The Patriots earned a first-round playoff bye three times in four seasons from 2001 to 2004. Each time, they won the Super Bowl.
That was the blueprint. The format for success. The champion typically was a team that won its division, took a week off and then beat two inferior conference opponents and a fellow No. 1 or 2 seed from the other conference. Kiss the trophy and go home.
In the first 15 seasons of the 12-team playoff format (1990-2004), only two Super Bowl champions had to play a wild-card game. The Broncos in 1997 and the Ravens in 2000 both won titles as No. 4 seeds.
But things began to change on Dec. 11, 2005. A Steelers team that was 7-5 after losing three consecutive games rose up to beat the Bears 21-9 at Heinz Field. The lasting image of that snowy day is Steelers running back Jerome Bettis bulldozing the football and Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher into the end zone for a touchdown.
“That was our start,” said Tyrone Carter, the former Gopher who won two Super Bowls with the Steelers. “For eight weeks, every game was a playoff game.”
Momentum trumped rest that year, and nearly every year since. The Steelers were the last team to sneak into the playoffs as the AFC’s sixth seed.
“Sometimes that bye can make you rusty,” Carter said. “And for us, that veteran leadership kicked in when we were 7-5. That week, we had a team meeting. I remember Joey Porter stood up first and told all of the coaches to get out of the room. And all of the coaches left. Joey Porter stood up and said, ‘Man, this can’t happen.’ ”
And it didn’t. The Steelers hit the playoff road, beating No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 1 Indianapolis and No. 2 Denver to reach Super Bowl XL, where they beat Seattle 21-10.
Since those 2004 Patriots became the last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions, six of nine champions have played in the wild-card round. The 2010 Packers were a sixth seed, while the 2007 Giants were a 10-6 fifth seed that felled the 18-0 and top-seeded Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Two years ago, former Vikings center Matt Birk retired as a Super Bowl champion when the Ravens won it all as a No. 4 seed, beating Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in consecutive weeks en route to their victory over the 49ers.
“What I’ll say is we are creatures of habit, creatures of routine,” Birk said. “To be taken out of your routine so late in the season with a first-round bye is tough to handle for most teams. It affects your mindset.
‘‘So I don’t think there is an advantage to having a first-round bye unless you have some dynamic player who needs to heal.
“In fact, six of the past nine [Super Bowl champions] not having had a bye doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is to hear that only two of the first 15 didn’t have a bye.”
This weekend, four wild-card winners — No. 3 Dallas (13-4) and No. 4 Carolina (8-8-1) in the NFC, and No. 4 Indianapolis (12-5) and No. 6 Baltimore (11-6) in the AFC — will try to strengthen the trend. Vegas isn’t buying in, listing each of them as underdogs by at least 6½ points.
Dallas is 8-0 on the road but faces a Packers team that’s 8-0 at home. Carolina has won five consecutive but plays the defending champion Seahawks, who just joined the 1976 Steelers as the only team to win its final six games while allowing fewer than 40 total points (39).
The Colts travel to Denver, where the Broncos have won 17 of their past 18 games, including an 8-0 mark this season. Meanwhile, the Ravens face a Patriots team that earned a first-round bye for the fifth consecutive season and the sixth time since its last Super Bowl victory.
The Patriots are favored by seven points, but the Ravens could be a bad draw since they’re 2-1 at Foxboro in the playoffs over the past five seasons. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco also has an NFL-record seven career road playoff wins.
“The Ravens’ tough style of football travels well outside in January,” Birk said.
“And for whatever reason, that team has built its identity to raising its game in the playoffs. You see it almost every year.
“Going on the road in the playoffs against a, quote, better team seems to be the challenge they really relish. That’s how it was when I was there. We loved the challenge and really weren’t afraid of anybody.”