Beware The Divisional Round Game

The NFL has a bit of a flawed playoff system, owing primarily to the fact that each conference has 4 divisions.  Dating back to when this system started, there’s always a division winner who is marginally to drastically worse than at least one if not both Wild Card teams.  These are teams that just have zero shot whatsoever of winning the Super Bowl, who get the privilege of hosting playoff games; it’s insanity!  Every once in a while, you’ll see the inferior home team pull it out (the 2010 Seahawks & the 2014 Panthers come immediately to mind), but you knew those teams would lose the very next week!  And, lo and behold, so it was.

For the most part, the better teams win in the Wild Card round, and often that can mean the road teams (like this past weekend, when all four road teams moved on).  The Divisional Round is the great equalizer, though.  You’ve got the four plucky Wild Card hopefuls trying to ply their trade against the top four teams in the league (record-wise).  And what happens?  The home teams win about 75% of the time.  They’ve got home field, they’ve got the week of rest (while the Wild Card teams have been beating themselves senseless in the freezing cold), and in most cases, they’re simply the BETTER football teams.  There’s usually a reason why you win your division and grab one of the top two seeds in a conference:  because you’re really fucking good!

I’d say in the AFC, the home teams ARE the better teams (not so scared of PIttsburgh when Roethlisberger is playing on a bum wing; but talk to me again in a week if he shows up healthy as a horse and wills his team to the championship game).  I don’t know why I ever thought it would be a good idea to go to Tahoe to do some sports gambling in the middle of the regular season:  we should all go to the nearest sports book RIGHT NOW and put all our money on Denver and New England to win big.  Hell, throw Arizona into the mix as well, because I don’t think Green Bay has a chance to even keep it close.  We’d all be RICH, I guarantee it!

This Seattle/Carolina game, however, might be the lone outlier on the weekend.

From a pure matchup standpoint, I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for a football game since the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers a couple years ago.  This game will not only be the best, most exciting, most entertaining game of the weekend, I think it has a better than good chance of being the best, most exciting, most entertaining game of the entire playoffs.  I think I said it here last week and I’ll say it again:  the winner of this game is winning it all.  Seattle @ Carolina IS the Super Bowl for the 2015 season, mark it.

There are a bunch of reasons to be nervous about this game, from a Seahawks perspective, and I don’t even plan on talking about the in-game matchups today.  We’re going on the road for a third straight week, against a third straight REALLY TOUGH defense.  We’re flying all the way across the country, as far as possible given the NFC playoff field, and we’re once again saddled with the early game on Sunday.  We’re coming off of one of the hardest hitting, most brutal games since the fucking Ice Bowl, only to fly all the way back to Seattle from Minnesota, only to fly all the way back out again across the country a few days later.  Meanwhile, they’ve had a week off to rest and get healthy.  They had one of the easiest roads to a 15-1 record I’ve ever seen, but you know what?  They took care of business, they got their one loss out of the way, they locked up home field, and they looked like they’ve been having the most fun of any team in the history of the NFL.  They’re big, physical, and rested; and they’re talented, confident, and hungry.  I wouldn’t be surprised by any stretch of the imagination if this was the end of the line for the Seahawks.

I could see the Seahawks coming out flat and tired, making a bunch of mistakes, struggling to convert third downs.  I could see the defense not laying a finger on Cam Newton as he methodically drives down the field for multiple scores.  If I’m being totally honest, I could see the last three years finally catching up with the Seahawks – all the long playoff runs, all the pressure of being the best – with them laying their first real egg of the Russell Wilson era.  You gotta admit, the Seahawks have been living a charmed fucking life since 2013.  It’s HARD to be this good for this long.  Even Belichick’s Patriots had some Divisional Round exits on their record.

Part of this, of course, is the tried and true Reverse Jinx, but part of it is also trying to lessen the blow of a very real possibility.  Carolina is a good football team.  Winning on the road is difficult, even against bad football teams.  If the Seahawks had an emotional let-down (as they did a little bit after last year’s NFC Championship Game Miracle, though no one wants to talk about that), I wouldn’t blame them at all.

Here’s what’s giving me hope, though.  We forget, because the last two years have seen the top seeds in each conference make the Super Bowl, but that isn’t always the case.  In 2012, we had the 4-seeded Ravens against the 2-seeded 49ers.  I mean, yeah, Baltimore had a home game in the Wild Card round, but they beat the 1-seeded Broncos and the 2-seeded Patriots in back-to-back weeks!  Don’t tell me it can’t be done!

In 2011, we had the 4-seeded Giants, at 9-7, mow through the up & coming Falcons at home, then the 15-1 Packers in the Divisional Round (red faced Coughlin, anyone?), before upsetting the 2-seeded 49ers in that game where that guy muffed all those punts, before winning it all against one of the best-ever Patriots teams.

In 2010, we had the 6-seeded Packers, at 10-6 (sound familiar?), win on the road against a probably-inferior Eagles team (one of Andy Reid’s last years there), before nailing top-seeded Atlanta (NFC South winner) and taking care of business in a grudge match against divisional rival, and 2nd-seeded Chicago (propelling them into the Super Bowl where they beat a very good Steelers team, in one of the better and more unheralded Super Bowls of the last 20 years).  Why couldn’t that be us?

Want to see some more weird similarities?  Those 2010 Packers were a good team, with a good quarterback, who caught some tough breaks.  10-6 record, same as Seattle this year.  In 5 of those 6 defeats, Green Bay had a LEAD in the 4th quarter, only to have it taken away late, same as Seattle this year.  Three of their defeats were to eventual division winners (just like us), and they also had a couple of mind-boggling defeats to some real pieces of shit (Detroit & Washington had combined 12-20 records, or pretty much the St. Louis Rams).  And yet, they were a good, veteran team.  They got hot at the right time.  And, they plowed through the NFC playoffs battle-tested and ready to kick some fuckin’ ass in the Super Bowl.

Why not us?

History is probably against us, so long as you don’t just pick & choose which examples you want to point to like I’m doing here.  But, they play the games on fields instead of computers for a reason.  Anything can happen, up to and including winning it all as the 6th seed in a conference.  The Seahawks have shown resiliance, toughness, and at times they’ve been lucky as all get-out.  On a neutral field, under neutral conditions (i.e. no BYE week for the other team), I wouldn’t even be having this conversation.  The Seahawks ARE the better team.  But, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, the best team doesn’t always win.  In this case, with one arm tied behind our backs, we go into Carolina the underdog in every meaning of the word.  Will we have the fortitude to get past this biggest of hurdles?

If so, it looks a lot better for us in the NFC Championship Game, I promise you.  There, it’s more of a 50/50 proposition as to whether the home team wins or not.

I just don’t want these playoffs to end without my team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, if for no other reason than to get last year’s taste out of our mouths.

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