Another year, another confusing Monday after the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs. A year ago, it was the Patriots juggernaut that went down in flames against the Jets, and this year it was the Packers--a team that looked unbeatable just a month ago--who collapsed against the team from New York.
The weird part isn't that it happened, but that it's not even that surprising. This is what the NFL Playoffs have become in the past five or six years. You have your favorites, you have your sleepers, you have the teams you think might be due for an upset, and everybody just takes their best guess as to how things might play out. Picking the NFL Playoffs is like playing darts blindfolded.
All of which is to say the playoffs have never been more exciting. You have insane finishes, upsets that flip the whole title race on its head, and classic games that make you remember why you can't risk missing any of the four games each of the first two weekends. You just never know. Think about some of the games we've seen over the past few years. Home teams are in bold.
- Seahawks (7-9) over Saints (11-5) -- Wild Card Round (2010)
- Packers (10-6) over Falcons (13-3) -- Divisional Round (2010)
- Jets (11-5) over Patriots (14-2) -- Divisional (2010)
- Ravens (9-7) over Patriots (10-6) -- Wild Card (2009)
- Jets (9-7) over Chargers (13-3) -- Divisional (2009)
- Chargers (8-8) over Colts (12-4) -- Wild Card (2008)
- Ravens (11-5) over Titans (13-3) -- Divisional (2008)
- Eagles (9-6-1) over Giants (12-4) -- Divisional (2008)
- Cardinals (9-7) over Panthers (12-4) -- Divisional (2008)
And those are just the last three years! The year before that run of awesome games began (2007), the fifth-seeded Giants ran through the NFC on their way to the way biggest upset we've ever seen. That Super Bowl was the tipping point, too; that's when everyone first realized that in the modern era, teams are so evenly matched, that pretty much anything can happen if you boil it down to a single-elimination format.
For a generation used to betting on home teams and heavy favorites, this is still hard to comprehend. Football's so rooted in organization and preparation that it's hard to think of it in terms of something like roulette. The obvious move would be to throw up your hands and quote every announcer ever with something like, "Parity has changed the game as we know it..." But that still doesn't really help us. "Parity" is such a vague term, it almost confuses us more. So, understand it this way: The NFL Playoffs have become the NCAA Tournament.
Look at the games we had this weekend.
The Cinderella Reality Check
Every year in March Madness you have a team that pulls off an upset or two, gets America on their side, then goes up against one of the favorites, and everyone says, "Well hey, maybe..." And then they get DESTROYED. This is what happened to the Broncos this weekend. We've had fun talking about the Tebow phenomenon, but yeah, let there be no doubt: The phenomenon is dead.
"Well hey, maybe..." NO.
The Ugly Game
Even if most of the games in the NCAA Tournament are close, not every close game's gonna be entertaining. The Ravens and Texans gave us this year's textbook "technically close but still kinda depressing" game for the 2012 NFL Playoffs. The Ravens D looked good, but were it not for a few phenomenally ill-advised throws from T.J. Yates, there's a good chance Houston steals that game from Joe Flacco and the sleepwalking Ravens offense. Either way, between Yates' interceptions and Flacco's drive-killing sacks, it was a painful three hours in Baltimore on Sunday. Closer than anyone expected and almost an upset, yes, but I'm pretty sure everyone's just glad it's over.
The Instant Classic
You know the classic Elite Eight game between a one and two-seed, where neither team really deserves to lose, and you sorta wish the game could go on forever? That was Niners-Saints, complete with a buzzer beater from Vernon Davis to seal it at the end. Alex Smith played out of his mind down the stretch, Drew Brees was Drew Brees (even without any shred of a running game to help his cause), and between the bone-shattering hits, the over-the-top scoring, and the drama in the final few minutes, this was basically as good as any football game gets.
The Bracket Buster
Where the team everyone's been buzzing about all year long goes up against a solid team that's peaking at the right time, and in a matter of a few hours, the top seed's season is over, and everyone's looking around confused, still not sure if it really happened that way. This was Duke-Arizona in last year's NCAA Tournament, and it was obviously Packers-Giants on Sunday.
New York didn't just sneak by the Packers; they beat them in every phase of the game, and even in the first quarter, you could tell the Packers weren't that sharp, and the Giants were clicking on all cylinders. If Green Bay hadn't gotten lucky on the botched replay review of Greg Jennings' fumble, the game could have gotten out of hand even sooner than it did.
And again: What resonates from that game isn't even the upset, but how normal it feels. We're used to this stuff by now. Where even if a team's clearly better on paper over the course of a season, and even if they're playing at home and just had a week off to prepare, the NFL Playoffs is where we know that none of it matters. At this point, your best bet is to look at who's been playing well recently, who's got a great crunchtime leader, and who's got the best coach. In other words, exactly like betting the NCAA Tournament.
Okay But How Did We Get Here?
- Injuries. These days the best teams A) have less depth and B) because everyone's bigger and faster, players get injured more often. But this is less about injuries to the teams getting knocked off than injuries to the teams pulling the upsets. Think about the Giants this year and the Packers last year. Both teams had key injuries during the regular season that probably cost them two or three wins, and two or three spots as playoff seeds. When those teams get healthy, though, a fourth-seeded Giants team is suddenly playing more like a No. 2, with the added bonus of momentum as the team finally comes together as a healthy unit.
- The death of home field advantage. An underdog Giants team winning at Lambeau was surprising, but not unthinkable. Same with the Jets dominating at Foxborough last year. Either teams have gotten better at traveling, or new stadiums are less intimidating to visitors. Maybe a little bit of both. In any case, picking a team to pull off an upset on the road isn't nearly as big of a risk as it might have been ten years ago.
- Passing game. Not to stretch the March Madness analogy too thin, but the rules changes to promote the passing game are kinda like the way three-pointers work in college basketball. Suddenly, even average offenses can score a ton of points on the right day. Just ask Alex Smith.
- Parity. Ah, the buzzword of the season. It can't be avoided, at least in this sense--even the "dominant" teams of this era have gaping holes in them. For the Packers it was their godawful defense. For the Patriots last year it was their lack of playmakers on offense. In the era of free agency, it's less that everyone's equally good, but that even the best teams can be beaten on any given day, because it's just impossible to put together a team that dominates every phase of the game.
Is This A Good Thing?
This depends. Parity can become frustrating if you're looking for the playoffs to crown a definitive champion. Were the '09 Saints really better than the '09 Colts? Were the Steelers really better than the Patriots last year? Could the Giants beat the Packers if they played again tomorrow? When upsets become so common that they're predictable, on some level you come back to the same criticisms facing college hoops: The regular season's basically meaningless and the postseason's basically a crapshoot.
But if you're looking for the Best Team, then you're missing the best part. The NFL Playoffs have become a beautiful mess of chaos and drama the likes of which pro sports has never seen. Don't watch expecting to find out "Who Wants It More"; watch because there's a good chance you'll see something completely insane. The games are all closer than they should be, the biggest favorites are on upset-watch every week, and even the experts are basically just reduced to guessing. The most popular sport in America has become a monument to anarchy. The NFL's playoff product isn't even really about football at this point; it's the madness that makes it irresistible.
Now we've reached the Final Four, and the Patriots and Giants look like they're on a collision course for a rematch of the game that started all this. Or maybe the 49ers and Ravens beat the crap out of Eli and Brady, and we end up with a defensive stand-off in the Super Bowl.
Either way, this weekend and beyond, we really have no idea what's next.
And in sports, that's about as perfect as it gets.