We are down to just 1 game and the unlikeliest of match ups, indeed, as the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have both won on the road on Championship Weekend to march all of the way to Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans in 13 days.
This is a very unlikely scenario that Cowboys fans remember well. For it was on Championship weekend 1992 when the young and inexperienced Cowboys went to Candlestick Park and got the ticket to Pasadena on the same day that Buffalo won big in Miami to meet them at Super Bowl 27.
Super Bowl 32 was the only other time since the merger it has happened, with Green Bay winning at Candlestick against the 49ers and Denver winning at Pittsburgh that same afternoon and the two teams battled 2 weeks later in San Diego for John Elway's date with destiny.
It generally seems to pay well to play championship games at home, but Atlanta and New England's days ended in tears yesterday, and for just the third time ever, the two road teams advance to the Super Bowl.
Atlanta's fate seems extra cruel, as they are being asked to take the extra long and difficult, but traditional route of taking a small step each and every year. They finally won a playoff game last week after several years of disappointment, but when they were tossing San Francisco all over the field yesterday in the early going, it was just setting them up for another monumental collapse as a 17-0 lead vanished in rather quick fashion.
Then, their last attempt appeared to be just a feeble and hopeful toss to the first down marker and the Matt Ryan pass to Roddy White fell to the ground and the dream was dashed yet again. A run that began in 2008 with the hiring of Mike Smith and the drafting of Matt Ryan will have to wait another year. They have a record of 56-24 in regular season games in the last 5 seasons, but still feel like they are on the outside trying to figure out how to get in.
Back to the drawing board for the Falcons, who have to feel like they are so close and yet so far away.
The 49ers advance feeling as if this Colin Kaepernick dream run just won't stop. And maybe it won't. He didn't have to run almost at all, unlike last week against Green Bay, and simply let Vernon Davis and Frank Gore compliment a strong 2nd half performance from that strong defense to be the difference. Really, statistically speaking, it is difficult to figure out exactly how the Falcons let this one get away.
Meanwhile, the other game is not nearly as difficult to figure. One QB has a rating of 106 and the other sits at 62. There are plenty of things that go into the QB rating that may or may not reflect completely on the QB - a dropped pass here and there - but in the end, when one QB out-produces the other like that, it is not hard to see how the game is a resounding victory. But, Joe Flacco beating down Tom Brady like that? Wow.
Actually, it is a great reminder of just how difficult it is to win a ring in this league. We lose so much sight of that reality, but I try to say it all of the time. Every season, 31 teams finish the year disappointed. 31 of 32. That means, your odds of winning a trophy ever are very, very remote. The odds of winning 4 in one career? Almost impossible.
This should help us appreciate the career of Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw a bit more. Bart Starr won 5 championships before most of us were ever alive. Otto Graham before him did very well, but in our lifetimes, the ability to win a handful of rings is as remote as it has ever been. More teams, larger playoffs, more parity, and there you have a guy like Brady trying to push away from Troy Aikman and win his 4th.
But, that is way easier in magazine predictions than it is in reality. Way, way easier.
Brady has been trying to get his 4th ring with Bill Belichick since they won #3 by beating Terrell Owens, Donovan McNabb, and the Philadelphia Eagles in Jacksonville after the 2004 season. If you feel like 2004 was a lifetime ago, well, it was. Duante Culpepper passed for the most yards, Shaun Alexander was the leading rusher, and Muhsin Muhammad was the league's leading receiver. Heck, Ben Roethlisberger was rookie of the year and Eli Manning was just finishing season #1, too.
And ever since that day, Brady/Belichick have been trying to win another one. And every day since then, they have been the "team to beat".
2,907 days as of today. And counting.
Just to put that in perspective, Troy Aikman and the Cowboys won Super Bowl 30 in Tempe Arizona on January 28, 1996. Then, Aikman retired when Lavar Arrington smashed him into the Texas Stadium turf late in the 2000 season. That was a span of 1,779 days from the time Aikman started to achieve his 4th ring until he retired. And Brady passed that mark a long, long time ago.
Now, in fairness to Brady, he is a David Tyree miracle and a Wes Welker drop from having 5 rings. But, then again, he is a Tuck rule from having 2, so, I am not sure we can start playing the "ifs and buts" game when it comes to rings.
The point is that it is amazingly difficult to win a Super Bowl (or any championship in any major sport). As fans, we marginalize the difficulty and blame a particular player in a team sport. I am not here to remind people that football is so much more than a QB, but since we all accept that the best starting QBs earn a million dollars for each game they start, it is a losing battle anyway.
Winning one Super Bowl is next to impossible for NFL QBs. So much has to happen correctly and fall into place.
I remember thinking that Brett Favre had several more in him when he won his Super Bowl at age 27. He was winning the MVP at age 26, 27, and 28, and surely he would break through for another ring. It never happened.
John Elway was a rookie at age 23 in 1983. He waited until he was 37 and 38 to finally win his. Most people were sure it would never happen for him.
Peyton Manning entered the league at 23 and worked until he was 30 before he won a ring in 2006. I remember the post game talking heads said that now that he broke through, he could go on a run and win a bunch more. He still searches for ring #2 and will turn 37 in 2 months.
I am always interested in this search Brady is on - partly because odds are really good that we will keep picking the Patriots until he retires, but that they will never win another Super Bowl with him. Why is that? Because it is really, really hard to win a Super Bowl! Even if you are one of the best teams in the league every year. He won in his 24, 26, and 27 year old seasons. But, he will turn 36 in August.
Aikman won his 3 at 26, 27, and 29. Elway is the exception, not the rule.
The point is, I cannot tell you how maddening it is to hear the nonsense about how "surely Aaron Rodgers" will win 2 or 3 more. Or, it is a matter of time for Drew Brees or anyone.
It is next to impossible to win a ring. But, as fans, the second they win one, we want to start the clock on their next one. And from there, get out our charts to see where they rank with the legends. It is fun to say, Manning or Favre "only won one time", when in reality, does anyone know how insanely difficult "only winning one" really is?
Would we say, "he only climbed Mount Everest once?"
So, here is Brady. With ONLY 3. We wonder if he will ever find that elusive 4th. Then, we ask if Matt Ryan is just "another Tony Romo?" - whatever that means.
In 13 days, another QB will win his 1st title. This will be the first Super Bowl without a Manning, Brady, or Roethlisberger since Rich Gannon and the Raiders took on Brad Johnson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the game to end all games.
And then, we will debate where Joe Flacco or Colin Kaepernick belong in our historical frame of reference as if they have figured out how to do something that Dan Marino never could. We do all of this because it is the easiest way to explain football to each-other.
We measure greatness by counting the rings. Even if it is so much more complicated than that.
And we never learn how truly difficult it is to win the big one.
Even for Brady and Aikman. As easy as they made it look, they would tell you it was next to impossible to do it