Barring a collapse in their regular-season finale, a home game against Arizona’s expired Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers will own the NFC West title no matter what happens Sunday night at CenturyLink Field.
The 49ers earned this luxury over the weekend at New England, where they survived a furious second-half rally and won a game that seemed to turn the Seahawks’ anticipated road through the postseason into an obstacle course. Beating out San Francisco in the division race might have been worth a first-round bye for the Hawks, not to mention one and perhaps two playoff dates at home.
Instead of that too-good-to-be-true scenario, the Seahawks likely will be slotted in the playoff derby as either the NFC’s No. 5 or No. 6 seed. And while avoiding the wild-card round as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed would’ve been the way to go, last season’s New York Giants proved it’s not the only way to go.
Seeded fourth, the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl through the wild-card round, following up on a home victory over Atlanta with road upsets at Green Bay and San Francisco.
A fluke? Maybe, except the 2010 Packers preceded the Giants as Super Bowl champions whose quest began in the wild-card round. The Packers, by the way, won all three of their NFC playoff games on the road. (Conclusion: The home-field advantage helps. The Aaron Rodgers-at-quarterback advantage helps more.)
It used to be that a wild-card berth was tantamount to elimination. Over the two decades after the NFL expanded the playoffs in 1978, only Oakland — in 1980 — won a Super Bowl as a wild card. The aberration was appropriate. What franchise was more wild, with more cards, than Al Davis’ Raiders?
The 1997 Denver Broncos became the second wild-card team to earn the Lombardi Trophy, a distinction later shared by the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (you remember them, no?), the 2007 Giants and the aforementioned 2010 Packers.
I wish I could share a theory on why only one wild-card team won the Super Bowl between 1978 and 1996, and why five wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl since 1997. Is it because there’s more parity throughout the league? Because Bill Walsh is gone? Because bigger, stronger and faster NFL players are less susceptible to the wild-card stigma?
Anybody? Bueller? Anybody?
What I do know is that avoiding the wild-card round means a first-round bye, or as it’s more commonly called, “the all-important first-round bye.” After 16 regular-season games, bodies need healing, and though a mere week of healing for a pro football player is like a catnap for the rest of us, a few days of relaxation have to be preferable to gearing up for a 17th game in 18 weeks.
So I’ll grant that the all-important first-round bye is, well, all-important. But would a bye be in the best interest of the Seahawks? For a team traditionally averse to the concept of rest — since 1990, the Hawks’ record after a week off is 6-15 — is there such a thing as a good bye?
Pete Carroll has made few mistakes during his third season in Seattle. He won’t win the NFL coach of the year award — it almost certainly will go to Indianapolis Colts interim head coach Bruce Arians — but Carroll’s identification of rookie Russell Wilson as a starting quarterback and the midseason implementation of a zone-read option scheme that augments Wilson’s versatility are worthy of coach-of-the-year consideration.
But one mistake Carroll acknowledges was an inability to fire up his team after its Nov. 18 bye date. The Seahawks showed up in Miami and promptly went three-and-out on their first four possessions. The Dolphins were ripe for a beating, but Carroll’s players were as tentative as he was. (A fourth-and-1 play at the Miami 38-yard line, midway through the fourth quarter, comes to mind. Jon Ryan punted. If ever there were a time for some fake-punt trickery …)
In any case, I suspect a playoff schedule without a week off is less a problem for the Seahawks than a perk. They’re on a roll, 5-1 over their last six games, with the lone defeat following the bye. Better to keep this runaway train rolling than to slow things down for a week.
If there’s a choice between winning a division title and qualifying as a wild card, it’s not much of a choice: Division title, because it’s worth at least one home game.
But the wild card as a kiss of death? Nonsense. For the Seattle Seahawks, who’ve got nothing to fear but the rust acquired during a bye week, the wild card just might be a plain, sweet kiss.