On New Year's Day, I watched the final regular season game of the 2011 NFL season between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. Both teams were 8-7, but the winner of the game would actually win the NFC East and make it into the playoffs. I watched with great intrigue because it was essentially a playoff game, and December/January football is pretty awesome. But even as I watched New York walk away with a spot in the postseason, in the back of my mind, I thought, "This team just went through this struggle just so it can get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs next weekend?" It's sort of like how Adrian must have felt at the end of the first Rocky film when she came out of the locker room to see her man struggling to get to his feet after getting knocked to the canvas by dominant champion Apollo Creed in the 14th round. Rocky did make it to his feet and gave Creed a run for his money in the 15th round. Unfortunately, the Italian Stallian would have to wait until the sequel to finally vanquish Apollo and realize an impossible dream of becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the boxing world.
Unlike Sly's character in that awesome movie franchise, however, the 2011 New York Giants actually steamrolled through most of the playoffs and looked like the more talented team when they knocked off the 15-3 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl to claim their second Lombardi in five seasons.
Speaking of the Giants, the San Francisco Giants just clinched the 2012 World Series on Sunday after a four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers, and much like their football namesakes who were 7-7 when they woke up last Christmas Eve, San Francisco sure didn't seem like a future champion of the baseball world back on July 8th, when Andrew McCutchen hit two home runs for my Pirates in a 13-2 stomping right before the All-Star break. Of course, it was only one game out of 162, and the Giants were a pretty decent 46-40, but if you would have told me at that moment they would go on to win the World Series, I would not have believed it. In-fact, despite winning the NL West with 94 wins, I still didn't think San Francisco was World Series material once the postseason started. Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games in August for violating MLB's substance abuse policy, and even though they still had Buster Posey and a pretty formidable pitching staff, the Giants just didn't seem to have that dominant feel about them. San Francisco certainly wasn't dominant in the postseason, either, falling behind 2-0 to the Reds in the best of five NLDS before bouncing back with three straight wins in Cincinnati. The Giants then fell behind 3-1 to the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS before rebounding to win in seven games. Even at the start of the World Series, there wasn't much love for the Giants, as most picked the Tigers to win it all. Not only did the Giants win it all, it was their second title in three seasons. But much like the football Giants of the past half decade, I doubt anyone will consider this San Francisco team a baseball dynasty years from now.
But that's how life is in professional sports today, and that should be a lesson to the 4-3 Pittsburgh Steelers, who can't seem to stay healthy, and are still trying to find their way on both offense and defense as their season nears the halfway mark. If I predicted right now that Pittsburgh would go on to win the Super Bowl on February 3rd, would you take me seriously? If you did, you might not be as crazy as some may think.
New York's Super Bowl triumph marked the fifth time since 2005 that the eventual champion had to start its journey on Wild Card Weekend.
Speaking of wild cards, the Cardinals may have won the World Series in 2011, but they were 10.5 games out of a wild card spot in early September and not only needed a 21-9 finish, they needed help via an epic collapse by the Atlanta Braves just to clinch a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season.
This stuff isn't just happening in baseball and football, either. The 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings of the NHL entered the postseason as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and not only did they win the Stanley Cup, they only needed 20 of a possible 28 games to make it through four best-of-seven series.
I grew up watching sports in the 80's and 90's, and long-gone are the days when you could pretty much predict the champion halfway through the season. I knew the '85 Bears were going to win Super Bowl XX even before they did their "Super Bowl Shuffle." I knew Joe Montana and the 1989 49ers were going to repeat as Super Bowl champions even before the kids said "Trick or treat."
In the 90s, I knew Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were going to win most of their six NBA championships well before the playoffs started--in this new era, even LeBron James had to wait an extra season to win an NBA championship after joining Dwyane Wade in Miami.
The days of dominant champions are over, at least for the time being.
The 2010 Green Packers just barely made the playoffs with a 10-6 record and went on to defeat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV. A season later, the Packers finished the regular season with a 15-1 record and were one and done in the postseason.
As the Steelers struggle along in the mediocre AFC, they can rest in the assurance that all they need to do is just make the tournament, get hot at the right time, and anything is possible
Recent sports history--especially that of the Giants (plural)-- is proof of that.