For anti-playoff advocates, that is: with Green Bay, a team that would have entered the Bowl of an Extreme or Excessive Degree as a division champion with a 15-3 record that tied for the best in its conference, there would have been few eyebrows raised to the legitimacy of the process if the Packers managed to upset New England.
Not so the Giants. Under no criteria can New York's season, one that ended with NY three full games behind the winner of its own division, with six reglar season losses - the last of those defeats to New England - be described as "better" than the Patriots'. New York beat three NFC division champions on the road, including both of the top two seeds, but the argument about the "best team," if it wasn't over a month ago, is certainly finished now. This is not like Pittsburgh's wild card run in 2005, when the Steelers finished the playoffs with the same number of wins as every team ranked in front of them at their start; ditto the Broncos in 1997. The Patriots have been something else, which can't be accounted for. If the NFL decided anything by polls, New England right now would take first, second and third place, just to accurately represent the distance. But it still has a chance, after clearly the greatest single season performance in league history, to not be the champion.
I, for one, am fine with this, and will be rooting hard for the Giants in two weeks for the first and only time in my life, in the same way I whooped and hugged Bostonians in a New Orleans Hooters six years ago when the underdog Pats knocked off the hated, near-invincible Rams. I want them to make Tom Brady cry like a little girl in front of the world. Hit him low. Hit him late. Nobody will ever say, "You know, we could have used computers and opinion polls to match the Patriots and Colts..."
For those who argue playoffs undermine the regular season, though, they've won this round. I don't take a step back in my advocacy (a six-loss champion that won its way through the league's best is still preferable to opinion polls), but the upcoming Super Bowl is the worst-case cross to bear with a playoff format, and it must be faced. As a cautionary tale, this is more proof the coming college football playoff needs to set the bar as high as reasonably possible to keep out the riffraff - no two teams as far apart in accomplishment as the Giants and Patriots should be competing for the same trophy. New York finished tied with a half dozen other outfits for the seventh-best record out of 32 teams, meaning roughly 18.75 percent of the league had a better regular season; compared to Division I-A, that's the equivalent of the No. 22 or 23 team in the nation making the championship (last year, according to the BCS standings that would have been 9-3 Cincinnati or 8-4 Auburn). No proposal I have ever encountered advocates letting any team that far down the list anywhere near a playoff in college, and for good reason: when one team sails so far over the bar it's barely even in sight, the competition should at least be clearing it with ease.