Regardless of who comes out victorious in the 2022 Super Bowl, one thing is for certain: A No. 4-seed will be the Super Bowl 56 champion, and either the Cincinnati Bengals or the Los Angeles Rams will be added to an exclusive Super Bowl club.
Since the NFL expanded its playoff format to 12 teams in 1990 (and expanded again to 14 teams in 2020), only eight teams prior to the 2021 season had won the Super Bowl when seeded fourth or lower.
Of that group, only two No. 5 seeds and two No. 6 seeds have ever won a Super Bowl.
The four No. 4 seeds with Super Bowl victories include the 1997 Denver Broncos, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2011 New York Giants and the Ravens again in 2012.
But we are focused here on the four true underdogs, the four teams that rose from the depths of entering the NFL Playoffs as a Wild Card road team to capture a Super Bowl title.
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC No. 6 seed)
The Steelers would ultimately win Super Bowl 40 in a controversial, penalty-plagued 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, but the game that the Steelers’ playoff run would be remembered for their game in the Divisional Round.
The Steelers became the first No. 6 seed ever to win a Super Bowl, but in order to get there, they would have to knock off the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round in Indianapolis after dispatching the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card round.
That 31-17 victory would be best remembered as the game where Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer tore an ACL on Cincinnati’s second play from scrimmage. The Steelers trailed 10-0, but with Palmer out, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense was able to pull away for a comfortable win.
And it appeared the Steelers would have an equally comfortable, if stunning, victory over the Colts in the Divisional Round, taking a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter.
But two fourth-quarter touchdowns and a two-point conversion cut the Steelers’ lead to 21-18. The comeback appeared for naught, however, as the Steelers took possession on the Colts’ 2-yard line with 1:20 left.
But because the Colts still had all three timeouts, the Steelers ran a normal play, rather than take a knee. And shockingly, on first down, veteran running back Jerome Bettis fumbled, and Colts defensive back Nick Harper picked it up and appeared headed for a coast-to-coast, game-winning touchdown.
But Roethlisberger, behind the play when Bettis fumbled, was able to catch Harper and tackle him on the Colts’ 42-yar line.
So instead of the winning touchdown, the Colts would have to settle for a game-tying field goal. But they got neither, as kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed from 46 yards out, allowing the Steelers to survive and advance to beat the Denver Broncos in Denver in the AFC Championship Game before Bettis won the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit and retired a champion.
2007 New York Giants (NFC No. 5 seed)
Even though they entered the postseason in 2007 as the No. 5 seed, the Giants seemed about as long a longshot as any team to win a Super Bowl. Of course, taking down the previously-undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl was going to make any opponent seem inferior, but the Giants’ journey to Glendale was just as difficult as the destination.
The Giants finished the regular season 10-6 and were forced to win three road playoff games to reach the Super Bowl. But in their regular-season finale, they played the 15-0 Patriots as tough as any opponent all season, eventually losing 38-35. But the strong performance seemed to give the Giants a tremendous boost entering the playoffs, and they beat the No. 4-seed Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa with relative ease in the Wild Card Round, setting up a battle with their division rival Dallas Cowboys, the top seed in the NFC.
But despite losing both regular-season games to Dallas and having to play them on the road, the Giants gutted out a 21-17 victory, despite Dallas outgaining them 336-230 and controlling the clock for over 36 minutes.
The Giants then traveled to Green Bay to face the Packers in the NFC Championship Game in extreme cold, with the game-time temperature -1 and a wind-chill of -23, making it the 3rd-coldest game in NFL history.
And once again, the Giants found a way, intercepting Brett Favre in overtime and winning the game on a 47-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes for a 23-20 victory.
The Patriots would be the third straight team the Giants would face that had beaten them in the regular season. But when David Tyree secured a desperation pass from Eli Manning against his helmet in the final minutes, none it mattered. The fifth-seeded Giants pulled off the greatest upset in Super Bowl history, 17-14.
2010 Green Bay Packers (NFC No. 6 seed)
The only team in the Super Bowl era to go an entire season never trailing by more than seven points in any game, the Packers were ideally suited to win three straight road playoff games before knocking off the Steelers in Super Bowl 45, in what would be Aaron Rodgers’ lone championship.
Ironically, the Steelers had been the only other No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl. Now they would become the only franchise in the modern playoff era to win a Super Bowl as the No. 6 seed and lose a Super Bowl to a 6-seed.
The Packers built leads of 14-0 in the second quarter and 21-10 in the third, then held on to beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round 21-16, sealing the victory by intercepting Michael Vick in the end zone with less than a minute to play.
The Divisional Round against the Atlanta Falcons would provide the Packers their easiest victory of the postseason, as Rodgers completed 31-of-36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a fourth. The Packers spotted Atlanta a first-quarter touchdown, then outscored the Falcons 42-7 over the second and third before settling for a 48-21 victory.
In the NFC Championship Game in Chicago, the Packers forced Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler from the game and put the 21-14 victory away in the fourth quarter on B.J. Raji’s pick-six.
In the Super Bowl, Rodgers threw for another three touchdowns and was named game MVP in a 31-25 victory over the Steelers.
2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC No. 5 seed)
Tom Brady’s seventh and final Super Bowl victory came from a very different place, and not just because he was now playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and not the New England Patriots. As the No. 5 seed in the new seven-team NFC playoff bracket, this would be the lowest seed from which Brady would win a championship.
The Buccaneers advanced to the AFC Championship game with a pair of solid victories over Washington in the Wild Card round and the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round, ending the legendary career of Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the process, as he announced his retirement.
The Buccaneers then stunned the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, taking a 21-10 halftime lead on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Scotty Miller with no time left.
But the biggest moment of the game came near the end, when Packers coach Matt LaFleur, with his team trailing by eight points and just over two minutes left in regulation, turned down a chance to have Rodgers attempt to throw for a touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the Buccaneers’ 8-yard line and kicked a field goal, allowing the Bucs to maintain a 31-26 lead.
But the plan backfired when the Buccaneers were able to maintain possession even as the Packers used all three of their timeouts. The Packers did not run another play on offense.
Brady then beat Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs for the second time in three years in a 31-9 victory in Super Bowl 55.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference