In the NFL, fans look at teams having a bye and home field as having a huge advantage over wild-card teams.
However, the parity is so close in the NFL, and the easy route to the Super Bowl, a.k.a, getting a bye, owning home field advantage and routing opponents in the regular season, may not be the best road to the Super Bowl.
Teams that show grit and overcoming adversity have won some recent championships.
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The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers won three road playoff games during their Super Bowl run, when they beat the Cincinnati Bengals (11-5), the Indianapolis Colts (14-2) and the Denver Broncos (13-3) on the road. Current Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was the wide receivers coach for the Steelers that year.
The 2008 Cardinals (9-7), who lost the Super Bowl to the Steelers, got beat by playoff teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings, the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers during the regular season. They also got blown out by the New England Patriots, 47-7, who ended up missing the postseason in the AFC with a record of 11-5.
The Cardinals also played in the worst division in the NFL record-wise that year. The Cardinals shocked the world when they beat the Atlanta Falcons (11-5) at home, the Carolina Panthers on the road (12-4) and the Eagles (9-6-1) at home to make the Super Bowl.
The 2007 New York Giants started 0-2, finished with a 10-6 record, and won three road playoff games before upsetting the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Quarterback Eli Manning was heavily criticized earlier in his career for his inconsistency and playoff failures. Even though he led the league with 20 interceptions that year, Manning was so clutch for the Giants, which included a go-ahead touchdown pass to receiver Plaxico Burress in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.
The Patriots may have scored 589 points during the 2007 season and had a staggering point differential of +315, but ultimately, the Giants, with their tremendous pass rush, had faced more adversity than the Patriots during the season. The Giants were used to playing with their backs against the wall, unlike the Patriots, who were used to blowing out teams.
The Giants also had another Super Bowl run four years later when they faced similar circumstances. The Giants faced a four-game losing streak, which lowered the Giants record to 6-6 and jeopardized their playoff hopes. The Giants ended the regular season with a negative point differential (-6) and allowed 400 points on defense.
With their elite front four and their clutch play from Manning again, the Giants won three of their last four games of the regular season to clinch their division at 9-7, which included two wins over the second place Dallas Cowboys (8-8).
In the playoffs, the Giants won in the wild-card round at home, and upset the 15-1 Packers and 13-3 San Francisco 49ers on the road. In the Super Bowl, the Giants upset the Patriots again 21-17.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers were heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl in recent years with their high-powered passing attack. Green Bay this season is known as a perennial contender this year with its 12-4 record.
One example of being heavily favored, such as 2011 when Green Bay went 15-1, it led the league with 560 points scored on offense, had a point differential of +201, but gave up 359 points on defense. In the playoffs, even with home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Packers lost to the Giants and their dominant defensive line, who were used to winning close games, and faced more adversity when their games were must-wins in order to make the postseason.
However, the previous season, when it won Super Bowl XLV over the Steelers, Green Bay was 10th in points scored, but unlike the 2011 team, had a strong defense that was 2nd in points allowed.
The Packers were also battle tested and had to show some grit in the postseason. The Packers, who were coming off a two-game losing streak, had to win their last two games to make the postseason, and they won both of those games.
Like the 2005 Steelers and the 2007 Giants, the 2010 Packers (10-6) had to win three road playoff games over the Philadelphia Eagles (10-6), the Falcons (13-3) and the Chicago Bears (11-5) to make the Super Bowl.
The most recent example of an underdog wild-card team winning a Super Bowl, the 2012-2013 Baltimore Ravens, started the season 9-2, but slumped their way into the postseason by losing four of their last five games. They also lost middle linebacker Ray Lewis for quite some time, who returned just in time for the postseason, and was set to retire after the season was over.
Baltimore did win the division, and won a wild-card game over rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, but had to travel on the road to high-altitude Denver to face quarterback Peyton Manning and the 13-3 Broncos, who owned home field advantage. The Ravens completed a miracle touchdown to receiver Jacoby Jones right before overtime, and forced an interception of Manning to set up a game-winning field goal over the Broncos in double overtime.
Sep 5, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith (82) pulls in a reception as Denver Broncos defensive back Tony Carter (32) defends in the fourth quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Ravens 49-27. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
The Ravens, then, defeated the Patriots (12-4) on the road, and won the Super Bowl over the 49ers (11-4-1), who entered the game as 4-point favorites with then-sensational rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Ravens had a big 28-6 lead before a 30-minute power outage, but made a late goal line stand to win by a score of 34-31.
As you see, teams that have had its backs against the wall and had to overcome adversity have shown grit over heavy favorites who haven’t faced the kind of adversity as those teams during the season. A bunch of those teams have relied on a combination of sound fundamentals and defense.
Teams that rely on offense to blow out teams with poor fundamentals and defense during the regular season sometimes struggle against playoff teams that are physical and display good fundamentals.
The Cardinals, like other past teams, are facing a bunch of adversity right now. The Cardinals controlled their own destiny to clinch the No. 1 seed, but blew it during the final two games.
The team is without starting quarterback Carson Palmer for the rest of the season, will play its 3rd straight game without backup quarterback Drew Stanton and will now head to Charlotte to face the Panthers (7-8-1) with its third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley, who’s starting for the third straight week. The Panthers have won four straight games to clinch a playoff spot.
What makes the NFL so exciting is seeing underdog wild-card teams make and win the Super Bowl when nobody has given them a chance. That’s what makes the NFL so special.
The league just wouldn’t be the same if the favorite teams always made the Super Bowl. That is why people admire the NFL, but think differently of the NBA. All I can say is, there is a possibility we’ll see a surprise wild-card team this year.
The Cardinals, with the No. 5 defense in fewest points allowed, not only have the defense to make some noise in the postseason, but have faced adversity and won a lot of close games, compared to some other playoff teams.
Now, with the odds seemingly against Arizona, it is still to be seen if the Cardinals can show some grit and play like the Wild Cards against the Panthers, just like in 2008, when the Cardinals routed the Panthers on the road during their last Super Bowl run.