Each of the four teams still alive in the NFL's postseason want to make it to Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium and win it all. Though the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have a common goal, attaining the prize means something unique to each franchise.
With varying levels of success in each organization's history, and the different paths taken to this point, the NFL's final four all have a unique story to tell and exclusive spoils to enjoy should they become the victors in their sport's biggest game.
What would winning it all mean to the...
Super Bowl Record 2-4
Validating John Elway's Decision to Chase Peyton Manning
In 2012, the Broncos were coming off an improbable postseason run that saw them reach the divisional playoff round. Led by Tim Tebow, Denver got hot during the second half of the season.
The popular—but flawed—young quarterback willed the Broncos into the postseason. Denver was 6-3 in its last nine regular season games and won a thrilling wild-card matchup over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The team was blasted by New England in the next round 45-10, but it seemed the franchise may have some momentum with Tebow as the quarterback.
The issue was, Elway was never a big fan of Tebow the player, thus he leaped at the opportunity to go after Manning, the future Hall of Famer.
Manning was coming off a serious neck injury that spelled the end of his time with the Indianapolis Colts. The decision to chase Manning seems cut and dry now after two highly successful seasons, but it wasn't always so easy to see.
Tebow was—and still is—beloved in Denver. Elway's critics have likely all but faded away in regards to this situation, but a championship with Manning at the helm would be the icing on the cake.
Growing Elway's Status as a Broncos Legend
Without question, Elway is the greatest Bronco of all time. He won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998 for the team.
As big as he is in the minds of Broncos fans now, being the architect behind the team's third Super Bowl championship would only make him a bigger legend.
Elway would have played a significant role in every title the franchise has ever celebrated.
Winning Now and Moving On
Manning will be 38 in March. Even without the concerns about the long-term stability of his surgically-repaired neck, his time in the game is drawing to a close. Judy Battista of NFL.com discussed the parallel between Elway and Manning's career.
Their connection and similar plights likely played a role in Elway successfully winning the bidding war for Manning's services in 2012. Battista writes:
Elway said he does not know what Manning will do -- they will not talk about it until after the season anyway -- but his own experience is telling, about what a professional athlete ponders when, as Manning has put it several times recently, they see the light at the end of the tunnel.
When Elway went all out to sign Manning, he knew it was a "win now" move. A championship would be a return on his short-term investment.
With the window closed, or at least closing, Elway should feel free to begin his search for the next leader of his franchise.
New England Patriots
Super Bowl Record: 3-4
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady Make Their Case as Best Coach-QB Duo
Together, no head coach or quarterback has won Super Bowls with 10 or more years between titles. Brady and Belichick won their first Super Bowl together in 2001. They won titles in 2003 and 2004 as well.
A championship in 2014 would be a full 10 years since the last time the duo sat on top of the football world. Together, Belichick and Brady could be set to compete in six Super Bowls together. That type of long-term excellence with the same two figureheads is truly amazing.
In a free-agent era that precipitates so many moving parts, Belichick and Brady have been the constant in the Patriots' continued success. A fourth title would make them even more special than they already are.
Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via the New Haven Register writes:
There is no right or wrong arguments in these best-ever debates. There are just opinions. It’s not crazy to suggest Vince Lombardi or Chuck Noll or Bill Walsh is the best coach or that Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas or John Elway is the best quarterback. But it’s also not crazy to go with Belichick and Brady.
Brady Would Be the Unquestioned Best QB of His Era
Some would make the argument that Brady is already better than Peyton Manning. But that's just the thing, it is still an argument. Were Brady to lead his team to a sixth Super Bowl and win his fourth ring, there would be no logical person capable of saying Manning has had a better career than Brady.
Aside from all the head-to-head numbers that favor Brady (see the tweet below), there are other factors that would strongly point to his superiority over Manning.
He already has three rings to his rival's one, and Brady would have won this year under ridiculously tough circumstances.
Almost every major weapon Brady was supposed to be able to count on in the passing game has gone down or been otherwise absent from the team for a significant time.
The Hoodie may not have as much competition as Brady does for the title of best of his era, but a fourth ring would certainly put a stamp on his accomplishments.
In an effort to deal with the injuries and player absences that have befallen the Patriots, Belichick has been flexible and adaptable to find the best strategies for his current roster.
Former NFL coach and current Fox analyst Bill Cowher said this about Belichick to Cook:
He’s been pretty amazing what he’s done there when you look at all the different moving pieces. It’s hard to keep a team together with this salary-cap era that you have. There’s always going to be change. That, to me, is why his record speaks for itself.
For most of the last seven seasons, the Patriots have been a pass-happy team. Without many of Brady's most-trusted weapons, New England has altered its game plan in recent weeks.
LeGarrette Blount has run for 355 yards and six touchdowns over the last two games. That ability and willingness to switch directions is the latest example of Belichick's coaching genius. If New England wins the Super Bowl this year, it'll be on the strength of this coaching strategy.
Time for the Pats to Look Ahead Too
Brady is just a year younger than Manning.
Though he doesn't have the injury history that Manning does, New England needs to begin their search for his successor. Winning one more title would make it easier to begin the journey into a life after Brady.
San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl Record: 5-1
Best Franchise Ever?
The Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans may have something to say about that, but a Super Bowl win would be the 49ers' sixth in franchise history. Only the Steelers have as many. However, the 49ers' record in the big game would be 6-1, which is a winning percentage of .857.
The Steelers' record in the big game is 6-2, which is a .750 winning percentage.
Jim Harbaugh Made the Right Move Choosing Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith
If you think Elway had a tough decision to make when he dropped Tebow for Manning, Harbaugh's move to bench Smith for Kaepernick was an unimaginable conundrum.
Smith had led the team to the NFC title game the season before, and he had guided the Niners to a 6-2-1 record last season. Beyond the success the team had the previous year—and in 2012—Smith was also injured.
The unwritten rule is that a player shouldn't lose his spot because of injury. Harbaugh apparently didn't read that rulebook.
He had his detractors, and they came out in force when the Niners lost in Super Bowl XLVII. Kerry J. Byrne of Cold Hard Football Facts wrote this about Harbaugh's decision to bench Smith:
Some quarterbacks get benched for poor play. Others get benched to shake up a struggling team.
Smith got benched because coach Jim Harbaugh was enamored by a shiny object.
If Kaepernick and the Niners win the Super Bowl this season, the only shiny object any one will be talking about is the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The Future is Now
Part of the reason Harbaugh chose Kaepernick was because of his age (25 at the time) and potential. Per Lindy Sports, Harbaugh said:
"Going back to college when I first started watching him play, the big games, the big challenge, he has that ability the great ones have to elevate their game in big situations."
Those comments are all about the future and the big picture. A Super Bowl win would mean the time for Kaepernick to reach super stardom has arrived. A franchise with a great tradition of quarterbacks would officially have their next great one.
Great Way to Move into a New Home
With the Niners set to move to Santa Clara and play their home games at Levi's Stadium later this year, it would be great to kick off play in their new venue as Super Bowl champions.
The team already has a huge following locally, but going into Santa Clara as winners would only make the team that much more attractive to fans.
Super Bowl Record: 0-1
Validation for the Franchise
The Seahawks are the only one of the remaining four teams that hasn't won a Super Bowl. In its only appearance in 2005, the team came up short.
Seattle is somewhat of an underdog and low-key presence in the NFL. But a championship would change that. The team would no longer be overlooked or taken for granted.
Therefore, of all four teams with a shot at winning it all, a title would change the overall identity of the Seahawks franchise the most.
Respecting Russell Wilson and the Short Quarterbacks
The saying: The NFL is a copycat league is used a lot, but it's true. Schemes and player types have to be validated by success to catch on.
A stigma against short quarterbacks still exist to a degree. Drew Brees helped to weaken the wall impeding sub 6'3" signal-callers, but the 5'11" Wilson could break it down if he guides the Seahawks to a title.
Part of what makes Wilson special as a player—and a man—is his faith and work ethic. This Biblical tweet from him captures both aspects:
#BVD We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (Hebrews 6:12)— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) January 17, 2014
A Super Bowl ring will have coaches looking for the next prospect with Wilson's skill set and makeup, not avoiding him.
Pete Carroll Would Get His Due
Carroll's first stint as an NFL head coach didn't go great. He was 33-31 with the New York Jets and New England Patriots. After nine years and two national championships at USC, Carroll returned to the NFL.
He again started off shaky, but as Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports points out, Carroll has hit his stride and deserves some respect for his accomplishments.
He started slowly in Seattle, going 7-9 each of his first two seasons starting in 2010, but he has turned the Seahawks -- who had won just four games in '08 and five in '09 -- into a 24-8 juggernaut the past two seasons. Overall he's 41-28 with three playoff appearances, and three playoff victories (so far), in four seasons.
Who will win Super Bowl XLVIII?
Great coach, Pete Carroll? One of the greatest in the sport? Wasn't clear a few years ago. Seems clear now.
If Carroll and the Seahawks make it to the Super Bowl and win, he would become just the third coach in history to win the biggest prize in the NFL and college game. Only Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer have won national championships and Super Bowls.
That has to count for something.
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