Yesterday I discussed the concept of the footnote championship. It is based on an idea Bill Simmons came up with in 2012 after an injury to star Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose altered the NBA Playoffs that year.
When Derrick Rose’s knee injury ruined the spring of every Chicago fan, I tweeted that 2012 was suddenly an “asterisk title.” The more I’m thinking about it, “footnote title” makes more sense. A basketball season always features collateral damage, whether it’s injuries, lucky breaks or someone stupidly assaulting a fire extinguisher. Asterisks should be saved for fishier achievements like Bonds’s 73 homers, Roger Clemens’s last few Cy Youngs and Pia Zadora winning a Golden Globe. A “footnote title” respects the champion while also acknowledging that, “Look, SOMETHING funky happened and you can’t discuss that postseason in detail without mentioning that one funky thing.”
Of course, the ones usually applying that footnote are disgruntled fans of the team that “should have won.” That’s just the way sports work. For instance, my father still refuses to recognize the actual winner of the 1973 NBA title. It’s been almost 40 years. He doesn’t care.
With that in mind I began examining every Super Bowl winner in the 21st century to determine whether their title should come with a footnote. Today I’ll complete this picking up at the turn of the decade.
What Happened: The Packers overcame 16 players on injured reserve and got hot in the Playoffs. Sneaking into the field at 10-6 after only clinching a spot Week 17, Green Bay won road games at Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chicago to make Super Bowl XLV. From there they knocked off the Steelers.
Possible Footnote: Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler left the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury in the third quarter leaving Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie to close out of them game. When Cutler was seen walking on the sidelines after his departure from the lineup, it set off a firestorm of debates about “toughness” and “heart” and this was in an era before First Take had really taken off.
The Verdict: This championship doesn’t deserve a footnote. I mean this wasn’t Tom Brady who left the game...It was Jay Cutler. Looking back on that season, despite the injuries the Packers finished second in the league in scoring defense and had an established Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. They finished with the league’s second best point differential. It’s kind of amazing they only finished 10-6 and needed to win the final week of the regular season to make the Playoffs. This was a great team masquerading as a six seed. It’s no accident they were road favorites in that NFC Championship Game against the Bears.
What Happened: For the second time in four years, the Giants got hot at the right time. After winning their final two games of the regular season against the Jets and the Cowboys to win the NFC East, the Giants beat the Falcons at home in the Wild Card round. Then they went on the road to upset the Packers and 49ers to set up a Super Bowl rematch with the Patriots, the team they had shocked four years earlier. The Pats weren’t undefeated this time, but the result was the same. Eli Manning led a game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to deliver the Giants their second championship.
Possible Footnotes: There are many.
We can begin with this play. If Tony Romo doesn’t miss a wide open Miles Austin with just over 2 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys win this Week 14 game, and the Giants are finished then. Given a second chance, Manning led the Giants on a game-winning touchdown drive, and Jason Pierre-Paul blocked a field goal attempt in the final seconds to preserve a win. The Giants were reeling at this point having lost four games in a row, and this would have put them out of the divisional race.
In the NFC Championship Game, Kyle Williams of the 49ers muffed a pair of punts. The first one set up a fourth quarter Giants touchdown. The second one gave the Giants the ball already in range for the winning field goal in overtime, which Lawrence Tynes converted. In the Super Bowl the Giants got a compromised Rob Gronkowski who was playing through an ankle injury. Late in the fourth quarter of the game, Wes Welker dropped a pass with the Patriots looking to put the game away with a score. This gave the Giants another chance.
I could go on.
The Verdict: I think the fact this title run came so soon after the excellent 2007 team’s championship has left people with the mistaken perception this Giants team was way better than it really was. People think about this group and naturally assume “smashmouth Giants with a great run game and ferocious defense.” It wasn’t true, though. They couldn’t run the ball, averaging only 3.5 yards per attempt. They couldn’t stop anybody either, finishing 25th in points allowed. The offensive line was also very shaky. They were kept afloat by the best season of Eli Manning’s career and three good receivers. Victor Cruz had a breakout season. Hakeem Nicks went over 1,100 yards. Mario Manningham missed time, but had the most pivotal catch of the Super Bowl. Manning averaged over 300 passing yards per game that regular season and did so again though the Playoffs. Of course by the postseason the run game and defense improved, but they were lucky to get there. The Giants allowed more points than they scored this year. This team has a strong case to be the worst Super Bowl winner of the 56. They get the championship. The price of that is they have to live with a large footnote.
What Happened: In Ray Lewis’ final season, the Ravens went on a run to win their second championship. They easily beat the Colts in the first round. In the Divisional Playoffs they upset Peyton Manning and the Broncos in a double overtime classic. In the AFC Championship Game, Baltimore avenged a loss to New England from the previous year. Then the Ravens held off a furious comeback by the 49ers in the Super Bowl with a goal line stand in the final moments of the game. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh defeated his brother Jim, who was running the 49ers at the time.
Possible Footnotes: The Colts lost offensive coordinator Bruce Arians hours before the Wild Card Game after he was hospitalized. Arians himself had held that team together as interim coach as Chuck Pagano had stepped away during the regular season for cancer treatment. In the Divisional Round, Baltimore got the game to overtime on a miracle pass 70 yard pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones with just over 30 seconds left. Denver safety Rahim Moore should have been able to easily break it up, but he took a brutal path to the ball. Additionally, in the final moments of the Super Bowl, there was controversy. With the 49ers trailing 34-29 and under 2:00 left in the fourth quarter, San Francisco had to go for it on fourth and goal from the Baltimore 5. Jimmy Smith made contact with Michael Crabtree but no flag was thrown. The Ravens had their second championship.
The Verdict: Normally with three potential footnotes I’d feel like it would be necessary to add one. I’m going to say no footnote, however. I think the Ravens would have beaten the Colts with Arians anyway. In the Super Bowl, this team had to overcome one of the most ridiculous bad breaks in history. With Baltimore leading 28-6 early in the third quarter, the power went out at the Superdome in New Orleans. This led to a 34 minute delay after which the momentum totally shifted, and the 49ers got back into the game. Had San Francisco completed the comeback, this would have had one the biggest footnotes ever. That leaves the Moore play. I just don’t think that’s enough. It was still a great, clutch throw by Flacco.
What Happened: It was the rise of the Legion of Boom. The Seahawks dominated on defense, most notably in a secondary that had three All Pros, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor. Seattle rolled through the regular season with a 13-3 record. They beat the Saints in the Divisional Round. In the NFC Championship Game they won a classic over the bitter rival 49ers. Then they embarrassed a record breaking Broncos offense led by Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl 43-8.
Possible Footnotes: The Seahawks avoided possibly the most dangerous offense, the Eagles. It’s amazing to think about now, but this offense was the envy of the league as defenses struggled to keep up with the tempo. Over the second half of the season, they averaged over 30 points per game. Philly was knocked out of the Playoffs by the Saints in the first round.
The Verdict: There’s no footnote here. The Seahawks were the best team in the NFC all year, and they dominated the best team in the AFC. It’s not like the Brees-led Saints and the Manning-led Broncos were easy offenses to face.
What Happened: The Patriots went through the regular season at 12-4. The Ravens gave them all they could handle in the Divisional Round, but New England prevailed. They then beat the Colts easily in the AFC Championship Game. This led to the Super Bowl. Against a Seattle team going for a repeat, the Pats rallied from 10 down in the fourth quarter, and Malcolm Butler had a goal line interception in the game’s final minute to end Seattle’s hope. The Patriots had the first championship in a decade.
Possible Footnotes: This was the year of Deflategate as there were questions about whether the Patriots were trying to give Tom Brady an advantage by deflating footballs below the levels the rules allowed. Brady’s role in this became the subject of scrutiny.
The Butler interception was also a source of controversy as Seattle threw on the goal line rather than handing off to the league’s best back, Marshawn Lynch, needing a single yard for a touchdown that would win the Super Bowl.
The Verdict: There’s a definite footnote here. It’s not about Deflategate. I think the whole thing was a bit ridiculous to be honest. In baseball if a pitcher gets caught illegally tampering the balls he gets suspended, but we don’t talk about that altering the course of history. So I’m sympathetic to neither the arguments this changed everything nor the ridiculous Patriots fans claiming, “Brady did nothing wrong.”
The play call on the goal line, though? That’s a different story. There’s always a percentage of people who want to play Devil’s Advocate in a situation like this. They will claim this wasn’t a bad call.
Let’s look at the fact. The Seahawks needed one yard to win the Super Bowl. They had the best back in the league. They dialed up a pass targeting their sixth leading receiver. You don’t see a problem with the process of this call?
I’ll give New England a few things here.
A. If Seattle had won, they’d have their own footnote. The reason they were in scoring range was a reception off a deflected pass that landed in Jermaine Kearse’s lap as he was on the ground.
B. Even though the clock was running after the first down play, Bill Belichick went against the book and didn’t call a timeout because he sensed confusion on the Seattle sideline and didn’t want to give them a chance to regroup.
C. Butler was on the field because of a tweak Belichick decided to make in the offseason against spread goal line packages. He decided to replace a safety with an extra corner. Butler was that extra corner, and a safety probably can’t make that play.
Still, this one has a footnote. What a dumb call by Seattle. There was no way New England was stopping Lynch in that spot. It might have cost them a dynasty.
What Happened: With Peyton Manning clearly past his prime, the Broncos rode the league’s best defense and got enough out of Manning (and Brock Osweiler) to claim the top seed in the AFC. Denver beat Pittsburgh and New England to win the AFC title, and then controlled Super Bowl 50 against the 15-1 Panthers to win the third championship in franchise history.
Possible Footnote: Antonio Brown missed the Divisional Round game with a concussion after absorbing a complete cheap shot from Vontaze Burfict late in Pittsburgh’s Wild Card victory over Cincinnati. The Steelers led the game into the fourth quarter, and one can’t help but wonder how Brown’s impact could have changed things.
The Verdict: I think the Broncos might well have lost that game with Brown in the lineup, but this was the best team in the AFC through the season. Their pass rush terrorized Brady in the AFC Championship Game and MVP Cam Newton in the Super Bowl. The Patriots and Panthers were probably the two other best teams in the NFL that year, and Denver got through them. I have no footnote for this one.
What Happened: It was the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Down 28-3 late in the third quarter, the Patriots stormed back to beat the Falcons 34-28 in overtime.
Possible Footnotes: Well, in addition to the Patriots playing great, the Falcons completely fell apart. A Matt Ryan fumble set up a New England score on a play where he didn’t feel a pass rush. After New England had cut it to 28-20, Atlanta went on what seemed like a game-clinching drive. They got it as close as the New England 22 on a great catch by Julio Jones. Up eight with just over five minutes left, Atlanta was in position to kick a clinching field goal, but a sack and a holding penalty knocked them out of range. The Patriots drove the field and got the tying touchdown and two point conversion to send the game to overtime. They won the overtime coin toss and went right down the field in 8 plays to win the first overtime Super Bowl in history.
The Verdict: If you are going to come back from 28-3 that late in the game, two things have to happen. You have to be great, and the opponent has to really mess things up. That’s what happened here. The Patriots get the championship for their end of it. The Atlanta end gives this a footnote.
What Happened: Second year quarterback Carson Wentz was in the MVP discussion when he suffered a torn ACL in a December win over the Rams. The Eagles were in a position to claim the NFC’s top seed but had to do so with backup quarterback Nick Foles. Despite being home underdogs in two Playoff games, Philly outlasted Atlanta in the Divisional Round and blew out the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. In the Super Bowl against the Patriots in Minneapolis, Foles played the game of his life, outdueling Brady in a 41-33 Philadelphia victory. The game is best remembered for the Philly Special play right before halftime. On fourth and goal from the two, Foles motioned out to the backfield. Running back Corey Clement took a direct snap and flipped it to tight end Trey Burton. Burton hit a wide open Foles in the end zone, giving the Eagles a 22-12 lead at the break.
Possible Footnotes: Mike Pereira thought the Eagles were in an illegal formation on the Philly Special play. Had it been called, the touchdown comes off the board, and they would have had to settle for a field goal.
The Verdict: I don’t want to hear it. This happened before halftime. The Patriots had plenty of time to recover, and they did. They had the lead in the fourth quarter. This was an Eagles team that was the best in football through much of the regular season, and they navigated the postseason with their backup quarterback. I see no reason to give a footnote.
What Happened: The Patriots got their sixth title, earning another first round bye with an 11-5 season. They beat the Chargers easily in the Divisional Round. They won an overtime classic against on the road against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Then in the Super Bowl they confused Jared Goff in the Rams in a low scoring 13-3 game.
Possible Footnotes: The AFC Championship Game was lost as Brady threw an interception in the final minute with the Patriots down 28-24. It was wiped out because Dee Ford lined up in the neutral zone. New England scored a touchdown to take a three point lead. The Chiefs rallied for a field goal to send the game to overtime. The offenses were both red hot by this point as the teams had combined for 38 points in the fourth quarter. It was clear the team that won the coin toss would probably win the game. The team that won the coin toss was New England, and they went right down the field to get the game-winning touchdown on the first series of overtime.
Beyond that, their Super Bowl opponent was the Rams because of one of the most egregious blown calls in NFL history. The officials missed a blatant pass interference call on Nickell Robey-Coleman in a tie game with under two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Had the call been made, the Saints would have been able to run out the clock and kick a game-winning field goal. The no call allowed the Rams time to tie the game after the Saints took the lead. They eventually won in overtime. It’s difficult to say who would win a Saints-Patriots Super Bowl, but it’s difficult to imagine New England would have confused Drew Brees as easily as they did Jared Goff. And a more experienced coach in Sean Payton might have been better prepared than Sean McVay his first time on the big stage.
The Verdict: This is the second biggest footnote of the six New England championships. Only the first one in 2001 was bigger. A lot fell into place this year.
What Happened: A year after an agonizing overtime loss, Kansas City won its first Super Bowl in five decades. The Chiefs rallied from 24-0 down in the Divisional Round against Houston. They beat Tennessee to win the AFC title, and rallied again from 10 down in the fourth quarter against the 49ers in the Super Bowl.
Possible Footnotes: There was the Houston game, where the Texans completely fell apart. That game arguably turned on an incomprehensible fake punt call.
In the Super Bowl Jimmy Garoppolo missed a deep pass late in the game that would have given the Niners a go ahead touchdown.
The biggest possible footnote was probably the team the Chiefs didn’t have to play. Baltimore was the best team in the AFC through much of the season and had the top seed. Kansas City would have had to go on the road for the AFC Championship Game, but Tennessee’s upset allowed the Chiefs to host the title game for a second straight year.
The Verdict: Is it really unexpected for a Bill O’Brien coached team or Jimmy Garoppolo to fall apart at key moments?
The Baltimore angle is more compelling to me, but I can’t get there. Kansas City beat the Ravens in the regular season and then again in each of the next two seasons. My gut tells me the Chiefs win that matchup. Thus I can't give a footnote.
What Happened: Tom Brady joined Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay. It took some time to figure out. They started only 7-5, but they didn’t lose again after their bye. In the postseason they went through Washington, New Orleans, and Green Bay to take the NFC title. Playing the Super Bowl on their home field, they blew out the defending champion Chiefs, avenging the last loss they had suffered. This was similar to Brady’s first Super Bowl in New England. That year the Patriots’ last loss of the season came to a Rams team they beat in a Super Bowl rematch.
Possible Footnotes: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, stadiums were either empty or had limited capacity through the 2020 season. Brady himself has discussed the benefits of never needing to employ a silent count his first year in a new system. The Bucs also had road Playoff games in venues that are typically hostile like New Orleans and Green Bay in front of limited crowds.
In the Super Bowl, the Chiefs were without both of their starting tackles, and the Bucs dominated them off the edge.
The Verdict: Every team was playing its road games in front of empty stadiums in 2020. Maybe it benefitted the Bucs a bit more with Brady in a new system, but it probably wasn’t a huge advantage. Yes, they avoided hostile postseason crowds in New Orleans and Green Bay, but the Saints and Packers had very blemished home postseason records in recent years. These are not the insurmountable homefield advantages they are frequently portrayed as.
And while the Chiefs were without some key pieces up front, they did a horrible job adjusting to it. I’m going with no footnote here.