While the New England Patriots made themselves pro football's most illustrious franchise in the past four years, the Philadelphia Eagles illustrated the underside of winning — that not-quiteness about to set them toward an eternity of back-handed compliments.
But the Eagles can turn those back hands into back slaps with a Super Bowl win against the Patriots as we finally see a Big Game with a little historical definition on both sides. The best operation in the game finally will meet its true counterpart, the most consistently good team from the opposing conference.
The Super Bowl between the Patriots and Eagles will be an easy sell because both teams have been in the thick for the past four years. Neither of these teams is Cinderella. Neither is a one-hit wonder or an overnight sensation. Each has a reputation to defend — or redeem.
Philadelphia, home of fans known to be the most aggressive in all sports, enters the Super Bowl not as a bully but an underdog, despite a pedigree that includes four consecutive conference championship games.
Not even the favored Patriots can match that record for consistently showing up. But neither can the recognized great teams of recent history, which suggests that showing up isn't good enough.
That's what the Eagles are fighting.
The Eagles finally won one of those NFC Championship games on Jan. 23, but there's more on the line because they lost the previous three straight.
The Vince Lombardi teams in Green Bay never went to four straight NFL Championship games, roughly the 1960s equivalent to today's NFC Championship game. No one holds that against them. Those Steel Curtain Pittsburgh teams of the 1970s never went to four straight AFC title games. Neither did their dynastic predecessors, the Miami Dolphins.
The Bret Favre Green Bay Packers never went to four straight conference title games at their height, and neither did the John Elway Denver Broncos nor the great San Francisco 49ers or Washington Redskins teams of the 1980s. But the Eagles, at this moment, don't belong in their company. They shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath with Marv Levy's 1990-93 Buffalo Bills, who went to four straight conference title games and won them all.
But a Super Bowl win, doing wonders for a team's reputation, would put this iteration of the Eagles past the Bills, who never won a Super Bowl. A Super Bowl win can distinguish one team for one year, or it can mean much more. For a program like Andy Reid's Philadelphia operation, with a little water under the bridge, it's the difference between the pantheon and the pity pit.
If you struggle forever and win big in the end, you win. If you win a lot consistently and never win big, you lose. Winning big at some point honors the near misses. Failure on that score undermines the near misses.
The Oakland Raiders went to the last three AFL Championship games, then the first AFC title game in 1970, giving them what we'll call four straight conference championship appearances. They went to one Super Bowl and lost. After two years, they were back with five straight AFC Championship games from 1973-77. Out of all that, nine conference title games in 11 years, the Raiders won one Super Bowl.
Winning that one Super Bowl after the 1977 season redeemed the other Oakland teams that fell short. Thus saved, the Raiders easily won Super Bowls after the 1980 and 1983 seasons and became something of a dynasty with three Super Bowl wins in eight years.
If the Eagles can win this Super Bowl, they would surpass the 1967-70 Raiders and almost match the 1973-77 Raiders. If the Eagles lose, they're not even the Buffalo Bills.
With their 27-10 win against the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC Championship, the Eagles are playing for a respectable place in history. And, from where the Eagles sit, their stakes are as critical as those for the Patriots in their bid for true historical prominence after their 41-27 AFC Championship win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Patriots might put the lie to a notion that dynasties in the NFL no longer are possible. But it remains likely, due to the dangers of the salary cap, that we'll never again see a contender that lasts a generation.
The Dallas Cowboys went to their conference title game 12 times in 17 years from 1966-82. For a while, they were quite the bridesmaid franchise, winning only two Super Bowls. Think about those nine conference title games in 11 years for the Raiders, who won one Super Bowl.
That's the kind of dynasty we'll never see again — the team that makes the scene consistently for a decade or more, even if it's seldom good enough to win it all. It can't even really be called a dynasty, though we often think of those Cowboys and Raiders that way. They were constant contenders who infrequently came through.
Those days are gone. We've seen what happened to the 49ers and Cowboys in recent years — there's simply not enough money to keep these teams together.
But the Patriots are showing us we might still have that six- to eight-year dynasty that runs shorter and wins more championships. Just winning three conference titles in four years puts the Patriots in select company.
Since 1960, only seven other programs have done it — the Packers (three straight pre-merger NFL titles, 1965-67), the Minnesota Vikings (three titles in four years, 1973-76), the Cowboys (three in four, 1975-78, and three in four, 1992-95), the Dolphins (three straight, 1971-73), the Broncos (three in four 1986-89) and the Bills, the only team in that time to win four straight, 1990-93.
A second consecutive Super Bowl win would put the Patriots ahead of other recent back-to-back winners Denver (1997-98) and San Francisco (1988-89), who wouldn't be able to brag about three in four years. With a Super Bowl win, the Patriots would match the 1992-95 Cowboys, who also played in and won three Super Bowls in four years.
So we wonder about the Patriots' place in history? Paging all the way back in time, three Super Bowl wins in four years would put these Patriots among the top 10 programs ever.
They would be even, in the three-for-four sense, with the 1990s Cowboys, the George Halas Chicago Bears who won three NFL titles from 1940-43, the Curly Lambeau Packers who won three straight NFL titles in 1929-31 and the Canton/Cleveland Bulldogs who won three straight NFL titles in 1922-24. The only teams clearly in front of them would be the Lombardi Packers and two other notable dynasties, arguably the best operations in the pro game since 1960.
The 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers neither went to four straight conference title games nor won three in four years. However, the Steelers went to six conference title games from 1972-79, won four of them and took the corresponding four Super Bowls.
The 1980s San Francisco 49ers, set up by Bill Walsh, won four Super Bowls in nine years from 1981-89, then threw in another Super Bowl win in 1994. In those 14 years, the 49ers went to eight conference title games, winning five. And when they went to the Super Bowl, they won.
The Lombardi Packers won the only two Super Bowls they played in, which were the first two, but they could have won a couple more if they played the game that far back. From 1960-67, the Packers went to six NFL Championship games in eight years, winning five.
The Patriots are heading that way. A win in this Super Bowl and another Super Bowl win in the next couple years would put Bill Belichick's Patriots on the top shelf with Lombardi, Noll and Walsh.
A loss now would put them on that third tier, below the 1990s Cowboys or the early Bears, Packers and Bulldogs and not quite with the successful Raiders teams or Paul Brown's early Cleveland teams, which went to six NFL title games from 1950-55 and won three of them.
It's all nice company. But the Patriots play for something better. In times of parity, that's almost hard to understand.
True greatness and parity aren't supposed to co-exist. Maybe the Eagles will see that they don't.