Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.

Last Saturday’s Wild Card games weren’t the most exciting matchups of the weekend. The quality of play in the Cardinals-Panthers game was summed up by one attempted punt in the fourth quarter…

…and Mike Tomlin’s face encapsulated the sensation of watching the Steelers try to mount a comeback against the Ravens later that night:

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But while Sunday’s Lions-Cowboys game may have produced the most exciting action of the Wild Card round (the less said about Bengals-Colts, the better), Saturday was the more spectacular day in terms of on-screen graphics, as both ESPN and NBC put extra effort into their visuals. Both networks had their reasons for dolling themselves up. Arizona-Carolina was the first NFL playoff game ever broadcast on ESPN, so the Worldwide Leader was eager to strut. And NBC has this year’s Super Bowl, which networks often use to unveil an updated look. I suspect that the changes we saw on NBC’s Wild Card game were a preview of a more complete overhaul that producers will roll out for the Super Bowl—but I’ll have more on that tomorrow. In this post, let’s see what the designers in Bristol came up with.

ESPN Wild Card Weekend: a graphical assessment

This is the only playoff game on ESPN this year, so while its competitors have the luxury of framing Wild Card weekend as the beginning of the playoffs, ESPN’s producers understandably treated Wild Card as the culmination of the regular season—because for them, it is. That air of finality served ESPN well, as its artists brought some class to what is typically the homeliest graphics package of any national NFL telecast.

The tone was set early on by a slick pregame “sizzle reel” that served as a stirring prelude to a woman raving over factory-processed poultry. The treatment of the player images and clips is familiar enough and mostly tasteful, although that ripple effect for Cam Newton’s Superman move is unfortunate. The standout here is not the players, in any case, but rather that gorgeous gold (yet not too gold) “NFL WILD CARD” motion logo:

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Note how the elements turn gracefully into place, the gentle domino effect creating a sense that everything in the past has led to this moment—exactly how ESPN wants you to feel about its lone playoff airing. The NFL shield rotates more slowly than the letters in “WILD CARD,” so that it settles into place just as that final “D” begins its turn. A touch of clockwork elegance like that goes a long way toward making a game feel special.

So, too, do more playful (but no less thoughtful) sequences like this stage-setter that play-by-play man Mike Tirico narrated as Carolina players took the field. This was the best graphic of the weekend. ESPN embraced the “wild card” theme literally and used it to create a mesmerizing yet informative display.

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Every element of this 60-second package is well-considered. The producers chose their facts wisely, as all of Tirico’s explanations can be easily grasped by novices but still provide points of interest for diehard fans. The “camera” movement has a pleasing variation, first spinning around the card table and then gently pushing in, followed by a smooth bird’s-eye tracking shot down a cartoony football field. These fundamentals allow the exuberant animation and sound design to shine. When the words “FRESH OFF 2 PIECES OF HISTORY” sprout from the field with a peppy slide-whistle salute, the effect is so amusing that you’d hardly notice how the phrase “FRESH OFF 2 PIECES OF HISTORY” doesn’t quite make sense.

Every time I watch the clip above, I notice another new detail, and here’s my favorite. When Tirico explains that the top seeds have a bye this week, the corresponding team cards lie down flat. When seven more teams get out of the way to highlight Arizona, those cards lie down, too, but not all the way. Because they have to play that weekend! No napping on the job.

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It wasn’t wall-to-wall visual brilliance on Saturday afternoon, though. Having decided that flat logos were not majestic enough for the playoffs, ESPN’s producers took it upon themselves to commission 3D versions of each team’s brand. Arizona’s bird looks pretty nice with this treatment, but poor Carolina:

The team’s panther mascot is ungainly enough in two dimensions. This godless extrusion looks like what would happen if Dr. Moreau got his hands on a Mac Pro.

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And although they had some proud moments on Saturday, ESPN’s designers continue to lapse into the illusion that they are creating back-of-the-box screenshots for a 2007 space shooter.

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If there were one trend I could banish from football visuals forever, it would be the “jittery fake monstrosity on the field” trend that has afflicted the major networks. There’s nothing attractive about the stat breakdown shown above. It exists simply because ESPN has the technology to create it, and the network wants to show off.

You can imagine my delight, then, when ESPN reprised this technique later in the game and it all went awry. As the camera swoops down, the image, seemingly aware of its own horridness, slides halfway off the bottom of the screen, where it remains until the director puts it out of its misery. Thank you, GMC Postgame promo, for taking a stand on behalf of good taste.

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