The NFL is not a league designed for repeat champions. No team has successfully defended its Super Bowl title since the New England Patriots of 2003-04.
Since the Patriots won back-to-back titles, no AFC team has made consecutive trips to the Super Bowl. Even more incredibly, no NFC team has made back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl since the 1996-97 Green Bay Packers.
The last time an NFC team won consecutive Super Bowls? It's been 17 years since the Dallas Cowboys did it in 1992-93.
"It's so difficult to win the first one, much less win the second one," said former Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson, now an analyst for Fox. "With free agency, movement of players, in order to accomplish what you did when your team was hungry, you've got to keep them hungry.
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"Any time you have success, you don't get as hungry."
That's the mountain the New Orleans Saints face this season after winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history last season.
"Once you get to the top of the mountain you've got to come back down and begin the journey to go back up," said Saints Coach Sean Payton, whose team opens defense of its title Thursday night against Minnesota in a rematch of the NFC championship game.
"I don't think that you just stay there. You have to start with the off-season and the mini-camps and then get through training camp, and you have to, hopefully, climb back up the same way you did the year before rather than you just stay up there trying to defend it.
"All off that, the journey, the process, is what you have to focus on."
THREE TEAMS READY TO EXPLODE
New York Jets
The Jets will be featured in at least four prime-time games this season, starting with the Monday night opener against Baltimore. So clearly, ESPN believes the Jets, who reached the AFC championship game in Rex Ryan's first season as coach and quarterback Mark Sanchez's rookie year, will be a Super Bowl contender. The Jets didn't stand pat in the AFC East arms race. They brought in Hall of Fame-bound running back LaDainian Tomlinson to pair with Shonn Greene; traded for former Super Bowl MVP wide receiver Santonio Holmes (who will be suspended for the first four weeks) and cornerback Antonio Cromartie; and signed defensive end Jason Taylor and kicker Nick Folk.
"Whenever you make the kind of activity that the Jets did in the off-season, everybody expects big things ... and we do," said Tomlinson, who leads all active players with 153 career touchdowns. "We expect to be good. We expect to challenge for a Super Bowl. If you look at what this team did last year making it to the AFC championship, the question becomes, "Is anything less than that a failure?" So, the next step has to be a Super Bowl."
The Super Bowl comes to Dallas' billion-dollar playpen this season, and Jerry Jones expects his team to become the first to play a Super Bowl in its own stadium. The Cowboys hadn't won a playoff game in 12 years before beating Philadelphia in a wild-card game last season. Dallas has a bear of a schedule, including back-to-back games against the two Super Bowl teams — on Thanksgiving against New Orleans and then at Indianapolis — plus trips to Minnesota and Green Bay, so they need to be near-perfect at home and in the NFC East.
But they have the firepower on offense with quarterback Tony Romo fulfilling his potential last season (4,483 yards, 26 touchdowns, nine interceptions); a troika of running backs in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice; and though he's hurt right now, wide receiver Dez Bryant was the steal in the draft and will team up with the emerging Miles Austin and dependable tight end Jason Witten. On defense, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (25 sacks the last two years) is unblockable.
The Texans, in the eighth year of the franchise, enjoyed their first winning season (9-7), and only a pair of three-point losses on consecutive weeks to Indianapolis and Tennessee cost them their first playoff spot. It's about time all those premium draft choices such as Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye, Duane Brown and Brian Cushing developed alongside nonpareil receiver Andre Johnson. And Matt Schaub (4,770 yards, 20 TDs) is the best quarterback you never hear about.
As a reward for their second-place finish, the Texans will draw AFC powerhouses Baltimore and the Jets in addition to their home-and-home series with AFC South rival Indianapolis. Plus they get the rugged NFC East for non-conference games. If the Texans improve on 9-7, they will have earned it.
TEAMS PRIMED FOR A MELTDOWN
San Diego Chargers
How do you go into a season alienating three of your best players? That's what the Chargers' stubborn general manager, A.J. Smith, has done by not offering long-term contracts to linebacker Shawne Merriman, tackle Marcus McNeill and receiver Vincent Jackson. Yes, there are some unusual circumstances. Merriman had just four sacks in 2009 after coming off major knee surgery; and Jackson must sit out the first three games of the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy. But it appears McNeill, the cornerstone of the offensive line, and Jackson, the club's top wide receiver, will sit the first 10 weeks and report for the final six games in order to accrue another season toward unrestricted free agency — if there is a season next year.
There's a lot of bad karma surrounding this team. Quarterback Brett Favre, who turns 41 in October, will be hard-pressed to match last season's 33-touchdown, seven-interception season if he's still hobbling on a sore ankle. Then factor in wide receiver Percy Harvin missing a substantial part of training camp because of a recurrence of migraines and No. 1 receiver Sidney Rice going on the physically unable to perform list after undergoing hip surgery. Let's see if Adrian Peterson has solved his fumblelitis. Check out the schedule after their Oct. 3 bye: at N.Y. Jets, Dallas, at Green Bay, at New England.
The Steelers are 68-28 with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup since 2004, 3-3 without him. It's up to either the well-traveled Charlie Batch or inexperienced Dennis Dixon (Byron Leftwich is injured) to hold the fort for the first four games Big Ben has to miss because of his suspension. Even if the Steelers go 2-2 in that stretch, look what awaits them after an Oct. 17 home game against Cleveland — road games at Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati before a home breather against New England. Welcome back, Ben. The Steelers are going to have a hard time replacing Santonio Holmes' 79 receptions, and that defense seems to be taking on age.
FIVE MVP CANDIDATES
Saints QB Drew Brees
It's hard to forget Brees' second-half performance when he completed 16 of 17 passes and earned Super Bowl MVP honors in New Orleans' come-from-behind victory over Indianapolis. Brees played close to near-perfect all season, completing an NFL-record 70.6 percent of his passes and posting an NFL-best 109.6 passer rating. A similar season this year could earn him his first MVP and second Super Bowl ring.
Colts QB Peyton Manning
He's already won a league-record four MVPs, so Manning always has to be part of this conversation. Manning has led Indianapolis to 115 regular-season wins since the start of the 2000 season, the most by a team in a single decade; at least 12 wins in seven consecutive seasons, an NFL record; and can tie Dallas (1975-83) with a record nine consecutive playoff seasons. The one constant in all those wins is Manning.
Titans RB Chris Johnson
Johnson was the NFL offensive player of the year in 2009 when he became the sixth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Johnson, who rushed for 100 yards in the final 11 games of the 2009 season, is more than just a runner. He also led the Titans with 50 receptions and set an NFL record with 2,509 yards from scrimmage, breaking the mark set by Marshall Faulk (2,429 in 1999) when the Rams won the Super Bowl.
Dallas QB Tony Romo
If the Cowboys are going to break through and become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, Romo has to take his place as one of the game's elite quarterbacks. Last year, Romo took every snap for the first time in his career and guided the Cowboys to a division title and won his first playoff game. The next step is home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and that would include the Super Bowl.
Vikings DE Jared Allen
We had to throw one defensive player in the mix, so Allen gets the nod over division rival quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whom he sacked 7½ times in two games last season. Since coming into the league in 2004 with the Chiefs, no player has more sacks than Allen, who has 72, including 14½ in each of his first two seasons with the Vikings. Allen has the ability to turn a game with a big play, and the Vikings will need some momentum changers starting Thursday night at New Orleans.
THREE COACHES TO WATCH
Giants Tom Coughlin
He's just two years removed from winning a Super Bowl, but Coughlin could be on borrowed time in New York, where the Jets have become the media darlings. After a 5-0 start last season, the Giants suffered a colossal collapse and finished 8-8. The last two games were the ugliest, 41-9 to Carolina and 44-7 to Minnesota, so Coughlin replaced his defensive coordinator and defensive line coaches. Coughlin, 64, could be next on the firing line if the Giants don't improve.
Seahawks Pete Carroll
Most college coaches have a tough time adapting to the NFL (see Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier, to name a few), but Carroll is no novice. He has four years experience as an NFL head coach and actually has a winning record in one season with the Jets and three with New England (33-31) plus a 1-2 post-season record with the Patriots. Carroll's nice-guy approach didn't always work with the pros. Let's see if the rah-rah attitude that helped win two national championships at Southern Cal carries over to the Seahawks.
Chiefs Todd Haley
OK, the time for excuses is over. Haley has proven coordinators he can trust in Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. That will enable Haley, in his second year, to delegate authority and not have to micro-manage every detail. The Chiefs have two drafts and two off-seasons of free agency to find their "Right 53." And best of all, they have a favorable schedule that includes just three playoff teams from last year — San Diego (twice), Indianapolis and Arizona — so 8-8 is not too much to ask.
FIVE ROOKIES WHO WILL MAKE NOISE
Falcons OLB Sean Weatherspoon
It's never quiet when the former Missouri star is around. The loquacious Weatherspoon has the athletic ability and versatility to stay on the field on all four downs. He's a tackle machine capable of making the big play — 10.5 percent of his tackles at Missouri came from behind the line of scrimmage. He also returned two interceptions for touchdowns, and he blocked a punt on his first play as a Tiger.
Lions RB Jahvid Best
All of the attention has been on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, but the speedy Best can be a difference-maker along the lines of a Chris Johnson in Tennessee. Best is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. He had 34 career runs of 20-plus yards in his three years at Cal, including 11 of 60 yards or more and four of 80 yards plus.
Chiefs WR Dexter McCluster
Sometimes he's a running back. Sometimes he's a slot or wide receiver. And always, he's a playmaker. McCluster kept running out of his shoes in training camp, and the Chiefs hope he can be a matchup problem for defenses with too much quickness for linebackers to cover and too much speed for safeties.
Raiders MLB Rolando McClain
The Butkus Award winner can be a cornerstone of a rebuilt Raiders defense. McClain not only can stuff the run inside and chase down runners from behind on sweeps, he deflected four passes, intercepted two passes and had 14 quarterback pressures and four sacks last season for national champion Alabama.
Jets CB Kyle Wilson
The Jets must have had an inkling about Darrelle Revis' holdout when they not only traded for Antonio Cromartie but took Wilson with their first-round pick. Wilson, inserted in Revis' starting spot at the beginning of the pre-season, was a lockdown corner at Boise State, starting the last 45 games for two undefeated teams. He intercepted 11 passes for 139 yards in returns (12.6 avg.) with two TDs in his college career, and he was a dangerous punt returner, including two for TDs of 90 and 79 yards.