At last the playoff games begin—and you'd better not blink because there aren't many.
For all the of millions of dollars and billions of words that surround an NFL season—and despite the fact that measured by TV ratings or poll numbers, pro football is by a huge margin America's most popular sport—the league offers a mere 11 postseason games. Playoff contests are inherently far more interesting than the regular season, as well as extremely popular with TV audiences. But there are only 11, count 'em and weep, and just one in prime time: four wild card games this weekend, four divisional round pairings next weekend, two championship games, and the Super Bowl. During the regular season, the airwaves are flooded with meaningless NFL games between crummy teams with losing records. Yet when the playoffs arrive and every game is an attractive, important matchup of winners, suddenly we're on rationing.
The percentage of postseason games in football is notably lower than in other sports. There are 259 annual NFL contests, leaving the 11 postseason matchups at 4 percent of all games. Last year the NBA had 1,264 games of which 75 were playoff pairings, or a 6 percent total. The NHL seems to play its entire regular season just to eliminate the cellar team from each division: Last year the hockey league staged 881 games of which 83 were postseason, a 9 percent fraction. (Major league baseball, it's true, has a relatively low fraction of playoff games, but this is only because the regular-season game total is astronomical.) Hockey and basketball teams with modest or even losing records routinely make the playoffs, but this year four NFL clubs that played respectable 9-7 seasons—the Jets, Lions, Packers, and Steelers—were shut out of the postseason. The NFL's paucity of playoff games further means a team may post an excellent season and be denied a home postseason appearance. Last year Buffalo finished 11-5 and had to open on the road. This year Baltimore achieved a sparkling 12-4 record yet didn't even get a bye and is assured of just one January home game.
Of course football games take longer to prepare for and arrange than contests in other sports. Traditionalists like the fact that each NFL playoff game means so much in part because playoff games are so few, while purists are happy that it's all but statistically impossible for an NFL team with a sub-.500 record to make the postseason. Yet the league could add another playoff weekend, boost interest, sell more seats, and draw more ratings without any dilution in the quality of the tournament. So why hasn't the postseason been expanded? The answer is obvious: The NFL isn't greedy enough!
Postseason tactical note: It's a rule of NFL life that the farther you go into the playoffs, the more important coaching and psychological preparation become. During the regular season, good teams can win with a tossed-together game plan and an average psyche job: At the playoff level every team is good, every detail counts, and if you're not cranked, you might as well stay on the team bus. As the playoffs separate the good coaches from the mere administrators, the men from the individuals who merely have XY chromosome pairs, TMQ will track the game-plan and psyche-up factors.
Postseason math note: Twelve teams enter the playoff tournament, and 11 will finish their year with a loss. Cruel world, eh?
Best Plays of the Week: Best No. 1. On the Panthers one, leading by 10, the Raiders came out in a "jumbo" formation then play-faked to an uncovered Ricky Dudley for the touchdown. RB Tyrone Wheatley ran out his fake so convincingly that three Carolina gentlemen tackled him, one trying to pry out the nonexistent ball.
Best No. 2. With the game tied and 12 seconds in regulation, facing fourth and one on the Detroit 43, Chicago went for it. To the woeful Bears the game meant nothing; the Lions were playing for a postseason appearance, with their home crowd generating military-afterburner levels of noise. Surely the Bears would panic. Instead, Chicago calmly ran the most vanilla of plays, a quick sideline swing to RB James Allen, getting the first and position for kicker Paul Edinger, who hit from 54 on the final play to win it.
Best No. 3. Trailing Jax 10-7 in the fourth and needing a W to secure home-field advantage, Jersey/A faced third and long on the opposition 33. The Jaguars had been blitzing all day with success, and came again. Giants WR Ike Hilliard had been dropping balls all day, but QB Kerry Collins went to him for a spectacular long catch that put the ball in position for the go-ahead touchdown. Going back to a receiver having a bad day is either foolish or inspired; this time it worked. As for Jax, live by the blitz, die by the blitz, eh?
Worst Plays of the Week: Worst No. 1. In a do-or-die road game at Baltimore, Jersey/B held a 14-12 lead and faced second and goal on the Ravens eight with 21 seconds remaining in the half. To that point in the game, Jets QB Vinny Testaverde had thrown 26 times and handed off just 11 times; two of his passes had already resulted in INTs, one with a long return. So what did Jersey/B coaches call? Pass No. 27, a Samuel Morse Special (that is, telegraphed). It was picked off by Chris McAlister and returned 98 yards for the score that swung the game to Baltimore. Live by the pass, die by the pass, eh? Pass Wacky Under Pressure ? Victory.