As cliché as it sounds, the “any given Sunday” mentality was reiterated this weekend. Win/loss records, offensive and defensive rankings, turnover differential … none of that matters once you take the field. It can give you a baseline of comparison, but it is far from a predictor in this league. This is the NFL and the competition is high every weekend, and if you don’t come ready to play, you can be exposed. Never is that more apparent than within divisional games.
We had seven divisional games played in Week 11 and will have 16 more played over the next two weeks. In the seven this weekend, minus the Redskins’ blowout win over the Eagles, the other six ended with an average margin of victory of 6.2 points, with the highest margin being seven points … or just one touchdown.
One of those head-to-head divisional games was the 1-8 Jaguars against the 8-1 Texans. Even if we all agreed that you could throw out the win/loss records for this game, the rankings would clearly paint the picture of a Texans beatdown. The Texans entered the game with the second-best total defense, the third-best scoring defense and were ranked third overall defending both the run and the pass. They were fifth in takeaways, fourth in red-zone defense and the absolute best at stopping opponents on third down.
On the other hand, the Jaguars entered the game with the worst total offense, worst scoring offense, third-worst rushing attack and second-worst passing game. To make matters worse, the Jaguars are dead last in third-down conversions, but to their credit are pretty good about preventing turnovers at 12th in the league and slightly below average in red-zone scoring at 21st in the league.
To distill all of that into a more simple sentence: The Texans defense ranked in the top five in all seven major statistical categories while the Jaguars offense ranked dead last in three of the seven and within the bottom three in two more.
Not so fast!
The Texans, playing at home mind you, took all of 73 minutes to finally land the knockout punch on a 48-yard touchdown reception by Andre Johnson with just 2:00 minutes remaining in overtime. This was supposed to be a game that was over before it started; instead, it threatened to become the second game to end in a tie in as many weeks.
Although the records and rankings weren’t as drastic, the same could be said about the Cardinals and Falcons. The heavily favored Falcons were playing at home, but struggled to even gain a lead on the Cardinals until the fourth quarter of a game in which they held on for a four-point win.
These seven divisional games are a microcosm of the entire league, the entire season. Sure, there may be a 25-point blowout at times, but the parity of the league suggests otherwise. Granted, in the example of this weekend the so-called underdogs still lost in the end, but six of the seven games were within a single possession and very easily could have swung the other way.
That is why just getting to the playoffs is important, because the seeding once you are in doesn’t really matter. Two of the last five Super Bowls have been won by wild-card teams, the 2011 Green Bay Packers and the 2007 New York Giants. The 2011 version of the Giants may as well have been a wild-card as they entered the postseason with a 9-7 record, worse than the two actual wild-card teams at 10-6, the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons.
As you look at how this year’s playoff field may shake out, you can actually break it down into five divisions within each conference: The North, South, East, West, and Wild-Card divisions. With the Ravens’ win over the Steelers on Sunday night, the playoff picture in the AFC is a little clearer. You have the Patriots, Texans and Broncos with comfortable three-game leads in their respective divisions with the North being separated by two games. This means that the Steelers at 6-4, the Colts at 6-4, and the Bengals at 5-5 are most likely competing for the final two playoff spots, making them the members of the Wild-Card division. The NFC is a little too muddled to determine a Wild-Card division at this point with the East, North and West still up for grabs. But I will say this: 9-7 isn’t going to earn a wild card, so every team is aiming for that 10th win.
With the 16 divisional games on the schedule in the next two weeks, the playoff picture will become much clearer, but winning the division isn’t a predictor of playoff success. Anyone can beat anyone.