LOS ANGELES, January 13, 2017 — Whoever wins the AFC and NFC Title Games to go to Super Bowl LI will be a tough team. Every year, it seems at least one of the two top seeds is vulnerable. In the AFC, the 2016 Patriots look unbeatable.
They are a machine, with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick still steamrolling the league. In the NFC, the Dallas Cowboys look vulnerable. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are rookies, and their 13-3 record matches the 2007 Dallas team that went up in flames at home.
Some top seeds are just not that special. They are paper tigers waiting to be exposed. Here are the top ten softest top seeds in NFL history.
10. 1995 Cowboys — It is hard to criticize a team that wins it all, but this team was a shell of the dominant squads who won in 1992 and 1993. They began 8-1 but went only 4-3 down the stretch. This may have been the year nobody deserved to win the Super Bowl. Earlier in the year, Dallas was humiliated at home by a San Francisco squad playing with a backup quarterback. The 49ers had beaten Dallas three straight times. The Cowboys got lucky when the Packers upset the 49ers in the Divisional round. Dallas trailed Green Bay at home after three quarters, but won it late. They only led by three points in the Super Bowl against a Pittsburgh team that was not that special. Interceptions thrown straight to unremarkable Larry Brown allowed the Cowboys to survive a season where nobody looked that good.
9. 2008 Giants — The defending champions shocked the world in 2007, but this team went 12-4. However, late in the season they were dominated at home by archival Philadelphia 20-14 in a game that was not as close as the score. That game punctured the era of invincibility of the Giants. Philadelphia barely made the playoffs at 9-7, but they were confident going into New York for the Divisional matchup. The Eagles beat the Giants again before falling in the NFC Title Game.
8. 2002 Eagles — This was the year nobody wanted to win home field advantage. In the AFC, four teams went 11-5 and one team 10-5-1. In the NFC, three teams went 12-4. Philadelphia lost their last game to almost give away home field. They got it back when Green Bay got blasted, sending them to a lower seed and letting the playoffs go through Philadelphia. Although the Eagles had beaten the Buccaneers six straight times, this team was ready to get punched in the gut. The Tampa Bay defense did just that, dominating the Eagles physically and ramming the ball down their throats in the NFC Title Game.
7. 2004 Steelers — It is tough to find fault with a 15-1 team, especially when they were 14-0 with Ben Roethlisberger. New England was 14-2, having lost badly at Pittsburgh. Tom Brady was out injured that game, and the Steelers were underdogs at home in the AFC Title Game. The Patriots at full strength made it look easy, thrashing the Steelers 41-27.
6. 1980 Falcons — This was another year where nobody was really that much better than anybody else. Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia were all 12-4, and the Falcons had even beaten the Eagles in overtime late in the season. The Falcons were also an inexperienced team that were expected to flame out against their more seasoned rivals. They led the Cowboys 24-10 and 27-17 in fourth quarter but fell apart as Danny White led Dallas to a stirring 30-27 comeback win.
5. 1980 Chargers — All five AFC playoff teams were 11-5. They were all equal in terms of chances of winning it all. The Chargers had Air Coryell led by Dan Fouts and amazing receivers, but no defense. They beat the Raiders in Oakland in overtime, but lost to them at home. The AFC Title Game was in San Diego, and for the third time that year, the road team won. Oakland jumped to a 28-7 lead. San Diego got within 28-24. The Raiders led 34-27 with 6 1/2 minutes left, when Jim Plunkett ran out the clock by handing the ball off as the Chargers defense wilted.
4. 2005 Seahawks — The NFC was an afterthought this year. The most notable player on Seattle was left tackle Walter Jones. Matt Hasselbeck and Shawn Alexander could play. Walrus Mike Holmgren could coach. This team was seen as ripe for an upset in the playoffs. They did reach the Super Bowl, but lost by 11 points to Pittsburgh in a game marred by penalties that was closer than the score indicated.
3. 2006 Bears — The top four teams were all in the AFC, and the AFC Title Game was really the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning finally defeated Tom Brady. The Bears were an afterthought. Brian Urlacher was all-world, but Rex Grossman was a question mark. Although Devon Hester returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, the Colts soon got down to business. Grossman threw several interceptions, the last one returned for the clinching touchdown in a 29-17 Colts victory.
2. 1995/1997 Chiefs — Both squads went 13-3 with West Coast Offense dinking and dunking. Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac may have been the same person. In 1995, the Chiefs lost 10-7 to the 9-7 Colts when Bono threw three second half interceptions and Lin Elliot missed three field goals. That team won four overtime games, leading to an inflated record. In 1997 they barely survived Denver at home while getting killed by the Broncos in Denver. John Elway had a rough Divisional playoff game, but the Broncos survived 14-10 to extend the misery of Marty Schottenheimer in the playoffs.
1. 1997 49ers — The 1995 49ers blew a big lead in their final regular season game, costing them the top seed and a spot on this list. They were the first team to turn the Bill Walsh offense into the West Coast Offense dink and dunk offense that tried to compensate for having zero running game. The 1997 49ers coasted to a 13-3 record by playing in an awful division. They lost two games late by 35 and 26 points. The Packers were the defending champions, and everybody expected Brett Favre and Green Bay to humiliate the 49ers for the third straight year and the second time in San Francisco. The Packers jumped to a 23-3 lead before giving up a garbage special teams touchdown. The “Frauds from Frisco” were exposed. The dynasty was over. This was a true finesse team, and the softest top seed in NFL history.
The “Frauds from Frisco” were exposed. The dynasty was over. This was a true finesse team, and the softest top seed in NFL history.