Manchester City won the English Premier League last May, and even though the title happened to come with the narrowest narrowness, it also ratified the usual 38-game grind that stretched clear back to August.
As ever, there would be no playoffs.
The New York Giants won the Super Bowl last February, and even though nobody begrudges their trophy, it rendered the usual 16-game regular season sort of a waste of time.
As ever, there had been thick playoffs.
The biggest league in the world decides its champions one way, the biggest league in the United States uses another, and I keep vacillating on which is preferable. The EPL absolutely spits out a truer champion year in and year out, but, but, but ...
But when you're watching something like Baltimore-at-Denver on Saturday or, even better, Seattle-at-Atlanta on Sunday, the theatre might just trump the legitimacy.
Imagine seeing Seattle at Atlanta at an airport gate, because I did. Imagine the gate agent announcing the sequence of boarding zones while Seattle drove while trailing 27-21, because she did. Imagine a chunk of the people hanging back and holding off on the boarding and semi-circling the TV and gasping, because they did. What an extraordinary bit of life, seeing Russell Wilson avoid the sack on third down and flipping to Marshawn Lynch, then seeing Lynch's touchdown, then seeing Matt Ryan with 31 seconds and no time for incompletions, and knowing to the bone that whoever did not come out of it ahead would meet with grief, the sudden end of months of untold diligence.
Meanwhile, in England, Manchester United leads Manchester City by seven points in the standings -- "table," as they call it -- on the plodding march toward springtime. If Manchester United gets there come May, no one will question its hard-won supremacy.
No one really cared either way about the Giants' supremacy, for that's not really the issue. Everyone understands that if you hurl those January 2012 playoffs into a pot, stir and shake them up and start them again, the outcome almost certainly would differ. We spent an entire autumn and December seeing Green Bay as a 15-1 entity and New York as a 9-7 entity and then, after all those days, came across a wee three hours in January where the Giants throttled the Packers by 37-20, and that was that.
Then the Giants squeezed through San Francisco on muffed and fumbled punts.
Then the Giants squeezed through New England on a Herculean drive.
Congratulations to them, for they won it our way.
At just about that time, though, I started some heavy questioning of the playoff concept. The two most recent Super Bowl champions had been a No. 6 seed (Green Bay) that finished in a six-way tie for the eighth-best record in the NFL, nudging into the playoffs with a 10-3 escape on the final Sunday, and a No. 4 seed (New York) that finished in a two-way tie for the 10th-best record in the NFL, riding in on an excruciating survival of Dallas three weeks from the end.
The reigning World Series champions were the preposterous St. Louis Cardinals, who shared a two-way tie for the eighth-best record in baseball and reached the playoffs only in Game 162 of the six-month slog. The reigning NCAA men's basketball champion was Connecticut, which finished ninth in the Big East Conference that season before tearing through four weeks and nine games of various playoffs.
What a whole lot of regular-season time and electricity we waste, it seems.
Then, of course, you get a Saturday in which Joe Flacco heaves one, and Denver doesn't defend one, and it's sort of a fluke, and overtime beckons. You get a Denver that flunks the boldness test thereafter, which does reveal something. And even better than that, you get this unhinged drama the next afternoon in Atlanta, where you know heady Seattle could up and win the Super Bowl if it could surpass this, and you know the weight of Atlanta's history both recent (the 48-21 home loss to Green Bay as a No. 1 seed two years ago) and distant (the blown 27-10 lead against Danny White and Dallas as a No. 1 seed 32 years ago).
You get all of that packed into three-plus hours, and seeing it unspool moment by moment beats even the best Broadway or Hollywood because not one soul knows the ending. It's January, it's North America, and the suspense towers. Maybe this Super Bowl chase will spit out as champion the Ravens, a 10-6 team that got annihilated in Houston, crushed at home against that same Denver, edged at home against a depleted Pittsburgh and edged while blowing it in Washington.
Yet after the marvel of Seattle-at-Atlanta 2013, just after Baltimore-at-Denver 2013, my vacillation carries me back from England's legitimacy to America's frenzy, to a moment when an amazing rookie eludes a third-down sack, and you have zero idea what might happen, and your entire being comes to life, and you admit that this might just be the way to solve things.