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Roeper’s Popcorn Bowl — The greatest football movies of all time face off

James Caan (left) plays Brian Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams is his Bears teammate Gale Sayers in "Brian's Song."

James Caan (left) plays Brian Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams is his Bears teammate Gale Sayers in "Brian's Song." | ABC

The Big Game is just around the corner.

Some of the most impressive and energetic young specimens in the world will be bounding about, tackling one another, running for glory and celebrating with great creativity.

Go Big or Go Home.

We speak, of course, of Puppy Bowl XV on Animal Planet at 2 p.m. Sunday. (Pre-game festivities begin at 10 a.m.)

Oh, and then there’s the other Big Game, pitting the Los Angeles Rams against those lovable underdogs the New England Patriots, who are finally getting the opportunity to take home the Lombardi Trophy. (Cough-cough.)

With that in mind, we’ve put together a 16-movie bracket for the Popcorn Bowl — my ranking of the best football films of all time.

Sorry, fans of “The Waterboy,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Radio,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “Johnny Be Good,” “Paper Lion,” “Everybody’s All-American” and “Varsity Blues.” Bring your playbook and see the coach, you’ve been cut. Maybe next time. Probably not.

The brackets have been divided into Pro and Amateur, i.e., films about professional players and teams, and films about high school and college football.

Without further ado, it’s time for the Popcorn Bowl kickoff!


First round

“Brian’s Song” 1971 vs. “Big Fan” (2009)

Loved Patton Oswalt as an obsessed fan of the New York Giants, but this is a three-touchdown victory for the greatest ABC Movie of the Week of all-time.

“North Dallas Forty” (1979) vs. “Semi-Tough” (1977)

In this battle of 1970s period-piece comedy dramas, the grittier and more cynical “North Dallas Forty” wins going away.

“Heaven Can Wait” (1978) vs. “Draft Day” (2014)

The sweet, spiritual and funny remake of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” edges Ivan Reitman’s insightful NFL drama starring Mr. Sports Movie, Kevin Costner, as the general manager of the Cleveland Browns.

“Jerry Maguire” (1996) vs. “Any Given Sunday” (1999)

Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire.

Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire.” | Columbia TriStar

Leave it to Cameron Crowe — and Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger and Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding — to make a lovable film about a sports agent. More enduring than Oliver Stone’s star-studded, action-packed and zany satire of the pro game.

Second round

“Brian’s Song” vs. “North Dallas Forty”

As much as I loved the cast of “North Dallas Forty,” in particular G.D. Spradlin as a Tom Landry-esque coach, I gotta go with “Brian’s Song,” with Jack Warden as Coach George Halas.

“Heaven Can Wait” vs. “Jerry Maguire”

I’m taking Warren Beatty’s quarterback over Tom Cruises’ agent. Plus: Julie Christie! “Heaven Can Wait” has Julie Christie. And Dyan Cannon. We’re talking about 1960s/1970s era Hall of Famers.

Third round

“Brian’s Song” vs. “Heaven Can Wait”

Of course, the greatest thing about “Brian’s Song” is the friendship between rivals turned backfield mates Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, played by Billy Dee Williams and James Caan, respectively. The romance in “Heaven Can Wait” might glisten your eyes or put a little lump in your throat; the bond in “Brian’s Song” is box-of-tissue level.

“Brian’s Song” wins by a touchdown.


First round

“Rudy” (1993) vs. “The Blind Side” (2009)

Sean Astin stars in "Rudy" (1993).

Sean Astin stars in “Rudy” (1993). | SONY PICTURES

Two wonderfully inspirational films based on true stories, but “Rudy” revolves around football, whereas “The Blind Side” is as much about Sandy Bullock getting an Oscar as it is about Quinton Aaron’s Michael Oher.

“All the Right Moves” (1983) vs. “The Longest Yard” (1974)

Michael Chapman’s film starring a young Tom Cruise as a prep defensive back hoping for a college scholarship to lift him up from an economically depressed Pennsylvania steel town is maybe the best movie about high school football ever made. As such, it earns the nod over the original, Burt Reynolds-starring “The Longest Yard.”

Which is 10 times better than the 2005 remake.

“Remember the Titans” (2000) vs. “The Program” (1993)

Denzel Washington was perfectly cast in the uplifting if somewhat predictable story of an African-American coach leading the first racially integrated unit in the school’s history. But “The Program” advances for its unblinking look at the pressures of major college football.

“Friday Night Lights” (2004) vs. “We Are Marshall” (2006)

Billy Bob Thornton (foreground) plays the coach motivating players (from left: Derek Luke, Lee Thompson Young, Lucas Black) on a Texas high school team in "Friday Night Lights."

Billy Bob Thornton (foreground) plays the coach motivating players (from left: Derek Luke, Lee Thompson Young, Lucas Black) on a Texas high school team in “Friday Night Lights.” | Universal Pictures

I said “All the Right Moves” might be the best high school football movie ever because it’s pretty much a coin toss between that film and “Friday Night Lights,” which was based on the brilliant book and led to the classic TV series. Peter Berg’s kinetic and richly layered “Lights” moves on, but if you haven’t seen “We Are Marshall,” please give it a viewing. Matthew McConaughey is outstanding as the head coach at Marshall, who is trying to find the strength to lead the Thundering Herd football team in the wake of the 1970 plane crash that claimed 75 souls, including 37 players, five coaches and the athletic director.

Second round

“Rudy” vs. “All the Right Moves”

Sean Astin and Tom Cruise are two of the shortest fellas ever to play football players, but Sean’s playing a walk-on and Tom’s playing a high school DB, so it’s believable in both cases. “Rudy” moves on.

“Friday Night Lights” vs. “The Program”

Hey, Connie Britton plays the coach’s wife in the movie and in the TV version of “Friday Night Lights!”

The “Lights” stay on for another round.

Third round

“Rudy” vs. “Friday Night Lights”

This one was closer than you might think, but “Rudy” wins by a last-minute field goal for somehow making a great football movie about a guy whose entire career consisted of three plays.


“Rudy” vs. “Brian’s Song”

This would make for a great double feature: back-to-back films set in the world of football and featuring plenty of football action while exploring larger, universal themes about determination, loyalty, spirit and love.

“I love Brian Piccolo,” Gale Sayers says in “Brian’s Song,” and I don’t know anyone who has watched that scene and this movie without being moved.

More than 40 years after its release, “Brian’s Song” is the champion, and it’s going to take a special film to knock it from its perch and ascend to the throne as the Greatest Football Movie of All Time.