The New York Giants played the high-flying Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday afternoon, losing 23-11. With all due respect to the Baltimore Ravens, coming in to this weekend's games many people believed the Eagles were the hottest team left in the playoffs.
With the 33-13 drubbing the Arizona Cardinals heaped on the Carolina Panthers Saturday night, they might have issue with that "hottest team" ranking.
Notice the good trends on the teams with bird nicknames?
I don't know how official those "rankings" really are, but as a top seed in the NFC, it has been rough going the last couple years. Last season, the top seeded Dallas Cowboys were upset by the same Giants who lost today. In 2007, the Cowboys were tied for the NFC's best record with the Green Bay Packers at 12-4, but won the top seed by virtue of their Week 13 win over the Packers.
But, if the Cowboys lost that Packer game, they would have been the No. 2 seed, playing the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round, an easier opponent than their inter-divisional rival Giants.
To get that top seed this season in the NFC, the Giants had to beat the Panthers in Week 16, coming back from an eight point fourth quarter deficit, before winning in overtime.
People all week were comparing this Philadelphia Eagles team to last year's Giants team, a team which won three road games on thier way to a Super Bowl victory. The more accurate comparison, however, would be comparing this years Giants team to last year's Dallas Cowboys team.
Two teams which held the No. 1 seeds in the NFC, but lost AT HOME to a hot divisional rival.
Home field advantage throughout the playoffs has usually been the ultimate advantage, but recently the fifth or sixth seeds, the last seeds to make the playoffs are the "hot" teams, playing the best football and usually pull the first round upsets.
Since 2004, the higher seeds (home teams) have lost 11 of 20 wild card games, and since 2005, the top two seeds have lost 9 of 16 contests.
In this age of high-tech football, the teams (and players) are not that far apart in talent, and the "home field advantage" is not that relevant, especially the difference between the one and two seeds. The top seeds rarely play each other anymore, with the last time that happened in both leagues was in 2004.
Phil Simms said it the other day in a radio interview. It used to be that in the 1970's and 1980's, the disparity between coaches and personnel were much greater between the top teams and the other teams in the playoffs. My take is that the expansion of the playoffs to six teams in each conference allowed two more quality teams into the party and extended the playoffs to three rounds.
Teams which win the first round game are first coming off of the momentum of making the playoffs and then the momentum of the first round win. A double euphoric cocktail! It might be better to just make the playoffs and take your chances during the second season.
Football is a game of momentum. The great Tom Landry said that a playoff bound team wants to play their best football in December, right before the playoffs. Those Wild Card teams are doing just that, winning games to get in with practically equal talent as the top seeds.
In sports, it doesn't matter who you play. It matters WHEN you play them.
As it turned out, it might have been better if Eli Manning DID NOT generate that comeback in Week 16 against Carolina. If Carolina won, the top seeds would have been reversed and the match-ups would have changed for the better for both the Giants AND the Panthers.
Both top seeds ended up playing the teams that were the worst possible match-ups.
Despite the rain which fell throughout the Carolina-Arizona game, the Cardinals did not have to contend with a short week or the extreme cold, which plagued them in their last two Eastern time zone losses, one which was at Philadelphia.
The Cardinals lost at Philly on Thanksgiving night on a short week, traveling east after losing to the Giants four days earlier. Then in Week 16 (when the Giants beat the Panthers to secure the No. 1 seed), they traveled across the country to play the New England Patriots in the extreme cold and snow of Gillette Stadium.
They were blown out in both games.
But, they were likely the NFC West Champions and, if allowed, probably would have rather forfeited the Patriots game.
"Excuse me, Mr. Goodell, it's Cardinals Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt. Well, we couldn't find the Stadium on MapQuest, so we decided to turn the plane around."
The Cardinals do not have the grind it out, power running game which plays well in colder conditions, and their offensive line is not suited for the tremendous pass rush the Giants can put on them. The Cardinals ran for only 23 yards against the Giants in Week 12, and while Kurt Warner was only sacked once, he was pressured throughout the day.
But, against a weaker Carolina defense, Warner was awarded great protection, and found receiver Larry Fitzgerald early and often. This down field passing moved the safeties into "cover mode," and the Cardinals then ended up rushing for 144 yards, with more than half coming from the middle of the third quarter on to the end.
This offensive production from the Cardinals likely would not have been able to be carried out against the Giants in colder conditions against a tougher defense.
Meanwhile, the Giants would have run the ball down the Cardinals throat, who had given up an average of 202 yards rushing in their last three losses. Combine that with the Giants pressure on Warner, and it probably would have been a rout for the home team and a long ride home for Arizona.
But, Eli did engineer that comeback and the Giants did get that number 1 seed.
And since they did, they had to play the Eagles, a team which dominated them five weeks ago in Giants Stadium. The Eagles have a potent defense, is able to stop the run, and can put pressure on the QB, all the things that the Cardinals aren't nearly as good.
One of the reasons why the Giants had problems moving the ball in two straight games was the lack of respect the Eagles gave their Plaxico Burress-less passing attack. I wrote a piece late last night that the key for the Giants was to continue passing on first down, to spread the field vertically and then pound the run later on.
Be like George Costanza and do the opposite of what the Eagles (and the world) thought they were going to do.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have that big play receiver in Steve Smith. His presence would have altered the Eagles plan of attack. How can the Eagles stop the two-headed tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and, at the same time, contend with Smith getting deep?
But, it is hard to say how the Panther defense would have been able to stop the Eagle passing game and great decision-making that Donovan McNabb is showing over the last three weeks.
The end result would likely have been the same for Carolina, but the game probably wouldn't have been over by the middle of the second quarter.
The Giants, however, would have been better off as the two seed, beating Arizona this weekend and taking their chances with Philadelphia next Sunday.
But, Big Blue wanted the top seed and home field advantage.
Be careful what you wish for...you just might get it.