The thrill of NFL football seems more terrifying this winter in the wake of the near-death of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin on January 2.
His sudden collapse on the field in Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium in a regular-season game against the Bengals ranked as one of the most wrenching moments in the history of live-TV coverage of the NFL.
Personally, this incident has wrought a change -- a small one -- in the way I watch football. I have always loved the extreme athleticism of football players -- the way they throw, run, catch, tackle, block and dance in the end zone -- the whole kit and kaboodle.
Now, however, I tend to wince at times when the hits are made and the tackles executed, sometimes ending with two or three 300-pounders piled high upon a tackled halfback. I never used to wince before.
In the NFL playoffs, all of football’s most exciting aspects listed above are at their fastest and fiercest. They are often the best football games all season.
Last week’s divisional finals were a case in point: In the NFC, the 49ers ground out a low-scoring victory over the Cowboys 19-12; and the Eagles trounced their archrival Giants 38-7.
And on the AFC side: The Bengals beat the Bills in a Buffalo snowstorm 27-10, the very matchup in which Damar Hamlin was critically injured and nearly died just three weeks earlier; and the Chiefs, with star quarterback Patrick Mahomes injured during the game, knocked off the Jaguars 27-20.
This weekend figures to be just as exciting as the Eagles -- led by star quarterback Jalen Hurts (above photo) -- take on the 49ers to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVI on February 11 and the Chiefs battle the Bengals for the AFC title and the other berth in the big game.
The Eagles-49ers matchup comes first, starting at 3 p.m. Eastern on Fox -- traditional network of the NFC -- from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The Chiefs and Bengals kick off at 6:30 p.m. Eastern from Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on CBS, network rightsholder to the AFC.
They should both be great games with audiences in the tens of millions, not only for the quality of the action, but also because it is mid-winter, and what better way to spend a winter Sunday than watching these two sure-to-be superb football games.
Still, the risks the players take is not as easy to take in as it used to be, even if the hard hitting is, and always has been, one of the thrills of watching professional football.
Hamlin’s on-the-field cardiac arrest is being blamed on a hard hit he took to the chest in the act of making a tackle.
Could it happen again to someone else right before our eyes? The odds don’t favor it. In the wake of the incident, doctors and other medical experts are calling what happened to Hamlin exceedingly rare and virtually unheard of in the NFL.
Other on-field injuries are common, however -- tears, fractures, concussions and other consequences of the hard play that characterizes professional football today.
As the intensity of the game increases in parallel with the development of the athletes in the years to come, I wonder if it will all become too much for many to continue watching the NFL.
Jalen Hurts photo by Drew Hallowell, courtesy of PhiladelphiaEagles.com.