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Smith, Flacco among those who stand to gain most with Super berth

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Joe Flacco and his coordinator Cam Cameron can plan on getting more criticism if they don't win. (US Presswire)  
Joe Flacco and his coordinator Cam Cameron can plan on getting more criticism if they don't win. (US Presswire)  

There are more than four football teams that stand to gain something wonderful this weekend. There are a handful of individuals who need a victory either to validate their credibility or enhance their reputations.

These are their stories.

Look, I understand conference championship games are important to everyone involved, but they're more significant for some than others. There are plenty of guys who want to win, but there are considerably less who need to win.

Which is why we're here.

I've identified a few of the individuals who stand to gain the most Sunday, and let's be clear on one thing before we go further: That doesn't minimize the importance of winning to someone like, say, New England's Tom Brady. But Brady is the best quarterback in today's game and one of the best ever. Plus, he has been to four Super Bowls and won three. Contrast that to what Joe Flacco or Alex Smith is up against, and I think you can see where I'm going.

Anyway, if there's a guest list of those who benefit most with a victory Sunday, this is where I start:

Joe Flacco, quarterback, Baltimore: This weekend's game is supposed to be a litmus test for him, but people forget that the Ravens offense doesn't revolve around the quarterback. It revolves around Ray Rice. Nevertheless, frustrated Baltimore fans question whether their team can make it to the top with Flacco, and this is where they find out. All I know is he took the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie, and he has taken them to the playoffs in the three years that followed. So he has never been to a Super Bowl. Neither did Dan Fouts or Warren Moon, and they're in the Hall of Fame. Now let's get something straight: I'm not saying Flacco is Hall-worthy. But he doesn't have to be. Not in this offense. He must, however, be good enough to push the Ravens from behind if they're forced to play catchup with Tom Brady, and I wouldn't underestimate the guy. This was the season he finally beat Ben Roethlisberger ... twice, no less, including a come-from-behind victory in Pittsburgh where he drove the Ravens 92 yards in the final two minutes. Granted, he can be inconsistent, and last weekend he demonstrated a lack of pocket presence in the face of Houston's pass rush. But this is not the Houston defense. This is New England, the league's 31st-ranked unit. The challenge is different, and for Flacco, the challenge is proving he can win a championship game.

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Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco: I know, he pushed his career forward with his last-minute heroics vs. New Orleans, but one game doesn't undo six years of mediocrity. Most people in and around the 49ers don't worry about Smith, because what he did last weekend is what he has been doing all season ... except not in such dramatic fashion. Anyway, he has led the 49ers to six come-from-behind victories, including one in Philadelphia where he overcame a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit. The national perception of Smith is that he's more of a game manager than a dangerous quarterback, but tell that to the New York Giants. When they played Smith and the 49ers in November, he carried the club in the second half without running back Frank Gore ... and he won. But it's one thing to get this far; it's another to make it to the Super Bowl. That step is a giant one, and just ask Flacco. He went to a conference championship game his rookie season but has been hounded by critics since. It took Smith seven seasons to get this far, and one more victory would go a long way toward repairing a damaged reputation. Remember, Smith is the quarterback the 49ers chose instead of Aaron Rodgers at the top of the 2005 draft, and he and the club were buried for it ... until now. It took Drew Brees nine seasons to arrive. Maybe this is Alex Smith's time. We'll know Sunday.

Cam Cameron, offensive coordinator, Baltimore: When there are questions or complaints about the Ravens, they usually don't involve the defense. Instead, they're aimed at the other side of the ball, and, often, at this guy. If it's not Flacco's errant passes that frazzle Ravens fans, it's Cameron's play calling -- usually, with angry followers wondering why he didn't remember to call Rice's number. You would think critics might back off after that victory last weekend, but, nope, the Cameron Crazies were out there again, wondering what in the world their favorite target was doing by calling two passes late in the fourth quarter. Basically, the guy's about as popular in Catonsville as the Steinbrenners, with one Baltimore radio station two weeks ago asking me whom the Ravens might hire next as their offensive coordinator. Honest. I have an idea, fellas, but why not enjoy the moment and see what happens next? Remember: People wanted Tom Coughlin fired six weeks ago, so there's a lesson there. Granted, I sometimes wonder what's going through Cameron's head, too -- like when he was San Diego's offensive coordinator and made a bizarre choice of calls late in a 2006 playoff loss to New England. But let the guy breathe, for crying out loud. He has a chance to beat Bill Belichick, just as he did in the 2009 playoffs when the Ravens ran for 234 yards and destroyed New England. I didn't hear anyone complaining then.

Perry Fewell, defensive coordinator, New York Giants: Like his head coach, Fewell was a popular target in December. The Giants couldn't win. Their defense stunk. And the coaching staff was all but out the door. Then they beat the Jets and Dallas to win the NFC East and reach the playoffs. That was good. Now they've won two playoff games and are within a victory of their second Super Bowl in five seasons, and that's great for someone like Fewell. Once a candidate for dismissal, he can be a candidate for the next head-coaching opening because ... well, because when teams get hot, their assistants get noticed. New York goes only as far as its defense takes it, and the defense has been so solid the past month that it shut down the defending Super Bowl champions and allowed only three plays the past month longer than 20 yards -- two of which were 21. Trust me, that hasn't gone unnoticed. Fewell has been on the head-coaching radar for a couple of years -- since he did a credible job in Buffalo as interim coach in 2009 -- and he's there again. Another victory would only heighten the interest. It's no secret that Super Bowl coordinators are logical places to start for clubs in search of their next head coaches, and last time I checked, there were four that hadn't filled vacancies. Maybe they're waiting for Fewell.

Eli Manning, quarterback, N.Y. Giants: OK, so this is a bit of a reach. But it was Manning who was mocked earlier this season when he labeled himself an "elite quarterback" in the class with Tom Brady. Brady won three Super Bowls and has been to four. Manning won the only one he reached ... beating Brady in an unforgettable finish. But that was four years ago. Since then, he hasn't done much of anything, other than lose a playoff game and demonstrate remarkable inconsistency with his play. But all that changed the past month, with Manning playing like ... well, like an elite quarterback in disposing of his past four opponents. "This is exciting," Manning said of the NFC title game. "This is where you want to be." No, this is where he needs to be to reach the next level. If Manning wins Sunday, he will go to his second Super Bowl -- tying older brother Peyton -- and I guarantee nobody will mock him. In fact, maybe then people will realize you can't spell elite without Eli.

The York family, San Francisco: For too many years, there was a perception the 49ers would not and could not be successful under the ownership of Denise DeBartolo York. It wasn't only the family's management style that differed from previous owner Eddie DeBartolo, it was the coaching decisions, with the club firing Steve Mariucci after he won a division championship in 2002 and running through a string of successors who either weren't qualified or weren't prepared to handle responsibilities they were asked to assume. Result: The 49ers went belly up, suffering through eight consecutive non-winning seasons and twice finishing last in their division. Compare that to the club that went 16 consecutive years with 10 or more victories, and maybe you'll understand why people questioned if this ownership could make the 49ers whole again. Well, it just did. With the hiring of Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers not only are back ... they're back on top, in their first conference championship game in 14 years. Harbaugh almost surely wins the league's Coach of the Year award, but he's not there without the Yorks. They're the ones who convinced him to stay in the Bay Area when others like the University of Michigan and the Miami Dolphins were calling. I don't know if Jim Harbaugh is to the Yorks what Bill Walsh was to DeBartolo; what I do know is that with one more victory, the 49ers will move to their first Super Bowl without DeBartolo ... and, yes, that says something.

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