The Final Four has been set, and it might not have been the one you were expecting. The AFC did get its top two seeds through to the championship, but over in the NFC the two best teams – or what everyone thought were the two best teams (the Packers and Saints) are gone.
That leaves this: The Baltimore Ravens (13-4) vs. the New England Patriots (14-3) on one side, and the upstart New York Giants (11-7) vs. the San Francisco 49ers (14-3) on the other. On Feb. 5 two of them will meet in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis.
The New York Giants already have a formula for how to beat the Green Bay Packers. Other than the Kansas City Chiefs, who actually beat them, nobody came closer to doing it than the Giants did on Dec. 4.
The stakes are high enough as it is. In fact, they couldn't be higher during a regular-season game. Rarely are there games where a division title and a playoff berth is on the line and the loser will be eliminated entirely.
That's what's on the line on Sunday night in what might just be the Game of the Year in the NFL between the Giants (8-7) and the Cowboys (8-7) at the Meadowlands. The winner wins the NFC East and locks in the fourth seed in the NFC playoffs. The loser's season is immediately over and there's a chance they could slip all the way to third place.
It’s too late now to do anything about a season gone wrong. Dreams are dead. Hopes haven squashed. And in some places the spark of life has been extinguished. The stretch run of the NFL season isn’t for pretenders. The playoff race isn’t for teams and people whose bubbles have already burst.
And there many burst bubbles littering the NFL landscape with three weeks left in the 2011 season. So many teams and people had what must have seemed like realistic expectations, only to see them go painfully unfulfilled.
The biggest race of the 2011 season – the one that could have the biggest impact on 2012 and beyond – is all-but decided. The Indianapolis Colts are the worst team in the NFL. They are going to own the rights to super-quarterback Andrew Luck.
There is a long, long way to go for the Green Bay Packers – probably longer than they even realize. That’s a lesson that was learned the hard way by so many previously unbeaten teams. Even the teams that look unbeatable, the way the Packers do right now, can be beaten when they least expect it.
Just ask the 2007 New England Patriots, who were once 2 ½ minutes away from finishing 19-0.
They were 6-2 at the midpoint of the season, despite a bunch of free-agent losses and an infirmary full of injuries. Eli Manning was on his way to joining the MVP conversation. Tom Coughlin was earning praise as a possible NFL Coach of the Year.
There are contenders and there are pretenders, and sometimes this late in the season it’s impossible to separate the two. One moment a team like the Buffalo Bills can look like the best team in the AFC East. The next their fast start can fall like a house of cards.