Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Wild Card Weekend a False Sense of Parity

By Bob Ekstrom

Wild Card Weekend gave professional football fans everywhere a chance to extol ours as the best of the Big Four sports. Two games were decided on the final play, one featured an historic comeback, and the fourth was an upset of sorts — if there's anyone out there who could regard the Cincinnati Bengals as a favorite in the postseason. It's easy to see why so many of us prefer this weekend over any other in sports, and yet it also illuminated a widening chasm that could threaten Roger Goodell's competitive balancing act on a grander scale.

The NFL thrives on parity, an on-any-given-Sunday mantra that compels viewers to stay plugged in to every game even when one out-of-market team is beating another by four touchdowns in the third quarter. You just never know what might happen. Leveling the field to this degree requires constant fine-tuning, but the NFL has to be diligent lest it lose sight of the forest through the trees. While 345 Park Avenue does its best to increase the likelihood that any single game will come down to its final possession, 32 front offices are at work tipping the equilibrium between conferences.

It's caste warfare, with the blue-blood NFC upholding the traditional smash-mouth, mud-in-your-face style upon which the game was built, and the AFC returning to that flashy veneer it relied upon to make inroads in the NFL's fan base during the 1960s. In a copycat league in which you play among your own kind 75% of the time, the AFC has followed the lead of the Indianapolis Colts who glittered their way through Super Bowl XLI, while the NFC is hell-bent on mashing each other to the top à la the 2007 New York Giants. The dichotomy hasn't favored AFC football over the last few years, and it peaked this past season. At this pace, we could find ourselves back in a pre-Namath era where the AFC will have to once again fight for its survival.

Mind you, we're not talking financial survival. The AFC's coffers are thriving. People like up-and-down action, porous defenses that make Target's data security systems look impenetrable, and shotgun formations on 3rd-and-1. This stuff sells tickets and it sells jerseys even as it sells out to football purists. No, we're talking about competitive survival.

Arguments about the relative strength of one conference over another are always subjective. Statistics don't often back up either side. For instance, of 64 inter-conference games played this season, the NFC had a meager 34-30 edge. The AFC did pass more frequently by a 59%-58% margin, but the NFC completed 62% of those passes, the AFC 61%. NFC defenses even gave up slightly more yards (350 vs. 347) and points (23.5 vs. 23.4) per game than their AFC counterparts. There is parity on paper, but there is no parity in what my eyes tell me.

Going into last weekend's action, there were at least three NFC teams that I felt could beat the best from the AFC. That presumes the best in the AFC can even be determined. Maybe Denver? Even with Von Miller, their defense was soft and pliable, and they've been beaten by all three other AFC teams playing this weekend, so they're no lock. How about New England? In an indictment of how pedestrian this conference is, the Patriots were in contention for top seed on Week 17 despite having five key starters on injured reserve, a revolving door on the offensive line, and a list of skill position players more obscure than the lineup of your local Division III team. No matter which of the four AFC teams makes it to New York, it will be a surprise. And it won't matter.

The only new development after last weekend's action is that I've elevated the Saints, by virtue of their performance on Saturday, to a fourth team with superiority over any AFC contender. They beat Philadelphia on defense and a running game rather than by Drew Brees' arm, and that's a successful formula in January.

Nothing else changed, nor should it. The Bengals are a dial-up choke that make a habit out of advancing 9-7 opponents like San Diego to the next round. And as thrilling as it was, the Colts' 45-44 victory over the once 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs is stereotypical AFL football: 145 plays, 11 TDs, both teams over 500 total yards from scrimmage. Great theater, and I loved it for that.

But then came the Packers and 49ers, and I loved it more. You could not watch this game without appreciating how well it embodied the essence of what our football founding fathers had in mind: a minus-13 wind chill; natural sod, frozen solid and stripped of all greenness by an already brutal Wisconsin winter; quarterbacks flexing bare extremities; players snorting enough condensated breath to mask their faces. And a warm-weather team that withstood the elements to beat a team quite at home in them.

Postseason football is at its best when it's played in pain. The Ice Bowl, Brett Favre's broken thumb, Tom Coughlin's frozen face: these are all iconic images of toughness. Games where every play hurts, every yard is contested, every point a luxury quite unlike those devalued increments that rack up fast and furious on an AFC scoreboard like confetti piling on the street during a parade.

I live in an AFL-turned-AFC town and, although we're as embarrassed as any other that the New York Jets were our first ambassadors of parity, we have enjoyed the status it has since accorded us. It's a comfortable life, replete with scoring records, passing records, receiving records, even 22 Super Bowl titles in 47 years. I'm proud to say the AFC has been a co-tenant to greatness, deserving of its seat at the table across from the game's blue-bloods. But not this year. Our chair is about to be pulled out from under us, and if we're not quick to adjust, and not too stubborn to get back to the game's roots, we could find ourselves lying on the floor a spell waiting for the next Joe Willie Namath to come around.

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