Wild Cards Legit Contenders

Photo courtesy of L.A. Chargers
Photo courtesy of L.A. Chargers

(Philip Rivers, courtesy of the San Diego Chargers)

By Rick Gosselin

Talk of Fame Network

There’s nothing wild about NFL wild cards.

In many cases, their playoff contention is as legitimate as that of division champions.

Green Bay was the last of six NFC teams to qualify for the playoffs in 2010 as a wild card. The Packers went 10-6 during the regular season but stormed through the post-season, winning four consecutive games on the road, to capture the fourth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.

The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers showed those Packers how it’s done. The 11-5 Steelers also were the sixth seed in the AFC playoff bracket that post-season and blew through four opponents on the road to capture the sixth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.

The 10-6 New York Giants were a mere fifth seed in the NFC in 2007. But the Giants also strung together a four-game road winning streak in the post-season, including a shocking 17-14 victory over the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, to capture their fourth Lombardi Trophy as a wild-card qualifier.

That’s three wild-card champions in the last nine post-seasons -- and seven wild-card champions in the Super Bowl era. The 1969 Chiefs, 1980 Raiders, 1997 Broncos and 2000 Ravens also captured Lombardi Trophies as non-division winners. Three other wild cards (1975 Cowboys, 1985 Patriots and 1999 Titans) reached the Super Bowl.

Only two top seeds have won Super Bowls during the last nine years. A second seed also won once, a third seed once and a fourth seed twice. So as many sixth seeds have won Super Bowls in these last nine years as top seeds. So don’t assume a wild-card entrant is merely first-round fodder.

This looms as one of the stronger wild-card fields the NFL has seen in years.

Over in the NFC, Arizona and Seattle are both 11-4. If both win Sunday, the Seahawks would claim the division crown and the Cardinals would become a 12-4 wild card. Detroit and Green Bay are both 11-4 and play each other for the NFC North title Sunday. The winner will claim the division’s automatic playoff berth and the loser will be an 11-5 wild card.

In the AFC, the Bengals lead the North with a 10-4-1 record with the Steelers in close pursuit at 10-5. They also play each other for the division title Sunday in Pittsburgh. The loser will be a 10-win wild card. The other AFC wild card is there for San Diego’s taking. If the Chargers beat the Chiefs in Kansas City in the season finale, San Diego also will advance into the post-season as a 10-win wild card. If the Chargers falter, the Ravens can claim the sixth and final wild-card spot with a 10-6 record.

The world seems to be penciling in a New England-Seattle Super Bowl. But don’t be so sure. Only twice in the last 20 years have the two top seeds squared off for the Lombardi Trophy on Super Sunday. So keep an eye on the lower half of each bracket.

Green Bay has the offense and both Detroit and Seattle the defense to succeed as wild cards. Baltimore (Joe Flacco), Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger) and San Diego (Philip Rivers) all have the quarterbacks to advance in January as wild cards. And Arizona seems to have bottled some of the magic of an injury-riddled season that the 2007 Giants enjoyed.

Wild-card qualifiers may be longshots – but they aren’t no shots. Too many of them have been hoisting the Lombardi Trophy of late.