ARNIE STAPLETON,AP Pro Football Writer
DENVER (AP) — No one should be surprised that the Super Bowl favorites are already out of the playoffs.
With their 38-35 loss in double-overtime to the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night, the Denver Broncos became the ninth No. 1 seed in the last eight years to go down in the divisional round.
On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons nearly became the 10th before escaping Seattle’s upset bid in a 30-28 thriller and becoming just the seventh top seed since 2005 to advance to the conference championship.
“I wouldn’t say I’m shocked,” said Peyton Manning, who also lost as a No. 1 seed with Indianapolis in 2005. “That’s not the right word. I’m disappointed.”
Seeds just don’t matter anymore.
“That’s playoff football, it’s do-or-die,” Denver linebacker Keith Brooking said. “There are no makeups, there’s no ‘my bad’ on that play. You have a bad day, you go home and you deal with it. You’re staring an offseason right in the face with nothing to do, except to think about it.”
The Broncos hadn’t lost since Oct. 7, winning each of their last 11 regular season games by an average of two touchdowns.
“I feel like we’re the best team,” receiver Brandon Stokley lamented. “But, in the NFL, it doesn’t matter. It’s one game and it’s whoever plays better. And they played better.”
The Broncos certainly aren’t alone in their heartache.
Among the top seeds to have fallen flat in the first playoff game are a 15-1 team, three 14-2 teams and five 13-3 teams — all at home, coming off a bye and facing an opponent that had to travel following a win on wild-card weekend.
The favorites who faltered were led by some of the greatest quarterbacks of our generation, too. Manning and his brother, Eli, have both won Super Bowls and both have been bounced right out of the playoffs. Same with Aaron Rogers and Tom Brady. Others who made early exits are Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo and Kerry Collins.
To paraphrase the late Vince Lombardi, “What the heck’s going on out here?”
“I have no clue,” Broncos safety Mike Adams said.
Speaking of Lombardi, no top seed has hoisted the Super Bowl trophy that bears his name since the New Orleans Saints did it in 2009 — the last year the No. 1 seeds in both conferences won in the divisional round.
And not since the ’03 Patriots has the team with the best regular-season record won it all.
Maybe the solution is to expand the playoffs, which could pit No. 1 seeds against lesser teams in their playoff openers.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn’t taken a stance on the issue.
“I think it needs to be evaluated carefully,” he said. “… It’s got to be special to make the playoffs. It’s also got to retain its uniqueness and the importance of all those regular-season games. So, it has to be done very carefully — if we do it.”
The possibility of another 7-9 team making the playoffs like the Seahawks did in 2010 isn’t necessarily a deterrent to adding teams to the playoff pool, Goodell said.
“I think it’s because of the competitive nature of our league that wild card teams have gone on to win the Super Bowl,” Goodell said. “And teams that haven’t had great records, if you’re hot and you get hot in the second half of the season, you can win the Super Bowl. And I think that’s what’s changed a lot, and that’s why I think it’s worthy of evaluation.”
Perhaps the quest to secure a first-round bye shouldn’t serve as such an imperative for teams anymore because all that R&R so often translates into rust and ruin.
Manning lost his first playoff appearance with the Broncos (13-4), who wasted the home-field advantage they secured throughout the playoffs by failing to pressure Joe Flacco and negating a record-setting performance by kick returner Trindon Holliday.
It wasn’t like the Broncos had rested their regulars down the stretch, either. They didn’t secure the No. 1 seed until Week 17, so they never took their foot off the gas, something they were sure would help them keep rolling through January.
“I felt like we went about our business the right way and we had good weeks of practice, were ready to play and the game came down to about 12 plays and they made them and we didn’t,” Stokley said.
The Falcons also played their starters to the end but lost their regular-season finale to Tampa Bay, then got all they could handle from the Seahawks before advancing to the NFL title game, where they’ll host San Francisco.
That wild win over Seattle included a TD run, a field goal and a desperation heave into the end zone over the final 31 seconds — the exact amount of time that remained when Broncos coach John Fox decided to have Manning take a knee and settle for overtime on a frostbitten night in Denver after Jacoby Jones’ stunning 70-yard TD catch over safety Rahim Moore had tied the game at 35.
“You know what? I agreed with it,” Stokley said, “just with the conditions, where we were on the field. The wind was kind of blowing in our face a little bit and they were getting after Peyton and in that situation, I agreed with it and I had no problems with that at all.”
Aside from the Saints three years ago, the five other No. 1 seeds since ’05 that managed to win their playoff opener all won their conference championship only go on to lose the Super Bowl.
Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler still searching for his first Super Bowl ring, knew this was his best chance, calling this his “best team that didn’t do anything. It’s frustrating, but that’s the reality of it. We got to the playoffs but you have to win in the playoffs for it to mean something. So, it’s just another year when we came up short.”
Anymore, the odds are simply stacked against the odds-on Super Bowl favorites.
Yet, they still have a better shot than regular-season champs in other sports.
Since the first Super Bowl, the team with the best regular-season record has won 21 of 46 championships, or 46 percent, which is more than in the NHL (42 percent), NBA (41 percent) and MLB (28 percent), according to STATS.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be back and we’ll be bigger, stronger, faster, we’ll be hardened and ready to go,” Broncos star linebacker Von Miller said.
But how far?
Of the eight previous No. 1 seeds to falter in their first playoff game, only one — the Patriots in 2011 — recovered from that heartache to reach the Super Bowl the next season, where they lost to the New York Giants.
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