AFC North: San Francisco 49ers

Live: Super Bowl XLVII fan photo slideshow

February, 3, 2013
2/03/13
1:00
PM ET
We have our ESPN.com reporters snapping in the field, but we want to see how you are celebrating the biggest game of the year. Whether you're tailgating at the game or partying with friends, we want to see your Super Bowl XLVII fan photos. Tweet us pictures of your food spread, goofy friends and family Super Bowl to @ESPN_NFLNation or any of our NFL blog network writers. We'll drop them in this slideshow, along with photos from our reporters in New Orleans, and update it all day long. Enjoy the game!

Countdown Live: Super Bowl XLVII

February, 3, 2013
2/03/13
1:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers.

Contribute your thoughts and questions at 5:30 p.m. ET. See you there.

49ers, Ravens tweet from media day

January, 29, 2013
1/29/13
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The press isn't the only group having fun on media day, the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers players also had a blast.

The players hit Twitter with their reaction and photos from Super Bowl XLVII media day and we've compiled it for you. Enjoy.

Media Day Live

January, 29, 2013
1/29/13
10:04
AM ET
We have our ESPN.com NFL experts on the field in New Orleans for the spectacle that is Super Bowl media day. Join us starting at 11 a.m. ET for updates, photos, videos and all the craziness that is sure to come.

The San Francisco 49ers will be on the podiums from 11:15 a.m. ET - 12:15 p.m. ET. The Baltimore Ravens will be on the podiums from 1:15 p.m. ET - 2:15 p.m. ET.

Quick Take: Ravens vs. 49ers

January, 21, 2013
1/21/13
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Five nuggets of knowledge about Super Bowl XLVII, in which the Baltimore Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3:

1. Historic family reunion: When John Harbaugh's Ravens battle Jim Harbaugh's 49ers in the Super Bowl, it will mark the first time that siblings face off as head coaches in any major U.S. professional sports championship. This will be the second game in NFL history between head coaches who are brothers and the first since the Harbaughs met when the Ravens beat the 49ers, 16-6, on Thanksgiving night 2011. The Harbaugh brothers both lost in the conference championship games last season and both watched their teams rally on the road to make it to the Super Bowl this year. Both made risky decisions during the season that propelled their teams to the NFL title game. John fired his offensive coordinator with three weeks left in the regular season, and Jim changed starting quarterbacks in November.

2. Small-school quarterbacks hit big time: The Super Bowl features two quarterbacks who didn't come from major programs. The Ravens' Joe Flacco was drafted in the first round in 2008 out of Delaware. The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick was selected in the second round in 2011 out of Nevada. Both quarterbacks, though, have shined in the spotlight this month. Flacco has thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 114.7 in the playoffs. Kaepernick has averaged 248 yards passing and 101 yards rushing in the postseason. The Ravens have to figure out a way to contain Kaepernick's big runs, and the 49ers have to stop Flacco's big pass plays.

3. Deceptive defense: When the Ravens went to the Super Bowl in the 2000 season, they had one of the best defenses in league history. Baltimore wasn't as dominant on defense this season, finishing 17th in the NFL in the regular season. Still, the Ravens have been playing solidly in the postseason. Baltimore's defense held Peyton Manning to three touchdowns in a double-overtime win in the AFC divisional round and shut out Tom Brady and the Patriots in the second half of the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens became the second team to beat Manning and Brady in the same postseason, joining the 2010 Jets. The 49ers boast the NFL's third-ranked defense, but the Ravens shouldn't be overlooked on that side of the ball.

4. Phenomenal four seed: The Ravens became the seventh No. 4 seed to reach the Super Bowl since the current seeding system was introduced in 1999. This is nothing new to the Ravens, who won the Super Bowl in the 2000 season as the fourth seed. There were two other No. 4 seeds who have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy: the 1997 Broncos, who beat Green Bay, 31-24, and the 2011 Giants, who edged the Patriots, 21-17. The Ravens, who have already knocked off the top two seeds in the AFC, have to beat the NFC's second seed to win the Super Bowl.

5. Last dance for Ray Lewis: The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has been the emotional rallying point for the Ravens ever since he announced that he would retire at the end of the season. Lewis' "last ride" will come in the Super Bowl in New Orleans, where teammates have talked about sending the 17-year veteran out on top. But Lewis isn't just along for the ride. After missing 10 weeks following surgery on his torn triceps, he has led the Ravens in tackles in each of the three playoff games. His 44 tackles top the NFL this postseason. All eyes will be on Lewis when he comes out of the tunnel at the Superdome, where he'll perform his signature pregame dance one last time.
Twenty-two years ago, the San Francisco 49ers pulled a rabbit out of their hat at the last minute against the Cincinnati Bengals to win Super Bowl XXIII. On Thursday, the 49ers did a similar feat against Cincinnati with free-agent safety Donte Whitner.

Cincinnati thought it had Whitner, who agreed to terms to a two-year deal with the Bengals Thursday afternoon. It would have been the Bengals' biggest free-agent acquisition to date.

But San Francisco swooped in late with a better contract for three years at $11.5 million, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Whitner accepted the offer, while leaving the Bengals empty-handed.

It's another strange episode for Cincinnati, which continues to have a poor offseason. It began when franchise quarterback Carson Palmer demanded a trade and threatened to retire in January. Since then, an offensive coordinator has been fired, No. 1 receiver Chad Ochocinco was traded, tailback Cedric Benson and cornerback Adam Jones were arrested, and the team lost its top in-house free agent in Johnathan Joseph.

Add the Whitner's last-minute swindle to the list. Credit the Bengals for making a good push to temporarily convince Whitner to join Cincinnati. But it wasn't enough.
Our popular and successful Power Rankings series continues next week with another interesting category that is sure to spark debate. Next week we examine who are the top-10 defensive players in the NFL.

There are a lot of wrinkles to this debate. For example, how do you rank a great linebacker such as Patrick Willis next to a great safety like Troy Polamalu? How would defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who dominates the line of scrimmage, compare to cornerback Darrelle Revis, who shuts off one half of the field? These are all factors we have to consider when ranking the most dominant defensive players.

But our community doesn't have to wait for next week. Share your thoughts below on how you would rank the top defensive players in the NFL. ESPN.com will have its top-10 list complete on May 24.
Examining the most crucial event in the history of every team in the division.

Fly into the city of Pittsburgh, and there is no doubt what is the most memorable moment in Steelers' history.

Inside Pittsburgh International Airport there is a life-sized statue of Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception." Harris caught a deflection off teammate Frenchy Fuqua late in a 1972 AFC divisional playoff game to score the winning touchdown in a 13-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Franco Harris
AP Photo/Harry CabluckJimmy Ware just missed bringing Franco Harris down and changing the course of NFL history.
One of the most unbelievable plays in NFL history turned out to be the biggest turning point for the Steelers. It was Pittsburgh's first-ever playoff victory and it jump-started the team's run to an NFL-best six Super Bowl titles, including four championships in the 1970s.

Msdmr writes: "[Pittsburgh] had only been to playoffs twice at that point. It got them out of the doormat category, gave them tangible proof that they could win."

Krankor watched the "Immaculate Reception" live on television nearly four decades ago: "I was a kid at the time, about 10 years old. What I remember most clearly was that, after the play, the delay while the officials decided what to call was unprecedented. I'd never seen anything like it, before or since."

Not everyone is impressed by the memorable play, especially those outside of Steeler Nation. Washed_up_ball_player writes: "Funny how the No. 1 selection, the 'Immaculate Reception,' is just a lucky play where the football gods smiled down on the Steelers. That sounds like the definition of the Steelers to me."

The "Immaculate Reception" led the way with 34 percent of the 40,000-plus votes as of 3 p.m. ET Tuesday, edging Pittsburgh's 1974 draft (31 percent) that included four Hall of Famers in linebacker Jack Lambert, center Mike Webster and receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. The Steelers' 1974 draft is often considered the greatest in NFL history. We may never see four Hall of Famers drafted by one team in the same year again.

Former Steelers Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll also had his share of supporters. Noll's hiring in 1969 received a solid 26 percent of the vote. Noll coached Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl wins in the 1970s before retiring in 1991. He started an impressive run of only three head coaches -- Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin -- running the Steelers since 1969.

Jebei_espn also writes: "The Steelers were always bad before they hired Chuck Noll and have been consistently good since then. Noll turned the franchise around and with great support from the Rooney family they started a great tradition that continues to this day."

RAVENS: First draft was huge

Speaking of impressive draft classes, the Baltimore Ravens had one of their own during their inaugural season in 1996.

The Ravens landed two future Hall of Famers in the first round. Baltimore selected left tackle Jonathan Ogden with the No. 4 overall pick and middle linebacker Ray Lewis at No. 26 overall, which received an impressive 54 percent of the vote as of Tuesday afternoon. Both players were longtime stalwarts on offense and defense, and Lewis, 36, still leads the Ravens entering his 16th season.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Jonathan Ogden
AP Photo/Wally SantanaThe Ravens took Jonathan Ogden with the No. 4 pick in the 1996 NFL draft.
DaReel2008 summed it up best by writing: "Drafting Lewis and Ogden was our defining moment, and the others mentioned -- even the Super Bowl -- aren't even close. Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden are two of the best players to ever play their positions. They not only helped carry the Ravens to a Super Bowl, but made us a perennial contender for most of the last 12 years. Our team prides itself on its character and its toughness, both of which are embodied by these two players, who will be in the HOF upon their first year of eligibility."

The Ravens also got a nice sleeper in the fifth round of the 1996 draft by getting receiver and return specialist Jermaine Lewis. He was the first of many gems Baltimore's front office was able to discover in the middle and late rounds.

Baltimore's Super Bowl XXV victory over the New York Giants following the 2000 season came in second place with 40 percent of the vote. It remains the Ravens' only Super Bowl victory.

Clifford from Baltimore makes a good case for Super Bowl XXV when he writes: "It solidified the identity of the franchise. The Ravens were a good defensive football team for two years or so before their Super Bowl run, but winning a championship with defense effectively defined the entire culture of the team as a whole."

BROWNS: Hard luck adds to Cleveland curse

Now we get to the downtrodden segment of our "Flash Points" series. After more than 50,000 votes -- the highest total in the AFC North -- "The Fumble" and "The Drive" led the way among Browns fans with 37 percent.

Cleveland's championship drought in pro sports is at 47 years and counting. The Browns' teams of the late 1980s were solid and had a chance to break that streak. But Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and the Denver Broncos broke Cleveland's heart in back-to-back years with a pair of late-minute victories.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Earnest Byner
AP photo/Mark DuncanCleveland Browns running back Earnest Byner (44) is comforted by teammate Brian Brennan (86) after Byner fumbled in the closing minutes of the 1987 AFC Championship game.
First, Elway drove Denver 98 yards for a touchdown with 37 seconds left to force overtime in the AFC Championship Game following the 1986 season. The Broncos got a field goal in overtime to win 23-20 and advance to the Super Bowl.

Denver and Cleveland met in the AFC title game one year later, and Earnest Byner's late fumble on the 3-yard line thwarted a chance for the Browns to tie the score in regulation. Following a late safety, Denver held on to win 38-33.

Daffy87 writes: "I would lean towards 'The Fumble' and 'The Drive' since that's the first thing that comes to people's minds when they bring up the Browns. Anytime anything bad or strange happens in a game, announcers roll the film."

I interviewed Byner a few years ago to discuss his fumble. The play serves as a cruel reality, because Byner had a solid career, rushing for 8,261 yards, but he will be most remembered for one bad play.

"To be honest, it helped me be a better man and a better person," said Byner, who now is an assistant coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars. "Going through something like that really gives you perspective that life is not over when you have something tragic happen or something that definitely challenges you."

Both Denver teams lost in the Super Bowl. Cleveland fans can always wonder if those Browns teams would have been a better representative for the AFC and perhaps won at least one championship following the 1986 or 1987 season.

BENGALS: Downhill since Montana

The Cincinnati Bengals have had some highs and lows in their history. But an overwhelming 49 percent of Bengals fans chose Joe Montana's late, game-winning drive to lead the San Francisco 49ers over the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII as Cincinnati's biggest turning point.

[+] EnlargeSan Francisco's John Taylor.
US PRESSWIREJohn Taylor catches the winning touchdown against the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII
GreatestBengalsFanOfAllTime writes: "The last-minute loss to the 49ers defines the Bengals, forever and always. Many fans like to say it was the Mike Brown era, but the truth is, the Bengals weren't exactly legends under Paul Brown, either. The last-minute loss to the 49ers accurately sums up the entire history of Bengaldom in one simple phrase: 'So close, yet so far.'"

Trailing 16-13, the 49ers needed to drive 92 yards in the final three minutes to win the Super Bowl. Montana got in rhythm and connected with receiver John Taylor with 34 seconds left to win the game, 20-16. It was the last Super Bowl appearance for the Bengals, who in turn have struggled mightily for the past two decades.

Bengals owner Mike Brown taking over the franchise was a distant second with 27 percent. Brown's father, Hall of Famer Paul Brown, starting the franchise in 1968 was third with 13 percent, and drafting left tackle Anthony Munoz in 1980 was fourth with eight percent.
What key event significantly changed the fortunes of the Bengals -- for better or worse? Give us your take and we’ll give you our definitive moment May 18.

Despite their struggles the past two decades, the Cincinnati Bengals also have a collection of good moments in their history. Using our SportsNation poll, we ask Bengals fans to sift through the good and bad to select the most defining moment in franchise history.

Was it in 1968, when Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown started the franchise? Brown was a great football mind who brought his knowledge and successful track record to Cincinnati.

Twelve years later, the Bengals made their best draft pick by selecting left tackle Anthony Munoz, another Hall of Famer. Munoz protected quarterbacks Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason and helped lead Cincinnati to two Super Bowl appearances.

Speaking of Super Bowls, was the last-minute loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII Cincinnati's defining moment? The Bengals nearly won it all for the first time before 49ers quarterback Joe Montana worked his magic. Cincinnati hasn't come close to winning a Super Bowl since.

Or was Mike Brown taking over as owner the team's biggest defining moment? Brown has been criticized heavily in Cincinnati, which hasn't won a playoff game in 20 years under his leadership.

Let us know the Bengals' most defining moment. If you vote Other, give us your suggestion in the comments area below.
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North: Morning take: This is cunning for the NFL to promote a sibling rivalry on Thanksgiving. Both brothers are fiery and competitive. So don't expect either to hold back in this one.
  • Continuing the brother angle, Cincinnati Bengals backup quarterback Jordan Palmer, not Carson Palmer, is rallying the team to workout together in the offseason.
Morning take: Credit Jordan Palmer for taking a leadership role, but he likely won't be the Week 1 starter in Cincinnati. The Bengals are looking for Carson Palmer's replacement in the draft or free agency.
  • Former NFL coach and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden talks up Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy.
Morning take: Browns president Mike Holmgren and Gruden, two West Coast proponents, both like McCoy's potential in the offense. This will be a big second season for McCoy to show what he can do.
  • Will the Pittsburgh Steelers be more interested in Miami corner Brandon Harris and Colorado corner Jimmy Smith?
Morning take: Smith is the good prospect. But he comes with character concerns, which likely could scare off the Steelers for a safer draft pick.
Hillis
Hillis
In the "Madden NFL 12" cover tournament, Cleveland Browns tailback Peyton Hillis is trying to put together a run similar to Virginia Commonwealth's basketball team.

Hillis, a No. 10 seed coming off a breakout season, is close to pulling off a huge upset against popular Atlanta Falcons quarterback and No. 2 seed Matt Ryan. As of Thursday, Hillis led Ryan by fewer than 1,000 votes. You can cast your votes here before the second-round ballots close this week.

Pittsburgh Steelers receiver and No. 2 seed Hines Ward also is facing No. 7 seed Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers. The winners will advance to the Elite Eight and will be announced next week.
Newton, Kolb & Mallett US PresswireCam Newton, Kevin Kolb and Ryan Mallett could be attractive candidates to succeed Carson Palmer.
Thanks to Carson Palmer, there is a dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Cincinnati Bengals. Cincinnati's $100 million quarterback wants out in the worst way and has threatened to retire if he doesn't get his wish.

Palmer's stern demands have put the Bengals in a huge bind this offseason, as the franchise now scrambles to find contingency plans in the event Palmer stays true to his word. Not only that, Cincinnati is coming off a disappointing 4-12 season and has plenty of needs throughout its roster.

Bengals ownership has held firm in saying it will not trade Palmer, leaving both parties at a stalemate. But there are many wrinkles to this saga that have yet to unfold.

With that in mind, here are five questions and answers on Cincinnati's quarterback issue:

Question No. 1: Who is currently on the roster?

Answer: For years, the Bengals have put off drafting an eventual successor at quarterback, and the team is now paying for it with Palmer's surprising threat to retire. Cincinnati's in-house options aren't very good. Carson Palmer's younger brother, Jordan Palmer, is the No. 2 quarterback on the roster. The four-year veteran has seen limited action in four career games and has a 34.4 passer rating. Jordan Palmer is trying to take a leadership role in Cincinnati and rally the receivers to work out together in the offseason. Second-year quarterback Dan LeFevour, No. 3 on the depth chart, is unproven. The Bengals picked up LeFevour off waivers from the Chicago Bears as a rookie last September. Neither quarterback is starting material and it would be surprising if Cincinnati starts next season with either player under center.

Question No. 2: What is available via trade or through free agency?

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Frank Victores/US Presswire Ryan Fitzpatrick could be a possibility for the Bengals in the free-agent market.
Answer: Although the Bengals traditionally aren't major players in free agency or the trade market, Cincinnati must an exception if the team wants an experienced quarterback to replace Palmer. As far as trades, Kevin Kolb of the Philadelphia Eagles would be a solid fit for the Bengals. He's young, has some starting experience and is well-versed in the West Coast offense, which Cincinnati is implementing under new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Kolb is a backup in Philadelphia to Michael Vick, who was an MVP candidate last season. So for the right price, the Eagles could listen. Other options include Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb, who are both on the outs with their teams. The Titans, in fact, could be a good landing spot for Palmer if the Bengals are willing to move him. (We will get to that later.) The free-agent market is thinner. But an interesting option, at least in the short term, could be Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo has expressed interest in re-signing Fitzpatrick (3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns) after a career year. But the Bills are also could draft their long-term solution at quarterback with the No. 3 overall pick. Fitzpatrick was Palmer's backup in Cincinnati in 2008.

Question No. 3: Who is available in the draft?

Answer: This is the safest route for the Bengals to grab "Palmer insurance." With labor uncertainty, there will no be trades or player movement until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. But there is guaranteed to be an NFL draft at the end of April. Cincinnati would be wise to grab one of the top quarterbacks in the draft. The Bengals have the No. 4 overall pick and could have a shot at top quarterback prospects Cam Newton of Auburn and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert. But investing such a high pick at quarterback when the team is still unsure about Palmer's future may not be the best route. A quality prospect at the position likely would be available at the top of the second round. Quarterbacks such as Ryan Mallett of Arkansas, Christian Ponder of Florida State and Andy Dalton of TCU could be possibilities there. Mallett showed great throwing ability at the combine but has some off-the-field concerns. But the Bengals have typically gone after those types of players in the past.

Question No. 4: What is Palmer's trade value?

Answer: Palmer is a 31-year-old quarterback whose best years are behind him, but he still has value. He put up a lot of yards (3,970) but not a lot of wins (four) last season. He also tied a career high with 20 interceptions, although some were the result of receivers freelancing and running their own routes. When looking at trade value, you have to examine recent examples. Last year the Eagles traded McNabb to Washington for a second-round pick and a future third- or fourth-round pick, which was conditional. This type of deal seems on par with what the Bengals could receive. Teams just don't give up first-round picks anymore because they're too valuable. So for a veteran such as Palmer, the Bengals could probably land a second-rounder and another pick or two in the middle rounds. Cincinnati also wouldn't have to worry about the $50 million owed to Palmer over the next years. If the Bengals try to call Palmer's bluff and he retires, they get nothing.

Question No. 5: Which teams are potential trade partners?

Answer: Palmer still has a few good years left and could be a solid quarterback in a winning situation. About a third of the league has questions at quarterback. But that doesn't mean every team is a good fit for Palmer. He doesn't want to be part of another long rebuilding process, which is what's going on in Cincinnati. So the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders would be ideal landing spots for Palmer, who could be the missing piece to turning these teams into playoff contenders. Other teams with quarterback needs, such as Buffalo and the Arizona Cardinals, have a lot more work to do and are in the same spot as Cincinnati. So Palmer probably would be less interested. All of this is contingent, of course, on the Bengals' willingness to trade Palmer.

Considering all of these factors, Palmer vs. the Bengals is undoubtedly a must-watch situation this offseason.

Morning take: Haloti Ngata's contract

February, 11, 2011
2/11/11
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Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC North:
  • No matter how you cut it, this offseason will present a steep price tag for the Baltimore Ravens to keep Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata.
Morning take: Ngata is looking to become one of the NFL's highest-paid defensive linemen, and he's earned it. For Ravens fans thinking they can sign Ngata and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in the same offseason, forget about it.
  • Could Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer land with the San Francisco 49ers?
Morning take: Palmer is from California and San Francisco needs a quarterback. It makes sense. But it remains to be seen if the Bengals will entertain trade possibilities.
  • Former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend will join new Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
Morning take: Townsend and Horton spent plenty of time together in Pittsburgh and will bring some of that flavor to Arizona.
  • Cleveland Browns head coach Pat Shurmur confirmed he will serve dual role as offensive coordinator next season.
Morning take: It can be done, but this is a lot of responsibility for a first-year coach. This will be something to monitor closely next season.
Terry BradshawAP PhotoWill the current Pittsburgh team join the Steelers of the 1970s as an NFL dynasty?
FORT WORTH, Texas -- In his 50 years of experience with scouting, personnel and eventually media, Gil Brandt has seen all the football dynasties come and go in the NFL.

In Brandt's eyes, this current group of Pittsburgh Steelers can put its name into that elite category with a third championship in six seasons.

"You have to, yes," the former Dallas Cowboys player personnel executive said of considering Pittsburgh a dynasty. "We have some teams that have been in the NFL 45 years and haven't won a Super Bowl."

The Steelers have a lot on the line Sunday in Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers. Not only is Pittsburgh playing for another Lombardi Trophy, but the franchise can make a strong case to be the NFL's latest dynasty -- a term that applies only to teams winning multiple titles in a concentrated period of time.

Pittsburgh has all the ingredients for sustained success: good coaching, stellar defense, a franchise quarterback and future Hall of Famers. These are many of the same attributes of past dynasties, such as the old Steelers of the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, the Cowboys of the 1990s and, most recently, the New England Patriots of the past decade.

So where would Pittsburgh potentially fit?

"I think if we win this [Super Bowl], you have to put this organization down as being one of the dynasties of the 2000s,” said Steelers 13-year receiver Hines Ward. "We know what's at stake. For us, it's another opportunity to win another Super Bowl. We're 2-0 in Super Bowls and we don't want to experience the other side."

What exactly counts as a dynasty in today's NFL, and how much has the definition changed?

Here is some food for thought: Since free agency began in the spring of 1993, only two teams (the Denver Broncos and Patriots) have won back-to-back Super Bowls. The Cowboys' Super Bowl titles bridged the start of modern free agency. They won Super Bowl XXVII to mark the end of the 1992 season. After the era began with Reggie White's departure from the Philadelphia Eagles to join the Packers in April 1993, the Cowboys still managed to win the Lombardi Trophy that season. Although the 49ers claimed the 1994 season's title, Dallas would later cement its dynasty status by winning a third championship in the modern free-agency era during the 1995 season.

The NFL landscape has changed dramatically in the past 15 or so years where players rarely play for one team. That makes it much harder to consistently stay on top.

"I think if you can get three in a decade, those teams are up for dynasties," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "So I think if you get three titles in six years, you have to be considered."

Even if Pittsburgh wins Sunday, the biggest knock on the Steelers would be this current group has never won back-to-back Super Bowls. But this is a league where parity rules. Eight different teams have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl in the past eight seasons.

"Back-to-back titles is obviously huge, because that to me is the hardest thing to do," said former tailback and Super Bowl champion Ricky Watters with the Niners. "But to stay up there is hard, too. We see teams that get there and then they’re gone. Then they may get back up there, and they’re gone again. So I think the staying power is important."

The Steelers have never won back-to-back titles the past six seasons, but they also never had a losing season. Including playoffs, Pittsburgh holds a 71-35 record over that span.

"Well, I don’t know if it's necessary because it's really hard to win back-to-back," Brandt explained. "The reason it's hard to win is because the competitive balance in this league is so good."

Now more than ever, the NFL has become a coaching and quarterback league. This is a major reason Pittsburgh has been able to sustain its success.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMike Tomlin can win a second championship in just his fourth season as a head coach.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't put up gaudy numbers but is arguably the most clutch quarterback in the NFL. He is 10-2 in the playoffs and has a chance to improve to 3-0 in Super Bowls this Sunday. Earlier this week, the AFC North blog examined whether a third championship cements his status as a future Hall of Famer.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has a chance to win his second Super Bowl in just his fourth season. Tomlin could surpass his predecessor, Bill Cowher, who won one championship in Pittsburgh in 15 seasons.

Both are young for their respective positions. Roethlisberger, 28, and Tomlin, 38, will be stalwarts in Pittsburgh for a long time with a chance to win multiple championships together.

"We have a great relationship. He's a player's coach and I like playing for him," Roethlisberger said this week of Tomlin. "He's one of the reasons we want to win football games. We are blessed to have him as our coach."

The Steelers don't have to look far for motivation. Perhaps the greatest dynasty of all time was the dominant 1970s Pittsburgh teams that won four Super Bowls in a six-season span. That Steeler dynasty also had two back-to-back title runs.

This week several Pittsburgh veterans say they’re trying to live up to that standard. On their way to meetings at Pittsburgh's complex, Steelers players and coaches must walk by their NFL-high six Lombardi Trophies, including those four won by Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann and Co.

"We have what you can't buy, which is legacy," Tomlin said. "[It's] an unbelievable standard and expectation and all those great things."

No dynasty lasts forever. That is why it's important for this proud, veteran group of Steelers to seize this moment.

There are aging veterans older than 30 such as Ward, James Farrior, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel going for their third ring, and there are no guarantees any of these Steelers will get another chance to win another Super Bowl.

"We're not worrying about what happens afterwards. It's a whole bigger issue than us after this game,” Ward said of potentially making history. "So is this the last run? Why would it be the last run? We have a huge opportunity to win our third Super Bowl, and we're trying to come down here and make the most of it and see if we can bring our seventh Super Bowl back to Pittsburgh."

When it comes to attaining dynasty status, consider Super Bowl XLV a "swing game" for the Steelers.

Beat the favored Packers at Cowboys Stadium and this Steelers group will forever be in the dynasty discussion. But lose to Green Bay, and that conversation abruptly ends.

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