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Wild-card teams more than just outside shots lately

Once, it would have been the wildest notion of them all. The odds were too great, and the road was too long, and the opponents were too imposing. History was against them and breaks always seem to favor the gifted and, after all, weren't they just lucky to be here? Once, the wild-card teams of the NFL playoffs were like weekend guests. You might like seeing them come, but you were going to love to see them go. In the meantime, you just hoped they didn't mess up anything during their stay. Times change, however. These days, you look at the NFL bracket and you think … maybe.

This time, maybe a wild card can reach the Super Bowl. And once it is there, who knows? Perhaps it will find another wild card waiting for it.

The Eagles vs. the Ravens? Maybe. One sixth seed that struggled to reach the playoffs against another? The meek who have inherited the Earth vs. the peacemakers who are blessed?

Yes, it's possible.

And no, it isn't as far-fetched as you might think.

These days, the seedings of the NFL playoffs seem more like suggestions than predictions. A team can spend six months proving that it's a force to be reckoned with, and it can lose. A team can struggle and sputter and barely get in, and it can win. These days, the wild card isn't necessarily a joker.

It wasn't always that way. Of the first 62 teams to reach the Super Bowl, only four were wild cards (plus the '69 Kansas City Chiefs, who are not officially counted as a wild-card team but finished second in the AFL West). Three had the courtesy to lose.

By comparison, five wild cards have made the past 11 Super Bowls, and four have won. In the past three years, two teams — Pittsburgh in '05 and the Giants in '07 — have won the championship despite playing four postseason games away from home. Lately, excellence fits just fine in a travel bag.

Why has it happened? Perhaps because momentum matters more than it once did. Perhaps playing every week is better than trying to figure when to rest stars and how to spend a bye week. Perhaps it is easier for a team to carry a chip on its shoulder than the burden of high expectations. Perhaps finishing a solid second in a tough division is harder than being first in a softer one.

Given all that, how long will it be before the NFL places two wild cards in the Super Bowl?

Look at this weekend's games. If you were betting the house, you would probably wager on the Giants and the Titans, the No. 1 seeds. But you wouldn't feel very good about it, would you? (Remember, the two No. 1 seeds haven't met in the Super Bowl since the '93 season.)

Go back a month. The Giants were 11-1 and pretty much looked bulletproof. Then they lost to the Eagles 20-14 as running back Brian Westbrook led the New York defense on a merry chase around the park. He caught a 40-yard touchdown pass. He ran for a 30-yard score. He gained more than 200 yards of total offense.

Since that day, the Giants have looked more vulnerable. They lost three of their past four, and the defense gave up seven touchdowns of 30 yards or more.

Do the Eagles have a puncher's chance of beating them? Sure they do. Seeding aside, they are on par with Carolina and a much, much better team than Arizona. Donovan McNabb has been good since his return from a brief exile to the bench. The defense is third in the league in yardage and fourth in points allowed.

And if the Eagles beat the Giants, do they have a shot in the NFL title game? You betcha.

It's hard to believe quite as strongly in the Ravens, who have a rookie quarterback and a first-year head coach. Those things usually catch up to a team (see: Falcons, Atlanta).

Still, Baltimore has read this story before. Once, behind Ray Lewis and a snarling defense and a stay-out-of-the-way offense, it went to Tampa and won a Super Bowl. This year's battle cry: "Ditto!"

Consider this: In quarterback Joe Flacco's fourth game as a professional, the Titans came from behind to beat the Ravens 13-10. So, yeah, Baltimore is capable of winning.

And if the Ravens win Saturday, do they have the stuff to beat the Chargers (certainly) or the Steelers (maybe) in the AFC title game?

History suggests that good defense beats good offense, which means that the Chargers don't have a lot of downs remaining in their season. And while the Steelers look like a solid favorite the rest of the way, they won their two games against the Ravens in the game's final heartbeat.

So what has to happen for the wild cards? They have to play defense the way the 2000 Ravens did. Or they have to play offense the way the '97 Broncos did. Or they have to have the swagger of the '05 Steelers, who beat the top seeds in both conferences. Or they have to improve each week the way the '07 Giants did.

But, yeah, these days, a team can travel Wild Card Highway all the way to Tampa.

Once here, it could play in the Wildest Super Bowl of them all.


The wildest rides

Year Team Record Seed Finish

*1969 Chiefs 11-3 3rd Won Super Bowl IV

1975 Cowboys 10-4 4th Lost Super Bowl X

1980 Raiders 11-5 4th Won Super Bowl XV

1985 Patriots 11-5 5th Lost Super Bowl XX

1992 Bills 11-5 4th Lost Super Bowl XXVII

1997 Broncos 12-4 4th Won Super Bowl XXXII

1999 Titans 13-3 4th Lost Super Bowl XXXIV

2000 Ravens 12-4 4th Won Super Bowl XXXV

2005 Steelers 11-5 6th Won Super Bowl XL

2007 Giants 10-6 5th Won Super Bowl XLII

Note: Because of the playoff format at the time, the Chiefs are not listed by the NFL among its wild-card teams. The Chiefs are, however, among the non-division winners (they were second) to reach a Super Bowl.

Wild-card teams more than just outside shots lately 01/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 10:02pm]
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