The thing about the NFL is that there is no moral victories.
It’s why it’s the best competition in the world. A large chunk of the discourse and editorial fallout from sporting competitions are about projection and justification of coming short.
No front office in the National Football League is happy unless they’re winning a Super Bowl. It’s the one goal and countless teams have shown that clever roster moves and a single generational talent in the draft can ensure you’re never more than a couple of seasons away from the promised land.
The Super Bowl is the biggest single sporting event on the planet for a number of reasons and the primary one is because it’s enshrined the identity and fabric of an entire city for a lifetime if it goes well.
And of course, it if doesn’t – it’s forgotten about forever. Nobody remembers the loser of any Super Bowl.
But the key is to how to get there?
The easiest way to do it, of course, is by playing the fewest games. In order to play one less game, you need to bypass the Wild Card round – and the only way to do that is by finishing with the best record in each conference among division winners.
So, to break it down.
You need to win your division first and foremost, before going on to win your conference. The winners of each conference contest the Super Bowl.
Divide, then Conquer
There are two conferences – the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. There is no difference between them unlike in baseball where the National League has different rules.
These are merely divided up for admin and legacy purposes. In both the AFC and NFC, there are four divisions: North, South, East and West.
The same teams make up the divisions every year, lending to divisional rivalries and unchanging dynamics within familiar battles. Some teams even draft to combat divisional rivals, such is the clarity of the path to the promised land.
So, who make up what divisions?
NFC North: Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons.
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Football Team, Philadelphia Eagles.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals.
AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns.
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans.
AFC East: New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets.
AFC West: Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders.
In a winner’s market, you simply have to pick the winner of the division, i.e. – come season’s end, which team will have the best record among the four in a specific division.
The best way to determine this is, of course, by who has the best team – but underlying factors to consider are scheme, historical trends and homefield advantage.
Yes, a certain team might easily have the best roster in a division, but they might historically struggle against a certain team and that legacy can carry. They might technically fall against certain defensive shells now employed by divisional rivals, or they might lack a true homefield advantage (think the Chargers in the soccer stadium).
Remember, in a tie-breaker with the same record, the head-to-head is the primary differentiator. If you beat your divisional rivals, it effectively counts as two wins.
Never forget that.
The Big Dance
Of course, in order to get to a Super Bowl, winning your division doesn’t matter. Yeah, it helps – but the only teams who contest it are the winners of the conferences – not the divisions.
The Giants famously beat the then-undefeated New England Patriots in 2007 without winning the NFC East – they were a wild card.
Once playoff time lands, winning your conference is the be-all and end-all and nobody will even remember your divisional title.
If you’re the #1 seed in your conference, you go straight into the divisional round – congratulations.
When the playoffs had just 12 teams, two teams used to automatically land in the divisional round. Now, it’s even tougher.
The #1 seed sits in wait for the other six playoff teams to contest the Wild Card round. The lowest seed travels to the highest seed etc, and the highest-remaining seed will always have homefield advantage through to the conference championship game.
So, let’s take a hypothetical:
The AFC looks like this:
AFC North Winners: Cleveland Browns (12-5)
AFC South Winners: Tennessee Titans (9-8)
AFC East Winners: Buffalo Bills (13-4)
AFC West Winners: Los Angeles Chargers (11-6)
Wild Cards: Kansas City Chiefs (11-6), Denver Broncos (10-7), Baltimore Ravens (9-8).
The Bills would be the #1 seed, so they wouldn’t have to contest a Wild Card game. Due to their records, the Browns (#2) would host the Ravens (#7), the Chargers (#3) would host the Broncos (#6) and the Titans (#4) would welcome the Chiefs (#5).
The Bills would then host the lowest-remaining seed, and so on in that pattern, until finally the highest remaining seed would host the title game.
The winner of that, then, goes onto the Super Bowl, which is generally in a neutral venue unless, of course, you win it in your own stadium like Tampa Bay last year, of if either LA team did it in 2022.
So what does all that equate to? Well, the easiest way to a conference Championship is by being the #1 seed, clearly. You play one less game, meaning one less chance to be eliminated, and you get homefield advantage as long as you’re alive.
It’s a seismic advantage and the sportsbooks will reflect that level of confidence.
But one factor that many overlook is form. The Bucs came off their bye in 2020 and didn’t lose again all season, hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy in February.
If you can take one piece of advice from me, it’s to factor in the bypassing of the Wild Card, but to forget the homefield advantage. Even books are cutting that old staple from a three-point advantage to just a single point now.
Back the hottest team going in and you’ll generally find your return is both more exciting and more profitable long-term.
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