King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Three visitors win wild-card playoff games. Is this a sign that an NFL era is ending?

Published January 9, 2006 5:00PM (EST)

For the second year in a row -- and the second time ever -- three of the four visiting teams won in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs. I've been percolating on a cockamamie theory that something is afoot in the National Football League, that one era is passing into the next.

This weekend's results are a point in favor of my theory, even though the difference between visitors winning three games and visitors winning two -- something that's happened four times in the 16 years of the current playoff format -- was two funny bounces in the Washington-Tampa Bay game.

The New England Patriots were the only team to hold serve, pounding the Jacksonville Jaguars 28-3. Some things never change. The Pittsburgh Steelers routed the Bengals 31-17 in Cincinnati in the other AFC game. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer was injured on Cincinnati's second snap, and he might have made a difference. But with the Bengals defense looking like a sieve in the second half, that's a hard argument to make.

In the NFC, the Carolina Panthers smothered the New York Giants 23-0 in New Jersey, and Washington beat the Buccaneers 17-10 in Tampa despite not having an offense. A tipped pass that became a LaVar Arrington interception deep in Tampa Bay territory set up one touchdown. The other was scored on a fumble-recovery return by Sean Taylor. Fumble recoveries are about luck. It's pretty much 50-50 whose arms the ball bounces into.

There are a few problems with my cockamamie theory. The first is that it's my theory, and is therefore almost certainly wrong. Second, I can't figure out exactly what is afoot in the NFL, except to say I just have this idea that one era is giving way almost imperceptibly to the next.

A third problem is that for everything I can point to in support of my theory, someone can point to something else that argues against it.

It's not cockamamie for nothing.

What I think is happening is that we're passing from the "Wait a second, I've been away for a year and now you're telling me that what team won the Super Bowl?!" era, which began in 1998, and into -- well, I don't know what. It may be nothing more than a sub-era, sort of an "OK, I'm not going to use italics or exclamation points, but that was surprising" mini-epoch.

I think the reason this is happening is that more and more teams are getting better and better at managing the salary cap, which was the force that created the "Wait a second" era, making it difficult to keep a good team together for more than two or three years.

You might find it odd that I'm using something unusual, three road wins in the first round, to prop up a theory that an era of surprises is coming to a close. But I think I can get away with it because none of those road wins can be considered upsets.

I'm not sure how the wild-card weekend results figure into this change; I just have a feeling they do because they're different from the norm. It's like that old saw about a butterfly flapping its wings someplace and changing the course of history.

The results of the last two wild-card rounds may be nothing more than a matter of small sample size and silly bounces, but after the NFL went to the current playoff format in 1990, with six teams qualifying in each conference, the home teams won at least two of the four games on the first weekend every year through 2003, and they won at least three of the four every year except 1991 and '92.

Overall, from 1990 to 2003, home teams went 41-15 on wild-card weekend.

Last year, three visiting teams won. Aha. And double aha after this week's games. Over the last two years, home teams have gone from playing .732 football to playing .250. But here we run into a problem.

The next round of the playoffs, the so-called divisional round, has been even safer for home teams. From 1990 through 2002, home teams won at least three games every year except 1995, when they won two. Five times in those 14 years the home teams swept. Home teams have only swept the four wild-card games once, in 2000. Entering 2003 home teams were 42-10 in the divisional round, an .808 winning percentage.

Then in 2003 the visitors rose up and won two of the four games. Aha! But the home teams swept again last year. Mm-hmm.

But I have other evidence. We're seeing more division winners lately.

From 1998 to 2001, there were six divisions, and in those four seasons, only two division champions were repeat winners, the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars and the 2001 Oakland Raiders. That's two repeat winners out of 24 division champs.

In 2002, the league realigned to eight divisions, so there were no repeat champions, but let's call it two repeat winners, because the Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles both put up records good enough to win their old divisions had the realignment not happened.

In 2003, two of the eight division winners were defending champs, the Eagles and the Green Bay Packers. In 2004, three division champs defended, the Eagles, Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. This year, there were again three repeat champs, the Colts, Patriots and Seattle Seahawks.

See a pattern there? Me neither, but if four divisions are won by their 2005 champions next year, we may have something. While two of the 24 division winners were defending champs from 1998 to 2001, eight of the 24 division winners have been defending champs from 2003 to 2005.

Mere statistical noise? Maybe. That's why we have a comments feature, so you can make that argument. But the great thing about making an argument based on scant evidence is that there isn't enough evidence to debunk the argument either. Sure, these things could just be blips, I can say. We just all have to wait.

And by then I'll have moved on to another cockamamie theory, maybe something about lacrosse.

But seriously, it's starting to feel different watching the NFL. I use 1998, rather than 1994, when the salary cap was introduced, as a starting point for the "Wait a second" era because I figure the new system took a few years to have major influence on the standings. While the Denver Broncos, a usual suspect, won the Super Bowl that year, they beat the Atlanta Falcons, who went from 7-9 in '97 to 14-2 in '98.

And that year the Arizona Cardinals, fresh off 13 straight non-winning seasons, not only went to the playoffs, they won a meaningful playoff game for the first time since 1947. The Cards had won a third-place game in 1964. When the Arizona Cardinals win a playoff game, it's safe to say you've entered a new era.

Starting in 1998, the Miami Dolphins were the only team that managed to put together more than three straight winning seasons, and only the Dolphins, with six straight, and the Minnesota Vikings, with three, had more than two winning seasons in a row.

There are currently three teams that have had at least four straight winning seasons. The Patriots have been winners for five years in a row, the Broncos and Colts four. Both the Packers and Eagles had a five-year winning streak end this year, and while the Packers were victims of the forces of parity, the Eagles had the most talented roster in the NFC but were done in by injuries and, maybe, the Terrell Owens saga.

I can't wait to see what happens in the divisional round and how I can twist the results to fit my theory. The four home teams are favored, two of them -- the Colts over the Steelers and the Seahawks over Washington -- by more than a touchdown. The Broncos are favored over the Patriots, and the Bears over the Panthers, both by about a field goal, or roughly the advantage home field gives.

But the Steelers-Bengals and Panthers-Giants games looked pretty even going into this weekend, and those were both poundings. Why? Because something's afoot. I think. Do you?

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