FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14: Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos sits on the bench in the second half against the New England Patriots during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The division round games have been won. The conference championships are next weekend. And we have no idea what to expect.
If this were the NCAA tournament, America's brackets would probably be in shreds. The Packers looked more like the team who lost to the Chiefs than the one who looked like the team to beat for most of the season. The defending champs joined the Saints on the canvas, and now both conferences look totally unpredictable with one game to play before the Super Bowl.
So what's next? We've got questions.
1. So what are we going to talk about without Tebowmania?
As frustrating and illogical as the sports world’s obsession with Tim Tebow was, let’s not pretend it didn’t give us one more interesting team. Given how little Tebowmania had to do with football, remember what we would have had without it: a worse-than-its-record 8-8 team in the second round running a prehistoric offense with an aesthetically unpleasant passing game. Now, we’ll have to talk about...football. Which, like it or not, doesn’t seem to be as entertaining to the average sports fan.
2. Will a 14th win earn the 49ers some credit?
The Saints were like the Heisman Trophy candidate who played a conference championship while a better candidate was off that week. New Orleans went into the game as the favorite, and the world forgot the 49ers all-time great run defense mattered nearly as much as the Saints’ all-time great passing game. One Pierre Thomas concussion, a disrupted Saints gameplan and 37 rushing yards later, and the Niners are in their first conference championship since 1996. Just because it came down to the end doesn’t mean the first half didn’t matter. Speaking of the end...
3. How many times will Alex Smith be unfairly compared to Trent Dilfer?
Dilfer’s name has become synonymous with "game manager," but he was the same poor decision-maker in Baltimore as he was when he was run out of Tampa Bay the year before. In 2000, he had one of the best defenses ever behind him, which masked the 10 interceptions he threw in nine starts. Smith threw five in 16 regular season starts. From Week 15 until the Super Bowl, Dilfer never threw more than 176 yards in a game. Smith, on the other hand, made big play after big play and honest-to-god led San Francisco to a postseason win, something Dilfer was never trusted to do. He’ll never live up to the hype of being a No. 1 pick, but calling him "Trent Dilfer" is using a pejorative Smith does not deserve.
4. Will the Ravens lose to a good team?
The Ravens had one big problem in the regular season: it kept losing to awful teams, dropping games to four teams who didn’t make the playoffs. But they beat everyone else, including Pittsburgh twice (in both dominating and dramatic fashions) and Houston with and without Matt Schaub. If complacency was the Ravens’ kryptonite, there’s little to fear, unless they buy too much smashing the Pats in Foxboro two years ago. As for New England...
5. Can the Patriots beat a good team?
Say what you want about Denver, but those two wins over the Broncos are the best on the Patriots’ schedule. New England looked incredible against the Fightin’ Tebows, but it’s the same flawed team it’s been all season. There is no vertical threat to stretch the field. The pass defense remains porous. And Baltimore has the pass rush that can do the only thing we’re certain can slow Tom Brady: get in his kitchen. Anyone betting on Pats-Ravens is in it for the adrenaline, for there’s no way anyone could be sure which way this will go. Because...well, see No. 6.
6. Will Joe Flacco have anything cute to say this week?
Hey, look at Peter King being effectively clever! He’s right: T.J. Yates did more for Baltimore than its own quarterback did, this after his passive-aggressive complaints that he doesn’t get credit. Flacco might want to take that up with Ray Lewis, who’s gotten the props signal caller’s usually get for the last 16 seasons. And seeing how Lewis still looks like Jason Voorhies at times, and how Baltimore’s defense held on while Cam Cameron called another head-scratching game, Flacco should just be glad he’s not getting roasted for a loss.
7. Are the Packers built for winters at home?
I’d be remiss not to look back at the odds-on favorite going down. It’s less than scientific, but here’s a question: if the Saints were headed to Lambeau, wouldn’t we wonder how their aerial attack would fare outdoors in arctic temperatures? So why don’t we ask the same about the Pack? Remember, Aaron Rodgers was 17-30, 244 yards and two picks in last year’s NFC Championship Game in Chicago, and none of their postseason games were at home. It wasn’t cold enough to justify Sunday’s eight dropped passes, but it is enough to raise an eyebrow at a counterintuitive relationship between a team and its habitat.
8. Is this 2007 all over again?
No. Don’t believe me? I’m sure the date is on your watch, cell phone or computer. There is no room for argument on that. But it’s still hard to believe is the same group of guys who lost at home to Washington, when Rex Grossman and Eli Manning were indistinguishable. Maybe they’re on a roll. Maybe they’re just healthy. Either way, Tom Coughlin will die on the job. He will never be fired. He’s a rich man’s Wayne Fontes. And, I imagine, not so hard to deal with when he’s got his guys a win away from the Super Bowl.
9. Is anyone under more pressure than Tom Brady?
He’s not to blame for New England’s postseason disappointments since 2004, but think of what’s happened since. Jake Plummer’s Broncos dominated the Pats in ‘05. Peyton Manning redeemed his reputation as a big-game quarterback with a comeback in the ‘06 AFC Championship Game. The helmet catch. An embarrassing loss at home to Baltimore, and one that probably hurt more, to the Jets last season. It’s been a long time, and Brady has nothing to prove. But a team doesn’t build around two big tight ends unless it believes its quarterback is that damn good, and Saturday was the first time we’ve said that in many Januarys. And if New England loses to Baltimore, it will -- and should -- be forgotten.
10. Giants and 49ers at The Stick...shouldn’t it feel a little cooler?
For the ‘80s babies in the house, this sounds almost like Celtics-Lakers. With all due respect to Joe Gibbs, these were the teams of that decade, the two with the longest sustained success and identity. Lawrence Taylor on one side, Joe Montana on the other. There are memories of Marc Bavaro taking Ronnie Lott for a ride in ‘86, Lott and Phil Simms jawing in ‘90 and Leonard Marshall effectively ending Joe Montana’s time in San Francisco the next time they played. And with all that said, who outside of the Bay and the Tri-State area is excited about this one? Cuz I’m not.