Using recent history as a guide, the Green Bay Packers should be one of the last teams picked to win Super Bowl XLVI when the NFL, barring a work stoppage, takes its championship game to Indianapolis a year from now.
The Packers beat the Steelers 31-25 to win Super Bowl XLV Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium. They're on top of the world as one of the most resilient champions in NFL history. However, a big part of what makes the NFL great is an unmatched formula designed to spread the euphoria, the disappointment and the heartbreak to different teams and cities from year to year.
"I feel good about our future, but I'm not thinking about the future right now," said Packers general manager Ted Thompson, the architect behind the Packers' 13th NFL championship and fourth Super Bowl title. "I'm thinking about enjoying this. This doesn't come around all the time."
The past five Super Bowl champions are 0-3 in the postseason the following year. The 2005 and 2009 Steelers missed the playoffs altogether. The 2007 Colts and 2008 Giants lost playoff openers at home. And the 2010 Saints lost in the wild-card round at Seattle, the NFL's first 7-9 team to make the playoffs.
The last defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game was the 2005 Patriots. The last team to successfully defend its title was the 2004 Patriots. The last NFC team to defend successfully was the 1993 Cowboys. And, believe it or not, the last Super Bowl champion from the NFC to even win a playoff game the following year was the 1997 Packers.
The current Packers are in a situation unlike any of those past champions. With the NFL owners set to lock out the players if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached with the NFL Players' Association by March 4, the Packers head into their offseason not knowing if they'll even have an opportunity to defend their title this year. If there is a lockout, it would be the first work stoppage in the NFL since 1987.
On paper, the Packers certainly appear set for long-term success. Fifteen of their 22 Super Bowl starters are 27 or younger, including quarterback and game MVP Aaron Rodgers (27), NFL Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Clay Matthews (24), nose tackle B.J. Raji (24), receiver Greg Jennings (27), safety Nick Collins (27) and cornerback Tramon Williams (27).
The Packers also will get the added boost of six starters who went down early and were placed on injured reserve. That includes leading rusher Ryan Grant, leading tackler Nick Barnett and Jermichael Finley, one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the NFL.
Rules on free agency and franchise players are up in the air because of the labor dispute. But of the Packers' potential free agents, defensive end Cullen Jenkins and linebacker A.J. Hawk are priorities Nos. 1-2. Jenkins' contract expires, while Hawk has a $10 million bonus that needs to be renegotiated or he will be released. Guard Daryn College also is among the potential free agents.
"We have a great core group, and it will be exciting to get our (injured) players back," said McCarthy, who had to place 15 players on injured reserve this year. "It'll be a lot like last year, when coming out of training camp we thought we had a team that could win the Super Bowl. I'll be very excited to get started."
It's hard to tell what the NFC will look like in 2011. The Packers were the sixth and final playoff seed in the conference. They didn't even win the NFC North, finishing second to the No. 2 seeded Bears before beating them in Chicago in the NFC Championship Game.
The No. 1 seed Falcons have a young core of players. The No. 3 seed Eagles are sure to hang on to QB Michael Vick, but need to get better defensively. And the No. 5 seed Saints still have QB Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton.
The best news for Green Bay -- and the worst news for the Vikings -- is the Packers are set for another decade or more at quarterback. Rodgers is now the highest-rated passer in NFL history (98.4) and with this year's postseason performance, he moved ahead of Packers Hall of Famer Bart Starr's long-standing postseason NFL mark of 104.8. In joining Kurt Warner (2008) as the only quarterbacks to pass for more than 1,000 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions in a single postseason, Rodgers has a 112.6 passer rating and a 4-1 record in the postseason.
But can he and the Packers return to the biggest stage a year from now, assuming, of course, there's still a stage on which to play? The NFC, after all, has had 10 different champions in the past 10 seasons.
"Success is the hardest part of this business," McCarthy said. "Handling success comes at different levels, and obviously we're at the highest level today as Super Bowl champions."