ON THE final weekend of the regular season, the AFC found itself with four teams vying for the conference's final playoff spot. None of them had been particularly impressive over the course of the campaign, but somebody had to be the sixth seed - and, in fact, it would've been the Steelers had the Chiefs not missed a make-able field goal against the Chargers. This, despite Pittsburgh starting that day with a record of 7-8.
Meanwhile, over in the NFC, that same day began with a chance that the 49ers could be the sixth seed on that side of the bracket. San Francisco already had 11 wins. It had won the conference a year earlier. It had outscored its opponents by 131 points for the season, eventually finishing with the third-best margin in football.
At the finish of that day, the 49ers were ultimately slotted fifth - but the point remains true, regardless, particularly considering that the Saints and their plus-110 scoring differential were No. 6: No matter who emerges from this weekend, or next, when the two combatants reach New York City for Super Bowl XLVIII, the team that gets there as the NFC representative will almost undoubtedly arrive as the favorite.
The AFC doesn't lack for star power, particularly when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are in the final four, but the NFC's elite teams have played at a higher level throughout this season, and are also better equipped to compete as the game changes in the postseason.
The most dangerous playoff teams are those who built on balance and toughness and an ability to win a game in multiple manners. Each of the clubs that played their way into this weekend demonstrated all of that along the way, those attributes adding up to each of those teams winning at least 11 games during the regular season and winning by at least a touchdown on average.
The AFC, by comparison, was led this season by the Broncos and Patriots - two of the three best scoring offenses in the NFL - but neither would match up particularly well if forced into the type of knock-down, drag-out battle that's decided by the defenses.
And as good as the surviving AFC quarterbacks are in a more traditional sense, none of their teams is particularly adept when it comes to slowing down dynamic QBs on the other side of scrimmage, so it's hard to say that position would be an advantage given that the NFC is guaranteed to send one of those threatening talents to the big game. Especially if it's a multi-function, freakish athlete like Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton.
This isn't to say that the AFC tournament is pointless, of course, or that it'd be impossible for the AFC to lift the Lombardi Trophy next month. New England fans who saw their Patriots beat the Rams, or who saw the Giants spoil an unbeaten season, should know better than to rule out any possibility on the game's biggest stage. They should know better than to rule out an upset.
And that's exactly what it will be - after proving their superiority all season - if it's not an NFC team celebrating at MetLife Stadium three Sundays from now.
With their acquisition of Deion Branch prior to Saturday night's divisional playoff game, the players on the Colts' 53-man roster had actually earned more Super Bowl rings with the Patriots than the Patriots' own players had. Branch won two titles in New England, while kicker Adam Vinatieri won three.
Brady was the only Patriots player eligible for Saturday's game who'd won a championship with the Pats, and even if the injured Vince Wilfork's one ring was added to Brady's three, Indianapolis would still hold a 5-4 advantage.
It speaks to just how much the Patriots roster has turned over since Brady's bunch began their run of success a dozen years ago, and reinforces how little relevance history - such as the fact New England had previously eliminated Indy in two of three postseason meetings, or that the teams have now met in 11 straight seasons - really has in determining a team's chances of winning in the present.
Yes, the Pats entered Saturday with Brady and Bill Belichick and three banners hang in the corner of Gillette Stadium. But they also entered with 22 players who'd never before appeared in a playoff game.
After owner Robert Kraft saw a documentary detailing his battle with progeria, a rare genetic disease, Sam Berns became a source of inspiration for the Patriots. Kraft invited the Foxborough teenager to spend time with the team, which came to revere his courage, and attend games as a guest of the owner. Just days ago, in fact, Kraft extended an invitation asking Berns to be the Patriots' honorary captain for their divisional playoff.
However, Berns succumbed to his disease Friday, dying at the age of 17. In his honor, the Patriots held a moment of silence prior to their game against the Colts.
"I loved Sam Berns and am richer for having known him. He was a special young man whose inspirational story and positive outlook on life touched my heart. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with him and to get to know his incredible family," Kraft said in a statement.
"News of his passing came as a complete surprise. It is another reminder that we can't take anything for granted. Be sure to give your loved ones hugs and kisses and tell them how much you love them. My heart aches for his parents, Scott and Leslie, his aunt Audrey and the rest of Sam's extended family. Words cannot express the sadness or the depth of sympathy I feel for them today."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.