Early Sunday evening, the Eagles’ 2018 season ended where so many playoff teams’ journeys end this time of year — amid the diabolical screams and delirious cheers of another team’s fans inside another team’s stadium.
After scrambling back to make the postseason with a 9-7 record and the No. 6 seed, the Birds pulled off a huge upset in Chicago in the wild card round of the playoffs but ultimately saw their season come to a crushing halt at the hands of the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the New Orleans Saints, in the Superdome.
Yes, the Eagles played valiantly, and they had a tremendous opportunity to steal another postseason game on the road. Were it not for an unfortunate slippage of the ball through the fingers of Alshon Jeffrey, Philadelphia could well be preparing to play the NFC Championship Game in Los Angeles next Sunday.
But it wasn’t to be. The noise inside the Superdome certainly didn’t help an offense that stalled after taking a quick 14-0 lead, and clearly New Orleans got a huge boost by not having to play last week and by playing in front of their fans, on their turf, with no travel involved whatsoever.
Folks, earning the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NFL playoffs is the single greatest advantage in professional sports. And it is Mission No. 1 for the Eagles in 2019.
We all saw how important earning the No. 1 seed was for the Eagles last year. Carson Wentz essentially earned them that top seed by playing out of his mind in 2017, with Nick Foles putting the finishing touches on a 13-2 record before the meaningless final game of the season against the Dallas Cowboys that earned them the top spot in the NFC. That No. 1 seed meant all Foles had to do was win two home games in order to reach the Super Bowl, which he did.
Conversely, as the No. 6 seed this year, the Eagles had to win three games, all on the road, just to reach the Super Bowl. Heck, even the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds would have had to play three playoff games to reach the promised land. Being able to skip the first round of the postseason is enormous. It means there’s one less game where something screwy can torpedo your season, and it allows teams to game plan and get healthy, two hugely important things in football.
In baseball, having a first round bye would be detrimental. You need to play every day, and having multiple days off in between series can often take a team out of its rhythm. In the NBA or NHL, a first round bye could cause similar problems, although perhaps not to that degree.
But in the NFL, being able to skip a round of the playoffs is an insane advantage.
The last wild card team to win the Super Bowl was the 2010 Green Bay Packers, when they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. And the last time any team that played in the wild card round won the Super Bowl was in 2012, when the No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
In fact, since the NFL expanded to eight divisions in 2002, 144 different teams (counting the eight teams that played in the opening round this year) have played on the first weekend of the playoffs. Of those 144, only six won three straight games to reach the Super Bowl.
That’s just 4.2% of them (although all six of those teams ended up winning the Super Bowl). Those aren’t good odds, kids. And it has been seven years since any seed not No. 1 or 2 in the conference has gotten there.
This year, it’s been more of the same. It’ll be the No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs vs. the No. 2 seed New England Patriots in the AFC Championship, and the No. 1 seed New Orleans Saints hosting the No. 2 seed Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship. There is a reason teams fight so hard for those top seeds. All four of those teams had to just one home game, beating teams that had to win a playoff game the week before, and now they’re one step away from the Super Bowl.
Had the Eagles’ divisional game against the Saints been played in Philadelphia, with the Saints having to beat a tough Bears team the week before, with Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz getting two weeks to game plan and with Eagles players getting an extra week to rest, it’s fair to wonder if the results yesterday might have been different.
Would playing on their own grass turf have helped them avoid some of the injuries they suffered on the artificial turf? Would Foles have been more effective throughout the entire game playing without the noise that bombards players in the Superdome? It’s hard to believe the defense could have played any better than it did, but could getting that first round bye have made it easier for them to figure out ways to stop Drew Brees from converting every 3rd and long known to man?
It’s impossible to say, but NFL history certainly screams “yes!” So, the Eagles will use this off-season to get Carson Wentz back to full health, to find ways to upgrade the running game, to shore up the lines and to add some pieces to the secondary. The NFL Draft will be huge, and everyone will have a full off-season to get themselves together and enter training camp with one goal in mind.
Get that first-round bye, because it’s the single most important advantage in sports.