A bandwagon fan's guide to the NFL playoffs
Are you from Cincinnati or Buffalo? What to do now? Your favorite NFL team either didn't make the playoffs or was knocked out in one of last weekend's games. That doesn't mean you've got nothing to root for until next season, however. There are plenty of reasons to support each of the eight teams left in contention for Super Bowl 50.
But what's more satisfying than briefly piggybacking on the success of a team you have little to no emotional attachment to? Schadenfreude.
If the dream of attending a parade in honor of your hometown's returning heroes has already been dashed, picking a team to root against makes for more compelling drama than hitching yourself to a bandwagon effort you'll never really be able to call your own. Americans can't agree about most things, but we put aside our culture wars to unite in righteous opposition to the New England Patriots whenever the team makes one of its regular appearances in the most highly rated television event of the year. As author Will Blythe titled a book about his loathing of a certain college basketball powerhouse, To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever.
Below you'll find a guide to why each of the final eight NFL contenders is worthy of your cheers (or jeers).
The Case to Bandwagon: Quarterback Carson Palmer was a very good field general for the Cincinnati Bengals, but they're still the Bengals, which they showed last weekend by losing in tragic and disgraceful fashion. Freed from the playoff sinkhole of southwestern Ohio, Palmer won NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors this week. Most crucially for a bandwagon fan, Vegas has the team as the favorite to win it all.
The Case for Schadenfreude: They're a historically moribund franchise, with just one Super Bowl appearance (a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at the end of the 2008 season). That would normally engender sympathy to their fanbase, but Phoenix is the team's third city, after previously fleeing Chicago and St. Louis. The fans' dedication to the home team is questionable, with a large contingent of them selling their tickets on the secondary market to opposing teams' fans. They get to enjoy January football in a dry, desert heat and they can't be bothered to show up to the games? Who needs 'em?
The Case for Bandwagon: In an electrifying career-defining season where he led his team to a 15-1 record, quarterback Cam Newton has emerged as an MVP favorite, putting up video-game like numbers as a runner and a passer, despite his team's lack of any potent offensive weaponry aside from tight end Greg Olsen. Panthers fans were ranked among the most "polite" in the game and, though the team has only existed for 20 years, it made the Super Bowl at the end of the 2003 season, losing by a field goal to the Patriots.
The Case for Schadenfreude: The Panthers had the league's softest schedule this year and history has not been kind to teams who make it deep into the playoffs by bloating their win totals on the backs of easy opponents. Counting those 15 wins as evidence of a great team might be the sucker-bet of the year.
The Case for Bandwagon: Quarterback Peyton Manning was supposedly done when the Indianapolis Colts cut him at the end of the 2011 season, but he took the Broncos to a Super Bowl in 2013. He was supposedly done again this year, but piloted the team to a number one seed in a relief performance earlier this month. Few expect him to be the team's best hope lined up under center after this run, but wouldn't it be great to see him make one more run? I mean, it's Peyton Manning, the ultimate aw-shucks superstar, able to laugh at himself and his patented Manning faces.
The Case for Schadenfreude: Enough already with Peyton. For all his regular season greatness, he's lost twice as many Super Bowls as he's won. Even though it appears to be legally required for every third commercial aired during an NFL game to feature him in some way, Manning's reputation was dinged by a recent Al Jazeera report that suggested shipments of human growth hormone (HGH) were sent to his wife. If he dares play beyond this season, he'll be entering "Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield in a Mets uniform" territory.
Green Bay Packers
The Case for Bandwagon: The guys in the green and gold make up that rare team with a winning tradition and passionate fanbase that are mostly able to maintain their likability. The Packers are unique in that the team is a non-profit entity, owned by fans who buy shares in the team, rather than some billionaire demanding a publicly financed stadium every couple of decades. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers proved every bit as good as his predecessor by winning a Super Bowl early in his career, with none of the drama Brett Favre regularly brought to the table.
The Case for Schadenfreude: It's well-known that behind the folksy Midwestern charm lies a heart of darkness straight out of a David Lynch film, and who wants to sit behind a guy wearing a giant block of cheese on his head? We can all agree that the words "the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" comprise the most insufferable cliché ever to be uttered by the NFL voiceover guy, and you can be sure you'll hear it in the highlight reel of every damn playoff game played there.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Case for Bandwagon: The team has made only two Super Bowl appearances (with one win) in 50 years, with last week's playoff win the first such victory since 1994. And can you say "11 straight"? After starting the season 1-5, a record when most franchises would start looking ahead to a high draft pick and a favorable schedule the following season, Coach Andy Reid and his team beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and never looked back. This is an upstart team with a fanbase hungry for some glory.
The Case for Schadenfreude: Never trust an Andy Reid team to go all the way. He took the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFC Championship game four times and to the Super Bowl once. Then at the Super Bowl he mismanaged the game clock in the 4th quarter, giving the Patriots yet another 3-point Super Bowl championship.
New England Patriots
The Case for Bandwagon: It's a testament to how bad NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is at his job that he overreached wildly in his attempt to make up rules on the fly and retroactively punish Tom Brady for his alleged Deflategate transgressions. You can hardly blame the Patriots for going on their latest Eff-You tour, which had them undefeated through 10 games, determined to prove to the world that they could keep on winning even with properly inflated balls. If you're looking for a safe bet, hop on; they've always made room for more bandwagoners.
The Case for Schadenfreude: Come on. Don't root for the Patriots. I mean, if you're from Massachusetts, fine, whatever. But if you're not and you pull for them, just strangle a puppy or something, because that's more reflective of your true character.
But seriously, this franchise has missed the playoffs only twice since 2000, which was the year before Tom Brady became the full-time starter. Since then the Patriots have won four Super Bowls and appeared in six. If you want to root against a team to spite its entitled fanbase, look no further.
If you can't bring yourself to hate Donald Trump's buddy Tom Brady, check out his boss, Coach Bill Belichick, who acted like a petulant child when he abandoned his team and stalked off the field before losing Super Bowl XLII in 2008. Let's not even get started on Hoodie's well-documented ethical issues.
The Case for Bandwagon: A scarily good offense (though a little banged up this week), clad in the league's best-looking uniforms, hands-down.
The Case for Schadenfreude: Though quarterback Ben Roethlisberger managed to avoid criminal charges for rape, he did pay off his accuser in a civil settlement. Some of the details surrounding the incident in question were so despicable that Big Ben was suspended for four games in 2010. If you consider the gladiators to be actual people under the helmet, such information makes it tough to root for Roethlisberger or any team that employs him. The fanbase is loyal and passionate, prone to waving those obnoxious "Terrible Towels," and they'll surely be comforted by their six Super Bowl championships and seemingly constant presence in the playoffs. They won't notice you jumping on the bandwagon or rooting against them with a passion.
The Case for Bandwagon: The 'hawks are another team that struggled through a rough first half only to emerge as legitimate threat to go all the way, led by the ferocious defense of the Legion of Boom and unflappable quarterback Russell Wilson. The team is filled with colorful personalities and never play boring games, which is worth a whole lot after some of last weekend's truly unwatchable matches.
The Case for Schadenfreude: It's hard to trust or forgive Pete Carroll for handing the Patriots the Super Bowl last year, when he elected to throw the ball into heavy traffic on 2nd and Goal, leaving a guy nicknamed "Beast Mode" with nothing to do but watch Marky Mark engage in celebratory slobbering over Tom Brady. The Seahawks talk a LOT of smack. The team's notoriously loud fans, collectively self-nicknamed the "12th Man" for their ability to disrupt the game management of visiting offenses, have started to believe their own hype.
And there you have it. Consider yourself armed with the necessary data required to make an informed decision on which band of helmeted mercenaries to hang your hopes or hostility on for the rest of January and one Sunday evening in early February. Choose wisely. Just don't root for the Patriots.