Sunday, January 19, 2014

Good Things Happen in Threes

So goes the old saying, and both our beloved 49ers and the New England Perennials are hoping it's true.  Each team takes the field this Sunday playing in their third straight conference championship game.  Each has split the previous two, so this one will be something of a "rubber match" for both. To make it especially difficult, both teams are on the road this time, which up until now has been something of an issue for the Patriots but hasn't affected the 49ers.

Jim Harbaugh has gotten a lot of deserved credit this week for his team's third straight appearance at the Super Bowl's doorstep, and of course the Belichicks have turned the postseason into something like their annual company picnic. New England has won their division ten out of the last eleven years-- five years in a row twice-- which is the best of any team since the 1970 NFL merger.  They'll now have played in the AFC title game eight times in the last thirteen years, winning five and losing two so far.

Which got us wondering, how historic is all this? How many teams have played in three straight conference championships, what's the record for consecutive appearances, and how many other teams have dominated their conference over a decade? Pardon us, 'cause we're about to get all historical on yo' ass.

The Oakland Raiders-- John Madden edition-- hold the record for consecutive conference championship game appearances, with five in a row from 1973-1977.  They lost four of those games but went all the way in '76. Now, if you add the last three AFL Championship Games to the mix-- back in 1967-1969, when the Super Bowl was a true World Championship-- those legendary Raiders played for the Super Bowl nine times in 11 years from 1967-1977.  It's no wonder the outsized, ebullient Madden (who took over in 1969) became "America's Coach" when he retired after 1978; his was the most familiar face we all remembered year after year from some of the most exciting and highest-stakes games in league history.

Nine out of 11 years. Not even Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys, who played in 10 of the first 13 NFC Championship Games from 1970-1982, can match that. Even the great 49er teams of Bill Walsh and George Seifert, who were in the NFC Championship Game six out of seven years from 1988-1994, didn't sustain it that long. Great as the Patriots have been since 2003, they don't measure up to that standard either.

And some of you wondered where that "Commitment to Excellence" business came from!

Getting back to consecutive appearances, the Raiders hold the record at five. Four teams-- the Landry Cowboys from 1970-1973, Marv Levy's Buffalo Bills from 1990-1993, the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys from 1992-1995, and most recently Andy Reid's Philadelphia Eagles from 2001-2004--  have played in four straight.  The Bills, of course, won all four of theirs.  Philly lost their first three-- including back-to-back losses at home, the only time that's ever happened-- before finally winning one.

And finally, six other teams, including the 49ers twice, have done three in a row. Don Shula's Dolphins did it from 1971-1973, winning all three.  The Los Angeles Rams of the "Ground Chuck" (Knox) era made it  in 1974, 1975, and 1976-- and lost each time. The Cowboys in their fading glory lost all three times from 1980-1982 (including, of course, "The Catch." Had to get that in there somehow!). As we noted earlier, the 49ers were in the NFC title game from 1988-1990 (with Joe Montana) and again from 1992-1994 (with Steve Young), interrupted by a one-year hiatus shaped a lot like Joe's elbow. Finally we have the Green Bay Packers of Mike Holmgren, Reggie White, and Brett Favre from 1995-1997 (and they beat the 49ers in the postseason each of those years, though only in the NFC Championship once).

Some pretty good company, wouldn't you say? It doesn't seem to confer a specific winning advantage in the games, though. Coming in on a streak of appearances makes for good copy and all, but as we all know it's utterly meaningless on the field.

Setting aside the trivia, then, we note we've been praising the Patriots unusually frequently of late, which is odd, but the prospect of a New England-San Francisco Super Bowl is, y'gotta admit, pretty enticing. (We trust y'all remember that Monday night game from last year.)  We don't think it's going to happen, though. The story everyone else has been beating to death-- Brady v. Manning XV-- may not be the deciding factor. Look to the defenses, neither of which, admittedly, is the best in the league. In a situation like this, we give the edge to the home team.

As for the 49ers and Seahawks-- well, we have no idea. Each team is capable of beating the other, certainly. If you take each team at its best, we believe the 49ers have the better bunch. But the Seahawks' whole game plan is, and has been, to take the opponent out of their best game. And when one team has a good chance to win without playing all that well-- and Seattle definitely fits that bill-- common sense dictates you play the percentages, especially when that team is on their home field in front of the most obnoxious fans in football.

But common sense has his side of the street, and we have ours. We're 49er fans, 49er faithful, approaching fifty years of this madness now, and we say this team will play its best and win one of the most memorable conference championship games ever played.


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