Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The movies ain't got nuthin' on real life

Exhibit A of why I don't care for most sports movies: Super Bowl XLIX.

In case you don't know -- though as a human being living in the world, I'm sure you do -- my New England Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks yesterday by a score of 28-24, taking home their fourth championship in 14 years and first since 2004. 

And if it had happened in a movie, I wouldn't have believed a second of it.

Check that -- there were plenty of believable seconds in the game yesterday. Just none in the final minute of action, which is the important part when thinking about the game cinematically. 

To set the stage a little bit, the Patriots came into the fourth quarter down 24-14, having yielded 17 straight points to the Hawks and seen their earlier momentum completely vanish. Sitting there on the couch at a local sports bar in Melbourne -- appropriately named the Turf Club Hotel -- I felt another loss creeping its way toward inevitability. I say "another" loss because the Patriots lost Super Bowls in 2008 and 2012, both to the New York Giants, by heart-breakingly close margins. It didn't appear this one would be so heart-breakingly close.

But New England quarterback Tom Brady is known for his calm under pressure when needing to score, so if anyone could come back, he could. He had brought this team back from multiple 14-point deficits against the Baltimore Ravens just three weeks ago. He could do it now. 

And he did. Brady constructed two determined drives and threw two touchdown passes, turning a 24-14 disadvantage into a 28-24 lead. Brilliantly, he worked down a significant chunk of the clock as well, leaving only 2:02 for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to mount his own comeback drive to win the game.

Unfortunately, Wilson is also cool under pressure and brought his own team back from a seemingly insurmountable 16-point deficit against Green Bay earlier this postseason, and that was with like three minutes left in the game.

Suffice it to say I was not yet feeling confident on the couch there at the Turf Club -- just less depressed than I had been 30 minutes earlier.

Sure enough, Wilson began advancing the ball. Down four, he still had to get his team in the endzone rather than just settling for a field goal, and I knew this would not be easy against a determined Patriot defense. 

And that's when things started to get crazy.

Wilson lofted a pass down the right sideline to a receiver named Jermaine Kearse. New England rookie cornerback Marcus Butler tipped the ball, enough of a disruption to the pass that Kearse couldn't come down with it. I saw the ball bounce off Kearse's hands and breathed a sigh of relief at another wasted down. That meant only two more times the Patriots would need to stop Wilson and the game would be over.

Except Kearse actually caught the ball.

The contact with Butler knocked him on to his back, and since Butler's tip had sent the ball aloft, Kearse hit the ground before the ball did. And in fact, the ball did not hit the ground at all. It bounced on his body once, twice, three times, before he ultimately corralled the thing in for a complete pass.

Just yards from the endzone, with plenty of time left on the clock.

My Patriot fan heart sunk. It was a play very similar to this by New York Giants receiver David Tyree that had kept the decisive drive alive in the 2008 Super Bowl, which ultimately ended the Patriots' hopes for a perfect 2007 season. That ridiculous catch was made with the football pinned against Tyree's helmet. This one might have been even more ridiculous, as it was just dumb luck that the ball fell on to his body rather than the ground.

Well, now Wilson had all the time in the world to run whatever plays necessary to score the go-ahead touchdown. He was no longer desperate or under the gun. He had literally dozens of options, the best of which was to hand off the ball to stud running back Marshawn Lynch, widely considered one of the most unstoppable at his position in all of football. He did just that on the next play, as Lynch rumbled to the one-yard line, putting another Super Bowl on the brink of extinction for the Patriots, in a manner that might be the most painful of the three since their last championship.

Then came the game's least believable moment. Instead of handing to Lynch again on the next play, Wilson threw a pass to the goal line -- and Butler stepped in to intercept the ball. The very same Butler whose inability to fully knock the ball away from Kearse had put them in this situation in the first place.

Game over, this time in favor of the Patriots.

At the Turf Club Hotel, I shouted until I was hoarse, and hugged my friend Conan.

Now, why were you reading this post again?

Oh yeah -- the point of all this was, if you had watched it as a movie, it would have seemed like a bunch of screenwriting bullshit. The veteran quarterback trying to win one last Super Bowl. The absurd catch that seemed so eerily familiar to the ones that had beaten him in the past. The rookie cornerback coming in to save the day, redeeming himself for an earlier miscue (even though that Kearse catch was just dumb luck). The play that never should have been made, costing the villains the victory. (The Seahawks are the villains in this scenario, because the Patriots won the game, and in a Hollywood movie the good guy has to prevail. Of course, I'm fully aware that Deflate-gate, other cheating scandals in the past and the general dislike directed toward a team that wins a lot would leave many viewers casting the Patriots as the villains instead). 

It's a succession of unlikelihoods that makes a fictitious movie about sports seem far-fetched. We love sports in real life precisely because "you couldn't script it better." On those rare occasions when sports resemble a movie about sports, that's when they are the greatest and most memorable. Conversely and perhaps a bit paradoxically, we don't get the same rush from that movie about sports because it sets off our bullshit meter. 

Super Bowl XLIX had to be a real event for us to believe it. To get that rush, we had to know it really happened.

I sure am glad I told my boss my son had conjunctivitis. 

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