Here's an early look at conference championship weekend, which features three very strong defenses in a season dominated by the passing game, plus other news and notes from around the NFL:
1. The old guard came to play Sunday. Did you expect any different from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed going forward? Reed had his eighth interception in 10 postseason games on Sunday, finally corralling the pick that had evaded him in two very makeable attempts earlier in the game after getting his hands on four T.J. Yates passes in the game. Lewis was none less involved in the game, with eight tackles. At this point, given that rumors have swirled that Lewis might consider hanging up the cleats whenever the Ravens' season ends, you have to assume that he will be nothing short of his brilliant, Hall of Fame self. We'll just keep enjoying the ride, however long it runs. "They've got some of the best players in the history of the NFL at their position, in (Terrell) Suggs and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata," Patriots QB Tom Brady said on Monday morning on WEEI Radio. "You've got phenomenal players there. We've really got our work cut out for us. We'll be excited about the challenge."
2. Brady has history in mind with this game, too. He got one monkey off his and the Patriots' backs by stomping the Broncos and ending a two-game home playoff losing streak. But now he has a chance to avenge one of those losses: the 33-14 thumping (the Patriots never had a chance, as it was 14-0 a few plays after the coin flip) the Ravens laid on New England back in 2009, a game in which Wes Welker missed with a torn ACL. It was by far Brady's worst postseason performance. That Patriots team flunked the chemistry test that season, and the '07 team just ran out of gas after a physically and mentally grueling 18-0 run before the Super Bowl. Brady (15-5 in the playoffs, one win short of his idol, Joe Montana) knows this season is his chance to join Terry Bradshaw and Montana with four Super Bowl rings, and he has the horses to help him do that. We're at the point where it's legitimate to ask if Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are the best 1-2 receiving punch at tight end ever. Gronk is an absolute horse who can run by or through opponents, and Hernandez is a shifty, physical force. The wrinkle of putting Hernandez in the backfield as a runner Saturday? Pure, Belichickian evil.
3. Joe Flacco made a statement prior to the Ravens' 20-13 win that seemed to match the snarl of his Fu Manchu 'stache: "I'm sure if we win (the Super Bowl), I'll have nothing to do with why we won, according to you guys." Following the Texans win, that statement remains valid. Early in the game, Flacco appeared sharp, throwing two TDs and firing a few other on-target passes that his receivers dropped. But he lost his mojo, was sacked five times and ended the game quite cold and unable to do much against Wade Phillips' defense. What Flacco will face Sunday in the Patriots' defense is a far lesser unit; few can argue otherwise. But it showed a renewed fire and focus against the Broncos and will be brimming with confidence coming into this game. Flacco needs big games from his offensive line and his receivers, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, who can win their individual matchups. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, though, must also swear a death oath that he won't under-feed Ray Rice, who tends to help this team win games.
4. Has Bill Belichick made chicken salad with this defense from chicken ... parts? One game does not such a bold statement make, but the Patriots' "D" looked like a rested and fierce unit Saturday night. If Belichick can win a ring with Raiders practice-squad castoff Sterling Moore at corner and CB burnout Devin McCourty at free safety, it would go down as one of his finest coaching efforts ever. But they will have to slow down Rice and Co., and just as slow starts were a problem down the stretch of the regular season, they also were defensively in the playoff game two seasons ago. They allowed Rice to run unfettered 83 yards for a TD on the first play from scrimmage, and the Patriots never could bounce back from that early blow. "We didn't start that game off the way we wanted to on defense," OLB-DE Rob Ninkovich said. "A team that potent and tough, you can't give up a big run for a touchdown to start the game off like that. Obviously, that's something that we really need to focus on, is not letting up any big plays like that, especially to start the game off. The momentum they gained from that obviously just snowballed for the rest of the game."
5. Expect to hear what Trey Junkin and Matt Allen are up to this week. There will be lots of stories from the, well, storied histories of 49ers vs. Giants, much of it coming in the postseason. Montana's first playoff game, the week prior to "The Catch." Forty-nine to three, Giants over Niners, in '86. The Leonard Marshall hit on Montana, ending his run as a starter there. The Roger Craig fumble recovered by Lawrence Taylor, which led to the game-winning Giants field goal. And of course, the previously mentioned long snapper (Junkin) and punter and holder (Allen) who were key parts in perhaps the strangest matchup of these teams, the 39-38 thriller in Candlestick in '02 that ended with Junkin's second bad snap, Allen's vain attempt to throw the ball to anyone with the refs missing an obvious pass-interference call against OL Rich Seubert on the wild free-for-all play. They might be bicoastal and only occasional rivals, but these teams' fans don't care much for each other with each group believing their franchise is more prestigious than the other.
6. Yes, the 49ers and Giants played a very good game this season, too, and the Giants have to look back now — just as they did after the first matchup against the Packers — and think that they should have won that one. With the Giants leading 13-12, Vernon Davis caught a 31-yard TD pass (with a two-point conversion) and then, after an Eli Manning interception, Kendall Hunter took a draw 17 yards to suddenly and shockingly make it 27-13. Hakeem Nicks scored to make it a one-score Giants deficit and they later drove all the way to the 49ers' 10 yard-line with under a minute left, but DE Justin Smith batted down Manning's fourth-down pass to end the game. It was entertaining start to finish. The teams alternately tugged at control of the game. It was about as evenly matched a game as we have come to expect Sunday. What's remarkable for the Giants is how all or nothing they were offensively. They had 10 offensive possessions in the game; five were drives that spanned 70 yards and more, and the other five totaled 12 plays and 13 yards. The Niners weren't much more steady. They had 10 possessions, too, not including one that featured three kneeldowns to end the game. They had six drives that tallied fewer than 45 yards, although they netted 10 points on two of those drives. That's being opportunistic. That's the Niners.
7. Some great video after the Packers game Sunday night to share: Giants players chanting the words to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Goin Back To Cali" around a confused but nonetheless delighted Tom Coughlin. And, really, isn't that just perfect? In an era of two-year coaching watches, impatient owners and perhaps a few players who have their own agendas, coaches such as Coughlin shouldn't work. Several players openly have sparred with him over the years, including a few who are still on the team, such as Osi Umenyiora and Brandon Jacobs. And yet here they all are — Coughlin, Umenyiora, Jacobs and the rest of them — playing for a berth to the Super Bowl. They were the anti-Dream Team in the preseason, nobody's favorite to win much of anything except for maybe dogged public-relations head and Twitter enthusiast Pat Hanlon, who told anyone who would listen in the preseason that this team would be good. So right when everyone is ready to fire Coughlin, he pulls this team from the ashes (again) and has them on the verge of the big game (again) as the team no one wants to face. We're past Coughlin being on the hot seat, and the matter of his next extension is merely an afterthought at this point. Now we should be talking about his legacy. He won in Jacksonville (68-60 regular season, 4-4 playoffs), he has won in New York (74-54, 6-3, Super Bowl title) and has more wins and a better overall record than Jeff Fisher despite Fisher coaching six more games. If the Giants win the Super Bowl this year and Coughlin matches Bill Parcells' 172 wins (he's 30 away), is Coughlin a Hall of Famer? Something to mull over when you watch the game this weekend.
8. Another thing to consider is just how much this game means to Vernon Davis and Alex Smith. Whereas the win over the Saints was a career-defining moment for each, a win Sunday would surpass that and pretty much end the "what if" talk about each of them. What must Mike Singletary be thinking today? Embossed in almost every Niners' fans memories is the postgame rant of Singletary in his first game as coach when he banished Davis from the sideline and said afterwards that he would rather play with 10 than 11 if it meant ridding himself of losers. Said Singletary: "Cannot win with them! Cannot coach with them! Can't do it! I want winners!" Turns out he had them all along, and Davis has said that Singletary's wake-up call has helped make him the player he is today. Smith to Davis on a play called "Vernon Post" — it was Davis or throw it away on that one, Jim Harbaugh said after the game — might not supplant The Catch or The Catch, Part Two on the list of Niners all-timers, but it certainly has its place in the legendary franchise lore. And Harbaugh is doing what Singletary, hired for his emotional heft, couldn't do: make winners with highly drafted players such as Smith (first overall pick, 2005) and Davis (sixth overall pick, 2006).
9. You could feel the divorce of the Saints and Gregg Williams coming down the pike once Fisher took the Rams job, but really it had been brewing long before that. The Saints simply have not had a good defense the past two seasons, unable to consistently summon the magic they had during the 2009 run to the title. The irony is that in Saturday's loss to the 49ers, the Saints played some of their best defense of the season for long stretches after they fell behind 14-0 and before the two fourth-quarter possessions. On the 11 drives in between those, the 49ers totaled only 141 yards. But it was Williams' insistence on zero-blitzing the heck out of Smith and leaving Davis singled up that ended the Saints' season and Williams' three-year tenure in New Orleans. Jack Del Rio and Steve Spagnuolo have been mentioned as possible replacements. But it appears the Saints could lose offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., the hidden weapon of the season who called plays (very well) when Sean Payton got his leg rolled up on the sideline. Carmichael is interviewing for the Raiders' head-coaching position.
10. The Broncos fell hard in their loss to the Patriots and, for the time being at least, Tebow Time will be ceased until further notice. But as far as John Elway is concerned, Tebow Time is just beginning as Elway said the QB has "earned the right to be the starting quarterback going into training camp next year." For the first time in his career, Tim Tebow will be a starting quarterback heading into an offseason during which he will get, oh, 1,500 snaps that will be crucial to his development. The way Elway is talking, he'd love nothing more than to have Tebow be the starter for the next decade — even though he clearly added that there would be competition at the position. "Anytime you can get a franchise guy that can be your guy for 10 to 12 years, that's what you want as an organization," Elway said. "And we're hopeful that Tim's that guy. Obviously we have some work to do and he knows that, too. But he made great strides this year." One question to keep in mind: Will the potential loss of talented offensive coordinator Mike McCoy (he's interviewing for the Raiders and Dolphins jobs) hurt Tebow's development? Simply put, the Broncos would not have won the division had McCoy not deftly tailored his offense to Tebow's strengths.
11. With or without Mario Williams, the Texans will be the prohibitive divisional favorites in 2012, a statement that might have earned odd reactions had it been made prior to the team's magical run this season. But it's true: With the Colts (even if Peyton Manning returns) and Jaguars rebuilding and the Titans still appearing a step behind, the Texans have to start thinking of themselves as the class of the AFC South now. The salary-cap room appears tight, but they did their heavy lifting last season through the draft (J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed and, oh yeah, T.J. Yates) and free agency (Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning) and are in tweaking mode now. Plus, they get back Matt Schaub, whose Linsfranc joint should be healed well in advance of training camp. Add a speed receiver, maybe some defensive depth (outside linebacker if Williams outprices himself, plus cornerback), some OL depth and special-teams help and this team could be a monster next season. Phillips will be back, Gary Kubiak will get an extension and all the focus will be on making a deep run in the postseason.
12. Can 15-2 be a failure? In the Packers' eyes, most definitely yes. It was a strange thud of an ending for the defending champs, who will watch someone else hoist Lombardi after barnstorming their way through most of the NFL this season. Decisions must be made: Jermichael Finley is a free agent; Donald Driver has a year left on his deal but might not be back; Nick Collins' future health is very much a question; and several coaches are candidates for the Raiders' staff, as well as other open positions. There will be turnover in Green Bay, but how much? They still have PFW/PFWA MVP Aaron Rodgers, and despite his poor game against the Giants, that still counts for a lot. The Packers have to feel like a contender going into next season, and perhaps an offseason of stewing can rev them back up again.
13. What is going on with the Dolphins? The Buccaneers? Both teams are in wait-and-see mode. The Rams stole Fisher from the Dolphins, but even had the Rams lost out on that one it was clear that they prepared for the situation better than the Dolphins did. The Rams interviewed Plans B and C and had GM candidates who meshed well with Fisher, which might have been one of the tipping points of getting him to St. Louis. Right now, we don't know which direction the Dolphins are heading, but Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer could make a very interesting coach. He has ties to GM Jeff Ireland from their Dallas days together (yes, another potential Cowboys import) and brings a no-nonsense style that could shape up the team and simultaneously infuriate the media for whom he has little use. As for Tampa Bay, the team is heating up its head-coaching search this week and will talk to some of those Packers assistants (including Joe Philbin, whose son tragically died last week). The Bucs also will talk to Zimmer and Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, leaving Carolina fans quite edgy about how they can keep their remarkable play caller just one more year — and keep a division opponent from stealing him. You'd have to think he'd get Josh Freeman back on track, seeing what Chud did this season with Cam Newton, and for that matter, making Derek Anderson into a Pro Bowler once. That should be the first line of Chudzinski's résumé.
14. We reserve this space to look back on the fairly remarkable career of Mike Martz, who announced he's retiring this week. Part sage, part madman, all football savant, Martz had a great run the past 12 years or so running through defenses and quarterbacks alike. For every five-man protection and seven-step drop he ran, it became clear there were two likely conclusions to every play: sack or touchdown. But in all seriousness, Martz was an innovator to whom probably 70 percent of the coordinators out there right now owe a lot. He showed that the passing game could be pushed to the utter limits in St. Louis and he had an offense that took years to crack. His subsequent runs in Detroit, San Fran and Chicago were far less successful and memorable, and his penchant for leaving his QBs exposed might have been Martz's Achilles heel. But few offensive coordinators have left their mark on the game in recent years like Martz, and we suspect we have not heard the last of him quite yet. For now, Mike, enjoy your time off and may you get the proper recognition you deserve.
15. Is there a more dysfunctional division right now than the AFC West heading into the offseason? The Broncos are left to pick up the pieces in light of their Foxborough fold, having to answer questions about the future of Tebow with several other problems on the team. We are finding out more about the inner workings of the Chiefs' organization, thanks to this finely researched story from the Kansas City Star's Kent Babb, which paints of picture of internal fear and loathing. The Raiders are down five draft picks, need a head coach and there may not be 100 percent support for Carson Palmer within the organization now that Hue Jackson is gone. And the Chargers, maybe the paragon of consistency (tongue only slightly in cheek here), shocked everyone with their decisions to keep the status quo with head coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith, to the delight of few outside the team facility. If there's a division to be stolen next season, this might be it.