So, about your NFL team — maybe it just wasn’t very good this season. Or maybe you don’t really have an NFL team, and you spend most of your fall Sundays doing something other than watching large men try to knock over other large men — like, I don’t know, reading books or making eggs or tapping out, however briefly, from enriching Roger Goodell. But here we are: There were 32 teams vying to win the Super Bowl, and now there are 12, and as we head into the wild-card round of the playoffs, you’ve got some choices to make. There will be watch parties. There will be crowded bars. There will be queso. And by golly, you’re going to pick a side and yell along with the best of them.
I’m here to help. Some call it bandwagoning; I prefer to point out that the whole system that forged your professional-sport rooting interests is entirely arbitrary. So, it’s time to find you a nice team to temporarily love. Let’s begin.
For Collectors: the Patriots
Here is a complete list of people who like frequent winners: the winners and their fans. That leaves the rest of humanity to loathe them and their stupid, shiny trophies. But you know what? Let them have their sour grapes; you, wearing replica championship rings along your fingers like the rest of us do olives, will worship at the shrine of Bacchus Belichick and drink in the sweet nectars of an ongoing dynasty. That this team is predictable — which is to say, 14–2 and predictably great — doesn’t make its achievements any less remarkable. And this season, there’s a new, vengeful oil greasing the gears of the Pats’ machine: Tom Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension at the beginning of the fall, which somehow managed to make New England fans feel persecuted.
For True Believers: the Chiefs
The no. 2 seed in the AFC is due to end its drought: The Chiefs haven’t played in the Super Bowl since 1970. And they’ve exhibited a seeming willingness to welcome constructive criticism: After an entire 2015 season of being praised for their quiet consistency — a less charitable person might call this their boringness, which is not a bad thing, really; painting the Sistine Chapel was by all accounts very boring, too — they lined up 346-pound Dontari Poe at quarterback in December and had him throw a touchdown, instantly making him the greatest living American (as well as the largest-ever human being to throw an NFL touchdown, by a lot). This was a choice the Chiefs made during the regular season, when they did not have to. Don’t you want to see how this story ends?
For Masochists: the Raiders
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Raiders, just two seasons removed from closing out an entire calendar year between victories, were suddenly, finally great, sailing into their first playoff appearance in 14 years on the heroics of third-year quarterback and MVP candidate Derek Carr, wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and arguably the best defensive player in football in pass rusher Khalil Mack. Then Carr was sacked on Christmas Eve and broke his leg. Backup Matt McGloin injured his shoulder in a Week 17 loss to the Broncos, and so the Raiders are expecting to start rookie Connor Cook, which is just another word for nothin’ left to lose. If Cook does get the start Saturday, he’ll become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in the playoffs.
The silver lining for the Raiders is that they’ll face the Texans, another team without any convincing options at quarterback, in the wild-card round. But even if Oakland manages to squeak past Houston, the future does not look bright. On the other hand: If McGloin or Cook did manage to tap into the dark powers of the eternal lords of football and push the Raiders onward, casinos in Las Vegas would be built in their honor. Supporting Oakland is a good way to get your heart broken.
For Chaos Theorists: the Texans
Q: Who is going to be the Texans quarterback on Saturday?
For Risk-Takers: the Dolphins
Hey, look, another backup quarterback! But listen — do you want to be the person who always makes the easy choice? The one who never takes any risks? The sort who sees Miami has had three head coaches in two years and thinks, “Hmmm, that path seems scary”? Wide receiver Jarvis Landry believes that he is Rambo. What more do you need to know?
For Dancers: the Steelers
There is a chance — a real and wonderful chance — that there will be twerking in Super Bowl LI, propagated by a man who has described NFL fines, of which he has obtained many, as “nothing to a boss.” And if not twerking, perhaps this.
For Those Looking for a Good Narrative: the Cowboys
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is, without a doubt, one of the most compelling story lines in the NFL, not only for his talent, but also because he’s been surrounded all season — and will continue to be in the coming weeks — by hordes of Cassandras giddily prophesying his downfall. So far, they’ve been wrong. This team is young and endearing (that is, unless you prefer not to see proud veterans laid out on ice floes and set adrift). There is really not a lot to hate here — except, of course, the coming tide of stars that is already beginning to sweep the country, because the other side of “America’s Team” is “Cowboys Nation.”
Enjoy Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and this Dallas group while they’re still a plucky upstart, and before they’ve resumed being the NFL’s answer to the St. Louis Cardinals.
For Take Artists: the Packers
For Thrill-Seekers: the Giants
Where the Giants go, drama follows. They knocked the Redskins out of playoff contention because their president and CEO finds Washington owner Dan Snyder rude. Head coach Ben McAdoo — America’s gym teacher — has sparred with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over no less a matter than his haircut. Even defeating the Browns didn’t go smoothly.
Also: I am uncertain what the gestation period of kicking nets is, but Odell Beckham Jr.’s is probably due soon.