Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 21, 2014

The Grand Illusion Of NFL Parity

“On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team,” is an adage as familiar as any in sport. Coined by Bert Bell, NFL Commissioner from 1945 until his death in 1959, it is a reflection of the parity that the NFL marketing department does its best to promote; for the notion that every team has a fighting chance week in and week out has helped to make professional football the dominant spectator sport in the country. In isolation the phrase is true enough, for regardless of the sport there is always a reason why they actually play the games.

Just last week the Buffalo Bills surprised the Green Bay Packers. This weekend those same Bills were upended by the 2-12 Oakland Raiders, while the 3-11 New York Jets led New England at the half and again at the start of the fourth quarter before losing by a single point. Most surprising of all, the Washington franchise actually won a game on Saturday.

But an NFL season is made up of sixteen games, not one. As this year’s campaign winds down and the playoff picture comes into focus, it’s apparent that while anything may be possible in a single contest, over the course of a full season a handful of elite teams rise to the top. This is especially true in the AFC. Both conferences send six teams to the postseason tournament every year. Over the last four seasons the AFC representatives have been drawn from ten members of the Conference. Only two of those ten, the Jets and the San Diego Chargers, have made the playoffs just once. Baltimore, Cincinnati, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New England and Pittsburgh have all made multiple trips to the postseason in those four years; with the Broncos, Ravens and Bengals making three appearances and the Patriots a perfect four for four.

If the season ended right now, five of the six AFC playoff teams would be returning to the postseason from last year. The only new entrant would be Pittsburgh, with the Steelers back in the tournament after a two-year absence. But for Ben Roesthlisberger and company it would be three appearances in five years. Since the season doesn’t end until next weekend, one should also consider those teams that still have a mathematical chance of making the playoffs. That expands the field to nine teams, every one of which is on the list of the AFC’s usual postseason suspects. The last franchise with a chance to crash the party was Buffalo. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999. That drought will continue after their upset loss to Oakland.

The AFC story is in part a tale of two quarterbacks. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the leading signal-callers of their generation, and a still open question about this year’s AFC seedings likely more relevant than the identity of the second Wild Card is whether the Patriots or the Broncos will have the number one seed and home field advantage throughout the tournament.

With Brady’s Pats and Manning’s Broncos or Colts holding down two available playoff spots in four of the five seasons (counting this one) that are the subject of this review, there hasn’t been a lot of room left for other teams to rise up. But over a longer period the trend has been for at least a couple of teams to go every year from a losing record to making the playoffs. In the AFC this year, that’s not going to happen.

On the surface the NFC displays slightly more parity in populating the postseason, with twelve different teams making the playoffs over the last four years. In addition this season there will be two newcomers, the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys. Both teams last made the playoffs one year before the time period covered by this analysis. But half of the NFC dozen are teams with just a single postseason appearance in the last four years.

Two of those squads are Detroit and Carolina. At 11-4 the Lions have clinched their second playoff berth in four years. Perhaps fans in the Motor City can begin to put memories of the 0-16 and 2-14 teams of 2008 and 2009 behind them. But Carolina, if they defeat Atlanta next week, will be in the postseason only because the rules say some team from the NFC South gets to participate. We don’t yet know whether the Panthers or Falcons will be the division champion, but we do know that either one will go into the playoffs with a losing record. That’s happened only once before in a non-strike shortened season. If this were Premier League soccer instead of the NFL the reward would be relegation to a lower league rather than the opportunity to play on.

The other single appearance teams on the lists from both the NFC and the AFC include teams whose fans should probably savor the memory of that moment in the playoffs. The Jets and the Bears, like the Giants and the Vikings, and definitely like Washington, all look like teams that are years away from contending. The same can be said for the teams in both conferences that haven’t made the playoff list at all in recent years. Postseason play in Oakland or Tampa? Wild Card weekend in Jacksonville or Tennessee? Don’t hold your breath.

Change will come in time of course. Brady and Manning aren’t going to play forever. Both teams that call the Meadowlands home are likely to have new coaches next season. Washington may well have a new quarterback; though sadly not a new owner. Detroit’s return to respectability is a clear reminder that the downtrodden can rise up; just as the fall of the 49ers proves that the mighty will not always be so. San Francisco played in three straight Conference Championships and went to the Super Bowl just two seasons ago. But dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s numbers are down, his standoffish public persona has diminished his star quality, and head coach Jim Harbaugh is likely headed to the University of Michigan.

For fans of the teams that watch the postseason rather than play in it, change will come. Just don’t expect it to do so quickly; and the next time someone trots out Bert Bell’s old maxim, tell them to just shut up.

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