word “rival” still sticks in my throat a little, because the dynamic between the Patriots and the Bills was so lopsided for so long that this new order has been a real emotional upheaval for me. I doubt that the guys who used to bully Steve Rogers were stoked when he took the serum and became Captain America.

The LA Rams

Hatred Level: 750

There is an underdog aspect to this year’s Rams, considering the current state of their quarterback’s thumb, and I can admit that I’m still impressed by head coach Sean McVay’s eidetic memory when it comes to play calling but I have consumed too much Boston sports media over the years to ever feel comfortable with a Los Angeles victory of any kind. Also, calm down LA, you just won the most recent World Series and NBA Championship, no one feels sorry for you.

The Baltimore Ravens

Hatred level: 500

For the Baltimore Ravens to inspire such lukewarm hostility in me this year is, I believe, a sign of great personal growth on my part. There was a time not so long ago when my contempt was white hot. The rivalry between the Patriots and the Ravens perhaps did not get as much media attention as Pats/Colts or Pats/Giants, but after enough closely contested playoff games a certain level of resentment does begin to build. And then it fades, apparently, as the years pass and the players turn over. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is about as likeable as it gets, and not even this bitter shrew can help but root for him to shake the playoff monkey off his back.

The Green Bay Packers

Hatred level: 300

One of the great draws of sports in general is the tradition aspect, the legends that get passed down between generations of fans, and tradition is pretty much synonymous with Green Bay, Wisconsin. The iconic green and yellow, the cheesehead hats, the “Lambeau leaps”– all of it is pretty endearing, even to fans of other franchises. Also iconic and endearing: Aaron Rodgers’ detailed rant about the Game of Thrones finale, a take which should on its own earn him his place in the hall of fame.

The Cleveland Browns

Hatred level: 200

Three things I will always love: the music of Taylor swift; anything that is coconut-flavored; and brash, abrasive Heisman-winning college quarterbacks. This is probably why I waited way longer than was reasonable to give up on Johnny Manziel, and why I can’t help but want the best for Baker Mayfield, potentially the brashest of them all. Never forget that he once planted the Oklahoma flag over the Ohio State logo after a regular season upset victory. Imagine what kind of shenanigans we might get to see if he manages an upset victory in the NFL playoffs.

The New Orleans Saints

Hatred level: 25

Let’s just say what everyone already knows to be true: black and gold are the best uniform colors to have in any sport. Classic. Timeless. Dramatic, yet understated. All of these adjectives could also apply to the city of New Orleans itself, a place with a pretty universally high approval rating, and also one of the few cities on this list where I have actually personally been. The last time the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 was the last time it felt like a victory narrative the entire audience could get on board with– and I say this as a fan of a team that won three Lombardi trophies in the time since. In a time of deep division and unbreachable differences, wouldn’t it be nice to have a collective thing to root for?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Hatred level: 5

By all rights, Tampa should be on this list’s other end. It is the team, after all, that took everything from me: my GOAT quarterback, my GOAT tightend, the immaculate third down connections between the two. When Tom Brady first made his decision to abandon me and the Patriots for greener pastures, I wrote a vaguely unhinged post comparing him to my dad driving my younger self safely through snowstorms. You’d think that kind of intensity might curdle after betrayal, but the opposite has turned out to be true. After a full season of watching my favorite quarterback play in a different jersey, my loyalty hasn’t wavered.

It was a rapturous journey, watching Tom capture rings one through six, and it seems only fair that I continue to follow along as he chases for number seven (and potentially eight, nine, who even knows with this guy.) They say hate and love are merely opposite sides of the same coin. And the flip of it, that split second of breathless waiting to see which side it comes down on– that’s what it means to be, not a hero or a villain, but a fan.

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