This is where the drama is. These are the storylines behind the games.
Every potential Super Bowl matchup is intriguing, but some are enough to make you believe football destiny is involved.
Some of the storylines heading into championship weekend are mind-blowing, and these are the ones that far outweigh the potential Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh thing.
Here are the top-five storylines that stand out from all the others.
The Ravens are an interesting team to analyze.
Year after year, they pose a serious threat to every team in the league. They’re loaded with future Hall of Fame players, they’re feared, they’re respected, and they continue to have one of the best defensive units in NFL history.
But here’s the hiccup: They usually don't go very far in the playoffs.
Ed Reed is the greatest free safety in the history of the NFL. He’s been the star of one of the most dominant teams in the league for 10 years, and he doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring.
Ray Lewis is one of the finest linebackers to ever play the game. He’s been playing at an elite level for 16 years, he’s been on 13 Pro Bowl teams, but he only has one single Super Bowl ring.
The Steelers, the Colts and the Patriots have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl for a combined nine times since 2000. If you add the Ravens to the group, the total number of Super Bowl appearances only goes up to 10.
This is the unspoken truth about Baltimore.
The Ravens are always a threat, but that threat has historically been more existential than literal. They don’t get to the Super Bowl themselves, they just prevent other teams from getting to the Super Bowl.
I’m certainly not dismissing the Ravens or belittling their toughness. This is a fantastic football team. They've beaten the Patriots in the playoffs before, and they're capable of doing it again.
The 49ers, the Giants and the Ravens can only win by hitting harder than their opponents. Crushing bones, attacking the quarterback and defensively causing mayhem is the only way these three teams know how to win.
The Patriots, on the other hand, are the only team left in the playoffs who can win by outsmarting their opponents. They're also the only team left who can win through offense.
Baltimore probably likes this AFC championship matchup as the Patriots are the physically weakest team left in the playoffs. The Ravens can’t beat the Giants, and they probably can't beat the 49ers again, but they can beat the Patriots.
If the Ravens win on Sunday, it would most likely be their last win of the season. A showdown with the 49ers or the Giants would be nothing more than muscle versus muscle. They don't have the youth or the bodies to intimidate either team, and they won't score enough points to win.
The Ravens already beat the 49ers earlier this season in Week 12, but the 49ers are a different team now. They're riding high on strength and momentum. If they can beat Drew Brees, they can beat Joe Flacco.
Baltimore's success can only go so far. That’s the storyline of this AFC championship game.
The Ravens aren't playing for a second Super Bowl ring; they’re playing to keep Tom Brady from getting his fourth.
It'll be interesting to see how the Patriots respond to this dilemma. The Ravens will do everything in their power to keep Brady out of the Super Bowl. But between these two AFC teams, only the Patriots can beat the 49ers or the Giants.
This is an existential crisis for New England to overcome. Baltimore's only chance for winning is to viciously attack Brady, and we know its game plan already.
The good news for New England is that the 49ers and the Giants will have the exact same game plan in the Super Bowl. For the Patriots, this AFC Championship Game is perfect practice. If they can protect Brady against the Ravens, they can protect Brady against anybody.
Contrary to popular belief, Tom Brady is not a detached quarterback with ice water in his veins. He's just the opposite. He's one of the most passionate and emotional quarterbacks to ever play the game.
Usually, his emotions work in his favor.
In both Week 15 and in the divisional round, Brady sent a message to the world regarding his thoughts on Tim Tebow. His teammates just wanted to win those games, and they did. But Brady didn’t just want to win, he wanted to make a statement. Emotionally, he unleashed a fury that worked out beautifully for his team.
Sometimes, though, his emotions have a negative effect. The look in Brady’s eyes in Week 9 against the Giants was anything but calm and collected. He was concerned, uneasy and shell-shocked.
Some deep-rooted part of Brady's psychology goes haywire when the Giants are involved. Maybe it’s New York's intense pass rushing, maybe it’s something about Eli Manning, nobody knows.
Throughout that entire game in Week 9, Brady seemed totally disgusted with the Giants. It felt like he wasn’t ready to deal with the ghosts of Super Bowl XLII. New England’s loss was not surprising. Brady was not ready for that game.
I’m not a big believer in destiny, but I can’t help the feeling that Brady is destined to deal with this Giants situation sooner or later.
He’s got three Super Bowl rings, and he’s probably the best quarterback of all time, but there’s a piece of his legacy that's linked to Eli Manning and that Super Bowl loss.
Does it bother him? Maybe. Maybe not. But from the way he looked and played in Week 9, none of this seemed like water under the bridge. It felt like the grudge was growing more intense, and he wasn't sure how to properly deal with it.
By Sunday night, Brady could be looking at a Super Bowl rematch with the Giants.
It would be one of the most important Super Bowls in the history of football. It would also checkmate Brady into finally confronting his demons.
Nothing can change the outcome of Super Bowl XLII, but the devastating legacy it left in its wake can be completely altered. Destiny could very well be on Brady's side.
There’s a substantial number of people who believe the outcome of Super Bowl XLII was a fluke, and they're very vocal about it.
Eli Manning has most likely heard these people loud and clear. And it probably drives him crazy.
Super Bowl XLII may have given Tom Brady the lion’s share of the unfinished business at hand, but Manning has a few statements of his own he’d probably like to make.
In the years since beating the Patriots, Manning's career has been a strange ride.
Just last season, Manning was considered an accidental Super Bowl winner who wasn’t talented enough to take his team deep into the playoffs.
This season, he’s got people saying he’s a better quarterback than his brother.
The media scrutiny around Eli Manning may never end. As long as Peyton Manning is considered to be the better brother, Eli will always be on the bottom rung of the elite ladder.
But a Super Bowl rematch with the Patriots would present Eli Manning with an interesting proposition. If he wins, he’s the better Manning. He may never admit to wanting that title, but his competitive nature says it for him.
Beating the Patriots for a second time would ensure that Eli Manning never hears from another critic ever again.
San Francisco believes in Alex Smith. Frank Gore believes in him, Vernon Davis believes in him, and Jim Harbaugh believes in him.
But their faith could be misplaced. The 49ers are having the kind of season that feels too good to be true.
Drew Brees is gone, Aaron Rodgers is gone, Matt Stafford is gone, and Alex Smith is in the NFC Championship Game. What's wrong with this picture?
Smith's success feels like a tall block of carefully balanced Jenga pieces, and all of San Francisco is trying very hard not to knock this whole thing down.
Coach Harbaugh spends a great deal of time and energy building Smith's confidence for each game. Their pre-game ritual on the sideline involves a very intense pep talk while Harbaugh slaps his hands all over Smith's shoulders, chest and helmet.
You could see this as a coach and his quarterback having a great relationship. But you could also see this whole production as a worrisome omen.
How high can a team fly on the wings of a quarterback who needs this kind of constant pep talk? Nobody knows. That's the drama of this storyline.
Back in 2000, when the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV, they won it by beating the New York Giants.
Ordinarily, Eli Manning probably wouldn’t care much about that. He wasn’t even the quarterback of that Giants team. But his friend and former teammate, Michael Strahan, was on that losing team.
Nothing breeds bad blood like beating up on somebody's best friend.
There’s also the issue of Ray Lewis. The MVP of Super Bowl XXXV is still the face of the Ravens. In a potential Super Bowl rematch, the sight of Lewis will not sit well with Manning.
Lewis' presence brings the past into the present, and makes the bad blood more tangible.
Whether Manning admits it or not, he takes things personally. For years he’s been labeled as the inferior quarterback in his family, he was once considered lazy and unproductive by critics, the media constantly questions his elite status, and he was expected to lose Super Bowl XLII.
Manning didn’t just magically turn out to be a great quarterback. Something spurred him on, something drove him. He makes things personal. It’s hard to see sometimes, because he appears to be a good ol’ country boy. In truth, the man is ruthless. He succeeds by personalizing his obstacles.
Eli Manning will not live to see Ray Lewis win a second ring against the Giants. In a potential Ravens-Giants Super Bowl, we could very well see Manning take his skills to a gear of excellence we haven't seen yet. That's a scary thought.