Does Defense Still Win Championships?

To win a game of any kind, you need to score more points than the opposition.

Seems simple, right?

It’s a lot more complicated than that. This Super Bowl, between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks is more than a clash of opponents: it’s a war of ideologies.

Imagine two boxers, circling one another in the ring. It’s Mike Tyson, fists of fury, blazing on the offensive against Muhammed Ali, who’s letting him pound on his forearms, which shield his face. While Denver attempts to scorch Seattle, the Seahawks will attempt a rope-a-dope strategy, hoping to contain them on the defensive long enough to quash dreams with a fiery offensive.

Going into this game, there’s one question that needs answering: has your Grandpa’s mantra that “defense wins championships” held up over time or has it gone the way of the rotary telephone?

To first examine this quandary, there’s one simple analytic: win-loss records against top-rated teams on both sides of the ball in the Big Game. The best defense in the league has trumped the best offense three of the four times.

Those results are skewed, however, because the league has become much more pass-oriented, rather offense-oriented, with rule changes in the past decade. Regardless, the one rule that hasn’t changed is that the team that scores the most points wins. Denver has the offensive firepower to put up Techmo Bowl numbers, and Seattle needs to learn from New England’s futility last week.

New England struggled at getting Peyton Manning off the field. In fact, only two of the eight drives the Broncos had ended without points – a punt on the first drive and a victory kneel-down on the final.  Peyton and the Broncos controlled the game from the outset. The key to beating Peyton for Seattle is keeping him on the sideline and out of the game. For Denver’s defense, they need to clog running lanes because Marshawn Lynch and the fourth-ranked Seahawks rush offense will chew clock and make Manning pass – Seattle’s defensive focal point.

Each team enters with a larger piece of stone than chips on their shoulder. For Denver, it’s the debilitated defense. Rahim Moore, Safety, has a blood disorder and most likely won’t play; Brian Vickerson, Defensive Tackle and best Denver pass rusher, was sent down for the year with a hip; Derek Wolfe, top Denver D-Lineman, was forced off the field by repeated seizures. All-Pro Linebacker Von Miller tore his ACL and their best Corner, Chris Harris, did the same. The defense looks like a patchwork quilt while the first team is at the hospital. (A hospital! What is it?!) For Seattle, it’s that their defense hasn’t played a tougher team than one-dimensional New Orleans (at home) all year and the average ranking of their opponents pass game is 23rd.

The game boils down to who will control the ball (and therefore the game) entering Sunday. There are three ways for each side to control the ball from a defensive standpoint.

First, there is forcing a team off the field on third down. Getting the defense off the field keeps them rested, gives the offense more touches – therefore, more opportunities to score – and will turn a Touchdown into a Field Goal. In a game where each point matters a great deal, that four-point swing turns out to be huge. Seattle’s offense and Denver’s defense are just about equal on conversion rates. Denver’s juggernaut offense, however, gets a fresh set of downs about 46.3% of the time – second-best in the league. Seattle forces a 4th down 35.5% of the time – tenth in the league. This makes for an interesting matchup.

This actually brings up a point I found interesting that debated about with a friend. It was suggested that there may be a correlation between third-down efficiency and Super Bowl titles. In fact, there is – just not the way one would suspect. Seven of the last eleven champions have been worse than their counterparts at defending the third down play. That includes the 29-17 romp in 2007 by the Indianapolis Colts (the second-worst team at 3rd-down) against the Chicago Bears (the second-best). That doesn’t necessarily contradict the thesis that defense doesn’t win championships, just third down defense clearly does not.

Third Down Efficiency

Sometimes failing to convert on third down isn’t a killer – especially if the drive has taken upwards of five minutes and chewed 50 yards or so. That’s the thing – holding onto the ball. Time of possession is critical in winning. The Denver Broncos seemed to suffocate the Patriots offense last week, clearly removing Hall of Fame-lock Tom Brady from his rhythm. It seems the offense controls the time, but not so: what the defense does to get them off the field is what really matters. The Broncos held the ball for 35:44, or ten minutes longer than the Patriots. That bodes well for Denver as winners of the Super Bowl have had an average of 4:51 advantage in time of possession since 2000, and are 10-3 in those games. Therefore, it’s up to the defense to get the offense off the field, by any means possible.

One of those means could be the takeaway. Manning is famous for taking care of the ball and reading defenses, so this means a chess match could turn into a full-blown Mensa brawl when these two teams meet up on Sunday. Can Seattle’s defense with the big bad Secondary, which nicknamed itself “Legion of Boom,” take it away from Manning? He threw 15 INTs this year (nearly one per game) and the Seahawks had 28 interceptions this season. The Seahawks giveaway-takeaway margin is the highest in the league at 20 – the Denver Broncos? Even. If the Seahawks defense can force one turnover, they have proven that they can take care of the ball well enough to win the possession battle and grind-out a win.

The win, no matter which side captures the victory, will be ground it. It will be hard fought and won in the trenches. With the physicality of the Seattle secondary, many wonder if they will be penalized downfield for a Pass Interference call, which would give Denver a free, huge chunk of yardage. Not to fear, Space Needle! 8 of the past 12 Super Bowl winners have been flagged for more penalty yards than their opponents, which bodes well for the Seahawks.

An interesting stat: According to ESPN, since 2006, Super Bowl offenses that faced a loaded box (7 or more men) on 20% or more snaps are 5-1. So this means neither team wants to rush too many men, leaving them vulnerable in the passing lanes. Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated wrote a great column on the Seattle defense matching up with Peyton. He said, “Often used in concert with blitzes, man coverage is also the best antidote for a spread offense, and because it requires no pre-snap organizing, it’s the optimal way to stop the hurry-up” – which Denver loves to do.

As far as Denver’s ailing defense goes, it appears they won’t be tested too strenuously. Four of the five Seattle Wideouts were undrafted coming into the league. The only one that wasn’t? Percy Harvin, who played 17 snaps this year, dealing with injury. No Wide receiver caught more than 64 balls and, as a unit, they had 141 catches. Five INDIVIDUALS had 100+ this season. They just do not throw the ball, which leaves Denver to concentrate on stuffing Marshawn Lynch.

So when it comes down to kickoff for the two brilliant coaches – Mensa Mania Mayhem (coining that now) – it’ll be up to the Defensive Coordinators to control the flow and set their offense up in the best position to win.

Because ladies and gentleman, some things haven’t changed since your Grandpa’s heyday, defense still wins championships.

A Mockingbird Finds Its Own Voice

Have you ever tried to talk to an inanimate object?

I’m not asking because I’ve drifted into a despondence and begun holding council with my sofa post-New England Patriots loss.  I’m asking because the responses you’d receive from, say, a wooden chair, is what you normally get from tight-lipped coaches and players from around sports.

In today’s world of subtweets and retweets – and retweets of subtweets – and camera phones, and hidden cameras, and any other device that could make a slight athlete tongue slip into a full-blown scandal, press conferences are boring.

The following is an actual transposition from a New England Patriots press conference with Coach Bill Belichick.

Any word on Tommy? “No.”

What did you think of Danny Amendola? “I don’t know. I’ll have to go look at him.”

Your offense didn’t seem to operate as well today, why? “We didn’t perform well enough.”

–          Seriously. That’s the type of stuff reporters deal with every day. Coaches and players seem to troll for fun, they are mockingbirds with pre-determined calls for everything in an interview.

“We win by one play at a time” – “I always put forward 110%” – “They’re a good team, we have to show up”

But wait.

In the last 24 hours, with players (Richard Sherman) and coaches (infamously obdurate Belichick) opened up with downright accusatory and controversial statements. Their actions breathed fresh, clean air into the musty tomb that was the writers room.

Richard Sherman, in a post-game interview with Erin Andrews, erupted about Michael Crabtree – the San Francisco 49ers Wide Receiver who was targeted by Colin Kaepernick on a throw towards the endzone late. Had Crabtree caught the ball, the 49ers would have tied the game and been in prime position to take the lead, but Sherman defended the play, batting it up which eventually led to an interception.

The play made Twitter buzz, but Sherman’s commentary blew up the Internet. #LOB started trending and reactionaries noted Sherman’s interview. The number of ambivalent fans were disgraced and embarrassed by his “classless” and “disgusting” demeanor. His utter lack of sportsmanship – or any semblance of the word – alienated many of those who watched the game as an unaligned third party.

He seemed to attack his critics ad hominem by saying that his persecution for his interview was “racism” and he has since taken to Twitter to retweet his supporters rather than battle with his aggressors.

However, the best thing to come of it was a tweet from Tom Crabtree, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back-up Tight End. When Sherman references that “sorry reciever Crabtree” Tom sent out the tweet of the weekend. Tom comically interprets Sherman’s comments as a dig towards himself rather than the 49ers Wideout.

As for the implications of Sherman’s harsh words, that remains unclear. Whether he should be penalized at all is in question. Certainly it seems that his unsportsmanlike conduct would incur the wrath of the easily-provoked, heavy-handed, smiting-power of Roger Goodell. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots Halfback, was fined $5250 for wearing red cleats. This has to be worse than red cleats right? Now, he didn’t “Ndamkoung Suh” the guy and stomp on him (a $100k penalty), but he did intimidate and behave deplorably on national television. My guess – if he is fined (which is likely) – is around $20k.

Before this incident, Richard Sherman let his defense on the outside speak volumes, but today, he’s only known for one soundbyte.

In the other Conference Championship game, the AFC one, a controversial play led to an unusual remark from New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick.

Former-Patriot, now-Denver Bronco Wes Welker was running a crossing route and collided with Patriots Cornerback Aqib Talib. The hit seemed intentional – he didn’t make an effort to get open – but it went unflagged. The result of the hit was a hip injury for Talib and his prompt exit from the game. Talib’s absence eventually hurt the Patriots as he was the only one big enough and fast enough to cover Demaryius Thomas of Denver. (Thomas finished with 134 yards and 1 touchdown.)

Bill Belichick – the same guy from that aforementioned boring press conference – said about the hit, “It’s one of the worst plays I’ve seen.” He delivered the critical comment one minute into his press conference after the game in Denver. It was unprompted.

For fans, coaches, and players, yesterday was an exciting day both on and off the field.

For Richard Sherman and Bill Belichick, they broke the monotony of “good game” and “they’re a good team” – and while the public may not have liked it, for them, at least they are mockingbirds who found their own voice.

EA SPORTS: It isn’t in the game.

Last night I found myself absolutely livid, fuming with the intensity of a 19th century steam engine, and screaming obscenities that I can be sure the majority of my neighbors awoke to. Bright red complexion, sweaty, looking for something to smash like a suppressed mental patient…so, yeah, I may take video games too seriously.

I was playing a game of Madden NFL 25. My eyes, bloodshot from maintaining a uniform three inches from the screen for the better part of four hours. I had just lost a heavily contested bout at the hands of a far less skilled opponent, (he used Seattle…) and could really use a breather before I suffered a rage-induced stroke. It got me thinking…this didn’t happen back in the good ol’ days of virtual football. Back when you ragged on your buddy for busting off an 80 yard touchdown with Clinton Portis. The prime age of digital football came quite some time ago, and it appears that it may never return to its former glory.

I have distinct memories of Madden 2005. That was the year Ray Lewis graced the cover, and fans went bananas over the new “hit stick” feature. I played some instant classics on that old Playstation 2, typically topped off with a last-second drive orchestrated by Tom Brady. Since then, I have always been an avid fan of virtual sports titles.  And as an owner of every Madden release over the last ten years, I can outline the ups and downs, lefts and rights, twists and turns, and when EA Sports went off the deep end.

Digitally produced football took a huge jump as a title release with current gen systems. The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Madden Football could do so much more. The players looked sharper, stadiums had every minor detail, and gamers could feel the crowd from their couch. But like a New York Jets’ routine blocking scheme, the gameplay eventually fell apart. The new hardware allowed for a huge upgrade visually, but developers bit off more than they could chew. The presentation was too much to handle, and the mechanics suffered. Madden became laggy, glitchy, and chock full of incredibly irritating animation mistakes.

Madden 05 on the PS2

Now, obviously a new game will have glitches, no one is denying that. But it is how the developer reacts and fixes these glitches that make the franchise a well-respected gaming company. Normally, the incentive to create a smoothly run game stems from customer satisfaction. The more satisfied consumers are with a game, the higher the demand will be for later editions. In 2005, 2K games released “ESPN NFL 2K5” which, to some people, is still regarded as the best football game to ever be on the market. The game was brilliant. Graphics were top notch (for 2005 anyway), plays ran smoothly, all coaches and stadiums were detailed and crisp, and the commentary was unparalleled. Along with the gameplay, 2K5 featured a “My Player” mode in which users could buy a house, collect trophies, and get tattoos, really anything an NFL player could do with their spare time. The replay ability of 2K’s release was unreal, and that year Madden suffered quite the drop in sales. So what did EA Sports do? They responded with cash.

ESPN NFL 2K5 on the PS2

Following the release of 2K5, EA Sports knew they would have to work their tails off to keep improving their game year after year, and could easily be driven to bankruptcy. So instead of allowing fans to decide which game was better, giving each company incentive to make better versions for the years to come, they bought the NFL license through 2014. What did this mean? It meant that, as long as EA Sports owned the NFL license, they owned the rights to use official team logos, players, and coaches. Oh. And they were the only ones that were legally allowed to do it. See, by that point EA was simply a larger and more profitable company. Madden still sold extremely well, and had been for nearly 15 years by that point. But 2K had the potential to really put a dent in EA Sports’ profits. So instead of dealing with natural competition and relying on customer satisfaction, they created a monopoly.

At first, this didn’t seem so bad. Many of the current gen glitches were fixed over the next few years, and the game ran smoothly. Even online head to head felt great! But after so many years without competition, companies get lazy. They have zero incentive to create a better game. Madden NFL reached its absolute peak in 2008, with the release of Madden 09. The graphics were unreal. The gameplay was fantastic. The customization was as detailed as ever. That same year, 2K games released All Pro Football 2K8, a knock off game with fictional teams made up of retired players. Sure, it felt like 2K5, and played extremely well. But it just didn’t cut it without legitimate NFL rosters and teams. The game tanked in sales. Since the release of Madden 09, the game has been at a standstill. Developers have obviously given up, and are noticeably making the game worse in order to use recurring “improvements” made in years past. An example, Madden 13 focused on realism and presentation, including real quarterback voices and cadences. Guess which game had that? Madden 06. The newest release of Madden 25 featured brand new skill sets for running backs. Which game specified running back finesse and power moves? Madden 08. EA Sports is intentionally dive bombing their game into the ground, and have literally no reason to stop because people will keep buying it year in and year out. It’s their only option.

Madden NFL 09. Graphics and gameplay were top notch.

Madden 25, which came out this past year. Graphics look a little downgraded don’t they…

Yes. I’m one of those gullible people that buys Madden every summer. Is it because I enjoy the worse than ever gameplay or depleted graphics? No. It’s because theres no other choice. EA Sports took a cheap and straight up evil way out of creating a decent football game. Meanwhile, 2K sports has created a monopoly in the basketball game market. But they didn’t have to buy the rights to the NBA; they simply created a game that was so good, EA Sports couldn’t compete. With a new generation of systems upon us, 2K Sports is creating the most realistic sports game imaginable with NBA 2K14, while Madden 25 looks like just another roster update. 2K would 100% dominate the football gaming industry. Madden has gotten so dry and repetitive, and the easiest fixes could be made in an instant. But EA Sports won’t do it. I guarantee that they purchase the license again for another ten years, and all football fans hoping for another 2K football game will be disappointed once more. I despise the fact that I’m going to buy Madden 15 this August. I would love watching EA Sports go bankrupt as NFL 2K15 dominated it in every aspect. But hey, one can dream.

What 2K games is up to…take notes EA.

Madden can try to take a step forward with this next gen hardware, but it won’t even touch the thousands of leaps backwards they’ve taken over the last five years. And unless some miracle allows 2K sports to create another football game, I’ll continue to whip my controller across the room at the sight of my team losing on a glitch or crappy animation defect. Stay classy EA Sports.

More Than the Score: A Battle of Legacies

This coming Sunday night, the best made-for-TV movie of the year will premiere. Brady-Manning XV may seem like the same number of Rocky films, but with greater dramatics and more serious implications.

The Manning-led Denver Broncos (14-3) will play host to Brady’s New England Patriots (13-4). This year has been a disparate one for both teams as Brady’s recent success was mired by the loss of the top-seven pass-catchers from the year previous, whether to free-agency, retirement, or prison. Much has been made about the dysfunction for the Patriots and the arsenal of weaponry that Manning has on the vertical attack.

The only time they have played this season, Peyton Manning’s Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 lead at halftime. However, a fumbled punt by Wes Welker in Overtime led to a Stephen Gostkowski Field Goal for the 34-31 win. The New England Patriots saved the game and that has now set-up possibly the most hyped, non-Super Bowl game in history.

There are two overarching storylines here.

First, it’s the battle of legacies between Manning and Brady.

This season, with Manning setting an array of team and NFL records, he has no reason to lose in the postseason. His 7-9 career record in January and on is the main argument against his greatness. In years previous however, with that sub-.500 record, he has had the fact that Indianapolis did not give him a great defense to fall back on. But this season, with the best offense in NFL history and a decent defense, this test against Brady will test the conception that Manning is a good regular season Quarterback who cannot win when it matters most. Since it will be mid-January in Denver, it will definitely be cold, possibly below freezing. Much has been made of Manning’s struggle there, as well. His comment that people who believe that theory can, “Stick it where the sun don’t sun,” certainly became more poignant after he didn’t play well in the Nov. 30 Patriots game. If Manning loses this game, his legacy will be forever tarnished by an inability to win with the most prolific weapons. If he wins, it would dramatically further the argument that Manning sits ahead of Brady in the best Quarterback ever discussion.

As talent surrounding Manning seems on an uptick, Brady’s company inversely goes downward. His production in this year’s offense has been nothing if not remarkable. He has seemingly willed his team to win on multiple occasions – including at home against New Orleans and staving off a late Atlanta run early in the season. Whether it’s fair or not, the emergence of the running game – and more specifically, LeGarette Blount – has reduced his role at times. With a former college Quarterback and a lesser version of a former Patriot star as the top two targets, a progressing rushing attack has opened the offense and allowed Brady to do interesting things out of play action. Kenbrell Thompkins and his ability to get behind defenders (as evidenced last Sunday) has been the primary beneficiary. Brady’s legacy will be solidified as the best ever if he wins Sunday and makes his sixth Super Bowl appearance since 2000. Winning it would catapult him into territory behest unknown: a Quarterback who transcends the game.

Lose and Brady will have a tag attached which purports that Brady cannot win without a defense, like he had in 2001, 2003 and 2004. This year, with names like Spikes, Mayo, Wilfork, and Kelly all going down (and Talib spending time hurt) Brady has maybe his least-complete defense ever.

So for these two legends at Quarterback, this game means a lot more than the final score. This could redefine legacies.

The Brady Bunch

1886 was an interesting year. Grover Cleveland became the only president to hold his wedding in the White House. The first train load of oranges departed Los Angeles on the Transcontinental Railroad. Ty Cobb was born. 1886 was also the year Sporting News (you know, the former “Bible of Baseball”) was established.

Now, most of us feel a surge of bitter nostalgia when the now exclusively-electronic website is mentioned; not because it reported anything necessarily wrong, but because the lack of popularity drove it to a biweekly release in 2008, and then monthly in 2011. But the most publicity the site has received in years erupted this past week on January 7th, and this isn’t the publicity they were looking for.

Writer Vinnie Iyer created an article for Sporting News involving the hottest sport in America, getting ready to play its coldest championship next month. The National Football League is holding Super Bowl XLVIII on February 2nd in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Playoff football is some of the most popular and exciting spectacles on television, and the wild card round did not disappoint: three of the four games were decided by three points or less. The Colts, Niners, Saints, and Chargers all escaped Wild Card Weekend with their teams intact, and ready for a real challenge. With the remaining playoff spots narrowed down to eight, Iyer focused his article on the remaining eight quarterbacks. This is where it gets interesting.

The NFL has been adapting, changing, going through metamorphosis like a small, adolescent larva. The emergence of the scrambling quarterback has been exciting as of late. It adds a brand new element to the game, which, before the 2012 Draft, came few and far between. Flashes of early Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, even Randall Cunningham could be seen in these new guys. This new breed is exciting, but challenging to judge when it comes to a quarterback’s responsibilities. Comparing a pocket passer to a run-first scrambler is difficult to do. But until the future of the NFL reveals itself with this fresh, young talent, the here and now includes the road to the Super Bowl.

Iyer ranked the remaining eight quarterbacks in various quarterback credentials: arm strength, accuracy/delivery, mobility/athleticism, and pocket presence/awareness. He even included intangibles, which would typically result in a tipped cap from yours truly. True leadership can’t always be written down or measured. Each category was assigned point values, and each QB was then given an overall ranking based on each category. The results were as follows:

1. Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson – 28

4. Drew Brees – 22

5. Cam Newton – 21

6. Philip Rivers, Colin Kaepernick – 19

8. Tom Brady – 15

Before we go anywhere, let’s take a deep breath and really examine this list. Which quarterback has the highest win percentage over their career? Which quarterback has the most Super Bowl wins? Which quarterback took a pay cut in order to free up cap space for the sake of his team? How about the eighth best quarterback remaining in the NFL playoffs? New England veteran Tom Brady was ranked dead last among the left over play callers on this list. Oh boy, Sporting News really nailed this one.

Let’s begin with intangibles. Brady ranked fifth. The man that lost 6 of his 7 leading receivers from the year previous to free agency or injury, and still lead his team to a 12-4 record. The man that lead a team without its starting two defensive captains in Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. The man that has earned a first-round bye despite having never thrown a pass to 9 of his targets heading into the 2013 regular season. He ranks behind Manning, Wilson, Brees, and Luck. I truthfully could not come up with a legitimate argument for any of those players to be ranked above Brady. None whatsoever.

How about pocket presence/awareness? Tom Brady ran nearly a 5.3 at the combine in 2000. The guy moves like a watered down sponge outside of the pocket. But a huge reason Brady is considered one of the greatest pocket passers in NFL history is because of his movement and awareness inside the tackle box. He moves subtly, a step forward, a slide back, a quick pivot. But the countless times I have seen Brady buy himself time while keeping his eyes downfield and finding a target is absolutely astounding. Iyer ranked him sixth. I would be thoroughly impressed if a genuine NFL insider could look me in the eyes and say Cam Newton is a better pocket passer than Tom Brady. Or Kaepernick. Or Rivers.

I could break down each and every category and tell you why Iyer is utterly insane, but Brady’s stats can speak for themselves. Tom Brady ranks #1 all time with his .775 win percentage (the next two on the list: Roger Staubach and Joe Montana). He remains the only player to ever win the NFL MVP unanimously in 2010. He has three Super Bowl wins, two SB MVPS, nine pro bowls, and the sixth highest passer rating of all time. But according to a man who spelled Cam Newton’s name wrong in the final rankings on his article, he is of lesser value.

Articles like this are why real sports fans stopped reading Sporting News over the past two decades. They report old news and garbage articles like this. For crying out loud, Philip Rivers?! Any NFL fan with any sense at all puts Brady among the best ever, and certainly a top three spot in this group. With one of the most depleted teams in NFL history Brady has given his team a legitimate chance at their 4th Super Bowl title in 13 years. I guarantee that a majority of fan bases for teams on this list would prefer if Brady took snaps for them this weekend.

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Iyer did New England fans a favor this week. Tom Brady was drafted 199th overall, so that chip on his shoulder will exist until he retires. Articles like this only light the fire under Brady and his quest for greatness. As for Iyer’s theory that Luck or Manning will take on Wilson come February, keep an eye on the all time leader in playoff wins.

The Real Meaning of Fantasy Football

The NFL Playoffs started this week, bringing a great time of year where the NFL schedules play perfectly so every fan can watch every game. The beginning of the NFL Playoffs also symbolizes the end of the season for many fans. Not just ones whose teams didn’t make the playoffs, but for Fantasy owners everywhere. In a league with my buddies from High School, I finished 8th at 6-8, I know – I’m not proud. But it’s my family league that really gave me the best experience I have ever had in the world of Fantasy.

It’s Week 15 and the late, 8:30 game was the Cowboys-Packers. My sister and I sat down together to watch…wait a minute, WHAT?!

My sister sat down to watch football?

There are a couple things you need to know about my sister, Sarah, who’s 14. She doesn’t like football, she’s never played Fantasy Football before this season, and she doesn’t care about the New England Patriots (our home team) much less teams from Cheeseheadlandia and JerryWorld.

So what were we doing, sitting down for family time to watch two teams on the wrong side of the Ohio River?

I guess, to answer that question and understand the madness, we first have to go back to last season.

The year before, my two cousins (Jerrod and Dave) and I wanted to start a league, and my father (a self-proclaimed football ambivalent) was our fourth guy. I won the championship, maybe because I was the only one who watched football other than the Pats, but I like to think it was skill.

So of course, being the antagonistic younger cousin that I am, I trumpeted my victory for all the family to hear at every social gathering: Christmas, reunions, birthday dinners, the whole ten yards. I even re-named my team The Defending Champions (SAM) to irritate my cousin Dave. Another thing changed at the beginning of this season: we wanted to expand. The only members of my vast extended family who showed a semblance of interest was my mom (who watched every Patriots game with me) and my sister.

Things were weird from the start. Since I am the Commissioner, I set the draft for 9 o’clock on a Tuesday night, two days before the beginning of the NFL season. A few days previous, I had hosted a draft party for the ten kids in our Tim Couch Memorial League, so I had my draft strategy ready to go. I stayed out late before the draft with some friends, but of course I cruised into my driveway around 8:30, ready to take every steal of the draft without even a moment’s preparation. Seriously, my sister didn’t know the difference between Peyton Manning and Christian Ponder, Adrian Peterson and Trent Richardson, or Matthew Berry and Jim Rome. My three other members of my family were –nicely characterized –fantasy novices.

We sat down on our screened in porch on a lovely fall day to get down to business. Since it was a six-person league, I knew there was going to be a lot of value-based drafting going on because, in a league with so few people, it was better to get the premiere Tight End or Defense than stockpile Wide Receivers and Running Backs because there would be so many available.

As the draft started, they seemed to know that, which surprised me. My mom had the first pick and selected Adrian Peterson. Intelligent start. At four, I snagged Jamaal Charles (hallelujah!). But then, things took a grave dive for the worse. My family started drafting sleepers and moving up to take better players at coveted positions. They were Bill Parcells and I was the Cleveland Browns when it came to this draft!

There’s one thing you should know about me: I love New Orleans Saints’ TE Jimmy Graham. His blend of size and speed, and being the only one Drew Brees looks at in the Red Zone… wow the guy is good AND so much better than every other TE in the NFL (God Bless, Gronk). I’ve had him on my squad the past three years in every league I have been in.

With the 24th overall pick in the Johnson Family League Draft, Jimmy Graham was selected, but not by The Defending Champions. It was my Mother, in a dastardly moment of maternal spite, she thieved Jimmy Graham right from my fingers tips (I had the cursor set on ESPN’s “Draft Now” button, waiting two picks later). They continued sniping my picks: Eddie Lacy and Brandon Marshall, the very turn before me. Later Dwyane Bowe was chosen two picks before and, at the time I was furious, but in hindsight: thanks, Dad! They seemed to know my very draft strategy! I was outraged. They did everything right; avoiding injury risks (Darren McFadden), being wary of scheme-change guys (Mike Wallace) and knowing of time-shares (Giovanni Bernard and Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis).

I had one question on my mind: HOW THE HELL WERE THEY DOING THIS?

I had never seen neither my dad nor my sister watch an NFL game, no less pay attention.

I wanted answers and I wanted them now. I noticed my Mother had color-coded sheets and, at first, I thought they were the standard ESPN printouts, but I noticed now it was a regular Word Document. Who was supplying them this info?

I accused nearly all of my friends, but as the draft ended, with Hakeem Nicks being Mr. Irrelevant, the story began to come out. My parents and sister had each chosen a “Coach” from my friends who played in my High School league with me. I was aghast. They pulled this all without my knowledge. My sister was coached by my friend Andy Woodward and my dad received help from Kyle Stevens, both guys I had been good friends with since kindergarten. My mom’s Coach, Erik Rolser, in particular told her my draft strategy, and, “Especially about Jimmy Graham.”  The betrayal ran deep. I couldn’t believe these guys would stab me in the back to help my family. Well, I take it back, yes I could.

Side note: My mom’s drafting was particularly humorous. She told her coach Erik, “I can’t have anyone on my team with a tattoo on their face.” So in his manifesto for draft day, he highlighted each player with a face tattoo as a warning so my mother would know not to draft him. However, he attached a corollary: “Almost all defenses have guys with face tattoos, so you might just have to have one guy.”

Thus the year was off. The Defending Champions were off to an auspicious, Baltimore Ravens-esque start that included a tie. I sat a 2-2-1 at the end of week 5. (Insert a joke my dad always makes about me wearing a “tutu” at 2-2 here.)

Then the Champions began to flex. I ripped off eight straight in the victory column and ran the table en route to my division title, sitting atop with a 10-2-1 record. So I was in the playoffs, as was Cousin Dave (who I defeated for the championship last year). Cousin Jerrod finished the regular season 0-12-1, so needless to say, he was out. The last Monday night game of Week 13 (our regular season) had three players involved with implications for each of my family members. My sister, The Terrific 17ers, were 6-6; my dad, The Shawshank Inmates, were 7-5, and his opponent, Mom, The MF Good Bakers, were 6-6. There were only two playoff spots open and three competitors. It was a win-and-get-in formula. Unfortunately for my mom, the most avid Fantasy Football owner, she lost out and was ousted.

The first round pitted Dad against Cousin Dave and Sarah vs. Me, her older brother.

One of the most fun parts of Fantasy Football is the bragging and the trash-talk, here is a synopsis of trash-talking in my family league:

Me: “Sarah, your team sucks!” Sarah: “Your team sucks more!”

Me: “Mom, your team sucks!” Mom: “You can say all you want, I let my players talk on Sunday!”

Me: “Dad, your team sucks!” Dad: “Okay.”

Needless to say, it was two of the most enjoyable weeks of being a Fantasy owner I have ever had. Sarah and I were ragging on each other constantly.

After Week 14, I was in the lead 141-130 and running my mouth more than ever.

Which brings us full-circle to the Dallas-Green Bay, Week 15 game. Like I said earlier, I had Jamaal Charles, who erupted for 51 points that day. I zealously relished in Jamaal Charles looking like the Little Cowboys and dominating the Raiders/Little Giants. That, of course, was before the Little Giants got it together and ran the ‘Annexation of Puerto Rico.’ (That was an obscure reference to a 1994 film starring Rick Moranis.)

Seriously though, Charles’ 51 had me uppity all day. I received below-average production from some players, but Charles made up for it. Going into the Green Bay-Dallas game, I had a 42-point lead, with no players left. She had Dan Bailey and Eddie Lacy – I scoffed.

I soon realized I should have been very, very afraid. I watched the Cowboys ineptitude be juuuuust enough to prevent them from putting the game away, but juuuuust enough to kick field goal after field goal. Dan Bailey – a KICKER – scored 24. TWENTY FOUR. VEINTE Y CUATRO. WOW. But I was okay. The Cowboys and I were very similar – we both clung to leads by slim margins. I, the owner of a 270-269 advantage and JerryWorld clawing desperately at 36-30.

Eddie Lacy’s late touchdown plunge put the Packers on top 37-36, and simultaneously put Sarah in the lead 277-270. That is the last I saw of my Fantasy team. Two improbable comebacks, one as a result of the other, sent me into a solipsistic coma and my fantasy season to the dumpster.

I woke up the next morning at 6 A.M. for school and dragged myself out of bed to head to the shower. I stood outside the bathroom and flicked the light on. As it switched on the music started. Standing, alert and beaming, was my sister, playing ‘We Are the Champions’ by Queen. I stood in my pajamas and looked up to Matthew Berry in the sky and asked WHY, WHY DID DAN BAILEY NEED TO HAVE A LEGENDARY DAY FOR A KICKER?

But for the humiliation I endured; the laughs, the jokes, and the stories have been retold since post-Christmas about my epic failure. By the way, Sarah beat Cousin Dave by 40 to take home the trophy.

Sarah and me sitting down to watch football together was a symbolic moment for us. Usually siblings within the same age are embroiled in constant battles over who needs to clean the bathroom and who needs rides where, but this was nice. Yeah, Eddie Lacy kind of ruined it, but that was one of the most fun and competitive experiences I’ve ever had with my little sister.

I think Matthew Berry was right in his book, Fantasy Life. The game brings people together, people who in ordinary circumstances would not be spending time with one another. A roommate of mine, Grant, at Boys State over the summer, said Fantasy Football brought his Uncle and Father (men who hadn’t talked in 15+ years) together and helped re-establish a relationship. My family otherwise would not have spent Sundays camped out on the couch together, yelling at games that related to us neither geographical, nor in the AFC. We yelled because of one player we picked in the 10th round was playing 50% of the snaps and we need a Hail Mary touchdown.

From the draft prep to the championship game, Fantasy Football season represents a lot more than the players on the field and the numbers on the scoreboards.