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What does it take to win an NFL Championship?

What does it take to win an NFL Championship? Less regular season wins than it used to.  All of the readers of this NY Giants blog are fans of the NFL, professional football, and mostly the NY Giants.  We examine and critique the team because we keep score with titles. 


That is how many titles the NY Giants franchise has.  They are all equal.  They are all prized.  How do we get more of them?  

It is important to understand where the league is today, and what is necessary for a title.  The chart below tracks the number of regular season wins of the Super Bowl winner since 1985.  

What is meaningful here is the trend that has taken place over the last number of years.  

Period Avg # of Wins of SB Champ # of Teams Who Won SB w Best Conference Record (#1 Seed) (% of Teams)
1985-1991 13 4 57%
1992-1998 12.7 6 86%
1999-2005 12.4 2 29%
2006-2012 10.9 1 14%

By looking at the last 28 years in 4 separate 7 year snapshots, we see that there has been a shift in what it takes to win a title. In the past ('85-'98), winning your conference in the regular season was a pretty reliable indicator of success in the playoffs, as that implied a ~71% chance of winning the holy grail.  In contrast, in the last 14 years, only 21% of Regular Season #1 Seeds have gone on to win the title.

This is the NFL today.  If you love the fact that a wildcard round team without a bye has as much a shot at the title as your bye team, then this is a welcome change.  The NY Giants are the poster child for how to succeed in each period.  They had a bye and an average record of 13.5 wins in their first 2 titles.  They were wildcard round (non-bye) winners of two more titles the past 6 years with an average record of 9.5 wins.

What does all this mean? This data is simple proof that all you need to do is get into the playoffs to have a legitimate shot at winning the title. There once was a time when a 10 win or 11 win team winning the title was the exception to the rule.  Today, the AVERAGE team has less than 11 wins.  Does this make the playoffs more interesting or entertaining? Yes. Unfortunately for this NY Giants blogger, I do prefer a regular season that has more meaning.  Today, if you are one of 37.5% of teams (12 out of 32) that make it to the playoffs, that is all you need to win it all.  Get into the playoffs and get hot.  

What is behind the trend?  For us, it is all about Free Agency.  Teams lose their stars (and leaders) to other teams.  Instead of teams clicking after 3 or 4 years of continuity, they click in 3 or 4 games.  We know we'll get an argument when we say that it is the lack of continuity created by the turnstile of free agency that makes the champion weaker.  This is the "slop" we refer to.  Our simple contention is that there is a huge difference between a 13-3 team and an 11-5 team.  The Ravens were beaten six times this season.  The Giants were beaten seven times last season.  Look, Aaron Rodgers can take his 15-1 regular season (2011) and stick it where the sun don't shine.  You have to perform in the playoffs, so it is TFB that the Pack and Rodgers lost a game to the Gmen that they were woefully unprepared for.  It is just the nature of the league and where it is today. Teams with marginal regular seasons are going all the way to titles.  Hey, the Ravens beat the Broncos and the Patriots.  It says as much about the fiction of those seeded teams as anything else. 

There are many who like this democracy.  And they have a huge point which supports their argument: the bye.  I may not like it that the regular season means less than it should, but I can't blame the NFL here.  The bye is a beautiful device that creates a tiered structure for enabling teams that play better during the regular season to have a huge advantage in the playoffs.  They have to play one less elimination game to get a title.  In this sense, when these "great" regular season teams lose, there is no one to blame but themselves. Why do they seem to fold? We never bought the stock of Atlanta, who frankly should have gotten beaten by the Seahawks, if not for the Carrolls spotting them an entire half of football and then not closing the door with 30 seconds left.  Yet Atlanta was the #1 seed.  They had the dome, the homefield, the 17-0 lead in the Conference Championship.  Perhaps it is as much about the regular season mirage as anything else.

The crazy thing about the bye is that it seems that these second tier teams that are clicking at the right time need to play "through" to get better.  In 2007, a marginal Giants team that was 10-5 played the 15-0 Patriots in the final game of the regular season.  The key to the entire season was the Giants playing through, fighting to a 38-35 loss.  The Giants got confidence in a loss.  And after a win vs TB in the wildcard round, they had the confidence in themselves to beat the #1 seed Cowboys.  If Free Agency rips you apart, then you need every single opportunity, every single game, every EXTRA playoff game to get better and build your team.  I may not like the fact that the Regular Season means less, but you cannot blame the NFL for having a structure that allows the best regular season teams to win one less game.  The lesson that the numbers are telling us is that in the era of free agency, playing an extra playoff game means improving the level of play necessary to win a title.