Expectation is a kind of prejudice.
Thus your sensation of mild surprise Sunday evening when Eli Manning beat Aaron Rodgers. NFL quarterbacks don't really beat other NFL quarterbacks head to head, of course, or even hand to hand; there are too many players on the field, too many tactical and strategic and karmic variables at work. But the rules of tribalism and human attraction being what they are, fans and the vampire media translate games and playoffs and whole seasons this way. ¡Macho mano a mano! And if we're honest we just don't expect living high school yearbook photo Eli Manning to beat stud-hoss and retro mustache cultivator Aaron Rodgers. Not this year anyway.
Because not only Rodgers, but also Brees and Brady and Tebow, Newton and Smith and Roethlisberger and Sanchez all stoked more and hotter quarterback passions and narratives from week to week among our fickle sporting press. Passing soared and records fell and hacky column inches girdled the globe, and in 2012, the Year of the Quarterback, who among us chooses Eli Manning?
Who takes Alfalfa over alpha male?
Almost no one. Hence your surprise.
Maybe it's more reasonable to say we don't expect a 9-7 team to beat a 15-1 team. Even if that near-perfect team has the worst defense in professional football.
But Sunday night's game was never really framed that way, was it? Weird how pop cult mythology -- even as it's being manufactured -- obscures reality. In this case, the more TV commercials America saw featuring Clay Matthews and his low-concept haka/squatflex, the tougher we figured the Green Bay defense had to be -- if only to lessen their own embarrassment at the thing. Not so.
Nor did the fact Mr. Matthews and backline colleague A.J. Hawk both look like extras from "Game of Thrones" turn out to mean very much. 37-20 in the divisional eliminations, and it was never that close. This was a jailhouse punking. The Giants shoved the Packers out of the chow line and just laughed and laughed and laughed.
We were perhaps surprised by this because our expectations had hardened into prejudice.
A phenomenon that turns out to be true under the video-replay hood, as well. Sunday's terrible officiating was terrible not just in the bang-bang instant of play, but doubly so under painstaking slow-motion review. The idea that a ruling on the field must be "overturned" relies upon the expectation that a call made from a single point of view in the heat of the moment is the more likely correct. Hence a prejudice toward what one official thinks he sees in a real-time blur at full speed rather than what another official is actually seeing from multiple camera angles in slow motion. Ridiculous.
(The NFL might do well to get "Believing is Seeing" by Errol Morris into the hands of its officials. The "truth" of observation is a fungible thing and worth discussing. And if the NFL wants to avoid having its championships decided by ineptitude, the biggest sports entertainment combine in the history of the world might finally hire its observers full-time.)
In fairness, flip everything on its head and maybe expectation and prejudice are all we really have when it comes to the NFL. Voodoo and superstition. Hope. Devotion. Cults of personality. Tribal loyalty. Incantation.
So who's to say that long hair or smeared eye black or John 3:16 doesn't play its part?
The propositional knowledge of 21st century football is now so incredibly complex it's impossible to predict the outcome of any single game using only statistics. The numbers just don't mean much. Too many people and too much rage and too much chaos to account for. The sample size is too small and the stage is too big and the ball is too pointed and too much depends upon momentum and bad chance.
These are also the things we love most about football.
Epistemology. Ontology. Uggs. Some mysteries were never meant to be solved. Tom Brady we expect. But what about Joe Flacco? Or Alex Smith? Or eternal younger brother Eli Manning?
Turns out the prejudice of our expectations is what makes the games worth watching.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.