With just four teams left in the chase for the Lombardi Trophy, there are so many potential Super Bowl storylines in front of us, that it’s hard not to get excited for the big game. But, slow down. Before there’s a Harbaugh Bowl or Tom Brady going up against his childhood team, or Thomas Dimitroff squaring off against his mentor, Bill Belichick, let’s tackle the biggest storylines from the AFC and NFC Championship Games this weekend. Here are my 10 Storylines for the week before the week before the week of the big game. -- Peter Schrager
Belichick's respect for Ed Reed
In the NFL Films special, "A Football Life: Bill Belichick," the longtime Patriots coach takes us into his office and behind the curtain of how he prepares for games. On a computer screen is Ed Reed. Belichick raves about Reed’s abilities as a player and deems him one of the best players in the NFL. Belichick respects Ed Reed. Tom Brady respects Ed Reed. And if you were wondering why Peyton Manning didn’t take any shots over the middle last Saturday, one of the reasons — for certain — was his respect for Ed Reed. No, he’s not the player he once was, but the Ravens safety still can change a game with his centerfield play from the safety spot. He’s been relatively quiet all playoffs. Don’t be shocked if Ed Reed — against a team that knows and respects his game greatly — makes a big play on Sunday.
Brady's chase for another ring
Tom Brady’s now played in two Super Bowls where the big storyline going in has been his chase to tie Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for the record number of Super Bowl rings for a starting quarterback. After starting 3-0 in his first three Super Bowl appearances, he’s since gone 0-2. Last week, he surpassed Joe Montana on the list of all-time postseason wins. It makes for a nice factoid, but it doesn’t matter to Brady. His eyes are on the Lombardi.
Joe Flacco — Most Underappreciated QB of his Generation?
Since his rookie season in 2008, Joe Flacco has won seven playoff football games, with five of them coming on the road. He’s won a playoff game in every season he’s been a pro. He’s beaten Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in playoff games in their home buildings. He’s gone to three AFC Championship Games in five years. And yet, he’s still not even mentioned in the "elite" quarterback discussion. He’s never considered a Top 10 quarterback. You can make the argument — in an era when Cam Newton and Matt Stafford have major clothing line deals without a single playoff win between them — Joe Flacco is the most under-appreciated quarterback in the league. Win on Sunday and it’ll be hard to ignore what he’s accomplished.
Mike Nolan: master schemer or another victim of the Kaepernick Express?
Mike Nolan’s seen a lot of offenses in his 20-plus years coaching defense in the NFL. I’m not sure he’s seen anything like San Francisco’s offensive attack. I watched the tape of last week’s win over Green Bay and it’s flawless. I understand that the Seahawks and Rams put the clamps on Colin Kaepernick this season, but if the second-year quarterback plays even nearly as well as he did last week in Atlanta on Sunday, Nolan’s going to be in for a long day. Nolan, the former head coach of the 49ers, is known as a master schemer; a game plannning impresario. As excited as I am to see Greg Roman’s offensive strategy on Sunday, I’m almost more looking forward to seeing what Nolan has up his sleeve.
The Core Four (Ed Reed, Haloti, Suggs, Ray Lewis)
Jets linebacker Bart Scott was on “Inside the NFL” on Wednesday night and the former Raven discussed Baltimore’s “Core Four” on defense and how much this game would mean to them. In summation, Scott detailed how much Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs have been through together and how the four of them know this is their last run. “That is powerful,” Scott noted. Ray Lewis is retiring, Ed Reed’s contract situation is not set in stone, and both Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs aren’t getting any younger. They’ve been so close so many times. They know they’re one step away.
Aqib Talib: The Torrey Smith stopper
Aqib Talib grew up idolizing Champ Bailey. A young cornerback in high school and college, Bailey was his guy. He’d watch his technique, follow his motions. I spoke to Talib after Sunday’s win over the Texans and asked if he watched the Ravens-Broncos game the day before. “I grew up watching and modeling my game after Champ Bailey,” Talib said. “And [he] gave Champ Bailey a very tough time. If you're giving Champ a hard time, you're doing something right.” Talib matched up one-on-one with Andre Johnson for most of the Patriots-Texans game, a rarity for a Belichick game plan. If he’s going up head to head with Smith, he better bring the after-burners. I get the feeling he knows he’s in for a long afternoon. I also get the feeling he’s up to the challenge.
Kaepernick's day and the impact it will make on future NFL QBs
Though Falcons-49ers is obviously the bigger story, the long-term future of NFL quarterbacks is worth observing, as well. Colin Kaepernick — along with Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and to a certain extent Cam Newton — has turned the NFL on its head with the read-option. None of the four were viewed as traditional NFL quarterbacks, but none of the four were necessarily told to change, either. If Kaepernick can win Sunday and put on a show in the Super Bowl, don’t be surprised to see several similar athletic quarterbacks with less than perfect NFL throwing motions go early in next year’s draft. A guy like EJ Manuel of Florida State — someone most teams would normally wait on — could sneak into the Top 10.
Matt Ryan and elite status
The knock on Matt Ryan has always been that for as good as all his regular season accolades are on paper, he couldn’t win in January. I was “Hater No. 1,” but have since eaten some humble pie. Last week’s final drive was a career-defining performance. Ryan played that way all season long and Sunday’s comeback effort in the final minutes wasn’t the first time he’d done it. One more win and he could forever silence his critics. Two more wins, and he’s in the “elite” quarterback conversation.
Who's the Hoo-Man? You'll find out soon enough
The biggest X-Factor in Sunday’s Ravens-Patriots game might feature the game’s longest last name. Not familiar with Michael Hoomanawanui? You may want to do a little research. Rob Gronksowski’s replacement and the Patriots’ third string tight end, the man known in the New England locker room as the "Hoo-Man." He played on 50 of 66 Patriots’ offenses snaps last week and I think he’ll get involved in more than just the blocking game on Sunday. Released after two years with the Bears, “The Hoo-Man” could play a huge role in the AFC Championship Game.
Is John Abraham good to go?
John Abraham’s been Atlanta’s top pass rusher all season. He clearly wasn’t 100 percent healthy last week against Seattle. I’m curious to see which John Abraham we get this weekend. San Francisco not only boasts the best offensive line in all of football, but they have the most elusive quarterback left in the playoffs, too. It’ll be incredibly difficult to defend Kaepernick on Sunday. John Abraham may never get this close to the Super Bowl again. It’s a shame he won’t be 100 percent. Let’s see how close to that he is come gametime.