As if the Atlanta Falcons did not already receive enough criticism, consider the history they are going up against this postseason as the No. 1 overall seed.
Once upon a time the NFL’s top seed would glide through the regular season with an impressive record, gaudy team statistics, and would complete their journey with a run through the postseason to capture a Super Bowl title. From 1975 to 1996, the team with the best regular season record won 14 out of 22 Super Bowls (63.6 percent).
But that was in the past. Now the "regular season champion" is more likely to lose in their first playoff game than to get to the big game. Only one of the last 15 teams with the best record has won the Super Bowl, and that was the 2003 New England Patriots. Five of the last seven teams went one and done.
Super Bowl XLVII
Up next are the Falcons (13-3), regular season champions of the 2012 NFL season. Though technically they tied for the best record with the Denver Broncos (13-3), the AFC’s top seed, I gave Atlanta the tie-breaker based on the head-to-head win in Week 2. The Falcons were the league’s last unbeaten team at 8-0 this season.
If we are to see a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIII, then the Falcons and Broncos have to win two home playoff games. Sounds easy enough after working for home-field advantage, but recent history says that means nothing, especially for the No. 1 seed.
The decline of the No. 1 seeds
In 1990 the NFL expanded to a 12-team playoff format. Over the next 22 seasons, the top seeds only met three times in the Super Bowl: 1991 (Washington vs. Buffalo), 1993 (Dallas vs. Buffalo) and 2009 (New Orleans vs. Indianapolis).
The AFC has been like a nightmarish curse with nine one-and-done performances and a lousy 2-7 record in the Super Bowl. Since 2005, the AFC’s top seed has produced four one-and-done upsets and three Super Bowl losses (were favored in each game).
More success has come in the NFC, though that has been fleeting. After going 17 straight seasons (1990-2006) with at least advancing to the NFC Championship, the NFC’s No. 1 seed has gone one-and-done four times in the last five years, and that includes the 2010 Falcons. After starting 6-0 in Super Bowl appearances, the NFC’s No. 1 seed is 1-5 in the big game since 2000.
Eight of the last 14 No. 1 seeds in both conferences have lost on Divisional Weekend. At least the other six pushed on to the Super Bowl, but only went 1-5 there. All four home teams have not won on Divisional Weekend since 2004.
While a lot of these No. 1 seeds are still very strong teams, the improvement in quality of the lower seeds is having an impact too. Once considered pushovers, we have seen two No. 6 seeds (2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers) and a No. 5 seed (2007 Giants) win championships. In fact, only the 2008 Steelers (No. 2 AFC) and 2009 Saints (No. 1 NFC) have won a Super Bowl after having a first-round bye since 2005.
That 2005 season is also the first time a No. 6 seed beat a No. 1 seed, when the Steelers shocked the Colts. Since then, the No. 6 seed is 5-1 against the No. 1 seed, which is just staggering. There will be no such matchup this year as the Bengals and Vikings lost last week, but the Falcons will host a dangerous No. 5 seed from Seattle this week.
The regular season champions that came up short
The Green Bay Packers were an outstanding team in 1996 when they won the Super Bowl. With the 2011 Packers (15-1) going one-and-done, the Packers bookend this awful streak where just one team (2003 Patriots) with the best record has won the Super Bowl in the last 15 years.
Here is a trip down memory lane as the regular season champions can only take their paper trophy and turn it into Kleenex for their sobbing fans.
1997 San Francisco 49ers (13-3; lost NFC Championship): There was a time when Brett Favre’s Packers owned Steve Young’s 49ers. This was the peak of that time, and for the third straight season, the Packers (a slight road favorite) knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs by winning 23-10 in San Francisco in the NFC Championship.
1998 Minnesota Vikings (15-1; lost NFC Championship): Atlanta held the record-setting Minnesota offense scoreless on their final six drives for a 30-27 comeback win in overtime. But the game was in Minnesota’s hands when Gary Anderson had a 38-yard field goal attempt to give the Vikings a 10-point lead with 2:07 left. Anderson missed wide left, ending a perfect season of 39 consecutive field goals made.
1999 Jacksonville Jaguars (14-2; lost AFC Championship): The greatest season in Jacksonville history had one problem: all three losses came to the Tennessee Titans. The final straw came in the AFC Championship when the Titans won 33-14 a week after the Jaguars scored 62 points against Miami in Dan Marino’s final game.
2000 Tennessee Titans (13-3; lost AFC Divisional): After coming up one yard short in the Super Bowl as a dominant Wild Card team, the Titans had the AFC’s top seed in 2000. But against rival Baltimore, the Titans blew the game with a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, and Eddie George watched Steve McNair’s pass bounce off his hands and into those of Ray Lewis for a touchdown in a 24-10 loss.
2001 St. Louis Rams (14-2; lost Super Bowl): Looking for their second championship in three years, the Rams were a heavy favorite over the scrappy Patriots. But Bill Belichick’s defense forced the Rams into three costly turnovers and even after a late comeback to tie the game, a young Tom Brady set up Adam Vinatieri for the 48-yard game-winning field goal in a 20-17 stunner.
2002 Philadelphia Eagles (12-4; lost NFC Championship): This was only the halfway point of three straight NFC Championship losses for Andy Reid’s Eagles, but it may have been the most disappointing. The Eagles eliminated Tampa Bay from the playoffs the previous two years, beat them 20-10 earlier in the season , and Tampa Bay never won a game with the temperature under 35 degrees. Yet the dominant defense showed up for a 27-10 win, clinched by Ronde Barber’s 92-yard interception return of Donovan McNabb.
2004 Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1; lost AFC Championship): Earlier in the season the Steelers ended New England’s record winning streak of 21 games with a 34-20 victory. Pittsburgh kept winning, taking a 15-game winning streak into the rematch, but as an all-too familiar sight, the Steelers lost the turnover battle 4-0 as New England eliminated them at home with a 41-27 win.
2005 Indianapolis Colts (14-2; lost AFC Divisional): Pittsburgh got their revenge a year later, jumping out to a 21-3 lead on a Colts team that started the season 13-0, including a 26-7 win over the Steelers. The Colts started out rusty, tried a furious rally late, but in a crazy game with Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception, Jerome Bettis’ goal-line fumble, and Ben Roethlisberger’s game-saving tackle on Nick Harper, it ended when kicker Mike Vanderjagt shanked a 46-yard field goal with 0:17 left.
2006 San Diego Chargers (14-2; lost AFC Divisional): Poor Marty Schottenheimer. After a career filled with playoff disappointment (5-13 record), his Chargers took a 10-game winning streak and fell flat on their faces against the Patriots at home. Actually, both teams were trying to give the game away, but the Chargers fumbled a crucial Tom Brady interception right back to the Patriots in the fourth quarter, which allowed New England to come back and go on to win the game 24-21. It was the last NFL game Schottenheimer coached.
2007 New England Patriots (16-0; lost Super Bowl): Is it the greatest upset in NFL history when the Giants ended New England’s perfect season? Probably not, seeing as how they lost by three points in Week 17 the first time around. But the game-winning drive led by Eli Manning is the greatest drive in NFL history, and the whole game was fascinating to watch the Giants stymie New England’s scoring juggernaut, holding the Patriots to 14 points.
2008 Tennessee Titans (13-3; lost AFC Divisional): Perhaps a forgotten top seed, the Titans had a season-worst turnover differential (-3) and lost rookie sensation Chris Johnson to injury in their opening playoff game against the Ravens. Baltimore drove for the game-winning field goal in a 13-10 upset. The Titans defeated Baltimore by that same score in the regular season on the road.
2009 Indianapolis Colts (14-2; lost Super Bowl): With a perfect season on the line, the 14-0 Colts shut things down in the second half against the Jets, losing their last two games. But they still made it to the Super Bowl, and led 10-0 against New Orleans. Behind an aggressive decision to do an onsides kick to start the second half, the Saints rallied for a 24-17 lead. Tracy Porter put the game away when he intercepted Peyton Manning for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
2010 New England Patriots (14-2; lost AFC Divisional): Entering the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak, the red-hot Patriots had already beaten the Jets 45-3 in December. But Rex Ryan had the right game plan to slow the Patriots down, and Mark Sanchez played the best he could to pull off the incredible 28-21 upset.
2011 Green Bay Packers (15-1; lost NFC Divisional): Green Bay started 13-0 before their first loss, which led to MVP Aaron Rodgers resting in Week 17. He last played on Christmas night before the January 15 playoff game against the Giants, and the rust factor was apparent as his sharp offense was out of sorts. Eli Manning pulled off another road upset, and the Giants eliminated the Packers at home for the second time since 2007.
Upset warning signs for Atlanta and Denver
Anything can happen in the one-and-done playoff system in the NFL, but teams would like to avoid certain matchups not in their favor. But since teams have little control over that, you have to be ready for anything.
Despite the home field, watch out for weather, as the heart of the offense is still Manning’s passing game. His passes have a bit more "delicacy" to them this season after the four neck procedures. That could become a problem in bad weather, especially if the running game is not clicking.
Also of concern is the tendency for Denver’s skill players to fumble. The Broncos lost 14 fumbles this season, and they actually finished with a -1 turnover differential. They have the 11-game winning streak, but long winning streaks have sometimes been a death sentence in the postseason. Of the 12 previous teams on a winning streak of at least 10 games, only three won a championship, and half lost in the first playoff game.
The Atlanta Falcons are just trying to win any playoff game; as everyone knows they are 0-3 in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era. This will be the second time with the NFC’s top seed, and the first was a disastrous 48-21 loss to the Packers in which Ryan threw one of the costliest pick six’s in playoff history before halftime.
Up first is Seattle (11-5), a team that boasts the league’s top scoring defense, but the Falcons should have the receivers to match up with that talented secondary. This should be a good game, but Atlanta can not fall victim to worrying about the past, or that rookie Russell Wilson already has more playoff wins than Ryan.
All three of the Falcons’ losses this year came against their NFC South rivals. While Ryan is 33-6 (.846) at home, he has had his worst performances in the Georgia Dome in 2012. The Falcons will need their defense, which has produced 10 interceptions off the Manning brothers and Drew Brees at home this season, to come up big this month for a long run to take place.
Atlanta made the aggressive draft move to take Julio Jones for games like this where you have to make big plays and score points against tough defenses. Last year the Falcons did not score a single point on offense in their playoff loss to the Giants, but this year’s team has felt different all season long.
Now we get to see if they are for real, or if the Falcons will just be the latest top seed to fold in the postseason after earning what was once the easiest path to the Super Bowl.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
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