Because of the NFL's perverse parity scheduling, it is almost impossible to figure out what the pro football season means until after the regular season. Then we can look back, factor in the large disparities in schedule between teams, and get a sense of who's good and who's not as good as we'd thought.
Scheduling for a 28-team pro league is a headache, so, usually, we politely ignore the inherent unfairness in NFL life. Who'd be tacky enough to mention that teams like the Bears, Chiefs and Buccaneers played only three or four games against top competition, while others, like the Redskins, Cards, Colts, Rams, Browns and Patriots played nine or 10 games against foes who made the playoffs?
In fact, of those easy-schedule teams, only the Bucs failed to reach the playoffs while, in the brutal-schedule category, only the Redskins survived. For several teams each year, whom you play has as much to do with success or failure as how you play.
The NFL's intention in creating its parity schedule was to equalize competition and bring teams closer together. Hype fan interest. Create closer races. In fact, what the NFL has done is create capricious chaos. Nobody really knows who'll be good or rotten from year to year. So, the best teams don't necessarily play the toughest schedules or the weak teams play softer foes. It ends up mostly a dice roll.
In effect, all parity scheduling does is ensure injustice almost every year. Teams play radically different schedules, yet are judged as if they'd faced identical obstacles.
For example, the Eagles (10-6) and Redskins (10-6) will play on Saturday in Philadelphia, not Washington, because the Eagles had "a better record in conference play." Sounds sophisticated, sounds fair. It's a sham.
This year, the Eagles and Redskins played four uncommon foes. As it turned out, the Eagles got to play four lesser teams -- the Rams, Vikings, Falcons and Packers, all of whom lost 10 or 11 games. The unlucky Redskins got to play the world champion 49ers on the road, the division champion Bears and the playoff-bounds Saints as well as the dud Lions.
If you had to say whose 10-6 record was "better," wouldn't it be the Redskins'? They had an identical record against a measurably tougher schedule. The Redskins also had a 5-4 record against playoff-bound foes, while the Eagles were 2-4 against such top competition. (In fact, Washington and San Francisco were the only NFL teams with five wins over playoff teams.)
Fans in Seattle shouldn't be too happy these days either. The Seahawks beat the Chiefs twice. But Kansas City was 11-5 and made the playoffs, not Seattle, which finished 9-7. How could that happen? Partly because the Seahawks had to play two playoff teams -- the Dolphins and Bengals -- while the Chiefs drew two losers as non-common foes. The unfairness in this is two-fold. Not only does a tough defeat, like Seattle's loss to Miami, take starch out of one team, but an extra gift victory, like the Chiefs' 34-0 romp over the Browns, gives the other team confidence.
Of course, because of parity scheduling, teams are perceived incorrectly all across the spectrum. The Bucs, for example, won six games. But they may have been as bad in reality as the one-win Pats. The Bucs faced only four winning teams all year, yet they were squashed by all four by a total score of 119-34. The Bucs got several discount wins because they had 10 teams with 10 or more loses on their schedule. The Pats, in total contrast, faced 11 teams with winning records -- more than any NFL team. It hardly seems fair.
If you're looking for surprise teams next year, start with the Colts (7-9) and Cardinals (5-11). Check out the strength of their schedules this year and you'd add about two wins to each team. The Colts beat four playoff teams -- including the Eagles and Redskins.
The most overrated teams in the NFL are the Bears, Bengals and Chiefs. Look for them to show poorly in the playoffs -- especially the Bears, who were 0-3 against playoff-bound teams. Chicago feasted on 12 pathetic foes with 10 or more defeats. The Bears beat only one winning team all season even when they had quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
The Bengals had a 1-4 record against playoff-quality teams. The other bandits were those Chiefs. Everybody loves Steve DeBerg. But Kansas City played only four teams that ended up in postseason play (3-1). K.C. got eight wins against teams with 10 or more defeats.
The other playoff team that looks vulnerable the more you study its season is (drum roll) the 49ers. January of '91 should bear little resemblance to January of '90 when the Niners won three games by 100 points. This postseason, every game should be life and death. They faced six playoff-bound foes this year and had their hands full in every game, escaping by one, three, three and four points. Lest fans in other cities get too cheerful, let's also note that the Niners had the NFL's best record against winning teams: 6-1. We're not rid of Joe and the boys yet.
Who else looks serious? The Giants and Bills have been battle-tested, with 4-3 records respectively against playoff-bound teams. However, the Giants lost their last three such games.
Surprisingly, it's the longshot Redskins who stand out immediately as underrated. Maybe they were inconsistent because they had only four games all season against 10-defeat foes. The Redskins also won their last four games against playoff-bound opponents. Nobody else approaches that, even though all the wins were at RFK Stadium. The Redskins were 4-1 against other contenders this year when Mark Rypien was healthy.
This January, the NFL playoffs will provide surprises, as usual. However, some of those shocks may not be as big as we think. In the NFL, where a matter of one or two games can change a team's whole season, nothing is quite what it seems. Not even a team's final record.