The Divisional round shows why the NFL is still America’s most popular sport

In a weekend of great games, the Titans and Packers, top seeds in each conference, crashed out.

What a weekend of games in the divisional round of the NFL!

All four games went down to the wire, with the top two seeds, the Tennessee Titans in the AFC and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC, bowing out. The 49ers proved once again that a good defence goes a long way in the playoffs, while Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers may have played their last games in the NFL.

Enforcing parity

Unlike the NBA or Major League Baseball, the NFL has spent years trying to equalize teams to ensure that, in theory at least, each of its 32 teams has the chance to win the Super Bowl in any given year. This involves a salary cap – US$182.5m per team in 2021, potentially increasing to US$208.2m in 2022 – sharing of league revenue (the biggest source of which is TV deals, though this also includes merchandising and licencing revenue) equally among the 32 teams and the NFL draft.

All this means that if your favourite team performs terribly one year, some good draft picks and improvements elsewhere such as some new coaches hopefully mean better results next season.

However, if things don’t improve next season, then yet more top draft picks will be the reward for continuing failure.

The system isn’t perfect, as long-suffering New York Jets or Cleveland Browns – or even Dallas Cowboys fans – could attest, while having a star quarterback and good management that can use the system to their advantage also helps. The Patriots winning six Super Bowls since 2002 is proof of that.

However, it’s as fair a system as could be invented for enforcing some sort of parity and for giving poorly performing teams every opportunity to mend their ways and become a contender in due course.

8 different Super Bowl champions over the past decade shows the NFL may be onto something, and this year’s Divisional Round was no exception.

Three games were decided by 3 points and the other by a touchdown in overtime, suggesting parity even among the better teams in the league.

As noted above, the Titans and Packers, the two teams who topped their respective conferences and thus earned a first-round bye crashed out, albeit by the narrowest of margins. The Packers special teams took most of the blame but to be fair, their offence needed to score more than 10 points for them to be a chance to be win. Yet the 49ers defence stepped up to hold Aaron Rodgers and co to 10 points, with a late field goal sealing a 13-10 victory to ensure San Francisco now plays in the NFC Championship game against the St Louis Los Angeles Rams.

Earlier in Nashville, despite Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow being sacked nine times, a late interception from Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill allowed Bengals kicker Evan McPherson to seal the 19-16 win with a 52-yard field goal as time expired.

Sunday games even better

Yet these games were just the appetizer for two even better games on Sunday. Firstly, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers rallied from being behind 3-27 to tie the game with 42 seconds remaining. To be fair, like Brady’s famous comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, the Rams gave him a lot of help, fumbling the ball three times in the second half.

However, instead of playing conservatively and waiting for overtime, Los Angeles decided to try to win the game during regulation. Quarterback Matt Stafford completed two long passes of 20 and 44 yards to all-pro wide receiver Cooper Kupp to set up a 30-yard field goal as time expired, with the 30-27 Rams victory perhaps also putting the expiration date on Tom Brady’s brilliant career.

Finally, in what many are calling one of the greatest games ever, the last game of the weekend between the Chiefs and the Bills at Arrowhead was the best of the round.

Involving 3 lead changes and 25 points scored in the final 2 minutes of regulation, Bills quarterback Josh Allen looked like he had won the game for his team after throwing a touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis with 13 seconds remaining.

All seemed lost to Chiefs fans, but quarterback Patrick Mahomes coolly marched his team 44 yards down field to within field-goal range and kicker Harrison Butker coolly nailed the 49-yard field goal to tie the game at 36 a piece and send it into overtime.

The Chiefs won the ensuing coin toss and the Bills never saw the ball again, with Mahomes throwing a touchdown to tight-end Travis Kelce to win the game and advance his team to the AFC Championship against the Bengals.

While this another example of why the NFL needs to fix its overtime rules – perhaps to be similar to those in College Football where both teams at least get the chance to score in overtime, with play proceeding until one team scores more points than the other – this was just a minor sour note on what was a fantastic game and divisional round in general.

If we get anything close to these games in the Championship round, then football fans will be very happy.

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