By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 04, 2009

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Four games, all the road teams favored, and the visiting team had the better record in three of them. Maybe Bob Kraft should give Roger Goodell a call.

Division champs took a little bit of a hit as the 2008 NFL regular season reached its conclusion. New England, all of 11-5, had to sit at home and watch eight teams battle it out on Wild Card weekend, with only three of the eight teams with better standing than them. You had San Diego winning the AFC West at 8-8, Arizona (47-7 losers at Foxborough two weeks ago) winning the NFC West at 9-7, Minnesota the NFC North champs at 10-6 and Philadelphia in as a Wild Card at 9-6-1. Atlanta got the other NFC Wild Card with an 11-5 mark, and since the Falcons are in the other conference, you can't really separate them from the Patriots due to tiebreakers.

Take this to a rules change committee, and they'll spit the following back in your face.

11-5 Atlanta had to go on the road to Arizona, the Cardinals playing their first home playoff game since 1947 when they were based in Chicago. Then-Cardinal owner William F. Bidwill's grandson saw the Cardinals finally wake up after a month-long nap and send the far superior Falcons home, 30-24, spoiling Boston College's Matt Ryan's playoff debut. If Atlanta was so great, why didn't they take care of a stale Cardinal team when they needed to?

You might have predicted Indianapolis to lay an egg in San Diego (we didn't, we admit it). But the Colts, three wins better as a Wild Card than the home standing division champs, watched their defense bumble and their running game stumble, and the Chargers sent the Colts home, 23-17 on a 22-yard touchdown run by Darren Sproles in overtime. This turned out to be still another playoff egg laid by Peyton Manning and his gang. But other than another entertaining playoff loss column by Bob Kravitz in the Indianapolis Star, it does shoot further down any claim by the Patriots that they shouldn't be home watching with 11 wins.

Sunday was more like the way most folks predicted. Baltimore went into Miami, the better team over the Dolphins thanks to a better conference record, and whipped tail on the home team, 27-9. Then later, in the least compelling matchup of the weekend on paper, Philadelphia went into Minnesota with 9.5 wins and beat the team with 0.5 more wins, 26-14. Both road teams came through on Sunday, whereas both road faves on Saturday more or less choked.

Say what you will, but this was a strange weekend where all four road teams were favored and all should have won. Both Arizona (at Carolina) and San Diego (at Pittsburgh) will be huge dogs next week. In another lifetime, San Diego did once win at Pittsburgh in the postseason, but that means nothing next weekend. The teams did meet at Heinz Field on November 16, a meeting which produced the first 11-10 final in NFL history. Ditto for Arizona and Carolina, where the Panthers defeated the Cardinals at home on October 26 by a 27-23 count.

While this is not meant to sound like sour grapes from the Patriots standpoint, how much of a travesty is it that the Patriots are not in the playoffs but the San Diego Chargers are? The New York Jets, despite the stinky end to their season where their coach got the axe and their quarterback is once again mulling retirement, also finished with a better record than the Bolts. The Jets have more problems than complaining about the playoffs, but if you compare the Jets and Chargers, see how many people favor Gang Green over the nations' most beautiful city.

Were the playoff seedings done by conference record only, the seedings would be Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis (the Steelers beat the Colts on common opponents), Baltimore, Miami and New England. In this scenario, the Patriots would have gone to Indianapolis for a much more NFL-pleasing matchup, and Baltimore would have wound up hosting Miami instead of going there. As appealing as the division races are, if the NFL could have its pick, it takes the Patriots and the Colts any day, week, month or year.

Of course, the next year or the year after could yield some very different results and matchups. The NFL took a great deal of care in realigning the divisions prior to the 2002 season, but with four division champions and two Wild Card teams, results like this year happen all the time. New England happens to be the most extreme case of them all, but when you spread the teams into four divisions with four teams each, you are bound every year to come up with a bad division or two. In 2008, you happened to have three bad divisions, but two of their champions managed to win this weekend. The "on any given Sunday" cliché may be the best explanation, but the fact remains that both Indianapolis and Atlanta played far below expectations and picked a lousy time to do so.

The NBA emphasizes conference standings over division standings in seeding their playoffs. You seed the division champs first through third, then the next five seeds are determined by the next five best teams in the conference. This is like the NFL, but you involve eight teams and three divisions instead of six and four. The NFL most likely doesn't want to bring in more playoff teams, as both the NBA and NHL have been ridiculed in the past for too many playoff teams and too long a postseason. But it might explain why this sort of playoff imperfection would happen in the NFL more often than in other leagues.

The Patriots were the direct benefactors of playoff revision some thirty seasons ago. When the Baltimore Colts hornswaggled their way into the 1977 playoffs by losing on purpose to the Detroit Lions to improve their playoff position, the NFL added a second Wild Card in 1978. It's not likely the Patriots will get such relief in 2009, as there was no skullduggery going on to produce this year's playoff lineup. The Patriots put themselves into the position of tiebreakers going against them, and they have only themselves to blame. But it is hard to keep an 11-5 team out of the playoffs and let an 8-8 team in.

Who knows, maybe the Chargers will become the first 8-8 team to win the Super Bowl. They might be able to get away with no LaDainian Tomlinson and a subpar Antonio Gates against the Colts, but against the Steelers it may be a different story. All things aside, the conference championships and the Super Bowl are both wide open, and that in and of itself makes for compelling playoff fodder.

Says Bill Belichick on more than one occasion, "It is what it is." The Patriots sit at home, not a part of this wide open field at all. But you can bet your bottom dollar that there are a lot of teams out there that are plumb happy that the Patriots are where they are. The Baltimore Ravens, victorious Sunday at Miami, are on record as saying that playing at Foxborough was the one thing they didn't want to do in January.

Feel better, everyone?


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