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NFL playoffs could produce another surprise champion

by Dave Wiggins

Just make the tourney, baby!

After that, anything can happen.

The March Madness mantra of a college hoopster?

Nah, it’s the sentiment of NFL players regarding THEIR postseason.

Yes, the NCAA tournament is usually good for an early-round upset or two pulled off by a 15th tournament seed, like Florida-Gulf Coast in 2013. But after six games, the cream almost always rises to the top in the form of a higher seed — like a Louisville or Kentucky — winning it all.

But in the NFL playoffs over the last eight years, more often than not (five times), it’s been a team that has started off in the lower half of the AFC or NFC seedings — 4th or below — that has ended up winning the Super Bowl.

That quintet includes: Pittsburgh (a No. 6 wild card seed) in the 2005 season; the New York Giants (No. 5 wild card) in 2007; Green Bay (No. 6, WC) in 2010; the Giants (No. 4) again in 2011 and, of course, last season’s titlist, Baltimore, a No. 4 seed.

All of those teams had to win three games (including at least two on the road) en route to picking up Lombardi hardware.

And the wild card winners had to capture three victories away from home.

So, these days, getting hot and going on a roll in the postseason is what it’s all about.

Regular-season dominance. Pffft! Not much of a playoff predictor at all.

Look no further than the last Super Bowl race.

Baltimore earned the AFC Central title with just a 9-7 regular season mark. But they then rode QB Joe Flacco’s arm to three straight impressive wins, including road triumphs over their conference’s two top seeds — Denver and New England.

Then, of course, Baltimore polished off San Francisco in the lights-out Harbaugh Bowl.

What the Ravens accomplished was once considered an almost impossible feat.

Last century, winning four straight usually involved a lower seed defeating one or more of the NFL’s then-dynasty teams on the road — Dallas, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Oakland.

From 1970-95 only TWO wild card teams won Super Bowls.

Ah, but that was then and this is now — the age of parity, when dynasties — like dinosaurs — are extinct.

Nowadays, a handful of teams are very good yearly; but even your New Englands are no longer able to clump together Super Bowl titles in a short-time frame.

It seems we have a different champ every year. For Yankee-hating types, this is competitive heaven.

This season the lower seeds have a better shot than usual in winning another NFL title the hard way.

The NFC boasts a pair of wild card entries with unusually good records — San Francisco at 12-4 and New Orleans, with an 11-5 mark; those logs are usually good enough to win a divisional title.

And No. 4 Green Bay, NFC Central champ at just 8-7-1, is as dangerous as anyone, now that Aaron Rodgers is back at quarterback.

Thus, all three lower NFC seeds enter the tourney with more than mere long shot hopes. The chances for another low-ranked titlist soar with these ball clubs involved.

Over in the AFC, you’ve got got another 12-4 wild card team in Kansas City, which, like San Fran and N’Awlins, had the misfortune of being in a division with a strong champion (Denver).

Should K.C. go from 2-14 a year ago and run the table, it wouldn’t rate as a surprise by now. But it WOULD rank as the biggest worst-to-first turnaround in NFL history.

The AFC also boasts an 11-5 lower half-seeded club in No. 4 Indianapolis.

It would also register as just a teeny shock if the Colts, with QB Andrew Luck at the controls, got on the necessary roll.

Of the six lowest seeds in the tourney, San Diego — which snuck into the sixth and last playoff slot on the final day — would, at first glance, be the only true looooong shot among them.

However, consider this: one tried and true way of separating the wheat from the chaff — low seed contenders from pretenders — is the presence of an elite quarterback.

All five recent lower-seeded titlists had one. And the Chargers possess the very capable Phiip Rivers.

Meanwhile, the two No. 1 seeds — Seattle and Denver — should be sweating bullets. Only ONCE in the past 10 years has the top seed won the Super Bowl (New Orleans in 2009).

Also, being on a roll late in the campaign has recently proven to be mostly irrelevant to playoff success.

This means teams like NFC East champ Philadelphia (winners of seven of their last eight) must start over from scratch.

The probable reason: Momentum can be a nebulous thing.

When MAS did the University of Hawaii football coach’s show on TV in the Aloha State, then- UH coach Dick Tomey said of halftime momentum: “Old ‘Mo’ does not go into your locker room with you.”

“It waits out on the field, for whoever grabs it first in the second half,” emphasized Tomey, winner of 183 games as a collegiate coach.

Nor does it stay with you as you enter the postseason, it seems.

You could even argue that the four highest seeds (Seattle, Carolina, New England and Denver) would qualify as MORE of a surprise winner should one of them emerge with the title.

Seattle has no proven deep-run track record and Carolina is callow.

Youngish New England — Tom Brady aside — is still learning on the fly.

Even Denver is no lock, given Peyton Manning’s recent penchant for developing Bret Favre- type postseason brain cramps.

San Francisco All-Pro tackle Joe Staley said it best: “As long as you get to the playoffs, once you get there, it’s an entirely new season.”

Contact Man About Sports at: davwigg@gmail.com