If you had to come up with one word to describe the first 14 weeks of the 2016 NFL season, “weird” would not be a bad choice. The latest case in point: Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Ben Roethlisberger combined to throw 11 interceptions and just one touchdown Sunday. RIP to your fantasy playoff teams, by the way.
At this point in the season, we typically know, more or less, what to expect, but this year, teams are still smashing narratives on a near-weekly basis: The league’s most consistent team — the Dallas Cowboys — has looked completely erratic in its past two games, and there have already been calls to bench MVP candidate Dak Prescott in favor of Tony Romo. In Week 10, the matchup between the Patriots and Seahawks looked like a possible dress rehearsal for the Super Bowl — and then Rob Gronkowski and Earl Thomas went down with season-ending injuries. And then there’s this: Both the NFL’s hottest team (the Buccaneers, winners of five straight) and most terrifying team (the Green Bay Packers, with Aaron Rodgers back in MVP form and a suddenly stout defense) might miss the playoffs.
Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz has coined it “The Year of No Great Teams”: There had never been a top-ranked DVOA team — in any week, at any time since 1989 — that came in at lower than 20 percent until last week, when the no. 1 Patriots settled in at 19.9 percent. By beating the Ravens on Monday Night Football, New England’s percentage improved to 21.2; last year, seven squads had a higher overall DVOA rating. The Patriots can score, sure, but their defense isn’t great; the same can be said of the Cowboys, Falcons, and Raiders. The Chiefs are good on defense and special teams, but don’t have much of an offense; neither do the Broncos nor the Texans.
This abnormal level of parity has created an opening at the top, which represents a big departure from the previous three seasons. In each of those years, the no. 1 seeds from both conferences have advanced to the Super Bowl. But this season promises to be different. The good teams aren’t as good, which means there’s a better chance we’re about to see even more weird shit happen as the regular season ends and the postseason begins, like we have in most years since the turn of the century.
So, to get a better sense of what the less-fancied teams will need in order to lift the Lombardi Trophy in February (hint: one elite unit, preferably the passing game or the pass rush), let’s take a look at all the four-and-below seeds that have won the Super Bowl since 2000.
2012: No. 4 Ravens Defeat No. 2 49ers
The Ravens finished the 2012 regular season at 10–6, holding off the 10–6 Bengals via a tiebreaker to win the AFC North. That got them a matchup with Andrew Luck’s Colts in the wild-card round.
Up to that point, Joe Flacco and the Ravens had put together a decent season. The lanky quarterback finished the regular season throwing for 7.2 yards per attempt with 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Baltimore ended the season eighth overall in DVOA — 13th on offense, 19th on defense. They were 10th in points per game, 16th in yards per play, 15th in passing yards, tied for 18th in passing touchdowns, 11th in rushing yards, and seventh in rush touchdowns. Defensively, they finished tied for 12th in points surrendered per game, 12th in yards per play … you know what? You get it. They were fairly unremarkable in every way.
Then Flacco woke up and suddenly decided he was Johnny Utah. In four playoff games — a 24–9 win over the Colts, a 38–35 win over the Broncos in the divisional round, a 28–13 win over the Patriots in the AFC championship, and a 34–31 win over the 49ers in the Super Bowl — Flacco threw 11 touchdowns and no picks at 9.05 yards per attempt for a 117.2 rating. Anquan Boldin, his favorite target, caught 22 balls and scored four touchdowns. Baltimore became the perfect reminder that if you peak at the right time, your regular-season stats don’t really matter.
2011: No. 4 Giants Defeat No. 1 Patriots
The Giants held off the Cowboys in a winner-takes-all game in Week 17 to clinch the NFC East. They made the postseason, sure, but they finished 9–7 with a minus-6 point differential on the season and ranked 12th in DVOA — seventh on offense and 20th on defense. They were, however, very strong in a few key areas: their pass rush and their pass offense. The Giants had the fourth-ranked passing attack by DVOA, as Eli Manning threw 29 touchdowns, primarily to the trio of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. Add in Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Mathias Kiwanuka consistently harassing opposing quarterbacks — the team ended the season with 48 sacks, tied for third in the NFL — and that was enough.
New York burned through the first two rounds of the playoffs, beating the Falcons 24–2 in the wild-card round and then the 15–1 Packers in Green Bay 37–20 in the divisional round. They got past the 49ers in overtime at Candlestick Park to win the NFC and advance to Super Bowl XLVI. Against the Patriots, Manning threw for 296 yards on 30-of-40 passing. The play of the game, of course, was a 38-yard bomb down the sideline to Manningham, which set up the eventual game-winning touchdown by Ahmad Bradshaw.
Overall, the Giants finished with 11 sacks in four playoff games, while Manning threw for nine touchdowns and just one pick with a 65 percent completion rate and a 103 passer rating. The Giants proved how hard it is to beat a team that can throw the ball all over the yard and keep the opposing quarterback from doing the same.
2010: No. 6 Packers Defeat No. 2 Steelers
These Packers were a sixth seed in record only. Their six regular-season losses came by a combined 20 points (the worst margin of defeat was four points) and, incredibly, they never trailed by more than seven points all year. At the end of the season, they ranked third in overall DVOA: seventh on offense and second on defense. They were the perfect sleeper team, statistically speaking, and they proved it over the next four games.
The Packers won three tough road playoff games over the Eagles, Falcons, and Bears to advance to Super Bowl XLV. Against the Steelers, Rodgers was masterful on his way to the MVP Award, throwing for 304 yards and three touchdowns in a 31–25 win over Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense.
Rodgers finished the postseason with nine touchdowns and two picks, completing 68 percent of his passes at 8.29 yards per attempt. One way to win the Super Bowl: Get unlucky during the regular season, and have Aaron Rodgers on your team.
2007: No. 5 Giants Defeat No. 1 Patriots
The Giants finished the season second in the NFC East with a 10–6 record, earning a wild-card matchup with the Buccaneers. No one expected much from a New York squad that finished 14th in DVOA (18th on offense, 13th on defense), and, well, we all know what happened after that: They knocked off Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Green Bay to advance to Super Bowl XLII, where they ended New England’s bid for a perfect season.
How’d the Giants do it? They brought one very big weapon to the fight: a fearsome pass rush. New York finished the season first in the NFL with 53 sacks, as Umenyiora (13.0) and Tuck (10.0) both hit double digits. In the Super Bowl, the Giants sacked Tom Brady five times, limiting arguably the best offense in league history to just 274 yards and 14 points. By doing one particular thing at an elite level, the Giants were able to pull off one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. Oh, and David Tyree’s miraculous helmet catch. That helped too.
2005: No. 6 Steelers Defeat No. 1 Seahawks
After finishing the season 11–5, the Steelers lost a tiebreaker with Cincinnati and wound up as the sixth seed. They took to the road and beat the Bengals, Colts, and Broncos on the backs of their top-tier defense (which finished tied for third in points surrendered and third in defensive DVOA) and a little help from the Bus, Jerome Bettis, who scored a touchdown in each contest.
That set up a Super Bowl XL matchup with league MVP Shaun Alexander, who had won the rushing title and scored a then-record 27 rushing touchdowns behind top-notch offensive linemen Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson. It was a battle between an elite offense and an elite defense, and, though he’s since become a top-tier passer, Pittsburgh’s second-year quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, didn’t have much to do with the outcome, save for a rushing touchdown late in the second quarter.
Big Ben finished the game 9-of-21 for 123 yards, and he threw two picks. In fact, he was overshadowed by receiver Antwaan Randle El, who threw a touchdown to Hines Ward on a trick play. Instead, the Steelers defense (and several blown calls by the referees, which, as a Seahawks fan, I am contractually obligated to point out) won them the game. Pittsburgh held Alexander to 95 yards on 20 rushes en route to a 21–10 win.
2000: No. 4 Ravens Defeat No. 1 Giants
The Ravens finished the season 12–4 — a game behind the Titans in the AFC Central — to grab the no. 4 seed, which still went to a wild-card team in 2000. Like last year’s Broncos, these Ravens were one of the few teams that didn’t need an elite quarterback performance to win it all.
Trent Dilfer took over for Tony Banks in Week 8 and finished the year completing 59 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns, 11 picks, 6.6 yards per attempt, and a 76.6 passer rating. But his mediocrity as a passer simply didn’t matter. Why? Because the Ravens had one of the best defenses in NFL history, giving up just 10.3 points per game on the year.
Ray Lewis was at the heart of the group, putting everyone in the right spots at middle linebacker; Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa provided size and toughness up front; Peter Boulware and Michael McCrary rushed on the edge, Rod Woodson patrolled the secondary … there were too many great players to mention. Baltimore breezed through the playoffs, beating the Broncos, Titans, Raiders, and Giants by a combined score of 95–23, including a 34–7 beatdown of New York in Super Bowl XXXV.
That 2000 Ravens team created a new standard in the modern game: You don’t always need the traditional pieces of the championship equation in order to win it all. They were so good on defense; it didn’t matter that they barely had a quarterback.