Greg Cote

Greg Cote: The NFL’s Conference Championship Sunday is Crime-Time TV


A national women’s advocacy group called UltraViolet is paying for small planes to pull banners that read #GoodellMustGo over the stadiums hosting Sunday’s AFC and NFC Championship Games that will determine who plays in the Super Bowl.

It is another reminder — as if Roger Goodell needed one! — that this is the football season that has seen the NFL commissioner justifiably under fire and seen his league’s public image and brand properly clobbered over domestic violence issues involving prominent players.

It also is notable, though, that those planes are scheduled to pull those banners two hours before the games kick off, over mostly empty stadiums, and long before the TV telecasts begin. And that seems somehow fitting, in that the league’s off-field controversies, for all of the outrage they inspire, continue to be on the periphery of the business of the NFL.

Domestic violence in football was voted The Associated Press’ top sports story of 2014. It wasn’t long before that when concussions and issues of player safety dominated the conversation. Together these things have spawned books and media essays painting bleak the NFL’s future as America’s favorite sport.

Yet the evidence of that is slow to come.

As the Seattle Seahawks play host the Green Bay Packers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game and the New England Patriots play host to the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC crown, there are indications instead that the NFL is more popular than ever despite all of the image hits.

King Sport seems to wear a Teflon coat thickly impervious to most stains.

Pro football in America gives indications of being indestructible.

This isn’t to say there would not be a gradual and increasing negative impact if the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson situations continued as a disease infecting the league or if the risk to players’ health went untreated. For now, though, television ratings suggest America either has forgiven the NFL for its fallibility or never really cared enough to let it stand in the way of a good game.

The four divisional playoff games last weekend averaged 37.8million viewers — a record high for that playoff round in an age when TV sports ratings tend to be in general decline or at best stagnant. That was led by the 44.4million who watched the Dallas Cowboys play at Green Bay.

NFL regular-season games this season were the top-20-rated shows on television (Game7 of baseball’s World Series ranked 21st) and 41 of the top 43.

Attendance in stadiums, participation in fantasy football and money wagered on games this season are other indications that multitasking Americans seemed very capable of, and comfortable with, both decrying the league’s spate of player arrests and still worshiping the sport come Sundays.

The NFL is our national addiction, and the playoffs our the great fix.

I mean fix as in remedy, too.

Concussion-lawsuit settlements, the notorious Rice video, Aaron Hernandez jettisoned from the league to stand trial for murder — these things are not forgotten but are readily set aside to make ways for the games that are appointment TV.

This season’s NFL final four represents and explains the sport’s popularity well. It is a quarterback’s league and those are the men at the front of the drama that will play out Sunday on each coast.

New England offers Tom Brady, at 37 past his prime, perhaps, but still within fast reach of his “A” game. Not many outside of the upper northeast find Brady and hoodie-wearing coach Bill Belichick easy to root for, and yet the Patriots (though favored Sunday) are the underdog in one sense: They last won a Super Bowl in the 2004 season, the longest drought of any of the teams left standing.

Indianapolis counters with Andrew Luck, 25, the ascending superstar who led the NFL in touchdown passes this season. He is after his first Super Bowl ring and the city’s first title since the 2006 season. Luck represents the replenishing power of the NFL that keeps the league fresh and helps maintain its popularity. As the Bradys and Peyton Mannings gradually peel away, new layers of greatness await.

Defending champion Seattle has another of those emerging new layers in Russell Wilson, 26, who would be the youngest back-to-back Super Bowl-winning quarterback — the stuff of legend making. “Sometimes I think I’m made for these situations,” Wilson said, and it would sound like bragging if it didn’t sound so true.

Green Bay, of course, brings us Aaron Rodgers, who is neither emerging nor fading but smack in his prime at 31. Most everybody thinks he will win the NFL’s season MVP award to be announced Jan.31. Less certain is whether he can reprise the Super Bowl triumph the Packers last enjoyed in the 2010 season.

This league’s problems and issues are as real and as serious as the heat on Goodell. No doubt.

There is an elixir, though, and we’re about to get a double dose.

Something great or outrageous will happen Sunday in the unscripted, ultimate reality TV that is the NFL playoffs.

Something will happen that blows up Twitter and has us still talking about it Monday.

Something will happen that reminds us why we love this game and how much we do, despite everything.

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