College football has taken its annual share of abuse -- all deserved -- for the many cracks in the foundation of its postseason format. But this year, the NFL has earned a heap of criticism -- again, deserved -- for its own shortcomings in a playoff format that has come to reward mediocrity and penalize geographic coincidence.
Philadelphia and Arizona will play each other on Sunday for the NFC championship -- and a spot in Super Bowl XLIII -- having each won nine regular-season games. Meanwhile the New England Patriots -- winners of 11 games -- have had their golf clubs out (presumably in a warmer climate than eastern Massachusetts) for two weeks. And it gets worse.
Those Arizona Cardinals put a whipping on the favored Carolina Panthers last weekend, but only after beating the Atlanta Falcons in the opening round of the playoffs. Despite winning 11 games, those Falcons -- a wild-card team due to their finishing second to Carolina in the NFC South -- had to travel across the country to face a team with two fewer wins.
Let's look at the AFC playoff brackets. Despite winning 12 games (and ending the season on a nine-game winning streak) the Indianapolis Colts got to travel to San Diego to play the Chargers in their opening playoff game. San Diego didn't even finish above .500, their 8-8 mark good enough to crown them "champions" of the AFC West. Since the Colts happen to reside in the same division -- the AFC South -- as the 13-win Tennessee Titans, Indy was relegated to wild-card status. Hit the road, Peyton; lotta good that third MVP trophy did you.
With no fewer than eight divisions, it's merely a matter of time before a 7-9 football team "wins" its division, and with it, a home playoff game. Teams that win between seven and nine games are mediocre. And one of them, folks, will be playing in Super Bowl XLIII. (Solution: Each conference should be made up of two eight-team divisions. The four division champions would each have earned their bye, and geography would have little to do in determining which teams qualify as wild cards.)
What might have been a stellar weekend for University of Memphis alumni was ruined by the Panthers loss to Arizona. Carolina's star tailback, DeAngelo Williams, was named second-team All-Pro by the AP on Friday, while his former Tiger teammate -- kicker Stephen Gostkowski -- earned first-team honors. To the best of my knowledge (and I'm getting research help from U of M media relations), these are the first former Tigers to earn such acclaim at football's highest level. (No, Isaac Bruce has never been All-Pro.) Somehow, though, Williams was left off the NFC's Pro Bowl roster.
A few angles to consider before next Sunday's two championship games, the best football day of the year:
Arizona is one of only four franchises that existed before 1995 that has never played in a Super Bowl. It should be noted though, that the Cardinals have been in the desert only since 1988, while New Orleans, Detroit, and Cleveland have suffered Super Bowl envy for more than four decades.
If the favored Steelers and Eagles each win, we would have only the third Super Bowl in history between teams from the same state. In Super Bowl XXV (after the 1990 season), the New York Giants beat Buffalo in one of the most memorable championships in history and in Super Bowl XXIX (after the 1994 season), San Francisco demolished San Diego.
Twenty-one Super Bowls were played before Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to "go to Disney World" as world champion. It seems astonishing that 20 Super Bowls have been played since that Redskin victory over Denver without another black quarterback raising the trophy.
The Steelers are aiming to become the first franchise with six Super Bowl victories. Should they beat Baltimore this Sunday, no matter who wins the NFC championship, their opponent will be seeking its very first Vince Lombardi Trophy.