One year after posting an 11-5 record, good for second place in the NFC North and a Wild Card spot in 2009, the Green Bay Packers went 10-6, which earned them second place in the NFC North and a Wild Card spot. In 2009, they were bounced from the playoffs by the Cardinals in an overtime Wild Card game that featured 96 points combined. In 2010, Green Bay won three straight road games against the NFC’s top three seeds to reach the Super Bowl, then dispatched the Steelers to win the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl title.
Believe it or not, there were signs leading into the playoffs that the Pack was capable of such a run. They had the best scoring defense in the NFC, as well as the best point differential in their conference. In fact, they had the NFC’s second best point differential in 2009, behind only the Saints, and the third best scoring offense in the entire league. Despite their first-round exit two seasons ago, it’s clear this team was capable of greatness.
Back in the ’90s, the Super Bowl seemed to be populated by the same old teams every year. Denver and Dallas both won back to back Super Bowl championships. In Denver’s first, they took down a Packers team that had just won the Super Bowl the previous year. In both of Dallas’s title seasons, they beat the AFC team that had made the previous two Super Bowls as well (and lost), the Buffalo Bills.
Then in 1999, the league started to shift. The Super Bowl champion wound up being a team that went 4-12 the previous year, a team led by a guy that completed four passes in 11 attempts for 39 yards in that four-win season. One year later, Kurt Warner delivered the St. Louis Rams a title. The 2000 title was won by the Baltimore Ravens, an 8-8 non-playoff team their previous year. It happened again in 2001, when a second-year QB with one completion to his name for a 5-11 team took the New England Patriots to the first of three Super Bowl championships in a four-year span.
Throwing out the 8-1 Redskins team that won the title during the shortened 1982 season, and the 1999 Rams were the first team to win the Super Bowl a year after missing the playoffs since 1981 (San Francisco). The 1999-2001 streak of non-playoff title teams was broken by the 2002 Buccaneers, but the Patriots in 2003 turned the trick again, winning the Super Bowl after a 9-7 non-playoff year. After their repeat in 2004 and the Steelers 2005 win, a different kind of streak began.
Starting with the 2006 Colts, the Super Bowl winners of the last five years have all failed to win a playoff game in their previous year, though four of the five did make the playoffs in that season (the 2008 Saints went 8-8 and missed the playoffs before winning the Super Bowl a year later). Super Bowl titles now seem reserved for the previously good-but-not-great teams of the NFL.
So who will hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy at the end of this season? Every team ostensibly has a shot at the championship, but reality offers but a few real contenders for the crown.
Starting with the 2002 Buccaneers, every Super Bowl winner has avoided a losing season in the previous year. In 2011, that means we’re eliminating the Panthers, Broncos, Bills, Bengals, Browns, Titans, Texans, Cowboys, Redskins, Vikings, Lions, Dolphins and the entire NFC West. Sorry guys, there’s always next year.
After the 2002 Bucs finished their previous year with the 15th-best offense, no team that’s been outside the top 12 in scoring has gone on to win the Super Bowl in the next year. As a result, we’re saying goodbye to the Bears, Buccaneers, Jaguars and Chiefs, as well as a couple premier contenders: the Ravens and Jets.
That leaves us with (in order of 2010 scoring offense) the Patriots, Chargers, Eagles, Colts, Falcons, Raiders, Giants, Packers, Saints and Steelers. Considering the last five title winners were a combined 0-4 in the playoffs in their previous season, and that the 2004 Patriots were the only champ since 1998 to win more than one playoff game in their previous year, we can eliminate the Packers and Steelers. No other remaining team won a playoff game last year.
The Saints’ success opens the door for non-playoff teams to go all the way in their next season, but with it happening just once since the 2003 Patriots, let’s throw the non-playoff teams out this year as well. If any of them have a shot at pulling it off, it could very well be the Chargers, but we’ll cross them off for this year, along with the Raiders and Giants. Only the Patriots, Eagles, Colts, Falcons and Saints remain.
Since Bill Belichick and the Patriots took home the title in 2004, all the Super Bowl winners have given their coaches their first Super Bowl title. Starting in 2005, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Tom Coughlin, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy all won a championship for the first time. If the trend holds this year, that takes the Patriots and Saints out of the equation.
Cowher’s title came in his second trip to the Super Bowl, but the past five Super Bowl winning coaches were able to win the title in their first Super Bowl trip. Jim Caldwell brought the Colts to the Super Bowl in his first year, losing to the Saints. Andy Reid broke through in one of his many trips to the NFC title game, losing to the Patriots. Throw out the Colts and Eagles and we’re left with a 2011 Super Bowl champion, the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons managed to have a top-five scoring offense and top five scoring defense last season, leaving them fourth in the league in point differential. After looking like a potential title team throughout the entire year, the Falcons were embarrassed at home in their first playoff game last year, losing to the eventual champs 48-21. In 2009, the Packers looked like a good bet to take down the Cardinals despite being a road team, but they fell in overtime by a score of 51-45. Could it be the Falcons’ turn to up-end a favored team en route to a title?
I think they can do it. After all, they have history on their side.
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