The Football Gods Are Great

Watching the NFL playoffs this weekend, I couldn't help but conclude that the NFL of the last 8 years or so has featured a series of chiastic patterns.
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I have a good friend who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Bible at an Ivy League university. Often times, we discuss the authorship of the Bible, specifically, whether its books were written by one or multiple authors, and whether modern biblical scholarship can be reconciled with the belief in divine authorship (or inspiration) that religion demands. One argument he often cites supporting the notion that a particular biblical book was written by a single author - an author religious people would like to believe was god - is the presence of something called chiastic, or "envelope," structure. In short, the appearance of extensive A-B-B'-A' patterns that stretch throughout a book (or sections of it) constitutes evidence that those passages were written by the same author.

Watching the NFL playoffs this weekend, I couldn't help but conclude that the NFL of the last 8 years or so has featured a series of chiastic patterns. Take the New England Patriots dynasty (2001-2007), for example, during which the Patriots won 3 Super Bowls and went to another. It began with a miraculous playoff run ending in a shocking upset of the seemingly unbeatable St. Louis Rams, and thus it ended, as last year the previously undefeated Pats lost to the New York Giants, who were on a miracle run of their own. And then this year's Giants team, transformed in a single season from miraculous underdogs to dominant favorites, fell in their opening playoff game to an Eagles team that many have pointed out have a few similarities to and a little of the magic of last year's Giants team: the disappointing regular season leading to fans calling for firing the coach and benching the quarterback, a spectacular performance in the final regular season game to propel them with momentum into the playoffs, and great defensive play and sound coaching in road playoff upsets.

Before 2001, for most of my childhood, the NFL playoffs were typically dominated by superior teams and thus who would prevail at the end was usually remarkably predictable: the Cowboys, the 49ers, the Packers, the Broncos, the Rams. The best team going into the playoffs was virtually always the one that emerged as the Super Bowl champion. Bill Belichik changed that. In 2001, he showed that with superior coaching and scheming (and perhaps a little cheating) and with proper execution of that game plan, David could not only beat Goliath, he could do so regularly. And so we have seen in the last 8 seasons that parity has become the name of the game in the NFL. More so than ever, teams fluctuate between being Super Bowl contenders and drafting in the top 10 from year to year. Because the level of talent on most NFL rosters is fairly comparable, coaching, game planning, and execution have been the keys to success. This is why it was Belichik's team, coached by a man a cut above the rest of the league's coaches, that has dominated the league this decade. His teams weren't always that much better than the other good teams, but they were better coached and executed better, so they consistently won. However, last year, when Belichik finally had the big-time talent, when he coached what many thought was the best team in NFL history, he was beat at his own game and lost because of the reality that he helped to create. Because on a single day in a single game, he was outcoached by Tom Coughlin and Steven Spagnuolo; their team executed better than his, and his perfect season was lost to a squad with inferior talent.

And it was that single game that blew the whole thing to hell. Because this NFL season had absolutely no degree of predictability to it. I don't remember any season where playoff caliber teams lost to terrible teams as routinely as they did this year. After dominating the divisional round for close to two decades, winning 76% of the time, 3 of the 4 top seeds lost in that round this year. Was it just a lucky coincidence or were the "elite" teams just not that much better than the other playoff teams this year? I think all evidence points to the latter, and as a result, one year later, it is the Giants that have come up on the short end of the same equation they exploited last season.

As someone who has intensely followed sports for all of my life, I am convinced that there is often some greater force at work that transcends the people involved, and these chiastic patterns are evidence of it. Call it karma, call it football gods, call it fate, call it destiny, call it whatever you want: there's something there. Because last year's Patriots' Super Bowl defeat when there is no way they should have lost was payback for 2001, when there was no way they should have won. And this year's Giants' early playoff exit, in a year in which they were the NFC's #1 seed and consensus best team in the league, was to make up for last year's championship, in a year in which many observers thought they had no business being anywhere near the Super Bowl. It is this phenomenon that made me pretty confident that one way or another they weren't going to win this year. Simply put, a glance at the list of the NFL's previous back-to-back champions revealed that this team wasn't talented enough to win two Super Bowls in a row and, therefore, the football gods just wouldn't allow it. The fact that the Giants won last year made it less likely that they would win this year and the fulfillment of this outcome has strengthened my faith in the existence and authority of the football gods. Now if only the real god would give me such clear signs once in a while.

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