Winning a division title in pro sports these days is like winning the talent contest in the Miss America contest. Who remembers or cares who wins that part of the competition, it's who walks down the runway in Atlantic City.
So it is in professional sports. The playoffs are what matters. You would have to be a real fan to remember the division winners in the NBA, NHL, or NFL last season. Go back a bit farther and remember the division winners in baseball last year. It was really the year of the wild card. The Florida Marlins didn't win their division last year, the Braves did, but it was the Marlins that won the World Series. Detroit, the Stanley Cup champion, didn't finish first in its division, Dallas did. Only the Chicago Bulls managed a victory in their division race but had they scored five fewer points against Indiana in the finals of the Eastern Conference playoffs last spring, they too would have been bridesmaids come championship ring time.
So it was with the NFL last year and possibly again this season. True, Green Bay again won its division to reach the Super Bowl last January but they wound up losing to Denver, a club that couldn't win its own division. The Kansas City Chiefs were the AFC Western Division winners while the Broncos were a wild card. Do you think the collectors and fans of the Broncos minded they didn't win the division? Would they have swapped a division title for a Super Bowl victory? Doubtful.
So it would be probably wise to pay a little less attention to the separate division races as the NFL gears up for the start of its season next week. True, it is important to win games, particularly in your own division where an elaborate set of tiebreakers can often determine whether a club gets home field advantage or, in some rare cases, actually makes the playoffs.
Better to check the overall conference standings. The division first place teams all qualify but then it's every team for itself. In the NFC last year, the three wild card teams all came from the same division, the NFC Central, which again this year figures to be the best in all of pro football.
The Packers are the likely choice to repeat, even though most pundits have declared the Tampa Bay Bucs the club of the future. The Bucs have a better defense, better running game, better kicking game and a more aggressive coaching staff. What they lack is a quarterback the likes of Brett Favre. Trent Dilfer may someday move into the upper echelon of NFL signal callers but for now, he is the main reason the Bucs will fall short of overtaking the Packers.
The Minnesota Vikings probably got the steal of the college draft last spring when they took Randy Moss of Marshall, who is the odds-on favorite to be the rookie of the year. He and Cris Carter combine to give the best one-two receiving punch in the NFC. Want a dark horse candidate for the Super Bowl? The Vikings could surprise.
It is difficult to count out the Lions who have the best running back in the business in Barry Sanders, who is good enough to get the Detroit back in the playoffs. But the Lions have quarterback problems and that should keep them on the sidelines in January.
That leaves division winners from the NFC West and East as the other qualifiers. San Francisco can mail it in again, playing in the worst division in the league. Carolina, St. Louis, and New Orleans are all also-rans. Only Atlanta figures to be a dark horse playoff contender based on last year's strong second half. The NFC East is either tremendously balanced or mediocre, depending upon which press release you believe. All five teams can finish 8-8, but the guess is the Washington Redskins will emerge based on a better defense. Dallas is again a dark-horse, if they can keep their players out of jail. Still, Dallas is good enough to make the playoffs this season.
It would be romantic to think Denver could repeat as Super Bowl champs for aging John Elway or that Miami would finally be able to give Dan Marino his first championship ring. Neither will happen. The Broncos remain the class of the AFC West but more due to its ground game than Elway's arm. Kansas City will struggle to get back to the playoffs because San Diego, re-armed with Ryan Leaf, is on the upswing. Seattle and Oakland look like they will be on the sidelines again come playoff time.
Leaf's rookie counterpart, Payton Manning, figures to have a more difficult time at Indianapolis if for no other reason than he will have to play behind a porous Colts' offensive line. The rest of the Eastern division is a toss-up, with New England again the favorite. The Dolphins and Jets are the league's most schizophrenic teams; should Marino falter the Dolphins are doomed to a sub .500 season. If Vinny Testaverde finds the magic again, the Jets will continue last year's momentum, otherwise, they, too, will stumble. Buffalo continues to rebuild.
The AFC champion should come from the AFC Central. Jackonsville is the pick for the Super Bowl if Mark Brunnell stays healthy and the Jaguars can find a running game. Kordell Stewart is the most unpredictable quarterback in the AFC and if he continues his improvement the Steelers might overtake the Jags. The Oilers were surprisingly average last year in Memphis; now that they are in Nashville they should remain a .500 team. The Ravens have the league's newest stadium but are doomed for last again.
Forgetting the division races, the Jaguars, Steelers, Broncos, Patriots, Chiefs and Dolphins should make the AFC playoffs with Jacksonville the winner. In the NFC, it will be the Packers, Bucs, Vikes, Cowboys, 49ers and Redskins making the playoffs with the 49ers beating Jacksonville in Super Bowl 33.