Four teams advance from the NFL’s wild card round, which means that every January we get a bit excited about one or two as long-shot Super Bowl possibilities. Then we’re reminded that there’s a reason they’re long shots.
Not so long ago, we saw a flurry of wildness. In January 2009, the 9-7 Cardinals won three playoff games to reach the Super Bowl. Two years later, the 10-6 Packers won four games, the Super Bowl included. The year after that, the 9-7 Giants did the same. The year after that, the 10-6 Ravens did the same. (The first three of those beat the Falcons en route.)
Since the Ravens, the wild card well has gone dry. Over the past five years, no team that played in Round 1 has made the Super Bowl. Only five of the 20 have advanced another week. Indeed, it has become impossible to reach the Super Bowl without playing host to your conference championship. The last time anybody did was when both the 49ers and Ravens managed it on Jan. 20, 2013.
(San Francisco took the NFC title at the Georgia Dome after trailing 17-0. For you young’uns, the Falcons were the Falcons long before 28-3.)
The past five years saw chalk prevail in the realm of Any Given Sunday. The worst record of any of the past 10 Super Bowl qualifiers was the Falcons’ 11-5 two winters ago. Over those five years, the team that would go on to make “28-3” the most famous partial score in American sports history was the only non-No. 1 seed to reach the game with the Roman numerals. The average record of the 10 who made it was 12.7 wins against 3.3 losses.
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All the above offers reasons not to pay much heed until 6 p.m. on Feb. 3, when the watching world will focus on Atlanta to behold the musical stylings of Maroon 5 sandwiched around two halves of football featuring the Saints and Chiefs. They’re No. 1 seeds, and haven’t we just demonstrated that No. 1 seeds always hold?
Well, they do, except when they don’t. Kansas City seems vulnerable, not just because it’s guided by Andy Reid, the best coach never to win a Super Bowl. The Chiefs have the NFL’s best offense; they also came within 41 yards of having the league’s worst defense. They won nine of their first 10 games; they lost three of their final six, all the losses coming against playoff-level opposition. If the weekend’s four games proved much – beyond what we already knew about Nick Foles being flat-out amazing – it’s that viable AFC challengers exist.
The Chiefs will face the Colts on Saturday. Indianapolis has lost once since Oct. 14. Patrick Mahomes will be this year’s MVP, but he has never started a playoff game. Andrew Luck, who missed most of the 2015 season and all of 2017 due to health issues, has started seven, and he just outshone the Texans’ Deshaun Watson.
If a 12-4 team can be deemed a stealth contender, the Chargers are it. They lost to the Chiefs and Rams in September but have been excellent ever since. Philip Rivers is 37 – Sunday marked his first playoff game since January 2014 – and he presides over an offense overseen by Ken Whisenhunt, who a month ago was thought to be Georgia Tech’s next head coach. But what makes both the relocated Chargers, who play home games in a borrowed soccer stadium 12 miles from LAX, and the Colts such live underdogs is balance.
According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) ratings, only two teams have a top 10 offense and defense. The Chargers and Colts are the two. The splits on the AFC’s Nos. 1 and 2 seeds – Chiefs are No. 1 in offense, No. 26 in defense; Patriots No. 5 in offense, No. 16 in defense. For the first half of this season, defense didn’t much matter, with the Rams’ 54-51 victory over the Chiefs on Nov. 19 widely trumpeted as the arrival of a new era.
What few noted, at least at the time, was that three touchdowns that night were scored by defenders. Come December, both the Ravens and Chargers held K.C. under 30 points. Meanwhile, the Rams managed a total of 29 in losses to the Cowboys and Eagles. Come the wild card round, none of the eight teams mustered more than 24. NFL clubs averaged 23.3 points this regular season, only 0.1 off the post-merger high of 2013; the average yield over the weekend was 18.1.
By next Monday, events could well have rendered this sentiment null and void, but the belief here is that we as host city won’t wind up with the Same Old Super Bowl. My esteem for Foles and Doug Pederson and all things Eagle notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine the NFC representative not being the top-seeded Saints or, failing that, the No. 2 Rams. The AFC, however, could get crazy in a way the NFL has never gotten. The Colts could win in K.C. The Chargers could unhorse these pedestrian-by-Belichick-standards Pats – New England is 11-5, its worst record since 2009 – in Foxborough.
You thought the Cody Parkey Double Doink – a kick that, after further review, may have been tipped by Philadelphia’s Treyvon Hester – was nuts? Imagine an AFC championship between the No. 6 Colts and No. 5 Chargers staged in a stadium that seats 27,000 and which has, since the franchise’s relocation from San Diego, largely been graced by fans of the visiting team.
“Roger Goodell doesn’t want us to come home,” Russell Okung said Sunday, constructing a conspiracy theory on the strength of what the Chargers tackle deemed a spurious penalty late in the game at Baltimore. The NFL commissioner mightn’t yearn for a spectacle, but I think it’d be a hoot.