No one was surprised when NBC initially picked this Sunday's game between the Ravens and Seattle Seahawks for a Sunday Night Football broadcast. It seemed to warrant a big stage.
Since the teams last played in 2011, the Ravens had won a Super Bowl and the Seahawks had also won one and played in another. NBC couldn't resist a rare meeting of two of the three most recent teams to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy, especially with both expected to contend in 2015.
But to quote an ancient Scot poet, "the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry."
The Ravens and Seahawks both experienced early-season struggles. After the Ravens lost in San Francisco while the Seahawks were falling at home to Carolina on Oct. 18, they were a combined 3-9 in 2015.
The Seahawks have since straightened themselves out for the most part with five wins in their last six games; they're in line for a wild-card ticket to the NFC playoffs, but they aren't going to capture a third straight division title. As for the Ravens, they've continued to deal with injuries and inconsistencies, and now sit at 4-8 for the season after losing in Miami last Sunday.
NBC flexed their game out of prime time 10 days ago. Instead of a possible Super Bowl preview, it has become a cautionary tale about the difficulty of staying on top in the NFL.
Oh, the Seahawks are faring much better than the Ravens; their quarterback, Russell Wilson, is on a mighty roll with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last three games. Still, both organizations could teach a course in the challenge of trying to sustain your Super success while facing factors that work against you.
Many of those factors are built into the NFL's business model, which promotes parity over dynasties. When you win, your opponents draft sooner than you and play easier schedules than you – an intentionally uneven playing field designed to pull everyone toward the median.
Then there's the salary cap, the greatest hindrance to continued success. The limit on salaries forces teams to make hard choices, i.e. give up on some players who helped them get to the top.
A steady talent drain has staggered the Ravens, costing them a slew of players who contributed to their Super Bowl victory. This year alone, they lost Pernell McPhee, Torrey Smith and Haloti Ngata because of cap considerations.
The cap is the NFL's way of guaranteeing that the best talent gets spread around, as opposed to being stockpiled by a few wealthy teams, which happens in other sports. It's the bane of teams trying to win multiple Super Bowls.
Other factors also can work against teams trying to sustain such success. A sense of accomplishment can pervade the locker room after you win, impacting urgency and drive. Money can become an issue as the locker room watches who gets paid for taking the team to the top.
Remember Mike Ditka's comment about the impact of a Super Bowl victory on his 1985 Chicago Bears: "Nothing was ever the same."
And even if you continue to contend, you still need the stars to align – some good fortune – to go all the way. And life only grants you that blessing so often.
To go all the way in 2012, the Ravens needed Ray Lewis' comeback, the "Mile High Miracle," the final stand in the Superdome. Their pendulum has since swung the other way, especially this year. Their losing record is deserved, but between all the key injuries, weird endings and refereeing missteps, it's safe to say their stars are the opposite of aligned.
When the Seahawks went all the way a year after the Ravens, they had a younger team, and thus, did not have to follow Baltimore's course and try to rebuild on the run – a process that was going pretty well until this year. The Seahawks made it back to the Super Bowl in 2014 and seemed poised to win again until a fateful goal-line interception gave the title to New England. In the end, their stars weren't sufficiently aligned.
Now, a year later, the Seahawks are looking at a trip to the playoffs as a No. 5 or No 6 seed, meaning games without their great home-field advantage. They're going to try to discover that magic feeling again, and stranger things have happened, but boy, it's tough out there.