Want Parity in Sports? Just Look to the NFL's Conference Championships
Parity in its purest form would be bad for the NFL. It would represent a system in which virtually every team floated within a game of .500.
That said, the conference championship round is a prime example of a more ideal interpretation of parity—that a large percentage of the league has a great opportunity to succeed and advance in any given year.
Not a single team is returning from last year’s championship round to attempt a repeat performance. Two of the four teams were not even in the playoffs last year in the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints, who finished last season 9-7 and 8-8, respectively.
To take that a step further, only two of the previous year’s “final four” were playing in the divisional round. Baltimore once more held onto the sixth seed and won an opening road game to advance. This attempt was curtailed when the Ravens ran into a Colts team intent on proving the team’s regular season strategy was sound.
The other, Arizona, was once more supposed to be a first-round knockout. The Cardinals faced a Packers team that, while a wild card, was supposed to be one of the strongest contenders in the NFC. The Cardinals fought the defensive standouts to a wide-open shootout that made coaches cringe and fans cheer. They then stumbled against a New Orleans team that appeared ripe for upset after a downturn to close the year.
Although three of the four teams involved were primary contenders for the bulk of the season, it does not alter the fact that not a single game’s storyline went as expected.
Two road teams won in the first round, the Jets and the Ravens. One of the winning home teams was supposed to see an early exit, holding a weaker record than its wild card foe. The divisional round was just as surprising.
After lambasting New England, Baltimore was met with a stumbling block of its own. The Indianapolis Colts were favored, but no one expected the dominance shown. New York once more took on a solid team on the road, once more held that team to 14 points, and once more moved on to the next round.
In the NFC, Dallas ended the year on a high note, charged into Philadelphia continuing its momentum, and had many picking it to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The Vikings squashed that notion flat in a 34-3 drubbing of the Cowboys after entering the playoffs as one of the NFL’s stumbling teams following three losses in the final five games.
The host of dominant victories gives a superficial view that the NFL abandoned parity for dominance. Yet the host of peculiar results fuels a more sensible idea of parity than the literal 8-8 for all notion. The basic principle behind why sports leagues wish to attain that parity is unpredictability.
This year’s playoffs have been nothing if not unpredictable. Sometimes by way of who wins, sometimes as a function of a game’s final result.
Either way, that sense of never knowing how a game will turn out, paired with the fact that all four conference championship contenders are fresh faces from the same round a year ago, proves that the NFL has achieved the form of parity that all league try to achieve, and we now enter the weekend with just as murky an idea of which team advances to play in the Super Bowl.
For a different look at the NFL's parity, see what team will be a playoff newcomer in 2010.
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