This may come as a shock to some of you, but not every game is “equal”. From a standings standpoint, sure. Each game counts, as of this season, as 1/17th of a team’s overall record.
However, both statistically and philosophically, some games are more important than the other games. And I’m not just talking about the BIG game; I’m talking about a handful of games for every single team during each and every season.
Those games are the division games.
Note: This article is sort of an unofficial sequel to my last 2 articles (links below), but it’s also a somewhat philosophical look at the existential question of fate versus free will - from a football perspective.
July 28th: ESPN analyst says Seahawks have talent, system, and quarterback to win Super Bowl again
July 29th: NFC West expected to be strongest division in football again
Heading into the 2021 season, the Seahawks may have their most dynamic collection of offensive players since Russell Wilson joined the team in 2012.
The Seahawks have a new Offensive Coordinator, Shane Waldron, and the offense he is installing may indeed be “magic.”
The defense may have turned a corner last season.
Ask yourself this though ...
Will any of it actually matter or is Seattle’s fate already preordained?
From a 272-word “quick take“ regarding “Fate and free will” in the Economic Times, dated December 13th, 2019:
Free will relates to our exercise of will when performing actions in the present, whereas fate is the sum total of the effect of past actions that influence our present life. Exercise of free will in the past becomes our fate in the present.
Take from that what you will, but I am actually going to twist it into football terms.
Free will is the actions taken prior to and during a football game.
Fate is the net result of those actions.
Free will is roster construction, contract negotiations, practice sessions, team meetings, tape study, pre-game rituals, play calls, audibles, situational awareness, execution ... all of that and so much more.
Fate is wins and losses, injuries and health, peace of mind and drama.
And intermixed with all of that, at the intersection of free will and fate, we find stats, trends, and things that have never, ever happened.
Note: The data in today’s article is broken into 2 “eras” - the RW3 era (aka 2012-present) and the pre-RW3 era. The main reason is that I’m a Seattle-narcissist who likes to frame the NFL landscape using significant moments in Seahawks history. It’s kind of my thing. (I’ll tell you the other reason later.)
Five of Nine
An NFC West team has represented the conference in 5 of the last 9 Super Bowls:
Note: For today, we’ll ignore that the division is 1-4 in those 5 Super Bowls and that the conference, as a whole is 3-6 in the last 9 title games.
Here are the overall records, the seedings, and the first-round status for the 5 NFC West Super Bowl teams the years they went to the title game:
- 2012: San Francisco 11-4-1, #2 seed, first-round bye
- 2013: Seattle: 13-3, #1 seed, first-round bye
- 2014: Seattle: 12-4, #1 seed, first-round bye
- 2018: Los Angeles: 13-3, #2 seed, first-round bye
- 2019: San Francisco: 13-3, #1 seed, first-round bye
Notice a pattern there?
Let’s take it a step further and look at the division records for the NFC West’s 5 Super Bowl teams since 2012:
- 2012: San Francisco: 3-2-1
- 2013: Seattle: 4-2
- 2014: Seattle: 5-1
- 2018: Los Angeles: 6-0
- 2019: San Francisco: 5-1
The NFC’s other 4
The NFC South has represented the conference in 3 of the other 4 Super Bowls since 2012 with the final spot going to an NFC East team.
Note: The fact that the NFC North hasn’t represented the conference in the title game since SB45 may be part of why Aaron Rodgers is so grumpy.
Here are how those 4 teams did during their Super Bowl seasons:
- 2015: Carolina Panthers: 5-1 division, 15-1 overall, #1 seed, first-round bye
- 2016: Atlanta Falcons: 5-1 division, 11-5 overall, #2 seed, first-round bye
- 2017: Philadelphia Eagles: 5-1 division, 13-3 overall, #1 seed, first-round bye
- 2020: Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4-2 division, 11-5 overall, #5 seed, took the road less traveled; started the postseason at 7-9 Washington and didn’t play a “home” game until the Super Bowl
Note: Somewhat begrudgingly, it is pretty cool that the Bucs won the Super Bowl in their home stadium.
The pattern seems pretty clear with the NFC, but does it hold up for our counterparts in the AFC?
- 2012: Baltimore Ravens: 4-2 division, 10-6 overall, #4 seed, hosted the 11-5 Colts in a wildcard game then went on the road through the Super Bowl
- 2013: Denver Broncos: 5-1 division, 13-3 overall, #1 seed, first-round bye
- 2014: New England Patriots: 4-2 division, 12-4 overall, #1 seed, first-round bye
- 2015: Denver: 4-2 division, 12-4 overall, #1 seed, first-round bye
- 2016: New England: 5-1 division, 14-2 overall, #1 seed, first-round bye
- 2017: New England: 5-1 division, 13-3 overall, #1 seed, first-round bye
- 2018: New England: 5-1 division, 11-5 overall, #2 seed, first-round bye
- 2019: Kansas City Chiefs: 6-0 division, 12-4 overall, #2 seed, first-round bye
- 2020: Kansas City: 4-2 division, 14-2 overall, #1 seed, first-round bye
Wrapping up the RW3 era Super Bowls
Out of the 18 Super Bowl teams since Russell Wilson joined the Seahawks:
- 17 won their division
- 16 had a first-round bye; and
- 11 of them were their conference’s #1 seed
- 8 of the 9 Super Bowls during Wilson’s career have featured at least one #1 seed; and
- 4 of those 8 Super Bowls featured a #1 vs. a #1 (SB 48, SB49, SB50, and SB52)
Note: Some would say this we “need” a #1 seed in the Super Bowl because the alternative appears to be the 2018
Super BowlSnooze Fest when the #2 Rams fell to the #2 Patriots by a final score of 13-3.
Digging deeper ...
All 18 of the Super Bowl teams had a winning record in their division games.
Two of the 18 went 6-0; nine went 5-1; six went 4-2; and the 2012 SFSBT (San Francisco Super Bowl Team) went 3-2-1.
The prior decade
Before we look at the decade prior to Russell Wilson joining the Seahawks, let’s go back one “extra” year ....
In 2001, the NFL had 3 divisions in each conference with 31 teams split unevenly between them. For those that appreciate history mixed with what I like to refer to as geographical
ignorance indifference, here’s the breakdown:
- East: Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
- Central: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans
- West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, (Oakland) Raiders, (San Diego) Chargers, Seattle Seahawks
- East: Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington (Football Team)
- Central: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- West: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers, (St. Louis) Rams
In 2002, the league added the Houston Texans and realigned into the current 4-teams-per-division / 4-divisions-per-conference format we know and (sort of) love today.
As part of that realignment, the Seahawks switched conferences (the only team to do so) and the entire city of
Glendale, Tempe, Phoenix, Arizona, moved 1,000(ish) miles west.
History and geographical
ignorance indifference, aside, my point here is that, for today, I really don’t care about anything that came prior to 2002 because the layout of the league was different and, well, 2002 seems like a “natural” place to draw a cutoff point.
Twenty Super Bowl teams, 10 from each conference.
Here’s who they were and when they reached the big game (in alphabetical order, by conference):
- AFC: Colts (2006, 2009); Patriots (2003, 2004, 2007, 2011); Raiders (2002); Steelers (2005, 2008, 2010)
- NFC: Bears (2006); Buccaneers (2002); Cardinals (2008); Eagles (2004); Giants (2007, 2011); Packers (2010); Panthers (2003); Saints (2009); Seahawks (2005)
And here are the seeding breakdowns:
- #1 seed: Bears (2006); Colts (2009); Eagles (2004); Patriots (2003, 2007, 2011); Raiders (2002); Saints (2009); Seahawks (2005)
- #2 seed: Buccaneers (2002); Patriots (2004); Steelers (2008, 2010)
- #3 seed: Colts (2006); Panthers (2003)
- #4 seed: Cardinals (2008); Giants (2011)
- Wildcards: Giants (2007); Packers (2011); Steelers (2005)
And here are the division record breakdowns for the 20 Super Bowl teams from 2002 to 2011:
- 6-0: 6 of the 20 teams
- 5-1: 6 of the 20 teams
- 4-2: 5 of the 20 teams
- 3-3: 3 of the 20 teams (NYG 2x, Indy in 2006)
- Under .500: NONE
Comparing two different “eras”
This is the point where I remind you that I am a Seattle-narcissist and share with you “the other reason” why I chose 2012 as the pivot point for this analysis ...
There was a subtle shift that happened at that particular juncture.
That’s right! Believe it or not, it’s almost like Russell Wilson joining the league made everyone else up their game
As noted earlier, from 2012-on:
- All 18 Super Bowl teams finished with a winning record in their division;
- 17 of the 18 won their division;
- 16 of the 18 had a first-round bye in the playoffs;
- At least one #1 seed made the title game 8 of the 9 seasons; and
- 4 of those 8 Super Bowls featured the #1 team from both conferences
Prior to 2012, not so much.
How different was the decade prior to Wilson joining the league?
- Only 17 of the 20 Super Bowl teams had a winning division record; the other 3 got to the Super Bowl with a .500 record in division games
- 8 of the 10 Super Bowls from 2002-2011 featured a #1 seed, but only 1 of those, SB44, featured the top seed from each conference
- Excluding 2009, #1 seeds went 1-6 in the Super Bowl from 2002-2011; since RW3 joined the league, #1 seeds are 2-2 against lower seeds in the title game
- Only 13 of the 20 Super Bowl teams during this span had a first-round bye
- 3 of the 20 Super Bowl teams got into the playoffs as a wildcard ... and all 3 won the championship
Distinguishing fate from free will
We’re going to come back to that bullet point about the wild card teams in a moment, but first, I want to share another part of that 2019 “quick take“ from The Economic Times:
Aurobindo said that we are our fate through our action. By relying on self-effort in the present, we can decide our fate.
Now let’s talk about the wild card teams ... the three from the pre-RW3 era and the one from last season.
TB12 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have rolled over and exited the playoffs meekly earlier this year. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers could have done the same thing in SB45. And the Giants, led by “the lesser Manning” in SB42 ...
They were - and still are - the very definition of David versus Goliath ... a 6-seed versus the first 18-0 team in league history.
When the Giants walked onto the field at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on February 3rd, 2008, they were 12-point underdogs and the Patriots were considered by many to be “a lock” to become the second NFL team to complete “a perfect season.”
Absolutely no one outside of New Jersey would have faulted the wildcard team for “mailing it in” that day.
Yes, I am spending an inordinate amount of time building up the Giants vs. Patriots so I can gloss over the “Zebragate” game where the wildcard Steelers got Jerome Bettis a ring in his hometown so he could retire in style.
Note: 15 years later, I am still bitter about that game, but I admire Jerome Bettis and have always felt good for him even while despising the Stealers.
All 4 of those wildcard teams stared down fate, exercised their free will, and took home the Lombardi trophy, proving that while a top seed and a first-round bye HELP, they’re not a requirement to winning the championship.
Free will trumps fate.
Or does it?
Remember earlier when I said that I only cared about the Super Bowl teams from 2002 to 2020? That was true ... when I wrote it. But curiosity got the best of me and so I’m going to drop an historical fact on the table.
HISTORICAL FACT: No Super Bowl team has ever had a losing record in division games.
Never, ever, EVER.
What’s more, the 2006 Colts, the 2007 Giants, and the 2011 Giants are the only teams that have had a .500 record. The other 107 Super Bowl teams had a division record over .500.
Earlier, I said this:
Free will is the actions taken prior to and during a football game.
Fate is the net result of those actions.
Now I will put that in layman’s terms ...
Teams can use all the free will they want throughout the entire season, but if their division record isn’t 3-3 or better ...
What does this mean for the Seahawks?
To paraphrase my two previous articles: Seattle has the talent, the scheme, and the quarterback to win the Super Bowl, but .. the NFC West is once again the strongest division in football.
Fortunately, those statements have applied to many of the RW3-era Seahawks teams and Super Bowl aspirations aren’t a new thing in the Pacific Northwest.
In fact, since drafting RW3 and handing him the keys to the Emerald City, the Seahawks have gone 3-3, 4-2, 5-1, 3-3, 3-2-1, 4-2, 3-3, 3-3, and 4-2 against their division foes.
Not one losing record in 9 seasons.
They’ll try to make it 10-for-10 this season.
WILL they succeed?
If not, the Seahawks will not reach the Super Bowl.
It really is that simple.
To reach the Super Bowl, Seattle must finish no worse than 3-3 against the NFC West.
Every game matters equally in the standings - but statistically and philosophically ...
Division games matter the most.
I’ll close with one last passage from that 2019 “quick take” re: fate and free will:
We need to look at obstacles as opportunities and overcome them.