Remember when the Colts lost 51-34 at Pittsburgh and 42-20 at home to New England two games later?
Remember when the Packers started 1-2 and would have been 0-3 if they hadn’t overcome a 21-3 deficit at home against the … Jets?!
Remember when the defending champion Seahawks were hung over, traded Percy Harvin and fell to 3-3 with a loss at St. Louis two days later?
Remember when the Patriots lost 41-14 at Kansas City in a “Monday Night Football” game that dropped New England to 2-2 and sparked some in the Boston media to propose trading … Tom Brady?!
Wonder whatever happened to those poor, poor teams?
Wait. We’ve found them. They’re a combined 52-17, including 5-0 in the playoffs, and will meet in the conference championship games Sunday.
The Colts (13-5) are 13-3 since starting 0-2 and are the lowest remaining seed (No. 4). They travel to New England for the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots (13-4), who are 11-2 in their past 13 games.
Meanwhile, the Packers (13-4) are 12-2 since that 1-2 start. They travel to Seattle for the NFC Championship Game against the 13-4 Seahawks, who are 10-1 and riding a seven-game winning streak in which they have allowed only 56 points.
The winners meet Feb. 1 in Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz.
“This has been quite gratifying because of the challenge of answering the Super Bowl accomplishment,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, whose team beat the Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII last year. “I went into this year with the thought that this is a very unique chance at showing that [we] can handle all of that. It’s been difficult for people, and the history of it shows you that it’s hard to come back and get yourself back into this kind of position again.”
You can say that again. The 2004 Patriots were the last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Even more surprising: The 2005 Patriots are the last Super Bowl champion to even win its next playoff game.
Early adversity for these four teams was met head-on by four of the best quarterbacks in the league. Three of them — Brady, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Seattle’s Russell Wilson — have won Super Bowls, while the other one, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, is poised to become the league’s next great quarterback.
“I think [quarterbacks] are the guys that end up making the difference in maybe getting you over the hump,” said Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, who believes he has finally found a good one in rookie Teddy Bridgewater. “There’s no question you have to play defense in this league and you have to have a running game. But if you look at the playoff teams, they’re pretty stable at that position.”
Older and better
Veteran leadership also plays a role in cushioning a bumpy ride.
The Colts have eight players over 30, including the league’s oldest player, 42-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri, a future Hall of Famer who missed only one field goal while becoming first-team All-Pro this season.
The Patriots have six players over 30, including 37-year-old Brady, who is 3-2 in Super Bowls, 5-3 in AFC title games and will be playing in his fourth consecutive conference championship game.
The Seahawks are the youngest of the four teams left. Three of their four over-30 players are a punter, a fullback and backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (31). The other is 34-year-old defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who played his first 11 seasons with the Vikings and is seeking his first Super Bowl appearance.
Meanwhile, in Green Bay, eight Packers are over 30. The oldest, linebacker Julius Peppers, turns 35 on Sunday.
In Green Bay’s 26-21 divisional playoff win over Dallas, Peppers had a team-leading six tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles, one of which halted a DeMarco Murray breakaway run and led to a Packers field goal. Peppers’ two forced fumbles gave him six this season, which equals the combined 17-game total of every other Packers player.
Each of the four head coaches has done his part as well.
Indianapolis’ Chuck Pagano has overcome the most unbalanced offense and hiccups on defense. New England’s Bill Belichick built his best defense in a decade by bringing in cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy compensated for Rodgers’ torn left calf muscle with a game plan that virtually eliminated the quarterback’s need to move in last week’s win over the Cowboys. And then there’s Carroll, who probably won this genius contest when he bravely pulled the chain on the headache that was Harvin.
When Harvin’s volatile nature caused problems with teammates and started to steer the offense from its strengths, Carroll set in motion the trade that netted a fourth-round draft pick less than two years after Seattle gave the Vikings first- and third-round picks to acquire Harvin.
“We had a big change that we made during the year and we’ve responded and improved since then,” said Carroll, whose team is 9-2 without Harvin. “We returned to the strength of knowing our guys, how to use them, and how to implement their strengths.
“We had to rediscover what our best was, and that was about playing for one another. As simple as that sounds, that was a huge transformational realization for us. We figured out something that was really key, and it became what you see.”