For much of the last half of the regular season, it was generally conceded that the road to the Super Bowl would go through Seattle and Foxborough, and that no one had exhibited sufficient credentials to go into those venues and beat the Seahawks and Patriots.
Now that we're in January, CenturyLink Field still seems like a good bet to propel the Seahawks into their second straight Super Bowl appearance. Maybe the Green Bay Packers could go in there and come away with a win off the hot hand of Aaron Rodgers, but right now, it seems unlikely.
Over in the AFC, though, things have gotten interesting. With the Baltimore Ravens visiting the Patriots in New England this Saturday, the fate of the conference title is a little bit more in doubt. Patriots fans might dismiss my faith in the Ravens as stemming from inherent bias, owing to my nine years coaching in Baltimore. But let's just look at the salient facts: Since Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh arrived in 2008, the Ravens' postseason performance -- both in general, and matched up directly against the Patriots -- is undeniably great, and in just about every comparison, Flacco comes out ahead of slam-dunk Hall of Famer Tom Brady.
In his 14 career playoff games, Flacco is 10-4 with 21 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. During that stretch, he's logged 13 completions of 25 yards or more. Meanwhile, over his last 14 playoff games, Brady is 7-7 with 26 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and just seven explosive plays.
The two quarterbacks have faced off three times in the postseason, and although all three contests have taken place at Gillette Stadium, Flacco has come away with two wins. In these games, Flacco has averaged 193.3 passing yards, with a total of five TD passes and two interceptions; Brady has posted 237.7 passing yards per contest, with a total of three scoring strikes and seven picks. Of course, there are some mitigating factors. Flacco has had better protection and, often, better receivers to throw to. Also, the raw numbers are a bit skewed because, over the course of these games, Brady has thrown the ball 50 more times than Flacco. Then again, no one can deny that Flacco has exhibited the skills to master New England's defense, even on the road.
OK, Flacco didn't do much of anything in his first postseason matchup with Brady. But he didn't have to. While Flacco managed just four completions for 34 yards, the Ravens rolled to a 33-14 win in the 2009 wild-card round, thanks to 234 rushing yards and four Brady turnovers (including three in the first quarter).
In Round 2, the 2011 AFC Championship Game, both quarterbacks completed 22 of 36 passes. And although Flacco notched more yards (306 to 239), more TD passes (two to zero) and less interceptions (one to two), Brady came away with a 23-20 win. Though you'll recall that Flacco, with under two minutes to play, took the Ravens from their own 21-yard line to the Patriots' 14 in nine plays, only to see Billy Cundiff miss a 32-yard field goal attempt that would have sent the game into overtime.
One year later, the Ravens exacted their revenge with a 28-13 win in an AFC title game rematch. The game was fairly even statistically, with both teams rushing for more than 100 yards and converting on just under 50 percent of their third downs. The biggest difference: The Ravens converted all four of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, while the Patriots went 1-for-4. Oh, and Flacco had three touchdowns against zero interceptions, while Brady recorded one TD and two picks.
Bottom line: Flacco has gotten the best of Brady in postseason matchups. But one key variable should give Pats fans plenty of confidence in this week's bout: the presence of Rob Gronkowski.
The Pats only had Gronkowski for one of those three playoff games -- and yes, it was the contest that they won, with the hulking tight end catching five balls for a team-high 87 yards. Gronk has re-emerged as one of the most dominant offensive players in the game this season, with 1,124 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns, hitting paydirt in each of his last three games. This guy is a true game changer.
On Saturday, Baltimore's pass rush -- both inside and outside -- will have to make a difference for the team to protect its depleted defensive backfield. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil combined for 29 sacks during the regular season, and the Ravens sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times last weekend, never giving the Steelers QB a chance to seriously challenge Baltimore's undermanned secondary.
The Patriots are an intimidating team, and Bill Belichick is probably the best coach of his generation. Consequently, there are opponents that lose to the Patriots in Foxborough just as soon as they step off the bus. That's not going to happen here. The Ravens aren't the team they were in the 2012 AFC title game (Ray Lewis is gone, Ray Rice is gone), but they will be a formidable matchup for the Patriots -- exactly the sort of tough, dangerous squad a top seed doesn't want to face coming off a bye week.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.