Close calls highlight divisional games
It might not mean the conference title games will be close, but this weekend's divisional playoffs were historically tight, writes Len Pasquarelli.
It doesn't necessarily guarantee that the conference championship games will be nail-biters. But if the past weekend of divisional-round contests is any kind of auguring, fans might be treated Sunday to two of the best AFC and NFC title contests ever.
From the standpoint of point differential, the four divisional games were the most competitive since the NFL adopted the current 12-team playoff format in 1990. The average margin of victory in the divisional games was just 4.5 points. Only once before, in 2003, when the average point differential in the divisional round was 4.8 points, has the margin been less than 8.8 points.
Three of the games were decided by three points, the first time under the current format in which more than two divisional-round games were decided by a field goal or less. And the weekend games represented only the second time since 1990 that none of the divisional games had a final margin of 10 points or more.
"You had eight good teams just out there playing really good football," New England wide receiver Reche Caldwell said. "That's how it's supposed to be."
But in most Super Bowl derbies, that isn't how it is, because there are typically some one-sided games, particularly in the early rounds.
The average winning margin for divisional-round games from 1990 to 2005, for instance, was 14.9 points. Over that same period, just 14 of 64 games were determined by three points or less.
But a spate of lopsided games hasn't occurred this season. Even with New England and Indianapolis posting victories of 21 and 15 points, respectively, in the wild-card round, the first two rounds of the playoffs have been the closest since 1990. The average differential in the eight games played so far is 7.25 points. Last year, by comparison, it was 13.0 points.
Just one of the divisional-round games, Indianapolis' upset victory at Baltimore, had a winning margin of seven points or more. And, ironically, that game didn't feature a single touchdown.
In nine of the previous dozen divisional rounds, there were three or more games in which the differential was seven points or more. And in seven of the previous 12 divisional rounds, there were three or more contests in which the winning margin was 10 points or more.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.