The NFL has not demanded Tom Brady pull over to the side of the road and let Ray Lewis pass to the Super Bowl, but I'll bet the league marketing department would endorse that idea.
And now that the Atlanta Falcons have proved they can win a playoff game, I'm sure the NFL won't mind if they return to obscurity so the San Francisco 49ers can conjure more Colin Kaepernick magic.
Baltimore vs. San Francisco is the best possible Super Bowl match-up that can come out of this weekend's conference championships games.
We'd get the Harbaugh Bowl – coaching brothers John of the Ravens and Jim of the 49ers– along with Ravens linebacker Lewis' farewell and the return to full glory of the storied 49ers. I'm not sure we can take much more of Lewis' dancing or Jim Harbaugh's whining to referees, but it'd be a worthy showdown of quality teams.
Alas, I don't think that's what we'll get on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
My hunch is it'll be Patriots vs. 49ers after this weekend shakes out, and that brings some intrigue, too. I don't see Brady and the Pats losing a conference title at home to a Ravens team that, for all of Lewis' hype, is average on defense. The 49ers ravaged the Packers last week while the Falcons hung on despite themselves and survived against the Seahawks. The hotter team prevails there.
Here's how I'd rank the potential Super Bowl match-ups, from best to worst:
1. Ravens vs. 49ers
This would be tough for the Harbaughs. Imagine figuring out a game plan to beat your brother's game plan. Imagine the reality that one brother will have a great night and offseason and the other will be stuck with “what ifs”. Imagine poor brother-in-law Tom Crean trying to figure out what to say at the next family reunion.
In all seriousness, you know the brothers had to have talked football over the years, sibling rivalry or not. Would one be tempted to stage a schematic or play-calling surprise?
Beyond that, I love the idea of the young, emerging Kaepernick leading an offense against the allegedly retiring Lewis. (Great athletes always have a tougher time actually walking away than planning to walk away.) The Ravens pride themselves on disrupting quarterbacks, and they found a way to rattle longtime nemesis Peyton Manning last week.
Lewis, with his bionic-appearing arm, has been a beast the first two playoff games with 13 tackles against the Colts and 17 against the Broncos. Do I hear 20 coming up?
2. Patriots vs. 49ers
Here's another potentially great coaching showdown without the family angst. Let's go "Star Wars." Bill Belichick is Darth Vader. Jim Harbaugh is Yoda. Or maybe he's Luke Skylwalker. No, Han Solo …oh forget that analogy. Belichick is the gold standard of coaches, always looking for and often finding an edge. Harbaugh is changing the view that a college guy just can't win in the NFL. He can, if he's a pro at heart.
Belichick has lost his last two Super Bowls, but Kaepernick is not Eli Manning. He's actually harder to pursue.
Between the lines, the 49ers have a more balanced team, capable of playing at a high level on offense and defense. The Patriots are offense first, second and third. And when you've got Brady, you've got a chance.
It would be somewhat fitting for Brady to seek his fourth Super Bowl ring against Joe Montana's former team.
3. Patriots vs. Falcons
There's a reason why the Falcons are in my bottom half of best potential games: They're pretty good, but pretty boring. They have no standout superstar to generate pregame hype. Matt Ryan is a solid quarterback, above average or better in almost every category. If he reaches the Super Bowl, he'll have two big playoff wins under his belt.
Playoff success would push him up in the quarterback hierarchy, and beating Brady would raise his profile even more.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith has the second-best record for his first five years of any coach in history, yet doesn't garner much respect from media or fans. Most believe Belichick would outsmart him. So there'd be something to see in whether Smith could prove Belichick wrong. But if this showdown never happens, I won't miss it.
4. Ravens vs. Falcons
No one outside of their fan base is hoping for this showdown, featuring Joe Flacco vs. Ryan in a battle of the underrated quarterbacks.
The Lewis farewell would generate some interest, as would the dramatic suspense over whether Falcons running back Michael Turner would gain 3.5 or 3.8 yards per carry over the course of the game. I would not look forward to hearing grown analysts call Matt Ryan "Matty Ice," the single dumbest nickname in sports history.
Oh, well, even with Ravens vs. Falcons we'd still have an overblown halftime show, featuring Beyonce's legs, and plenty of new commercials. And nachos. Don't forget the nachos.