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AFC Championship Game will speak volumes about the state of the NFL

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For the Pittsburgh Steelers and a number of other NFL teams, 2017 was the season of not quite right. But New England might be the only playoff contender with an opportunity to demonstrate that quality still can dominate in this league.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of yet another playoff disappointment, it’s impossible to grasp the full dimensions of the Steelers’ current plight without also examining what’s happened to the NFL at large in recent years. Approximately one year ago, the Steelers were manhandled by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. When the game ended, there was little doubt as to which was the dominant team. And even though the memory of that game is a painful one for Steelers Nation, there’s no shame in being eliminated from the playoffs by a better team.

But what really sticks in one’s craw is the fact that, during the 2017 regular season, the Steelers had nearly as much trouble beating Cleveland and Indianapolis as they did in their narrow losses to New England and Jacksonville. At some level, you expect the final score of a football game to reflect the relative strength and capabilities of the two teams involved. But in 2017, this basic metric appeared to fly completely out of the window—not only for Pittsburgh, but for many other NFL teams as well.

But up there in frosty New England, with the exception of a likely-overblown hand injury to quarterback Tom Brady, things continue to roll merrily along. Despite their upset win in Pittsburgh last Sunday, Jacksonville looks to be hugely over-matched in the upcoming AFC Championship Game. If Ben Roethlisberger could gash the Jags’ supposedly staunch defense for 469 passing yards and 5 TDs, one can only imagine what Brady and company will do. But if by some miracle, Blake Bortles is able to keep pace with Brady—and the Jags manage to upset the Pats—the only thing this would prove is that the NFL as we’ve known it over the years has ceased to exist.

During the 2017 regular season, the Steelers allowed themselves to fall back into the large and growing pack of teams that can muster neither the discipline nor the consistency required of an NFL champion. And should the Patriots take the field at Gillette Stadium on Sunday and fail to whip the Jags like so many rented mules, then we might very well be witnessing the final extinction of dynastic franchises such as the Patriots, Steelers, Packers and Cowboys.

Because pro football fans in many cities are still hoping they’ll survive long enough to witness their home team’s first Super Bowl win, don’t expect too much in the way of sympathy for the demise of the perennial NFL powerhouses. Some believe that parity is a wonderful thing because it affords teams such as Jacksonville, Minnesota and Philadelphia the opportunity to morph from perennial NFL doormats to conference champions within the space of only a few short years. But during the 2017 season, the Steelers gave their loyal fans a sobering preview of what the franchise might look like in an era devoid of dominant teams. Regardless of which NFL team you support, those coming attractions are not such a pretty picture.

So even though it’s galling to admit, I’m afraid I’ll be rooting for the Evil Empire on Sunday. If you can’t find anything else good to say about Belichick’s gang, you’ve got to admit they’re a solid, well-coached team and largely (if grudgingly) deserving of their accolades. In fact, I’d say the Pats are the only team of the Final Four which possesses the complete package you’d expect in a defending NFL champion. But don’t worry—I’ll revert to hating on the Pats immediately after Super Bowl 52.

Meanwhile, if the league’s sole remaining, dominant team should stumble ingloriously against the upstart Jags—just as the Steelers did last weekend in front of their hometown fans—then nothing will make sense anymore in this league. If that comes to pass, then we ought to steel ourselves (no pun intended) for the emergence of other NFL teams shooting out of nowhere to challenge for Super Bowl berths. I can see it now—in February of 2019: thousands of crazed Cincinnati Bengals fans chanting “who dey! who dey!” in the parking lot of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta before Super Bowl 53.

We can only hope the madness which characterized the 2017 season is temporary—and that some measure of normalcy will be restored via a resounding New England victory over the Jaguars. But don’t try to suggest this to the long-suffering Jaguars fans intoxicated with their first-ever whiff of a possible Super Bowl.