NFL's final four are doing what the league doesn’t want them to: resisting parity
The ratings continue to bear out the theory each year.
NFL games accounted for 82 of the of the 100 most-watched television broadcasts in 2022, per Nielsen; 75 of the top 100 in 2021; and 69 of the top 100 in 2020.
In 2019, 41 of the 50 most-watched TV programs belonged to — you guessed it — the National Football League.
Several factors contribute to the league’s immense popularity. Credit in part the relative paucity of NFL games compared with other pro sports leagues in America, the NHL and NBA playing nearly five times as many regular-season games as the NFL per season, while MLB teams compete 9.5 times as frequently as NFL franchises.
Star power, marketing and general societal appetite for the physicality that football provides also contribute to the attention the NFL generates.
But the league is fond of citing another factor that headquarters believes contributes to the attention: parity.
Franchises are subject to a player salary cap to combat NBA-like super teams. Postseason advancement and regular-season records award the highest draft picks to the worst teams.
The NFL wants you to know and believe: Your team, too, can compete for a Super Bowl before long.
In fact, the average margin of victory in an NFL game this season was 9.7 points, the narrowest margin since 1932. The league set single-season records for games decided by one score in the fourth quarter, game-winning scores in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime, and games decided by 6 or fewer points.
Which makes the performance of this year’s final four teams that much more impressive.
Because though four of the 32 NFL franchises have never played in the biggest game, and 16 more haven’t advanced to the Super Bowl in the last 10 years, this year’s game is sure to feature teams who have played for a Lombardi Trophy in the last five years.
The Philadelphia Eagles host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game, a matchup of the 2017 season champions vs. the 2019 season runner-up. The Kansas City Chiefs host the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship, the Chiefs just two years removed from back-to-back Super Bowl appearances while the Bengals fell to the Los Angeles Rams in last year’s title game.
And yet, while all four of these contenders have experienced repeated success in the last half-decade, their models are not consistent. Here’s a breakdown of how the Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles and 49ers have arrived at the cusp of yet another conference championship.
The Chiefs and Bengals traveled perhaps more obvious routes back to the big game. Namely, each has found a head coach-quarterback combination that has carried them and projects to continue carrying them for years to come.
No quarterback in NFL history has demonstrated Patrick Mahomes’ unique combination of spectacular acrobatics (son of MLB player: check) and clutch gene (don’t mention “13 seconds” around Bills Mafia or “Jet Chip Wasp” around the 49ers faithful). Mahomes’ talent is so superior that Kansas City is playing in its fifth straight AFC championship game in its first year without All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
Hill contributed 1,710 yards and seven touchdowns to the Miami Dolphins this season. Fourteen hundred miles northwest, Mahomes elevated a lesser cast to bring his team back to an identical stage.
Credit head coach Andy Reid, who has led both the Eagles and Chiefs to Super Bowls, with spearheading the offensive creativity that capitalizes on Mahomes’ rare gifts.
The Bengals, similarly, are one game away from consecutive Super Bowl appearances under head coach Zac Taylor and quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow’s recent comments that the team’s championship window is his entire career sparked controversy from those who interpreted his confidence as arrogance, his determination to work toward that standard as entitlement that he expects it simply to arrive.
But the reality is Cincinnati has hit the jackpot on drafting a superb quarterback and receiver in Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, both players providing immense value relative to their rookie contracts that precede salaries expected to balloon exponentially. Add in a hard-nosed defense, Cincinnati has shut down high-powered offenses like Kansas City and Buffalo repeatedly in recent years (the Chiefs have lost to them three straight times).
Their formula will expire once Burrow signs his heftier (and well-deserved) second contract. In fact, three of the remaining four playoff teams feature quarterbacks on rookie contracts.
Which leads us to the NFC’s remaining teams and their unlikely journey to this point.
Early-career QBs exceeding expectations
Think back to the New England Patriots and their stunning run to nine Super Bowls in 18 years. Such repeat success was unprecedented in NFL history. It also became unsurprising for a duo the caliber of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Consistency at both spots is not how the 49ers or Eagles arrived here.
The 49ers are employing their third starting quarterback this season, and fifth overall since their 2019 season Super Bowl appearance. You might have heard once, twice or 100 times that Brock Purdy also has the distinct honor of being 2022’s Mr. Irrelevant, the moniker assigned annually to the last pick of the NFL Draft.
And the Eagles? They won the 2017 season Super Bowl with head coach Doug Pederson and quarterback Nick Foles, who had replaced an injured Carson Wentz.
Don’t hold your breath this weekend looking for any of those names on the 2022 Eagles roster. Head coach Nick Sirianni and quarterback Jalen Hurts get the credit here.
What can NFL teams wanting to emulate these franchises’ success learn?
Elite head coaches and quarterbacks, as the Patriots recently and AFC contenders this season show, are not to be ignored. But elite front offices, elite line-of-scrimmage play, and splash moves for talented pieces to support rookie-contract quarterbacks can prove just as effective when executed well.
There’s a degree of luck in this, for sure. But the Niners know head coach Kyle Shanahan’s fantastic (quarterback-agnostic?) system and emphasis on versatile playmakers is likely to torment defenses for years to come. The Eagles have mastered the art of offseason moves and talent acquisition, allowing Hurts to thrive in a league that typically requires more than just QB talent. That truth doesn’t detract from Hurts’ impressive dual-threat performance. But weapons like veteran receiver A.J. Brown, for whom the Eagles executed a draft-day trade, have enabled Hurts and Co. to transcend expectations.
Chasing a quarterback is important. Ensuring the talent threshold around him is in place, perhaps as much so.
Lesson from this year's NFL final four
Though Sunday’s games will determine which strategy furthest advances teams this season, they’re not necessarily a referendum on which theoretically is most likely to succeed.
Rather, there is a mindset among some NFL executives that studying the top four to eight teams is more important for understanding talent threshold than merely analyzing the Super Bowl winner alone.
Football, the thinking goes, is a game of variance. Reaching the necessary talent threshold is the first step to success. Creating a window that accounts for luck and incorporates the likelihood of some injuries is, for most teams, a second.
The success of the Chiefs, Eagles, 49ers and Bengals doesn’t change the ratings-bonanza philosophy that a league of parity means NFL teams can swing drastically in a year. The Detroit Lions’ late-season success this year leaves ample room for excitement; the Los Angeles Rams’ fall from Super Bowl victors to 5-12 in the same calendar year similarly reflects the dangers that lurk.
But examining this year’s final four teaches a clear lesson: While the NFL is a league of parity that creates opportunities for drastic turnarounds, that doesn’t necessarily eliminate the chance of sustained or repeat success within a short period of time.
These conference championship participants show it’s not only possible to achieve, but also possible to achieve via diverse means and philosophies. Like the on-field product, their front office structures will continue to evolve, eager to keep pace with an ever-changing game.
So keep tuning in. By next year’s final four, we might learn a whole new way to buck the trend.