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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Can the Packers Snap the 15-1 Curse?

You are probably aware that the New England Patriots are the only NFL franchise to finish the regular season undefeated since the League went to a 16-game regular season in 1978, but do you know how many teams have finished the regular season with only one loss since then? So far, five. Only two went on to win Super Bowls, the last being Mike Ditka's Chicago Bears, who romped to a 46-10 victory over, of all teams, the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Since then, no 15-1 team has even made it to the big game. Will the Packers break that streak?

The reigning Super Bowl champs are only the third team to go 15-1 since the Bears. Their immediate predecessor was the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers. Rookie QB and dormant sexual predator Ben Roethlisberger earned his Offensive Rookie of the Year title passing for 2,621 yards and rushing for another 144 in a season that included a particularly memorable game on Halloween night 2004, when the Steelers snapped the Patriots' 21-game winning streak. The Pats got their revenge, though, taking down the Steelers to win the AFC championship game, 41-27. (I lost a dollar betting on Pittsburgh; it was the last time I ever bet money on a football game.)

The 1998 Minnesota Vikings hold the unusual distinction of being the first team to go 15-1 and not win the Super Bowl. They were remarkable for a few other things, too. The Vikings' offense shattered the single-season scoring record with 556 points, a record broken by the aforementioned 16-0 Patriots in 2007. According to something I saw on another web site and didn’t bother to check out: "The Vikings led the league with 52 plays of 25+ yards. They had 22 offensive plays of 40+ yards; no other team had more than 16 plays of that length." That record-breaking offense carried them to to their first NFC championship game since 1987. You may recall the Vikings lost that game to the Atlanta Falcons in OT. So why did they lose, and how? More importantly, will a similar fate befall the Vikings' longtime rival in the 2012 postseason?

I'm no sports expert (so maybe I should've found a better use of my time than writing this column), but I can offer a couple simple explanations for the losses of the Steelers and Vikings in their respective conference championships. Big Ben's rookie nerves got the best of him against New England's seasoned defense and QB Tom Brady, who had already earned a couple Super Bowl rings. The '98 Vikings may have been the highest-scoring team in NFL history, but their defense was far from the best, and while it sure seems like an upset when a 16-1 team loses a home game, remember that the Falcons came to the Metrodome with a 15-2 record, not exactly a Cinderella team.

If the Packers can get past the 9-8 New York Giants, then they'll play a 14-3 team in the NFC Championship game. (The Patriots, like the '98 Falcons, were 15-2 when they beat Pittsburgh on their way to Super Bowl XXXIX.) My prediction? Green Bay will be upset, either today, next weekend or in the Super Bowl. To me, the 49ers look damn near unstoppable. I know most avid football fans are hoping for a Saints-Packers showdown next Sunday, but I must be honest: the Pack is not perfect, as Kansas City showed us.

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