Sunday’s Super Bowl, power outage aside, was yet another compelling example as to why the NFL is the superior brand by far over any other top sporting draw – MLB, NBA, NHL, NCAA basketball, BSC college football, etc. It was a focal point of interest like no other – even the commercials were watched to be a source of entertainment (are commercials always supposed be entertaining in some way?). It was a happening.
It wasn’t always that way. I grew up in a generation in which Super Bowls were much more likely to be blowouts as they were close games. That continued until a little more than the last decade, as the salary cap and full-blown free agency have allowed teams to make more radicals climbs and drops in their success rate.
For almost 20 years, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, it seemed almost inevitable that the best-run franchises were going to be in the postseason. It was impossible to imagine the playoffs without Dallas, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland dominating their divisions. Sure, some team would make a run here and there, but when the big boys came out to play, it was the same usual suspects that got rounded up.
What followed was a period of conference dominance. After the AFC had ruled the roost for a decade from the mid-1970s when the Steelers were the big deal into the mid-1980s, the NFC was viewed as the weaker conference. It was a title its teams didn’t like and one that wouldn’t last. From the time the Bears pounded the Patriots after the 1985 season for the next decade-plus, the “real” Super Bowl was the NFC Championship Game. The mantle got passed from the Bears to the Giants to the Cowboys to the 49ers to the Packers, but it always stayed in the NFC.
When Baltimore won its first Super Bowl following the 2000 season, there had been 35 Super Bowls played. Of those, only six times (approximately once every six years) was there a game decided by six points or fewer. In 22 of those 35 games, a team won by 11 points or more. In 10 of those 35 (about once every three years), the winner pounded the loser into submission by 21 or more points. The Super Bowl was relevant as an event, but not as a game. Back then, all that many hard-core fans had at the end of the year was the hope that the Pro Bowl would be a good time. Suffice to say, a lot has changed since then.
With the advent of full free agency, technological advancements that allow team decision-makers to see every snap most college players take if they choose to, and a larger salary cap that allowed teams to better absorb monumental spending errors, the competitive balance increased to a point that the Super Bowl was clearly anybody’s game. In the first 35 Super Bowls, 20 of them were decided by 14 or more points. Most were technically over by the third period. In the last 12 Super Bowls, only one has been decided by more than 14 points. Now the team that is hot at the right time can win.
In the first 35 Super Bowls, the favorite almost always won – and won big. In the last 12, not only have eight of those games been decided by six points or fewer, five of them have come down to a three-point game, including Sunday night’s win by the underdog Ravens over the 49ers.
Not only have the games been close, but the teams that have eventually hoisted the Super Bowl trophy have done so against some stiff odds. The Ravens (10-6 and losers of four of their last five games) were one of the teams viewed as most likely to lose at home on wild card weekend against a motivated Indianapolis (11-5) team getting Chuck Pagano back on the sideline. After putting away the Colts, the Ravens’ reward was going into Denver to face the top-seeded Broncos and Peyton Manning. Although an improbable finish kept the dream alive against Denver, the Ravens were double-digit underdogs against both Denver and New England and won the Lombardi Trophy.
It would seem that has become the norm. Getting a bye week isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Over the last three seasons, all three Super Bowl champions have had to play four games to win – Green Bay from the No. 6 seed in 2010, the Giants as the fourth seed in the NFC last year and the Ravens from the AFC’s fourth seed.
It’s no so much about how hot a team is throughout the year. It’s how hot they are in January.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.