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Super Bowl repeat an extreme rarity

PHOENIX -- Back in those dog days of August, when hope still sprung eternal even in the training camps of the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seahawks' safety Earl Thomas could already see the future.

"We haven't reached our full potential yet," Thomas told ESPN.com from Seattle's facility in Renton, Washington. "That's the scary part. We didn't see it last year but, trust me, we see it now."

He was talking about the sizzling synergy between himself and cornerback Richard Sherman, but he was also talking about their championship team.

"Yes," Thomas said, sounding serious, "I think we're going to be better."

Ten weeks ago, that assessment looked laughable.

Coming off a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle's record sat at a disappointing 6-4. The team that ruined the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII was somewhere far away. Wide receiver Percy Harvin had been traded to the Jets. Quarterback Russell Wilson was being criticized for, among other things, having too many endorsements. There was even the obligatory nasty team meeting, and it appeared a young team was going to be done in by all the usual post-Super Bowl afflictions: big contracts, jealousy and an inherent inability to focus.

Playoffs? At the time, finishing with a .500 record was no guarantee.

But somehow the Seahawks rallied famously and won their last six regular-season games, allowing seven points or fewer in five of them. They beat Carolina in the divisional playoffs and, despite trailing Green Bay by 12 points in the final minutes, managed to prevail in overtime.

So here they are in Arizona, true to Thomas' vision, looking for their second consecutive Lombardi trophy in Super Bowl XLIX. In today's NFL, this just doesn't happen. The team trying to stop them, the New England Patriots, was the last to accomplish that feat -- a decade ago.

Half of the past eight Super Bowl champions failed to even make the playoffs the next season, and the last to even win a single playoff game was the 2005 Patriots.

"It's always hard to come back and win another one," said NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin, whose Dallas Cowboys won back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1992 and '93 seasons, but were unable to repeat a second time after capturing the 1995 season championship. "Nowadays, it's almost impossible to keep and develop young talent, manage the salary cap and free agency.

"The teams that are here right now -- no one does it better."

Indeed, with shrewd management and some stellar coaching, Seattle and New England have defied the NFL's usually irresistible gravity of socialism.

"Everything is stacked against you when you win a Super Bowl," said Giants owner John Mara, whose team has won two of the past seven championships. "The salary cap, the draft, the schedule. You can go from first to last in the blink of an eye."

In the final game of the 2007 season -- in the very same desert venue you'll be seeing Sunday -- the Giants ended the Patriots' bid for an unprecedented 19-0 season.

"I thought we had a chance to win it again in 2008," said Mara, sighing. "I thought we had the best players. But after the Plaxico Burress incident (when the wide receiver faced weapons charges and was suspended by the team), we were never quite the same. The talent level is so evenly distributed among the 32 teams that it takes a great organization -- and a little bit of luck, too."

Rigid system

One of the great joys the NFL inspires is the annual perception of plausible possibility. For you can also go from last to first in the blink of an eye.

The Houston Texans won two games during the 2013 season, then cracked back with a 9-7 record this season which nearly landed them in the playoffs. The funny thing? Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick in the draft, had very little to do with it.

One of the chief reasons the league is so popular is its ability to so precisely calibrate parity. In short, the deck is stacked. Which, of course, is its charm.

One of the greatest postseason runs ever belonged to the 1990-93 Buffalo Bills, who reached four consecutive Super Bowls. They lost all four, but only one other team, Miami in 1971-73, made it to three in a row.

The season after the Bills lost that final Super Bowl to the Dallas Cowboys in January 1994, the NFL instituted a salary cap; teams had $34.6 million (almost quaint in retrospect) to pay their entire roster.

"Almost invariably, the salary cap does what it was supposed to do," said ESPN analyst Bill Polian, general manager of those Bills teams and later the Panthers and Colts. "It weakens good teams. That's the whole basis of it. Getting to four in a row. I don't think anybody will ever do that again. Certainly not in my lifetime.

"[Former commissioner] Paul Tagliabue pushed for that idea, and the only reason [NFLPA executive director] Gene Upshaw accepted it was that a salary cap would create a more competitive balance that would lead the league to unprecedented heights."

Since the cap was introduced, only two teams have managed to repeat -- the 1997-98 Denver Broncos and the 2003-04 Patriots. Of the previous 47 Super Bowl champions, only eight teams did it.

A Super Bowl victory lends an undeniable cachet to everyone involved. Players' values increase. Solid starters get paid like stars. Backups get paid like starters. Depth is eroded. Coaches are offered better jobs elsewhere.

"We did stay up there for 10-12 years [in playoff contention] in Indianapolis," said Polian, who also served as the Colts' team president. "The Patriots have continued to succeed. Both teams beat the system. But those are exceptions to the rule."

There's a human nature element to this as well.

It's more difficult to get out of bed with a chip on your shoulder after you've won a championship. Conversely, opponents come at you harder when there's a bull's-eye on your back. Together, those forces can result in a telling swing.

Deservedly, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady get most of the credit for reaching their unprecedented sixth Super Bowl, but owner Robert Kraft is the one who has kept them together.

"I'm very proud of what we've achieved here," said Kraft, whose teams have been to the conference championship game 10 times in his 21 seasons. "People are looking to come after our players and coaches because the aroma of success leads people to break you down.

"It's not easy to sustain winning in this difficult and competitive business climate."

While the 2011 collective bargaining agreement drastically lowered the cost of paying draft choices, especially at the top, some contend it also made rebuilding more difficult.

Good teams have a shorter shelf life -- essentially a four-year window equal to a standard rookie contract. It also puts enormous pressure on teams to draft well, particularly in the first three rounds. Not only have the Patriots and Seahawks, under Belichick and Seattle general manager John Schneider, drafted and developed talent with great vision, but they are extraordinary at doing what is the greatest predictor of winning -- collecting turnovers.

On Super Bowl media day, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll had this nugget for reporters: Since 2012, New England and Seattle are both plus-51 on turnovers. The next best mark, by the 49ers, is plus-28.

"To have a football team that plays with that kind of focus and that kind of concentration, it crosses the entire gamut," Carroll said. "It's every aspect of your game, and guys have to appreciate and understand what fundamentals in this game are all about. I think that's a nice comparison. One that I'm happy to see.

"That's how you keep playing in Super Bowls."

Battling complacency

The year after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, a 20-17 thriller over the St. Louis Rams in New Orleans, they followed up with an underwhelming 9-7 regular-season record in 2002. It was good enough for a three-way tie atop the AFC East, but the Pats missed the playoffs via tiebreaker.

It was the first of only two times in the past 14 years of the Belichick tenure that New England failed to make the playoffs.

According to former Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown, the team got what it deserved.

"We made a huge mistake after Super Bowl XXXVI and got complacent," Brown said from his home in West Virginia. "We really thought we were just going to walk on the field and beat people. At a certain point in the season, we wouldn't even come in on Mondays for our lift or to watch film. Didn't practice quite as hard. We lost four games in a row to good teams.

"We won our last game of the season, but we didn't get in. We learned a huge lesson that we shouldn't have to depend on anybody else to get in the playoffs. And secondly, no matter how good we were the year before, we were going to have to work a little bit harder to improve on the things we did the year before."

The Patriots are famous for parting with star players before they are forced to pay them massive market-value dollars -- or if they refuse to renegotiate contracts the team deems too rich for their cap situation. Safety Lawyer Milloy was one of the first victims.

"The question always is, how do you reinvent yourself?" Milloy said recently from his home in suburban Seattle. "That happens through the draft, free agency, you getting the right kind of guys replacing the guys you lost."

After the disappointment of 2002, the Patriots signed former San Diego safety Rodney Harrison as a free agent and drafted relatively unknown Central Florida cornerback Asante Samuel in the fourth round. The Patriots couldn't have known Samuel would go on to earn four Pro Bowl berths, or that Harrison would be All-Pro two seasons in a row. Nevertheless, they believed Milloy was suddenly expendable. When he declined to renegotiate his deal, he was waived and went on to sign with rival Buffalo. He joined a proud fraternity that began with Drew Bledsoe and would eventually include Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Ty Law, Damian Woody and Richard Seymour.

In 2003 and 2004, however, the Patriots -- still blessed with a terrific defense and a maturing, breakout star at quarterback -- threw down a pair of 14-2 records and won Super Bowls in Houston and Jacksonville, over the Panthers and Eagles.

It hasn't happened since.

"We won in '03 and we knew the next year it didn't matter," Brown said. "That was the bottom line. We had to practice harder, be more physical, run better routes and get faster and stronger. All those things.

"Once we figured that out, that's how we repeated."

Fueled by failure

The critical-mass moment for the Denver Broncos actually came at the end of the season before they repeated in 1997-98.

"We were 13-3 and the No. 1 seed," said ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, an offensive guard for those Denver teams. "We had a great team, but we rested players down the stretch, and we got pummeled by Green Bay in December, and lost to Jacksonville in the divisional playoffs. It was the most painful loss in franchise history. ...

"That's the seminal event in the championship run. There wasn't one day for the next couple of seasons where we didn't think, 'I don't ever want to feel that way again.' It forced our staff to re-evaluate the talent level and the players knew we needed to get better."

The 1997 Broncos finished 12-4, a game behind the Kansas City Chiefs but secured a wild-card berth. Denver avenged that loss to the Jaguars, throttling Jacksonville 42-17, then handled the Chiefs and Steelers to advance to Super Bowl XXXII. In San Diego, John Elway, who had lost his three previous Super Bowls in blowouts, led the Broncos past Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers, 31-24.

Broncos quarterback John Elway was 37 after that victory but decided to come back for another season. The rest of the team was also still motivated.

Naturally, the Broncos went 14-2 in 1998 and outscored the Dolphins and Jets 61-13 in two playoffs games. Denver won Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, defeating the Atlanta Falcons, 34-19.

"One Super Bowl wasn't the pinnacle for us," Schlereth said. "We were thinking we should have been back-to back-champions. We should have been the first team to three-peat."

Going forward: A choice

The most pressing issue for the Seahawks in the offseason was appropriately rewarding Sherman and Thomas. Seattle made them the richest players at their respective positions, giving Sherman $57.4 million for four years and Thomas $40 million.

These deals didn't blow up the salary cap. In fact, Seattle managed to maintain a cushion of about $20 million for the inevitable hit that will come with re-signing Wilson. Perhaps the biggest factor in the Seahawks' presence in the Super Bowl again is the fact they found Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft.

When Giants quarterback Eli Manning won Super Bowl XLVI over the Patriots in February 2012, the quarterback's salary was nearly 12 percent of the team's payroll. A year later, Joe Flacco's $6 million salary occupied only six percent, but the Ravens rewarded him with a contract potentially worth $120 million, including a $29 million signing bonus, after he helped win Super Bowl XLVII.

The Ravens' record since? A modest 18-14, with one playoff win in two seasons.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, have been playing with house money. Last year Wilson made $526,217 -- accounting for less than one percent of Seattle's salary cap. When the Seahawks traded for Terrelle Pryor in April, Wilson became the team's third-highest paid quarterback, behind Tarvaris Jackson ($1.25 million) and Pryor ($705,000).

According to Fox network analyst Daryl Johnston, Wilson has a choice.

"Is he going to be smart, knowing he needs to have good people around him?" asked Johnston, a fullback and key member on the Cowboys' Super Bowl teams of the '90s. "They need to find the money for the left tackle, the second tight end and those linebackers. Or, does he want to be the highest-paid guy at his position? Which is more important to him?

"Look at what happened in New Orleans. [Quarterback] Drew Brees wanted to get paid. I know the linemen from that Saints team, and they reminisce about what they could have accomplished if they had stayed together. Guys suffer the consequences when the quarterback wants to get paid."

Wilson, for his part, says he believes the Seahawks are better prepared this time around because they've already experienced the cathartic run-up to the game.

"Once you've been there before, you're really in tune with the situation," Wilson said last week. "We're here again, and we're here for a reason. We're just happy to have a chance to win another one. To win in back-to-back years, that would be great.

"We'll see what happens."

Brian Billick's Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV but were eliminated in the 2001 playoffs one game before they would have met the Patriots in the AFC title game.

"It's hard to win a Super Bowl, period," Billick said. "The fact that Seattle is looking at a second is almost unconscionable."

The last word goes to the man who had the first words in this tale: Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. Five months after saying Seattle had the chops to get back to the Super Bowl, his words proved prophetic.

"We're smarter," he said. "We understand our coaches better. We're playing better defense together."

And then he repeated himself.

"I think," he said, "we're just better."

He was talking about the Seahawks, but subconsciously he might have been talking about how Seattle measures up against the Patriots.