Thursday, January 3, 2008

Cupcake Scheduling

One side effect of the Patriots' run to glory has been the way the 1972 Miami Dolphins have made such jerks of themselves over the whole issue. You'd think they'd be a bit more appreciative of simply being back in the spotlight; Mercury Morris hasn't gotten this much attention since he was busted for cocaine trafficking.

Those Dolphins have heretofore been frequently described as the greatest team in NFL history, and while it's hard to argue against a team that never lost, the more you look at Shula's boys, the less impressive they become. The NFL has long fomented parity among its teams, including rigging schedules so that the better teams have tougher ones, and since the 1972 Dolphins had been in the Super Bowl the year before, it's kind of alarming that they faced such unimpressive competition. In fact, the cumulative records of their opponents was just .367, the third-lowest of the modern era, according to ESPN's John Clayton (trailing the 1975 Vikings, who finished 12-2, and the 1999 Rams, who finished 13-3). Clayton notes that not only did they avoid any other playoff teams: "As it turned out," he writes, "the Dolphins didn't play a team with a winning record during the regular season."

Not a single team with a winning record? How could that be? It could be that Clayton is wrong, that's how. The 1972 Dolphins opened the season against the Chiefs, who would finish 8-6 (the Dolphins beat them 20-10), and had their penultimate regular-season game against the Giants, who would also finish 8-6 (the Dolphins beat them 23-13). So the schedule wasn't that weak, but it was weak: Only four AFC teams finished better than 8-6 that year, and the Fins managed to avoid the 11-3 Steelers, the 10-4 Browns, and the 10-3-1 Raiders.

Until the playoffs, of course, when they edged the Browns 20-14 in the first round, then beat the Steelers (coming off the Immaculate Reception victory over the Raiders) in Pittsburgh (back then, home-field advantage rotated among the divisions rather than being awarded to the team with the best record) by a score of 21-17. Heading to the Super Bowl, then, the Dolphins had beaten a total of two playoff teams by a combined ten points. No wonder the Redskins were favored.

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