By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 3:43 PM
The kids - meaning anybody under 40 - laugh when you tell them baseball used to be America's sporting passion. They stare at you in disbelief when you try to explain that the heavyweight champion was often the most adored athlete in the world, or that tens of millions listened to big horse races on the radio and that Sunday, not all that long ago, was a day off from sports.
None of that registers now because we're a football nation, a people completely given over to anything and everything football, from fantasy leagues in the office to satellite dishes at home. We've evolved into a culture that will watch August exhibitions whose results mean nothing and pay money to watch imposters wear the uniforms of real players during a labor dispute. We'll even ignore serious news relating to concussions if such revelations, even for a second, threaten our enjoyment of football.
This then is the sporting equivalent of Holy Week, the start of another season. The college football season began Thursday night; the Big Boys of the NFL take over the stage this coming Thursday in, appropriately, New Orleans. The start of the NFL season is the new adult Christmas. People who don't know a safety from a tight end have been counting down to this week since the combine in Indianapolis, since the first minicamps, since the interminable draft, since OTAs, since two-a-days, since preseason.
The spring and summer are like the time between fixes for a junkie. The excitement that used to be reserved for opening day is now devoted to Week 1. Big fights have all but disappeared. Horse racing is on the endangered list. A preseason NFL game featuring second- and third-stringers attracts several times more viewers than the Stanley Cup finals and early-round NBA playoff games, an obsession that Brett Favre and Terrell Owens, just to name two, have seized upon for a half-dozen years now.
Locally, every position change is treated like a cabinet appointment. Even a modest transaction, like the Arizona Cardinals' release of quarterback Matt Leinart, who has been a backup for most of his undistinguished career, is treated like news of national importance.
We've been building to this since 1965, when the NFL, according to a Harris Poll, first surpassed baseball as the most popular sport in America. That was before the first Super Bowl, before Monday Night Football, before cable, before Prime Time, before Thursday Night, and Sunday Night, and sure as hell before the Red Zone Channel made it inadvisable, if not completely impossible, to get off the sofa on a Sunday.
Pro football has gone from surpassing baseball to trouncing it . . . and every other sport in the nation. We're the only country where a sport laps soccer, something football fans seem particularly proud of.
The news that NFL attendance will likely be down a third straight season is hardly some big crisis for the NFL. Television ratings - and the league's television partners pay the freight - are up. Way up. Yes, even the NFL has been affected by the recession. But part of the reason attendance is down is that Sundays are an irresistible television extravaganza. Why go to one game when you can see all- or all the important parts - of a dozen games?
Viewership was up 2 million per game in 2009, the largest percentage jump ever in one season. Fox, NBC and ESPN had their most watched seasons and CBS had its best season since 1993.
Attendance issues aside, folks are more football obsessed than ever. More people watched the last Super Bowl than voted in the 2008 presidential election. Hallmark Cards reports that the Super Bowl has surpassed New Year's Eve as the biggest at-home party of the year. It has become the second-slowest day for weddings in America and the second-greatest day of food consumption, after only Thanksgiving.
And if most don't know the difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4, they probably do know the issues of the day, the betting favorites, the coaches on the hot seat and the drama queens (again, Favre and T.O.). They know the Saints have a legit shot at defending their championship and that the Jets think they're the greatest thing since the '85 Bears.
What they ought to know is that the Baltimore Ravens are loaded, that the Patriots might be the third best team in the AFC East, that the Packers are going to beat out the Vikings in the NFC North, that Jay Cutler is on the verge of being the most overhyped quarterback in 20 years, and that the Dallas Cowboys are (again) the most overrated team in professional sports.
Here then is my playoff forecast: The division winners in the AFC will be the Jets, Ravens, Colts and Chargers. And the wild-card teams, in a loaded conference, will be the Dolphins and Patriots.
The division winners in the NFC will be the Cowboys, Packers, Saints and 49ers. And the wild-card teams will be the Vikings and Falcons. (Yes, the Redskins can beat out one of those two for a playoff spot, perhaps even win the NFC East. After all, the Eagles have a new and unproven quarterback. The Giants won't be as bad as they were after their 5-0 start but both lines needed to be overhauled and weren't. And the Cowboys, like Notre Dame, are so continually overrated the view of the team is totally distorted. Even if there's enough talent, it's a team that doesn't seem to have the mental makeup to be a contender . . . and once again probably won't be a factor beyond the first week of the postseason, if that.)
The Saints will hold off the Packers in the NFC championship game, and the Ravens will beat the Jets to set up a Saints-Ravens Super Bowl before the players and owners try to avoid a 2011 lockout that would threaten the sanity of every football fan, which in these times seems to be every man, woman and child in America.