Bears eat birds

With the countdown to Super Bowl XLV well underway, a lifelong soccer fan finds himself mysteriously hooked by the Amer

    Thirty years of my life have slipped away and in that time I have watched about three minutes of NFL action. Until now.

    Last night was the first time I have ever deliberately sat down to watch what, for myself and most of my fellow countrymen, is a near-unfathomable sport.

    If I am to be allotted my full complement of three-score years and ten, I hope the next 40 years will not be wasted in the same way as the first 30.

    I'm no longer afraid to say it. There is another kind of football to the one you play with your feet, and it is awesome.

    Right now we are bang in the middle of the playoffs to decide who will be competing for Super Bowl XLV – the 45th edition of American Football's end-of-season title decider.

    At the time of writing, two teams are already through to what those of us in the normal world would call the semi-finals, and are about to be joined by two more.

    The Green Bay Packers overwhelmed the much-fancied Atlanta Falcons 48-21 on Saturday night and will face the Chicago Bears or Seattle Seahawks for a place in the Super Bowl on February 6.

    On the other side of the draw (look, it's complicated, I'm just going to give you a link), six-times champions Pittsburgh Steelers came back to beat fierce rivals Baltimore Ravens 31-24. They will face the New England Patriots or the New York Jets.

    I'm slightly shocked by my sudden enthusiasm for a sport that I still don't really understand, either in terms of the rules or the culture around it.

    I know of one fellow Englishman who has any interest at all in the NFL. I've been grimly watching soccer (I apologise for using this obscene word but let's avoid confusion) since the age of nine, with some Rugby League, Rugby Union and cricket chucked in to balance things up.

    Bad obsession

    In England, it's easy to let the total obsession with soccer blind you to everything else. But I now have something that I hope will distract me from Wigan Athletic's slide towards relegation, and that is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    I've never been to Pittsburgh. Americans get made fun of for not being able to pinpoint foreign countries on a map, but don't ask me where Pittsburgh is. I'll probably point at Kentucky. But I stayed up until 4am to watch the Baltimore game with my Steelers friend in Doha, and I can now never imagine supporting any team that doesn't play in black and yellow.

    I'm not sure exactly what it is about football.

    It's the heavy hits. It's the fact that, when the quarterback makes a throw, you have no idea if the camera is going to pan down the field to a brilliant touchdown, a fantastic piece of defense or just a ball bouncing tamely into touch.

    Last night it was the constant roar of the home support at Heinz Field and the yellow Terrible Towels of the crowd being waved over 60,000 heads in the freezing night.

    I'm hooked, but I can tell you no more than that. Earlier this week I asked another American to write an article previewing the playoffs and explaining this sport – which has more technical terms up its sleeve than a NASA scientist – to the uninitiated.

    After his second attempt to talk down to me still met with a confused response, his final effort had just a touch of impatience about it.

    "The green team is taking on the black team named after a really big bird. Another green team is playing a blue team. One of the guys on the blue team is dating a supermodel. They are playing outside, near Boston. That white stuff on the ground is snow.
    "Another team named after a bird is playing a bear. Bears eat birds.

    "Finally, another team named after birds is playing a team named after manufacturing workers.
    "If these teams lose, their season is over. If they win next week, then they are in the Super Bowl. It is the same as all the other games except there are fireworks and a half-time show."

    I think I get it now.


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