With Thursday's NFL regular season opener looming between the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints, one of the most drama-filled off-seasons finally comes to an end. As every title-defending franchise has experienced, the Packers begin the 2011 season with a bullseye on their back. Gunning for them will be fellow NFC North contenders Chicago and Minnesota, as well as the likes of Philly, Atlanta, Dallas, and their opening night opponent, the Saints.
Of the past ten Super Bowl winners, only one managed to repeat (Patriots XXXVIII and XXXIX). Four teams failed to qualify for the playoffs the following season, and only the Giants managed to win the Super Bowl after previously losing one this decade.
However, there is one interesting fact about defending champions heading into the start of the regular season (gamblers, take notice). In their first game of the next season, title-defending teams sport a record of 10-0-0. Especially as of late, games have been close scoring-wise, but the 2008 Steelers' week one 13-10 victory over Tennessee in overtime is the closest a team has come to losing. In this slideshow, we will look at the outcome of each defending-champions first post-Super Bowl game, as well as a summary of their season.
Former Raven's QB Trent Dilfer
Coming off of a 34-7 demolishing of the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, Baltimore opened up the 2001 season with a bit of a different look. They brought in quarterback Elvis Grbac through free agency, and let Trent Dilfer walk , although he had gone 7-1 in the regular season the previous year. The Ravens also lost rookie sensation running back Jamal Lewis to a torn ACL before the season even began. Lewis rushed for 1300 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2000, and would be sorely missed during the 2001 season.
The Ravens opened the regular season at home against the Chicago Bears, who had gone a dismal 5-11 the year before, but now featured standout second-year linebacker Brian Urlacher. The 2001 Bears would go 13-3, but one of their losses was at the hands of Baltimore in week one. The game was a defensive slug-fest, with a 3-3 halftime score. But Baltimore scored two second-half touchdowns, one thrown by Grbac, en route to a 17-6 victory.
The Ravens overcame losing three of their first six games by going 7-3 the rest of the way, earning them a wild card birth and fifth seed in the AFC playoff picture. After defeating Miami in the wild card round 20-3, they faced off against division-rival Pittsburgh in the divisional round. But Baltimore's weak offense was stifled by the Steelers D, and the Ravens fell 27-10. Grbac never panned out for the Ravens, and threw for 200+ yards just once in the team's last six games of 2001.
Former Patriots K Adam Vinatieri
The story of the 2001 Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots will always be one of inspiration for this country. The Tuesday of week two of the season, the infamous events of 9/11 occurred, putting football on the back-burner for a nation in mourning. The league would resume twelve days later, and the Patriots were forever changed after a crushing blow to then-QB Drew Bledsoe. The Tom Brady-era began that day in Foxboro, and the season concluded with Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI against "the Greatest Show on Turf," the St. Louis Rams.
Week one of the 2002 season featured a home matchup for the Patriots against the Steelers. New England broke the game open in the third quarter, scoring 17 points en route to a 30-17 victory. Brady threw for 294 yards and three touchdowns, all of which to newcomers. The Pats' defense forced five turnovers, intercepting Kordell Stewart three times, and Vinatieri nailed all three field goal attempts in the rout.
The Patriots' magic faded after a 3-4 start, and even though the team rebounded to finish 9-7, they missed the playoffs with the short stick of the three-way AFC East tie. Antowain Smith was far less effective in his second season with New England, and the team's rushing defense began to show it's age, finishing second-to-last in the NFL in yards against. However, 2001 was just the beginning of the successful run the team would enjoy over the decade.
Former Tampa Bay QB Brad Johnson
For the second straight year, another team won their first-ever Super Bowl, this time emerging from the NFC. After finishing his career with the Raiders in the famous "Tuck Rule" playoff game, head coach Jon Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay for two first and second-round picks and $8 million cash. Future Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy was jettisoned and signed by the Colts, and Gruden took over the veteran franchise as the youngest head coach in NFL history to that point.
Led by the league's best defense, Tampa went 12-4 in 2002, and rode their defense and the arm of veteran QB Brad Johnson all the way to a 48-21 Super Bowl victory over none other than the Oakland Raiders. They would open 2003 in Buccaneer-style, shutting out the Eagles in Philadelphia 17-0 in a rematch of the 2002 NFC Championship. However, the season wouldn't continue as successfully as it had the previous year.
Tampa's staunch defense showed it's weaknesses often in 2003, plagued by penalties and the inability to defend the run. After alternating wins and losses through the first nine weeks, the team went 3-5 down the stretch and missed the playoffs. They finished four games behind the surprising Panthers in the division, and three out of the wild card. It would be the first of two consecutive dismal seasons for Tampa Bay in the Jon Gruden era.
Patriots WR Deion Branch
The 2003 season was a whole new feeling for once-distraught Patriots fans. Failing to make the playoffs after their initial Super Bowl victory, the team rebounded in 2003, going 14-2 and winning their second championship in three years. After starting just 2-2, the Pats won their next 15 in a row, including three playoff victories. Even without any semblance of a run game, the elite Patriot-defense held opponents to 20 points or less in 13 of 19 games.
New England opened the 2004 season just as they had finished 2003, winning six in a row, including a 27-24 season-opening victory over the rival Colts. Ever-reliable Brady threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns in the opener, including two in the third quarter that gave the Patriots the lead for good. They held Peyton Manning to 256 yards in the air, one of the lowest totals of the season, and two touchdowns out of his eventual 49.
Unlike any other team of the new millennium, the Patriots went 14-2 for a second straight season and repeated as Super Bowl Champions, defeating the Eagles 24-21.
Patriots WR Deion Branch
As discussed in the previous slide, the Patriots won their third Super Bowl during the 2004 season, beating the Eagles 24-21. The potent New England offense finished the season fourth in total points scored while the defense generated 36 turnovers, but both units would stumble the following season.
New England opened the 2005 season on a Thursday night at home against the Raiders. Oakland wound up as one of the worst teams in the NFL, but the Patriots beat them just 30-20. Oakland shot themselves in the foot with almost 160 yards in penalties, erasing a 73-yard touchdown catch by Randy Moss that gave them a temporary 13-10 lead. Corey Dillon ran for 63 yards in what would be the least effective season of his career to that point, and the Pats' defense showed their weakness in the secondary, allowing Kerry Collins to throw three touchdowns. Still, the Patriots came away with the victory in what would be the finale of their 21-game home winning streak.
The season was disappointing by New England's standards. The Pats won the East, but faltered in the divisional playoffs against Denver, losing 27-13 as they turned the ball over a horrendous five times. Thus began another Belichick makeover heading into the 2006 season.
Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger and former RB Jerome Bettis
Long-time Steelers running back Jerome Bettis went out on a high note in 2005, winning the Super Bowl with second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. The well-balanced Steelers held opponents to ten points or less seven times, while scoring thirty or more points seven times as well. They breezed through the playoffs en route to a 21-10 Super Bowl victory over Seattle.
Despite the monster of a season put up by "Fast Willie" Parker in 2006, Big Ben proved much less effective coming off the championship season. Charlie Batch started the first game of the season in place of Roethlisberger, who was injured in a motorcycle crash prior to the season start. Midway through the final quarter, Heath Miller hauled in a 87-yard touchdown from Batch, and Joey Porter sealed the deal with three minutes remaining, returning a Dante Culpepper interception 42 yards for the score.
Big Ben's game was clearly off when he returned in week two, and the team went 7-8 with him under center the rest of the way. Pittsburgh finished second in the North, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003. It would be Bill Cowher's final season with the Steelers, as Mike Tomlin would take over for the 2007 season.
Colts QB Peyton Manning and former Head Coach Tony Dungy
Peyton Manning finally got the monkey off his back in 2006, winning his first Super Bowl in his ninth season. Indy squeaked out a 38-34 victory in the AFC Championship against New England, and overcame an early deficit against Chicago in the Super Bowl. Manning led the league's best offense, along with his arsenal of receivers Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, and standout rookie running back Joseph Addai.
The Colts opened 2007 against an up-and-coming Saints team at home. After a lack-luster first half that ended in a 10-10 lock, the Colts blew up for 31 second half points. Manning threw three touchdowns, and Addai rushed for 118 yards and a score of his own. The surprising Colts' defense held New Orleans to just a field goal, as their touchdown came on a Jason David 55-yard fumble return. Drew Brees was held to 192 yards passing and threw two interceptions, the last of which resulted in a last-minute 83-yard score for the Colts. A 41-10 victory was exactly the type of opening-game result the Colts needed to disprove any believers in a Super Bowl "hangover".
Indy finished 2007 with a 13-3 record, losing the three games by a combined 12 points. However, in a divisional playoff rematch against a Chargers team that beat them 23-21 during the season, the Colts failed to overcome a San Diego 21-17 fourth quarter lead. Despite Manning's 402 yards and three touchdowns, Philip Rivers was equally impressive, throwing for 264 yards and three scores of his own. The Colts lost the turnover battle 3-1, and in turn lost the game as well.
Giants QB Eli Manning
One year after his brother, Eli Manning won his first Super Bowl against the undefeated New England Patriots. In what will long be labeled one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets ever, New York took down the Patriots 17-14 on a late Plaxico Burress touchdown. The Giants avenged a season-finale loss to New England by capturing their first championship in 17 years.
The Giants opened the next season at home against a weak Washington Redskins team, defeating them 16-7. The game was an offensive struggle for both sides, as all 23 points came in the first half. The difference was the Giants out-gaining Washington on the ground by 70 yards. Manning's opening drive 1-yard touchdown proved to be all the scoring they needed, as the energized defense held Washington to a final-minute Santana Moss touchdown at the end of the first half.
Despite finishing 12-4 and first in the NFC East, the Giants would fall to the rival Eagles 23-11 in the divisional playoffs. New York's rush defense stumbled at the end of the season, and Manning was horrendous against Philly for the second game in a row. His 169 yard, two interception performance in the playoffs would lead to the Giants being ousted.
The Steelers barely knocked off Cinderella-team Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII, winning 27-23. Santonio Holmes had one of the greatest touchdown catches in playoff history, and the league's best defense held strong. James Harrison returned an interception 100-yards for a first-half ending touchdown, and Holmes ended it with just 35 second remaining in the game. The championship was Pitt's second in four years, and record sixth overall.
Pittsburgh opened the 2009 season at home against Tennessee, narrowly escaping with a 13-10 overtime victory. The Steelers' defense didn't miss a beat, holding the Titans to 234 yards, including just 57 on the ground by speed-demon Chris Johnson. Roethlisberger targeted Holmes for nine receptions and 131 yards, including a touchdown. Jeff Reed tied it up with a 32-yard field goal with three minutes remaining in the game, and won it with a 33-yarder in OT.
Pittsburgh would stumble out of the gate, going 1-2, but rebounded by winning the next five straight. However, they then proceeded to lose their next five games due to struggles on both sides of the ball, and finished the season 9-7. Their record was good for third in the division, but they fell short in the wild card standings and missed the playoffs. There would be no repeat for the Steelers, who gave way to both Cincinnati and Baltimore for Northern Division supremacy.
Saints QB Drew Brees
As New Orleans continued to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina hit just a few years earlier, the Saints captured their first-ever Super Bowl victory. From start to finish, the Drew Brees-led offense that averaged 32 points per game was the best team in football, going 13-3 and narrowly missing an undefeated season. They beat the Colts 31-17 in the Super Bowl, and brought New Orleans a much needed celebration in wake of the most devastating hurricane in U.S. history.
The Saints opened 2010 with an NFC Championship rematch against Brett Favre and the Vikings. Unlike the high-scoring, overtime thriller that the playoff game was, the Saints came away with a 14-9 victory. New Orleans' running back Pierre Thomas plunged for a 1-yard score midway through the third quarter, which put the Saints up for good. Brees was effective, throwing for a score and 237 yards, and Favre performed poorly in what would be his final (hopefully) NFL season.
The Saints finished 11-5 and second in the division, but lost in their wild card playoff matchup against the Seahawks. Their offense dropped from first in 2009 to eleventh that season, and their defense was bad enough to allow 414 yards to the Seahawks in the playoffs, despite Brees and Co. gaining almost 500 yards of their own.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
Aaron Rodgers helped the Packers overcome their inability to run the ball during the 2010 season, leading the team to its fourth-ever Super Bowl victory, and first since the end of the Favre-era. They will face the Saints in the season opener, the first meeting between the teams since 2008. The result was a 51-29 trouncing by New Orleans, but this year's contest will feature much different squads.
Offensively, both teams don't have many roster differences from their 2008 versions, except the Saints have a deeper backfield with Ingram and Sproles behind Thomas. Aaron Rodgers is much more polished than he was three years ago, and Green Bay's defense is now one of the best in the league. New Orleans has a deeper WR corps, and their defense was far improved in 2010, but they faltered late in the season and will need to come out strong.
Recent history has shown the previous years' Super Bowl winner coming away with an opening day win, and the Packers will look to continue that streak as two of the NFC's heavyweights face-off Thursday night.