2009 NFL Playoffs; Parity or Parody?
(1/20/2009) Is anyone else paying attention this year? Is it really the case that the NFC will be sending the 9-7 Cardinals to the Super bowl this year? Is this really the best the NFC has to offer? Should a barely better than .500 team really be a lucky bounce or two away from the title “World Champion”? Are the Arizona Cardinals really the best team in the NFC, or even close just because they won three games in December and January?
Let’s admit it. Everyone loves an underdog story. The Italian Stallion. Gonzaga. Last year’s Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And as far as underdogs stories go, the badly mismanaged Cardinals “little team that could” story takes a back seat to no other in a Chicago Cubless-universe. But I ask you, shouldn’t the title “World Champions” mean something? Shouldn’t the team crowned “world champion” kinda sorta be the best team, at least in their own conference?
Before you think I’m being too hard on the upstart Cardinals, let’s look at their 2008-09 season a little closer. They went 9-7 (won nine games and lost seven) in maybe the worst division in the history of any organized sport. They were 6-0 against these division foes, where the next best “competitor,” the annually hapless forty-niners, turned in the next best effort at a lofty 7-9 record. The other two teams in the NFC West won a combined total of 6 games. This means that two-thirds of the Cardinals wins this year were against teams that had a combined winning percentage of .271. The Cardinals were 3-7 outside of the division, 0-5 on the east coast, and were blown out in three of their last four games by the Patriots, Eagles, and Vikings, playoff caliber type teams. They beat only two teams with winning records (the Cowboys who imploded most of the season and Miami who was 1-15 the year before). And how shall the Cardinals be rewarded for this effort? Apparently with an automatic bid in the playoffs and eventually two home playoff games. My question is, if you don’t actually earn your spot at the dance, then who (or what) exactly are we crowning a champion (assuming of course the NFL gods do not right this mockery and crown the Steelers Super bowl champions)?
I’m all for giving the little guys a chance. In a world where we hate the Yankees because they are successful (playing by the rules, but I digress), isn’t it great that the uber-underdog Cardinals are playing in the Super bowl? I mean, who cares that the Patriots didn’t even make the playoffs when they went 11-5 or that the Falcons, with the same record, had to play a road game against a 9-7 team? Life isn’t fair, right?
Here is the NFL’s dirty little secret. They will be happy only when every team goes 8-8, and teams qualify for the playoffs based on tie breaker number seven. It isn’t enough for the NFL that you draft in inverse order of your finish the year before and that the NFL utilizes a hard salary cap. In addition, the team that finished in last place the year before plays the last place team in every division they play games against the next year. That way, a Falcons team that went 4-12 last year, one that changes only five or six players on their roster, can somehow go 11-5 the next year simply based on the strength of their schedule (or lack thereof). The Falcons will probably go 7-9 or worse next year, but the NFL requests that you not look at the man behind the curtain lest it be revealed that the Not For Long league is passing around the Lombardi trophy to mediocre teams under the guise of “world champions”.
Now before I get lynched, let me say the following: no one is suggesting that the Cardinals shouldn’t have been allowed to participate in the playoffs (and please spare me the logically flawed argument that they won their playoff games so they clearly belonged). They won their division, and as such, they should get a playoff birth. After all, it’s not the Cardinals fault that the NFC west was so weak this year. However, there is no reason that the Falcons, who went 11-5, should have had to travel to Arizona just because they had the misfortune to be in a division where the last place team was only one game worse than the division winning Arizona Cardinals. And no, the Philadelphia Eagles, who were a half game better than the Cardinals, also shouldn’t have had to travel to Arizona to play the NFC championship game simply because they had the misfortune to play in the same division as the Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins this season, teams markedly better than the motley crew of also-rans in the NFC West. The same Philadelphia Eagles team, mind you, that beat the Arizona Cardinals by four touchdowns just a few weeks earlier. One need not graduate Summa Cum Laude in mathematics from Harvard to realize that this fuzzy math does not add up.
The way Arizona is playing right now, they very well might have gone on the road and won three straight playoff games, just like the Pittsburgh Steelers did in 2005. The point is, they should have had to. If you aren’t going to make the playoff teams earn their way to the Super Bowl, then we might as well put the names of the various organizations in a hat and pick one out at random to determine a champion. The NFL playoff seeding is ridiculous, unnecessary, and can be easily fixed by giving the team with the better record the home game in each round.
Call me crazy, but before we crown someone a champion, they should earn it. Going 9-7 in the worst division in the history of the sport (arguably), winning 6 games in your division against opponents that managed just 13 wins in 48 tries, beating only 2 teams with winning records and only one opponent that qualified for the playoffs just shouldn’t be good enough, especially when you have a one and done playoff tournament often determined by fluky turnovers. This guy would have had no complaints if the Cardinals would have traveled to Atlanta, Carolina, and Philadelphia winning all three contests on the road. Under the present system, this guy’s vote is for parody.