Make no mistake, it’s best day in NFL

Unlike the Super Bowl, the NFC and AFC title games skip the pageantry and cater to the purists

Staff writerJanuary 20, 2013 

Best day of the pro football season? That would be this one.

Conference championship Sunday offers a doubleheader that figures to provide more thrills than frills. It’s the last stop on the NFL schedule before the league packs up the circus train for the city of New Orleans.

The Super Bowl will be fun, and if recent history holds, it will contain some suspense. But the Super Bowl is as much about the pageantry before and after the game – and the halftime show during it – as it is about the game itself.

Americans gather in coffee shops the next morning and talk of the silliness: Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunctions … Cameron Diaz hand-feeding popcorn to Alex Rodriguez … The Coca-Cola commercials versus the Pepsi commercials.

On the morning after conference championship Sunday, talk is confined to spectacular catches, missed kicks, dubious coaching decisions, touchdown-saving tackles.

Can you remember a single TV commercial from an NFC championship game, or a single halftime show from an AFC championship contest?

Here’s another reason why today rates an edge on Super Sunday: The games are played before authentic fans, not indifferent tourists who have scored corporate tickets.

Home-field advantage is almost never a factor at a Super Bowl (an exception: when the Pittsburgh Steelers are in Detroit, facing the “visitors” from Seattle), which helps ensure the neutral conditions necessary for a fair fight.

But neutral-site football removes some of the subplots that add flavor and intrigue to the playoffs.

This morning in Atlanta, for instance, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be required to operate a 49ers offense amid the din of more than 70,000 fans in the Georgia Dome.

Kaepernick had no success adjusting plays when he stood under center against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field but looked far more polished last weekend in San Francisco, where he had a prominent role in the Niners’ slicing and dicing of the Green Bay Packers.

Now Kaepernick is on the road again, and it won’t be a shock if the second-year player from the University of Nevada commits a few early mistakes the Falcons convert into turnovers. A fair fight? Hardly, but that’s the challenge awaiting a potential conference championship team.

Champions overcome hostile fans.

Later, in Foxborough, Mass., the Baltimore Ravens will have to deal with more than hostile New England Patriots fans. The forecast is calling for temperatures in the low 20’s for the night game – kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 on the East Coast – with a brisk winter wind posing another adverse element.

Champions overcome adverse elements.

OK, time for some predictions:

If Ravens avenge their heartbreaking 23-20 defeat to the Patriots in last season’s AFC championship game – Baltimore came within a routine Lee Evans’ reception of winning, and Billy Cundiff’s missed chip shot field-goal attempt of extending the issue into overtime – middle linebacker Ray Lewis will fall to the ground and sob.

If the Ravens lose, Lewis, who seemingly announced his retirement a few weeks after the Beatles broke up, will fall to the ground and sob.

If the Patriots win, Tom Brady will be lauded as the ultimate clutch quarterback – a throwback version of Joe Montana, his childhood hero.

If the Patriots lose, Brady will be assailed as a quarterback who tends to struggle when the stakes are most urgent – a contemporary version of Peyton Manning, his longtime rival.

If the 49ers win, coach Jim Harbaugh will exude facial expressions best described as a smirk. Those of us watching at home will clench a fist, dreaming of an opportunity to punch his lights out.

If the 49ers lose, Harbaugh will remove his headset, put on a frown, and resemble any other football coach whose team’s valiant effort couldn’t compensate for the difficulty of executing audibles on the road. He’ll look like somebody worthy of tea and sympathy (but we’ll still want to punch him).

If the Falcons win, Seattle fans will stew about how the Seahawks should’ve advanced to the NFC championship game after dominating Atlanta in the second half last week.

If the Falcons lose, Seattle fans will stew about how the Seahawks should’ve advanced to the NFC championship game after dominating Atlanta in the second half last week.

As for some predictions with teeth?

In the morning game, it’s San Francisco 28, Atlanta 23. In the afternoon game, it’s New England 27, Baltimore 17.

We’ll go over the details of the two games on Monday, and then we’ll move on toward a battle in New Orleans between the loathed 49ers and the unloved Patriots.

Such a Super Bowl would be anticlimactic around here, but there’s always hope. Maybe the television cameras will cut to a glimpse of Manti Te’o in the stands, feeding popcorn to himself.

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