For those of us who have followed football for a long time, this year seems to have generated a particularly interesting field for the postseason. No where in the group of a dozen teams do we have a favorite that looks invincible, although you might get an argument on that for those who back the Baltimore Ravens.
Before we get to the eight teams playing this weekend, let me spend a moment with a look at Baltimore. They fall into more traps than a blind bear.
First, they won their last game, a game they didn’t need. Why does that matter? Because history shows that when a team closes out a season with a win in a game that doesn’t matter, it reliably produces a down performance in their opening postseason game.
I have a number of examples, some as fresh as last season, and one of historical note that San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Bill Walsh took to his grave saying it was the toughest defeat of his career. In 1987, the 49ers were in the middle of their mavalous run with Joe Montana running the offense and Jerry Rice establishing records that will forever remain at the top of the heap.
That season, the players staged a strike early in the campaign and the league countered with replacement teams that took the field for three games before the regular athletes returned. In that negotiation, the regular season was reduced from 16 games to 15 games, and the 49ers came into the last week of the campaign with the top seed in the National Football Conference clinched and a game against state rival Los Angeles. The Rams were in a down year, and entered the final week with a 6 and 8 won/loss mark.
With nothing to play for, one might have thought the 49ers would show up like so many other teams in that role, like the Houston Texans yesterday, and get rolled on their home field. But, they didn’t. The 49ers picked up their 13th win of the season with a 48-0 trouncing of the Rams in a Sunday night game played at Candlestick Park.
The fans loved it that night, but two weeks later when the 49ers opened their 1987 playoffs as a prohibitive favorite against the Minnesota Vikings, the double-digit favored Niners were upset in the game Walsh never got over, 36-24.
Did the 49ers meaningless 48-0 win set them up for disappointment in the playoffs?
Without any motivation to push against, they were flat against Minnesota in their postseason opener in the only game Walsh pulled Joe Montana in favor of Steve Young for competitive reasons.
In 2004, The Pittsburgh Steelers were enjoying a campaign sparked by rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He had guided his team to 13 straight wins after replacing an injured Tommy Maddox two games into the season. On the final day of the campaign, the Buffalo Bills needed a win to earn a postseason slot, and the Steelers had already locked up the top seed in the American Football Conference playoffs. Still, with nothing on the line, the Steelers won their 14th straight game and in the process ended the Bills hopes for a Wild Card berth.
I vividly recall Pittsburgh runningback Jerome Bettis raising his fists in adulation after his team doused Buffalo’s postseason hopes. Two weeks later, the Steelers met a New York Jets team that had gotten that postseason berth the Bills were denied, and as nine point home favorites the Steelers needed a comeback to eke out a three point win, 20-17. A week later, on their home field, Pittsburgh had their 15 game winning streak snapped by the New England Patriots, 41-27.
There are more examples of problems befalling a team that wins a meaningless last game of the season, and one example is just last season. The Dallas Cowboys were locked into their postseason slot when they visited the New York Giants. On the games final play, Dallas receiver Cole Beasley, who is now headed to the playoffs with the Buffalo Bills, made a diving catch in the endzone for the Cowboys who took the victory with an ensuring two-point conversion, 36-35.
Congratulations Dallas, you just won a game you didn’t need. Now what? They opened the playoffs as a 2½ point home favorite against the Seattle Seahawks, and got a narrow two point win and point spread loss, 24-22. The following week, in Los Angeles, as a seven point underdog, they lost by eight points to the Los Angeles Rams.
Now, contrast that to a team that has nothing to play for and lets the game get away. That is how the Philadelphia Eagles started their surprise Super Bowl run two years ago. They lost to the Cowboys on the final day of the regular season, 6-0, and then beat the Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots to capture their franchise’s only Super Bowl victory.
What you do matters, and what the Ravens did on Sunday is win a game they didn’t need. The euphoric state that creates has an expiration date come the playoffs.
Yep, there is no team in the NFL playoff field with a hand that can’t be beat, especially the favored Ravens.