Is it possible there is a game more important than the Super Bowl? The answer, if you ask me and many other NFL veterans -- retired or still active -- is yes.
The conference championship games are actually a bigger deal to most NFL players than the Super Bowl itself because they represent a chance at the lifelong dream of playing in a Super Bowl.
Don't misunderstand me. The primary goal and objective of every player and team is to win the Super Bowl. You're playing for the ring. That's the ultimate.
The reality, however, is that, as an NFL player, you either have had the experience of playing in a Super Bowl or you haven't. There's no middle ground. And most NFL players will tell you they'd much rather have had the chance to play in a Super Bowl and lose than never have had that shot. I know I would give anything to have played in a Super Bowl, win or lose.
This, of course, is not the case for players who have already been to the Super Bowl and experienced it in all its glory. For them, it is all about getting to the Super Bowl and winning it. Understandable. But if you ask players who have lost a championship game and a Super Bowl, in that order, most of them will tell you that the championship game stung more because they were so close to having the experience of a lifetime.
Losing in a championship game can be an amazingly bitter pill to swallow.
"It still resonates clear in my mind in Indy sitting on the sidelines watching the confetti come down. Same thing last year in Pittsburgh. I'm hoping the third time is a charm." Patriots safety James Ihedigbo, a member of the New York Jets the past two years, told me this week on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
What about somebody who has been to the Super Bowl and lost? I asked former offensive lineman Glenn Parker, who lost an astounding five Super Bowls as a member of the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants, about the championship game vs. Super Bowl debate and his response was simple.
"I've always said that you can't lose five Super Bowls unless you actually play in five Super Bowls."
I'm no literary scholar, but it reminds me of the famous Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem, "In Memoriam:27," in which he writes: "Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all."
That is what's on the line Sunday in the conference championship games. Dozens of players are going to put it all on the line for the chance to love ... the opportunity to play in a Super Bowl.
From the inbox
Q: I'm a dedicated Raven fan who can't make up his mind about Joe Flacco. His record is terrific and the team has been in the playoffs every year he's been here. And I really can't think of many games where it could be said that they lost because of Flacco. However, when I look around and see how Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford have developed so quickly, it seems Flacco just stopped developing after the first or second year. Granted, much more is required of those quarterbacks in the way of passing offense. They don't have the defense and running games the Ravens do. So is Flacco just a mediocre quarterback, or does the Ravens' offensive approach give him all those bad numbers?
John in Annapolis, Md.
A: Flacco had been making steady progress through his first three years, but I agree that it stopped this year. If anything, it appears as if he has taken a step back and the numbers support that. The truth is he throws the ball as well as anyone in the league. That's not the problem. The issues this year have been threefold. Most notable is that his receivers have had a very difficult time getting separation this year, and it doesn't seem as if Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron does a very good job of helping create that separation. Just as importantly, Flacco's pocket presence is far worse than that of the elite quarterbacks in the league, and I'm not sure that is something that can be fixed.
Q: Why isn't there more interest in Brian Billick from the Dolphins? He has a ring, has openly expressed interest in the position, and it could be beneficial to reunite him with Mike Nolan. Also, why don't the Dolphins trade for Tony Romo? They are entering a win-now mode and they are one good QB and coach away from being a playoff contender.
Ron in Meeteetse, Wyo.
A: You are preaching to the choir about Billick. I know the knocks on him are supposedly that he has a big ego and that he is an offensive guy whose offense wasn't that great in Baltimore, but who cares? First of all, every head coach has a big ego; maybe Billick is just more honest and open about it. As for your Romo-to-the-Dolphins trade, that is pure fandom on your part. Romo is one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the NFL, and the Dallas Cowboys won't be trading him any time soon.
Q: As teams advance in the playoffs, do coaches contact other coaches to gather information on opponents they haven't faced that season?
Steve in Seattle
A: Yeah, that certainly happens sometimes, but only if there is already a very solid pre-existing relationship between those coaches. It would not be appropriate for a coach of one team to just call a coach of a divisional opponent out of the blue and try to get information. That would just be awkward. The truth is, however, that any advantage that is gained in this regard is minimal because each team will do at least a four-game breakdown of the opponent on its own anyway. Plus, the other team probably is calling some of its own coaching contacts around the league, as well, so it kind of evens out.
Q: I keep hearing how great the zone-blocking scheme is. What are the main differences between that scheme and the standard man-to-man scheme? And if it is so great, why doesn't every team use it?
C.M. in Houston
A: Well, you keep hearing about it because you are from Houston and the Texans have had a tremendous amount of success with it. I must say, though, that I think it is a bit of a misnomer. Pretty much every team has inside and outside zone schemes in its playbook. The difference is that "zone" teams such as Houston and Washington rarely run plays other than outside zone and other teams focus more on power, counter and leads. Most man or gap schemes try to get vertical displacement off the football by knocking the defenders back to open up a predetermined seam in the defense. The zone-blocking system is all about horizontal movement. The basic idea is to get all of the defenders running laterally to stay in their designated gap. At that point, all that is really needed is for just one of those defenders to get cut down to the ground, thus opening up a big hole in the gap in which he was responsible. It has proved to be a very effective system, but that doesn't mean it always works. Mike Shanahan is generally credited with first employing it with offensive line coach Alex Gibbs in the 1990s, and, if you've noticed, it's been some time since Shanahan's teams have had much success.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.