Now that the NFL’s final four has been set, an array of interesting storylines emerge. Each team has its own story, its own reason for making that team's possible appearance in the super bowl interesting. None have tasted the big game in several years, with only one doing so this decade. Here’s a look at the stories going on beyond the facts and figures.
Holding the top record in the NFL at 14-2. Indianapolis has probably the most pressure of any team in this round. The Colts have (by far) the most recent super bowl victory or even just appearance of any of the four teams involved.
They have an MVP quarterback and a superior record.
So why the concern and pressure?
First of all, they shook some of, but not all of the concern regarding the team’s concept of benching starters to prevent injury and rest them up. They came out strong and soundly defeated the Baltimore Ravens following Baltimore’s thrashing of New England.
Yet the team set themselves up at 14-0 for a decision that meant super bowl or bust. Anything but a trip to Miami will be considered an utter disaster after the team sacrificed a potential undefeated regular season in letting the final two games slide.
The team also faces the New York Jets. Not only are the Jets a hot young team who is too fired up to realize they shouldn’t win, they are also a team that would in all likelihood have missed the playoffs if the Colts had not put Curtis Painter behind center in week 16. For Indianapolis to lose now, would be the ultimate blow to the Colts methodology.
The pressure is also eternally on for Indianapolis in the playoffs. They are a team that has been on the short list among super bowl favorites entering into the playoffs many times. Yet they have only translated that into one victory. It’s a far cry from the many teams with none, but somehow the idea that the Peyton Manning era Colts have underperformed persists.
For Peyton to legitimize not only his landslide mvp victory, but his overall "clutch" legacy, he needs a win this weekend more than any other quarterback.
That other AFC team. The Jets are being talked about as this year’s Giants, as a wildcard going deeper than expected. They defeated first half powerhouse Cincinnati and second half monster San Diego in the midst of many telling them they never belonged in the playoffs in the first place.
Instead of the Giants, it might be more befitting to call them this year’s Baltimore Ravens. Under a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback, both teams ascended from wildcard berths to make it to the AFC championship round by way of a hard-hitting defense coupled with a good ground game.
The Jets hope to differ from Baltimore in the end result however. Mark Sanchez has played low-mistake football to close the year, while occupying a Trent-Dilferesque roll to help the Jets advance. Rex Ryan has won the media’s coach of the year award (for ongoing quality in providing newsworthy soundbite all year), brashly shielding his rookie from the media glare by using his own ample form to absorb it.
The Jets story is that of the young buck. Three of the four teams in the championship round had been expected there all year long. The Jets are the outlier that had never been picked. Their biggest storyline is an aim to use this win over four-quarters of Peyton Manning to prove they really do belong.
Two words sum up the Vikings story of 2009, Brett Favre. The forty-year old hall of famer in waiting was coddled, wooed, and every other phrase imaginable to make the trip from Mississippi back to Midwestern cold country. The only difference, this time it would be to wear purple.
Favre was brought on for one thing alone—a one (at most two) year shot at a super bowl trophy for the purple and gold. The team’s quest for a franchise quarterback was put on hold because of the opportunity they were afforded by bringing Favre into the fold.
In the regular season he didn’t disappoint, putting together a career year as the Vikings powered out a 12-4 record despite the occasional difference of opinion with stubborn coach Brad Childress.
The concern was how he would hold up after a full season of playtime. Against Dallas he answered the question with vengeance, punishing the red-hot Cowboys 33-3 and earning the ire of Keith Brooking.
The Vikings running game has taken a step back. Their quarterback prospects for 2011 are nil. One half of their fierce defensive tackle duo is likely to retire about the same time Favre does. This team has sacrificed massive future question marks in exchange for the chance at a super bowl run, now the time comes to see if how that storyline plays out in a match with the…
Ever since hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has been that team impossible to hate. They were fun to watch, with a high-powered aerial assault led by Drew Brees and Marquis Colston leading the way. They weren’t overly threatening, with a vulnerable defense and modest running game.
Yet this year the Saints revamped. They brought in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and safety Darren Sharper to give the bayou boys a new look. It worked…for most of the year.
For thirteen games the Saints were unstoppable, with a defense that was outscoring some offenses and a running game re-establishing itself behind Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas. The Saints looked like the NFL’s dominant team.
Something happened as the year wound down, however. Injuries at running back, in the secondary, and along the defensive line all gnawed away at the team’s ability to win games. It finally caught up with them in a Week 15 Dallas Cowboys win that ignited that team’s run to the divisional round. They spent the rest of the regular season treading water, losing three straight and looking highly vulnerable.
Instead of folding, New Orleans surged back onto the scene with a dominating performance on both sides of the ball against Arizona. The Saints looked like the team of the first half, unstoppable on offense while frustrating a hall of fame candidate on defense.
Now the story that has been in the works since a hurricane wiped out the team’s hometown comes down to two games. Can they win and propel themselves into the Super Bowl? Will the team that not too long ago had fans coming to games with paper bags over their heads now erase a history of failure and win? These coming weeks will tell.