The NFL built a system to promote parity. The better you are, the more difficult the league makes it to repeat that success.
The key tools in that quest for equality are the draft and the schedule. Except that the New England Patriots are seemingly immune to parity.
Let’s start with the draft. The worse a team finishes one season, the higher it gets to pick in the draft the following April. That gives the bad teams an edge in claiming the best college players. The Super Bowl champion is assigned the last selection of the first round. It’s much more difficult to find a Patrick Mahomes, Ezekiel Elliott, Kahlil Mack and Patrick Peterson in the bottom 10 picks of the first round than it is the Top 10. Yet that’s where the Patriots are drafting every April.
The schedule is the other key component. The worse a team is, the easier its schedule the next season. And the better a team is, logically, the tougher its schedule. Each team plays its six division games, plus four against another division from its conference and four more from a division in the other conference.
For instance – the Patriots play six games in the AFC East this season plus four games against the AFC North and four more against the NFC East. That leaves two remaining games. Because the Patriots finished in first place, they must play the other two first-place teams in the AFC not already on their schedule – the Chiefs and the Texans. Thus, they play a first-place schedule. The second-place finisher in the AFC East draws the AFC’s other two second-place finishers; the third-place finisher the AFC’s other two third-place finishers and so on.
Again, that hasn’t been a problem for the Patriots.
Since the NFL realigned in 2002, increasing from six divisions to eight, New England has won 15 of the 17 AFC East titles. Despite almost annually playing a first-place schedule, the Patriots have improved their record four times and matched their record four other times.
The NFL crowned 128 division champions from 2002-2017. Only 57 managed to repeat the following season as division champs – and the Patriots own 13 of those repeats. In addition, the Indianapolis Colts have repeated six times and the Green Bay Packers five times. That leaves only 33 repeat champions among the other 29 teams.
Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Dallas won four division titles apiece from 2002-2017. The Falcons, Bengals and Cowboys failed to repeat as champions in all four tries, and Dallas never even made it back to the playoffs. The Bengals, Falcons and Ravens all made it back to the playoffs once – but only Baltimore made it back as a repeat champion.
In 2012, the Falcons won the NFC South with a 13-3 record. The following season they fell off by nine victories in a 4-12 finish. In 2006, the Ravens won the AFC North with 13-3 record. The following season they fell off by eight games in a 5-11 finish. In 2014, the Cowboys won the NFC East with a 12-4 record. The following season they fell off by eight games in a 4-12 finish.
It’s difficult to become good in the NFL. Look at the Cardinals, who have not won a championship since 1947, the Lions, who have not won one since 1957 and the Browns, who last won in 1964.
It’s even more difficult to stay good.
Which will make 2019 interesting for the Cowboys. They are coming off another NFC East title with a 10-6 record. The first-place schedule in 2019 assigns them games against the defending NFC-champion Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints. Because the NFC East draws both the AFC East and NFC North this season, the Cowboys also play division-champion Patriots and Bears. The Cowboys figure to be the underdog in at least three of those games.
Dallas has Super Bowl aspirations this season. To turn them into a reality, the Cowboys must master something that haven’t been able to master in four previous tries – that first-place schedule.
The future of head coach Jason Garrett could hang in the balance.