Super Bowl Formula no longer secret

Is your favorite team struggling? Never fear! It still has hope to reach the big game

Originally Published: October 31, 2012
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

I

t was nearly five years ago that Eli Manning finally shed his major distinction of being Peyton's younger brother.

But now that Eli has captured a second Super Bowl MVP award and routinely guided the New York Giants to victory with late-game heroics, the Denver Broncos' four-time NFL MVP is in danger of becoming most notable as Eli's older brother.

Last season, Eli threw 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes, breaking the single-season record of Johnny Unitas and that guy named Peyton. In Week 7 this year, Eli threw a 77-yarder to Victor Cruz to complete his 22nd game-winning drive, rallying from a deficit or breaking a tie in the fourth quarter. That doesn't include the five times he did it in the playoffs -- the last three games of the run to the Super Bowl XLII title and the final two last season on the way to winning Super Bowl XLVI.

How, exactly, does he do it?

"I ... you know ... I don't know," Eli said recently during his weekly radio appearance on New York's WFAN. "I don't want to put much into it and mess up a good thing. I get excited for those moments. You know, it's time to go. This is our opportunity. It's not the time to get nervous, scared to make a mistake. It's time to be aggressive, go out there and get a win."

Get a win. Back in those teeming, steaming days of late July, when the NFL's 32 teams convened at their training camps, they all shared the same goal -- granted, with varying degrees of optimism. Three months later, at the season's midpoint, it hasn't changed:

Get to the Super Bowl.

It is the ultimate destination in the NFL, and in the past decade, a surprising number of franchises have gotten there. Beyond the usual superb suspects -- the Patriots (four berths), Steelers (three), Giants (two) and Colts (two) -- nine additional teams have managed it. For at least one season, anyway, the Raiders, Buccaneers, Panthers, Eagles, Seahawks, Cardinals, Bears, Saints and Packers all found a way to win their respective conferences and play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Every Super Bowl team possesses talented players and sound coaching backed by adept scouting and pro personnel departments. And, invariably, there is the appearance of good fortune.

But what other quantifiable attributes do they share?

Back in the day, "defense wins championships" was the mantra.

"That's really not true anymore," Packers guard Josh Sitton said. "It's a passing league now, so you have to have a great quarterback. Aaron [Rodgers] is the best quarterback in the league. He does a lot of things that make you look good, sometimes when you've done something not so great."

Which means a team has a chance if it does these three basic things:

• Start an elite quarterback.

• Protect that quarterback.

• Get to the opposing quarterback.

If your talented passer is able to function freely behind his offensive line, he can succeed even with only a serviceable cast around him. The same is true on the defensive side. Fierce pass pressure, particularly when achieved with a four-man rush, can mask a multitude of flaws.

"You want to dominate the passing game," Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "The thing with Eli is that he's won so many big games for us so many times, we know we have a chance, just as long as we take care of our business."

There's more to it than that, of course.

With the assistance of ESPN's relentless Stats & Information research staff, we have taken that basic formula to the next level. Upon further review, it turns out that the past 20 conference championship teams share a number of common traits, some obvious, some not. There is, as we shall see, an undeniable blueprint, a template that predicts success in February. Essentially, it comes down to making plays when it matters most.

Kickers, believe it or not, even made the list.

"There you go," said Colts place-kicker Adam Vinatieri, the only man at his position to win four Super Bowl rings. "Guys who make the most of their opportunities get some really nice jewelry."

Does your team have the stuff to make it to New Orleans in three months? We have the answer(s). The teams that answer best to the following 10 criteria -- the 10 championship commandments -- will be in position a few months from now to make a run to Super Bowl XLVII.


Ben Roethlisberger, Tom BradyAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarElite quarterbacks, such as Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, are key to making a Super Bowl run.

1. Passing fancy

Here is the list of the past 10 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: Tom Brady (two), Eli Manning (two), Ben Roethlisberger (two), Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Brad Johnson.

All those passers, with the exception of Johnson, are potentially bound for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And, it should be noted, on Tampa Bay's run to Super Bowl XXXVII, Johnson was spectacularly efficient. His 1.3 percent interception rate was the best in the league and ranks fifth among quarterbacks with 400 attempts in a season since 2002.

Johnson had a plus-16 touchdown-interception differential that season, tied for first. Not surprisingly, eight of the past 10 quarterbacks who won Super Bowls were top-eight finishers in that essential category.

The two times it didn't happen? Eli Manning threw 20 interceptions in the Giants' Super Bowl season of 2007 and 16 last season. But, as he has proved, Manning is a far different cat in the playoffs. His touchdown-interception ratio in those championship postseasons was a searing 15-to-2, a plus-13 differential.

"Everything in today's game is built to make the quarterback successful," said ESPN analyst Damien Woody, a former offensive lineman who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots. "Look at that list from the last decade. They're all big-time quarterbacks. And that's not a coincidence.

"The 2000 Baltimore Ravens, even though they had a historic defense, they couldn't get away with that now. They couldn't win a Super Bowl today."


2. Shake and bake

While elite QBs tend to protect the ball, championship defenses -- even if they are not among the league leaders in terms of yards allowed -- tend to take it away from not-so-elite quarterbacks.

Shake down the passer -- and bake that turnover, if you will.

For amid a sea of numbers surrounding the game today, those defensive turnovers remain one of the most powerful factors in winning, as tasty in their own way as the exquisite beignets you'll find at the Café Du Monde in Jackson Square.

In 2010, Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams intercepted a total of nine passes -- three in the playoffs to set a Packers record -- tops in the NFL.

"I feel like takeaways are a big part of our defensive identity here in Green Bay," Williams said. "It's the one thing we count on. We know that creating turnovers is how you win games."

The 2009 Saints were a pedestrian No. 20 in points allowed and No. 25 in yards allowed. But the defense was No. 2 in forcing turnovers, with 39. In fact, eight of the past 10 champions were top-nine finishers in turnover differential. In 2002, Tampa Bay's defense forced 38 turnovers, the league's third-best total.

The 2003 Patriots offense didn't exactly scare anyone -- Brady was still relatively inexperienced -- but the No. 7-ranked defense was first in fewest points allowed (14.9 per game) and second with 41 forced turnovers.

"Coach [Bill] Belichick always used to say, 'I don't give a s--- about our defense giving up yards; all I care about is scoring defense, turnovers and the red zone,'" Woody said. "That's really the key to football. A lot of coaches pound their chest and say, 'I've got the No. 1 defense.'

"That number doesn't mean anything."


3. When you're hot ...

The last time the team with the best regular-season record won the Super Bowl was the 2004 season, when the Patriots did it for the second straight time.

"That's a crazy stat," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said, sounding surprised.

That was the same year Facebook launched, and the economy was robust. Since that season, wild-card teams have won three of the seven league titles. Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, that purveyor of parity, would have been proud. The economy, of course, wasn't so lucky.

[+] EnlargeBrett Keisel
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesBrett Keisel and the Steelers were able to win their last four regular-season games in 2005, and they became the first No. 6 seed to win the Super Bowl.

A number of folks around the league now rate momentum as important as the two categories above -- some even higher.

"You [go] through times during the regular season when you're just trying to figure things out," Umenyiora said. "And then you get to that place where -- I'll be honest, it's a strange feeling -- you just know you're going to win."

When you're scuffling, there's no time to coast, no opportunity to think about sitting your starters. No chance of losing your sense of urgency. The 2005 Colts (14-2), 2006 Chargers (14-2), 2008 Titans (13-3), 2010 Patriots (14-2) and 2011 Packers (15-1) all posted the league's best record -- and all lost their first playoff game at home.

The 2005 Steelers, on the other hand, won their last four regular-season games. The 2007 Giants went 3-2 down the stretch, but their spirited 38-35 loss to the undefeated Patriots in the regular-season finale was a turning point. The 2010 Packers also won three of five games at the end, and last season's Giants won three of four, including two over the Cowboys to win the NFC East with a 9-7 record -- worst of the six NFC playoff teams.

All three of those wild cards and last year's surging Giants went on to run the table and win the Super Bowl, suggesting it might actually be better to avoid one of those commanding 14-2 or 13-3 records that delivers a top seed.


4. Health care initiative

"There's no depth in this league anymore," said ESPN analyst Bill Polian, who was the general manager for the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts, and saw his teams reach six Super Bowls. "You can't find guys off the street in December that are going to help you. If you aren't healthy for the stretch run, you have no chance.

"Each team has 10-12 key players. If you lose one, you're up against it. Two, and you're done."

When the Packers assembled for their Super Bowl XLV team photo at Cowboys Stadium, there was nearly a situation. With a total of 15 players on injured reserve, there wasn't enough room on the temporary bleachers for all of them to squeeze into the shot.

"No one wants injuries, but it gives the younger guys an opportunity to step up and see what they can do," said Packers cornerback Williams. "When the starters come back, the team is that much stronger. Your depth is better, and you know if someone goes down again, you won't miss a beat."

The same thing happened last season to the Giants. They had 13 on injured reserve when they arrived in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI, and that doesn't include several players who were cut.

Injuries, particularly if they come early, are not a death sentence.


SaintsAP Photo/J. Pat CarterThe Saints showed the importance of special teams with their surprise onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV.

5. Special specials

Vinatieri had a hand -- a foot, actually -- in winning all three of the Patriots' Super Bowl trophies.

He made two huge kicks in the snow-frosted "Tuck Rule Game" against the Raiders in January 2002. If he misses either one, does the New England dynasty happen? Vinatieri also converted late field goals to beat the Panthers and Eagles in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX, respectively.

"People miss out on the importance of special teams," Vinatieri said last week from the Colts' complex in Anderson, Ind. "Offense, defense, special teams ... you need to win two of three phases. Look at it statistically. The team that gets the ball on the 40 is more apt to score touchdowns. The percentages go up dramatically when you have a short field to cover."

Vinatieri has appeared in five Super Bowls, including the Colts' victory in Super Bowl XLI.

Three years later, when the Colts found themselves in Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints, they were done in by a stunning play on special teams. New Orleans opened the second half with an audacious onside kick, and, six plays later, Pierre Thomas scored on a 16-yard pass from Brees to give the Saints their first lead en route to victory.


6. In the zone

In the red zone, the last 20 yards of the field, real estate becomes very pricey. Nine of the past 10 NFL champions (excepting the 2007 Giants) were top-eight finishers in either offensive or defensive red zone touchdown percentage. More telling, six of the 10 defenses were top-10 finishers.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireThe Steelers had the NFL's best red zone defense
en route to the championship in the 2008 season.

"The biggest thing the defense can give us is three points, not seven in the red zone," Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. "We're saying to ourselves, 'Hey, the defense did their job, let's go get seven.'"

It's the classic, clichéd "bend but don't break" philosophy, but the league's best defenses put it into practice. Those four points -- a single stop in a three-hour game -- can mean the difference between winning and losing in the crucible of the playoffs.

The 2008 Steelers and 2002 Buccaneers were No. 1 in red zone defense, denying touchdowns about two-thirds of the time.

"If you can hold a team to just three points in the red zone, it's almost a win for the defense," said Steelers defensive end Keisel.


7. Road kill

Here are the NFL's seven best regular-season road records from 2002 to '11:

1. Patriots 56-24 (.700)
2. Colts 52-28 (.650)
3. Eagles 49-30-1 (.619)
4. Steelers 47-33 (.588)
5. Giants 46-34 (.575)
6. Saints 45-35 (.563)
7. Packers 44-36 (.550)

It is not a coincidence those teams combined for 14 of the 20 Super Bowl berths of the past decade -- and nine of the 10 Vince Lombardi trophies.

"That's another statistic that goes back to defense," Polian said. "Good defense always travels well."

Run down the current NFL standings and check out those road records. It's the simplest way to separate the haves from the have-nots. It's a basic rule of sport: Good teams find ways to win away from home. Bad teams don't.

The 2010 Packers won all four of their playoff games away from the frigid comfort of Lambeau Field. They won at Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago -- and then beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 at Cowboys Stadium in Super Bowl XLV.

"If you're an elite team, you feel you can go anywhere, anyhow, and win," said the Packers' Williams. "All the good teams have that mindset."

The 2007 Giants were 7-1 on the road, winning their last seven, and won all four postseason games away from home. Including the playoffs, the 2011 Gotham edition was 4-0 on the road down the stretch (although one of those games was technically an away game against the Jets at the Meadowlands). The 2005 Steelers, including the playoffs, won their last eight games -- six of them coming away from Heinz Field.

"We were the first team to do that -- I'll just throw that out there -- winning from the No. 6 seed," Keisel said. "We barely got into the tournament, but we found a groove."


Tom CoughlinTony Medina/Icon SMITom Coughlin's emphasis on fourth-quarter execution contributed to two Super Bowl championships.

8. Let the fourth be with you

The last, in NFL games, anyway, is rarely least.

Generally speaking, it will come down to those last 15 minutes.

Over the past two years, Eli Manning has cornered the market on this prime time period -- and in spectacular fashion. Since the start of the 2011 season, he's thrown nine fourth-quarter touchdowns on throws of more than 20 yards downfield. No other quarterback in that time has more than four.

"You always feel confident we're going to go down the field and put some points on the board," Manning said of the Giants' fourth-quarter mindset. "That's what we've been able to do, step up in the situation and make the most of that opportunity."

The Giants rehearse the two-minute drill every Thursday at the end of practice.

"[Coach] Tom [Coughlin] will say something like, 'There's 1:28 on the clock, we have two timeouts and we need to get to the 18-yard line for the winning field goal,'" Manning said. "The defense wants to win the drill, too. It's the most competitive part of practice."

Seven of the past 10 Super Bowl champions were top-10 finishers in fourth-quarter point differential. Defensive takeaways in the fourth, more than any other statistic, separate the great teams from the good, the bad from the ugly.


9. Fantastic four

Brady was 3-for-3 in Super Bowls when the New England Patriots met the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots, 18-0 and going for an unprecedented season, were 12½-point favorites.

The images of Manning's miraculous scramble and David Tyree's hand-to-helmet catch linger in the mind's eye, but the real difference in the game was the Giants' pass rush. They battered and bullied Brady, sacking him five times, and allowing only a single touchdown pass and a total of 14 points. Defensive end Justin Tuck, who didn't even start the game, had two sacks, six tackles, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

Four years later, he did it again. Tuck recorded two sacks in the Giants' eerily similar 21-17 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. The Patriots' first offensive play -- from their own 6-yard line -- resulted in an intentional grounding penalty when Tuck pressured Brady into throwing a ball down the middle of the field. Because it occurred in the end zone, the Giants were awarded a safety.

[+] EnlargeJustin Tuck
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellJustin Tuck recorded two sacks of Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII and another two in Super Bowl XLVI.

The Giants' pass rush, led by Tuck, Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul, is a state-of-the-art force of nature. The fact that the Giants can sustain effective pressure with only four players frees their defense to play opposing offenses with seven in coverage. In today's pass-happy league, this is an equation that works nearly every time.

Umenyiora, a defensive end, has 72 career sacks.

"I think we have some of the better pass-rushers in the game," Umenyiora said. "That makes it very, very difficult to slow us down. With the rules of the NFL, the minimal contact that cornerbacks are allowed, the only way to affect the passing game is the pass rush."

Six of the past 10 champions were ranked in the top three in total sacks; only the 2006 Colts failed to reach 35 sacks. Seven of those teams were top-seven in sack percentage; those 2007 Giants were first, at 9.2.

With four-man rush data available for only the past four years, consider this: The Super Bowl champions in that time ranked in sack percentage with a four-man (or fewer) pass rush third, 10th, third and third.

While the Giants employ a 4-3 defense, the Steelers do it with Dick LeBeau's 3-4, although more often than not they rush five. In 2008, the Steelers allowed a league-low 13.9 points per game and recorded 51 sacks, second among the 32 teams. Outside linebackers James Harrison (16 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (11½) were the leaders in getting to the quarterback.

"The best pass defense is a great rush," Keisel said. "You do it right, and you can shut down a great passing game completely."


10. Line 'em up

One of the most underrated factors in football is the offensive line. The health and well-being of the quarterback depend on it.

In 2010, Sitton, the Packers' 6-foot-3, 319-pound guard, was named offensive lineman of the year by the NFL Alumni Association.

"The offensive line, especially throughout training camp and early in the season, is the slowest group to come along, especially if you have a few young guys," Sitton said last week from Green Bay. "Receivers run their routes; linebackers have to know their gap. All five guys on the line have to communicate -- six, if you count the quarterback."

In 2006, the Colts' Peyton Manning rarely worried about that pass rush. He was sacked only 14 times during the regular season. Three years later, Brees dropped back 544 times and was sacked 20 times, the fourth-lowest regular-season total.

Championship teams have the ability to protect the team's most valuable asset, the man under center. Brady was sacked 41 times during the 2001 regular season, a career high. But continuity, like interest in a savings account, accrues -- and eventually pays dividends.

In the playoffs that included Super Bowl XXXVI, Brady was not sacked once. He took his snaps from Woody.

"Continuity," Woody said, "allows a young quarterback peace of mind. He knows 'the guys up front got my back. I can just survey defense and not worry about the pass rush.' And that allows Tom Brady to be Tom Brady."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE