So much of this season has focused on Green Bay's chase of perfection, Drew Brees' pursuit of Dan Marino's record and Tim Tebow's miracles. But now Green Bay, Brees and Tebow have been taken out, leaving the spotlight to shine where it hasn't for much of this season.
Now it's about the NFL's final four: Baltimore, New England, New York and San Francisco. And after Sunday, two will head for Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI.
Interesting storylines would accompany any of these Super Bowl XLVI matchups.
• Ravens vs. 49ers: Welcome to the Harbowl. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh would face his brother, San Franicsco coach Jim Harbaugh. This game would pit veteran stalwart linebacker Ray Lewis against young stalwart linebacker Patrick Willis. It would feature two quarterbacks who have struggled to gain respect and ferocious defenses in a season in which offenses made their mark. Yet the Super Bowl would be about a brother combination that, for at least two weeks, would supplant Eli and Peyton Manning as the most popular in the game.
• Patriots vs. Giants: Move over, Red Sox and Yankees; a new Boston-New York rivalry would be captivating the country. It would be a Super Bowl XLII rematch, four years later. We'd see Tom Brady versus the Giants' pass rush that tormented him in Super Bowl XLII. We'd also see more of Bill Belichick versus Tom Coughlin -- two of the game's top coaches. All that would be missing would be David Tyree's catching a pass on his helmet with Rodney Harrison draped all over him, although both players would be heard from plenty in Indianapolis.
• Patriots vs. 49ers: This matchup would feature two of football's top franchises, the team of the 1980s versus the team of the ... past decade. Once, the Patriots played the way the 49ers do today: tough defense, limited offense. And once, the 49ers played the way the Patriots do today: high-flying offense, limited defense. Two teams that have combined for eight Super Bowl titles would be vying for one more.
• Ravens vs. Giants: This would be a rematch of Super Bowl XXXV. Brian Billick and Jim Fassel, the two coaches from that game, are out of the league. But Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is not. Newcomers would include Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Of the potential Super Bowl matchups, this would seem to have fewer storylines than the others. But it still would be a super game.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
1. Home sweet home: Home teams have an advantage Sunday, unquestionably, and home teams have a 55-27 record in conference championship games since 1970. But beware: No two quarterbacks have fared better in the postseason on the road than the two who are away from home Sunday, Baltimore's Joe Flacco and New York's Eli Manning. Flacco and Manning each have four road playoff wins, which is tied with five other quarterbacks for the most in NFL postseason history. A win Sunday by Flacco or Manning -- or both -- would make him -- or them -- the most successful postseason quarterback on the road in NFL history. The teams they're playing for have plenty to do with it, too. Despite entering the NFL in 1996, the Ravens franchise already has seven road playoff wins. Only the Packers (10), Cowboys (9) and Titans/Oilers (8) have more. The Giants have won four straight postseason road games, and their franchise is 4-0 in conference championship games. Now Flacco and Manning are playing for another slice of history.
2. Redefining the game: Tight ends helped define this season and redefine the game. We've never seen the combination of tight end performances we saw last weekend. Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham combined for 26 receptions, 483 receiving yards and eight touchdowns -- and that doesn't include Hernandez's 61 rushing yards. Gronkowski, Davis and Graham each had at least 100 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. To prove how rare that is, the last tight end with at least 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a postseason game was former Dolphin Keith Jackson, who accomplished the statistical feat in the 1994 divisional playoffs. Tight ends are playing at a higher level than ever because they are bigger, stronger and faster. Defenders have a tougher time hitting them at the line of scrimmage. This allows them to have free run into the open field, where they have wreaked havoc this season and again in the postseason. Tight ends will be a major key this weekend. Everyone will be watching the usual headliners, Gronkowski, Hernandez and Davis. But in the season of tight ends, don't be surprised to see New York tight ends Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum or Baltimore's Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta get chances to make meaningful contributions. This is a copycat league, so it would be an upset if tight ends were not at more of a premium in the draft than they've been in recent years.
3. The measure of Brady: Tom Brady's greatness can best be measured by his appearances in AFC championship games. Brady has played 12 seasons, and in half of them -- half! -- he has led the Patriots to the AFC Championship Game. Brady's Patriots advanced to the championship game in the 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2011 seasons. Heading into Sunday's showdown versus Baltimore, Brady's championship game record is 4-1. There's plenty at stake Sunday aside from another trip to the Super Bowl. If New England wins, Brady would win his 16th postseason NFL game. The 16 postseason wins would tie his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, for most postseason wins in NFL history. Then Brady would have a chance to set the record for most postseason wins and trigger the debate about whether he's the greatest quarterback of all time -- all on Peyton Manning's home field.
4. Ravens rebuilding: Baltimore typically has been one of the league's strongest franchises. But what has gone overlooked this season is that the Ravens have been rebuilding (by their standards) and saving money. Entering the season, Baltimore let go running backs Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain, wide receiver Derrick Mason, tight end Todd Heap, offensive tackle Jared Gaither and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg. To help replace them, Baltimore relied on younger players such as tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, wide receiver Torrey Smith, fullback Vonta Leach, and defensive tackle Terrence Cody. The Ravens got younger and better all while saving nearly $20 million -- and still went further than they did last season, when they lost in the divisional playoffs to Pittsburgh. It just goes to prove, yet again, that big names aren't necessarily better players.
5. Smith surprises: Few if any predicted that 49ers quarterback Alex Smith would lead his team further in this season's playoffs than Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Everyone waited for Smith to flop this season, and he has done just the opposite. Smith was less mistake-prone this season than any other quarterback in football. Smith's interception percentage this season of 1.1 -- five interceptions on 445 passing attempts -- was the lowest in the NFL. It was better than Rodgers' 1.2 (six interceptions in 502 attempts) and better than Sam Bradford's 1.7 (six in 357). Smith's interception percentage was so low that it set a 49ers season franchise record, bettering any interception mark that Joe Montana or Steve Young had in one season. If Smith can continue to avoid the mistakes, San Francisco will be tough to take down, even for a white-hot Giants team.
6. Coughlin crisis? Nothing epitomizes the hysterical state of our sports world better than this season's debate about Giants coach Tom Coughlin. When the Giants opened the season 6-2, Coughlin was mentioned as a first-half coach of the year candidate. When the Giants then lost five of their next six games, speculation began swirling that Coughlin would be fired. Now, after a divisional playoff win at Green Bay, Coughlin has six postseason road wins, placing him one win from tying former Cowboys coach Tom Landry for the most postseason road wins by any coach in NFL history. Think about this: In one season, Coughlin has gone from the hot seat to a legitimate candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
7. Brees fallout: The Saints' failure to sign quarterback Drew Brees to a contract extension this season probably will wind up hurting them this offseason. Unless New Orleans can get a deal done with Brees in the next month, the Saints will have to use their franchise tag on him, which means they will not have it available for wide receiver Marques Colston or Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks. Colston already has said he will not give New Orleans a hometown discount, and Nicks also is expected to leave New Orleans, according to league sources. The Saints already have committed big money to guard Jahri Evans. It would be challenging for New Orleans to make two guards two of the highest-paid players at their position in the league, and so the lack of a tag probably means goodbye to Nicks. Failing to get a deal done with Brees might not have seemed like a significant issue at the time, but it will cost New Orleans.
8. What might have been: It matters not now, but if Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Schaub had not suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 10, Houston would have been the toughest team in the AFC and possibly the NFL. Houston nearly beat Baltimore, even with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates throwing three interceptions. Now, if the Texans can keep their quarterback healthy, and if general manager Rick Smith can have the type of draft in 2012 that he did in 2011 when he took J.J. Watt in Round 1 and Brooks Reed in the second round, this team can challenge for it all in 2012.
9. St. Louis dealing? No team in the NFL has more ammunition for draft-day trades than the St. Louis Rams. For starters, the Rams own the second overall pick. Should the Colts draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, that will leave the Rams fielding offers for teams interested in trading up for Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, whom a handful of NFL scouts prefer to Luck. St. Louis might be able to package its first-round pick for a Julio Jones-type package of picks from the right team. Then in the second round, based on NFL rules, the Colts and Rams switch spots, giving St. Louis the top pick in the second round. The pick is desirable because the second round starts Friday night, when teams have all day to try to trade up to grab the prospects they covet. And so the No. 2 overall pick and the No. 33 overall pick give the Rams the type of ammunition they need to replenish their roster with the talent and depth they now lack.
10. High standards: This offseason perfectly proves how impatient NFL owners are and how difficult the coaching class of 2009 had it. Of the 11 coaches hired that offseason, nine have been fired. Only two have retained the coaching jobs they were hired to do -- Jim Schwartz in Detroit and Rex Ryan in New York. The other nine -- Eric Mangini in Cleveland, Josh McDaniels in Denver, Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis, Todd Haley in Kansas City, Tom Cable in Oakland, Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis, Mike Singletary in San Francisco, Jim Mora in Seattle, Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay -- have been fired. That class had such a tough time holding on in part because that was the first offseason without a salary cap, and then last offseason was the lockout. Coaches struggled to flush out the old players, add new pieces and develop young talent. Coaches hired today do not have to deal with the same disadvantages, but they do have to deal with even more pressure. Still, today's advantages could translate into fewer firings in years to come.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: Giants vs. 49ers: The two teams that took out Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees now settle who's best in the NFC.
• Player of the week: Giants quarterback Eli Manning: He's never played with more confidence than now.
• Picks of the week: New England over Baltimore: The Ravens will keep it close, but the Patriots will make it count. New York over San Francisco: This season is looking a lot like the 2007 season.