It's one of the time-honored clichés in the NFL that stands right up there with "we're taking it one game at a time," "any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday" and "you don't lose a starting job due to injury." It's a classic line that is being resurrected this week as the Philadelphia Eagles travel to face the Dallas Cowboys and the Vikings face the prospect of meeting the Green Bay Packers in the divisional playoffs: "It's hard to beat a good team three times in one season."
The fact of the matter is that it really isn't all that difficult. Since the NFL-AFL merger, it has happened 18 times and the team that won the first two has won the third almost two thirds of the time and, when that team is home, winning a third time hits at a 70 percent clip.
There hasn't been the dreaded "third meeting" in five years and Vikings fans likely remember the circumstances surrounding one of those games, as the Vikings bucked the trend in a big way – winning 31-17 on the road at Green Bay in the only playoff meeting between the franchises. But they have been the exception, not the rule, in that regard.
Of the 18 instances since 1982 that one team has swept another twice during the regular season only to meet in the postseason, 11 of those times the team that won the first two went on to win the third and, when that team is playing at home, their record spikes to 9-4.
From the time the Raiders beat the Seahawks in 1983 after losing twice during the regular season (although it should be noted that the Raiders were 12-4 that season and Seattle was 9-7) until the Vikings beat the Packers in 2004, the home teams have not only won nine of 12 games, but seven of those nine wins have come by 10 points or more.
In fact, even when a team has won two games against another playoff team and has to play the third time on the road, the team that swept the season series is .500 as the road team – winning two of the four times they played (St. Louis over Seattle 27-20 in 2004 and Tennessee beating Jacksonville 33-14 in 1999).
There have been two seasons in which there have been two playoff games featuring one team that swept the other in the regular season. Both involved the Vikings and they represent two of the three home losses for the team seeking the trifecta. The Vikings went into Green Bay in the 2004 playoffs and got the win over the Packers after being swept in the regular season and, in 1994, the Vikings swept Chicago in the regular season only to lose to the Bears 35-18 in the playoffs.
One thing the Vikings can hang their hat on is that, only six times in playoff history have two teams with double-digit wins in which one team swept the other during the regular season met in the playoffs. In five of six instances, the team with the better record during the regular season won in the playoffs – essentially saying that when two really good teams (10-plus wins) meet in the postseason, it isn't only possible to beat a team three times, it's almost inevitable. The only exception was a 1999 sweep by the 13-3 Titans over the 14-2 Jaguars in the postseason.
The last time it happened was in 2007, when the eventual-champion Giants went into Dallas after losing to the Cowboys twice during the regular season and won. That being said, of the last 10 times such a scenario has played out since 1994, the team that won twice in the regular season made it three wins in the postseason.
With most clichés around the NFL, there is a grain of truth buried in the subtext of the conversation. But, when it comes to a good team beating another good team three times, the evidence simply doesn't support the thesis.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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