Freewheeling Final Four will produce a new champion

GREEN BAY -- New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning pulled one item at a time from his locker, emptying his road gear into a big blue duffle bag that would later be flown back to New York after Sunday's 37-20 win against the Green Bay Packers.

First, he packed a T-shirt. Then, a few pieces of equipment. Some other dirty clothes. And then this: A WWE championship belt, the same belt that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned into his signature item during last year's Super Bowl run. Except this version had three blue letters across the front: E-L-I.

"Oh, some guys were just having fun with me," Manning said when I asked him about its meaning. "It's always fun when you're making a little run."

You know what else is fun? Playing with a mindset that you've got nothing to lose. Thumping a team that's expected to win. Approaching a playoff run with the philosophy that you don't care about anything but the pleasure of the game.

A new champion will be crowned this year, thanks to the Giants' ability to defeat a Packers team that finished the regular season with only one loss. It'll now be up to the 49ers, Ravens, Patriots and Giants to decide who takes back Green Bay's trophy.

There might be a lesson to be taken from all this, too: When it comes to the playoffs, forget the regular season. Forget Drew Brees' single-season passing record. Forget Tim Tebow's comeback victories. Forget Rodgers' epic play through much of the year. All three -- all at once -- were eliminated this weekend.

On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Giants' 37-20 win over the Packers on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. ET.

"A regular-season record doesn't mean anything," Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. "Once you get into this dance, everyone gets a fair shot. The regular-season record doesn't mean anything. All it does is solidify your spot in the playoffs. Everyone's record is set to zero -- and may the best team win."

Maybe it's nothing more than an illusion of the weekend, but it almost feels more like the team with the best shot at a Super Bowl run might be the team playing with the least amount of pressure. And it's tough to decide who that might be.

The 49ers, who haven't been to the playoffs (let alone won 10 games) since 2002, looked loose as they hosted a Saints team picked by many to win on the road. The Ravens are led by a fun-loving bunch of veterans on defense who were overlooked as Super Bowl contenders for much of the first half of the year. And the Giants, who might be playing the loosest of any team, are starting to look like that same group that knocked off the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

"We were definitely having fun back then," Manning said about their previous Super Bowl run.

On NFL Network
Watch the 49ers' 36-32 win over the Saints in its entirety on Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. ET.

Even the current Patriots, for all the pressure facing them after their playoff belly flops of the last two years, don't seem overly stuffy these days. Maybe that had something to do with the ease with which they dismantled the Broncos on Saturday. Or maybe the lowered expectations of a mediocre defense have even given them less sense that their collective world will collapse with a loss.

Whatever the case, the vibe is a welcomed one.

On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Ravens' 20-13 win over the Texans and the Patriots' 45-10 win over the Broncos on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at midnight ET.

None of this is intended to suggest the four remaining teams don't recognize the serious nature of the road ahead, nor does it mean they're a bunch of underdogs who don't belong here. After all, each of the four remaining teams finished the regular season as a division champion. It's not about the records. It's about a mood that didn't feel overly tense coming out of any of those four locker rooms this week.

A piece of white paper taped to Rolle's locker before Sunday's game -- and remaining long after the Packers were vanquished -- had a picture of Rodgers' face with an arrow below it pointing to an orange Tootsie Pop. Below the Tootsie Pop, the word "Sucker" was printed. Yes, just one more example of the Giants having fun.

You know who was the real sucker of this weekend? Anyone and everyone who assumed regular-season success -- whether individual or team -- would automatically translate into a Super Bowl appearance.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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