The downside of playing football at this point in the year is that only one team will finish their season on a win. Many, many games have been concluded with wins and losses and a smattering of ties. While the lucky 12 teams get wired and excited for the playoffs, everyone else goes home with a feeling akin to being punched in the stomach and having your lunch stolen. For the next eight months. Nobody can do anything about it because they’re not invited to the party.
Or can they?
The bad news for many players and teams is that there are no playoffs this year. With one game left, the good news is that there is still a chance to ruin someone else’s playoff hopes. Some teams are vying for home-field advantage, a few are untouchable and have clinched a nice spot, whereas the Bears and Giants need “to win and a bit of help to get in.” When’s the last time an opponent did you a favor? That’s what I thought. Nobody plays to make the other team feel better. Especially when other teams have spit in your cereal and spilled your milk all year on purpose.
Seattle is in the playoffs. St Louis is not. Last week Seattle annihilated San Francisco at home, this week they need to beat St Louis to leap San Fran in the standings and take the division. Back in Week 4, St Louis beat Seattle 19-13. In Week 10 the Rams TIED San Fran 24-24, before losing to them 13-16 in overtime in Week 13. If I’m St Louis, I wish I could ruin both teams’ playoff dreams, but with one game left I’ll focus on my opponent.
Commentators will tell you teams like St. Louis are playing for pride and next year. A realist knows the Rams are playing out of spite. The Seahawks know the Rams are a very dangerous team that stands between them and home field advantage. If you don’t know about Seattle’s home field advantage, ask San Francisco, if they can hear the question that is. Playing for pride? Playing for next year? Playing for the fans? No, they’re not playing anymore. How about playing the game because it’s been a long year full of aches, heartbreaks, losses, screwups, and should-woulda-couldas and you just don’t like the other team? Nobody ever mentions those games.
The Bears absolutely need to win to make the playoffs and avoid what critics are calling a “historic collapse” after starting the season 7-1. Their fans booed them at home last week, they are beat up, tired, and desperate. And they play the Detroit Lions. The same Lions team that was picked to win their division after a great turnaround season last year. The same Lions team that receiver Calvin Johnson plays for as he pursues 2,000 receiving yards, something that’s never been done. The Lions have no hope for the playoffs (that probably includes next year), but if you ask Johnson whether he’d rather have a record or a playoff game, I bet he’d want to play. I’m actually jealous of the Lions’ opportunity to knock the Bears out of the playoffs while Johnson sets a receiving record. It’s the only way you go home happy after an11-loss season.
The Redskins–Cowboys game is probably the best example of an ultimate spoiler scenario. Whoever wins moves on to the playoffs while the loser goes home. Straight up. It’s like playing rock-paper-scissors sudden death. Us vs Them, ME vs YOU. Oh look, I stomped on your toe. Twice. Game ON!
Spoiler games don’t have to be playoff scenarios to hurt, though, but that usually helps. If you think about it, spoiling a team’s season early in the year is much, much more rewarding. When I played for Simon Fraser University we opened the 2003 season on the road at the University of Manitoba. Manitoba came into the game as the consensus No. 1 ranked team in the nation. We weren’t ranked. Of the 22 college teams in Canada, we weren’t even ranked. I guess they kept #23 open for a surprise guest team. The previous year was our first in the Canadian system after transferring from the NAIA, and the transition wasn’t as smooth as we’d hoped for with a 2-6 season to show for it. I remember the bus ride from our third rate hotel to the stadium in late August while it was close to freezing and rainy (that’s August in Winnipeg).
It was fairly quiet and guys were focused, but behind the veil of silence I felt excited. I caught the eye of a few other teammates and there was almost a giddiness about the team. The No. 1 ranked team at home to open the season? Bring it.
It was a long afternoon, and a very physical, low-scoring game. It wound down with Manitoba driving the ball in the last few minutes, aided by comical officiating and their sideline rapping 50 Cent songs in unison for motivation. It came down to third and onearound our 10-yard line. Simple really.
They loaded the backfield and ran a lead dive behind their biggest guard. SFU sent the house and drilled the ball carrier as he took the handoff. What was a four-yard loss was still marked as a half-yard gain, but it was still short. Simon Fraser won 16-12, and even better, we really spoiled Manitoba’s year. Their fans and the football nation was shocked. Truly we just focused on the game at hand, but honestly we didn’t like the Bisons. We didn’t like their ugly stadium, we really hated their terrible dung-covered field where the end zones extended onto a track, we hated their loud fans, their brash, neanderthal trash talk, and everything they stood for. What’s better than loud jeering and constant boos? Stunned silence and teary-eyed frowny faces with runny face paint. The flight home that evening was one of the most enjoyable trips of our lives.
SFU went on to win the Hardy Cup as Canada West Champions that year and made it to the Uteck Bowl in Halifax for the national semi-final. Manitoba? No, they didn’t make the playoffs that year. I don’t imagine losing at home to an unranked team helped their self-esteem so it’s a good thing they don’t rank teams at the end of the year. Nobody ever gave us credit for spoiling U of M’s season on Day 1, but we deserved the blame.
The next year we played them at the end of the season in a game both teams needed to win to make the playoffs. They exacted revenge by winning while we went home. The cruel cycle of wins and losses catches up to every team at some point. Not everyone makes the playoffs. Few teams go home winners at the end of the season. It’s not every day you get an opportunity to spoil someone’s year, but it’s never too soon or too late to be a villain. I enjoyed every moment, and highly recommend it.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.