Now that Elimination Chamber has officially come in gone, Monday night's episode of Raw marks the true beginning of the road to WrestleMania. Most fans would probably agree that the WWE started the build toward the biggest event in professional wrestling at the Royal Rumble. But now, all of the focus for the next seven weeks will be on MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
As expected, The Rock retained his WWE Championship against CM Punk on Sunday, so he will almost certainly face John Cena in a one-on-one encounter for the second consecutive year. That would be a violation of the "once in a lifetime" tagline, but the WWE is in the business of making money, and there is no doubt that a second Rock vs. Cena match will generate a ton of interest.
Also, Monday's edition of Raw promises to touch on Punk's next step after failing to recapture championship gold. The Shield will look to build on its huge victory over Cena, Ryback and Sheamus as well, while Jack Swagger will most definitely have something to say about winning the Elimination Chamber match to become the No. 1 contender for Alberto Del Rio's World Heavyweight Championship.
Here are the top five storylines, topics, superstars and other factors that you should keep an eye on while watching an extremely important Raw on Monday night.
As soon as The Rock defeated John Cena at WrestleMania XXVIII in Miami, many fans immediately had a sneaky suspicion that it wouldn't be the last time that we saw them compete on the big stage. Those suspicions were all but validated at Elimination Chamber, as The Rock beat CM Punk to defend the WWE Championship.
Since Cena won the Royal Rumble and already announced his intention to chase the WWE title, The Rock and Cena will headline WrestleMania for the second consecutive year.
Although it was almost guaranteed that The Rock would beat Punk on Sunday, the added stipulation of The Rock losing the title in the event of a disqualification or count-out added some intrigue. It never came into play, though, as The Shield, Brock Lesnar, Brad Maddox, etc. refrained from interfering.
There were a couple ref bumps and Punk attempted to hit The Rock with the belt, but Paul Heyman was on the receiving end and The Rock followed up with a Rock Bottom to win.
Perhaps The Rock and Cena fell short of expectations in some ways last year, both in terms of their match and the build toward it, but they still delivered a big-time atmosphere that fans will remember forever. Also, now that they already have some history and have faced each other in the past, The Rock and Cena should be better prepared to make their feud great this time around.
Punk could conceivably try to get involved with The Rock on Monday night, but he already had his rematch and figures to move on to something else. The next seven weeks will focus largely on The Rock and Cena, and I'm extremely interested to see what kind of tone their rivalry takes this year.
Now that CM Punk is almost certainly outside the WWE Championship picture, it will be interesting to see how he is handled in the coming weeks. Punk had a chance to regain the title at Elimination Chamber and nearly did, as he hit The Rock with a GTS, but the referee was knocked out.
That situation could conceivably keep Punk in the WWE title hunt and necessitate a triple threat at WrestleMania, but the odds of that are slim at this point.
During the WWE's press conference to announce that WrestleMania XXX will be held in New Orleans, it was twice said that The Rock and Cena would square off at WrestleMania XXIX without any mention of Punk. That could be the WWE's way of surprising us, but I doubt the company is trying to conceal anything. The Rock and Cena will go head-to-head once again this year, and Punk will have to find something else to do instead.
The two obvious options at this point are The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar.
Despite a ton of talk about Taker possibly sitting out WrestleMania due to injuries and contract issues, I'm very confident that he will take on Punk. The WWE only asks The Undertaker to wrestle one match per year. Even though The Phenom is advancing in age and has taken a lot of punishment over the years, he always rises to the occasion this time of year and won't want to pass up the opportunity to face a guy like Punk.
If the WWE was planning to have Taker face some stiff competition, then I could understand apprehension. But Punk is coming off a 434-day title reign, and I'm sure The Undertaker understands how historic their match can be.
If there is any truth to the rumors of The Deadman taking the year off, though, a match between Punk and Lesnar could happen, as Punk accidentally hit Heyman with the title at Elimination Chamber. My guess is that it will happen further down the road, however, with Punk vs. Taker taking place at 'Mania.
I'm not sure many fans truly believed that The Shield would beat John Cena, Ryback and Sheamus at Elimination Chamber, but the WWE departed from what it normally does in giving the young trio a win over three of the company's top faces.
In my mind, the best-case scenario was that The Shield would lose via disqualification and stand tall in the end, but the WWE blew me away and really impressed me on Sunday.
It is unconventional for the WWE to have the Royal Rumble winner lose ahead of WrestleMania, but the creative team obviously trusts that Cena is so established that it won't adversely affect him. I certainly agree with that assessment.
The main worry is Ryback, as he has now lost at five consecutive pay-per-views and took the fall at Elimination Chamber. But it could ultimately be a good thing. The manner in which Ryback walked off after the match with Cena and Sheamus looking on confusedly leads me to believe a heel turn could be on the horizon.
The main focus here, however, should be on how much this win helps The Shield. As good as Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns looked when they beat Ryback and Team Hell No at TLC, they looked even better on Sunday.
The Shield operated like a well-oiled machine and even isolated Cena for a large portion of the match. It was ultimately teamwork that allowed The Shield to beat the all-star trio as Reigns interrupted Shell Shocked with a spear and Rollins pinned Ryback.
Back at SummerSlam 2010, Nexus faced a Cena-led team and lost. Even though Nexus existed for another year after that, the group as never the same because it wasn't made to look equal to the WWE's top stars. The WWE made sure to not let that happen again with The Shield.
Now that it looks like The Shield will remain together for the foreseeable future, it will be interesting to see who it focuses its attacks on with WrestleMania approaching.
One of the best aspects of the Elimination Chamber match is unpredictability. But many of the chamber matches over the past few years have lacked it.
That certainly wasn't the case on Sunday night, though, when Jack Swagger, Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, Mark Henry, Kane and Daniel Bryan did battle for the World Heavyweight Championship No. 1 contendership. Orton, Jericho and Henry were among the favorites, but Swagger prevailed just three weeks after returning from a five-month hiatus.
Swagger's gimmick has changed noticeably since his return. He once referred to himself as The All-American American, but he now prefers to be called The Real American.
Swagger also has a manager now in the form of Zeb Colter. It was revealed prior to the chamber match that Colter is a military veteran who served alongside Swagger's father. Colter and Swagger have come together in an effort to right what they believe is wrong with the United States of America.
It's a huge change for Swagger, as his previous gimmick was brash, cocky and even comedic. None of those words describe him now, though. Swagger is suddenly vicious and purposeful, and he is much more interesting now than he has been in a couple years.
I have always been a big fan of Swagger and have lamented the way he has been used since the writers ruined his world title reign. Over the course of a mere three weeks, though, Swagger has been built into a believable World Heavyweight Championship contender.
Swagger and Colter revealed during a backstage segment following his huge victory that they would deliver a President's Day address on Raw. Swagger and Colter could be a very controversial duo if they continue to speak out against things such as immigration, so I'm excited to hear what they have to say.
Whatever the case, it appears as though Swagger is on a collision course with Alberto Del Rio as WrestleMania approaches. Not only should it be a great match, but their gimmicks are meant to rival each other.
If there is one superstar who has been mishandled more than any other over the past year, it would have to be Dolph Ziggler.
I was ecstatic when Ziggler won Money in the Bank, as I thought it meant that he would finally get the World Heavyweight Championship reign that he so richly deserves. I'm sure that it will happen in due time, but the WWE has booked Ziggler very poorly in the interim. He wasn't even part of the Elimination Chamber card, but he did beat Kofi Kingston in an impromptu match after Booker T interrupted Ziggler's promo.
Ziggler has essentially been ignored as of late, and it makes little sense.
The WWE seemed to be all in with Ziggler after he beat John Cena at TLC and dominated WWE programming for the next week or two. But he has stalled out ever since.
I actually enjoy his chemistry with A.J. and feel like Big E Langston is solid in his role as well, but the WWE hasn't capitalized on the situation. Ziggler was left out of Elimination Chamber with the exception of a meaningless, unannounced match, and he wasn't on Raw a couple weeks ago either.
My hope was that Ziggler would cash in on Alberto Del Rio at Elimination Chamber. However, that didn't come to fruition. All the stars appeared to be aligned, as he didn't have a match and an ornery Big Show could have pummeled Del Rio following their bout on Sunday. But Big Show was nowhere to be found after the match.
I honestly don't care when Ziggler cashes in as long as he does it successfully. The key is making sure that he is booked properly ahead of time so he immediately looks like a strong champion.
Ideally, Ziggler's running feud with Chris Jericho will continue Monday night on Raw, and it will lead to a match at WrestleMania. Going over a respected veteran like Jericho at 'Mania is precisely what Ziggler needs at this point, and I'll be sorely disappointed if they don't lock horns on the grandest stage of them all.