Favorites and Underdogs

***Disclaimer: I write a lot about football in this piece. If you only come here for the baseball talk, feel free to leave. There’s plenty of offseason baseball talk to come.***

I’ve spilled plenty of virtual ink in this space sermonizing about the fickle nature of baseball games and short series. As we saw throughout this year’s playoffs, the better team may win 55 percent of baseball games, but to use the terms “favorite” and “underdog” to describe teams’ roles in a short series makes a mockery of the type of upset we see every year in the NCAA Tournament, occasionally in postseason football, and very rarely in postseason basketball.

This brings me to Thanksgiving, when the Lions played a meaningful game for the first time in years, hosting the undefeated Packers and bringing a tidy 7-3 record into the game themselves. When my family and I showed up at my mother-in-law’s house, the game was scoreless, and the Lions were outgaining and apparently outplaying the heavily-favored (and I really mean that) reigning champs. I released some guttural vocal emission when a pass interference call set up the Packers’ first touchdown, making it clear to all present that I hoped the Lions had an upset in them.

My mother-in-law countered with some pro-Aaron Rodgers yelp, and I asked how she could root for the Packers in a game like this. “I like the Packers” was all she could offer, and when I offered that I couldn’t remember the last time the Lions made the playoffs, while the Packers just won a Super Bowl and started this season 10-0, she didn’t see how any of that could play into my decision to root for the Lions in this game.

Maybe it’s just my years as a Red Sox fan (they weren’t always the type of team that just missed a playoff spot and spent $300 million in the offseason to fill a three-win hole), but I base most of my sports allegiances on how strong a team has been in the recent past and how long it’s been since they won a title. I wouldn’t root for the Yankees under any circumstance, but in most situations, I would rather root for a team with a history of disappointment and near-misses than one with a history of ticker tape and champagne. That’s why I felt so strongly about the Cardinals swiping yet another title out of the grasp of a Texas team still looking for its first.

On that note, and because it’s been a while since I’ve made a list like this, my favorite football teams, at the moment, from top to bottom:

1) Browns – I identify as a Patriots fan, but there’s no more noble rooting interest in sports than the new Browns. The original Browns leave town for greener pastures in the middle of the night, but a new ownership group insists that, rich market or not, Cleveland needs professional football. And after a strong pre-Super Bowl history, the team has never even reached a Super Bowl, due in large part to John Elway and Ernest Byner.

2) Lions – If you don’t feel for the city of Detroit and its fans, you don’t have a heart. And the Lions have never played in a Super Bowl either, despite employing perhaps the best running back ever for his entire career.

3) Patriots – They’re often hard to like, but I watch them and root for them just about every week. And their post-2004 history has been more pre-’04 Red Sox than John Henry Red Sox.

4) Cardinals – I’ve always had a soft spot for them, but reading Pat Tillman’s autobiography makes them even easier to love.

5) Saints – See my comment on Detroit above.

6) Bengals – I know, they’ve had a lot of unsavory characters in their recent history, but they’re kind of the anti-Steelers, and I like that.

7) Chargers – I like everything about San Diego.

8) Redskins – Did you know there’s still a professional NFL team in Washington, DC? I’ll like them until I forget who Clinton Portis was.

9) Packers – Despite all the championships, they still play in a smaller market than any other big league sports team, are owned by their fans, and are somehow associated with cheese, which is a bonus.

10) Colts – I’m kind of rooting for them to go 0-16 this year after all the success they’ve had recently, but I can’t truly dislike them, both because Peyton Manning is a funny and apparently humble guy and because the fact that a small-market, midwestern team can dominate the way they do says a lot about football’s commitment to parity.

11) Chiefs
12) Rams
13) Seahawks
14) Bills
15) Falcons
16) Bears
17) Eagles – My second favorite team throughout the McNabb era, but they don’t do much for me lately.
18) Jaguars
19) Panthers
20) Vikings
21) Titans – The Oilers were my favorite team as a kid, but I don’t really care about the Titans either way.
22) Texans
23) 49ers
24) Broncos
25) Ravens
26) Dolphins
27) Buccaneers
28) Raiders

29) Steelers – I had a chance to visit Heinz field a few years ago, and I like both the city and the stadium. Aside from Troy Polamalu’s hair and Ben Roethlisberger’s unwillingness to wear a motorcycle helmet, I don’t dislike anything about their personnel, but there’s something about that little logo and knowing I’ll see it all winter every year that makes me a little nauseous.

30) Cowboys – I love that they never win in the playoffs any more, but that will never make up for the ’90s. Or the ’70s, from what I hear.

31) Giants – If Jeremy Shockey and/or David Tyree were still around, they’d be number 32.

32) Jets – Rex Ryan steals this one.

Anyone care to share their favorites/least favorites in the comments below? Am I alone in almost always rooting for the underdog? Am I a fool to believe that most people, presented with a 7-3 Lions team that has never even played in a Super Bowl and gets embarrassed every Thanksgiving and a 10-0 Packers team that just won its fourth Super Bowl, would naturally pull for Detroit, unless they had a strong affinity for Green Bay?

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4 Responses to Favorites and Underdogs

  1. toosoxy says:

    i am trying so hard to care about football. anything to distract me until the return of baseball… but it’s so not working!

  2. Good stuff, as always.

    A couple thoughts:

    Green Bay’s always an underdog in my mind because of the uniqueness of their existence, a tiny market saying F-you to Chicago and New York and the like. The Packers are Don Hutson, Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, “Run to Daylight,” the “Ice Bowl (they beat Dallas back-to-back in the old NFL Championship Game).” and now the wonderful story of classy Aaron Rodgers being rewarded for his patience and already surpassing in excellence the nauseating prima donna who preceded him.

    If the Patriots can’t win, Green Bay’s always next in line. They won’t go undefeated this year. My guess is a loss at New York next weekend, but I could see the Raiders, Bears or Lions doing the deed as well.

    Great to see Rust Belt teams like Cleveland (I vividly remember all three AFC Championship Game losses to Denver), Detroit and Buffalo do well. Obviously, the Bills were a tease. Today’s loss was an absolute choke.

    No way I can rank all 32 teams, but my top 10 would be:

    !) New England
    2) Green Bay
    3) Cleveland
    4) Indy
    5) Kansas City
    6) Philly (they beat the Giants on a regular basis and rolled over today against the Patriots, so that moves them up)
    7) Detroit
    8) Cincinnati
    9) Oakland
    10) Buffalo

    Bottom seven:

    26) Chicago

    27) Dallas (easy to hate, but hasn’t won anything in 16 years)

    28) Minnesota (Favre karma biting their ass big-time this year)

    29) Denver (dates back to the 1977 AFC Championship Game when I was a Raiders fan and the myriad ways Elway pulled wins out of his backside)

    30) Miami (stems from all the bandwagon Marino fans over the years and I’m still ripped that they got in the playoffs three years ago at the expense of Matt Cassel and the more deserving Pats)

    31) New York Jets (I actually like Rex, but his schtick is getting old. Patriots’ biggest rival and the sting of last year’s playoff debacle should make them No. 32, but it won’t because…..)

    32) New York Giants (Super Bowl XLII was the worst experience of my sports fan life as an adult. I think about it several times every day and turn my head the second I see Tyree replays. They’re considered a “home team” in New England, which pisses me off beyond words, are on TV wayyyyyyyy too often and are the biggest fluke champions in NFL history. They shouldn’t have even been in the playoffs in ’07, but rode choke jobs from the Redskins and Jets to get in. There, they took advantage of Tony Romo’s impromptu vacation to Mexico with Jessica Simpson, Favre’s woeful accuracy in the NFC Championship Game, then robbed the Patriots of a perfect season, a fourth Super Bowl crown and most importantly, immortality. I’ll never get over that loss and I’m well aware that I need therapy).

    I know the author of this blog will disagree, but the NFL has no peer among professional sports. The product keeps getting better. This moving the Astros to the AL, Interleague play every day and more playoff teams garbage is just more evidence of baseball’s decline.

  3. Great post. I’m in the same camp when it comes to generally rooting for the underdog when my teams aren’t involved. I think most people are (your mother-in-law excepted).

    A couple of comments, though:

    David Tyree is kind of the epitome of an underdog coming up big in a big game.

    Michael obviously hasn’t gotten over the fact the Giants spoiled the Patriots perfect season. That Giants team was far from the flukiest champions ever. Considering how well they schemed defensively against the offensive juggernaut that was the 2007 Patriots, I don’t know how anyone could say that.

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