Arizona Cardinals' Success Supports Current NFL Playoff System

Andrew KaufmanSenior Analyst IJanuary 12, 2009

The NFL’s West coast looks a little more potent now.

When the playoffs began, much of the talk centered around the two No. 4 seeds—the Arizona Cardinals of the NFC and the San Diego Chargers of the AFC.  Fans and columnists alike lamented the fact that the 9-7 Cardinals and the 8-8 Chargers would be playing in the postseason while the 11-5 Patriots watched on TV.

Two weeks later, the Cardinals and the Chargers are a combined 3-1, with the lone blemish coming when San Diego fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday afternoon.

The Chargers, a full three games worse than the Patriots during the regular season, proved their playoff worth with a victory over the Indianapolis Colts, who were widely considered a legitimate Super Bowl threat.

The victory was the Chargers’ fifth in a row, completing their transformation from 4-8 disappointment to championship contender. While the Chargers couldn’t overcome a complete Pittsburgh team Sunday, their first-round victory at least proved they belonged.

But, despite San Diego’s 8-8 record, their ability to compete in the playoffs wasn’t frequently called into question. They had won four games in a row to close the 2008 season, including a 30-point win over Denver in Week 17 that clinched the division title.

While the Chargers didn’t beat a single playoff team during the regular season, they did beat three teams with winning records, including a 20-point victory against those same 11-5 Patriots.

The 9-7 Cardinals’ resume was not nearly as “impressive.” They were 5-5 after Week Six, but that was only a very small part of the story. Arizona’s 9-7 record included a perfect 6-0 mark against the NFC West. After their Week Six win over the Dallas Cowboys, the Cardinals did not win a single game against a team from outside their division.

This track record—a 3-7 record against non-divisional opponents and a 6-0 mark against inferior divisional foes—is the perfect example for proponents of a seeded postseason tournament. The Cardinals had done nothing to prove that they were actually deserving of a place in the NFL playoffs; they were merely the product of a down year in an already-weak division.

That is, until the playoffs actually started.

Suddenly, the Cardinals don’t look like the Cardinals anymore. They run the ball. They stop the run. They win the turnover battle.

In the Divisional playoffs, the Cardinals were by far—yes, by far—the league’s most impressive team. They went into Carolina, played a team that went 8-0 at home in 2008 and is known for running the ball down the other team’s throat… and won by 26 points. That’s equal to the margin of victory in the other three Divisional round games combined.

Where did this come from? Watching the Cardinals down the stretch, nobody would have predicted that they could compete with the Carolina Panthers. Oh, by the way, the Panthers were the 2008 champions of the NFC South, thought by many to be the best division in the NFL this season.

But that’s the thing. Of course nobody would have seen this coming based on the Cardinals’ December play. All December, the Cardinals essentially had nothing to play for. Their division title and their home playoff game were locked up, and their odds of getting a first-round bye were slim at best.

So the Cardinals coasted. They lost their focus a bit. They rested Edgerrin James and kept him healthy for the playoffs.

Did they earn the right do conduct their season this way? Based on the rules the NFL had in place at the start of the season, they absolutely earned that right.

Should they always have that right, though—should the rules at the start of the 2008 season be the rules in place going forward? There is certainly room for debate here, and the Cardinals’ postseason success does not, in and of itself, mean that the system is working.

But their success does mean the system is a little less flawed than most people thought.