With a thrilling Sunday's worth of action coming to a conclusion, we have four teams remaining in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy and, rather terrifyingly, only three football games left this season. It's a little trope-ish to start to wonder about the legacy of each team and the players involved before the Super Bowl matchup is even set, but there's a remarkable number of quality teams and storylines up for grabs at the moment.
So let's take a gander at the importance of the next three weeks for the four teams remaining, in order of their Super Bowl odds.
There's not that much left for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to achieve. They are secure in their places in history at this point, having been to six Super Bowls together and coming away with four Vince Lombardi Trophies. The Giants are eliminated, so there's no retribution to be had against Eli Manning for the two losses.
On the other hand, there is the whole matter of Deflategate. If you happened to stop paying attention to anything in 2016 (and who could blame you), Brady was suspended four games by the NFL in what will eventually go down as the most absurd thing -- of any level -- to happen in league history. He was "generally aware" of lowering the air pressure in footballs during a bludgeoning of the Colts, who tattled to the league. Lawyers got involved, money was spent and Brady had to decide whether to make a run at the Supreme Court.
Anyway ... he didn't, he was suspended four games and he has spent the past several months embarking on an anger/spite/vengeance-fueled tour de force of the NFL.
There is a better than 25 percent chance (you could probably say 40 percent?) that this actually culminates in Brady standing on a giant podium, wearing a hat that says "NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS SUPER BOWL LI CHAMPIONS," holding a huge silver trophy and laughing uncontrollably in Roger Goodell's face.
That Brady would cement his legacy -- with five Super Bowls, including one at the age of 39 -- as the greatest quarterback in NFL history (he's already there, in my mind) would only be a cherry on top of the smug-look sundae he and Belichick would serve in the direction of the league office.
It's not even that hard to imagine Brady skipping the MVP "I'm going to Disney World!" line and just going full Samuel L. Jackson while launching into Ezekiel 25:17. Great vengeance, furious anger, etc.
Shoutout to the Falcons fans who are out in full force protecting their boy, Matt Ryan. Please get up in my mentions some more, guys, because in no way am I championing him for league MVP. Whatever.
Anyway, this is a pretty obvious one -- the Falcons have never won a Super Bowl. The last -- and only -- time Atlanta made the Super Bowl, I was in high school. It was January 1999, and it was such a weird time that Big Bad VooDoo Daddy was involved in the halftime show. (Related: the swing revival craze of the '90s might go down as the most embarrassing thing archaeologists of the future discover about the human race.) It was the second of John Elway's Super Bowl triumphs with the Broncos, an absolute hammering of Dan Reeves' team, led by Chris Chandler.
Atlanta is the most meh sports town, with little or not real success outside of the Braves' 1995 title. This would be a pretty huge victory. There's also been a stigma about Matt Ryan that has lasted far too long, with people claiming he can't win in the postseason. Aaron Rodgers had that stigma once, too, by the way.
Ryan's really just been on the unlucky side of things a few times (like playing Rodgers in his epic 2010 run). This team is different, however. You watch the Falcons play and they're a cool kind of confident under Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan. Ryan is absolutely locked in right now. If he can do what he did against Seattle (70 percent completion rate, 338 passing yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions), he can put up some huge numbers against the remaining two opponents he'll face.
He's the likely (and deserving) MVP, and there wouldn't be a more fitting way to crown this season than Ryan giving the Falcons their first title and Atlanta its first major sports title in 22 years.
The chatter has cooled down significantly after Rodgers ripped off a bunch of wins and the Packers looked utterly dominant, but let's not forget that earlier this season, people were wondering if Mike McCarthy should be fired and whether Rodgers was on the downside of his career.
Whoops. The Green Bay leader is playing at peak Rodgers right now, a level of quarterback play that no one else in the NFL can reach when he's hitting on all cylinders. He's slinging lasers all over the place.
There isn't anyone else who can make those/these throws he's making, where he moves like a ninja in the pocket and uncorks a rocket from a weird angle. His combination of physical skill trumps everyone else when Rodgers is clicking.
And yet, he has got only one Super Bowl title. It's a silly thing to talk about, but he just turned 33 in December. Rodgers admitted before the season the Packers were starting to press (maybe that explains the slow start?), knowing that the window stays open only so long.
If the most physically talented quarterback ever to grace the game -- and that feels like a fair way to assess Rodgers' career regardless of the outcome -- walks away with a single Super Bowl victory, that would be a disappointment. In golf, if you hit a shot closest to the pin on a par 3, you've got to validate it by making par. This is a pretty good validation opportunity for Rodgers and McCarthy.
There are few franchises in the NFL steeped in history like the Steelers, with multiple decades of domination. There's no doubt about Ben Roethlisberger's place in the pantheon of quarterbacks -- he's a pretty good bet to wind up in the Hall of Fame one day.
Two fun historical angles exist here, however.
First, there's the whole Terry Bradshaw thing. Bradshaw, an analyst for FOX, has never shied away from being critical of the Steelers. This year, in the middle of the season, he decided to call Mike Tomlin a "cheerleader" instead of complimenting him as a great coach. (He also said some weird stuff about the Packers.)
The Steelers aren't trying to win so Tomlin can stick it in Bradshaw's face, but that's a bonus, especially when a third Super Bowl win -- in this era and with his stats -- would almost certainly push Ben past Bradshaw as the best Steelers quarterback of all time, if he isn't already there. With the Super Bowl on FOX this year, there's an added layer of fun to it from that sense.
The more nuanced historical shakeoff comes in the form of the defense. The Steelers overhauled the coaching staff under Tomlin in recent years, getting rid of Bruce Arians in favor of Todd Haley and letting Dick LeBeau walk to make Keith Butler the defensive coordinator. Both moves came with plenty of scrutiny, but at this point it's hard to argue they weren't validated. Roethlisberger extended his career because of the switch. Butler has got this defense clicking.
Over the Steelers' nine-game winning streak, the defense is allowing 16.6 points per game. There's plenty of first-round talent on this squad and everyone is starting to play well at the same time, a very nice omen for the stretch run when you've got Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown on offense.
Winning the Super Bowl would slide this unit out of the shadow of LeBeau and all the history that comes with the Steelers, while also reminding people, not so subtly, about the success of this current Steelers regime.