The NFL Divisional Playoffs are the best annual weekend on the sports calendar.
There might be weekends when major events in several sports combine to keep the remote control in your hand all day and night on Saturday and Sunday, but no other league carries a weekend on its own like the NFL during the Divisional Playoffs.
What about the Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl has just about become a national holiday, but the evening kickoff makes Sunday afternoon seem interminable, and there's no football to watch the day before.
Also, the Super Bowl is sort of detached from the rhythms of the season with the two-week break before it and with the pomp and circumstance that come with the game. It's an event just as much as it is a football game.
What about the conference championships?
There's obviously more at stake in the AFC and NFC championship games than the divisional games. An argument can be made that the games that determine the Super Bowl teams make for the best sports day of the year, but it's not a complete weekend.
The NFL Divisional Playoffs fill Saturday and Sunday with two games each. It's the last week of wall-to-wall football, the grand finale of the weekly ritual that offers NFL games in four time slots over two days. This makes the conference championships seem anticlimactic in a way, because while the games mean more, there isn't as much football to watch.
Fans can enjoy the same volume of football during Wild Card Weekend, and the Wild Card Round is more aptly named than the Divisional Round, because the games are a thinning of the herd, a process that makes the Divisional Round that much better.
There are no pretenders in the Divisional Playoffs. All eight remaining teams have either won a playoff game or are awaiting a wild-card survivor after putting together a body of work that earns a first-round bye.
That bye puts the top two seeds in each conference out of sight and out of mind, while the spotlight shines on the wild-card winners. This dynamic feeds the anticipation of upsets and creates more juice for the divisional playoff games.
The wild-card winners take their momentum to the home stadium of a team that's been waiting for them, giving the game an irresistible force-immovable object aura that makes the NFL Divisional Playoffs all the more riveting.
These games are do-or-die. They're not one game in a series like the MLB, NBA and NHL playoffs.
Baseball, basketball and hockey can fill a weekend with games during the early rounds of their postseason, but unlike the NFL playoffs you can't count on all of them being elimination games.
The NCAA Tournament provides the same one-and-done drama of the NFL Playoffs. The Final Four can't compete as the best sports weekend of the year, because the doubleheader on Saturday is followed by nothing on Sunday.
However, the first two weekends of the tournament could rival the NFL Divisional Playoffs.
Games are more abundant than any round of the NFL Playoffs during the first weekend of the tournament. Viewers can watch four games on both Saturday and Sunday.
The field is down to eight teams for the second Saturday and Sunday of the NCAA Tournament, just like the NFL Divisional Playoffs. Two games on each day determine who gets into the Final Four.
The NCAA Tournament has jumped the shark, however, because college basketball has lost much of its star power with players leaving school after one or two years.
College sports in general has been ruined by the musical chairs that's taking place among the conferences. It's like a who's-sleeping-with-who soap opera.
The NFL Divisional Playoffs haven't changed since 1990, when the league went to a 12-team playoff format.
Since 2001, the weekend has included at least one game decided by seven points or fewer. There's almost always an upset. Since 2005, at least one road team has won and at least one team with 13 regular-season wins has lost.
In 2011, the Green Bay Packers became the first 15-1 team to fall short of the conference championship.
There's a good chance in the NFL Divisional Playoffs that the season ends early for a team that pundits expect to reach the Super Bowl. It's fun trying to figure out which one it will be.
Even when teams without a winning record in the regular season sneak into the Divisional Playoffs, the matchup becomes a curiosity.
Could the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, who finished 7-9, really get into the NFC Championship Game? Could Tim Tebow's magical 2011 season carry the 8-8 Denver Broncos to an upset of the New England Patriots?
The answer was no in both cases. The Chicago Bears beat the Seahawks, 35-24, in the 2010 Divisional Round, and the Patriots hammered the Broncos, 45-10, in the 2011 Divisional Playoffs.
There are going to be duds like that in the NFL Divisional Playoffs, but with so much football going on, chances are that at least one other game will be memorable.
That's what makes this weekend so entertaining.
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