The NFL playoffs were on an ugly trajectory coming into last Sunday. That’s a polite of saying that, prior to the Green Bay-Dallas epic and the taut Pittsburgh-Kansas City battle, the postseason had positively stunk. The first weekend in particular was bad enough, that it’s worth asking if this was the worst round of wild-card football we had ever seen.
The wild-card round was instituted in 1978, but for the best comparison, we really need to wait until 1990 to pick it up. It was then the league expanded the playoffs from 10 teams to 12 teams and gave us four games on the opening weekend.
It’s not enough to say this year’s games were mismatches that ended decisively. Houston, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Green Bay all advanced with relative ease. Sure, the Lions hung with the Seahawks through three quarters and the Giants’ defense was causing the Packers some problems much of the first half. But in both cases, the favorites got rolling and pulled away.
What we have to add is that in all four cases it was the home favorite winning, so we didn’t have the luxury of seeing a surprise upset. The fact that all four games were dull can’t be seen as particularly shocking—only the Packers-Giants even seemed to have any real promise of drama in the days leading up to the games. And other than that game—with Eli Manning trying to win a third playoff game in Lambeau Field, none of the others had any compelling storylines leading in or in the aftermath.
That’s the indictment of wild-card weekend. I reviewed the playoffs since 1990, when the postseason expanded to 12 teams, to see if any other opening rounds could rival this year for sheer boredom. It’s a high bar to hit (or a low bar to sink to). Even one good game takes a season out of consideration. Only these four years even deserve any consideration for a comparison to the ugly 2016 NFL wild-card round…
1995: Green Bay, Philadelphia and Buffalo all advanced easily. The only game remotely competitive was Indianapolis’ 35-20 win over San Diego, which was a one-point game in the fourth quarter. But that’s really no closer than Detroit-Seattle was this year.
What 1995 did have was a road team winning—the Colts, quarterbacked by Jim Harbaugh. And the Eagles’ win over the Lions had an offensive explosion, with Philly dropping 58 points. Buffalo’s win over Miami ended the coaching career of the legendary Don Shula, a circumstance everyone knew was likely if the Dolphins didn’t make the Super Bowl with Jimmy Johnson waiting in the wings.
2001: Double-digit victory margins were in all four games. Once again, Green Bay and Philadelphia were the culprits in the NFC. Oakland and Baltimore rolled home in the AFC. From a standpoint of straight competitiveness, it was as bad as 2016. The Packers-49ers game that ended 25-15 wasn’t bad, but again, it wasn’t necessarily better than Lions-Seahawks this year.
There are two factors though that keep this year ahead of 2016. One is that a road team won, with Baltimore going to Miami. Admittedly, with the Ravens as defending Super Bowl champ and the Dolphins not well-respected, the result wasn’t exactly a surprise. But homefield at least gave a little bit of an X-factor to the mismatch.
The bigger fact was the caliber of Green Bay-San Francisco. The Packers had finished the regular season 13-3. The 49ers were 12-4. If it sounds unthinkable for a matchup of this quality to take place in the first round..well, it otherwise is. This is the only time that teams combining for 25 regular season wins have met in a wild-card game.
2005: New England, Pittsburgh and Carolina won in routs. Washington beat Tampa Bay 17-10 in a very competitive game, but one that was extremely ugly.
The weekend overall still wasn’t as bad as this year. For one, “ugly” doesn’t mean there wasn’t tension. Granted, as a Redskins fan I’m biased, but I remember how nervous I was, knowing that with Washington’s offensive ineptitude, how hopeless winning would be if Tampa pulled even. And the Redskins, along with the Steelers and Panthers, won on the road.
2012: Cincinnati and Green Bay delivered fairly pedestrian wins on Saturday. Baltimore handled Indianapolis, and Seattle took over the last three quarters in a win over Washington. None of the four games were particularly good. But again, there’s enough mitigating factors here to keep it above 2016.
The Bengals’ 19-13 win over Houston was similar to the 2005 Redskins-Buccaneers game. It was kind of an eyesore to watch, but it wasn’t uninteresting. And if you want to talk about storylines going into a game or going out of one…well, how about the saga of Robert Griffin III coming to a head when Mike Shanahan ignored the evidence of his eyes, left the rookie quarterback in the game and the rest of us watched in horror as RG3’s knee collapsed.
It started a Griffin-Shanahan civil war that effectively destroyed both camps. I don’t think I’m letting my Skins-centric outlook on the NFL take over in saying this was big national news.
We’ve seen some bad weekends of football in the wild-card round. These four years head the list and there are several others where we saw three bad games, but had the weekend saved by one thriller. Even acknowledging all that, it was never quite as dull as it was this season.