Earlier this week, my colleague Roger Burton gave us a recap of the last week of the NFL Season from a Tar Heel perspective, including a summary of playoff teams with and without Tar Heels on them. As the playoffs approach, here’s a refresher on those teams, plus a guide as to who to root for if you find yourself watching with no prior rooting interest.
Teams Without Heels on the Roster:
12. New England Patriots
I probably don’t need to tell you why neutral fans should root against the Patriots. It mostly comes down to them having the most successful 15 years ever in the NFL, and wanting some change in the AFC.
But to sell you on why you should specifically hate the Patriots, consider this: Tom Brady believes that professional football players have only themselves to blame for being injured. Not in a “they signed up for it” way, but in a “they didn’t follow my pseudoscientific exercise theory hard enough” way. He is an active snake oil salesman to a population that has been misled more than enough about risks to their health. Also, it’s fun to watch organizations crumble, and if the Patriots exit early, that’s very likely what will happen.
Also, New England starts NC State alumnus Joe Thuney on their offensive line.
The Patriots are the AFC’s #1 seed and therefore will not play this weekend.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
Again, it’s way past time for change in the AFC, where every conference championship since 2003 has had at least one of Tom Brady (NE), Ben Roethlisberger (PIT), or Peyton Manning (IND, then DEN, now retired), and only once in that time has one of them not represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. Throw in Roethlisberger’s checkered past and penchant for dishonest self-aggrandization and you have an easy pick for secondary heel in the AFC. Pittsburgh, as the AFC’s #2 seed, has a first-round bye.
10. Kansas City Chiefs
Because while it’s not the most problematic name/mascot in the NFL, something that inspires fans to do this is kind of disgusting nonetheless. This also works nicely with the assumption that most UNC fans have at least some animosity towards the general Kansas area (I know Kansas City is mostly in Missouri. Let me have this one). The Chiefs open play against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday afternoon.
9. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta is the only ACC city represented in the playoffs. Personally, I feel that ACC solidarity should be reserved for postseason events where UNC is not involved. As the Falcons’ first game is against the Los Angeles Rams (see below) on Saturday night, it is my belief that UNC fans should root heartily against the Falcons. It doesn’t hurt that UNC sports haven’t had the best run against Georgia Tech in the last year. The Falcons travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams on Saturday night.
7-8. Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars
These two teams are honestly really similar. The Vikings have a better passing game and the Jaguars have a better running game (though this might be a wash if Dalvin Cook hadn’t torn his ACL), but both teams run competent offenses and have absolutely stifling defenses that are fun to watch with playmakers at all levels. They also hold very little relevance to UNC one way or the other. Root for the Jags to shake up the AFC, I guess, but Minnesota would be change of pace on their side as well. The Jaguars will host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday afternoon, while the Vikings will not play this weekend as the NFC’s #2 seed.
6. New Orleans Saints
While the Saints may not have a Tar Heel on their 53-man roster, they did carry second-year guard Landon Turner on their roster last year (he even started a game) and have him on the practice squad this year, which is understandable seeing as they have one of the best offensive lines in football. It’s worth noting for the purposes of this list that they’ve kept him around despite his undrafted status. The Saints will host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday evening.
Teams with Heels on the Roster
5. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have criminally underused rookie receiver Mack Hollins this year; he’s made plays nearly every time he’s had the opportunity (16 catches on 22 targets for 226 yards and a touchdown), but has been given more than 2 targets just 3 times this season, and one of those was last week, where the Eagles didn’t play their starters for long (Hollins was on the field with the starters for a bit, and had one target with the first-team offense). He has shown repeatedly in limited snaps that he should play over Torrey Smith, who has caught fewer than half his targets this year, but the Eagles’ coaching staff has not yet made the move. Until they do, I’m putting Philly here out of protest. The Eagles are the NFC’s #1 seed and do not play this week.
4. Buffalo Bills
I was a little excited when the Bills acquired receiver Brandon Tate, as I thought he could provide a much-needed boost to one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL. He hasn’t impressed as a receiver, though, and the Bills have found at least some support at the position through Zay Jones’ improvement and the acquisition of Kelvin Benjamin. Tate has, however, carved himself a role as a returner, averaging 9.7 yards per punt return to put himself at 6th in the NFL in that category. While being in the playoffs for the first time this century is exciting enough for Bills fans, the team will need some help from Tate on the special teams side if they want to make some noise.
3. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams’ #1-ranked offense makes them probably the most exciting team to watch in football, and because of this, they’re hard to root against even for somebody with no interest whatsoever. Another reason you can’t help but root for the Rams, though, is because they have had an elite defense for years that has suffered through inept offense after inept offense, and is finally showing what they can be with able support. And one of the anchors of that defense is pass rusher and Tar Heel Robert Quinn, who had another excellent season with 8.5 sacks.
2. Tennessee Titans
The Titans are the only team in the playoffs with multiple Tar Heels: Strong saftey Da’Norris Searcy and nose tackle Sylvester Williams. Both have played integral roles in willing the Titans’ antiquated, ineffective offense to the playoffs, and while Searcy has caught his share of flack on the defensive end, both have played their part well and deserve to be playing in January.
1. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers’ case obviously starts with Tar Heel legend Julius Peppers, whose return to his home state and the team that drafted him has gone better than anybody could have imagined, as he shared the team lead in sacks with 11, giving him 10 career seasons with 10 or more sacks (fourth player ever to do so) and a 10+ sack season at age 37 (3rd player ever). More than anybody else on this list, he deserves a ring to cap off an incredible career. Beyond that is the obvious factor of location: While the Panthers play in Charlotte, they stand for everything Carolina. UNC, while located in Chapel Hill, has a very similar ethos (though limited to North Carolina). Being a fan of UNC doesn’t stop at the University, it means wanting the best for the state, and in this case, supporting the Panthers is a part of that. Am I biased? Very possibly. But I’ll let UNC Athletics’ Twitter speak for me here (ignore the date, please):
We've got your back, @Panthers!#OneCarolina #KeepPounding pic.twitter.com/y8qQfACs1x— UNC Tar Heels (@GoHeels) January 23, 2016