The 2012-13 NFL season is evaporating faster than the Falcons' lead against Seattle. It seems like only yesterday we kicked off the year at the Meadowlands, and now, in the blink of an eye, Championship Weekend is upon us.
We're officially at the point of the season where every potential Super Bowl matchup can be derived from a Punnett Square. Accordingly, the latent storylines from each possible matchup are narrowing into focus.
Let's take a look at all four potential matchups, classified from least to most intriguing.
4. Baltimore Ravens vs. Atlanta Falcons
Dominant Angle: Ray Lewis' Farewell Tour
Not much to love about this one. Other than, you know, the fact that the winner will be declared champion of the world.
Much of the football-related talk surrounding this game would concern the concept of "peaking at the right time." Despite their lofty records, Atlanta and Baltimore both struggled through a significant part of the season. They were both viewed as "overrated" coming into the playoffs, and—despite the Falcons' home-field advantage—are both three-plus-point underdogs this weekend.
Supplementing recent Super Bowls from the Giants and Packers (with a combined regular-season record of 29-19), this game would galvanize a discourse about how much the NFL regular season REALLY matters in the long run.
But with a dearth of other angles to close in on (count me out on the Flacco vs. Ryan, 2008 draft slant), media outlets would turn the two-week run up to the game into an overdrawn, soapy farewell to Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.
That constant stream of SportsCenter features doesn't seem overly annoying right now—honestly, no one deserves it more than Ray. But after having it jammed down our throats for 14 days, we'll be left wishing for something better to talk about.
3. New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
Dominant Angle: Brady and Belichick Go For Ring No. 4
The Falcons have taken an abundance of criticism, and admittedly, some of it has been unjust. They got lucky, in part, to escape with a win over Seattle, but they certainly aren't the least-deserving conference championship participant we've ever seen.
Having said that, the honest to God truth is, they're an overwhelmingly uninteresting unit. According to Football Outsiders, they hover around average in all three phases of the game (12th in offense, 12th in defense, 16th in special teams), and outside of Tony Gonzalez, no one provides a particularly captivating Super Bowl storyline.
Strictly from the perspective of a nonpartisan football fan—someone who wants to watch the most interesting Super Bowl, regardless of regional bias—you HAVE to be rooting against them this weekend.
Should they advance to play New England, however, most of the focus would gravitate toward their opponent. More specifically, the respective legacies of their opponent's quarterback and head coach.
Two humbling losses at the hands of Eli Manning have cast a minor pall on Brady and Belichick's once unblemished résumés. But as far as Super Bowls are concerned, four has always been the magic number—magical enough to grant forgiveness for recent failings.
The win would move Tom Brady into a rarified first-place deadlock with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for most Super Bowl victories from a quarterback. Belichick would also move into a tie for most Super Bowl wins with legendary Steelers coach Chuck Knoll.
The historical magnitude of a Patriots win would, potentially, compensate for the lack of intrigue coming out of Atlanta.
2. Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers
Dominant Angle: The Harbaugh Bowl
Strictly from an "ancillary to the actual game" perspective, this one—The Harbowl—certainly takes the cake.
As alluded to earlier, the "Ray Lewis lobbying to go out on top" storyline has plenty of intrigue potential. I just don't think there's enough there for it to be THE captivating storyline. But as a lip-smacking tonic to the Harbaugh Bowl narrative, Lewis' farewell tour could play much stronger.
And then there's the Harbaugh bowl itself. Nothing gets the media—and, admittedly, the public—going quite like siblings. It's why we love the Williams sisters; it's why we love (to hate) the Mannings; and it's why we can't get enough of the Harbaughs.
Even devoid of ancestral ties, watching two of the league's best young coaches battle for their first championship would be a treat. Watching each do so against his brother, however, would be something much, much greater.
1. New England Patriots vs. San Francisco 49ers
Dominant Angle: Unstoppable Force Meets Immovable Object
It was a neck-and-neck battle for the top spot, but at the end of the day, good football always trumps good stories. Why? Because good football CREATES good stories. And anyone with eyes knows that 49ers-Patriots is the highest quality potential game on the docket.
First and foremost, this would be a rematch of Week 15's classic 41-34 'Niners victory in Foxborough. That game was widely considered one of the season's best games, and—up until last weekend, at least—served as Colin Kaepernick's defining professional moment.
On top of that, you get all the Patriots' historical stuff discussed at length in section three, along with the "changing of the guard" storyline between Harbaugh and Belichick. Right now, arguing the former is a better coach would usually fall on deaf ears. But with a Lombardi Trophy to Harbaugh's name, not to mention another loss on Belichick's résumé, the argument would suddenly become fascinating.
Then there's the pure, unadulterated X's and O's point of view—the chess match. What adjustments would both teams make after their Week 15 classic? Surely the 'Niners aren't expecting to win if they let up 34 points again, right?
It's hard not to salivate at the thought of this game materializing.