by: Alex Langer
The NFL playoffs are a cruel and remorseless gauntlet. After the latest Super Bowl, comedian John Oliver gave some advice to Seahawks fans. “It will never leave you. It will…it will destroy your life. It will always hurt. Death comes for all of us. We are dust in the wind of history.” The sentiment seemed understated. I spent thirty hellish minutes after Russell Wilson threw to Malcolm Butler in
the end zone in stunned silence, broken only by desperate yells of “run the ball! Just run the ball. Please, god, just run the ball.” Alas, they did not run the ball, and the Seahawks came up short. The NFL playoffs lure the fanbase into a feverish and irrational belief. All a team has to do is win two or three games in a row to make it to the Super Bowl. Thats it! Just two or three games, and you’re playing for the Lombardi Trophy. Even writing that sentence gives me hope for next season. Unlike baseball or professional basketball, your team does not have to face a grueling set of five or seven-game series to host the championship. Just two or three games. The trouble is, one mistake can end it all. The Seahawks were 32 seconds away from the NFC Championship in 2012 when Matt Ryan made two passes and the Falcons kicked the game-winning field goal. Just like that, they were out.
Because of the success of teams like the New York Giants, those Patriot-killers, and the Green Bay Packers, who won their first Super Bowl since 1996 as a No. 6 seed, we see the modern NFL playoff as an unpredictable and exciting system. Unlike the NFL of the 1980s and early 1990s, characterized by dynasties that won Super Bowls in blowouts, every Super Bowl since 2007 (with the exception of the shellacking Seattle laid on Denver two years ago) could reasonably be considered an instant classic. We’ve had dominant teams square off against other dominant teams, underdogs ruin perfect seasons, and goal-line stands to preserve victories. The NFL playoff seemingly has it all. But how unpredictable is the NFL, really? Shockingly, (or perhaps not, if you guessed where this article was going), the NFL is not quite as unpredictable as reputation suggests.
Much like in the NCAA tournament, it pays to be a No. 1 seed in the NFL. That seed guarantees home field advantage until the Super Bowl, and one less game between that seed and the Lombardi Trophy. Logic should hold that number one seeds, those teams that survived the 16 game gauntlet at the top of their respective conference, should have won far more Super Bowls than the other five seeds in each conference. That simply doesn’t happen, at least in the NFL of today. Much like the NCAA in 1985, in 2002 the NFL massively reorganized the league, welcoming in two teams and switching up divisions. Since that date, there have been 13 Super Bowls. There have been 26 No. 1 seeds. Those No. 1 seeds have won four times. Three No. 2 seeds have won. One No. 3 seed has won. Two No. 4’s, one No. 5, and two No. 6’s have won. Before the Seahawks and the Patriots won the last two Super Bowls, both of which featured two No. 1 seeds for the first time since 2009, and the third time total since the reorganization in 2002, No. 6 seeds had won as many Super Bowls as the top teams in each conference. Prior to the last two Super Bowls, the NFL had earned its reputation. Now, not so much. No. 1 seeds are reasserting themselves as the favorites. Perhaps because of the rising salary cap, and the ability of teams that draft well to keep more of their players, the gap between the good and the great teams in the NFL is widening. Perhaps, as the trend towards passing accelerates, the dearth of talented quarterbacks concentrates talent on certain teams. Or perhaps the Seahawks and Patriots were markedly better than the rest of the NFL the last two years, and a No. 6 will win it all next year.
Much like the NCAA, the NFL has a reputation for madness. Teams like the New York Giants, a 9-7 team, can upset the 16-0 New England Patriots on the biggest of stages. No. 6 seeds like the Green Bay Packers can go on a run that culminates in a Super Bowl victory, all because they need to only win three games to make it there. Or, a No. 1 seed can crush two teams and march into the Super Bowl, much like the Patriots did just last year. As of right now, No. 1 seeds have won 30% of the Super Bowls since reorganization. Its not quite the level of dominance enjoyed by NCAA No. 1 seeds, but its close. No. 1 and No. 2 seeds have won 54% of Super Bowls, a much smaller slice of the possibilities than their NCAA counterparts. The NFL is not quite as mad as March Madness. Seemingly, top teams are asserting themselves. Perhaps in a few years I will have to drastically revise this article, and everything will have changed.
These two systems are what I’m calling the madness systems; a series of one-game playoffs to determine a champion, with a reputation for unpredictability. While they are not quite as unpredictable as you’d like, they offer a marked contrast to the next two systems I’ll look at: that of the NBA and the MLB.