|ESPN.com: NFL Playoffs 2003||[Print without images]|
|And the winner is ...|
Call it instant karma. Dumb luck. A numerologist's windfall. The auguries of some mysterious force, some inexplicable guiding hand, that sees the New England Patriots as the Super Bowl XXXVIII champions.
It will be precisely 729 days between the time Patriots coach Bill Belichick traveled back to Boston with the franchise's first Vince Lombardi Trophy in hand and the second time he gets to hold the prized hardware aloft on a riser in Reliant Stadium. OK, now, here's the spooky part: In the two seasons since the Pats last captured the NFL title, they have scored -- drum roll, here, please -- 729 points.
Yep, we agree, quite a reach there on our part. But what the heck, since the Patriots were going to be our choice anyway, and we just happened to find a too convenient excuse for choosing them in what figures to a tremendous playoff derby.
Watching the Patriots dismantle the Buffalo Bills on Saturday afternoon, we counted no fewer than 17 blitz permutations, before our head started swimming. There are a whole lot smarter people in the NFL than me, many of them plying their trade at quarterback, and capable of decoding defenses. But when it comes time to comprehend a Belichick-designed defense, well, it's like reading a tome, not a primer.
The guy who will be plotting the opposition defense in the Super Bowl, Jim Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles, is no slouch either at drawing up esoteric fronts. But in a close game, we like Belichick's exotic X's just a little bit more.
The 2003 playoff pool is one of strength but is also a group that includes some strangers to the postseason experience.
Four of the dozen playoff teams -- Carolina, Dallas, Kansas City and Seattle -- have been removed from the postseason for at least three seasons each. The Panthers, who went to the NFC championship game in 1996, only the second season of their existence, haven't been back since.
They represent the team, from among this year's qualifiers, with the longest absence from the playoffs. But the Panthers are hardly the only entrant that will have to brush up on its playoff etiquette. Kansas City hasn't been to the postseason since 1997. The droughts for Seattle and Dallas date back to the '99 season.
"I was starting to forget what that old (playoff) feeling was like," said Cowboys strong safety Darren Woodson. "But it will come back, believe me, pretty quickly."
It will be interesting to see, based on this season, just how quickly some teams that did not qualify for the playoffs this year get back into the Super Bowl chase. This was, by any measure, a season of startling turnover in the playoff pool.
Eight teams that were in the playoffs in 2002 didn't cut muster this season. That is the most ever since the NFL adopted the 12-team format in 1990. The previous high was seven teams in 1999 and the average number of that failed to repeat, since 1990, is 5.4 teams. Only once, in 1995, has there been fewer than five non-repeaters.
Of course, leading the litany of ignominy this year are Oakland and Tampa Bay, who faced off only about 11 months ago Super Bowl XXXVII, but who combined for just 11 victories. The Raiders, in finishing a dismal 4-12, set a new record for fewest wins by a team in the season following a Super Bowl appearance.
-- Len Pasquarelli