the perfect game

words: jeb lund

 

What would a perfect football game look like? Is it a 77-70 score, no turnovers, no drops, no runs for negative yardage—just two teams matriculating the ball down the field until the clock stops one from inevitably tying the other? Is it a 0-0 slugfest between two stout defenses? Is it some impossible balance of the two, with teams alternately going three-and-out, then marching into the end zone on the next possession?

 

Like any other authoritative sports definition, the perfect football game will either never be calculated, or it will be solved with math no one wants to understand. Perhaps it already has been and we've already forgotten that arithmetic. Unless you're Pythagoras or in some modern quasi-religious mathematical hygiene cult, that's not how perfection works, because it calculates perfection as an abstraction rather than something experienced and then endlessly re-experienced by hassling your friends and enemies.

 

As with dinner, football perfection is achieved through beef. It is the reception and deliverance of beef, beef as celebration and consolation, beef as long full digestion, beef beyond the numbers. And in that light, Super Bowl LII may be the most perfect Super Bowl ever, for all parties. Beyond dealing a blow to a dynasty and crowning a first-time Super Bowl champion, it did something perfect that will be enjoyed on social media and over beers and barbecues for all time. It achieved Beef Equilibrium.

 

The case for the Philadelphia Eagles is easy to understand. They won, after all. They get the trophy, the banner and the license for public non-minority rioting. They get to say "scoreboard" until next February.

 

But if winning the game was the end of the argument, we'd all have a lot fewer tweets and a lot more friends who didn't dread seeing a reply notification from us on Facebook. If improv is the practice of saying, "Yes, and ..." then arguing about sports is the practice of looking at the score and saying, "Yes, but ..."

 

What's remarkable for the Eagles and their fans is just how few "buts" there are to this win. The Eagles didn't get handed the game by any means practical or nefarious. There weren't a slew of egregious calls that tipped the balance. The Patriots didn't start losing key players until the Eagles were left facing the sort of "children and geriatrics" army that the Germans sent out to defend Berlin from the Red Army.

 

There were no flukes here. The Eagles weren't a crummy team that got hot late. They weren't a good pass rush buoyed by Eli Manning's occasional Looney Tunes ability to walk across a gorge as long as he doesn't look down. They didn't face an even crummier team that got hot late, either. Instead, they solidly thumped and out-executed the greatest coach-quarterback combo in history in their eighth Super Bowl appearance.

 

That last note is no small thing. New England Head Coach Bill Belichick has been venerated for years for his adaptable defense and ability to field special teams units that made the kicking game seem automatic while snatching an extra ten or twenty yards on returns when the Patriots needed them most. But it was the Eagles offense that put up 538 yards on a Belichick defense, and the Patriots’ special teams that failed to put four near-gimme points on the board.

 

The Eagles also did it with backup quarterback Nick Foles. If you want to end an argument about this Super Bowl, there it is: Nick Foles. Keep saying it. It's like if abracadabra were a real word with real supernatural power, only in this case the power is making bad faith arguments go away.

 

Hell, if I were an Eagles fan, I would carry a second wallet with a fake FBI ID that had Nick Foles' information in it and the Eagles logo replacing the Bureau's. Allow me to illustrate:

 

YOU: (bad, dumb) B-b-b-b-but if Hightower had been healthy and sta—

ME: (flashing badge as if walking into a secure facility only winners are allowed in) Nick Foles.

 

B-b-b-b-but there are Patriots fans, and they are real, and we have to reckon with them. And for as decisive an Eagles victory as this was, Pats fans have reason to find succor. Call it excuse, call it compensatory fantasy. Whatever its sincerity, it serves the same beef god.

 

Patriots fans have a strong compensatory case. Quarterback Tom Brady threw for a record 505 yards in the game. The Patriots never punted. They put up the most points in a Super Bowl loss.  

 

After years of benefiting from egregious calls, they can point to Eagles running back Corey Clement's touchdown where he readjusted his grip on the ball in the back of the end zone and appeared to land his second foot just a toe-length out of bounds.

 

And, depending on the kind of Patriots fan, they can also always blame cornerback Malcolm Butler, for ingratitude, unprofessionalism or some other synonym conspicuously applied almost exclusively to black athletes. From a colorblind standpoint, if they want to push the argument to the most outrageous edge of the envelope, they can even claim that an ironbound streak of leadership integrity forced Belichick to bench Butler and thus beat himself.

 

Best of all, Patriots fans can fall back on the most indulgent and, as we’ve seen before with their many postseason losses, the most enduring of rationalizations. They won too much, too long. This was New England's second Super Bowl appearance in a row, their third in four years, after seven straight years of AFC Championship Game appearances and nine straight division titles. That's a lot of low draft picks. That's why the defense leaked like a sieve. They succeeded their way into failure.

 

Every game that has a loser is to some degree imperfect. Happiness is finite, and the Lombardi Trophy gets handed out only in singles. We know these things, but we also know that they are limited, that the game goes beyond the final gun and lives on in perpetuity, in abuse and grief, in overly luxuriant celebration and truculent argumentative sabotage. The game ended on Sunday, but beef is forever, and, this time at least, there is so much of it, in such high quality, for everyone.