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With the NFL regular season now approaching its home stretch, the media and fans can't help but decide who the elite teams are, and which should be labelled as serious contenders for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.  Teams like the Broncos, with their unstoppable offense, and the Seahawks, with their wall of a defense, are catching our eyes because of their great potential to win it all.  But do the regular seasons that these teams are having mirror those of champions' past?
I thought that it would be interesting to look back at past seasons in the NFL, and examine the types of regular seasons that the eventual Super Bowl Champions put up, before going on to win the big game.
What did I find?  
-Over the past eight seasons, only the 2008 Steelers(12-4) had a very clean regular season, and would have been considered a contender from start to finish(You could argue that the Saints took their foot off of the gas after starting 13-0 in 2009, as they already had clinched a first-round bye).
2005- The Steelers went 11-5, but at one point during the season had lost three in a row.
2006- The Colts went 12-4, but lost four of their last seven games, including a crushing at the hands of Jaguars.  YES, the Jaguars...
2007- The Giants went 10-6, and started 0-2.  Hasn't every NFL panel in the history of television told us that 0-2 was insurmountable? Hmm...
2009- The Saints went 13-3, but lost their last three before going into the play-offs.  I thought that you want to go into the play-offs on a hot streak?
2010- The Packers went 10-6, and started 3-3.
2011- The Giants went 9-7, and were 6-6 after their first twelve games.  Isn't the old saying in the NFL, 'Get at least TEN wins...'?
2012- The Ravens went 10-6, and lost four of their last five regular season games. 

Some interesting notes about the past eight Super Bowl Champions:

-The most common regular season record among the Super Bowl Champions over the last eight seasons is 10-6.

-Only three of the last eight Super Bowl Champions were division winners.

-Only nine of the 16 teams that played in the Super Bowl over the past eight seasons earned a first-round bye...  And only TWO of those nine went on to win the Super Bowl.

-Over the past eight seasons, only five of the sixteen teams that have made the Super Bowl, had the best regular season record in their conference.

...And maybe the most noteworthy fact of them all...

-NOT ONCE did the team with the best regular season record in the NFL go on to win the Super Bowl.

So, why is it that the 'best' teams never seem to take the title? 

The truth is, a team's 16-game record may not always represent how good(or bad) they really are.  At the end of the day, how big of a gap is there between a division-winner that finishes 12-4, or a wild-card team that sneaks in at 10-6?  Two wins.  Two MEASLY wins.  How often do games in the NFL come down to the last possession?  One special teams play?  Or a single turnover?  In reality, the team that goes 10-6, or even 9-7 was most likely only a few plays away from posting a 12-4 record, themselves.

In 2012, the Atlanta Falcons finished 13-3, which was the best record in the NFL.  But seven of those thirteen wins were by seven points or less.  The Baltimore Ravens, who went on to win the Super Bowl, posted a record of 10-6.  But four of those losses were by less than a single score.  From the outside looking in, the Falcons looked far better than the Ravens going into the play-offs.  But were they actually...?  Or was it just a matter of Atlanta having more final possessions, and more 'bounces' go their way? (See also the 2010 Packers who went 10-6, but ALL of their losses were by four points, or less).

I've always said that football is the sport that is the most analyzed, but deserves very little analyzing.  NFL games are typically decided by two or three huge plays.  So in the post-season, one bad decision by a quarterback, one missed field-goal or one dropped pass, and a team could be eliminated.

In the 2012 Divisional Play-offs, Denver was eliminated by Baltimore after Joe Flacco threw a 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones with thirty seconds left in the fourth quarter that forced the game into overtime.  The Broncos had won their final eleven games of the regular season, and Peyton Manning's offence looked nothing short of spectacular going into the play-offs.  I still can't figure out what the Broncos' secondary was doing...  And how Jones got open...

In the 2011 NFC Championship Game, Kyle Williams of the 49ers fumbled while returning a punt in overtime, which put the Giants in a position to kick the game-winning field goal.  The Niners posted thirteen wins in the regular season, defeated a strong Saints team in an EPIC Divisional Play-Off game, and earned home-field advantage for the NFC Championship.  But it all came crashing down when their back-up punt returner couldn't secure the ball.

In the 2010 NFC Wild Card Game, the Eagles were down 21-16 to the Packers with a minute to go, but were driving for the game-winning score.  Unfortunately for Philadelphia, Michael Vick made a poor decision and threw a pass that was intercepted in the end-zone.  Vick had another receiver WIDE OPEN on that play, and there was a full 40 seconds left on the clock.  I'm sure that Eagles fans have asked themselves, 'What if Vick had seen that free receiver?' 

These are three examples from the past three seasons of how a SINGLE play cost one team their season, and allowed another team to advance and eventually win the Super Bowl.  We spend so much time discussing how teams in the NFL match-up against one-another, but a the end of it all, when two above average teams meet, it is more likely that the game will come down to something that cannot be explained, could not have been pre-determined, or had nothing to do with how the teams matched up, at all.

There is also the matter of how significant officiating decisions can be in the NFL.  Maybe more than in any other professional league, a single call in the NFL can greatly determine the outcome of a game.  I am not trying to say that the NFL zebras are constantly making mistakes, and ultimately deciding the results. But the fact of the matter is that referees in the NFL often have to make quick, subjective decisions that will greatly affect a game's outcome.

We need to look no further than this past week to find two examples of how a decision by an official significantly impacted the final result.  In the game between the 49ers and the Saints, the score was 20-17 for San Francisco with three minutes left in the fourth quarter when Ahmad Brooks sacked Drew Brees. The ball was fumbled, and the 49ers quickly pounced on it.  Unfortunately for Brooks, he was charged with a questionable 'unnecessary roughness' penalty for his hit, and the Saints were awarded a free 15 yards and a 1st down.  The Saints tied the game on that possession and won it on their next drive.  Some are arguing that the penalty call was justified, while others are saying that it was not...  In this situation, the official was forced to quickly decide to throw a flag or not, regarding a call that really could have gone either way. The decision would in turn greatly affect the result of this game, as San Francisco almost certainly would have won if the flag was not thrown. 

In Monday night's game between the Patriots and the Panthers, Carolina led 24-20 late in the 4th quarter, but New England had possession, and was in the red zone.  On the last play of the game, Tom Brady threw a pass over the middle that was intercepted, but a penalty flag was thrown as it was decided that tight-end, Rob Gronkowski was interfered with.  The officials quickly huddled, and determined that there was no foul on the play, as the pass was deemed, 'uncatchable'.  Fans and media have debated all week whether or not Gronkowski would have had a shot at catching that pass if he had not been interfered with.  Could Gronk have caught that ball...?  We'll never really know...  But we do know that the Patriots would have ran a play from the one yard-line, with a chance to win the game, if the penalty had held up. 

So what's the moral of this story?

Once the regular season is complete, we should all pay very little attention to the regular seasons of those who have made the play-offs.  Recent history has shown that a team's success during their first sixteen games is in no way a foreshadowing of their next three or four.  The saying, 'Anyone can win on any given Sunday' really does hold true.

So if your favourite team is having an incredible season, don't get too excited...  You should, in actuality, be praying that they don't finish with the best record in the league. 

Oh... And if your favourite team is not quite meeting their potential, don't fret.  They may be fortunate enough to sneak in to the play-offs, and be forced to win three straight road games, before playing a division-winning team in the Super Bowl(See the 2012 Ravens, 2010 Packers and 2007 Giants).

If you can take one thing from this post, it should be this...  The next time you're getting set for an NFL play-off week-end, don't waste your time comparing offences, defenses and coaching staffs. The difference between winning and losing in the NFL post-season is so razor thin, that one team's win over another will most likely not come down to something that can be analyzed or explained, but who makes one single play(or mistake for that matter) that determines the outcome of the game.  Or the refs...