The reason the Giants won’t get a chance to defend their latest championship is that the goal which every NFL team shoots for en route to making the Super Bowl is no longer as helpful toward reaching a Super Bowl as it once was in the NFL.
Clinching a conference top seed, and thus being rewarded an opening round bye and home field throughout the playoffs used to mean a great chance at winning two home playoff games and earning a trip to the Big Game.
But, things have changed over the past decade or so. After the current playoff format was adopted in the 1990 season, it was almost a certainty for the next several years that teams with first-round byes would meet in the Super Bowl.
A one seed from one conference played a two seed from the other conference every year from the Giants’ second championship (in Super Bowl XXV) through Super Bowl XXXI, with the only exceptions being fourth-seeded Buffalo losing to second-seeded Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII and Buffalo and Dallas meeting as a pair of one seeds the following year.
However, Super Bowl XLIII on February 1st, will mark the seventh Super Bowl in the past ten, and eighth in the past twelve that will feature at least one team lower than a two seed.
This season, things were particularly unconventional:
Sending either Arizona or Philadelphia (9-7 and 9-6-1, respectively, in the regular season), the NFC will have a Super Bowl representative with no more than nine regular season wins for the first time since the Los Angeles Rams in 1979; three road teams won on the same weekend in the NFL playoffs for the first time since 1971; for the first time ever, none of the top three seeds in NFC made it to the conference championship game; and, the Giants became the first defending Super Bowl champion in the NFC to lose to a six seed.
It seems that home teams with byes lately, like this year’s Giants, Titans, or Panthers, lose their rhythm compared to lower-seeded road teams that are forced to play each week in the postseason, like last year’s Giants, or this year’s Eagles, Cardinals, or Ravens.
Why the changing trends?
Because with bigger contracts and increased player movement via free agency, trades, and league expansion, the real dominant teams of years past -- 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers, the 1980’s San Francisco 49ers, the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 1986 Giants, the 1990’s Dallas Cowboys, and the New England Patriots from earlier this decade -– simply don’t exist anymore.
It’s now become tougher than ever to repeat as champions in the NFL, and that’s opened things up for lower seeds to steal the spotlight on the road, get hot at the right time, and win a championship after a good -- but not great -- regular season. That just didn’t happen that often, in the past. The top two seeds today, aren’t your father’s tops two seeds.
As a one seed, the 1986 Giants steamrolled San Francisco (49-3) and Washington (17-0) at Giants Stadium en route to a Super Bowl XXI victory. Those 49er and Redskin teams knew what they were up against going to The Meadowlands.
In sharp contrast, much more confident wild-card teams have made the Giants’ home field advantage disappear in the Giants’ past two home playoff games this decade, in which the Giants scored no touchdowns and 11 total points (they lost three years ago to Carolina, 23-0 and lost last Sunday, to Philadelphia 23-11, in interestingly, the only game in NFL history with that final score). Five times the Giants were inside the Eagles’ 20 yard line last Sunday, producing a mere three field goals.
A promising 11-1 start had the Giants looking like they were on their way back to the Super Bowl. Yet, in the end, the Giants ended up having more in common with this year’s Jets, as both teams finished 1-4, having their seasons end on the same home field, being upset by a hated division rival.
The difference for the Giants from last year seemed to be a case of circumstances over talent. Last season, as a five seed, the Giants snuck up on opponents, embracing an underdog role as well as any team could, riding eleven straight road wins all the way to a championship. “Last year we were the road warriors,” Head Coach Tom Coughlin said. “This year, I thought we would be the warriors at home. It just didn’t come to pass.”
Coughlin was partly to blame for that, and to a greater extent, culpability fell on last year’s Super Bowl MVP, quarterback Eli Manning, and his problems with the wind on Sunday.
The play calling lacked on the part of Coughlin and his staff, underutilizing the Giants’ bread and butter, an effective and healthy Brandon Jacobs for much of the game (especially on a failed, key 4th-and-inches quarterback sneak by Manning with the game in still very much in the balance, early in the fourth quarter).
Meanwhile, it seems that Manning can handle a variety of conditions on the road, but not the often tough winds of the Meadowlands, and thus, the current group of Giants might be better served playing on the road, even as a much lower seed, than benefiting from being at home in January, as one of the NFC top two seeds.
Manning, who played very well in the Giants’ 36-31 win earlier this season on a considerably more mild Philadelphia night, was for the second time this season, unable to get his passes to cut through the swirling Giants Stadium winds. Unlike last year’s 3-5 mark at home, this year, Manning led the Giants to a dominant 7-2 record (including the postseason) at home. But, it’s no coincidence that the only two Giant losses at home this season occurred against the Eagles during the two windiest afternoons at the Meadowlands, which happened to be by far, Manning’s two worst performances of the season, during which he looked extremely uncomfortable each time.
It was a big departure from Manning’s calm, collected, and stellar play in warm Tampa, in a hostile atmosphere in Dallas, in cold Green Bay, and indoors, in Arizona, in last year’s magical championship postseason run which oh, by the way, included no home games at the windy Meadowlands.
As a consequence, Super Bowl XLIII, lacking a top-seeded defending champion, has gone to the birds, with either the fourth-seeded Cardinals or the sixth-seeded Eagles possibly facing the AFC’s sixth-seeded Ravens (who will play second-seeded Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game).
Despite the ability of road wild-card teams to go on runs in recent years, the goals of every NFL team remain the same: win a division title, earn a first-round bye, and home field throughout the playoffs. But, after seeing how the past two seasons ended for the Giants, Big Blue fans shouldn’t fret too much if the Giants find themselves in the wild-card round in 2009.