'The greatest show on turf' will be played at State Farm Stadium in Glendale next February, but can the resident Arizona Cardinals ensure a third straight host makes it to the big game?
Article originally published on 01/08/2022
The Cardinals are seemingly beset with off-field issues that are partly a hangover from their second-half slump in 2021.
But, if there's anything to be learned from the Buccaneers' triumph in Tampa Bay of 2020 and the Los Angeles Rams' Hollywood ending a year later, it's about how you finish and not necessarily how you start.
No NFL Championship host team had managed to reach the title game until the 2020 season, when the Tom Brady-powered Bucs created history by becoming the first to play for - and subsequently win - the Lombardi Trophy in their own stadium.
For it to happen again 12 months later was probably just a quirk of fate or coincidence, although there are always two ways to look at it.
The added pressure on previous years' hosts was always blamed for why some great teams of the past couldn't break a perceived 'Championship curse'. But so many factors can determine which teams even have a chance to do it.
Some of the most successful franchises ever - the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots - have never had the chance to set up a home finale to the season.
Meanwhile, for others the honour has come too late - such as in 2012 when Peyton Manning missed the entire season with injury or in Atlanta three years ago - two years after Matt Ryan's MVP campaign.
The Bucs and the Rams had one obvious element in common - veteran quarterbacks that had joined the team in the previous spring and played lights out in the postseason.
Brady was battle-hardened and had a point to prove, while Matt Stafford slotted in so seamlessly to the Rams' system that he looked born to the role.
Cardinals QB Kyler Murray is 24, has played three seasons and only one postseason game - in which he threw no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Any comparison between what he's done and the last two NFL Championship-winning quarterbacks' prior careers is not going to put Arizona's chances in a favourable light.
Worse still, it doesn't seem - from the outside at least - that the organization fully trusts its franchise star.
The fiasco of the now-deleted study clause in his contract extension highlighted something the team really should have dealt with differently and now stands as an unwanted stain on the player's character.
Championship-winning teams with issues like that are rare indeed - so the Cardinals need to apply some salve to the scar quickly to avoid it becoming inflamed as the season progresses.
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Murray's comfort blanket is out for the first six weeks of the regular season too after DeAndre Hopkins was hit with a suspension.
As things currently stand, he won't be back on the field until the Cards' Week 7 match-up and their season could be in serious jeopardy by then.
Marquise Brown was acquired for a first-round pick and he will have to step up as WR1 in the first half of the season, because it's probably unreasonable to expect ten-year veteran Hopkins to hit the ground running on his return.
The biggest question mark against Arizona's playoff chances is probably still their defense - and notice we're not even mentioning Super Bowl here because for this unit to contribute to a deep postseason run will take vast improvement.
Last year the D was too reliant on aging players and the secondary was laid bare when no pass rush was generated.
J.J. Watt managed one solitary sack in eight total appearances of an injury-hit season and Chandler Jones, who still somehow managed a double-digit sack tally, left in free agency this past spring.
Budda Baker - their only other defensive playmaker - was surrounded by journeymen and unproven young pros in the secondary and, with the likes of Cooper Kupp, DK Metcalf, Deebo Samuel and Allen Robinson to cover in this division, they may not be up to the task.
After three seasons in charge head coach Kliff Kingsbury has yet to deliver a playoff win. Last year was his first winning season, but the Cards went 1-4 down the stretch and flopped against the Rams in the postseason.
They simply have to finish the season in a better fashion this time and achieving that will come down to whether the coach can patch up the holes in the roster, galvanize disgruntled or disrespected star players, and make the right calls to win games.
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