I like college football more than the NFL. Although I like to come up with various intellectual justifications for this preference, it really just comes down to the fact that I grew up in Macon, and if you grow up in the Deep South (and Macon is pretty deep), college football is king. Bill Simmons writes about the NBA and NFL because he grew up in Boston and went to Holy Cross; I write about college football because I grew up in Macon and went to Michigan.
When I am grasping at rational reasons to explain a preference that is really a function of where my family settled, one such reason is the concept of a rivalry. College football has great rivalries, once-a-year conflagrations that settle conference titles, regional bragging rights, and the sanity of too many of us. These rivalry games mark the passage of the season in a manner that a chronobiologist would appreciate. If it's September, it's Tennessee-Florida to get the ball rolling. In October, it's Tennessee-Alabama (a rivalry where the crimson and orange hues match the changing leaves) and then the Cocktail Party. November starts with the Tide and LSU and ends with the collection of rivalry games: the Egg Bowl, the Iron Bowl, the trio of in-state ACC versus SEC wars, and
Tennessee beating Kentucky.*
* - If you want to know why becoming a Euro soccer fan generally and a Barcelona fan specifically made sense to me 14 years ago, the Real-Barca rivalry made perfect sense to me as someone who grew up on SEC football. Refighting the Spanish Civil War twice a year? That sounds a little like Auburn and Alabama not playing for years because of the enmity between the fan bases. Sign me up!
The NFL doesn't have this seasonal rhythm, and as much as NFL Films wants me to believe otherwise, it doesn't have great traditional rivalries. It has rivalries, don't get me wrong, but those rivalries come and go. What's the best rivalry in the NFL right now? The Ravens and Steelers, with all the history that comes with one of the storied franchises of the NFL meeting up with ... a team that didn't exist until 1996. Cowboys-Redskins? Chiefs-Raiders? Packers-Bears? Maybe I'm a college football homer, but none of them seem to ignite the sort of misguided passion that would cause Mike McCarthy to tell an assistant that "We'll coast and PUSH this (expletive) car to the [Wisconsin] line before I give this state a nickel of my money!"
If I have to explain why I like the Atlanta teams and love college football, I often cite the lack of rivalries for our local teams. The Falcons have some ill will with the Saints, but how great can a rivalry be between one franchise that is 100 games below .500 and another that is a mere 87 games under .500? Do the Hawks have an arch-rival? Or the Braves? Both have been shuffled around from one division to another. The Hawks used to fight with the Pistons, now they fight with the Heat. The Braves used to be at the throats of the Dodgers (hating Tommy Lasorda, now that was a movement with gusto) and Reds; now we have to make do with the Marlins and Phillies.
Adrift on a sea of potential ennui, there is one subject that in my experience unites Atlanta sports fans: we hate New York teams. I've yet to encounter a non-Big Apple transplant Atlantan who views the teams from New York with anything but contempt. When their teams come to our venues, we get overrun with loutish, gold chain-festooned former New Yorkers who have John Franco mustaches with no shred of irony and who cheer lustily for teams from a city that they fled because they didn't want to pay $3,000 per month for 500 square feet. When we turn on the TV, we get inundated with news about their teams as if they are our teams. Their shills in the media have completely appropriated baseball history as being the story about New York teams and their games against one another or the Red Sox. Nothing will quite bring out passion quite like being dismissed as a bystander.
Sunday is special because we have not had too many opportunities to play New York teams in the postseason. Sadly, the history of meetings between us and them is brief and not especially positive. The Falcons have never met the Jets or Giants in January, but the other local sports collectives have:
1969 NLCS - Mets 3 Braves 0 - A fun little fact: the Braves had exactly one season of 90+ wins in their first 25 seasons in Atlanta. That was 1969, when the Braves won the NL West and met the Miracle Mets in the NLCS. Happily, we sold out Fulton County Stadium for each of the first two games. Unhappily, the Braves got swept, paving the way for decades of the '69 Mets being forced down the throat of America as the one rags to riches story worth telling in baseball history.
1971 Eastern Conference Semifinals - Knicks 4 Hawks 1 - In the words of Admiral Stockdale, I'm out of ammo on this one. The Hawks were 36-46, while the Knicks were 52-30, so how mad can we be?
1983 NCAA Tournament - Georgia 70 St. John's 67 - Behind 27 points from Terry Fair, the Dawgs beat the Redmen en route to their only Final Four appearance. Yes, I had to look this up.
1996 World Series - Yankees 4 Braves 2 - For my money, the most bitter defeat in Atlanta sports history. The Braves were a better team, they won the first two games in Yankee Stadium, and they were poised to cement their claim to being one of the great teams of all-time. Then Bobby Cox was forced to go to Mark Wohlers too early in Game Four because of a lack of depth in the bullpen, and Jim F***ing Leyritz happened. Two games later (including a ludicrously unlucky loss in Game Five featuring two potential game-tying hits getting smoked right at Yankee defenders in the last game played at Fulton County Stadium), the Braves dynasty was over and the Yankees' had begun.
1999 Eastern Conference Semifinals - Knicks 4 Hawks 0 - This was the Hawks' best chance to make an Eastern Conference Finals. They had homecourt advantage (at the Georgia Dome, no less) and the Knicks were coming off of one of their typically brutal series with the Heat. Atlanta got an unexpected explosion from the immortal Chris Crawford in Game One, as he dropped 26(!) as part of a big rally before the Hawks succumbed. The Knicks won one of their typical "we're doing our best to destroy basketball" 77-70 games in Game Two and that was that. Pete Babcock decided that the Mutombo-Blaylock-Steve Smith nucleus had run its course by that point, so he embarked on the disastrous course of bringing in Jim Jackson and Isaiah Rider to open Philips Arena. The Hawks wandered the wilderness for the better part of the decade until building the current nucleus.
1999 NLCS - Braves 4 Mets 2 - My one happy memory in the bunch. The Braves took a 3-0 lead in the series, then blew late leads in games four and five, the latter of which went 15 innings and introduced the possibility that the Braves could add to a growing reputation of being weak in October by blowing a 3-0 advantage. Sure enough, they lost leads of 5-0 and 7-3 in Game Six, which brought back memories of Jim Leyritz. The Braves then came back from 8-7 and 9-8 down to tie the game twice and then won in the 11th when the free-swinging Andruw Jones drew a bases loaded walk from Kenny Rogers. Even when the Braves beat a New York team in the playoffs, it only set them up for...
1999 World Series - Yankees 4 Braves 0 - Thanks to 1996, the Yankees had an aura of postseason invincibility by this point. I couldn't even watch for long stretches. Just making the World Series with Gerald Williams, Eddie Perez, and Walt Weiss as starters was an achievement.
2007 Eastern Conference First Round - Rangers 4 Thrashers 0 - Say hello to the only postseason games in Thrashers history. We waited seven years for playoff hockey, our stay was the shortest possible, and four years later, the team decamped to Winnipeg.
Our pro sports teams are 1-6 in postseason encounters with the teams from Gotham. The Braves lost their chance for baseball Valhalla against the Yankees. The Hawks dismantled one of their better nuclei after a loss to the Knicks. The Thrashers' decrepit performance against the Rangers played a role in the end of hockey in Atlanta. And you thought that Sunday was just about Mike Smith and Matt Ryan trying to win their first playoff game. Playoff wins are sweet. Playoff wins against New York teams are doubly sweet and almost completely foreign to this market.