The United States is said to be the land of endless opportunities. A place where a brave individual only needs an idea and/or a skill and some strength to shake up the world. Growing up means realizing that the American dream is mostly a fleeting feeling that feels amazing until a person is abruptly awakened by the alarm clock at 7 a.m. This person then sighs heavily before wiping the crust from their eyes, and then getting ready to go to work for the real winners. Watching the Baltimore Ravens fall to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Detroit Lions secure a 17-point halftime lead against the San Francisco 49ers in less than a full quarter of the game was a reminder that most major wins are predictable.
The NFL Pro Bowl is basically a game between the Niners and Ravens. The NFL has been America’s game for some time. Teams that win do so mostly because it’s their time. The biggest Super Bowl surprises of recent times were the New York Giants‘ two wins against the New England Patriots, and the Atlanta Falcons not going into Super Bowl LI as favorites, where they secured a 28-3 lead in the second half. This was certainly a shock, but nothing about the Giants‘ franchise suggests an underdog. Both championship teams of the 21st century were supported by a football king – a Manning – as quarterback.
With the Lions and Ravens, we get two different American underdog stories that didn’t have a happy ending. The Lions have regularly lost since President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. They followed their fourth NFL championship in 1958 with a 4-7-1 record, and achieved a 3-8-1 record in 1959. 57 Super Bowls have been played, and 36 of those seasons the Lions ended with a losing record. Their recent attempt at remedy was hiring the most football-y of football players as head coach.
It’s unusual to talk about biting kneecaps and ripping opponents‘ who-knows-what off in an opening press conference. Campbell might as well have appeared in a sweaty hoodie and a dip in his mouth in front of the media, which would become his typical work attire. Why would anyone take that seriously? Those of us joking didn’t know he was serious. Many people fake this football talk. He lives it.
Race is inevitable when talking about the Ravens. Lamar Jackson has flaws, but so do all quarterbacks. For those who aren’t Patrick Mahomes, those flaws can be glaring. Jackson’s low throwing motion causes balls to be batted down, and his accuracy can be flawed. However, it can be difficult for some to accept the imperfections and his overwhelming talent that regularly wins games, as it’s part of the package of someone raised in South Florida.
Former Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian still can’t pull Jackson’s passing talent out of his pocket. He said Jackson should’ve been a wide receiver as a prospect and said the Houston Texans shouldn’t try to cut Jackson, but instead try to put him in a box during a radio appearance on SiriusXM two weeks ago.
First, Jackson will get where he wants to go on the field with his feet. Secondly, the Ravens finally have pass-catchers that can hurt teams if too much attention is paid to him as a runner.
As Americans, underestimation should be used as a spark to ignite personal fuel. Summer training and film sessions spanning much of the year should be enough for the unexpected winner to rise to ultimate victory. If not, why the hell have we watched all this? Rocky movies? In II, III, and IV, Balboa overcame insurmountable odds to win the title. A statue was erected in Philadelphia for a fictional character because these movies promote the principle „You can be anything you want to be, to be a spirit.“ An average-sized person trained by chasing chickens and using frozen meat as a heavy bag, knocking young giants like Carl Weathers, Mr. T, and Dolph Lundgren unconscious.
Real life isn’t a movie. Most often, the established company wins. The business is largely manipulated that way, and in sports, this reality is largely unavoidable.
Patrick Mahomes may have a bad day against Joe Burrow in an AFC Championship game, but relying on that isn’t the way to beat the Chiefs. The 2023 Chiefs didn’t just send Mahomes against the opposing teams, but also a wild defense. KC faced a great quarterback who was the worse of the two on the field and had been playing with a rookie as a receiver in his current offense for a season. With a game-changing defense, the Chiefs were able to contain the Ravens early in the game.
On Sunday evening, the home team in the Bay Area went into the game with the same number of Super Bowl wins. The visitor won its first playoff game in over 30 years two weeks ago. At least one of Campbell’s decisions in the fourth round was questionable, but there was no way to explain that interception that led to a gain of 51 yards.
A large part of the American public rooted for the Ravens and Lions. While the modern Baltimore franchise was far more successful than the team in Honolulu blue, both embodied the American dream. People who were assumed not to be good enough reached the threshold of immortality.
They then lost to what is largely considered the pinnacle of professional football. Mahomes made just enough plays to win, and Kyle Shanahan’s offense woke up in the second half. The standard prevailed while the disruptors had hands in their heads.
Unfortunately, life largely works this way. Occasionally something or someone gives the establishment a slap on the head and fights its way into the group. Most of the time, however, the best the disruptors can do is to either adopt many of the same features of the establishment, like the 21st century Giants, or occasionally a group like the Seattle Seahawks‘ Legion of Boom forces parts of their way of life on the masses.
There’s nothing wrong with doing something different, except that it’s neither a guarantee of victory nor encouraged. The status quo is both championed and largely successfully implemented. During the 2023 NFL season, the Ravens and Lions captured a part of America where the mindset of those dreamers still prevails. People who want to believe that greatness is rewarded even when packaged in an unfamiliar box.
Sometimes, what’s different is so special that it can’t be ignored. But most of the time, the Ravens and Lions make brave efforts and eventually lose to the conventional. Just like the American dream, most people who achieve it act like those who before them had the greatest success. The reason for the loss is not lacking creativity or judgment. Systems are simply better equipped to reward the familiar.