By Danny O’Neil
There’s a long way to go before anyone wins the Super Bowl, and an extra game isn’t going to prevent the trip.
That’s the lesson to be drawn from the past decade of playoff history.
Of the past eight teams to win the Super Bowl, six played on the opening weekend of the playoffs. It’s a significant distinction, not just because those six champions had to win four games as opposed to the three victories necessary for one of the conference’s top two seeds to win the title.
It’s also important because over the first 15 years after the 12-team playoff format began in 1990, there were only two teams to win the Super Bowl after playing on wild-card weekend.
Consider that a word of caution for anyone penciling in the Seahawks for a Super Bowl appearance let alone using permanent ink (or making an airline reservation) based on the belief Seattle will be playing for the title.
Being the top seed in the NFC playoffs as Seattle is should translate to the easiest path to the Super Bowl in this conference. That path, however, should not be mistaken for being easy. Not even with the Seahawks knowing that as the NFC’s top seed, they will host the lowest remaining seed of the conference’s six teams in the postseason. If the sixth-seeded Saints beat Philadelphia on Saturday night, New Orleans will head to Seattle Jan. 11. If the Eagles win, Seattle will host the winner of fifth-seeded San Francisco playing at fourth-seeded Green Bay on Sunday.
But the fast track to the Super Bowl that comes from having a bye just isn’t worth as much as it used to be in a league that is increasingly known for its parity, not just from one year to the next, but within a single season once the playoffs start.
Just look at the Ravens’ Super Bowl run a year ago. Baltimore was 1-4 in December before reeling off four consecutive victories.
As the AFC North champ, the Ravens did get the benefit of hosting a playoff opener against Indianapolis before winning two straight on the road. But even wild-card teams have found their way to the title with increasing frequency.
Over the past eight seasons, three wild-card entrants to the playoffs have won the title: the 2010 Packers, the 2007 Giants and, gulp, the 2005 Steelers, who defeated Seattle in Super Bowl XL.
Just three wild-card teams won the title from the 1970 AFL-NFL merger through 2004: the 1980 Raiders, the 1997 Broncos and the 2000 Ravens. That’s three wild-card teams that won the Super Bowl in a 35-year span compared to three wild-card title winners over the past eight.
None of that means it’s any less likely for Seattle to win a Super Bowl this season. It just serves to point out how tough it will (still) be even after the Seahawks earned the top seed in the NFC playoffs and the first-round bye that goes with it.
Note: This story was updated to correct an error. The initial version stated the 2012 Ravens were a wild-card team. Baltimore actually won its division.