Until the fourth period of the final game of the weekend, it appeared that the four top seeds were going to hold serve in the second round of the playoffs.
Then, the upstart New York Jets sparked the most hope among their fans in more than 40 years with a shocking comeback to defeat the San Diego Chargers and advance to the AFC Championship Game.
Ironically, the Jets will face the team that was their opponent in the greatest game in franchise history, the Colts (the Baltimore Colts in 1969 and now playing in Indianapolis).
With the exception of the upset by the Jets, the divisional round games were surprisingly void of excitement or competition. The three top seeds claimed victory by an average of 26 points.
Entering the weekend, there had been an overabundance of discussion about whether the teams with the best records would be hurt by playing conservatively during the last weeks of the season and then rusty following a bye. Surprisingly, that really didn’t seem to be much of an issue.
Instead, the Cardinals looked worn down following their track meet with the Packers a week ago while the Cowboys and Ravens were dominated by superior teams.
With the NFC title game matching the top two teams in the conference and the upstart Jets looking for their second win over the Colts in a month, the conference title games promise to be very exciting and intriguing.
What should be interesting is that with the exception of the Colts, the other three teams in the title games have little Super Bowl experience as the Saints have never been in the big game and the Vikings and Jets have not been in the Super Bowl in generations.
Below are brief overviews of some of the storylines in each conference title game.
Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
In the 1970s, the Minnesota Vikings were the perennial Super Bowl runner-up as they lost four Super Bowls in an eight-year period.
They are now led by a quarterback, Brett Favre, who does have a Super Bowl title, though he last played in the game following the 1997 season.
The Saints are in the NFC Championship Game for only the second time in franchise history and are hosting the conference title game for the first time in franchise history.
All-Pro defensive back Darren Sharper (SB 32 with Packers) and long snapper Jason Kyle (SB 38 with Panthers) are the only Saints with Super Bowl experience, though neither have a championship ring.
Given the high-powered potential of both offenses, the championship game between the Saints and Vikings has the potential to be one of the most exciting in recent memory.
Drew Brees led the NFL with 34 touchdown passes while guiding a New Orleans offense that scored 30 or more points 10 times this season and led the NFL with 510 points.
The Vikings have a 40-year-old quarterback who is playing like a 25-year-old in the resurgent Brett Favre. Once he finally decided that he wanted to play, Favre had one of his finest seasons in a decade with 33 touchdown passes, a career-low seven interceptions, and a career-best passer rating.
Not only do the Vikings have a veteran quarterback with a Super Bowl ring, they also have one of the most talented running backs in the league in third-year star Adrian Peterson. Though his yardage total was down from his league-leading mark of a year ago, Peterson still rushed for 1,383 yards and a league-best 18 touchdowns.
Ironically, while both teams have great offenses, the game could come down to defense.
The Vikings were the fourth best defense against the run and have a plethora of talented defensive linemen capable of harassing Brees.
New Orleans ranked in the bottom third in the league in both run and pass defense, but were able to make the big plays when needed for most of the season. Sharper, who joined the Saints this season after four seasons with the Vikings, tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions while returning three for scores and setting a record with 376 return yards.
Given that the Saints are hosting the conference title game for the first time and since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have become an even bigger part of the culture of the city, you can expect the New Orleans Superdome to be rocking.
However, Favre won his only Super Bowl title in that same building, so it promises to be an exciting game with lots of stories and sub-plots.
New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
Few could have predicted that when the New York Jets defeated the Indianapolis Colts in the 15th game of the season to end the unbeaten year for the Colts that the two teams would be playing for a trip to the Super Bowl just a month later.
For the second straight year, a rookie quarterback has guided his team into the AFC Championship Game.
Unlike Joe Flacco, who played college football at the Division I-AA level, Mark Sanchez has previous experience playing in big games in front of massive crowds.
However, he has never been in a game with the potential ramifications of the conference championship game.
Fortunately for him, much like Flacco a year ago, the Jets have spent most of the season relying on their running game and defense. Sanchez has shown some capability of making the big play, but he has not generally had to carry the offense.
The Colts ranked 21st in the league in rushing defense, so if the Jets are able to run effectively against Indianapolis it could again take some of the pressure off Sanchez.
However, the Ravens went into their divisional playoff game with a similar philosophy and were able to gain only 87 yards on the ground.
Defensively, the Jets have one of the top secondaries in the league, but must contend with Peyton Manning and his plethora of talented receivers.
The Colts were the worst running team in the NFL, which gives Jets coach Rex Ryan and the defense an advantage knowing they can concentrate on Manning. However, other teams have known that and the Colts have yet to lose a game in which they played hard the entire way this season.
The experience edge certainly favors the Colts as they still have a large number of core players from their Super Bowl team of three years ago.
Offensive lineman Alan Faneca was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers during their 2005 Super Bowl season, while Lito Sheppard (Eagles in Super Bowl 39) and Thomas Jones (Bears in Super Bowl 41) also have Super Bowl experience, but few others on the Jets have significant playoff experience.
One thing that is for sure is that a first-year NFL head coach will be representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Both Jim Caldwell of Indianapolis and Ryan are in their initial years as head coach in the league.
In one potential stroke of karma, Ryan’s father, former NFL coach Buddy Ryan, was in his first season as a defensive coach for the Jets when they shocked the Colts to win Super Bowl III. Could his son bring the Jets their second Super Bowl ring in his first year as their head coach?
It would seem that the Colts should end the Jets' Cinderella run, but if the NFL has taught us anything, it is that you never know what could happen.
Heck, we could end up with a Super Bowl between Brett Favre’s current team and the team he abandoned after last season. Now wouldn’t that be interesting?
This article is an original story from Sports Then and Now, which was created to give passionate sports fans a place where they can analyze and discuss current sports topics while also remembering some of the great athletes, moments, teams, and games in sports history all at one site. If you haven't been there yet, check it out today.