Darth Vader is swinging his deadly lightsaber surrounded by three Rocky Balboas. Pardon the mixed metaphor, but I was looking for something not involving a guy named Dave with a slingshot to describe the intriguing contrast in this NFL final four minted on Sunday.
It’s the dynastic, evil New England Patriots and three franchises that have either never won anything or last won it all when TVs were still black and white. What we have is the groundhog reappearance of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick along with three teams that are easy to root for and that bring a fresh feel to the playoffs’ conference championship round.
What we also see in the last teams standing are reasons the Dolphins might be hopeful — but also reminders of why Dolfans should be more frustrated and impatient than ever as the wait drags on for Miami’s first playoff victory in 18 years.
The lesson: Quick turnarounds can happen. Going from mediocrity to conference championship games can happen. The proof is the Philadelphia Eagles, who missed the playoffs the previous three seasons and were 7-9 the past two. The proof is the Minnesota Vikings, who watched the playoffs at 8-8 last year. And the proof is the Jacksonville Jaguars — nine consecutive seasons out of the playoffs and 3-13 last season.
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The Eagles and Jags both went worst-to-first in their divisions, another reminder that in the modern NFL, the gradual rebuilding that Miami always seems stuck in is an outmoded blueprint. (The Los Angeles Rams were another example of that this season. Some teams are going from irrelevant to big winners, while others like the Fins somehow remain stuck in the middle).
Another lesson in this final four: You don’t necessarily need a star quarterback.
Brady will be remembered as the NFL’s greatest, most successful QB ever. He is living history. But look at the other three guys still playing:
▪ Minnesota’s Case Keenum, who is a journeyman on a one-year contract, and who would have been the Vikings’ third-stringer had Sam Bradford not been injured and had Teddy Bridgewater been healthy.
▪ Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, another journeyman who is only starting because the Eagles’ rising star Carson Wentz got injured.
▪ And Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, who recently was called the NFL’s worst quarterback — not worst starter, worst, period — by NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms. That’s harsh, but also underlines the shock of this guy being one win from a Super Bowl.
A great QB is any team’s ultimate shortcut to greatness, but Bortles becomes the ultimate example of how it isn’t necessary … and thus how maybe Ryan Tannehill is somebody with whom Miami can win … if.
If something else about the team is great. See, the Vikings, Jaguars and Eagles have awesome defenses. They ranked No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4, respectively, in fewest points and fewest yards allowed. They have dynamic playmakers all over the field.
In what one area are the Dolphins outstanding? It’s a trick question. Miami excels at nothing.
The Minnesota, Jacksonville and Philadelphia defenses are making up for any other shortfalls, notably including quarterback play. Foles has been mostly just OK since Wentz went down — but it didn’t matter, whereas Miami could not overcome Jay Cutler, and now will be asking Tannehill to lift too much weight to make up for too much surrounding mediocrity.
I cannot recall another final four quite like one with an all-time underdog in Jacksonville but with two other teams also cast as such.
Belichick entered this postseason having coached in 36 playoff games. Combined total of the other three head coaches: One.
New England is the reigning NFL monarch with five Super Bowl wins since 2001. Combined Super Bowl wins of the other three surviving teams: Zero.
Vikings fans have not cheered a champion in 57 franchise seasons, enduring a 0-4 Super Bowl record, last getting that far in 1976. Now Minnesota is hosting this season’s Super Bowl, and if Sunday’s miracle finish against New Orleans didn’t make you believe in magic, how about rootability of a first ever championship happening in your own stadium?
The Jaguars? They are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in 23 years of existence. They somehow catapulted here from awfulness, not just mediocrity. They averaged 3.6 wins the previous six seasons.
Eagles fans have cheered three championships, but all in distant, pre-Super Bowl-era 1948-49 and ’60. Norm Van Brocklin led that last title. It was before Beatlemania. Philly’s Super Bowl record is 0-2, with the last try in 2004.
New England is the anomaly as we approach the two Super Bowl play-in games. Their relentless, sustained excellence is not normal. (That the Dolphins are a victim of the Pats’ historic maraud is just plain bad luck, but also an excuse. There are no laws, when last I checked, that prohibit two teams in one division from being great simultaneously).
Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Minnesota are closer to the modern norm. Teams finding a way to go from mediocre or worse to really good, really fast, is the new NFL party train, and it seems to fill every year.
The Miami Dolphins need to find a way to get on board, but, alas, that starts with being great … at something.