If you’re a fan of American football — college, pro, lingerie, it doesn’t matter — this Sunday is nirvana. One afternoon, two games to determine the combatants in Super Bowl XLVI. The AFC and NFC championships aren’t about commercials or who’s handling the ceremonial coin toss. They aren’t about a latter-day rock star performing at halftime. These two games will provide the winners a chance at dream fulfillment and make the upcoming offseason dreadfully long for the losers. During his broadcast days, Hall of Famer John Madden emphasized, one year after another, that the hardest game to lose was the one that left a team a single victory short of the Super Bowl. You want to see desperation on display for three hours, the kind of programming for which reality-TV producers beg and plead? Tune in this Sunday.
AFC: Baltimore at New England
• In watching Tom Brady shred Denver’s defense last Saturday night (six touchdown passes), you got the impression that the future Hall of Famer was making a point. His 5,235 passing yards this season surpassed the record Dan Marino set 27 years ago, but was merely second in the NFL this season to the Saints’ Drew Brees. Brady tossed 39 touchdown passes in 2011, the second-most in his 12-year career, but all we read about before Saturday was the new Tim Tebow world in which we all now live. If New England wins Sunday, Brady will become only the second quarterback (after John Elway) to start five Super Bowls. He has the chance to become the third quarterback (after Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana) to win four Super Bowls. And as for Tebow, it turns out legend trumps cult in January.
• You have to wonder if the bust Bill Belichick eventually gets at the Pro Football Hall of Fame will include a hood. I’ll never get used to seeing a leader of grown men do his thing in the same outfit you might find on a bench-dweller in Boston Common. It’s always been about results, though, with the Patriot coach. Like Brady, Belichick will join an exclusive club with a win over Baltimore. Only Don Shula (with the Baltimore Colts and Miami) and Tom Landry (with Dallas) have coached in five Super Bowls. And only Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll has won four. To date, Belichick is 3-1 on Super Sunday.
• The AFC title will be decided between the league’s second-ranked offense (New England averaged 467.1 yards per game) and third-ranked defense (Baltimore allowed 288.9 yards per game). Despite making the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, the Ravens will be appearing in only their third AFC championship game (they won after the 2000 season and lost after the 2008 campaign). Even with Ray Rice taking a starring role (he finished second in the NFL with 1,364 rushing yards), Baltimore is headlined by two future Hall of Famers on the defensive side: linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Which makes the cat-and-mouse with Brady all the more intriguing.
• The pick: Again, Brady seems like he’s out to make a point. New England 27, Baltimore 13.
NFC: New York Giants at San Francisco
• I’m guilty of painting Giant quarterback Eli Manning as Peyton’s little brother, with every connotation the word “little” might conjure. And I’ve been wrong for some time. Four years after leading a four-game postseason charge to a championship (upsetting the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII), Manning passed for 4,933 yards this season and set a record for fourth-quarter touchdown passes with 15. New York snuck into the playoffs by winning their last two regular-season games to finish 9-7. But with Manning at the helm, the Giants piled up points against both Atlanta and mighty Green Bay. (Remember when it was impossible for a visiting team to win at Lambeau Field in January?) Like his brother, Eli Manning is a winner. Bet against him at your peril.
• We tend to see championships taken by teams that get hot at the right time on the scoreboard. A basketball team finds its range from long distance or a baseball team starts spraying line drives in the late innings. Well, the Giant defense is getting hot at the right time. The franchise that gave us Sam Huff and Lawrence Taylor finished 27th in the NFL in defense this season. But with defensive end Osi Umenyiora healthy again and joining Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks) on the Giant pass rush, New York has begun playing the brand of football its fans know and love. A hot defense should be feared.
• I watched Alex Smith lead his Utah Utes to a win over Southern Miss in the 2003 Liberty Bowl. He looked like a good system quarterback (his coach at the time was Urban Meyer), but nothing like a top NFL draft pick (as he became in 2005) or a successor to Joe Montana and Steve Young in the lineage of San Francisco Super Bowl signal-callers. With a win Sunday, Smith would finally silence skeptics who have followed his seven-year career as though he were a death-row inmate awaiting that final meal order. Like the other Harbaugh-coached team still alive, the 49ers reached a conference championship by playing stellar defense (fourth in the league) in the Year of the Quarterback. Add the guts they showed offensively in winning that shootout with New Orleans and you have the makings of something super.
• The pick: I’d like to see the 49ers become the 11th different NFC team to reach the Super Bowl over the last 11 years. But they’re playing Eli Manning with high stakes. New York 24, San Francisco 13.