Any way you slice it, the San Francisco 49ers stick out like a sore thumb in the NFC Final Four.
Tom Coughlin, Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton have all coached their teams to Super Bowl titles. Jim Harbaugh won two Pioneer League titles at the University of San Diego and beat a Virginia Tech team that lost to James Madison in the Orange Bowl.
We kid, because Harbaugh's the Coach of the Year in the NFL this year. He's still a rookie lumped in with three of the most successful coaches in the professional ranks because his team ran away with a division whose other teams started guys like Kellen Clemens, A.J. Feeley, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback, though.
Drew Brees threw for 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns this season. That's not going to be good enough to win the MVP award because Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,673 yards in 155 fewer attempts while throwing just six interceptions to go with his 45 touchdowns. Eli Manning threw for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns in the kind of season that seemed a lot more impressive back when defense wasn't treated like North Korea at the United Nations.
49ers quarterback Alex Smith? He threw for 3,144 yards, which was the best season of his career. If any of the other three finished with that figure, you'd wonder just how bad the plane crash was that it ended the season after just eight games.
Brees, Manning and Rodgers all have Super Bowl rings. They all star in television commercials -- for better or for worse -- and they are recognizable to even the most casual of football fans. Alex Smith could walk into your living room wearing his uniform, introduce himself to you and hand over a self-published autobiography without really getting the message across effectively.
That doesn't mean he's ineffective, though. The biggest difference between the three bold names and Smith is that Smith isn't asked to win games for his football team. He's asked not to lose them and he's done a brilliant job of that this season because he doesn't turn the ball over by trying to do more than what's expected of him.
The Saints, Giants and Packers are all at this point in the season because their offenses were so overpowering that defense became more of an afterthought than Kate Middleton at her own wedding. The 49ers play defense and they play it really well, but their offense is out of the leather helmet era at a time when NASA is looking to football coaches for help in improving their aerodynamics.
In a copycat league, Harbaugh has gone off on his own while the rest of the league chases video game numbers and bucked the notion that you live or die because of your quarterback. That's gotten him 13 wins and a home game in the playoffs, but that only means so much if the journey ends with a thumping at the hands of the Saints.
Such an outcome means that doing things your own way can get you close enough to know that your own way doesn't get the job done. But a win? That means there's still a place for iconoclasm, and that's a pretty good thing for the game of football.