Playoff path not always a yellow-brick road for top seeds
Detroit Lions fans, don’t fret.
Miami Dolphins faithful, hold out hope.
Oakland Raiders and New York Giants fans, cross your fingers.
There is precedent.
Before Tom Brady and the New England Patriots get too cocky, they’d be wise to remember the not-so-distant past, because in just the last 10 years, teams in each of the six playoff seeds have won a Super Bowl title.
And if anyone knows a thing or two about lower seeds pulling off stunning postseason upsets, it’s the Patriots, who’ve been burned twice since 2008 — both times by the Giants.
Here’s a look back at the last 10 Super Bowl champions, and the intricate paths they took to win the title.
Super Bowl L, 2016: No. 1 Denver 24, No. 1 Carolina 10
After the two AFC lower seeds advanced — Kansas City blanking Houston, 30-0, and Pittsburgh upending Cincinnati, 18-16 — the Broncos and Patriots outlasted the Steelers and Chiefs, respectively, to advance to the AFC championship. Denver eked by New England, 18-16, holding the Patriots to just 44 rushing yards and forcing two Brady interceptions, to set up a date with Carolina. The Panthers emerged from a mediocre NFC field, which saw its fair share of early upsets, too, as No. 5 seed Green Bay and sixth-seeded Seattle advanced. Carolina did away with the Seahawks, and Carson Palmer and the No. 2-seed Arizona Cardinals nipped Aaron Rodgers and Co. in a Divisional Round matchup. In the battle of the two top NFC seeds, the Panthers pummeled Arizona, 49-15. They did not carry that momentum into the Super Bowl, though, as the Broncos bid Peyton Manning adieu while bullying Cam Newton in a 24-10 win.
Super Bowl XLIX, 2015: No. 1 New England 28, No. 1 Seattle 24
Unlike last season, which was filled with early surprises, there was but one surprise in the Wild-Card Round, No. 6 seed Baltimore’s 30-17 win over division rival Pittsburgh. One week later, the magic ran out for Joe Flacco, and Brady kicked off a near-flawless postseason run as the Patriots cruised into the Super Bowl after beating Baltimore and Indianapolis (a 45-7 punishment of Andrew Luck). There they’d meet the Seattle Seahawks, who sealed a Super Bowl berth with wins over Carolina (31-17 in the Divisional Round) and Green Bay (28-22 in the NFC Championship). One fateful goal line pass call would give Brady his fourth Super Bowl title, thanks to Malcolm Butler.
Super Bowl XLVIII, 2014: No. 1 Seattle 43, No. 1 Denver 8
There hasn’t been a Super Bowl beatdown like this in a while, and there might not be for some time. The Seahawks had the NFL’s best defense in 2013 for a reason, first beating No. 6 seed New Orleans — which squeezed past Philadelphia a week before, 26-24 — by a margin of 23-15, then following up with a 23-17 win over NFC West-rival San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. The Broncos, meanwhile, were looking like an offensive juggernaut, having scored more than 160 points than the next best offense in the AFC. After beating sixth-seeded San Diego, which beat Cincinnati in Round 1, the Broncos cruised past New England, 26-16, to advance to the Super Bowl. And that’s where their offense was crushed.
Super Bowl XLVII, 2013: No. 4 Baltimore 34, No. 2 San Francisco 31
The last time a top seed did not win a championship, it was Flacco and John Harbaugh edging brother Jim Harbaugh in one memorable Super Bowl battle. Flacco was magical in a playoff run that included more than 1,100 yards and 11 touchdown passes in wins against Indianapolis (24-9 in the Wild-Card round), Denver (a 38-35 double overtime upset of Peyton Manning’s high-powered Broncos offense) and New England (28-13 in the AFC Championship). Flacco would prove to be unbeatable despite the No. 2-seeded 49ers’ effective defense, which helped lift them past Green Bay and top seed Atlanta in the NFC Championship.
Super Bowl XLVI, 2012: No. 4 New York 21, No. 1 New England 17
Pitted against arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history for the second time in five years on the game’s grandest stage, Eli Manning cemented his name in pro football lore by capping off one of the great postseason runs in history. Manning led the Giants to four postseason wins by throwing for more than 1,200 yards and 9 touchdowns with 1 interception, taking New York through the Falcons, top-seeded Packers and 49ers (in OT), with Brady in the offing. Brady had led the No. 1-seed Patriots to a 45-10 win over Denver in the Divisional Round and a 23-20 victory over Baltimore to advance to their fifth Super Bowl in 11 years.
Super Bowl XLV, 2011: No. 6 Green Bay 31, No. 2 Pittsburgh 25
Aaron Rodgers entered Cheesehead lore with one impressive playoff run, throwing for 9 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in wins at third-seeded Philadelphia, top-seed Atlanta and No. 2 seed Chicago. Green Bay became the first and only NFC team to win the Super Bowl as a No. 6 seed, no small feat after starting the season 3-3. Their Super Bowl nemesis? Pittsburgh, the only AFC team to win the Super Bowl as a No. 6 seed in 2005, which tore through the playoffs after the New York Jets cleared the field with a win over No. 1 seed New England.
Super Bowl XLIV, 2010: No. 1 New Orleans 31, No. 1 Indianapolis 17
Drew Brees is 6-4 in his playoff tenure with the Saints, including flameouts in 2011, 2012 and 2014, but his memorable Super Bowl run in 2010 certainly locks up his Hall of Fame candidacy. Brees guided the Saints through a terrain that included feisty Arizona (then coming off a 51-45 overtime win over fifth-seeded Green Bay) and tough No. 2 seed Minnesota (which defeated third-seeded Dallas, 34-3), only to set up a Super Bowl matchup with Peyton Manning and the Colts. Manning may have had the easiest playoff path of his career in 2010, beating No. 6 seed Baltimore, 20-3, and fifth-seeded New York, 30-17, after both teams handed upsets to New England and San Diego, respectively.
Super Bowl XLIII, 2009: No. 2 Pittsburgh 27, No. 4 Arizona 23
Emerging out of one of the ugliest Final Fours in NFL history, with two surprising sixth seeds — Baltimore and Philadelphia — advancing to the conference championships, the Steelers and Cardinals nevertheless put on one incredible Super Bowl show. Who’s to know if we’re in for such a treat if the Ravens didn’t edge by No. 1 seed Tennessee in the Divisional Round, though the NFC’s best team, the New York Giants, failed to show up in Round 2, too.
Super Bowl XLII, 2008: No. 5 New York 17, No. 1 New England 14
New York’s toppling of the mighty Patriots will go down as one of the sporting world’s top upsets, but the Giants’ improbable path to glory get its start in a rocky 24-14 opening-round win at Tampa Bay. The Giants then knocked off No. 1 seed Dallas, 21-17, and outlasted Green Bay, 23-20, in overtime to spur a steamrolling in the Super Bowl. Or so everyone thought, with the Patriots humming along in an undefeated season. Eli Manning and David Tyree had a little something else on their minds.
Super Bowl XLI, 2007: No. 3 Indianapolis 29, No. 1 Chicago 17
It’s easy to recall the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning as a mid-2000s juggernaut, but in reality, they were the No. 3 seed in 2007, pulling off the “surprise” over the NFC’s top-seeded Chicago Bears. There was some shuffling at the top in the playoffs that year, as San Diego and Baltimore had the first and second seeds over No. 3 Indianapolis and No. 4 New England, but the Colts and Patriots used their playoff savvy to get past the Ravens and Chargers, respectively. The Bears, meanwhile, took Rex Grossman as far as he could go, even thrashing Brees and the Saints, 39-14, in the NFC Championship. But Manning and the Colts would rule the day in the Super Bowl, Manning’s first and only title with the Colts.