But you know who has had a great pandemic? (Other than billionaires, Amazon, dogs and the manufacturers of Zoloft.) The NFL. COVID-19 hit in March 2020, just after the Super Bowl, and so the league didn’t have to halt its season mid-stream like almost every other major American sport. Tom Brady announced he was leaving the Patriots and joining the Buccaneers later that month. The NFL Draft in April 2020 was the first real virtual sporting event, a massive success, and briefly made the mammoth league (and its lunkheaded commissioner) almost charming. The NFL somehow made it through its whole schedule and even had fans in the stands for the Super Bowl. And the 2021 season, despite the Delta and Omicron waves hitting at its beginning and end, has been a smashing success, with 75 of the 100 highest-rated television programs all year being NFL games.
Heading into the pandemic, the NFL had been dealing with cascading crises, from the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick to the former president screaming that if players kneeled, owners should “get those sons of bitches off the field.” Commissioner Roger Goodell and the 32 billionaire owners he represents tended to make these crises worse, and it wasn’t that long ago that many people (including this idiot) wondered if the sport itself was entering some sort of death spiral. But almost two years into the pandemic, the script has been flipped: The league might just be more powerful than it has ever been.
Weekends like this one are precisely why. Goodell and company may blunder and stumble, and the league at its worst can make you feel gross not just to be a sports fan but also an American, but the trump card it always has are the games themselves. When this game is humming, there is nothing like it.
The first three games of the weekend all ended in last-second field goals with the road underdog winning. Each game felt historic: Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow announced himself as the game’s next big star; the newly polarizing Rodgers fell short in the playoffs again in perhaps his last game as a Packer; and the Los Angeles Rams almost blew a 27-3 lead against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, only to pull a sudden thunderbolt out of thin air in the closing seconds to win an all-timer of a game … an all-timer that was almost immediately forgotten once the fourth game happened.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ overtime win over the forever-brutalized Buffalo Bills very well might have been the most amazing playoff game of the last 25 years. The teams traded three touchdowns in the final two minutes and still somehow found time to sneak in a game-tying field goal as time expired. (I would have considered this logistically impossible at any other second of my life.) Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen were essentially perfect, and for all the talk of the injustice of the NFL’s overtime rules—which allowed the Chiefs to score the winning overtime touchdown without the Bills ever touching the ball thanks to a coin flip—the true cosmic cruelty was that either team had to lose at all. The only thing that would have been fair would have been to play forever.
That’s what this is, in its rawest form: Escapism. This weekend, and really for the last two seasons, when we have watched NFL games, we have not thought about the league’s problems, or its treatment of players, or its crass commercialism. The NFL, in a way that really only it can do, has provided through the pure kinetic, violent, face-melting intensity of its games, another place to go that is not where we currently are. It allows us to scream, in joy, in despair, in rage … in release. Yes, the NFL gets away with everything. This weekend didn’t just show why we let it. It showed why we’re grateful to do so.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, co-host of “The Long Game With LZ and Leitch” podcast, a writer for MLB and Medium and the founder of Deadspin. Subscribe to his free weekly newsletter and buy his novel “How Lucky,” out from Harper Books now.