And then, there were four.
With the Super Bowl less than three weeks away, the stage has been set for an exciting finish. As the divisional round came to a close, four teams came to the forefront – a couple were expected; the others, not so much. With the championship teams set, however, I believe it is important to understand the paths each team has taken to get to the Final Four:
New England Patriots: Not much can be said about this historic team that hasn’t already been said, but I’ll give it a shot: It was after they watched their competitive rivals, the Indianapolis Colts, win Super Bowl XLI – a team that they had on the ropes in Indianapolis two weeks before, up by 18 in the third quarter of the AFC Championship. When it all fell apart, Peyton Manning held up an AFC Championship trophy (and, eventually, Lombardi Trophy) the Patriots felt like they should have had. Little did the Colts realize that, when they came back to beat the Patriots that day, they awoke a sleeping giant.
Fast-forward to today. The Patriots did what they rarely ever do: they brought in big-time talents – former Raiders WR Randy Moss; former Miami WR Wes Welker; former Eagles WR Donte’ Stallworth; retired LB Junior Seau; and former Ravens LB Adalius Thomas. With a revitalized spread offensive game plan, Tom Brady’s Patriots offense turned the gridiron into a playground. Setting all kinds of offensive NFL records, Brady threw for an NFL record 50 TD passes, while Randy Moss caught an NFL record 23 TDs. Their offense was so explosive, it caused a controversy throughout the league – some opponents came out, complaining their run-up-the-score mentality was bad sportsmanship. The negativity of that, along with the infamous Spygate scandal, seemed to only fuel their fire to go undefeated. While they dominated most of their opponents, they also showed their mettle, squeaking by teams like Indianapolis, Baltimore and the New York Giants. Having dispatched the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team many believed could stand up to the Juggernaut of the Northeast, they look toward the Super Bowl.
San Diego Chargers: When the “Superchargers” of 2006 went 14-2, many believed they were either going to win the Super Bowl, or lose their first playoff game. Unfortunately for then-head coach Marty Schottenheimer, the latter occurred, losing to the New England Patriots. Schottenheimer, who had a history of losing playoff games, was fired by GM A.J. Smith – though, many believed it was unfair. Smith subsequently hired then-49ers offensive coordinator Norv Turner. The resounding outcry was fairly negative – Turner, although extremely successful as an OC, didn’t have the track record as a head coach – his seasons in Washington and Oakland produced an overall record of 52-80-1.
After a 1-3 start, which saw many of their offensive weapons, including All-Pro RB LaDainian Tomlinson and TE Antonio Gates, essentially ineffective in Turner’s system, Chargers fans and pundits alike were already calling for Turner’s head, and crying for Schottenheimer’s return. Turner never waivered in his first season as head coach, however. He took the offense that had been so effective in years past, and got them back on track. With the addition of Pro Bowl CB Antonio Cromartie, and the resurgence of suspended LB Shawne Merriman, the Chargers won 10 of their last 12 games, including a 5-game winning streak going into the playoffs. Turner’s tutelage of QB Philip Rivers has also proven effective, turning him into a true leader on offense – some would say a cocky one. Their road to the Championship game involved beating the defending Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts twice – once in the regular season, and once last week, in the Divisional playoffs.
Green Bay Packers: Many believed that 2006 was Brett Favre’s last season as quarterback of the Packers. Finishing at 8-8, it looked like the Packers were going to dwell in mediocrity for years before going back to the Super Bowl. When Favre returned for his 17th NFL season, pronouncing this year’s Packers team as “the most talented” he had played under, fans and pundits alike thought he had lost his mind.
Looking back, it seems that the old Gunslinger wasn’t so crazy, after all. With incumbent wideouts Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, and TE Donald Lee, Favre has found the swagger he had when he was winning playoff games in the late ‘90s. Having thrown for 4,155 yards, 28 TDs and 15 interceptions, the inexplicable renaissance has propelled the Packers to unexpected success. His comeback was marked by a trademark shotgun play in overtime against the Broncos in Week 8, throwing the game-winning 82-yard strike to Jennings – many doubters began to shut their mouths after that play.
The discovery of former Giants RB Ryan Grant was a definitive factor in their run through the playoffs. After incumbent RB Vernand Morency went down, the Packers turned to Grant in Week 8, to give them a semblance of a running game – something they had essentially missed since the regression of former All-Pro RB Ahman Green. Since then, he had accrued 956 yards and 8 touchdowns – a legitimate threat on the ground.
Favre’s unexpected comeback – and the Packers’ incredible run – has a chance of ending in fairy-tale fashion, giving him another Super Bowl championship, if he can get past the dangerous New York Giants.
New York Giants: Not many believed the New York Football Giants would make a run at the title. With the loss of Pro Bowl RB Tiki Barber, who made up for a big chunk of the Giants offense, New York was forced to turn to QB Eli Manning. In his three years at quarterback, Manning was anything but consistent – and Barber, now a part of the NFL media, called him out before the season began. Considered mentally fragile and a shabby leader at best, Manning still had to prove himself in Gotham as the worthy choice for #1 overall in 2004. While Manning was scrutinized, head coach Tom Coughlin gained further criticism from the fans of New York, as well as the media.
Through the first 8 games in the regular season, the Giants went on to post a 6-2 record. However, as they could attest, many Giants fans were waiting for the other shoe to drop – in recent history, the Giants have been infamous for fast starts, and fizzle-out finishes, bottoming out at the end of the season to ultimately miss the playoffs. Losing 2 of 3 to begin the second half of the season didn’t help things for Manning, Coughlin and Company, in the eyes of the general public. Led by Manning, who threw for 3,336 yards and 23 TDs, and a diverse, four-headed running game led by Brandon Jacobs, who accounted for over 1,000 yards and 4 TDs on the ground, New York managed to clinch a playoff spot in week 16 – their first since 2006.
Though, despite an up-and-down season, one could attest their recent success to a regular-season loss: in the last game of the regular season, having already clinched a playoff spot, they played their starters against a 15-0 Patriots team staring history in the face. Essentially, the Giants were looking to play spoiler, and almost succeeded – it came down to the waning minutes, but the Giants starters ultimately succumbed to the undefeated Pats, 38-35. However, with the offensive momentum, as well as the supreme confidence of taking one of the greatest teams of all time to the wall, they had in week 17, New York propelled themselves past an upstart Buccaneer team that was favored at home in Tampa Bay, 24-14. The next week, they managed to take down the heavily favored Dallas Cowboys in Texas Stadium, 21-17, defeating them for the third time this season.
And, so, here we are. In matter of hours, we shall know which two teams will play for the ultimate prize. Although, each has taken a unique path to get this far, each of them are worthy of the opportunity.