Super Bowl 2013: Evaluating Importance of Championship for Each Remaining Team
It's such a fine line in the results-driven National Football League. The impact of a championship can solidify and legitimize a team's foundation for years, while others who fall continually short of capturing a Super Bowl have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to take that next gigantic step.
As much parity as there is in the NFL, three of the four remaining teams that will square off on conference championship weekend were in this very spot last year, and all failed to grab pro football's ultimate prize.
Here is a breakdown of what a Super Bowl would mean for each franchise fortunate enough to still be playing this impending Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers
With an identical starting defense in terms of personnel, added weapons on offense and a big change at quarterback, the Niners once again find themselves in the NFC title game.
In a year where athletic rookie quarterbacks stole the show, it is a similarly impressive dual-threat dynamo in his second season that is the only one still standing.
Colin Kaepernick. Second-year player, first-time starter, zero full seasons as the unquestioned "man" under center. Yet he has taken the league by storm, highlighted by his record-shattering 181 yards rushing in the Divisional Round against the Green Bay Packers.
The position of quarterback is clearly changing, favoring players who are not only lethal from the pocket, but can also get it done with their legs. No one has been so unpredictable—in a good way—than Kaepernick in that regard.
Under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, with pistol formations, read options and other college concepts integrated into the Niners' offense, Kaepernick has shined since his electric Monday night debut against the Chicago Bears.
It turns out that the Niners were ahead of the curve in drafting Kaepernick in the second round in 2011. He developed for a year, and now with his big-time arm, schematic savvy and dangerous running, Kaepernick is emerging as the new prototype.
That assertion will especially be justified if the Lombardi Trophy comes back to San Francisco.
This team may be known for their defense, and it is still a huge part of their success. A championship would not only keep this strong nucleus of talent together, but it could also signify that the most captivating position in sports has officially been revamped.
Here is a resilient squad that has won close games all year, but the question was always whether they could get it done in the postseason.
The coaching staff, players and anyone involved with the Falcons organization needed that breakthrough win last week against the Seattle Seahawks. It finally happened.
As the NFC's No. 1 seed, the Falcons have gotten it done in a more traditional way. QB Matt Ryan has led admirably, picking defenses apart from the pocket and putting up enough points despite a lackluster running game in 2012.
A shaky fourth quarter that almost cost the Falcons another disappointing playoff loss, though, leaves plenty of questions about this team. Ryan threw an ill-advised interception in that span, and the typically stellar goal-line defense was gashed for three short touchdowns.
Should the Falcons fail to advance to New Orleans, those questions will lurk.
But if Ryan continues to rise to the occasion as he did in a clutch late drive against Seattle and the defense isn't quite as leaky, the chances of the Falcons winning a title will be greatly enhanced. The perception of the franchise will also change drastically.
Not many jobs are likely at stake should Atlanta not be crowned Super Bowl champions, but the persistent criticisms the team faced all year despite a 13-3 record will continue should that be the outcome.
New England Patriots
The tandem of head coach Bill Belichick and legendary quarterback Tom Brady has produced three Lombardis. Yet none of those have occurred in the past seven seasons. Here the Patriots are again, the trademark outstanding offense and penchant for making critical plays at the right time still present.
But this is big. An undefeated regular season resulted in a Super Bowl loss to the reigning champion New York Giants, who beat New England in last year's contest as well.
Several disappointments have been sandwiched in between those years, and the Brady-Belichick legacy has taken a slight hit as a result.
Obviously, any franchise would love to make a trip to the Super Bowl five times in just 11 seasons. With that territory, though, comes extremely raised expectations.
The Pats have traditionally carried those well, and with a favorable schedule and the return of play-calling prodigy Josh McDaniels, New England is once again poised to defend its AFC title at home.
A fourth championship in 12 years would put to rest any concerns as to whether the Patriots can still reach pro football's pinnacle. They don't really need another championship to justify how excellent and consistent the organization has been year after year. It would just be another feather in their cap.
With QB Joe Flacco possibly becoming a free agent in the 2013 offseason and an aging defense with a slew of key younger players that may test the market, no team has more at stake than the Ravens at this point.
As successful as Flacco has been in terms of winning in the playoffs in his young career, Baltimore still doesn't have a ring to show for it. While the team has been behind Flacco the entire way and he is unlikely to go anywhere, there are other contract issues looming.
Future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis is retiring, and the demands of CB Cary Williams and linebackers Dannell Ellerbee and Paul Kruger may result in the Ravens being strapped for salary cap cash (h/t Baltimore Sun).
Also set to possibly flee town is top tight end Dennis Pitta, who tied star RB Ray Rice for second on the team with 61 receptions during the regular season.
Considering how much more tight ends are being featured in the passing game, Pitta would be hard to replace.
Winning a Super Bowl would not only provide incentive for certain key players to return for a potential repeat, but it would also be an incredible breakthrough for Flacco. He would cement his status as a franchise QB on a team that historically never had stability at the position until his arrival.
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