In February, one team will triumphantly raise the Lombardi Trophy after achieving the goal that every team shares at the start of the season: winning the Super Bowl.
Of course, 31 other teams will not be doing that.
But which of the 31 non-Super Bowl winners will take it the hardest? A squad that is running out of time to win behind a quarterback defying Father Time? An organization that has made a flurry of aggressive moves to maximize a competitive window?
When I was vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys, we went to the playoffs 18 times in a 20-season stretch. We won the Super Bowl twice in that span -- but all other 16 trips to the postseason ended in a loss. No matter how successful you are, when you get beaten in the playoffs, it can feel like there's no tomorrow. Your season ends abruptly, in great disappointment, even if, by most measures, reaching the postseason qualifies as an achievement.
There are about 20 teams right now that look like they are in the playoff conversation. But some are facing higher expectations than others. I've isolated seven teams below for whom failing to win Super Bowl LIII would qualify as the bitterest of disappointments -- seven "Super Bowl or bust" squads with everything riding on the final outcome of the 2018 season, arranged in order of who would be most upset to miss their shot.
1) New Orleans Saints: Based on how this season has unfolded for the blistering-hot Saints, the 39-year-old Drew Brees might never have a better chance to win a second Super Bowl title. Brees has given us zero reason to think he'll stop playing at an extremely high level anytime soon. But all NFL careers are finite, and when you're almost 40 years old, you never know when the end is going to come. New Orleans has to do what it can to take full advantage of this moment.
The Saints' sense of urgency was underscored by some win-now personnel decisions: giving up a 2019 first-round pick to move up for pass-rusher Marcus Davenport, shipping a third-rounder to the Jets for backup QB Teddy Bridgewater, dealing two picks to the Giants for CB Eli Apple a week before the trade deadline and signing veteran receivers Dez Bryant and (after Bryant tore his Achilles) Brandon Marshall. Marshall hasn't broken the 1,000-yard mark since 2015 -- but veteran receivers can be extremely valuable in crunch time, as they can be trusted to not, say, run the wrong route and cause a crucial interception. And don't overlook the impact his signing could have on the locker room. When other players look at someone like Marshall or Bryant, they don't see someone who's over the hill; they see their team trying to do something to help them win right now. It can provide an enthusiasm bump and give the older player a boost of youthful energy.
2) Pittsburgh Steelers: It is often assumed that if you make the playoffs on a regular basis, you will eventually break through and win it all. But the Steelers have fallen into a kind of also-ran status since they lost Super Bowl XLV to the Packers. Ben Roethlisberger is 36 and Antonio Brown is 30, and I would say Pittsburgh probably has two years left of that duo operating at peak ability together. The fact that their five-game winning streak has featured strong play from young difference-makers like Le'Veon Bell-replacement James Conner, T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster should fuel optimism about their ability to make at least one more championship push in the Big Ben-A.B. era. In the last 30 seasons, Pittsburgh has posted a losing record just five times. The organization was incredibly fortunate that one of those times was in 2003, which put the Steelers in position to draft Roethlisberger 11th overall. If the Steelers want to add a third title to Big Ben's ledger before they have to once again look for a quarterback, the time is now.
3) Los Angeles Rams: The long-term window for this team is wide open, given that core players Jared Goff (24), Todd Gurley (24), Brandin Cooks (25) and Aaron Donald (27) have many of years of greatness -- and Super Bowl contention -- in front of them. But they're also looking at a short-term window of salary-cap flexibility that will end when Goff, who is still on his rookie contract, has to be extended. Thus, the Rams made a number of aggressive moves designed to make them title heavyweights this year, trading for Cooks, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Dante Fowler and signing Ndamukong Suh. Peters and Talib are under contract through 2019, but Fowler and Suh will be free agents after this year. Exiting the playoffs prematurely with all that added talent would be a fairly significant disappointment, however bright the Rams' long-term future looks.
4) Los Angeles Chargers: First, like the Saints and Steelers, the Chargers have an aging quarterback at the top of his game. Philip Rivers is playing as well as he's ever played, completing 67.3 percent of his passes for 21 touchdowns, four picks and a passer rating of 115.4. At 36, his chances of winning his first Super Bowl title decrease every year. But this year, he's backed by one of the most complete supporting casts of his career. Secondly, winning a Super Bowl would be about the best thing the Chargers could do to establish a fan base in Los Angeles and separate themselves from the Rams. Rivers is on a serious roll, and he's working with good, young running backs (Melvin Ingram, Austin Ekeler), a strong offensive line and a talented receiving corps, while the defense could give the Bolts a shot to hang with some of the other powerhouses in the league, especially once Joey Bosa returns from injury.
5) Philadelphia Eagles: Being the reigning Super Bowl champs and having Carson Wentz on the roster blunts some of the pressure to win in 2018. However, like the Rams, the Eagles are on the clock to make the most of their quarterback's rookie contract, before they're forced to pony up to extend him. When I asked general manager Howie Roseman personally why Philadelphia traded for veteran receiver Golden Tate, he told me the Eagles needed more big-play ability on their team. A third-round pick is a lot to cough up for a 30-year-old who will be a free agent in 2019, but Tate -- along with players like Haloti Ngata and Michael Bennett -- was added this year to squeeze what they can out of this mini-window. It is extremely hard to repeat as champs, especially in the hyper-competitive modern era. Philadelphia will have to hope Tate can help get this team back on track after a 4-5 start.
6) Kansas City Chiefs:Patrick Mahomes is going to give this team plenty of chances to win the Super Bowl in the years to come, so a title-less trip to the postseason will definitely not be the end of the world for the Chiefs. That said, they are also intimately familiar with playoff heartbreak, stretching back to a Divisional Round loss to Indianapolis in the 2003 playoffs, when Peyton Manning's No. 3 seed Colts squashed the No. 2 seed in the AFC, 38-31. Since then, Kansas City has won precisely one playoff game (against the Texans in 2015) in six trips. Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt are poised to put an end to that run of postseason misery. Still, as specified in the intro, only one team can win it all, and if that team isn't the Chiefs, it'll be difficult to avoid at least a little bit of extra sourness upon suffering yet another playoff defeat.
7) New England Patriots: With five Super Bowl wins since the 2001 season (and an NFL-high 10 Super Bowl appearances in total), the Patriots would have little to complain about if they weren't able to capture yet another. The question is, how many more chances will they have to win it all with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick? Brady is undoubtedly still good, and it would be the epitome of foolishness to pronounce the downfall of a dynasty that has made a habit out of defying the natural team-building cycle. But Brady did look every bit like a 41-year-old in last Sunday's surprising loss to the Titans, completing just 51.2 percent of his passes for 254 yards, no scores and a passer rating of 70.6. The rest of the team -- which, in addition to dealing with injuries, is something of a patchwork assemblage, as per usual -- could still round into form around Brady. I also can't emphasize enough the ability of Belichick to simply out-think everybody and win games. Eventually, though, the Brady-Belichick era will end, and the title opportunities will run out.