It's one of the goofier sports clichés: "The better team lost." But it's used often enough to explain all sorts of sporting oddities. The simple fact is that, barring some sort of bizarre officiating event, terrible injury, or various acts of God, the better team generally wins games, and I'd add additional weight to that concept in the postseason, when games matter far more. The better team through a season is not the better team on any given day, and it's a pretty classless gesture to come out in public and say that your team lost more than the other team won.
Nonetheless, both Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers and Donte Whitner of the San Francisco 49ers have put that notion across when discussing the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who eliminated both teams from the 2011 NFL playoffs on the way to their second improbable championship in five years. (Then again, if it's their second Super Bowl win in half a decade, perhaps those victories aren't so "improbable" anymore? Perhaps.)
"We picked the most inopportune time to play our worst ball," Matthews recently told Yahoo's Mike Silver. "The fact is, [the Giants] didn't beat us; we beat ourselves. We need to play our best ball when it counts. This year, I expect us to be right back where we should be."
Whitner agreed. "We felt like it was ours to lose," he said before the 49ers' 2012 preseason opener against the Minnesota Vikings. "Especially after we beat the Saints, we felt like it was ours to lose. We felt like the Saints and Green Bay Packers were the two best teams in the playoffs and once they went down we felt like it was ours to lose, and we let it slip through our fingers."
Fortunately, we haven't heard anything similar from the New England Patriots, who lost Super Bowl XLVI to the Giants in an achingly close 21-17 contest. Then again, the Pats lost both of those Super Bowls to the Giants in similarly close fashion -- there was also the stunning 17-14 loss that broke up New England's hope for a perfect season.
The Packers came into the postseason with a 15-1 record, a shaky defense, and with Aaron Rodgers enjoying perhaps the best single season any quarterback ever has. But the Giants had lost narrowly to the Pack, 38-35, in a Week 13 barnburner, so Matthews and his buddies shouldn't have been too surprised by the 37-20 divisional win -- after all, 38-35 was the same score the Giants lost to New England by in the 2007 regular season, and we all know what happened later.
As for the 49ers, two return fumbles by Kyle Williams may have decided the game, but ifs and buts are exactly like candy and nuts in such circumstances -- had the 49ers been able to distance themselves from the G-men as much as they believe they should have, Eli Manning's crew wouldn't have taken the conference in their 20-17 overtime NFC championship win. The 49ers were also 1 for 13 on third downs in the game, and they were 1 for 9 on passes to their wide receivers.
Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck, who may have been the MVP of both Super Bowl wins had Eli Manning not engineered a couple of late drives, was not amused by the notion that the G-men were just picking up the scraps from better teams.
"There's some sore losers in the world, ain't it?" Tuck told Newsday. "It doesn't bother me much. Last time I checked we won the Super Bowl and that's what everybody strives to get to every year. I'm not the type of guy to make excuses about a loss or a win. Regardless. The better team won. You played better that day, that's why it's a game. That's why we have the slogan: Talk is cheap, play the game. It don't really matter what we say, it's about what we do on the football field."
We're completely on board with this notion. The Giants may have been 7-7 through 14 games of the regular season, but they turned it all on when necessary and swept their final six games in admirable fashion. Less admirable is the concept of forwarding the idea that you got beaten by a fluke team -- especially in the most important games you'll ever play.