Cold Hard Football Facts: Playoff system ruined by 2002 realignment
Proof that something's wrong: A nine-win team will rep the NFC in XLIII
Nothing was wrong with NFL posteason from 1970 through 2001
The NFL went through this same problem with the Colts and Rams in '67 and '68
If it seems odd that two nine-win teams will battle for the NFC title Sunday, there's a good reason.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to the 1967 NFL championship game -- better known as the Ice Bowl -- to find a league or conference title game that pitted two nine-win teams. The 9-4-1 Packers hosted the 9-5 Cowboys at frosty Lambeau Field that famous day.
But at least those teams had an excuse: they played back in the 14-game era. Given two more games each, at least one of those teams, it's reasonable to expect, would have won at least 10 games.
So, yes, the Eagles (9-6-1 in the regular season) and Cardinals (9-7) are a pair of rare birds. And no matter what happens on Sunday, the Super Bowl will feature a nine-win team for just the third time in history (the 1967 Packers and 1979 L.A. Rams are the others).
It's a nice a little story for those who enjoy football fairy tales about plucky little teams that threaten to win it all. To the Cold, Hard Football Facts, it's a perversion of the natural order of things and the latest manifestation of a disturbing trend that has come to dominate, and diminish, the playoffs over the past four years. It's a trend that:
Calls into question the wisdom of four-team divisions and the realignment of 2002.
Calls into question the current playoff structure created by realignment.
Diminishes the importance of the brutal 16-game regular season.
Virtually destroys what used to be known as home-field "advantage" in the playoffs.
Put most simply, the NFL needs to take steps to create a better and more just playoff system. Simply look at the chaos realignment created here in the 2008 NFL postseason:
A 12-4 team (Indy) had to go on the road to face an 8-8 team (San Diego).
A 9-7 team (Arizona) hosts not one but two playoff games, both of them against teams with better regular-season records.
An 11-5 team (New England), which beat 9-7 Arizona by 40 points just a few weeks ago, is forced to sit at home and watch it all unfold on TV, missing the playoffs even though its record equaled or bettered that of three of the four title-game contenders.
An 8-8 team (San Diego) reached the playoffs while not one but four teams with better records across the two conferences did not (Dallas, Chicago, N.Y. Jets, New England).
Quite frankly, the widely criticized BCS offers a better system than what the NFL has given us since 2002.
To put it most bluntly, the NFL acts as if it could not care less about the blood and shattered bodies scattered across pro football stadiums for 17 weeks from September to December.
Consider the chaos of the past four years, and the unlikely champions it's yielded:
The 2005 Steelers were the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl and the first team to win the Super Bowl without the benefit of a home playoff game. The 2005 Steelers, in other words, were an anomaly by historic standards.
The 2006 Colts entered the playoffs with the worst run defense the NFL had seen since the expansion Vikings of 1961 (Indy surrendered an awful 5.33 YPA) and a unit that surrendered 360 points that year. It was the worst defense of any Super Bowl champion. The 2006 Colts, in other words, were an anomaly by historic standards.
The 2007 Giants were a 10-6 team that outscored opponents by a mere 22 total points over the regular season. Yet, as a No. 5 seed, the Giants won three straight road games before winning the Super Bowl. Their +22 scoring differential is the lowest of any Super Bowl champion and only the 2006 Colts (360 points) gave up more points than the Giants (351). The 2007 Giants, in other words, were an anomaly by historic standards.
The 2008 Cardinals are the latest Team Nobody Saw Coming -- the anomalous Super Bowl contender that not only lost seven games this year, but lost many of them badly. The Cardinals were blown out by 21 points or more four times this year. They scored just one more point than they surrendered (427-426) and if they do win Sunday -- remember, they get to play at home -- they'll easily be the worst team and the worst defensive club that's ever reached a Super Bowl.
If one team upsets the apple cart every so often, rising from the statistical abyss to unexpectedly capture a championship, then you have a nice little story to celebrate for years.
But when it happens year after year, it's no longer a nice little story. It's a sign of structural problems within the league and its playoff system in particular.
Moral hazard and home-field dis-advantage
Consider what used to be known as home-field "advantage" in the playoffs. From the merger in 1970 through 2001, the last year pre-realignment, home teams posted a winning record in the postseason every year but two (home teams were .500 in 1971 and 1992).
Then in 2005, home teams went 4-6 -- the first time visiting teams won more often than they lost. In 2007, home teams went 5-5. And here in 2008, home teams are 3-5, with the potential for 3-7, which would easily be the worst year ever for home teams in the playoffs. That's three of the worst years ever for home teams in the last four postseasons alone.
Home teams went 190-80 (.704) in the playoffs from 1970 through 2001.
Home teams have gone 40-28 (.588) in the playoffs since the realignment of 2002.
Home teams have gone 20-18 (.526) in the playoffs since 2005.
The trend could not be more obvious: Home-field is hardly the advantage it once was.
The current system offers what economists and sociologists might call moral hazard: It alternately rewards inferior teams, such as the 8-8 Chargers or 9-7 Cardinals, simply because they were better than three rivals in a weak division, or punishes superior teams, such as the 12-4 Colts, 11-5 Patriots or 9-6-1 Eagles, who had to fight through brutal regular seasons in tougher divisions. That's not a very good system.
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