Here's my one-word prediction for championship game weekend: confusing.
I mean, based on how the rest of the playoffs have gone leading up to this point, the only consistent element the NFL produces these days is contradiction. Plays ruled to be clean pass defense one week in Dallas are flagged for pass interference the next week in New England. A first-down spot one day is a fourth down the next. Celebrating on Saturday is taunting on Sunday. Strategy in New England is cheating in Baltimore. Before the game, it's a sore thigh; after an embarrassing loss it's a serious, debilitating torn quad.
I was in Lambeau Field on Sunday, and like the rest of the world, within the first 48 seconds I had declared, without a doubt, the amazing fourth-down play by Dez Bryant to be a catch, then a drop, and then a legitimate reception, sort of. After 12 replays, all I was certain of was that the NFL has become a passing league where it's now almost impossible to tell, from play to play, what actually constitutes a catch.
What hope do any of us regular folk have in figuring this stuff out when two of the game's brightest minds -- Princeton grad and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and Cal grad and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- can watch the same play and instantly come away with two completely different interpretations? Garrett believed Bryant had established possession and had even made a secondary move common to the game. Meanwhile, on the Packers' sideline, before Bryant had even gotten up off the turf in the Green Bay end zone, Rodgers was already telling teammates it was definitely not a catch.
And so, when you tune in to the conference finals Sunday, the only thing I can guarantee is that you will come away from the game thoroughly confused. What's declared a completed pass from Andrew Luck will be a drop when thrown by Tom Brady. What refs deem to be taunting by the Seahawks will be ruled good, clean enthusiasm when the Packers do it. What a cornerback gets away with in the afternoon game will be obvious pass interference in the evening.
Confused? You haven't seen anything yet.
So to help, the Flem File has compiled a list of exceptions to almost every moment of certainty in the NFL.
Running onto the field during a playoff game is totally fine, just like when Bryant was not flagged during the Lions game when he bolted all the way out to the numbers, helmet off, to argue a flag called on the Cowboys' defense. UNLESS you're Ravens coach John Harbaugh -- then this kind of behavior is clearly a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
As he has stated in the past, it's important for Brady and the Patriots to win with "graciousness" and not conduct themselves in a thuggish manner. UNLESS Brady is upset with a referee against the Ravens -- then it's perfectly acceptable for him to put his face mask in an official's mug and scream at him like a crazy man. That's just being passionate and competitive.
The use of Microsoft tablets on the sidelines and the company's reported $400 million sponsorship with the NFL proves just how committed the league is to using technological advances to help perfect and protect the integrity of the game. UNLESS it comes to a tiny little matter like, um, spotting the football -- then the NFL feels perfectly fine using a link of chains between two poles, a method of measurement that dates back to the pyramids.
It's absolutely pass interference if you're Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis and you're running down the sideline stride-for-stride with a receiver who then pushes off and falls down dramatically as the ball sails overhead. UNLESS you're Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens -- then, you can commit both pass interference and defensive holding while grabbing, blocking and trampling Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew, and it shall be ruled perfectly legal defense.
Just like Detroit coach Jim Caldwell has preached, teams that lead the league in penalties are undisciplined and unsuccessful. UNLESS you're the No. 1 seed in your conference the last two seasons. Seattle and Denver in 2013 and Seattle and New England this season finished first and second in the league in penalties because they understand that the value of intimidation and playing right on the edge far outweighs the reward for being a Boy Scout.
If you dive into end zone and the ball bounces about 3 feet into the air after hitting the turf, like, say, Denver's Julius Thomas did last year against the Giants, then it's a touchdown and quite awesome. UNLESS you're Bryant and you do almost the exact same thing in Green Bay -- then it's clearly an incomplete pass.
All NFL teams value the health and safety of their players above all else. UNLESS a playoff game is on the line -- then they will send a tight end like Pittsburgh's Heath Miller right back into the game just moments after he was knocked woozy by a violent blow to the head and escorted off the field by an official.
According to those "Together, We Make Football" ads, the relationship between an NFL franchise and its hometown fans is beyond sacred. UNLESS a team like the Rams can move to Los Angeles and instantly triple its worth to $3 billion -- then, not so much.
The NFL cherishes and respects women and understands their value. UNLESS you're an actual NFL cheerleader -- then you might have to file a lawsuit against a $10 billion corporation in order to receive minimum wage for your labor.
Vince Lombardi said (or, rather, repeated) it best: In the NFL, winning isn't everything; it's the only thing. UNLESS you're the 49ers, who parted ways with Jim Harbaugh, a coach who led them to three straight NFC Championship Games, or the Raiders, who just hired a head coach with a losing record.
Even though there hasn't been a major innovation on offense in more than 40 years, today's NFL is all about creativity, variation and pushing the envelope. UNLESS you're Bill Belichick -- then when you outsmart and embarrass an opponent with a perfectly legal substitution wrinkle, it's called cheating.
When the ball crosses the plane of the goal line, it's a touchdown. UNLESS you're catching a pass -- then it's not actually over until you secure the ball with both hands tightly to your bosom while repeating the phrase "I've never once questioned Roger Goodell's integrity" for up to 11 minutes after you make contact with the ground.
The NFL enjoys a level of parity unprecedented in professional sports. UNLESS you're talking about the AFC, where the last 12 championship games have included the Patriots, Broncos, Colts or Steelers. Yawn.
Defense wins championships. UNLESS you're the Patriots (17th against the pass), the Colts (18th against the run), or the Packers (15th overall).
When Bryant gets in the face of Lions cornerback Darius Slay, it's definitely a taunting infraction. UNLESS the touchdown gets called back on a holding penalty -- then the flag is automatically declined and the taunting never actually occurred.
The NFL's transparent, upfront and accurate injury report works really well. UNLESS you're Peyton Manning -- then you can follow the rules 100 percent and still somehow hide the true severity of a torn quad for more than a month.
The NFL is a brotherhood, and the bonds formed on these teams are stronger than family. UNLESS your team spent $100 million to upgrade its defense -- then you will cut John Fox loose a year after he came back from heart surgery to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
Allowing your hand to lightly brush up against the shoulder of a tight end is definitely pass interference, just like when Arizona's Tony Jefferson was flagged against Carolina's Greg Olsen. UNLESS the tight end is Rob "Hack-a-Shaq" Gronkowski -- then linebackers like the Ravens' C.J. Mosley are free to practically lock their arms around your waste and ride on your back like a cape without ever getting flagged.
And finally, the NFL's abundant hypocrisy, especially when it comes to enforcing the rules, will definitely have an effect on the quality and popularity of the product they put on the field. We aren't all so addicted to the violent entertainment of football that we'll just accept every duplicitous explanation the NFL spoon feeds us. UNLESS you measure such things by average TV audience during the divisional playoffs, which was 34 million.