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Flacco, 49ers are game, but fortune smiles on Brady, Manning

Every Sunday night, Around The League takes a closer look at four of the weekend's most interesting subplots. We call it The Filthy Four ... mostly for alliteration purposes.

Montana in Brady's sights

Tom Brady said all along that last year's rudderless playoff loss to the Jets was in the past. Not one living human bought it. Not until Sunday, that is.

While Jets coach Rex Ryan mowed on a steaming, three-packet bowl of ramen noodles in some darkened Jersey basement, the Patriots -- tight-lipped and stewing for so many moons -- found themselves in familiar territory: Super Bowl-bound as kings of the AFC once more.

High up in the owner's box at Gillette Stadium, Robert Kraft sat nestled between aging rocker Steven Tyler and former quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Down below, the man who replaced Bledsoe more than a decade ago drew one step closer to equaling the feats of his childhood hero, Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls during a storied run with the 49ers.

"To get this opportunity, I'm privileged to be a part of an incredible organization, to play with a great group of teammates," Brady told reporters after the Patriots dispatched the Ravens 23-20 in the AFC Championship Game. "It's really a privilege to play quarterback on this team."

Always measured words from Brady. Carefully constructed.

Quarterbacks come and go -- and, yes, the UGGs problem persists -- but with the Giants on tap in Super Bowl XLVI (revenge-game supreme), we're about to witness the consuming fire that burns inside of Brady.

Eli's magic ride

Eli Manning has spent the past four months putting each of his snickering critics in their place. He told everyone he was elite, then put together an outstanding season that backed up that claim. He made his definitive statement in Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park.

Manning's numbers (32-of-58 passing, 316 yards, two touchdowns) were good -- especially against a fine 49ers defense -- but it was his toughness that made New York's 20-17 win one of the signature performances of his career. Manning was sacked six times and knocked to the ground often, taking the type of beating that would send lesser competitors to the locker room. By overtime, Manning's formerly white jersey had turned camouflage from all the grass and mud the 49ers tried to make him eat for four hours.

There will be plenty of debate these next two weeks on the idea of Eli supplanting Peyton as the greatest Manning if he can knock off Tom Brady and the Patriots for a second time in a Super Bowl. Imagine if someone were in a coma for five years and woke up to that.

Whether you're on Team Eli or Team Peyton, you have to admit it's pretty amazing this could even be debated. If we learned anything Sunday, it should be to never again underestimate Eli Manning.

Coming to grips with Flacco

The early career of Joe Flacco screams mixed bag.

In Sunday's AFC Championship Game, Flacco matched Brady punch for punch before Billy Cundiff's 32-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left, handing New England the victory and a trip to Indianapolis for all the marbles.

Unless you've established off-the-grid residence in a Scandinavian forest, it's been drummed into your head that Flacco is the only NFL quarterback to start and win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons. Reaching the postseason isn't the issue. It's a Super Bowl berth that's always over the next hill for Flacco and friends.

Easing into "Just Blame Joe" mode won't fly this time. A young Harrison Ford he'll never be -- he's a body double for the dude working the paint aisle at Home Depot -- but Flacco went to work against the Patriots, and his spirited comments suggest he's done punching his card as Baltimore's whipping boy.

"I don't care. I mean look at the film," Flacco said. "You look at the film, you see how I play. I pretty much play the same way every week, so if you think I played better this week than other weeks, I think you're wrong."

Who knows when Flacco developed this edge. Maybe when a neighbor snitched on him this season for skateboarding, a complaint that general manager Ozzie Newsome's secretary fielded in one of the more surreal moments in Ravens history.

It's hard to play alpha male with Ray Lewis looming around every dark corner, but look beyond the goth-teen anecdotes and unfortunate Fu Manchu, and the Ravens have a quarterback to keep.

The highest of highs, the lowest of lows

Imagine you're Billy Cundiff. You just missed the most important kick of your career -- an event so cataclysmic (relatively speaking) that it will go down as one of the defining moments of your life.

Let's say in a desperate bid to co-op any sense of normalcy, you flip on the end of the Giants-49ers game. When Kyle Williamsfumbles away the 49ers' season, do you (a) feel terrible for the young punt returner, or (b) pump your fist in celebration, knowing you're not the only goat of this championship weekend?

(We're leaving out (c), which is, "Are you insane? Do you really think I'm watching freaking TV after I cost Ray Lewis possibly his last shot at a Super Bowl? Must. Keep. Moving.")

Such are the stakes once you hit this tier of the postseason. Gaffes in the wild-card and divisional rounds always will be remembered by the teams they affected, but once the Super Bowl is directly involved, your shortcomings become national news.

"It's a kick I've kicked probably a thousand times out there," Cundiff told reporters after the game, according to The Associated Press. "... I didn't convert, and that's the way things go. There's really no excuse for it."

Instant and lingering notoriety is what Cundiff and Williams must deal with, just as Earnest Byner and Scott Norwood did before them. Cundiff and Williams will have the opportunity to move forward with their careers, but neither will ever truly distance himself from what happened on the fourth Sunday of 2012.

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