The Denver Broncos will end their season on the grandest of all football stages Sunday, taking on the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl.
But do you remember how the Broncos' season started?
They took on the Ravens in Denver on the first Sunday of the regular season. It was considered a matchup of likely playoff contenders, and accordingly, a tight game unfolded. The Broncos led early. The Ravens took charge after halftime. They had the lead and the ball and were driving late in the third quarter when a pick-six derailed their momentum.
In the final minutes, Denver had a lead but Joe Flacco drove the Ravens offense into scoring position. A game-winning touchdown pass fell through the hands of Steve Smith Sr.
The Broncos won, but the margin of victory was thin enough that any fan knew a January rematch could go either way.
You know what happened after that. The Broncos kept winning and the Ravens faltered, losing more close games while suffering a debilitating run of injuries that began against Denver when Terrell Suggs tore an Achilles tendon.
Five months later, the Broncos are conference champions, Super Bowl royalty, and the Ravens are trying to rebound from a 5-11 finish. It appears the teams are miles apart, one at the game's pinnacle, the other swimming with Cleveland and Jacksonville in the top 10 of the draft.
But are they really miles apart? I have my doubts. They certainly weren't miles apart when they played.
Oh, I know, one game doesn't prove anything, especially one game so long ago. Denver was a good matchup for the Ravens at that point because Peyton Manning no longer had the arm to take advantage of their secondary woes, which would become glaring in the coming weeks before settling down later. As things played out, the mistake-prone, inconsistent Ravens deserved their final record.
Still, my point is it might be wrong to assume they're now many lengths away from where they want to go, as it currently appears.
I'm not saying they're a slam-dunk certainty to narrow the gap in 2016 and become contenders again. They have work to do, moves to make. They have to navigate a tricky salary cap situation, stay healthier, run the ball more effectively and get better at forcing turnovers, the latter an elusive skill you can't just snap your fingers and master.
But I'm saying the ground they need to make up isn't such a gargantuan expanse.
That's true partly because the teams at the top aren't exactly forbidding. That's my two cents. When I survey the rest of the NFL, I see only one truly dominant team, the Panthers, whom I'm picking to win Sunday, 31-19, because of their superior balance.
Other than Carolina, though, the top teams don't conjure memories of history's great squads. They're pretty good, but they all have shortcomings. In the AFC, Denver's offense is just OK, New England couldn't pass block when it mattered, Cincinnati has a playoff bugaboo and Pittsburgh, well, the Ravens beat the Steelers twice.
The league's drive for parity has pulled everyone toward the mean. That has hindered the Ravens since their Super Bowl triumph 36 months ago, but it works both ways and now they could benefit.
I know, it appeared they had tons of ground to make up when they were badly outclassed late in the season by Seattle. Kansas City also was clearly better in a December matchup.
But the Ravens were playing so many backups by then, especially on offense, that I'm not sure those results are a fair indication of anything going forward. Need a trivia game to wile away the hours before kickoff Sunday? Take the Ravens' starting lineup from their 2015 regular-season finale and guess how many will start the 2016 opener.
Things are always changing in today's NFL, sometimes dramatically. Predicting the future can be a fool's errand. The Ravens were a couple of plays away from reaching the AFC title game in 2014. That didn't help them in 2015. They battered the Panthers by four touchdowns just 17 months ago. That wouldn't happen now.
Bottom line, the slate gets wiped clean when Sunday's game ends. The fact that the Ravens went 5-11 doesn't really mean anything. They're back in the game again, with possibilities to ponder.