The divisional round of the NFL playoffs starts on Saturday, and there’s a lot to know heading into the games. Which old storylines will resurface? Which offensive concepts do the remaining teams prefer? Why, for heaven’s sake, isn’t Jimmy Garoppolo still playing?? So the Ringer staff compiled nine names, terms, and concepts worth knowing before the weekend’s games:
28-3: Georgia sports are having a terrible go of it—I’m sorry—and it started one year ago with a brutal, demoralizing failure (which I shared in because I am an idiot and a masochist). The Falcons were in the Super Bowl, beating the Patriots and the ’96 Olympics curse by a comfortable 25 points, and then they lost that lead, and the title, by getting outscored 25-0 in the fourth quarter and overtime. So “28-3” became the new “3-1 lead,” which means, more generally, blowing a sure thing, resoundingly.
2010 NFC Championship Rematch: Sunday will mark the first time that New Orleans and Minnesota meet in the postseason since the conference-title game eight years ago. And while that may not seem all that relevant nearly a decade later, the brutal punishment then–Vikings quarterback Brett Favre withstood in that game from the Saints’ defense sparked the beginning of an investigation into what would later be known as Bountygate.
Time has really blurred just how shocking both the details of that scandal and the resulting sanctions actually were. Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for an entire season, and somehow, that almost never gets mentioned anymore. Teams still jump at the chance to hire Gregg Williams as their defensive coordinator (which is problematic for reasons beyond morality). The drama has also tainted the memory of what was a thrilling football game. The final minutes were the Brett Favre Experience boiled down to its purest form and injected into your jugular. Starting at Minnesota’s 31-yard line with 1:19 to go in a tie game, Favre threw a laser to Sidney Rice up the seam, and it appeared as if the Vikings were in control. Three plays later, he threw a backbreaking interception across his body into traffic. Favre never got the ball back, and two weeks later, Drew Brees was lifting the Lombardi Trophy and altering his place in history forever. Whether it’s bounty talk or some other way in, this game will come up on Sunday.
Duck, Duck, Gray Duck: During a Week 5 win over the Bears, Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph caught a touchdown, and the offense promptly gathered in the end zone. There, sitting in a circle, they played the best kids game of all time: Duck, Duck, Goose.
The only problem is that the entire state of Minnesota, including The Ringer’s own Megan Schuster, became enraged.
If you want to get Minnesotans riled up this is Step 1 pic.twitter.com/EwmXruBmdT— Megan Schuster (@megschuster) October 10, 2017
Apparently, in Minnesota it’s called “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.” (Perhaps, amid the language barrier between Minnesota and the rest of America, the name was lost in translation.) Regardless of how this confusion emerged, if you remember two things about celebrations this year, make it these: The best touchdown celebration is Duck, Duck, Goose, and, if the Vikings do it this weekend, make sure not to call it by its name.
Exotic Smashmouth: The unique offensive scheme that head coach Mike Mularkey implemented with the Tennessee Titans. The “smashmouth” part of the equation is simple: Mularkey wants his squad to line up in heavy formations—personnel groups featuring two or three tight ends and sometimes even a sixth offensive lineman—and smash you in the mouth at the snap. The Titans’ identity is centered on a physical, bullying run game, but, at least in theory, Mularkey and Co. want to augment that old-school style with a few “exotic” plays, sprinkling in option plays, run-pass options, flea-flickers, double-throws, and maybe even a few end-arounds and jet sweeps with cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. Quarterback Marcus Mariota’s touchdown pass to himself in last week’s upset win over the Chiefs wasn’t by design … but it probably falls under the exotic category as well.
Mendoza, Jason: There’s a good reason Jason Mendoza is a Jaguars fan. As one of the main characters in NBC’s The Good Place, Jason’s gag is stupidity—and as a combination-EDM wastoid and Florida Man, Jason is a special class of airhead, perhaps the stupidest character ever depicted on network television. Literally damned to Hell for being stupid. He can’t be from the fun parts of Florida, or even Tampa—what a profound statement about Florida that Tampa isn’t rock bottom—but Jacksonville, a city that just sort of exists, with a football team that for much of its history would have been better off not existing. Jacksonville was big enough and Florida enough to host a Super Bowl, but when they did in 2005, it was a disaster—it was cold and rainy, there weren’t enough hotel rooms, and the Patriots won.
Now the Jags are good, but their quarterback is still a doofy Floridian named “Bortles,” and their biggest (only?) celebrity fan is not only a human punchline, but—as The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman artfully put it—a fictional dead person. But if the Jaguars were ever going to Have Their Cultural Moment, it had to be like this: They’ve gained immense popularity, but everyone’s still laughing at them.
Romo, Tony: No one watches football games for the announcing, but in his rookie season as a broadcaster Tony Romo is doing something his peers haven’t: He’s enhancing the broadcast. The way Romo predicts plays before they happen is like watching a comet fly through space, but only if that comet could also tell you how you’d feel after you saw it. The shtick (is it even fair to call it that?) adds a liveliness and increased knowledge to a same, old broadcast:
Romo is bringing not just the info, but also an almost-naive, yet totally endearing amount of joy to the broadcast booth. His seeming omniscience tugs at the right strings inside hardcore football fans’ hearts, while his effervescence captures the attention of even the most casual NFL watchers (Heck, even I found myself Googling which game Romo would be calling each week to see if I could watch it him correctly predict plays). The stakes only get higher as the playoffs continue, which means Romo will be more excited than ever and probably more prepared than ever. So be on the lookout for a clairvoyant play-call right before the snap and a palpable sense of joy as Romo gives his analysis.
Smith-Schuster, JuJu : The youngest player in the NFL—he only hit the drinking age the day before Thanksgiving—the Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster, a second-round pick out of USC, led all NFL rookies in receiving yards (917), touchdown receptions (seven, in addition to the 96-yard kick return TD he scored on New Year’s Eve), and general zest for life (infinity).
He enters the postseason coming off a brilliant home stretch of regular-season play: in the final three games of the season, two of them played without Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster caught 21 of 23 targets for 332 yards and scored three touchdowns.
When he wasn’t hauling in long balls (six of his catches have been for more than 40 yards), serving a suspension for a blindside block on Vontaze Burfict (and a childish taunt afterwards that he later reprised as a touchdown celebration), or riding his bike, Smith-Schuster has been busy generating content for his YouTube channel, JuJu TV.
He’s made sandwiches at Primanti’s; gone undercover as John Smith, the intrepid reporter; hitchhiked; rocked Minions gear; and played a lot of video games — so much so that he identified the hardest adjustment from college to the NFL as having to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and he claimed to have had Madden on the mind during an NFL-best 97-yard touchdown catch and run back in October.
TB12: For more than 15 years, Tom Brady has been the perfect engine of the perfect machine, driven by the perfect coach. The Patriots have a relatively easy road back to the Super Bowl—with home games against Tennessee, and then either Pittsburgh or Jacksonville—but this year the real enemy is within. And it sounds a lot like a Goop newsletter.
In case you have a Pats-news blocker on your browser, the last month has been one of the rockiest in recent New England history. First, there was Seth Wickersham’s ESPN piece, which detailed alleged fractures in the relationship between Brady, Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft, and centered largely on the presence and role of Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero. Then this week, The New York Times ran a feature on Brady’s upcoming Facebook show, Tom vs. Time.
Tom vs. Time is directed by Kobe Bryant’s Muse filmmaker Gotham Chopra. Tom is Kobe now. The TB12 method, which has been described by a muscle physiology expert as “balderdash,” is Tom’s musecage—a kooky, new-agey, platform from which the legend will live on, long after the athlete has retired. For a franchise so obsessed with tuning out distractions, no matter how many distractions said franchise seems to create, the emergence of Tom Brady as someone as concerned with his own legacy, reputation, and post-Pats career as he is the welfare of the team itself is one of the weirdest and most fascinating developments of an admittedly weird and fascinating NFL season.
The Niners Should Be in This: An understandable, if misguided, collective response to the unsatisfactory nature of a playoff field that still includes teams quarterbacked by the likes of Robby Blake Bortles, Casey Austin Keenum, and Nicholas Edward Foles. The real problem is that football itself is attritional in nature, and with its showcase tournament taking place after the season, much of the league’s top talent (see: Rodgers, Aaron; Watson, Deshaun; Wentz, Carson) has already been ground up and spit out by the sport’s collective gears come the new year. And so instead of confronting uncomfortable truths—most notably, that we cherish a game which values a robustness of the human body over any particular individual skills or fine-tuned teamwork—we yearn for Jimmy Garoppolo, the agelessly beautiful man who maintains an unbroken skeletal framework after achieving an undefeated five-game micro-season upon being traded from the New England Patriots to the heretofore hapless San Francisco 49ers.