By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — It’s not quite as clear-cut as Bears head coach Marc Trestman made it out to be in his analysis of the “rivalry” his team has with the Detroit Lions.
Trestman downplayed any and every rivalry the Bears or any NFL team has with any particular team. He does not want his team to beat the Lions because the two teams have been playing each other since 1930, he wants to beat the Lions because they are the next team on the schedule.
He doesn’t to beat the Lions any more than he wants to beat the Saints, whom the Bears host in Week Five.
That’s where he’s mistaken. No, not for the sake of rivalry, but for the sake of tiebreakers. Games against division rivals count more in the tiebreaker process, especially if the Bears are involved in ties with those teams at the end of the season.
But here’s another reason this game matters quite a bit. Going to Ford Field is a big test for any NFC North team. Road games against divisional opponents often give an excellent indication of how strong a team is.
In the past two years, playoff teams have recorded a 44-28 record when playing on the road against divisional opponents.
The Ravens won the Super Bowl last year and they were 2-1 when playing on the road in the AFC North, and the Giants won the Super Bowl the previous year, and they also went 2-1 when playing against NFC East opponents.
In the last two seasons, only one of the 24 playoff teams was able to earn their postseason appearance while going 0-3 in divisional road games. Last year, the Seattle Seahawks couldn’t beat the San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals or St. Louis Rams on the road.
The Seahawks play back-to-back divisional road games in Weeks Seven and Eight against the Cardinals and Rams, and it seems quite likely that Pete Carroll won’t let his team allow road games against those teams to slip away this year.
Teams with losing road records against divisional opponents went 0-3 in the postseason in 2011, but improved to 4-5 in the postseason last year as the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and Seahawks were all able to win playoff games.
Teams that can win against divisional opponents on the road tend to play steady football and avoid getting into deep holes where major comebacks are needed. Most teams are able to perform well on the road when they have the depth needed to play well for four quarters.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells said that winning on the road against divisional rivals requires players who can focus on their assignments on each play and not get caught up in things like crowd noise and the importance of the game in the standings.
“It’s just about knowing what your assignment is and executing,” Parcells explained. “You start listening to the crowd or thinking about what the game means in the standings, you are going to get distracted. As a coach, you can’t have that. I wanted my players thinking about only one thing – their assignment on the next play. Nothing else.”
Of the teams that have been to the playoffs each of the last two seasons, the Ravens (5-1), Houston Texans (4-2), New England Patriots (5-1), Denver Broncos (6-0) and Green Bay Packers (5-1) have had winning records against divisional opponents on the road.
Of those teams, the Ravens won a Super Bowl and the Patriots earned a spot in the other.
Winning on the road against divisional opponents is not a guarantee that a championship will follow, but it is indicative of having a competitive team that can win in the playoffs.
They may not be “rivalry” games if you agree with Trestman, but they are vital.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.