Maybe by the Ravens’ 6th or 7th consecutive playoff appearance we’ll all learn something about the NFL and how special this run is. Maybe if in 2014 or 2015 or sometime beyond that, if the Ravens are sitting at 6-2 and poised to continue an unprecedented run of playoff inclusion and success, we’ll all understand what we should know already. Maybe it’s time that we all simply acknowledged that the only thing that we can possibly know about the likely outcome of an NFL season in the first week of November is nothing. In 2012 it’s obvious that we still haven’t learned that yet.
There’s an old baseball saying that says, “pennants can’t be won in April but they can be lost there”. Lately NFL football has proven to be exactly the same, only to an even greater extent. As things stand today there are a few more than a handful of teams that we can feel pretty well assured won’t win the Super Bowl. There are somewhere between 8 and 12 teams that we could legitimately write out of the playoffs and be right about. Those teams would be the 5 that are sitting at 1 or 2 wins, the pair of 3-6 teams and 3 or 4 of the teams sitting at 3-5 or 3-6 after 9 weeks of the season. Even then, would it be altogether unheard of to see the Saints or Cowboys or Eagles caught lightning in a bottle over the second half of their schedule and get into the playoffs? Would it be impossible for those teams to win a game or two once in?
Now…if you’re offering odds; that becomes quite a different story. If we’re placing wagers on who won’t win the Super Bowl I’ll take all of the teams with 3 wins or less and feel pretty good about it. I’ll also take the Falcons and Texans to not win the Super Bowl and feel pretty good about that too. That’s because every team right now is a good bet to not win the Super Bowl. History (and mathematics) couldn’t be any clearer on that point.
The modern era of football, in the playoffs in particular is becoming more and more like baseball. The modern formula for winning the Super Bowl has become, to just get into the playoffs as healthy as possible (although beyond the quarterback that doesn’t even seem to be a necessity) and hope to get hot at the end. That’s what the Giants did, and the Packers before them. That’s likely what this year’s winner, whoever it may be will do too.
Now of course we’ll be up in arms this week as Ravens fans, because even at 6-2. The Ravens haven’t been as aesthetically or statistically impressive as we’d like to believe a Super Bowl champion needs to be…even in the first week of November. We’re caught up in what has just happened and what is about to happen immediately, because it’s no fun to reserve judgment until it’s actually smart to make judgment.
The other fun part about the NFL season is that it’s actually (for most teams) like two completely different seasons. There’s the warm weather portion and the cold weather portion; and as the cold weather part of the schedule is all but upon us, the whole landscape is about to shift dramatically again.
Before you identify the Ravens as not having what it takes to win in the playoffs, try to recall what you thought about the Giants at this time last year, or the Packers the year before that (if you thought of them at all). Before ruling out Joe Flacco as a quarterback capable of finishing a playoff push like Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees, or Tom Brady, or Ben Roethlisberger, or Eli Manning think about how many times those QBs have met their demise in the playoffs in comparison to the times they’ve actually won it. And it’s not like they’ve all always lost at the hands of each other. They’ve lost at the hands of the Seahawks who so many argued didn’t even belong in the playoffs or the hands of Tim Tebow who so many argued didn’t even deserve to be under center, or the hands of Alex Smith and a stellar defense.
Football has changed a lot in the last decade or so, and with the increases in scoring and excitement have come decreases in dominance and predictability. Not only are the teams who look most dominant in the first half or three-quarters of a season any longer a lock to win it all, more often than not they’re a safe bet to lose in the playoffs. Everyone is a safe bet to lose in the playoffs if we’re judging in the first week of November.
Blowouts in the NFL just don’t happen that often. It’s a byproduct of the game’s evolution. Even the teams with the best win/loss records these days find themselves having to fight for late victories against teams that don’t appear to be as good. The most recent Super Bowl champions have found ways not only to win in those circumstances, but also to expect to win in those circumstances. If there’s any safe way to begin trying to identify a likely champion, it’s to find the teams that are winning close games regardless of their opponents. Any team that intends to win a title will eventually have to win games that way, the sooner they get comfortable doing it the better.
The Ravens have been winning games that way.