(Editor’s Note: In December of 2013, BSMW presented this column on the role of luck in the NFL, and how all championship teams need it at some point. We thought it timely enough to run it again, with some parenthetical updates in the intro and a nice little addendum at the end. By the way, was anyone else hoping for Bill Belichick to “squeeze” the football atop the Lombardi Trophy and say, “Yup. That feels about right.”? Would have been fun.)
Due to today’s parity in the NFL, every team needs a certain amount of good fortune to win the Super Bowl.
For examples of what luck can bring, look no further than last season. Down in Carolina, the Patriots lost a game where the home team got the benefit of the doubt on what appeared to be pass interference on Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. In December in Foxboro, the home team got a pass interference call in their favor in the end zone (a touch foul on Josh Boyce), setting up the game-winning TD vs. the Browns.
With season-ending injuries to defensive stalwarts Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, plus Sunday’s terrible knee injury to Gronk, the Patriots (could have used) a run of good luck to get to the podium (in early 2014).
For a look at how every team – no matter how deserving or how talented overall – needs the ball to bounce its way, see below, starting with the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run in early 2002.
2002 Super Bowl: New England 20, St. Louis 17
Most Fortunate Moment: Has to be the Tuck Rule, right? An obscure, now-abolished rule – albeit one with which Patriots fans had become familiar in 2001 after their Week Two game against the Jets – was implemented correctly to overturn an apparent Tom Brady fumble, thus allowing Adam Vinatieri to kick the football into the maw of a blizzard for the greatest field goal in playoff history.
Hey, Raiders fans? Twelve (now thirteen) years ago. Let it go. Plus, you got your Super Bowl appearance the very next year! Yay!
Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh’s special teams implosion in the AFC Champsionship game, allowing two TDs (punt return and blocked kick return); having Drew Bledsoe as a bench QB after Brady hurt his ankle in the first half of that game; the Super Bowl refs adapting a “let ’em play” attitude, with Pats DBs clutching and grabbing more Rams than a bunch of horny Scots.
2003 Super Bowl: Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21
Most Fortunate Moment: Coach Jon Gruden got to play his previous team in the Super Bowl, reaping the benefits of new Oakland head coach Bill Callahan failing to make significant changes to the offense that Gruden had developed. Talk about an in-depth scouting report.
Honorable Mention: Raiders starting center Barret Robbins did not show up to practice Super Bowl week (he was barred from playing and later diagnosed with manic depression).
2004 Super Bowl: New England 32, Carolina 29
Most Fortunate Moment: After Carolina tied it at 29, John Kasay kicked off out-of-bounds, giving New England the ball at their own 40 with 1:08 left. Vinatieri kicked the game-winner as time ran out.
Honorable Mention: Panthers coach John Fox went for 2-point conversions twice in the fourth quarter and failed; in the divisional playoffs, normally sure-handed Titans receiver Drew Bennett dropped a pass that would have gotten Tennessee into field goal position to tie it; in the AFC Championship vs. Peyton Manning and the Colts, the refs allowed the Pats’ defensive backs to play with the type of aggression that would get penalized today (see Boyce, Josh vs. Cleveland); plus, it snowed in Foxboro.
2005 Super Bowl: New England 24, Philadelphia 21
Most Fortunate Moment: The failure of the Eagles to deal with shaken QB Donovan McNabb. Down by 10, Philly declined to hurry on offense, in part because McNabb was having trouble breathing after getting hit by Tedy Bruschi. (You can see an updated story on that here.)
Honorable Mention: Optimum health. As they had in 2003, many New England starters missed games due to injury, but most came back in time for the playoffs; more snow in Foxboro vs. the Colts.
Overall, it’s tough to associate pure luck with this team: one of the best of the decade and certainly one of the strongest, deepest squads in Patriots history.
2006 Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10
Most Fortunate Moment: Not having to play the Patriots in the playoffs. (All together now – trollin’, trollin’, trollin’, Pitts-buurgh!)
Honorable Mention: Some close officiating in the big game. This is not to say that Pittsburgh didn’t deserve to win (they appeared to be the better squad), but had some of those close calls gone the other way, Seattle would have been the lucky ones. In the divisional playoffs at Indianapolis, Jerome Bettis fumbled on the Colts’ two-yard line, paving the way for glory for Nick Harper on the fumble return, but Ben Roethlisberger made a diving, spinning tackle at Indy’s 42; Colts kicker/anti-hero Mike Vanderjagt missed a potential game-tying 47-yard field goal.
2007 Super Bowl: Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17
Most Fortunate Moment: Whatever switch went off in Peyton Manning’s head in the AFC Championship that had him looking for drive-sustaining first downs instead of long passes. The Patriots defense had to stay on the field forever and couldn’t protect their halftime lead.
Honorable Mention: The Patriots defense was also suffering from the flu, wearing them down further; NE receiver Reche Caldwell dropped an easy pass that would have at least led to a clock-killing first down; cornerback Ellis Hobbs got a questionable pass interference call in the end zone that led to a Colts score; Indy got to play Rex Grossman in the Super Bowl.
2008 Super Bowl: New York 17, New England 14
Most Fortunate Moment: We think we know what most fans would say, but we’ll point to the NFC Championship, specifically Brett Favre and his ill-advised pass-punt in overtime, an easy interception that led to the Giants’ game-winning field goal.
Honorable Mention: The Helmet Catch, of course; Eli Manning fumbled twice in the Super Bowl but lost neither; Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel failed to secure what could have been the game-sealing interception on New York’s final drive.
2009 Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
Most Fortunate Moment: While Steelers defender James Harrison returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown, he got unintentional help from Cardinal Antrel Rolle who – stepping onto the edges of the sideline for a closer look – bumped into receiver Larry Fitzgerald, preventing Fitzgerald from making the tackle in time. (Keep an eye on number 11 running along the sideline in this clip.)
Honorable Mention: Roethlisberger bounced back from a concussion suffered during the final week of the regular season to beat the Chargers in the divisional round; in the AFC Championship, the QB fumbled twice but lost neither in a 24-19 win over the Jets.
2010 Super Bowl Winner: New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17
Most Fortunate Moment: On a potential game-tying drive, Colts receiver Reggie Wayne came up short on his route, allowing Tracy Porter to cut in front of him for a pick-six.
Honorable Mention: During their on-sides kick – a gamble that at the time made investing in Blockbuster seem safe by comparison – Indy receiver Hank Baskett had the ball bounce off of him, giving the Saints possession to open the second half.
2011 Super Bowl: Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25
Most Fortunate Moment: Honest to God, I remember nothing about these playoffs, but apparently the Chicago Bears were down to their third-string QB (Caleb Hanie) in the NFC Championship game; Hanie threw an interception directly at Packers defensive lineman B. J. Raji, which is kind of like trying to skip a rock into the ocean and managing to hit an SUV.
Honorable Mention: Um, I dunno … health? Seriously, I got nothing. Help me out, here.
2012 Super Bowl: New York 21, New England 17
Most Fortunate Moment: An injury to regular San Francisco punt returner Ted Ginn, Jr. put Kyle Williams into the spotlight for the NFC Championship. That worked out great for New York, as Williams muffed one return and fumbled the other, leading to a regulation TD and the game-winning field goal in overtime.
Honorable Mention: Gronkowski getting hurt during the AFC Championship, making him less than 100 percent for the Super Bowl; New York fumbling three times in the big game and – again – losing nary a one.
2013 Super Bowl: Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31
Most Fortunate Moment: In the divisional playoff, Denver safety Rahim Moore got lost on Joe Flacco’s 70-yard pass, allowing the tying touchdown with 31 seconds left to play. Baltimore won in OT.
Honorable Mention: Gronkowski’s absence from the AFC Championship game; Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib’s injury during that game opening up the passing lanes for Flacco; terrible play-calling for the 49ers on their potential game-winning drive; on that drive, the refs allowed contact on a potential pass interference penalty in the end zone. (Something we’ve seen called of late.)
2014 Super Bowl: Seattle 43, Denver 8
Most Fortunate Moment: On the first snap of the game, Denver center Manny Ramirez shotgunned the football past Peyton Manning into the end zone for a what-the-heck-just-happened safety. Seattle’s D deserves credit for a huge game, but they literally didn’t have to do anything to get the lead. The Broncos’ lack of preparedness for the Seahawks’ 12th man set the tone for the night.
Honorable Mention: In the NFC title game, on a fourth-and-seven play, Niners defensive end Aldon Smith went offside, giving QB Russell Wilson a free play (as he told in this game story); Jermaine Kearse snatched Wilson’s pass in the end zone, giving Seattle a 20-17 lead on their way to a 23-17 win.
2015 Super Bowl: New England 28, Seattle 24
Most Fortunate Moment: Unlike what seems like the rest of the world, we don’t think the play call was the worst in Super Bowl history; however, the Seahawks’ decision to pass from the one-yard line gave rookie Patriots defensive back (and free drink recipient in New England for life) Malcolm Butler the chance to intercept the ball and seal the game. Also fortunate? According to scout QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Butler had gotten beaten on the same pass play during practice the previous week. In Butler’s own words, he “knew what was going to happen.”
Honorable Mention: The Patriots finally – finally! – had a mostly healthy roster, with Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Vince Wilfork and a full O-line contributing; speaking of health, the Seahawks’ secondary lost Jeremy Lane to injury and battled plenty of dings themselves.
When it came to good fortune, for most of the past two games, the Seahawks seemed destined to win this thing. From Green Bay’s inexplicable breakdown in the NFC Championship to Tom Brady’s first interception (I mean, really, Tom. Where? To whom?) to what would have been deemed the Juggle Catch, Seattle looked like SB repeaters for sure.
The Pats just needed a break. And they got it.
Thoughts regarding lucky moments on the big stage? Let us know in the comment space below.
You can reach Chris Warner at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cwarn89 on Twitter.