Collectors who at the beginning of the season predicted that the St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts would emerge as favorites for the next Super Bowl, must be smiling now. Of course, any true sports memorabilia expert would have thought you were crazy to think that either club would finish at .500 this year, let alone be a contender for the NFL title.
Oddsmakers listed the Rams at about 300-1 to win the Super Bowl this year, the Colts were about 500-1. Not only were these clubs longshots, but they were low profile commodities for collectors. The Rams had signed a relatively unknown free agent named Trent Green away from Washington to be their quarterback this year. The Colts did have Peyton Manning, but had traded away their other top name in collecting circles, Marshall Faulk to, ironically, St. Louis. They bypassed the higher profile Rickey Williams, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, in the NFL draft in April to select Edgerrin James, a less touted running back from the University of Miami.
When Green was injured in the pre-season, the Rams seemed headed for a repeat 4-12 finish or worse. The Colts had managed to forge three wins last year, and in the tough AFC East, with the likes of the Jets, Bills, Patriots and Dolphins, appeared destined for a last place finish again.
As fate would have it, Green was replaced by Curt Warner, an unheralded player out of Arena Football, who many collectors confused with another Curt Warner who was a successful running back several years ago. The unknown Warner has managed to get the Rams off to a 6-0 start, becoming the first team to clinch a division title and playoff berth in early December. Manning blossomed into the AFC's hottest quarterback, due in part to James' running, who took much of the pressure off Manning in late game situations.
Despite the fact the two clubs have lost only twice heading into the final month of the season, the likelihood that either will make to the Super Bowl, according to most veteran NFL observers, still seems remote. Collectors may discover a rare Warner card or Manning jersey, but the prevailing wisdom is that collectors shouldn't expect a rush of Super Bowl items for either club.
St. Louis plays in the weakest division in football, the NFC Central, where the once mighty San Francisco 49ers haven't won in two months, the New Orleans Saints have collapsed without a healthy Williams and the Atlanta Falcons experienced a post-Super Bowl debacle last year, thanks to injuries and holdouts. Only Carolina, barely a .500 team, challenged St. Louis early. As a result, the Rams went 8-0 against their own division, and the only two real playoff teams they faced this year, Detroit and Tennessee, beat them on the road. While St. Louis should enjoy home field advantage, the lack of tough competition should come back to haunt them en route to a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Colts, unlike the Rams, did have a tougher schedule, facing intra division rivals Miami, Buffalo, New England and New York, handling the competition with relative ease. However, Indianapolis has a suspect defense and Manning has never played in a post-season game. Indianapolis should have home field advantage for at least one game, but will likely have to journey on the road in the AFC title game in order to get to the Super Bowl.
Collectors looking to hedge their bets for the Super Bowl future would be better off looking towards Jacksonville in the AFC. The Jaguars have three things going for them: a tested quarterback in Mark Brunnell, the conference's best defense and playoff experience. Three straight years of lighting the AFC post-season wars has this team tested and ready for a serious Super Bowl run.
In the NFC, Minnesota and Tampa would be my choices over St. Louis. The Vikings righted their ship by discarding Randall Cunningham, a late season favorite of collectors last year, in favor of Jeff George, whose rookie card still remains a hot item from his days at the University of Illinois. Tampa has the league's best defense and while they have an unproven quarterback, championships are won with a strong running game and a stingy defense, something the Bucs possess.
It's been a strange season in the NFL, unpredictable from week to week, which makes speculating on what cards, jerseys, autographs and memorabilia a chancy business at best. While there is a sense of romanticism inherent in pinning one's hopes on the longshot Rams and Colts, the safer bet is a Jacksonville - Minnesota or Tampa Bay Super Bowl in late January.