April 29, 2013

Sharpening Our Talons In The NFC West

When the Seattle Seahawks joined the NFC West in 2002, I was among the hordes of Twelves who wailed and moaned about being cast out of the AFC West. We bemoaned the death of our traditional rivalries, and the disrespect implied by being the only team forced to switch conferences as part of the NFL's realignment process. As usual, my hysterical overreaction was completely without justification. The move to the NFC West was one of the best things to ever happen to our franchise. We left a division in which we had a pathetic amount of success (only TWO division titles in 25 AFC West campaigns, and losing records against the Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs) to join one populated by the fading Niners, the aging Rams, and the historically forlorn Cardinals. The move paid dividends in less than two years with a Wild-Card berth in 2003, then division titles in five of the next seven seasons for Seattle. To be blunt, the Seahawks have pretty much owned the NFC West since they joined it in 2002. 

The main irritant of our first decade in the NFC West was the laughable state of the division as a whole. During Seattle's run of four straight division crowns from 2004 to 2007, the Hawks were the only team in the West to even post a winning record. In 2010, NONE of the division's teams even reached 8-8, and 7-9 Seattle became the first team to make the playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season. When your division is so bad it's inspiring talk of taking away automatic playoff bids for division champs, you've bottomed out. 

2012 gave us the first glimpse of a stronger NFC West, with both Seattle and San Francisco winning 11 games and St. Louis going 4-1-1 within the division. After a flurry of free agency moves amounting to an "arms race" between the Hawks and Niners, and particularly strong drafts by Seattle, San Francisco AND St. Louis, the new conventional wisdom is that the NFC West might be the best division in football. In three years, our division has gone from laughingstock to juggernaut. What does this mean for your Seattle Seahawks? 

The first thing that jumps out at me is how RARE it's been for the Hawks to be involved in a pitched battle between two or more elite teams for a division title. You know how many times the Seahawks have been involved in a divisional race that produced three teams that finished with 10 or more wins? Exactly twice. In 1984, Seattle finished 12-4, just ahead of the 11-5 Raiders and just behind the 13-3 Broncos. In 1986, the Hawks were edged out of the postseason by the 10-6 Chiefs and the 11-5 Broncos (DAMN YOU, ELWAY! DAMN YOU TO HELL!). I fully expect the 2013 NFC West to see a battle every bit as intense as the 1984 AFC West race- which means that the Seahawks could field one of the best squads in franchise history and STILL end up hitting the road in the playoffs. 

That got me thinking about a larger historical question: Are Super Bowl Champions more likely to come out of competitive divisions populated by two or more playoff-caliber teams (the "steel sharpens steel" theory), or are they more likely to emerge from divisions where the eventual champs weren't battered by six brutal divisional slugfests? Let's look at the NFL's post-realignment history. 

-2002: Tampa Bay cruises to a 12-4 record, but the NFCS actually boasts two more teams with winning records- The 9-6-1 Falcons and the 9-7 Saints 

-2003: New England runs to a 14-2 record, but Miami also posts a 10-6 mark. 

-2004: Patriots go 14-2, but New York hits 10-6 and Buffalo goes 9-7. 

-2005: Pittsburgh's 11-5 record is matched by Cincinnati. 

-2006: The 12-4 Colts are the AFC South's only team with a winning record. 

-2007: The Giants go 10-6, sandwiched between 9-7 DC and 13-3 Dallas. 

-2008: The 12-4 Steelers are pushed by the 11-5 Ravens. 

-2009: Yes, the Falcons get to 9-7, but the 13-3 Saints aren't seriously challenged in the NFC South. 

-2010: The 10-6 Packers finish the regular season just behind the 11-5 Bears, but beat them in the NFC Championship game to reach Super Bowl XLV. 

-2011: The Giants eke into the playoffs at 9-7, and are the only NFC East team to finish with a winning record. 

-2012: The Ravens' 10-6 record is matched by Cincinnati (shades of 2005!) 

In 11 seasons since realignment, the Super Bowl Champion has emerged from a divisional race involving two or more playoff-caliber teams EIGHT times. So, in recent NFL history, it does appear that being in an intense divisional battle tends to help your chances of winning the Super Bowl. 

Does being in the "NFC Best" hurt Seattle's chances of winning homefield advantage for the entire postseason? Probably. But recent NFL history also shows us that most Super Bowl winners won at least one playoff game on the road. After surviving the NFC West gauntlet, I don't doubt our Hawks could go to Atlanta or Green Bay or New York (or anywhere else) and win in the playoffs. On balance, I think the strength of our division helps the Seahawks more than it hurts them. They're ready for this battle, and prepared to win it. 

What do you think, sirs? 

1 comment:

Tanuj Kamineni said...

Interesting research but I tend to agree, playing the big boys prepares you to perform better during the playoffs rather than just playing the weak sisters and getting into the playoffs.