MIAMI (Reuters) - For all the NFL’s much-vaunted unpredictability, the 2014 regular season ended with largely expected results meaning a powerful playoff field headed by teams with recent Super Bowl experience.
The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks finished as top seed in the NFC ahead of 2010 winners, the Green Bay Packers.
In the AFC, the New England Patriots are looking for a sixth Super Bowl appearance since 2001 after taking top seed ahead of last season’s runners-up, the Denver Broncos.
All four quarterbacks from the top four seeded teams -- the Broncos’ Peyton Manning, Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, New England’s Tom Brady and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers -- have already won a Super Bowl.
There is winning experience on the sidelines too where Denver’s John Fox is the only head coach from that quartet who has not landed a Lombardi Trophy.
The Seahawks made a shaky 3-3 start to the 2014 season but ominously for their rivals ended their campaign with six straight wins and the fewest points allowed in the league for the third year in a row.
Head coach Pete Carroll certainly believes his team had answered the doubters in the media.
“You guys kept talking about how you can’t do this, can’t get to this point again ... and we just did it. We will see how we do in the playoffs. We got back to division champs and that is pretty rare. I‘m really proud of that,” he said.
Equally predictable as the top seeds were most of the flops of the season. The bottom three in the AFC -- the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans -- have not posted a winning record between them in the past six seasons.
The NFC had a few surprisingly bad failures, however, with the Washington Redskins (4-12) and the Chicago Bears (5-11) not expected to be so poor. The decline of the San Francisco 49ers (8-8) and New Orleans Saints (7-9) also caught out plenty.
The main positive surprise of the season was the strong showing of the Dallas Cowboys who took the number three seed in the NFC with a 12-4 record as quarterback Tony Romo answered questions about his ability to lead the offense.
The Cowboys have not been to the Super Bowl since 1995 and have not reached the playoffs since 2009 but their form in the regular season, which included an impressive win over the Seahawks, suggests they are capable of being challengers.
Their success is about far more than Romo’s accomplished displays, however. DeMarco Murray set a new Cowboys single season record for rushing yards, his 1,845 yards surpassing Emmitt Smith’s previous benchmark, and receiver Dez Bryant’s 16 touchdown catches was another franchise record.
While Dallas may be reaping the rewards for owner Jerry Jones’ faith in both Romo and coach Jason Garrett, patience ran out in New York where the Jets (4-12) fired Rex Ryan after another disappointing campaign.
A major rebuilding operation is expected at the Jets who also fired general manager John Idzik. The Bears and Atlanta Falcons are also looking for new head coaches, as are the 49ers following Jim Harbaugh’s decision to move back to college football.
Other owners thinking of making changes might want to note the presence of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wildcard round.
After losing the 2010 Super Bowl to the Packers and then suffering a defeat in the wildcard round the following year, the Steelers had two disappointing 8-8 seasons, leading some to question the future of coach Mike Tomlin.
With Tomlin still in charge, the Steelers (11-5) are now back in the post-season mix.
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes