• Now that we look at it a little closer, Super Bowl XLIV's pairing of New Orleans against Indianapolis is a lot more familiar than we first thought. How so?
Well, the NFC is represented by a fresh, new Super Bowl team, and the AFC isn't. That's how so. In this NFL decade, the NFC is going to be represented in the Super Bowl by a different team for the ninth consecutive year:
St. Louis in 2001Tampa Bay in 2002Carolina in 2003Philadelphia in 2004Seattle in 2005Chicago in 2006New York in 2007Arizona in 2008 New Orleans in 2009
Furthermore, five of those NFC champions were making their Super Bowl debuts: the Bucs, Panthers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Saints. The only repeat NFC title winner of the past decade was the Giants, in 2000 and 2007.
Contrast that with the AFC, where the power triumvirate of the Patriots, Steelers and Colts have dominated the decade, making eight of the conference's past nine Super Bowl appearances, and the last seven in a row. New England went to the Super Bowl in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2007. Pittsburgh advanced in 2005 and 2008. And now Indianapolis has returned to the game as well, following up on its 2006 trip with the final AFC title of the decade. Baltimore in 2000 and Oakland in 2002 were the only aberrations in the AFC.
The other obvious conclusion we can make entering this Super Bowl? Sorry, Saints fans, but you have to like the Colts to win.
The AFC's Big Three have won six of the past seven Super Bowls, with only the Giants' titanic upset of the undefeated Patriots two years ago marring their run. The AFC is 7-2 this decade in the Super Bowl. The 2002 Bucs and 2007 Giants were the NFC's only teams to win rings. If the Colts prevail, only five different teams will have claimed the 10 Super Bowl wins this decade.
• There's never anything "easy'' about reaching the Super Bowl, but I can make a clear-cut case that the Colts' route this season wasn't as taxing as most teams' journeys.
No. 1 seed Indianapolis had to only get past the sixth-seeded Ravens and the fifth-seeded Jets to qualify. Both opponents were 9-7 wild-card teams. That makes the Colts the first team to reach the Super Bowl without knocking off at least one division champion since the 2005 Seahawks. Seattle was the top seed, and beat the No. 6 Redskins and No. 5 Panthers at home in the playoffs.
Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format and started seeding both conferences 1 through 6 in 1990, no team in either conference had made it to the Super Bowl without beating at least one team that won 10 or more games in the regular season, and no AFC champion had reached the Super Bowl without beating at least one division champion.
To get to this year's Super Bowl, the Saints, by comparison, had to go through the No. 4-seeded Cardinals (10-6) and the No. 2-seeded Vikings (12-4), a much more traditional route to the big game. All of which I imagine won't matter a bit to the Colts if they're hoisting that Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night, Feb. 7.
• My friend and esteemed SI.com colleague Peter King described the Vikings' 31-28 overtime loss at New Orleans in his Monday Morning Quarterback as the team's "bitterest loss in a generation,'' but I beg to differ. As one of the handful of reporters who covered both of Minnesota's overtime NFC Championship Game losses, I'm here to tell you that the 1998 Vikings, who lost by the eerily similar score of 30-27 to the Falcons in OT -- two of the three NFC title games to ever require sudden death -- were the more devastated team after letting that Super Bowl opportunity go to waste.
For starters, the explosive 1998 Vikings went 15-1 in the regular season and were the NFC's top seed. They appeared destined for the Super Bowl from day one of that season, set the single-season NFL scoring record with 556 points (since broken by the 2007 Patriots), and won their games by an average margin of 16.3 points per outing. They were big favorites to beat Atlanta, even though the surprising Falcons were 14-2 in 1998.
By comparison, this year's Vikings clearly trailed in the wake of the 13-3, top-seeded Saints all season, finishing 12-4 and as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and scoring 40 fewer points than New Orleans (510-470).
And then there was the NFC title game of 11 years ago itself, which the Vikings nearly led by 10 points with a little more than two minutes to play in regulation, were it not for kicker Gary Anderson missing a game-icing 38-yard field goal. You know the story. Anderson had compiled a perfect season up until that miss, converting every one of his field goals and point-afters in that record-breaking year. The Falcons scored a late game-tying touchdown in regulation, and won it on a 38-yard Morten Andersen field goal in overtime, denying Minnesota a Super Bowl trip it had already mentally packed for.
For the Vikings franchise, that was the one that truly got away. Sunday's loss at New Orleans was excruciating in its own way, but the Saints were favored and playing at home. Still, Minnesota clearly could have won. The difference being the '98 Vikings should have won.
• We're not really going to do this again, are we? Start the Brett Favre Retirement Watch in late January? Seriously. What's that well-known definition of insanity again?
Of course he's going to say it's "highly unlikely'' he'll return to the field for 2010 at this point, hours after his season ended. Of course his teammates are going to read the tea leaves and predict the physically spent Favre won't be back. That has been pretty much the case for three or four years running now. It's the Groundhog Day scenario, and we've been there, and done that.
Repeat after me: Nothing matters in this ongoing saga until it's mid-August, and Favre's still driving the tractor in Hattiesburg. That's what 2009 taught us. So let's leave the man alone and pick up the storyline in another seven and a half months.
Not going to happen, is it? No, I didn't think so.
• That said, somebody needs to explain to me (and Favre) how losing the NFC title game in overtime is "going out on top.'' I'm all for alternate realities, but keep them to yourself or you run the risk of sounding silly or deluded. It's fair to say the 40-year-old Favre was at the top of this game this season. But that's not the same as "going out on top.'' Sorry. Not my rules.
• It was kind of a big deal from a historical perspective when Tony Dungy became the NFL's first black head coach to win a Super Bowl three years ago in Miami. But do you realize if Indy prevails over New Orleans, it'll mark the third time in four seasons that a black head coach has won the league's biggest game?
For a league that once felt the need to institute the Rooney Rule when it comes to its head coaching and front office hiring practices, that was kind of the goal wasn't it, to make the whole issue a yawn-inducing non-story?
• As I pointed out a few weeks back, the Colts in Miami are going to become the first team to play four times in the same Super Bowl city. But not really. In some ways, each of the Colts' Super trips to South Florida will have its own incarnation of sorts.
In Super Bowl III, the Baltimore Colts lost to the Jets in the Orange Bowl, on grass. In Super Bowl V, the Baltimore Colts beat the Cowboys in the Orange Bowl, but the game was the first Super Bowl played on an artificial surface. In Super Bowl XLI, three years ago, the Indianapolis Colts beat the Bears in the then-named Dolphin Stadium, which is actually located in Miami Gardens, Fla.
This time around, the Colts will return to that same stadium in the same city, but the Dolphins home field just last week was re-christened Sun Life Stadium, which marks its mind-boggling seventh different name in its 23-year history.
• Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma might have a future in football prognostication once he's done playing. Last week, Vilma listed some fairly obvious defensive keys to beating the Vikings in the NFC title game, but at least one of them wound up being extremely prescient: "Create turnovers. Make Favre throw picks, make Peterson fumble,'' Vilma wrote.
Mission definitely accomplished on that front.
• Not sure how many Dolphins fans will actually get to attend the Super Bowl, but it could be painful. Saints quarterback Drew Brees could wind up winning a ring in the very stadium that he might have played in had then-Miami head coach Nick Saban not shown hesitancy about Brees's surgically-repaired throwing shoulder during free agency in early 2006.
Whichever quarterback wins the Super Bowl, it'll be his second win on the home turf of the Dolphins this season. Both Peyton Manning's Colts and Brees's Saints won dramatically in Miami this season, with Indy earning a 27-23 Monday-night victory in Week 2 despite having only 14:53 of possession time, and the Saints climbing out of a 24-3 late first-half hole to beat the Dolphins 46-34 in Week 7. That comeback matched the largest in New Orleans team history.
• Sixth alternate David Garrard will be one of the AFC's three quarterbacks in the Pro Bowl. That about sums up the relevancy problems that the Pro Bowl will never be able to fix, no matter how much the NFL tries. It doesn't matter when they play it, or where they play it. Just name the teams and skip the game. That's the only answer that makes sense to me.
• I understand Tim Tebow saying he's not at the Senior Bowl this week to play the tight end or H-back position. "I'm here to be an NFL quarterback,'' he said. But better he shows it than says it.
I happen to think Tebow will get a shot at playing quarterback in the league, but just calling himself a QB won't change people's minds. Flashing the necessary skills are the only thing that matters. Ask Pat White, Brad Smith and Antwaan Randle-El. Talking and thinking of yourself like a quarterback isn't enough.