NFL Primer: To Win The Division You Must Win Within The Division
In an effort to keep things interesting late in the season the NFL introduced a new quirk in the schedule this year. Every team will face a divisional foe in Week 17. Now, whether or not that prevents some teams from resting starters remains to be seen (and it's my belief that it will not prevent emptying the bench if a team has everything wrapped up by the final week.) However, the quirk speaks to a very basic but concrete aspect of the NFL: the importance of divisional games.
In 2008 the Cincinnati Bengals were a lowly 4-11-1 but last year the Bengals won the AFC North with a 10-6 record. Even though the Baltimore Ravens were right on Cincy's tail with a 9-7 record the Bengals had the division wrapped up in Week 16. The reason? Cincinnati's 6-0 record in the AFC North. Obviously with an unblemished divisional record the Bengals had both the head-to-head and divisional tiebreaker over the Ravens.
Take a look at the NFC North in 2009. Much like the Bengals the Minnesota Vikings had the head-to-head tiebreaker and as such the Packers had no chance to win the division after Week 15. But it's more than just tiebreakers. Divisional games can change the complexion of an entire season. In '09 the Packers were 11-5 while the Chicago Bears were 7-9. The Packers were a postseason team while the Bears were an afterthought with virtually no chance of making the playoffs after Thanksgiving weekend. Say the 2009 season played out exactly the same except rather than the Packers sweeping the Bears the opposite occurred. That would've meant that the Packers and Bears would've finished with identical 9-7 records. The Bears would win the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Packers but it would be the Atlanta Falcons (also with a 9-7 record but with a head-to-head win over the Bears), not the Packers, going to the playoffs. So rather than entering Week 17 with a postseason birth wrapped up and a comfortable four game lead over Chicago, the Packers would need help to get to the postseason.
At this point we do not know who will be under center for the Vikings this year (we have a pretty good idea but we've been Favre free all summer so no need to speculate now) but for sure the Packers will need to win those two games against Minnesota to reclaim the North. For good measure the Packers should put equal importance on the Bears and Lions games as well. The NFL is on the right track with divisional games in the final week. It should add a lot of flavor and intrigue to Week 17 It sounds so elementary to win within the division but we see it every year. The teams that make big time turnarounds, like the 2009 Bengals, always put up Ws on the divisional slate. In fact, since the 2002 realignment, no team with a losing divisional record has won the division and only three time has a team won the division with a .500 divisional record. That means 29 of the 32 divisional champs since realignment were 4-2 or better. If the Packers want to take the next step, the six divisional games in 2010 will make the difference.