NFL Playoffs Kick Off New Year

This is the last week of pro football's regular season. Next week, the playoffs begin. Guest host Jennifer Ludden talks with Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, who also offers his 2011 sports resolutions.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Time now for football.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: This is the last week of the regular season. Next week the playoffs begin. The AFC looks like it belongs to the New England Patriots, but the NFC is a tougher call. Joining us now from member station WFCR in Amherst is our own Howard Bryant.

Howard, we know you have some resolutions for the sports world. We'll get to those in a moment. First, let's look at Sunday's games. Who's playing to be a spoiler and who's playing to win?

Mr. HOWARD BRYANT (ESPN.com): Well, the biggest spoiler is probably the Chicago Bears, even though that's not exactly the title you would think of for a division champion, considering the Bears are 11-4. But they're going to Green Bay to play their hated rival, the Green Bay Packers. And if they beat the Packers, the Packers will probably not make the playoffs. And so the big question in Chicago is how much will the coach, Lovie Smith, play his regulars, even though his team doesn't need to win. But oh, how delicious it would be to knock out the hated Green Bay Packers from making the playoffs.

Then you also have the Atlanta Falcons, who are one win away from getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs. And they're playing horrible 2-13 Carolina. So Carolina has a chance to be a good spoiler and deny Atlanta home field advantage throughout the playoffs, even though Atlanta's already in.

And, of course, you've got a game in the NFC as well which is not a spoiler game, it's a winner take all game between two mediocre teams - St. Louis and Seattle. If Seattle wins, they will be in the playoffs. If St. Louis wins, they get in. And of course, if Seattle wins it'll be the first time that a team with a losing record, 7-9, will actually win a division and make the playoffs.

LUDDEN: Hmm. OK, but, Howard, you know, for the uneducated in football like myself, explain what is the point of being a spoiler?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, the biggest thing is pride. These guys are professional athletes. They make millions of dollars. They've spent their whole lives getting to this level, and who wants to go out on Sunday and get their butt kicked?

I mean, even though you're not going to be the team that makes the playoffs, that doesn't mean that you don't have professional pride. That doesn't mean that you don't want to go out there and try to win every game. Anyone who's ever competed knows that no matter what the stakes are, it's really no fun losing.

And also, believe me, all these guys know each other. A lot of these guys went to school together. There's a bragging rights element to this too, of being the one to knock one of your rivals out of the playoffs. And so at least in the off season, even if you didn't have a good season, at least you can remind your buddies that you were still good enough to keep them from reaching their goal too.

LUDDEN: OK, Howard, you are now the Zeus of the sports arena. Let's ask you, what New Year's resolutions do you have for the sports world?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, one of the resolutions that I have for the sports world is I would like to see Major League Baseball actually do something that a lot of fans have told me they would like, which is to actually have - to go back to old-time baseball at least one day a week. I say Sundays.

Which means no rock music when you're going up to hit. No music when your closer is coming into the game. No pyrotechnics and the exploding scoreboards and such. Just the old times. Old organ music and the PA announcer announcing who's coming up to play. I think that the sensory overload - we can get that six days a week. I think Sunday should be nice and quiet.

LUDDEN: Bring back the Cracker Jacks?

Mr. BRYANT: Bring back the Cracker Jacks, exactly. And a little of organ music. We'll take that, especially at Fenway Park.

I think that I would like to see the NFL, which is in real difficulty this year - this was the year of the concussion, this was the year where player safety has been more obvious than ever, that football is a very dangerous, very deadly game, both short term and long term. And yet the NFL, chasing greed and chasing profits, wants to expand the season to 18 games. I think that they should get away from that and realize that these players are people. They're not machines and this game is a very, very dangerous one.

And last but not least, I would think something for the fans. I think that both in the NBA and the NFL, going into 2011, you have potential work stoppages in both. You could have two leagues on strike. And I think that the most important thing for them would be to think about the fans and realize that the game only has value if the fans keep coming. And you really don't want to send the message to the fans that this game is no longer valuable.

LUDDEN: Sounds like something good to hope for. Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN the magazine, ESPN.com, and ESPN the party hat. Happy New Year.

Mr. BRYANT: Happy New Year, Jennifer. My pleasure.

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