Seed of doubt: Why being No. 1 may not be the best of strategies

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Pittsburgh (11-3) at Tennessee (12-2) in the AFC and Carolina (11-3) at the Giants (11-3) in the NFC will set the top of each conference bracket in next month's 12-team playoffs, but it won't necessarily tell us much about what's going to transpire once the postseason begins. At least that's what recent history teaches us.

In case you've forgotten, consider the following:

• The past three seasons, the Super Bowl winner was a No. 5 seed (2007 Giants), a No. 3 seed (2006 Colts) and, for the first and only time, a No. 6 seed (2005 Steelers). Throw in the No. 4-seeded Ravens in 2000, and four times in this decade's first eight seasons the Super Bowl was claimed by a team that didn't even earn a first-round bye.

• The 2003 Patriots were the only top-seeded team this decade (one out of 16) to win the Super Bowl. But while the No. 1 seed hasn't been a great launching pad to Super Bowl success, it has been a tried and true route to Super Bowl failure. Seven times in the first eight seasons of this decade, a No. 1 seed has lost the Super Bowl. Members of that club include: the 2007 Patriots, 2006 Bears, 2005 Seahawks, 2004 Eagles, 2002 Raiders, 2001 Rams, and 2000 Giants. All were top seeds who couldn't close the deal.

• If the Titans and Giants wrap up the No. 1 seeds this Sunday, you can pretty much discount seeing a Tennessee-New York Super Bowl pairing. Same goes for whichever two teams end up with the prized top billing in each conference if it's not the Titans and Giants. That's because it has been 15 years since the two No. 1 seeds met in the Super Bowl, the most recent such occurrence being the Buffalo-Dallas rematch Super Bowl following the 1993 season.

In fact, since the NFL expanded its playoffs to 12 teams and started seeding the field in each conference in 1990 -- a span of 18 seasons, 1990-2007 -- the two top seeds have survived to face each other in the Super Bowl just twice. The first came in the Buffalo-Washington matchup of 1991, and that Buffalo-Dallas rematch in 1993. Astounding, no?

In the past three seasons, the No. 1 seed has been a bridge to nowhere in several memorable instances. Top-seeded teams that were already losing air out of the balloon as December wound down included the 2007 Cowboys, who went 13-3 but dropped two of their last three games in the regular season before getting bounced at home by the upstart Giants in their playoff opener; the 2005 Colts, whose 13-0 start dissolved into a 1-2 finish as a precursor to their one-and-done playoff appearance; and to some degree even the perfect-season 2007 Patriots, who while continuing to win seemed to peak too soon, and spent themselves in the course of winning three tough three-point games in the final six weeks.

Throw in the 14-2 Chargers of 2006, who wasted their hard-earned No. 1 seed with a playoff-opening homefield loss to New England, and that's a pretty dismal recent run by No. 1's. These days, the math says that one top seed gets to the Super Bowl and loses it, while the eventual champion comes from somewhere in the No. 3 to No. 6 slots.

Which is why it has to be more than disconcerting to Titans and Giants fans to see their teams showing some of the same troubling late-season tendencies exhibited by the likes of recent top seeds. After their eye-opening 10-0 start, the Titans are 2-2 over their past four games, with a Kerry Collins-led passing game that hasn't stretched the field lately, and a key injury suffered late last week to all-world defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.

As for the defending champion Giants, they've dropped two games in a row -- both within the NFC East -- after looking like the clear class of the league at 11-1. Their offense suddenly doesn't look deep enough to absorb the losses of receiver Plaxico Burress (suspension) and running back Brandon Jacobs (knee injury), and their best-in-the-NFL offensive line got run over to the tune of eight Cowboys sacks last week in Dallas.

The Titans and Giants could both get well in a hurry this weekend, but with victory comes the semi-curse of the No. 1 seed, and who needs that?

"The recent history isn't pretty, but that still doesn't mean you don't push for it,'' ex-Ravens head coach Brian Billick said of the No. 1 seed. "There's not a coach in America that doesn't covet the idea of being home for two games in January. You still think you need it. But the flip side is if you're not that No. 1, you still think you have a real shot at it. Because teams like the Steelers in '05 and the Giants last year say you do.''

In 2000, two years before realignment, Billick's Baltimore team came out of the underdog No. 4 wild-card seed to win it all, beating Denver at home before going on the road to upset Tennessee and Oakland before capturing the Super Bowl in Tampa against the Giants. But he also knows what it's like to waste a prime seed, having seen his 13-3, No. 2 seeded Ravens fall to the No. 3 Colts in their 2006 playoff opener.

Clearly the lesson of the past three playoff seasons is it matters far more how you're playing as the postseason arrives than your particular seed. In other words, even a No. 1 seed can't save you if you're not peaking at the right time of the year.

"The coaches I've played for, it wasn't the No. 1 seed as much as you wanted the first-round bye,'' said Trent Dilfer, the former Ravens Super Bowl-winning quarterback who is now an NFL analyst on ESPN. "But more than any particular seed, what's more important is to be playing your best football late, late in the season. Playing your best football and being healthy is the key to playoff success. That's why I can't stand the whole resting players late in the year thing. I hate that with a passion, because you've got to be clicking at that point or you have no chance.

"The other factor is, in professional sports, the hardest thing to manage is expectations, and that has something to do with how much No. 1 seeds struggle. Young players can't always handle the high expectations. It truly chokes some people out."

Last year's Giants actually went 3-2 in December, but bizarrely that Week 17 moral-victory loss against New England was the springboard to the magical January and February to come.

New York in last year's NFC playoffs won at No. 4 Tampa Bay, No. 1 Dallas and No. 2 Green Bay, before knocking off the AFC's top-seeded Patriots in the Super Bowl. Likewise, in 2005, the road-tested Steelers beat a No. 3 in Cincinnati, a No. 2 in Denver and both No. 1's, Indianapolis and NFC champion Seattle. Seedings are all well and good, but the only numbers that really count are on the scoreboard.

"No question, and I think New York last year is the poster child for that,'' said Billick, now an NFL color analyst on FOX. "I was listening to [Giants coach] Tom Coughlin talk about it the other day. It was him saying almost, 'Are you kidding me? Last year I'm on the verge of getting fired, and almost without anyone really noticing, we get a little momentum going at the end of the season and things just take off. This year, we're out in front most of the year and fighting for the No. 1 seed, but now we lose a couple games and we suck.' It's all about perception at this time of year. It really is.''

Billick sees one key piece of symmetry between this season and the 2000 season, when his Ravens got hot with a perfect sense of timing, rolling through January: "There was no dominant quarterback play on teams of real consequence in the playoffs that year, and you could make the same case this year,'' he said.

"In 2000, there was no Troy Aikman, or Joe Montana, and it was before Tom Brady. This year it kind of feels like it's shaping up that way again. There aren't any truly dominant teams with dominant quarterbacks. If there's a team that nobody wants to play, kind of like we were in 2000, it's Indy. The Colts aren't running the ball well at all, but they're dangerous and they're playing better than anyone else right now.''

But it's worth noting, once again, the Giants' march to the Super Bowl title really didn't start in earnest until that Week 17 loss to the Patriots. Meaning that this year's eventual champion might still be approaching the game that swings momentum irreversibly in its direction.

"There are still two weeks left, and you can get to playing your best football if you win these games,'' Dilfer said. "The Titans and Giants can still play good football and change their situations. They have time to build the momentum back. If the Giants beat Carolina and win at Minnesota next week, and really play well, they can really still go into the playoffs on a high. And the same with the Titans, playing the Steelers and Colts in their last two games. But to be honest, I'm a little more worried about the Titans than I am the Giants right now. They're not both in the exact same situation.''

For now, the Giants and Titans remain poised to lock down the No. 1 seeds. But sometime in the next seven weeks or so, we'll find out once again if that's a position NFL teams really want to be in these days.