Ever since the Pittsburgh Steelers became the first six seed to win a Super Bowl six years ago, it’s become a lot more commonplace to see lower seeds reaching conference championship games in both conferences.
And, New York (of course, having the advantage of having two teams) seems to know how to shock the football world better than anyone.
Beginning with the 1990 season, when the NFL adopted the current format of six playoff teams per conference, only seven times did a team seeded lower than the three spot reach a conference title game, with all of those instances occurring in the AFC.
The 1992 Buffalo Bills played for an AFC title as a four seed, as did the 1997 Denver Broncos, 1999 Tennessee Titans, and 2000 Baltimore Ravens. The 1995 Indianapolis Colts and the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars competed in conference championships as five seeds.
In the NFC though, it was primarily only the elite reaching the NFC title game over a period of fifteen consecutive seasons, as nothing but one or two seeds played in NFC championship games with the exception of a trio of three seeds – the 1995 Green Bay Packers, the 2001 Philadelphia Eagles, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers.
In the past seven years however, those trends have changed dramatically.
All of a sudden, it has become expected to see lower-seeded teams playing for their respective conference championships, as the fourth-seeded New York Giants (11-7) will do on Sunday, when they visit the second-seeded
San Francisco 49ers (14-3), for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVI in two weeks.
The combined average seed of all AFC title game entrants from 1990 through 2004 was 2.2.
In the NFC, for the same time period, it was just 1.6 (or, only one-tenth higher than the lowest possible of average of 1.5, if only the top two seeds made the title game every year).
Yet, since that time, those averages have soared to 3.1 in each conference.
Starting in the 2005 season, a team seeded fourth or lower has reached a conference title game eleven times, with a fairly even split among each conference – five in the AFC, six in the NFC.
Nine different teams have accounted for those eleven appearances, with a more than a third of those occasions being produced by one of New York’s teams, which is sending a team seeded fourth or lower to a conference title game for the third consecutive year, and for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
The New York Jets reached consecutive AFC title games, first as a five seed, two years ago, and again, as a six seed, last year, doing so with a quarterback and a head coach who were in their first two years in the NFL in those respective roles.
And, while the Giants are currently trying to become the first team with a 9-7 regular season record to win a Super Bowl, their last Super Bowl win came as a five seed, four years ago.
Joining the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers as non-New York lower seeds to reach an AFC conference title game since that time were the fourth-seeded, 2006 New England Patriots and the sixth-seeded, 2008 Baltimore Ravens.
Meanwhile, a team lower than a three seed appearing in an NFC title game under the current six-team playoff format didn’t happen until the fifth-seeded, 2005 Carolina Panthers were a win short of playing in their second Super Bowl in three years.
The fourth-seeded Arizona Cardinals hosted the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the 2008 NFC championship game, and last year’s Green Bay Packers became the first six seed to win a Super Bowl out of the NFC.
Yes, it’s no longer your father’s conference title game in either conference anymore, and especially more recently, it is New York’s teams that are leading the way for change.