Championship Sunday is almost upon us.
The Cincinnati Bengals are looking to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs for the fourth straight time under Joe Burrow. Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles are trying to spoil “Mr. Irrelevant” Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers’ Cinderella run. If you were to ask the average NFL fan prior to the playoffs which four teams were the best in the NFL, these were probably the four.
Sustainability and Championship Sunday
As a fan of the Minnesota Vikings, I find myself in envy of these teams. Regardless of the outcome of these games, all four teams appear locked and loaded for the foreseeable future. The Chiefs and Bengals boast perhaps the two premier quarterbacks in the NFL. Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts is more unconventional as a quarterback, but the Eagles have built their offense around him to maximize his abilities. And the 49ers are so good that they are down to their third-string rookie quarterback and are still only 2.5 point underdogs heading into Philadelphia on Sunday.
I’ve been following the NFL closely since I was seven years old in 2000. I have seen all of these teams struggle through long periods. After decades of dominance, the 49ers weren’t relevant from 2004-10. Following Jim Harbaugh’s fantastic-yet-short-lived run from 2011-14, the 49ers then found themselves as one of the league’s laughingstocks before Kyle Shanahan came along.
The Chiefs lost eight straight playoff games from 1993 through 2013. The Eagles were always on the doorstep of the Super Bowl but lost four out of five conference championships under Andy Reid. Like the 49ers, the Eagles fell apart under Chip Kelly. And the Bengals? They were consistently picking in the top ten, and I’ve seen them pick No. 1-overall twice myself.
Somewhere along the way, the fortunes of these teams all changed. The Chiefs hired Reid after he got fired by Philadelphia and drafted Patrick Mahomes. Cincinnati bottomed out and drafted Joe Burrow No. 1-overall. Even an ACL tear in his rookie season couldn’t derail a Super Bowl run in 2021. The 49ers hired Shanahan and will appear in their third NFC Championship Game in four seasons on Sunday. And the Eagles broke their Super Bowl drought, bottomed out, and then rebuilt themselves in two seasons.
For years, these fan bases sang the same tune as Vikings fans. Confidence was lost as the stakes got higher. I went to Arrowhead Stadium last week with my Chiefs friend, his dad, and my Jets friend. The Chiefs friend and his dad spoke about the long playoff drought prior to Reid arriving. But with a home playoff game against the overachieving Jaguars, they were pretty confident that the Chiefs would take care of business.
When Mahomes got hurt during the game, fans were obviously not thrilled. But they didn’t panic either. There was a confidence that Chad Henne would keep the offense afloat (he did) and that Mahomes would make enough plays when he came back (which he did). With the stakes as high as they could be, with adversity in their faces, the Chiefs handled business. To be there and feel that was weird as a Viking fans (my Jets friend said the same thing).
All four teams playing this weekend faced playoff heartbreak last year. The Chiefs choked away a 21-3 lead in the AFC Championship to the Bengals, who then went on to lose in the Super Bowl. The Eagles were embarrassed in the Wild Card round by the Buccaneers. And the 49ers were a dropped interception from going to the Super Bowl.
These teams all entered the off-season with a bad taste in their mouths. But because of what they had established leading to those heartbreaks, they were able to dust themselves off and retool for another playoff run. They all did it different ways, but they set themselves up not just for a run in 2021, but for multiple runs over multiple seasons.
I’d like to think that this is what the Vikings are building towards under Kevin O’Connell. 2022 was fun, but was it a blip on the radar, or will this team be consistently playing for the Super Bowl in 2023? 2024? 2025?
If the Vikings can make several championship games over a five-year window, as opposed to once a decade, perhaps it can be us fans that have the confidence that, no matter what happens in a playoff game, the Vikings will be victorious. Right now it feels like a pipe dream. Maybe next year it will be reality.
Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this piece.