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
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.
Always measured words from Brady. Carefully constructed.
Eli's magic ride
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.
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
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."
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.