After the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos compete for the AFC Championship in Denver, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks battle in the Pacific Northwest for the NFC Championship on Sunday.
With Super Bowl berths are on the line, here are four storylines to watch out for in Sunday’s AFC and NFC Championship games:
BATTLE OF THE BEST
Rivalries help make sports more interesting, and Sunday’s battle for the AFC Championship will feature two of the best quarterbacks to ever buckle up a chinstrap and go under center in NFL history when Peyton Manning and the Broncos battle Tom Brady and the Patriots for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey.
“I don’t think you can compare it to anything involving quarterbacks in the history of the league,” said Jim Nantz, who will call the game for CBS. “There’s never been as frequent a matchup with this much marquee in the NFL that I can come up with. I think it transcends the NFL.
“This is tantamount to Ali-Frazier one more time. This is Palmer-Nicklaus. This is Bird-Magic. I’m not trying to create synthetic drama. This is what it is. This is as big as it gets, and we’re going to savor it because you don’t know how many times you’re going to get it again. This is a rivalry that is very special, and I’m looking forward to seeing it one more time.”
Despite having four neck surgeries in a one-year period that forced him to miss the 2011 season, Manning has recovered enough to engineer the finest regular season ever by a quarterback. This year, Manning threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions.
Although he had to break in a new-look receiving corps after losing the services of his two starting tight ends and his go-to slot receiver from 2012, Brady threw for 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns this year.
“Peyton Manning might be the best wide receivers coach in the NFL,” said former NFL quarterback Phil Simms. “I’ve watched how they’ve all gotten better, sharper, smarter and more into the games. They’ve become real, true pros, and sometimes, that’s the hardest thing in professional football, just to be a pro at what you do. He is a great teacher for players in situations like that.”
Fellow former quarterback Boomer Esiason continued, “Peyton lifted and took a young group of receivers to a completely different level, and very few players are capable of doing that. Tom Brady took a team that was more built around the run and still threw for 4,200 yards and got them back, all the way, to the AFC Championship Game. It really speaks to the greatness of these quarterbacks.”
Combined, Manning and Brady have been to seven Super Bowls with four wins. Manning won one with the Indianapolis Colts over the Chicago Bears in rain-soaked Miami on Feb. 4, 2007, and Brady guided the Patriots to their three titles over a four-year span from 2002-2005.
“The word tough is used too much in the NFL, but we have two quarterbacks that are tough guys,” Simms said. “Tom Brady, his attitude of staying on the field, the way he conducts himself with his football team mirrors his head coach. Peyton Manning, just to play the style of football he plays, I get tired watching him and all the work. You’ve got to remember, he does that every day in practice.”
Esiason added, “It’s longevity, consistency and success. The fact that both of these guys have been going in parallel lines with one another and now, find themselves in the AFC Championship Game, and for Tom Brady, it’s his eighth game with Bill Belichick, nothing says success more than winning, especially at the highest level. Great moments require great people to do great things, and both of these players have accomplished that.”
SHOT AT REDEMPTION
When the Broncos travelled to New England for a Week 12 matchup against the Patriots, it was a homecoming of sorts for wide receiver Wes Welker.
In his first year with the Broncos, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker spent the previous six seasons with the Patriots. However, the return to New England was anything but special for Welker, as he caught only four passes for 31 yards and fumbled away a punt return that allowed the Patriots to earn the come-from-behind victory over the Broncos.
“He’s going to be highly motivated to be a difference-maker in this game because of the first matchup this season,” Nantz said. “He made an awful mistake in the overtime, and he was the first one to own up for it when we got to the locker room. He said it was on him. That ball that was recovered by New England on the punt was one he knew he should have stepped up and made the fair catch. I’m sure it’s not going to be lost on him on Sunday that he’s not only going against his old team, but he’s got a chance to atone for what happened in the earlier matchup this year.”
Simms added, “The other side is, I think Wes Welker could give them a few hints on what is being said, what is going to be the goal for the Patriots’ defense to read Peyton Manning, ‘Hit the receivers every chance you get, grab them as they go by you. If someone comes across the middle, just hit them.’”
The Seahawks refer to their fans as “The 12th Man,” and with good reason.
Not only did the Seahawks set and re-set the Guinness World Record for the loudest outdoor stadium, Seattle’s fan base is so supportive of their team that their cheering has reached seismic proportions.
According to seismometers installed in the stadium ahead of last Saturday’s victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Divisional playoffs, the Seahawk faithful generated enough movement and energy that it registered as an earthquake.
Former Browns running back Kevin Mack knows what it is like to be in a locker room before a game while the entire stadium is shaking from the fans jumping up and down, showing their support.
“In the old stadium, we dressed in the home team locker room, the Indians’ locker room, and coming through the tunnel, you could hear it,” Mack said with a laugh and smile. “Everybody knew about the time we’d come out of the tunnel, and they would be cheering. They had all kinds of music going on, and you could feel the place just vibrating.
“Especially, when you came up out of the dugout, it just went nuts. It was one of those things where you’d get goose bumps and the hair would stand up on the back of your neck. If you weren’t ready to play football then, you were in trouble.”
STAYING TRUE TO SELF
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll started his head-coaching career in the NFL with the New York Jets in 1994, but after a 6-10 season, it would be another two years before he would get a chance to mentor the New England Patriots and guide them to the playoffs following the 1997 campaign.
After a stint at USC, Carroll returned to the NFL and has led the Seahawks to two NFC West Division championships in the last three years, and has them on the verge of the second Super Bowl appearance in their history.
According to Esiason, who played for Carroll with the Jets, the veteran coach “has absolutely stayed true to who he was.”
“He was a great coach to play for,” Esiason said. “He was a coach that was buttoned up, that had pretty much every, single angle of every defense that we were playing against, every situation that we were playing in. I really never had a coach that prepared me to play the way he did.
“In some ways, I think he was ahead of where Chip Kelly was this year. It starts with Pete, and I’m certainly happy for what he’s accomplished out there in Seattle. I know, this offseason, he worked really, really hard to figure out a way to beat San Francisco, and I think he’s got it figured out, but I also think he recognizes that he’s playing the best overall team in the playoffs this week, and he’s certainly thankful to have them at home as opposed to having to visit them at Candlestick Park.”