Sunday, January 23, 2011

Championship Sunday notes and oddities

By Rick Morris

^ The Bears-Packers tilt is the first intra-divisional NFC Championship game since the 49ers beat the Rams 30-3 to move to the Super Bowl for the 1989 season. Dating back to the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, there were four such previous NFC Title games (1986: Giants over Redskins 17-0, 1982: Redskins over Cowboys 31-17, 1980: Eagles over Cowboys 20-7, 1972: Redskins over Cowboys 26-3). In the AFC, this phenomenon is much more common. The Steelers just beat the Ravens 23-14 two years ago in the last such instance. Previous ones dating back to the merger include 1999 (Titans over Jags 33-14), 1992 (Bills over Dolphins 29-10), 1985 (Patriots over Dolphins 31-14), 1983 (Raiders over Seahawks 30-14), 1982 (Dolphins over Bills 14-0), 1980 (Raiders over Chargers 34-27), 1979 (Steelers over Oilers 27-13), 1978 (Steelers over Oilers 34-5), 1977 (Broncos over Raiders 20-17) and 1971 (Dolphins over Colts 21-0). It should be noted that these matchups are understandably rarer since the NFL expanded to four divisions in each conference prior to the 2002 season.

^ Tying into the previous note, three of the four teams in the NFC North will have played on Championship Sunday in the past two seasons, counting the Vikings last year. Only once before in NFL history has a division seen three teams there in such a short span: in the 1999 season the Titans battled the Jaguars and the Ravens made it the next year. However, the AFC Central of that time consisted of six teams as opposed to the four who presently populate the four-division structure of each conference.

^ It’s impossible to believe, but true: despite Green Bay and Chicago having the league’s oldest and most storied history together, they have only made the playoffs in the same season four times, including now. The Bears’ 33-14 win over the Packers on December 14, 1941 marks the only previous playoff battle between the franchises in a contest to decide the old NFL Western Division. There have been dozens of great battles in the history of the rivalry, currently lead by Chicago, 92-83-6. But for the Packers, who fell behind for good in the 1930s and were then buried 30-9-2 in the 1940s and 1950s, hope lingers that they can catch the Bears, at least in the lifetime of their younger fans: they have won 28 of 44 since 1989.

^ The Jets and Steelers have no such long history between them, but there was the historical oddity about the former AFL franchise having never won in Pittsburgh since the AFL-NFL merger – until last month.

^ Should the Bears and Jets meet in the Super Bowl, it would come exactly 25 years after the 1985 Bears won the team’s last Super Bowl – with the father (Buddy Ryan) of current Jets head coach Rex Ryan as their legendary defensive coordinator.

^ This is the sixth time since the AFL-NFL merger that all four teams have played on Championship Sunday in the past half-decade (Chicago for the 2006 season, Green Bay in 2007, the Jets in 2009 and Pittsburgh in 2008 – the Steelers also made it in 2006, 2005, 2002, 1998 and 1996 over the past 15 years). Other previous seasons were 2002 (with Oakland in 2000, Tennessee in 1999, Tampa Bay in 1999 and Philadelphia in 1999 and 2001), 1989 (with Cleveland in 1986 and 1987, Denver in 1987 and 1987, San Francisco in 1988 and the Rams in 1985), 1976 (with Oakland in 1973, 1974 and 1975, Pittsburgh in 1972, 1974 and 1975, Minnesota in 1973 and 1974 and the Rams in 1974 and 1975), 1975 (with Oakland in 1973 and 1974, Pittsburgh in 1972 and 1974, Minnesota in 1973 and 1974 and the Rams in 1974) and 1973 (Miami in 1971 and 1972, Oakland in 1969 and 1970, Minnesota in 1969 and Dallas in 1970, 1971 and 1972). Obviously, the dates in 1969 refer to AFL and NFL Championship games. Aside from the immediate post-merger era of the NFL, it is very rare for Championship Sunday to be populated so thoroughly with teams who have been to the stage so recently.

^ With Mike Tomlin in the mix this year, Championship Sunday features a head coach who has won a Super Bowl. The previous two Championship Sundays did not (including the 2008 season, when Tomlin was on his way to his first title). This is pretty rare: from 2003-2007, every Championship Sunday featured at least one head coach who had already won the game’s ultimate prize. In the last 20 years, only the 2009, 2008, 2002, 2000 and 1995 seasons have seen Championship Sunday proceed without a coach who had never been to a Super Bowl, while 2001 (Bill Cowher) and 1999 (Dick Vermeil) saw Championship Sunday games where there had been no Super Bowl-winning coach but one coach who had lost in the Super Bowl. Interestingly, both coaches would get over that hump – Vermeil in that very season and Cowher four years later. In 1995, Barry Switzer emerged as a championship coach, but his historical reputation pales in comparison to two others who fell to him in that round and then in the Super Bowl – Mike Holmgren and Cowher.

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