Here’s the current NFL playoff picture, although a lot can change in these last three weeks: on the AFC side, DEN and NE get byes; on the NFC side, SEA and NO do. Seattle seems like a pretty solid lock for home-field throughout the NFC side — they basically just need to win this weekend against the Cardinals. New Orleans has to play Carolina this weekend, and if they lose there, that could shift things. Denver has two fairly easy (on paper) games remaining — the Texans and the Raiders, both well-under .500. The Patriots didn’t help themselves last weekend by losing to Miami, but in all likelihood, they’ll win the AFC East and make the playoffs; their exact spot isn’t 100 percent known, though.
Point is, all season it’s seemed like a DEN-SEA Super Bowl would be the odds-on favorite. Football Outsiders had that as recently as a couple of weeks ago. Vegas appears to have it too. But, putting aside the whole “Peyton Manning cannot win games in cold weather” argument, there’s something else we should consider.
From 2001 until now, only two No. 1 seeds have won the Super Bowl: the 2009 Saints and the 2003 Patriots. That 2009 Super Bowl — Saints/Colts — is the only time in the last 14 years or so that the No. 1 seeds from each conference have even met in the Super Bowl. Check out this chart: 12 times since 1975, an AFC No. 1 seed has lost in the divisional round (that’s a No. 1 seed’s first game). It’s happened eight times in the NFC.
The last three Super Bowl winners have been a 4-seed (Ravens), a 4-seed (Giants), and a 6-seed (Packers). Last year, when the Ravens beat the Broncos in Denver, that was the seventh time in six years (both conferences) that the No. 1 seed had lost their first playoff game.
What does all this mean? It means you shouldn’t necessarily bet on that DEN-SEA matchup. “If the playoffs started today…” (worst opening to a sentence in a bar discussion ever), you’d have BAL-CIN and KC-IND on the AFC side, then SF-PHI and CHI-CAR on the NFC side. If SF or BAL (last year’s Super Bowl teams) won, they’d draw DEN/SEA. You think Peyton Manning wouldn’t be a little bit tight back in the same place (Mile High) vs. the same team (minus Ray Lewis) of their collapse last season? Plus, it’d be the second weekend of January in Denver. It would probably be cold. Flip side: Seattle has good success vs. San Francisco for the most part the last couple of years, but … SF beat them just about two weeks ago. That game was in SF, and Seattle is a much harder place to play, but … few would doubt that potential game would be a dog-fight, and in dog-fight playoff games, one mistake can change everything. Both of these No. 1 seeds could go down divisional weekend, and if Denver manages to win… remember this game? Manning and co. could draw the Patriots — and granted, NE is a little banged-up, but still, dog-fights and lone mistakes…
Alright, so let’s see if looking at the last three winners — all lower-ish seeds — can tell us anything. The 2010 Packers lost three of five before Christmas and were sitting at 8-6; then they blew out the Giants, 45-17, and didn’t lose again that year. The 2011 Giants had lost five of six and were 7-7; they beat up on the Jets and Cowboys to end the season, then didn’t lose again. The 2012 Ravens lost four of their last five — their only win was over the Giants, 33-14, proving the Giants factor into all these discussions — before going on their “Ray Lewis Last Ride” tear in the playoffs. If you go back to the last team before this group to win it off the wild-card line — the 2007 Giants — they ended the season losing two of three before their playoff run.
A lot of stuff factors in here — motivation, playoff draw (getting a favorable matchup, etc.), luck, FG kicking, defense, and more — but one of the key things for a lower-seed team seems to be “win in Week 16” (that’s this week) and/or “go in hot” (excepting Week 17, when your matchup could be a wash if you want to keep guys healthy). If we’re going with this kind of logic (iffy at best), I think a team to watch could be the Eagles. They just lost to a 4-9 Vikings team (and gave up 48 points in the process), but end with Chicago and Dallas. They’re allowing 402 YPG, which is awful, but I could see them win those two games, go in as the No. 3 seed, and be given no chance by anyone against the 49ers — but remember, in this situation, the 49ers would be traveling 3,000 miles to play this game, despite possibly having more wins. This is the failure of the 1-4 seeding model in the NFL that leads to stuff like this happening:
Another team to watch under this “go in hot/win in Week 16 and maybe 17” model is the Bengals. There are concerns about Andy Dalton, yes, but they have the WR weapons (remember Arizona’s playoff run a few years ago?) and the defense to compete. And finally, while their situation is a bit hopeless at this exact moment, consider the Lions: great QB, elite WR, vaguely passable defense, and … playing the Giants this weekend. 45-17 rout, anyone? Shades of another NFC North team from three years ago?
Whatever happens, it should be fun to watch — but keep an eye on who gets hot this weekend, or seems to. Especially if it’s a team that will have to play during wild-card weekend, we could witness the beginning of a run this Sunday.