- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2012

There’s never been a week like this leading up to the NFL’s conference title games. I say this, as much as anything, because I don’t remember an owner ever using the words “4 finger circus clowns” before on Twitter — or even not on Twitter, come to think of it. That Jimmy Irsay, he’s such a card.

Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts’ ringmaster, typed those words Wednesday, presumably on his smartphone, in response to a tweet by the legendary sportswriter, Rob Lowe. Lowe, who also does some acting, had informed his 244,975 followers: “Hearing my fave, #18 Peyton Manning will not return to the NFL. Wow.”

This caused Irsay, reportedly a buddy of the former “West Wing” star, to send in the clowns — the ones missing a digit. “My sources tell me Rob will star in an epic remake of ‘Deep Throat,’ ” he fired back, “with aging porn stars and 4 finger circus clowns.”

(Just curious: How would you list “4 finger circus clowns” on an injury report — as doubtful or questionable? Also, what if you needed one of them to serve as an emergency holder?)

At any rate, Manning, who missed the season with a neck injury, hasn’t retired — yet. Better still, circus clowns haven’t started picketing the Colts’ offices. But seriously, after an episode like this, you wonder if the conference championship games might be anticlimactic — I mean, unless they can get some bearded ladies to perform at halftime.

OK, on to the games — and they’re both beauties. For one thing, they’re being played outdoors, which only adds to the unpredictability. For another, regardless of who wins, the Super Bowl storylines figure to be fascinating. Here are my 11 thoughts (my Starting 11) on each matchup:

AFC: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

1. Their playoff game two years ago — Ravens, 33-14 — probably doesn’t offer many clues. The Patriots didn’t have Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez or Deion Branch that day. And Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were two years younger.

2. Joe Flacco is looking at it all wrong. He’s incredibly lucky to be quarterbacking a Ravens team that basically just asks him to drive the car. If you doubt this, Joe, go to St. Louis (or any number of other places) and try to go 49-23 as a starter with that supporting cast.

3. Adam Vinatieri is gone. Stephen Gostkowski has never had to kick a game-winning field goal in the playoffs. Do you suppose anybody in Patriots Land is thinking about this?

4. For the Ravens to have a real chance, Terrell Suggs has to turn Matt Light, the Pats’ venerable left tackle, into, well, Matt Lite.

5. This might surprise you: Only seven players on New England’s active roster were around in 2007, the last season the Patriots went to the Super Bowl (Welker, Light, Gostkowski, quarterback Tom Brady, guard Logan Mankins, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and reserve back Kevin Faulk).

6. The possibility exists that the Patriots will have to go through both Harbaughs, Baltimore’s John and San Francisco’s Jim, to win their fourth Super Bowl. That’s like having to go through Venus and Serena Williams to win Wimbledon.

7. Ray Rice is the best running back left in the playoffs. The Ravens need him to play Sunday like he’s the best running back left in the playoffs.

8. Bill Belichick’s record in New England before Camera-gate: 87-30 (.690 winning percentage, best in the NFL from 2000-06). Belichick’s record since: 67-19 (.779 winning percentage, best in the league from 2007 through ‘11). Championships? That’s another deal. Still, interesting numbers.

9. I’d love to tap the line connecting Bill O’Brien, the Patriots‘ outgoing offensive coordinator, to Josh McDaniels, their incoming offensive coordinator. (O’Brien: “Sorry, Josh, you’re breaking up …”)

10. It never ceases to amaze me how well-played these cold-weather games are nowadays. Brady threw a record-tying six touchdown passes against Denver last Saturday despite a wind chill of 12 degrees. Compare that to the Ice Bowl decades ago in Green Bay, when Dallas’ Bob Hayes ran pass routes with his hands in his pants.

11. Patriots 23, Ravens 20.

NFC: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers

1. The last time these teams met in the playoffs, the Giants blew a 24-point third quarter lead and the officials blew an obvious pass interference call on the final play. The time before that, the Giants ended the 49ers’ dream of three straight titles, which would have matched the Vince Lombardi Packers (1965 through ‘67) and the Curly Lambeau Packers (1929 through ‘31). What’s going to happen this time?

2. Has any coach — in all of NFL history — done a better job in his first year than the Niners’ Jim Harbaugh? To turn a 6-10 club into a 13-3 conference finalist, without the benefit of an offseason, is simply mind blowing.

3. If I were an NFL owner, I’d hire a scout off the Giants’ staff and ask him: How the heck do you come up with all these great pass rushers (e.g. Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and now Jason Pierre-Paul)?

4. Often, when a team gets good, it gets good fast. The Rams went from 4-12 in 1998 to winning the Super Bowl. The Patriots went from 5-11 in 2000 to winning the Super Bowl. Now here come the 49ers.

5. Tom Coughlin has been on the hot seat so much, his rear end must look like a fraternity pledge’s. But if he coaches the Giants to another championship, you have to at least consider him for the Hall of Fame. Eli Manning’s Canton stock would rise appreciably with another ring, too.

6. Memo to San Francisco wideout Michael Crabtree: The NFC title game is no country for butter fingers, never mind alligator arms. (Translation: You’d better turn it up a notch from last week.)

7. Instead of politicians from the two cities placing wagers on these games — an exercise in triteness — iconic players from the two franchises should. Joe Montana could put up a bottle of his finest Montagia wine (the 2007 Cabernet, perhaps); Lawrence Taylor, meanwhile, could promise that, if the Giants lose, he’ll make another appearance on “Dancing With the Stars.”

8. Alex Smith has become the Niners’ Joe Flacco.

9. Four times in the past four years, a team that won nine games in the regular season has played in one of the conference title games (the Giants being the fourth).

10. The four divisional playoff games drew significantly larger TV audiences (31 million to 45.1 million) than the BCS championship game (24.2 million). Not to scare anyone, but the NFL might be too big to fail.

11. Giants 27, Niners 22.

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