After an exciting round of divisional matchups, only four teams remain in the postseason picture.
A week ago, it seemed unthinkable that both the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers would be watching the NFC Championship game on TV, but the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants showed no respect for conventional wisdom, delivering season-defining performances to advance.
Over in the AFC, the Tim Tebow bandwagon came to an abrupt halt at a cold Gillette Stadium, as Tom Brady and the top-seeded New England Patriots held a passing clinic to re-assert their Super Bowl credentials.
Our final four throw up some exciting Super Bowl possibilities, with great storylines and intrigue by the truckload. To borrow the old boxing cliche, "styles make fights", and the main event—Super Bowl XLVI—promises to be one of the best in recent memory.
Let's take a walk through some of the potential themes we could be treated to in Indianapolis.
Fans of a great storyline will be rooting hard for a rematch between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. Another "Harbaugh Bowl" might just break all viewing figures, even if the scoreboard wouldn't get much of a workout.
Sibling rivalries have popped up throughout NFL history, but very few have played out with both brothers in prominent roles for their respective teams.
Peyton and Eli Manning have squared off during the regular season, as have the Ryan twins, although the former may never happen again, and the latter—for now—pits a head coach against a defensive coordinator.
And for all the love on display between the Harbaughs in their first encounter—a tough 16-6 win for the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium—the sequel would have a Lombardi Trophy riding on it, stretching their relationship in full view of the watching public.
It might not contain as many offensive fireworks without Tom Brady or Eli Manning, but a John vs. Jim matchup would crank up the media hype machine to Tim Tebow levels ahead of Super Bowl XLVI. Almost.
New England Patriots fans don't need any convincing that Tom Brady belongs in the "greatest of all time" conversation, but if he wins a fourth Super Bowl ring, even die-hard detractors would be hard-pressed to deny his credentials.
For the sixth time in his career, Brady will take part in an AFC Championship game this weekend. If he and the Patriots can overcome the Ravens, the focus will turn to comparisons with Joe Montana—especially if the Niners are the opponents in Indy.
Brady is already one of the greats of the game, but in an era that places emphasis on passing over tackling, statistical achievements are easier to accomplish than they were in the 1980s.
The New England QB turns 35 before the 2012 season, but his desire and competitive spirit burn as brightly as ever.
He'll have to overcome two top defenses in his next two games to stand a chance. We all know what happened the last time he faced a dominant defensive line in the Super Bowl...
The ratings for a Patriots-Giants Super Bowl would go through the roof. A repeat of Super Bowl XLII would capture the imagination of a wide audience.
In what was one of the biggest upsets in NFL history, the 12-point underdog New York Giants spoiled New England's quest for perfection with a defensive masterpiece, orchestrated by Steve Spagnuolo and carried out by Justin Tuck and a retiring Michael Strahan.
Great Super Bowl memories are captured in close games with big plays late.
They don't come much bigger than that catch by David Tyree, against his own helmet, which set up the game-winning touchdown to Plaxico Burress.
The handful of surviving Patriots from the 2007 roster would never admit it, but a second meeting between the teams would be a revenge mission.
For the Giants, they might like the look of another clash with the Patriots too, having bested them at Gillette Stadium earlier this season, handing Brady his first home regular season loss since 2006 in the process.
The blueprint drawn up by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII still works today—hit Brady hard and often with a fearsome four man rush.
Jason Pierre-Paul replaces Michael Strahan. The second-year defensive end is an athletic freak that could play a decisive role in the destination of a fourth championship for either franchise.
A rematch in Indy could look eerily similar to the 2008 edition in Phoenix, which would mean late drama and a close finish.
If the Giants make it past the Niners this Sunday, an eventful fourth quarter in the Super Bowl is almost assured.
For pure excitement value alone, give Eli Manning the ball with the game on the line.
He has been clutch all season. His fourth quarter numbers—15 touchdowns, 66% completions and a 110.0 passer rating—back up the growing opinion that Manning is now on par with the game's elite players.
Manning is not the only ice-cold practitioner left in the playoffs. Brady has been in rare form himself. He passed Dan Marino's single season yards record.
Even Alex Smith provided clutch heroics in the divisional round against the Saints by delivering a bullet to Vernon Davis with nine seconds remaining.
But after a demolition job on the Green Bay Packers last weekend, it is clear that Manning has saved his best football for the business end of the season.
If he represents the NFC in the Super Bowl, it increases the odds of a classic encounter.
But recall his words back in August, with the season laid out in front of him (via Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk):
“My son will be a junior this year. I only play this game for another ring,” Lewis told Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com. “If we can win it this year, and I’m being brutally honest with you, if we win it this year, I’m gone to then spend as much time as I can with him. I’m gone to be with my son. And I feel like now we have enough pieces in place to make a good run at the Super Bowl.”
Sounds like a man who has considered his place in the game, doesn't it?
Lewis has played like a man younger than his 36 years would suggest—just a shade below All-Pro level—and maybe the knowledge that he can still mix it with the best in the league will tempt him to play another season, maybe two.
But if the Ravens lift the Lombardi next month, Lewis will have the opportunity to bow out on a high–as one of the greatest of all time and a Super Bowl champion.
A Ravens-Niners Super Bowl would pit old stager Ray Lewis against the heir to his throne, 26 year-old Patrick Willis.
The old guard meets the new breed.
Lewis is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. If Willis' career continues on its current trajectory, he will follow suit. The young linebacker could enter the "all-time greats" conversation with a dominant display in Indy.
Ray Lewis has proven that merely being the best in your position is no guarantee when it comes to championships. This is the 11th season since the Ravens' lone Super Bowl triumph.
Expect the presence of a young pretender to elevate Ray's game. Fans could be in for a mouthwatering exhibition of physicality and big plays as the Raven rolls back the years.
Is that a mirage or did I see a Patriots defense make a few plays last weekend?
The much-maligned unit made a statement in their 45-10 victory over the Denver Broncos, generating five sacks and a fumble despite the loss of their star performer, defensive end Andre Carter.
OK, so Tim Tebow won't be mistaken for Drew Brees any time soon.
But in doing what the Steelers failed to do the week before—that is, avoid the big play, and force Tebow to beat you as a pocket passer—the Patriots showed that they can force three-and-outs and give the ball back to Tom Brady.
The 2011 Patriots can't radically change their defensive identity in the postseason, but they don't have to.
Out of Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, and Eli Manning, the Giants signal-caller offers the greatest aerial threat, and he hardly torched the New England secondary first time around. He was held scoreless for a half and threw for 250 yards in total.
"Bend, but don't break" defenses are designed to make fans nervous; nobody wants to see their team marched on for 70 yards with regularity.
But forcing the opposition to take field goals when you have Tom Brady on the other side of the ball will get the job done.
If Bill Belichick engineers a Super Bowl victory from the parts he has assembled on defense this year, it would go down as one of his greatest coaching achievements.
His skills as a general manager will rightly come under fire regardless of results, but his ability to scheme and game-plan ranks among the best there has ever been.
Madonna? Are you serious?
Sure, Madonna is one of the largest-selling artists of all time. Just a shade behind The Beatles and Michael Jackson.
But that doesn't equate to a happy Super Bowl audience.
I'm sure there are plenty of fans that like Madonna and football. But there are probably many more that don't.
With acts like Bruce Springsteen, U2, Aerosmith, Tom Petty and The Rolling Stones in recent years, the league appeared to have a grip on its demographic.
Madonna would face some stiff competition for the worst Super Bowl performance of all time—Shania Twain, anybody?
If the game promises to be remembered for the ages so too the half time show, perhaps for all the wrong reasons.
Thanks to the Harbaughs, old-school defense remains in fashion.
Younger brother Jim, the San Francisco 49ers head coach, has taken a leaf out of the 2000 Ravens' defensive playbook with his run-stuffing unit.
By not conceding a rushing touchdown until Week 16 of the regular season, the Niners have earned the comparisons to the greatest defenses of all time.
Overall, the 2011 Niners fall short of the 2000 Ravens statistically. But they are a solid replica.
The 2000 Ravens conceded just 60.6 yards rushing per game compared with the Niners' 77.3 and generated 20 turnovers and 26 fumbles, versus the Niners' 23 and 15 respectively.
Names that leap off the page from 2000—Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Rod Woodson and Sam Adams enhanced their legacy with a dominant performance in Super Bowl XXXV beating the New York Giants 34-7.
The Niners own emerging names–Justin Smith, Carlos Rodgers, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis have all delivered game-changing performances in recent weeks.
If San Francisco does their best 2000 Ravens impression, it would elevate Super Bowl XLVI to all-time status.
Is Rob Gronkowski the best offensive player in the NFL right now?
It's easy to argue that he is already the best tight end in the NFL (sorry Jimmy Graham). After a three-touchdown performance last week against the Denver Broncos, consider him the biggest impact player in any position on offense.
Gronk is redefining the tight end position in just his second year in the league.
At 6'6" and 265lbs he is a monster of a man. His hands, athleticism and speed—just enough to gain separation—allow a man with the body of a blocker to dominate the battle of the skies too.
Super Bowl XLVI would be all the richer for a Gronk master class.
After a record-shattering regular season, it would be fitting that the Super Bowl saw some of its own records re-written.
With Tom Brady and Eli Manning still in the playoff mix, Kurt Warner's 414 passing yards in Super Bowl XXXIV could be under threat.
If the Giants square off against the Patriots, both will bring porous pass defenses and an expansive offensive style.
With that in mind, it wouldn't be a stretch to see Jerry Rice's record-setting three touchdown performances from Super Bowl XXIV and XXIX fall to Rob Gronkowski, Hakeem Nicks or Victor Cruz.
Steve Young's six passing touchdowns from Super Bowl XXIX is probably safe, although Tom Brady matched it in the divisional round against Denver last weekend.
If "styles make fights", then we have ourselves a few classics in the making.
New England, the pass-first offensive machine against a defensive powerhouse like San Francisco? Or the pass-rushing athleticism of the New York front four?
In Super Bowl XLII the Giants hustled and confused Tom Brady all night long. The intrigue in such a matchup is created by pitting strength versus strength on the field at the same time.
Quite often, the efforts on the other side of the ball—the weaker offense versus the weaker defense factor as much in the final score. The Niners victory over the Saints last weekend or the Patriots over the Broncos are recent examples.
Potential classic matchups: Tom Brady against Carlos Rodgers, Rob Gronkowsi against Patrick Willis.
From first pick of the 2005 draft to major bust in just three seasons, the 2007 Alex Smith appeared to be on his way out of the league.
However coach Jim Harbaugh saw something in Smith–those same qualities which led him to the top of the draft six years ago.
Via Bart Hubbuch in the New York Post, Harbaugh said:
"I watched the tape on Alex and felt that this could be a fresh start for him. I loved the toughness, the intelligence and the leadership ability I saw."
The faith placed in Smith has been repaid by a number of efficient performances, culminating in the confident display last weekend in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Smith drove down the field and delivered a game-winning strike to Vernon Davis to seal the win, and with it, reclaim his reputation.
Smith refused to lash out at his detractors in victory, displaying the same leadership skills that Harbaugh saw during the offseason. Via the same New York Post article, Smith said:
"If we win this game and go on to win the Super Bowl, I think it will speak for itself," Smith said yesterday as the Niners prepared for Sunday's showdown at Candlestick Park. "Winning games for a quarterback this time of year speaks for itself."
The Niners' defense will undoubtedly steal the show if the Lombardi returns to San Francisco, but the understated Smith is beginning to emerge as a key component of their complementary offense.
The final four teams can all bring a number of young and emerging names to the Super Bowl party.
Let's take a look at one young player on each roster that could make an impact in Indy.
Aldon Smith, the 49ers' pass-rusher, is a contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He accumulated 14 sacks justifying his selection with the seventh pick of the 2011 draft.
Victor Cruz is another name who could set the Super Bowl alight. In his second season with the Giants, the undrafted rookie exploded for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, earning an All-Pro selection in the process.
Lardarius Webb might not be the youngest member of the Baltimore Ravens, but the third-round pick has quietly developed into the best corner on a top defense in his third season. In a contract year, he might be one of the most sought-after free agents in the league after five picks and a forced fumble this year.
Stevan Ridley might struggle to see much more postseason action after his fumble against the Broncos last weekend, but with a 5.1 yards per carry average in a limited role in the regular season, Ridley can provide the Patriots with a spark in the running game.
They may never deviate from their pass-first tendencies with Tom Brady under center, but if Ridley gets his hands on the ball, he could rip off some long gains with his hard, direct style.
Big plays define our Super Bowl memories.
I've mentioned David Tyree's helmet catch and Santonio Holmes' spectacular end zone grab in recent times. But defensive plays such as James Harrison's 100-yard return from Super Bowl XLIII are just as exciting.
All the remaining teams in the playoffs have defenses capable of making big plays.
In particular, the Niners and the Patriots, who topped their conferences in turnover differential this season, with plus-28 and plus-17 respectively, stand a chance of turning a pick into a pick-six or a fumble into a fumble return.
If Jason Pierre-Paul invokes the spirit of 2007 and drops Brady to the turf on every other play, we could have another defensive performance to discuss for years to come.
The ingredients are in place for a classic Super Bowl. Whether the players deliver one for the ages remains to be seen, but I like the odds.