Jan. 26, 1992, was a long, long time ago.

Bill Belichick was a 39-year-old rookie head coach with a .375 winning percentage (6-10) and no playoff appearances. Ron Wolf, in his second month as Packers general manager, was 16 days from making a trade with Atlanta for an obscure 22-year-old backup quarterback with a funny last name — Favre — that even NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue couldn’t pronounce.

And, believe it or not, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome became a puffy, proud Super Bowl venue for all the world to see on that day.

“It seems like yesterday,” said NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, who was Washington’s general manager when Joe Gibbs and the Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills 37-24 to win their third Lombardi Trophy with their third different quarterback in 10 seasons.

“But it wasn’t. That was a long, long time ago.”

Thursday is the 25th anniversary of the 26th Super Bowl, the only one to be held in Minnesota. At least until the 52nd one — Super Bowl LII — kicks off at U.S. Bank Stadium 378 days from now.

“Minneapolis was better than we expected 25 years ago,” said ESPN analyst and Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian, who was the Bills GM at the time.

“The facilities were great. The ability to get around was terrific. The skyways were great. Colder than hell, but we were used to that coming from Buffalo.”

Who will we get?

That’s right, Minnesotans. We’re on deck after Houston gets the winners of Sunday’s conference title games on Feb. 5. In the NFC, Green Bay (12-6) takes an eight-game winning streak to Atlanta (12-5) for the early game. Then, in the AFC, Pittsburgh (13-5) will ride a nine-game winning streak into New England, which is 15-2, winner of eight straight and making a record sixth straight appearance in the conference title game.

So who will we get on Feb. 4, 2018? Who the heck knows.

The NFL is as unpredictable as ever. Last year’s Super Bowl participants, Denver and Carolina, missed the playoffs entirely this season. Half of this year’s 12-team field didn’t make the playoffs last season. And that includes Dallas, which went from posting the NFC’s worst record a year ago to earning its No. 1 seed this year.

For perspective, close your eyes and imagine the 49ers clinching home-field advantage throughout next year’s playoffs. Hey, anything can happen.

Want proof?

OK, well, there have been 24 Super Bowls since Minnesota played host. That’s 48 participants.

Of those 48 participants, 15 missed the playoffs the year before. That includes three years when both participants missed the playoffs the year before. In 1999, the Titans won the AFC after going 8-8 the year before. They lost the Super Bowl to a St. Louis Rams team that had gone 4-12 the year before.

For perspective, that would be like this year’s Los Angeles Rams (4-12) hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Minnesota next year.

Of the other 33 Super Bowl participants since 1992, 10 lost in the conference title game the year before, nine lost in the divisional round, seven lost in the wild-card round, five won the Super Bowl and two lost the Super Bowl.

Whichever teams come to town, the party is expected to be on a much grander scale than 25 years ago. Goodness knows the stadium already is.

The Metrodome opened in 1982 at a cost of $55 million, which translates into $181 million in current dollars. U.S. Bank Stadium opened this past fall at a cost of $1.1 billion.

“It was a really good experience 25 years ago, except for the outcome of the game,” Polian said. “And I’m sure it will be again next year.”

Different in so many ways

They didn’t exactly wear leather helmets a quarter-century ago, but the NFL today is a different game in so many ways.

For example, Polian noted that 25 years ago the Redskins and Bills ran the ball a combined 51 percent of the time while finishing 1-2 in scoring that season. “The Hogs,” Washington’s vaunted offensive line in the 1980s and early 1990s, were light by today’s standards at 288 pounds per man. And, heck, a 30-second Super Bowl ad was a bargain at $850,000 compared with last year’s $5.01 million.

“So many changes have happened in the NFL the last 25 years that I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” said CBS lead NFL game analyst Phil Simms, whose 15-year career as Giants quarterback ended in 1993.

Rules were changed. Four teams were added. Los Angeles lost two teams, including the Rams, and regained two teams, including the Rams.

Free agency and the salary cap were born. Player safety became a hot-button issue as revelations about the long-term risks associated with concussions threatened the league’s popularity. And social media is the ever-evolving coaching nightmare that took yet another shocking step last Sunday when Steelers star receiver Antonio Brown’s 17-minute live stream on Facebook captured coach Mike Tomlin’s postgame locker room speech, which included some colorfully disparaging comments about the Patriots.

“The advent of social media changed the lives of every human being in the country, not just the football players,” Casserly said. “There is no more privacy.”

CBS studio analyst Bill Cowher, who coached the Steelers from 1992 to 2006, said the change he likes most is the emphasis on player safety.

“We’ve learned a lot, and I think we’re doing everything we possibly can do to take the head out of the game,” he said. “It’s been a little bit of an adjustment from a teaching standpoint, a coaching standpoint and a fan standpoint in terms of acceptance. But we’re making the transition in trying to make the game safer and still keep it a physical, hard-hitting, aggressive game.”

Casserly and Polian both said free agency and the salary cap changed the game more than anything else.

“That changed everything,” Casserly said. “Teams can’t stay together anymore. But it also makes every team competitive whereas some teams didn’t spend the money before. Now, every team has to spend a certain amount.”

Simms said he likes the way the NFL, more than any other league, isn’t afraid to change rules to make the game more exciting. He also praised the coaches over the years who have learned how to transfer more decisionmaking to the quarterback position.

“They take the quarterback and put so much responsibility on him and allow him to get the offense into good plays to make the game better,” Simms said. “So we don’t see a handoff going on a side where there’s a blitz and somebody getting tackled for a 2-yard loss.

“That has really changed the importance and the education and the willingness to put your football team into the hands of the quarterback. And we see it with a lot of teams. We see it with teams here in the playoffs. We’re going to see it, of course, to a pretty high extreme up in New England [on Sunday] with Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. They have the ability to do whatever they want with a given play call at the line of scrimmage, which I think is pretty cool.”

On the flip side, Simms, like many analysts this week, was critical of social media in general and Brown in particular.

“This Antonio Brown thing is really bad,” he said. “I’m surprised stuff like this hasn’t happened before. … This won’t be the end of [it]. The secrets or the sanctity of the locker room that you used to have, I think those days are probably gone. You even got to watch what you say to your teammate in the locker rooms now.”

Yes, indeed, Jan. 26, 1992, sure seems like a long, long time ago.


E-mail: mcraig@startribune.com