Today, Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback includes this interesting tidbit: with the Green Bay Packers heading to Super Bowl XLV, in the last 10 years, 10 different NFC teams have represented the conference in the Super Bowl.
2010 Green Bay
2009 New Orleans
2007 New York Giants
2002 Tampa Bay
2001 St. Louis
Once I got past that impressive commitment to
not being good enough to get to two straight Super Bowls parity, I got to thinking about which team would be next year's NFC champion if this streak continues. The answer may surprise you. (Especially if you skipped the headline.)
Let's run down the candidates:
Washington Redskins: Still stuck in the NFC's toughest division, the Redskins might actually take a step back from their disappointing 2010 season if Donovan McNabb does not return. If they don't draft a quarterback or running back, the 2011 'Skins may be looking at an offense with Rex Grossman under center, Ryan Torain taking most of the carries, and, er, Anthony Armstrong (?) at receiver. Mike Shanahan's smart, but you might need to invent and win a Nobel Prize for football to get that outfit to a Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers: I like Jim Harbaugh, and I think he will eventually be very successful in San Francisco. But the Niners need depth everywhere and will be starting either a mediocre Troy Smith or an unproven rookie at quarterback.
Minnesota Vikings: It's hard not to love the skill position talent on offense — Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson alone give the Vikings two home run threats as runners and receivers — but the defense is getting older and quarterback play will be an issue. Do the Vikings want to develop Tarvaris Jackson or Joe Webb, or will they look to the NFL Draft for a solution? Either way, it's hard to see them being Super Bowl-bound.
Dallas Cowboys: It's a big if, but if Tony Romo's fully healthy and limits his turnovers, the Cowboys could be one of the NFC's beasts in 2011. Of course, we hear this hype literally every year with the Cowboys, and the franchise hasn't exactly covered itself in glory in recent playoff trips.
Atlanta Falcons: Here is the trendy pick for anyone who wants to make this theory work by picking a "good team." The Falcons have a stellar trio on offense in Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White, and their defense is a few pieces away from being great. Should Tony Gonzalez and John Abraham continue to excel despite encroaching old age (for football, anyway), the Falcons should contend in the NFC South again.
And now, my pick...
Detroit Lions: I'll let you laugh. Go on. It's fair.
The Lions are the only NFC team to not win a playoff game in the last 16 years. That's a staggering stretch of incompetence, and one that makes this an iffy limb to perch on, but it's also not exactly a reflection on Jim Schwartz, Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and Ndamukong Suh. The new Lions regime has had to run off the riff-raff Matt Millen and others acquired, and they've had to deal with a division that's only gotten stronger in recent years.
And yet, in 2010, they came within 14 points of being 10-6: three-point losses to the Jets and Eagles and two-points losses to the Packers and Bills helped the Lions put together one of the most impressive 6-10 seasons in NFL history. It's worth remembering that the Lions shut down Aaron Rodgers, then knocked him out, in a 7-3 win over the Packers, came within a call on a dumb rule of upsetting the Bears on a Johnson touchdown catch, crushed the Rams, beat the Bucs in Tampa, and throttled the Patriots for a half.
Their reward for that is a manageable 2011 schedule. The Lions will play their fellow 6-10 third-place NFC teams — the Cowboys and 49ers — in 2011, and they get to play the AFC West (no juggernaut) and NFC South (full of teams that got fat on the NFC West in 2010) in 2011. In fact, they may have hurt themselves with a Week 17 win over the Vikings: Minnesota gets Washington and Arizona for finishing in last place, and that looks like a weaker duo than San Francisco and Dallas. The NFC North is good, true, but the Lions are ostensibly good, too.
It's still unlikely that the Lions will make Super Bowl XLVI. I know that. It's probably more likely even in this shallow pool of teams that the Cowboys rebound or the Falcons soar again, even though the NFL, and the NFC in particular, isn't conducive to teams clicking off consecutive 10-win seasons. (And the Packers or Eagles or Saints could spoil this with a repeat Super Bowl trip, obviously.)
But I like the Lions a lot, especially if Stafford can stay healthy (more offensive line depth would help) and Suh can improve on a terrific rookie season, which would be a scary thought.
And, hey, in a world in which Caleb Hanie played well in an NFC Championship Game, it's not that crazy, right?