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History shows big gap between September results and Super Bowl glory

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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In 2010, the Packers got hot late and won it all; 2011 ended with playoff disappointment. (Getty Images)  
In 2010, the Packers got hot late and won it all; 2011 ended with playoff disappointment. (Getty Images)  

A talk-radio host the other day asked me if there were any conclusions to be drawn from the first two weeks of play. As a matter of fact, I told him I could think of one: Don't run with what you've seen.

Meaning? Meaning the San Francisco 49ers aren't necessarily going to the Super Bowl, and the New Orleans Saints aren't dead meat.

Not yet anyway.

I know Las Vegas just made the 49ers the favorite to win their sixth Super Bowl while diminishing the chances of the winless Saints. But get real, people: If there's a lesson we should have learned the past two seasons, it's to not overreact to much of anything two, three or even eight weeks into the season.

It's not how you start the year that matters; it's how you finish it. I know what you're thinking: Well, duh. So then why do we persist in crowning Super Bowl winners months before the championship game is played? It makes no sense, and let me offer two reasons why: The past two Super Bowl champions.

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The 2011 New York Giants and 2010 Green Bay Packers have something in common besides a Lombardi Trophy. Both qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the season, then ran the table. The Packers were supposed to be DOA in mid-December. So were the Giants. But each won its final two regular-season games before circling the bases in the playoffs.

Now look at the 2011 Packers. They won 15 of 16 games and were the best team in football from the beginning of the regular season to its end. So, two weeks into play, they became the overwhelming favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions, even though only one team (the 2003-04 Patriots) had done it the previous 12 years.

Nevertheless, the Packers lived up to expectations until something strange, something unexpected, something totally unpredictable happened in the playoffs: They lost. Yep, they suffered the same fate as the unbeaten New England Patriots of 2007, worn down and worn out by something ... and I'll call it fatigue.

Mental, physical, take your pick. All I know is that the team we saw in January wasn't the club we watched from September to December, and where's the surprise? It's virtually impossible in the NFL to maintain a superior level of play for five months.

I mentioned the 2007 Patriots, and I offer them as a textbook example. They regularly blew down opponents the first half of the season, then faltered down the stretch -- nearly losing to Philadelphia, Baltimore and the New York Giants. Then, in the conference championship game, they struggled to overcome a San Diego team that played without LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates and with quarterback Philip Rivers operating on one leg.

Two weeks later, they were beaten by the Giants.

That doesn't mean the 49ers are doomed. It just means that what you see now may not be what you get in January. When I visited the 49ers in the summer of 2011, I remember one member of the club telling me that, more than anything, players needed "a signature victory" to convince them that they could play with the big boys.

Then they went to Philadelphia that September and found it.

When I stopped by Santa Clara a year later I checked in with some of the same people from the previous summer, and all agreed the Philadelphia game changed the outlook of the club -- so much, in fact, that one guy said the 49ers now might need "a signature loss" to maintain their balance.

I knew what he was talking about then, and I know what he's talking about now.

The NFL this week reminded us that 75.7 percent of teams that start 3-0 make the playoffs, and that's great. But it also reminded us that since the current system was adopted in 1990, 22 clubs that lost their first two starts made it to the postseason. OK, so that number isn't all that significant. But this is: Four of those teams reached the Super Bowl, and three of them won it.

Moreover, since realignment in 2002, 70 of the 120 clubs that qualified for the playoffs -- or 58.3 percent -- started the year 1-1 or 0-2, including eight last year. One of them, the Giants, wound up winning Super Bowl XLVI.

Bottom line: There's hope, New Orleans. Aesop knew what he was talking about when he wrote The Tortoise and the Hare. What he didn't know was that its lessons would apply to today's NFL.

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