This deep into the hunt for the Super Bowl, the championship games are often analyzed in a similar fashion: who’s got the better quarterback? Which defense is superior? Does either team have an especially doofy coach just itching to make a bone-headed, season-ending mistake?
But these extremely scientific analyses often ignore the human element of football. And in the playoffs, that can be the difference between victory or defeat.
Which brings us to last Sunday’s unbelievable finish to the Divisional round. Yes, the Minnesota Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints on a legendary play. But they didn’t win the Super Bowl - they now have to play another game, on the road, against the Philadelphia Eagles. So it’s fair to wonder if the potential for a big game hangover is real.
Believe it or not, last-second miracle plays like Sunday’s are not completely unheard of in the NFL playoffs. Thanks to our friends at Pro Football Reference, I found five instances over the past decade of teams scoring within the last ten seconds regulation (that’s how much time was on the clock for the final play of the Vikings-Saints game), or in overtime. I compared those dramatic results to the team’s performance the following week (you can check my work here and here). The results aren’t promising for the Vikings.
Let’s dive in.
2016: Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
The situation: The Pack traveled to the desert for a Divisional round matchup during the 2015-16 season. Arizona led until the final play of regulation, when Aaron Rodgers threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Janis to tie the game at 20 and take it to overtime.
But Larry Fitzgerald had other plans, taking a Carson Palmer pass 75 yards. On the next play, Fitz ended the game by taking a five-yard shovel pass to the house.
The next week: The Cardinals came crashing back down to earth. Traveling to Carolina in the NFC Championship Game, Arizona scored once in the first three quarters en route to a 49-15 drubbing by the Panthers.
2015: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks
The situation: Poor Packers (I guess). After kicking a tying field goal with 14 seconds left in the 2014-15 NFC Championship Game, Russell Wilson threw a gorgeous 35 yard touchdown to Jermaine Kearse in overtime. And just like that, defending champs were heading back to the Super Bowl for a date with the New England Patriots.
The next week: Pete Carroll didn’t give the damn ball to Marshawn and New England won it all, 28-24.
2012: New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers
The situation: The 2011-12 season had some excitement in the playoffs, with two late-game or overtime wins! The first one on our list comes, once again, to the detriment of the New Orleans Saints franchise, and is the only entrant on our list to not occur in OT.
Down three points with under two minutes to go, Alex Smith engineered a seven-play, 85-yard drive to take the lead on a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds remaining (David Akers with the PAT!).
And yes, technically, there was still time on the clock, but I’m not going to let blind adherence to stats take away from the fun. It’s still the only other playoff touchdown in the last decade to decide the game within the last 15 seconds.
The next week: The Smith-led Niners were unable to take down the Eli Manning juggernaut, falling in the NFC Championship game the following week. This forced the world to watch another Giants-Patriots Super Bowl, something for which I hold Smith personally accountable.
2012: Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos
The situation: Anybody remember some quarterback named Tim Tebow? In overtime, 80 of Tebow’s divinely ordained 316 passing yards came on the first play, a catch-and-run courtesy of Demaryius Thomas.
The next week: The scrappy Broncos were no match for the Patriots, who easily dispatched Denver to the tune of a 45-10 loss. Tebow wasn’t able to recreate the previous week’s magic, throwing for only 136 yards and no touchdowns.
2009: Indianapolis Colts at San Diego Chargers
The situation: Tied at 17 going into overtime, our friend Darren Sproles put the Colts defenders on skates, speeding in for a 22-yard rushing score. And, really, it was practically like scoring two touchdowns because he did it while wearing the Chargers’ powder blues in the playoffs. Gotta love the moxie there.
The next week: In a game that was close until the third quarter, the Chargers couldn’t muster enough offense to keep pace with the Steelers in the Divisional round, falling 35-24. But Sproles did his part, scoring a 62-yard touchdown on a pass from Philip Rivers.
For those of you not keeping track at home, teams scoring game-ending touchdowns finished 0-5 the following week. Before Sunday, no one in recent history has done it in regulation - I had to go back to 1999 to the Steve Young-to-Terrell Owens connection.
What’s more, those five overtime winners lost their next games by an average of 21 points. That average is thanks in large part to a couple of 40-burgers served up to the Cardinals and Broncos, respectively.
What’s also interesting is that all five of these teams were at home. Of them, only the Cardinals and Niners hit the road the following week. The 2012 NFC Championship game, which was decided by only three points, is probably more analogous to this year’s game (that is, unless any Negadelphians out there think Case Keenum’s dropping 49 points on the Eagles).
In the end, it’s tough to say how much these facts and figures will matter on Sunday. Heck, maybe it won’t matter at all, and you’ve just wasted your lunch break. But if two gigantic millionaires wearing dog masks has taught us anything, it’s never to count out the human element of football.
For the Eagles, that’s being the playoff underdogs. For the Vikings, it might be the lingering hangover from the party at their place late last Sunday.