They stand at the base of Mt. Lombardi, staring up at the twisting, narrow paths and treacherous switchbacks. They are four NFL teams with big hopes and even bigger challenges.
The Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles are all looking to become that rare team that climbs from the depths, winning three playoff games on the road and then the Super Bowl.
There are a fresh four at the trail head every year, but this season could be different. Each of these four can make the case that it is a team of destiny, with the Colts opening at Houston on Saturday, and the Seahawks at Dallas, followed Sunday by the Chargers at Baltimore, and Philadelphia at Chicago.
“These are four games I would not touch as a gambler,” said Trent Dilfer, a former quarterback turned NFL analyst. “My gambling friends that come to me and say, ‘What should I do?’ I say that I wouldn’t touch these. I wouldn’t even look at the lines. Because you’re crazy if you think one of these games is a lock. These are true pick-’em games.”
Dilfer should know. He was quarterback of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who were the third wild-card team to win the Super Bowl after the 1980 Oakland Raiders and the 1997 Denver Broncos. The three wild-card champions subsequent to the Ravens each won three games on the road before winning on the biggest stage.
The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers did it, followed by the 2007 New York Giants and 2010 Green Bay Packers.
Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis was a fixture on that Steelers team that won at Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Denver, before beating the Seahawks in the Super Bowl in Detroit.
“Teams that do that, they have to be battle-tested,” Bettis said. “They have to have gone through the season and had a fair share of disappointment and ups and downs. What happens is, by the time you get to the playoffs, you’re already in playoff mode.”
Bettis likes the odds of those teams that, rather than securing a spot in the postseason early, had to scratch and claw down the stretch to stay in the hunt.
“A team like the Chargers, they knew they were in the playoffs a long time ago, so they have a different mentality than a Baltimore Ravens team,” he said. “Baltimore has been in playoff games for the last three weeks. Same with the Colts, same with the Eagles.
“They couldn’t afford to lose a game. So when you’re in playoff mode like that, you become a different kind of team. You become a dangerous team. Because it doesn’t matter where you play, home or away, you have the confidence of knowing you can win the football game. That’s a big difference when you get to the playoffs.”
It should be noted that although the Chargers did secure their spot fairly early, they proved they have the mettle to win on the road, going 8-1 away from home (counting London), with their only road loss coming across town to the Rams. That includes wins at Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City.
Amani Toomer can relate to what Bettis said about teams growing through hardship. He was a star receiver on the 2007 Giants, who started 0-2 and fell behind 17-3 at Washington in Week 3. The season appeared to be going down the tubes.
Who could have guessed the season would end the way it did, with the Giants winning at Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Green Bay, before their epic upset of the then-undefeated New England Patriots?
“It was touch-and-go all year, and we felt it,” Toomer recalled. “[Coach Tom] Coughlin was going to get fired, [quarterback] Eli [Manning] was going to get fired. Everybody wanted to fire everybody that year. And I think teams work better that way, because there’s no favoritism.
“There’s no, ‘I want to play this guy because we like him, he was a high draft pick.’ If everybody is going to get fired, the best man plays.”
The 2010 Packers were a bit of an outlier, because quarterback Aaron Rodgers had such a phenomenal season, but a thread that runs through those Ravens, Steelers, and Giants teams is all could run the ball and play great defense.
“The two things that travel best are the defense and run game,” Dilfer said. “You can endure weather, you can endure noise. … A hot defense — wouldn’t even call it a ‘great’ defense — they balance out the whole crowd-noise element, the momentum, all the adversity you face going on the road. Because they can get you the ball back. They get you field position. And they quiet the crowd.”
A.J. Hawk, a linebacker on that championship Green Bay team, recalls the thrill of hitting the road and ending an opponent’s season. The Packers won at Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chicago, before beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
“To actually go to somebody else’s home field and beat them in the playoffs, to know that your season is alive, the dream is still alive, and everything they have is gone …” Hawk said. “It makes it that much more exciting.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer