ESPN’s Barnwell: Cardinals and Seahawks are historic obstacles for each other

Jul 6, 2016, 9:01 AM | Updated: 4:12 pm
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, left, talks with Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carrol...
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, left, talks with Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll prior to an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Back in 2008 and 2009, when the Arizona Cardinals won consecutive NFC West titles, they were aided by the fact that their division was…not particularly good.

In 2008 the Cardinals went 9-7 and had a point differential of plus-1. The NFC West’s second-best team, the San Francisco 49ers, were 7-9 with a point differential of minus-42.

The 2009 Cardinals were a little better, finishing with a 10-6 mark and boasting a point differential of plus-50. Once again the 49ers finished second, though this time with an 8-8 record and a plus-49 point differential.

While no one should argue those were bad Cardinals teams — the ’08 version made it to Super Bowl XLIII and the ’09 squad fell on the road to the eventual champion New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round — there is no denying that they benefited from playing in a pretty terrible division.

That’s not the case anymore. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

As pointed out by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, the situation the Cardinals find themselves in now, battling the Seattle Seahawks for NFC West supremacy, is both unique and unfortunate.

In 2013, the Seahawks won the division at 13-3 while the Cardinals just missed the playoffs at 10-6. The following season Arizona got off to a great start but faded down the stretch as injuries ravaged the roster, finishing 11-5 but ceding the division to 12-4 Seattle.

But last season, with a healthy roster, the Cardinals produced a 13-3 mark, which easily bettered the 10-6 Seahawks.

Barnwell figures you can expect a similarly competitive division this upcoming season, which could prove problematic for the NFC powers.

Now, as we enter 2016, the Cardinals and Seahawks rank among the favorites to win Super Bowl LI. The biggest obstacle in their way, unfortunately, is each other. The easiest path to the Super Bowl, as last year reminded us, is with home-field advantage along the way, and it’s always going to be more difficult for a team like the Cardinals to finish with the conference’s best record when they have to play twice against a team as good as Seattle. The Panthers were excellent last year, but they finished behind Arizona and Seattle in DVOA and faced the league’s easiest schedule. The second-place team in the Panthers’ division was the 8-8 Falcons. It might not surprise you to remember that the Panthers went 5-1 against the NFC South and outscored their brethren by 81 points in those games.

Perhaps it’s karma that the Cardinals, after benefiting from an easy division back in the day, are now stuck in one of the NFL’s toughest.

Karma or not, that does not make it any more fun, especially when you take into account just how rare a situation like this is.

Barnwell looked back through history and, noting their DVOA metric only dates back to 1989, did his best to find seasons in which division rivals were both two of the top few teams in the league. Without DVOA he relied on point differential.

In 2015, the Cardinals had a point differential of plus-176 — which was second in the NFL — while the Seahawks, at plus-146, were fourth. That gave them an average of third, which Barnwell said “is about as tough as it gets.”

There are 17 other times since 1970 in which the top two teams in a division have had an average point differential of three, most recently the 2013 race between these same Seahawks and 49ers. The Seahawks finished that year by winning their first Super Bowl, but they were the exception to the rule: Of those 34 teams, each among the four best in football in their respective years, five won the Super Bowl.

In fact, only five times in league history, according to Barnwell, have there been a better pair of teams in a respective division. And the way he sees it, while some might say facing stiffer competition during the regular season will set a team up for success in the playoffs, that’s not exactly the case.

There’s not a big enough sample to say anything definitive, but at the very least, the anecdotal evidence doesn’t seem to suggest that the sharper competition hones teams for success in the postseason. Rivalries are fun, and the games between the Cardinals and Seahawks will be highlights of the regular season, but both teams would probably be better off with a less impactful team looming in the West on the way to January.

Oh well.

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ESPN’s Barnwell: Cardinals and Seahawks are historic obstacles for each other