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Wild Card Weekend Games Mean More to Some Teams than Others

CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens argues a call with line judge Ron Marinucci  while playing the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 19, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Pro football is not the NBA or the NHL, where more than half of the league is invited to come play in the postseason.  I feel badly even comparing the NFL to those other leagues.  But the NFL playoff field is more liberalized than it seems.  12 teams make it each year.  They split it up into six teams per 16 team conference, keeping it from being watered down a little bit, and limiting the field to just two wild cards does the same.  Teams that clinch the wild card must be good teams, even if they have as many wins as losses (such as the 8-8 2004 Minnesota Vikings) who can make noise in the playoffs.

Some question the integrity of the division system, but voices are only raised when a division is so weak that a team like the 7-9 Seahawks make it.  The Seahawks aren’t a lost cause.  If you don’t get tied up with their sub-.500 record, their 4-2 division record in the crappy NFC West makes them a more satisfying playoff team than the Kansas City Chiefs (2-4) in the AFC West, who was only able to get to 10-6 because they swept the crappy AFC West.  The Seahawks are hearing it from all ends because they won seven games and lost 9, but they played a difficult non-divisional schedule, beating the Chargers and Bears to get to seven wins.  I feel a lot better about the Seahawks as a playoff team than the Rams (though I would have felt best about the 49ers).  I doubt either of those teams could have scored how they did against the Saints.

The lesson here is that while making the playoffs is a nice goal to aim for at the beginning of the year, making it to the divisional round has a lot more predictive value in terms of future team strength.  Maybe the Seahawks are a bad team who were bad for two years prior to this year, and will be bad for the next two years, and just happened to be not bad enough to not take the NFC West automatic bid.  I’d predict that perhaps this is not their plight, and that 2010 is a legitimate step forward over 2009.  That could be the meaning derived from an emotional win over the heavily favored Saints.

The Seahawks are not the team who has the most on the line today.  The teams that are deepest in their roster cycles — deep as in aging — have the most at stake.  The Colts come to mind immediately, but placing them here would be as inaccurate as placing the Patriots here last year.  The Colts’ window is not closing, rather, they are already a very different team from last year, with Peyton Manning’s play declining in quality, and the desperation to replace it with quantity.  Their opponent, the Jets, are much deeper and this win is far more critical to them.  For one thing, Mark Sanchez may never be able to lead a team like he has back to the playoffs, and the Jets may spend years looking for a quarterback who can.  Most of their receivers have expiring contracts as well, and LaDainian Tomlinson is on fumes at this point of his career, despite a hot start like the rest of the Jets.  Rex Ryan built his defense primarily off of Mangini holdovers and free agents from Baltimore.  Darelle Revis will be in his prime for many years into the future: expect him to receive the Nnamdi Asomugha treatment from here on out.

The Jets are here, and they start their postseason run with a much needed win against a very mediocre Colts team.  If they had fallen here to Peyton Manning as beatable as his team is — Nick Folk missing that FG and such — the Jets would no longer be playing second fiddle to the Patriot, they would have been in real trouble as a franchise.  The Jets had more at stake than any other team this weekend.  The Colts are now running out of time in the Manning era, but ever so slowly.

One other team faces an incredibly serious, franchise-directing game this weekend: the Baltimore Ravens.  They’ll have a difficult first round game against the Chiefs in Arrowhead — but if they are a great team and not merely a good one, they should be able to beat the Chiefs.  If the Chiefs are able to win at home, I think they are a dangerous team going forward, for anyone but the Patriots.  The Ravens can once again bust up the AFC playoff bracket, because if both wild card teams win, the Ravens go to Pittsburgh where they’ve already won this year, and the Steelers have not performed that well against the AFC’s elite.  The Steelers would much rather hope to draw the Colts or the Chiefs, non-elite AFC teams who they match up much better against.

Who the Ravens face, if they beat the Chiefs, could be the main determinant of who comes out of the AFC playoff field and ultimately wins the super bowl.  It’s unlikely that the Ravens can go all the way, but the further they do go, the more likely the playoff field is to get screwed up so that the AFC Championship is between any two teams but the Steelers and Patriots.

It’s also critical for the Ravens because they are right in the middle of their strength period under John Harbaugh.  The Steelers aren’t going away, and this is the proving ground for the Ravens.  Prove that, even though you didn’t win the division, you can be a major factor in the playoffs.  If they don’t beat the Chiefs on Sunday, it’s difficult to see the Ravens becoming an actual super bowl contender under John Harbaugh.  Of course, it could be worse even if they lose this week: they at least hired the right Harbaugh.

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