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Who Tar Heels fans should root for in the NFL Playoffs

With the local NFL team unfortunately not in the mix this year, we rate teams based on their Tar Heel connections.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

As a big Carolina Panthers fan, I was extremely disappointed in the 2016 NFL season. Not only did my team severely underperform, but I actively dislike a majority of the teams headed to the playoffs this season. That said, I, and likely many other Tar Heel fans, need somebody to root for this postseason, so here is a Tar Heels fan guide to the teams with the most and fewest Tar Heel connections.

Tier 1: Teams with Tar Heel Players (Woo!)

  • The Detroit Lions - The Lions’ 2014 first round draft pick, Eric Ebron, gave Tar Heel fans many memorable moments over his three-year career at UNC, most notably his monster game against then 10th-ranked Miami in the 2013 Zero Dark Thursday game. He struggled with consistency in his rookie year and was injured during a promising sophomore season, but this year, he has blossomed into arguably a top-10 tight end in the league. He finished the regular season with 61 catches for 711 yards. The Lions are also a feel-good story in general, finally starting to put it together after their infamous 0-16 season that was only 8 seasons ago. On the other hand, former Duke guard Laken Tomlinson also plays for Detroit, but that’s easy enough to forget about. The Lions, as the 6th seed, will travel to Seattle for a game on Saturday night.
  • The Green Bay Packers - The Packers employ probably the NFL’s most prominent Tar Heel, namely Julius Peppers. Peppers’ legacy at UNC is difficult to capture: He led the nation in sacks during his first year playing at UNC, then came back even better his redshirt junior year. He earned the Wilis Award (best defensive lineman in college football, the Lombardi Award (best lineman), and the Chuck Bednarik Trophy (best overall player), and was a unanimous first-team All-American selection before leaving the Heels to be drafted second overall (behind David Carr). Oh, and he also played basketball. The longtime Panther, who used to make his living as a 4-3 defensive end, now plays upright as an outside linebacker in Green Bay’s 3-4 base defense. The role suits a player in the twilight of his career, as he almost exclusively rushes the passer now instead of being an every-down player. He’s still doing it effectively, accruing 7.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles on the year. The only thing missing from his resume is a Super Bowl ring before he likely becomes UNC’s third Pro Football Hall of Famer. Green Bay has a history like no other NFL team, to boot, making them possibly the most comparable franchise to UNC as an athletics program. The Packers host the New York Giants on Sunday.
  • The Miami Dolphins - Former Tar Heel quarterback and 5th round draft pick T.J. Yates has been backing up Matt Moore after starter Ryan Tannehill’s knee injury. Yates, at the beginning of the 2016 season, held 37 Carolina passing records. Some of those have since gone to Mitch Trubisky, but many of Yates’ career records still stand. His NFL career has not been especially notable besides winning a playoff game in his rookieyear with the Houston Texans. A combination of injuries and lack of franchise QB-level talent have kept him from seeing much game action since them, though he’s found fairly steady work as a backup. Miami as a team is a fun one to watch, with receivers who can stretch the field and a great running back in Jay Ajayi.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers - Here’s an obscure one for you: For the last 12 years, Pittsburgh kickers and punters have relied on former Tar Heel long snapper Greg Warren. Long snappers don’t usually get much love unless they’re also world-class magicians, so there’s not much out there on Warren, but this is an interesting nugget: According to Wikipedia, Warren still holds the UNC specialist weight room records for squat, power clean, and bench press, 12 years after leaving for the NFL. This interview from 2011 is also worth a read. The Steelers have gotten rings for a couple of Heels in the 2000’s, including Warren himself as well as running back Willie Parker, so there’s a bit of Tar Heel tradition to support there.

Tier 2: No Players Super-Relevant to the Heels (Meh)

  • The New York Giants - A few local connections like Dwayne Harris (ECU) and Nikita Whitlock (Wake Forest). Some staunchly anti-Patriots fans may be looking here for lightning to strike three times.
  • The Atlanta Falcons - Heel fans may remember Justin Hardy (ECU), who torched UNC in a 2013 game we’d all like to forget. The Falcons also have Deji Olatoye (NC A&T). Geographically, Atlanta is the closest city with a playoff team to Chapel Hill. The Falcons have a first-round bye.
  • The Houston Texans - Cornerback Kevin Johnson (Wake Forest) is an important player for the Texans, but other than that, nothing to see here. Houston hosts Oakland on Saturday.
  • Dallas Cowboys - While I personally can’t stand the Cowboys, as far as Tar Heel connections go, there isn’t much here. Sports media has probably inundated you with Cowboys coverage enough already, but their offensive line play is really something else. Dallas has a first-round bye.
  • The Kansas City Chiefs - A perennially underrated team that I wouldn’t mind seeing do some damage. Reserve receiver Kenny Cook went to Gardner-Webb, but there isn’t anything North Carolina-related beyond that. They may be anti-Patriots fans’ best hope in the AFC, and they have a first-round bye.

Tier 3: Teams with Disliked Players (Boo!)

  • The Oakland Raiders - The Raiders are a fun team to watch who have finally started fielding a solid team after years of managerial ineptitude, but their hopes at a playoff run were likely dashed after starting quarterback Derek Carr went down with a broken fibula late in the season. Heel fans may remember cornerback David Amerson, who played at NCSU during the year of the shutout, so there’s certainly some acrimony there.
  • The New England Patriots - If I haven’t made it clear enough, I really don’t like the Patriots. I respect their dominance of the 2000’s and understand that they may have the best QB and head coach of all time, but February 2004 still hurts, and I’m sure that fans of a lot of teams can say the same about the Patriots. Not to mention that Tom Brady is protected beyond belief on the field... The Patriots’ third-string quarterback is rookie Jacoby Brissett (NCSU), who actually saw action early in the season due to Brady’s suspension and Jimmy Garappolo’s injury. Memories of Brissett, just like those of Amerson, are likely fresh in Tar Heel fans’ memories. The Patriots have a first-round bye.
  • The Seattle Seahawks - Oh, I hate the Seahawks so much. I hate their manufactured claim to “The 12th Man,” I hate their colors, and I especially hate former Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. Mysteriously, I’ve found that it’s not just me; a lot of Carolina fans react to that name extremely adversely. Can’t imagine why; I don’t remember UNC playing the Badgers. Personally, I dislike him for his public image...but that’s another story. I’m sure that you guys are among those Heel fans who want to see Wilson lose, for whatever reason. In case that isn’t enough though, longtime Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka is a Wolfpack alum.

Enjoy the playoffs, Tar Heel fans!