At no point in NFL history has the road to winning a Super Bowl become so winding.
The days of top playoff qualifiers making an automatic beeline toward the Lombardi Trophy are over. Only one No. 1 seed — the 2009 New Orleans Saints — has won a championship in the past seven seasons. A No. 2 seed captured only two titles in that span.
In comparison, every Super Bowl winner in the 1990s with the exception of the 1997 Denver Broncos held one of the top two seeds. Those squads were able to reap the benefits of a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game by finishing with one of the their conference’s top two regular-season records.
No wild-cards reached the Super Bowl in the first 15 seasons after the league switched to a 12-team playoff format. And then the NFL went topsy-turvy.
In three of the past six seasons, the ultimate champion never hosted a playoff game. The Green Bay Packers became the latest last season. They joined the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers as the only No. 6 seeds to win a Super Bowl after dispatching their respective conference’s top three qualifiers on the road. The 2007 New York Giants did something equally impressive as a No. 5 seed, winning three road games before upsetting previously unbeaten New England in Super Bowl XLII.
So with NFL parity never greater, does winning a division title really matter anymore?
The Saints finished last season with an 11-5 record — four games better than the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks. But because the Seahawks won their division and New Orleans didn’t, the Saints were forced to make the 2,100-mile trip to Seattle on a short week. The raucous crowd support the Seahawks received played a factor in a 41-36 upset victory.
As wild-card qualifiers, the 2009 and 2010 Jets won their first two road playoff contests before falling short in the AFC title game. Jets center Nick Mangold can’t say for sure whether hosting those championship games would have given New York the push it needed to reach the Super Bowl.
Mangold, though, doesn’t want his team to have to overcome those odds again.
“We really need to get home playoff games,” Mangold recently told FOXSports.com. “It’s tough going on the road. We know we can win. But if we can have our fans behind us for some of those games, it would be a big help.”
For that to happen, the Jets must achieve something they haven’t done in almost a decade — win the AFC East. That rough-and-tumble division heads our list of the NFL’s best entering the 2011 campaign.
Collective 2010 record: 36-28
2010 playoff teams: New England (14-2), New York Jets (11-5)
Most anticipated 2011 divisional game: The Jets and Patriots play for the first time this season Oct. 9 at Gillette Stadium — the site of New York’s 28-21 second-round playoff upset in January. Jets coach Rex Ryan has already added to the pregame hype by taking a potshot at the Patriots during his preseason-opening news conference.
Outlook: New England finished with the NFL’s best regular-season record last season and isn’t expected to have much of a drop-off — if any — in 2011. Any slippage and the Patriots could be surpassed by the Jets, which believe third-year quarterback Mark Sanchez is ready to become a consistent difference-maker. Miami has a playoff-caliber defense but major questions on offense, especially with quarterback Chad Henne returning as the de facto starter after the Dolphins failed to acquire Kyle Orton from Denver. Buffalo, which was 4-4 in the second half of last season after an 0-8 start, should be improved but the rebuilding process will take more time.
Collective 2010 record: 36-28
2010 playoff teams: Atlanta (13-3), New Orleans (11-5)
Most anticipated 2011 divisional game: The Falcons and Saints don’t play for the first time until Week 10 (November 13). But Falcons head coach Mike Smith will surely remember to remind his team that Saints players disrespectfully took celebratory pictures on the field last December after a New Orleans victory in the Georgia Dome.
Outlook: The NFC South was the only division with three 10-game winners last season and it could happen again. With a maturing roster headed by rising third-year quarterback Josh Freeman, the Bucs could be ready to surpass the Falcons or Saints if either stumbles. Carolina still isn’t a viable playoff contender but at least there’s hope for the future with 2011 No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton now at quarterback and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson spending money on personnel once again.
Collective 2010 record: 33-31
2010 playoff teams:Chicago (11-5), Green Bay (10-6)
Most anticipated 2011 divisional game: The Packers return to the site of their NFC Championship Game victory in Week 3 (Sept. 25) when they play the Bears at Soldier Field. Pressure will be on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to produce after his controversial bailing in the second half of that title contest with a knee injury.
Outlook: With a young roster and one of the game’s best quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have a bona fide chance for a Super Bowl repeat. The Bears are the top in-division obstacle. Detroit players are talking playoffs — someplace they haven’t reached since the 1999 season. But the Lions can’t be considered serious contenders until they answer the lingering doubts at quarterback, running back and in the secondary. Minnesota is banking on quarterback Donovan McNabb to reinvent himself a la Brett Favre when he signed with the Vikings in 2009. Even after some significant offseason roster changes, Minnesota still has enough talent to become a dark-horse wild-card contender.
Collective 2010 record: 32-32
2010 playoff teams: Philadelphia (10-6)
Most anticipated 2011 divisional game: New York Giants at Philadelphia in Week 3 (September 25). This will mark the first time the Giants and Eagles have played since Philadelphia’s stunning fourth-quarter comeback last December helped fuel a division championship, and kept New York from reaching the postseason.
Outlook: The Eagles are the self-proclaimed “dream team” after some impressive offseason acquisitions that included one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks (Nnamdi Asomugha) and pass rushers (Jason Babin). While now on the spot to justify such braggadocio, the Eagles should be a nightmare for their NFC East rivals. The Giants should be Philadelphia’s strongest challenge but don’t be surprised if Dallas bounces back from last year’s 6-10 record. The Cowboys return all their top skill-position players on offense and should be more aggressive defensively under new coordinator Rob Ryan. Washington’s unsettled quarterback and running back situations make the Redskins a likely fourth-place finisher.
Most anticipated 2011 divisional game: We don’t have to wait long for the Steelers and Ravens to renew the NFL’s second-best rivalry behind the Patriots vs. Jets. Baltimore hosts Pittsburgh in the Sept. 11 season opener. The major pregame storyline: Baltimore’s Joe Flacco has never defeated the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger started at quarterback.
Outlook: The Steelers failed to reach the playoffs in the season after their previous two Super Bowl appearances but there probably won’t be much in-division competition for Pittsburgh beyond the Ravens. Cincinnati is expected to start a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton, while Cleveland is installing new offensive and defensive systems under a first-year head coach (Pat Shurmur) and second-year quarterback (Colt McCoy). The lack of an offseason to work on those schemes could initially slow Shurmur’s efforts to make Cleveland relevant again.
Most anticipated 2011 divisional game: Kansas City at San Diego in Week 3 (Sept. 25). The Chiefs stunned San Diego in last year’s season opener, which proved a harbinger for things to come. The Chargers failed to win the AFC West for the first time in four seasons, while Kansas City enjoyed a six-game improvement to capture the title. The Chiefs must now prove that surge wasn’t a fluke after a brutal late-season collapse. The Chargers seem ready to rebound after a 2010 campaign marred by injuries, lousy special teams, and contract issues between the team and two of their top players (wide receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill, both of whom are in this year’s training camp).
Outlook: Kansas City and San Diego may have competition from Oakland for AFC West supremacy. The Raiders swept the division last year but failed to capitalize with an 8-8 overall record. First-year head coach Hue Jackson must fix the problems that have haunted the Raiders for almost a decade now — inconsistent week-to-week effort and excessive penalties — and hope Jason Campbell is the solution at quarterback. Denver should be better but the John Fox/John Elway regime needs more time cleaning up the mess ex-coach Josh McDaniels left behind.
Most anticipated 2011 divisional game: Indianapolis vs. Houston in Week 16 (December 22). Yes, these teams play in the 2011 regular-season opener but that contest probably won’t be as telling. By late December, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning should be back to normal after his offseason neck surgery. We’ll also know whether the Texans are finally ready to get over the hump after nine seasons without a playoff appearance.
Outlook: Another team to watch in December is Jacksonville. The Jaguars have faded the past two years after being in position to reach the playoffs, putting head coach Jack Del Rio alongside Houston’s Gary Kubiak on the hot seat entering the season. Tennessee faces a season of transition with the NFL’s longest-tenured head coach (Jeff Fisher) being replaced by Mike Munchak. That adjustment will get increasingly difficult the longer star running back Chris Johnson continues his contract holdout.
Collective 2010 record: 25-39
2010 playoff teams: Seattle (7-9)
Most anticipated 2011 divisional game: Seattle at San Francisco in the Sept. 11 season opener. This matchup could get chippy based on the tension between Seattle’s Pete Carroll and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh while coaching in the Pac-12 ranks. It also will be amusing to watch how long it takes 49ers fans to boo quarterback Alex Smith following an incompletion.
Outlook: There is little reason to expect much progress from the NFL’s worst division in 2010. Quarterbacking remains the main problem. Kevin Kolb will provide an upgrade in Arizona, but the Cardinals’ mass offseason roster moves may result in a slow start. St. Louis could make a division-title run but that will largely depend on how quickly Sam Bradford becomes comfortable in the new offense that McDaniels has brought as Rams offensive coordinator. Seattle’s decision to name Tarvaris Jackson its starter speaks volumes about Charlie Whitehurst, who was considered the heir apparent to Matt Hasselbeck at this time last year. Harbaugh’s decision to re-sign Smith was just as curious, but it may buy San Francisco some time until 2011 second-round pick Colin Kapernick is ready to play.