Why Tough Divisional Races Make Playoff Contenders Stronger

John RozumCorrespondent IOctober 2, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Quarterback  Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants talks with head coach Tom Coughlin during the second half against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 25, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Giants defeated the Eagles 29-16.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The true identity of an NFL team is revealed during the postseason.

Well, obviously this only goes for any team that qualifies for January football, but glimpses are exposed through divisional play.

Take the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants for example.

Big Blue went just 3-3 in the NFC East last season, and were swept by the 5-11 Washington Redskins. The Philadelphia Eagles went 5-1 in the NFC East and had the best division record among non-division champions.

In short, the NFC East was a rough outing when teams competed against one another in 2011. To that end, let's look at why a stronger division helps in the playoffs.

Must Be on A-Game to Win

Divisional games are, in most cases, more fascinating than any other NFL matchup.

Because the teams know one another so emphatically well from squaring off twice a season, the chess match that is pro football gets astronomically enhanced.

Meaning: the cerebral approach to success in these games requires an immense amount of emphasis on preparedness and game-planning.

Doing so forces the teams to bring their A-game, otherwise an unwanted blowout will occur, and a significant amount of confidence will get lost. In 2010, the Green Bay Packers barely squeaked into the playoffs at 10-6.

During the regular season, Green Bay went 4-2 in the NFC North and split with the Chicago Bears. Interestingly, the Packers needed a victory over the Bears at home in Week 17 to even make the postseason.

Chicago had already locked up the NFC's No. 2 seed, however; preventing the Packers from playing in January would have been for the best. Instead, the cheese qualified for the playoffs, defeated the Bears in Chicago for the NFC title and won Super Bowl XLV thereafter.

Familiarity Regarding Implications

Every divisional game is intensely more important than non-division contests each year.

The last thing any team wants is to lose within the division, because that significantly reduces the odds of competing for a divisional crown. After all, that is the first step toward making the postseason; fighting for a Wild Card spot sometimes prevents a team from controlling its own destiny.

When the Packers went to Super Bowl XLV, their opponent was the Pittsburgh Steelers. Along the same lines as Green Bay, the Steelers needed to win over a divisional opponent in the playoffs: the Baltimore Ravens.

Receiving the AFC's No. 2 seed in 2010, Pittsburgh hosted Baltimore in the Divisional Round. The Steelers had gone 5-1 in the AFC North and their lone loss came at home versus the Ravens in Week 3.

So, Pittsburgh was quite familiar with the bad taste of losing at home to their bitter rival, and a second opportunity presented itself that same postseason. The implications of this game were magnetized to another level since the Ravens had won in Pittsburgh but still lost the division title.

Fortunately for Steelers fans, Pittsburgh overcame the haunting echoes from early in the regular season and ended up making another Super Bowl.

Greater Level of Confidence

Briefly mentioned above was the amount of confidence that a team could potentially lose through divisional games.

The flip side of that coin is obviously an increase for the winners. Week 4 of the 2012 NFL season gave us nine division matchups, and five had us on the edge of our seats.

None were more agonizing than the Sunday night battle between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. From a fantasy football perspective along with Giants and Eagles fans, this game was intense and a lot of fun.

Still, the importance of the result is going to have a long-lasting effect for each team.

Philly entered having turned the ball over what seemed like a million times through its first three contests. New York was rolling with confidence after having won two straight, but needed a divisional win because of the loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1.

Courtesy of a short field goal of 54 yards by Lawrence Tynes, the Eagles survived, 19-17. Now, the complexion of each team's season has completely altered. Philadelphia managed not to turn the over, got the win after a dismal Week 3 performance against the Arizona Cardinals and got a bump to 3-1 overall.

As for the Giants, they are 2-2, with both losses coming within the NFC East. If the road to repeating for Big Blue gets any more difficult, say goodbye to January.

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