When will sports teams start realizing that the long-term outlook of the franchise is exponentially more important than satiating the impatient fans that attend live games and want to be happy for three hours to see their team win on that given day?
Sunday night at Lambeau Field, we might just get the best possible example of why losing one football game may help a team win multiple ones in the playoffs. That’s right, when the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers take center stage on NBC’s Sunday Night Football with the NFC North title on the line, the network and powers that be will try and sell it as a “must-win” game. Only for the two participants, it very well could be a “must-lose” game.
Should the Seattle Seahawks fall to the 13-2 Arizona Cardinals in the afternoon, a very real possibility, the winner of Sunday night’s Vikes-Pack tilt will be rewarded by hosting a playoff game… against the two-time defending NFC champion Seahawks. The loser would earn the privilege of traveling to D.C. to take on the Kirk Cousins-led Washington Redskins. That is a far better proposition for either club, especially the Vikings. Minnesota was slaughtered by Seattle, 38-7, in early December. At home, no less.
This brings up a scenario that, really, teams have faced for eons. Though not quite in the same boat, the Indianapolis Colts’ “Suck For Luck” campaign of 2011 may have looked bad at the time. Indy went 2-14 that year, but they won big in the long run, because they got their man in Stanford QB Andrew Luck to replace Peyton Manning. So for everyone who complained during that miserable ’11 season, look at what it got you in the long run.
The Baltimore Ravens have been an AFC powerhouse for years, and are enduring their worst season in years at 5-10. It has been evident for weeks this team is toast, so why root for a strong finish at 7-9 when a 5-11 mark could get them a significant upgrade for 2016 and beyond? Again, people, think big picture, not instant gratification.
So let’s revisit the Seahawks/Vikings/Packers situation one more time. It would behoove the NFC North teams to not have to face the league’s hottest quarterback in Russell Wilson, even though Cousins is on quite a roll himself of late. Seattle’s experience and defense makes for a much more likely one-and-done sequence. Why would a fan want that?
I think back in baseball to 2011, when the St. Louis Cardinals earned an improbable playoff berth on the season’s final day after being as many as 10.5 games back of the Atlanta Braves in the wild card race in late August. Not only did the Cards need a 23-9 finish, they needed help. And they got it from the Philadelphia Phillies, who had long wrapped up homefield advantage in the playoffs. Yet all along, the one team that the Phillies knew could give them problems in October was the Cardinals. In the season’s final two days, the Phillies faced quite a dilemma, and ultimately, they made the wrong choice.
With St. Louis needing two wins and two Atlanta losses to squeak into the dance, the Cards did their part, pounding lowly Houston. But the Phillies kept the pedal to the medal, ultimately sweeping the Braves and allowing St. Louis in. So what happened? Instead of wiping the floor with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Phillies had to play the Cardinals in the NLDS, and lost the series in five games. They haven’t had a winning season since.
There’s no mystery as to why Bill Belichick is the best coach in NFL history. It’s for decisions like the one he made last Sunday, kicking off to the New York Jets in overtime. New York drove the length of the field for the win. So why does that make him a genius and not an idiot, you ask? Because Belichick knows that, number one, the loss ultimately won’t hurt New England, because it simply needs a win over the hapless Miami Dolphins on Sunday to close out the AFC’s top seed. Number two, it further hinders the postseason chances of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who clearly represent the biggest threat of pulling off a January upset in Foxborough.
Belichick actually pulled a similar move in 2005, resting Tom Brady and allowing Doug Flutie to attempt a drop kick in the season finale against Miami, even though the Patriots actually stood to move up from the No. 4 seed to the No. 3 seed. His reasoning? To avoid playing the Steelers in the opening round and host the Jacksonville Jaguars instead. Turns out it was a smart move (shocker) as New England demolished Jacksonville, 28-3, and the Steelers ultimately went on to win Super Bowl XL.
Come Sunday night, 99% of fans watching their respective teams fighting for the North title will be cheering hard for a win. And that makes sense, because then they get to wear the division champions shirts and talk smack to their rival fans. But that doesn’t achieve the ultimate goal. Not one bit. It’s still a four-game season moving forward, and it would be much more beneficial to open that road against a team that has one playoff win this century instead of one that was an ill-advised pass play away from being two-time defending Super Bowl champions.
Perhaps, much to the chagrin of Roger Goodell and his minions, we will get to watch Shaun Hill and Scott Tolzien in a battle of the backups. Bad football? Maybe. But the sting will pass quickly.
Big picture, people.