Cold Hard Football Facts (cont.)
Parity is not the problem
The knee-jerk reaction from pigskin pundits is to blame parity for recent postseason chaos. But parity is like a youngest child in the seedy underworld of online gridiron analysis: It gets blamed for everything.
The truth is there is no more parity in the NFL today than there was 30 or 40 years ago -- not in a league that produced the first 16-0 team in history last year and then handed us the first 0-16 team for an encore this year.
That's not parity, unless you define it as huge, gaping chasms between the haves and have-nots of the contemporary NFL. And those chasms have never been deeper and wider.
Pittsburgh and New England, for example, have accounted for nine of 18 AFC title-game slots this decade and have combined for 22 playoff victories. To put that into perspective, these two teams have combined to win one of every five playoff games this decade (22 of 107).
Over in the NFC, the Eagles are gearing up for their fifth conference title tilt in eight years and single-handedly claim 10 of the entire conference's 46 post-season victories since 2000.
On the other side of the ledger, the AFC's Bengals have enjoyed one winning season, one postseason appearance and zero postseason wins in the past 18 years; the NFC's Lions have enjoyed one, one and zero over the past 11 years.
Plus, what we consider parity today has always existed. Green Bay's mighty 12-2 Packers of 1966 lost to the last-place 4-9-1 Vikings. The undefeated 1972 Dolphins barely cling to history thanks to a one-point, 24-23 victory over the 4-9-1 Bills. The 1975 Steelers, at 12-2 the most dominant of the Steel Curtain teams, were smacked around by the 8-6 Bills early in the year, 30-21.
In other words, lesser teams have always been capable of upsetting better teams in pro football -- even the very best teams the NFL has ever produced have lost to inferior teams. The difference today is the NFL sends these lesser teams to the playoffs -- and in some cases it gives them home games, too. Middling teams simply have more opportunities to make noise in the playoffs than they ever had before.
The true culprit
There's another parallel between the 1967 Ice Bowl and Sunday's NFC title game, beyond just the pairing of nine-win teams that we discussed earlier.
Both games were made possible by the law of unintended consequences and a failed realignment that created tiny four-team divisions and then rewarded teams with playoff spots merely for beating out three divisional rivals.
For several decades, the NFL pitted teams in two different conferences of typically six to eight teams. The conference winners met in the NFL championship game. There were no divisions and there were no playoffs, except in the event of a conference tie-breaker.
That tried-and-true system changed in 1967, when the NFL created four divisions of four teams each.
So in 1967, the Cowboys won what was called the Capitol Division with a 9-5 record; the Browns won the Century Division with a 9-5 record; the Packers won the Central Division with a 9-4-1 record; and the L.A. Rams won the Coastal Division with an 11-1-2 record. Those four teams squared off in the first NFL playoff tournament.
Only one problem: the Baltimore Colts went 11-1-2 in 1967 -- they were better than three of the four division winners. In fact, the Colts were undefeated at 11-0-2 entering the final week of the season. They even beat the division champion Cowboys and Packers earlier that year. But they were on the outside looking in at the first playoff tournament, losing out on a tiebreaker to the 11-1-2 Rams in the Coastal Division (the Rams were the team that beat the Colts in the last week of the season).
So Don Shula's Colts were the first victim of the moral hazard of four-team divisions.
Vince Lombardi's squad, as luck would have it, was the first beneficiary: The 9-4-1 Packers not only made the playoffs ahead of the 11-1-2 Colts, they enjoyed a home game for the Western Conference title against the 11-1-2 Rams. Of course, the Packers did their part and upset the Rams in Green Bay, setting up the legendary Ice Bowl a week later.
But that famous game is really a quirk of history: If the NFL had not changed to a divisional format that year, the 9-4-1 Packers would have finished in third place in the Western Conference behind the 11-1-2 Rams and the 11-1-2 Colts. The Packers never would have seen the playoffs. The Packers never would have hosted the Ice Bowl. The Packers never would have won a third consecutive NFL championship or a second consecutive Super Bowl.
The Rams got screwed the following year, in 1968, when they lost the Coastal Division to the Colts despite a 10-3-1 record and then watched as two teams with lesser records, the 10-4 Browns and 8-6 Vikings, got playoff invites simply because they beat out three division rivals.
History repeats itself
The league was ultimately saved from further embarrassment with the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, which introduced two conferences of three divisions each, and a new playoff format of three division champs and one wildcard team from each conference.
No longer would an 11-1-2 team sit at home while lesser teams rolled into the playoffs. From 1970 to 2001, it was a system that almost always sent the best teams to the playoffs and, for most of that era, rewarded the best teams with home playoff games.*
* Through 1974, home playoff games were determined by division on a rotating basis; however, with just four playoff teams from each conference, teams that were barely over .500 rarely reached the playoffs, let alone hosted both playoff games.
In the expansion and realignment of 2002, the NFL spit up the lessons in moral hazard it should have digested in the late 1960s. So what we have today is postseason chaos on an even larger scale: a system in which 8-8 teams host playoff games against 12-4 teams, 9-7 teams host not one but two playoff games, 11-5 teams sit at home, and a pair of nine-win teams battle for the right to go to the so-called Super Bowl.
It's not a pretty picture. And with no rival league and no merger on the horizon, the NFL needs to find another way to recapture the importance of its bone-crushing regular season and rescue the dignity of its once-proud postseason.
ColdHardFootballFacts.com is dedicated to cutting-edge analysis and to the "gridiron lifestyle" of beer, food and football. Email comments to email@example.com
NFL Truth & Rumors