Like Ali-Frazier, Magic-Bird and Nicklaus-Palmer before them the NFL over the last decade has been the era of Brady-Manning; a rivalry between two all-time greats at the top of their sport at the same time whose name cannot be mentioned without talking about the other. Peyton Manning may end finish his career with all the records, as at the age of 37 he had his best season, setting records for touchdowns with 55 and passing yards 5,477. The Touchdown mark was previously held by Tom Brady with 50 in 2007. The two are among the most prolific winners at the quarterback position, though Manning bares the scares of some great playoff let downs as Brady has three Super Bowl Rings and five Super Bowl appearances compared to Manning who is one up and one down in two Super Bowl appearances with the Colts.
Tom Brady has had a better supporting cast than Manning, as Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is arguably one of the best coaches of all-time. Belichick’s ability to change and win with different methods has been downright masterful and has more to do with the Patriots success over the last dozen years than even the ability of Brady. The first Pats team to win was a defensive team with a raw Tom Brady taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe. Just two years later the Patriots were a balanced team helped by the addition of Corey Dillon to win two straight Super Bowls. When the Patriots went 16-0 and lost Super Bowl XLII it was with one of the best offenses in NFL history, as Brady entered his prime years, while three years later they were helped by powerful Tight Ends. This year the Patriots head into the AFC Championship Game with a power running game, as LaGarette Blount and Steven Ridley have guided the Patriots over the last month, with the receiving options for the Patriots limited due to the injury to Rob Gronkowski and the arrest of Aaron Hernandez. The running game also alleviates pressure off the Patriots banged up defense by allowing them to dominate time of possession. This will be key if they want to beat the Broncos.
The Broncos make no secret what they do, it’s score, score, score and score some more. Peyton Manning has had his best season at the age of 37 and it’s because he has never had so many weapons. The Broncos receiving corps are deep and each can do something different with the ball. Demarius Thomas is the perfect deep threat, while former Patriot Wes Welker is the best possession receiver in the NFL. The Broncos also have Eric Decker who is a little of both. At Tight End the Broncos have Julius Thomas, whose catches against the Chargers last week punched the Broncos ticket to the AFC Championship Game. The Broncos are also strong in the Running Game, with Knowhown Moreno, providing the dual threat of being an excellent pass catcher and Montee Ball after struggling early in the year coming on strong.
When these two teams met in November, the Patriots got the biggest win of their season, overcoming a 24-0 halftime deficit. The Broncos seemed to let up after a strong first half, as they were in the midst of the hardest part of their schedule. If the Broncos get a big lead early this time, there will be no comeback.
The Patriots have not fared that well on the road, posting just a 4-4 mark away from Foxboro. None of those four wins on the road came against teams that finished with a winning record. The Patriots are also playing their first road playoff game, other than a Super Bowl since the 2006 AFC Championship Game. That was yet another Brady-Manning playoff showdown. The Colts had the big comeback in that game. This will be the fourth playoff meeting between Brady and Manning. Tom Brady has won two of the first three, but the two Brady won were in Foxboro. This tells me home field is going to be the deciding factor, as Tom Brady has struggled during his career in Denver, losing four of his career starts at Sports Authority Field. For the Broncos there is no place like home and the Meadowlands as the gallop to Super Bowl XLVIII in a classic quarterback shootout.
Everything that the AFC Championship Game is the NFC Championship Game is not. The Broncos-Patriots matchup is setting up with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning providing no controversies as they are members of the mutual respect club. The 49ers and Seahawks are also familiar foes and there is no respect, just mutual hatred. The name calling started at the beginning of the season, as K.J. Wright called San Francisco the “Forty Whiners”, while Anthony Dixon called Seattle the “She-Hawks.” It is juvenile stuff on the surface, but an example of the raw emotions and the type of trash talk that can lead to a game full of chirping, shoving and personal fouls. The quarterbacks even got involved with Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick appearing a commercial together, which led to Kaepernick shaving an eyebrow off when the Sehawks won their matchup in Week 2 at Century Link Field. The Niners would rebound to win the rematch in Candlestick, as Kaepernick appeared in another commercial arriving at a rainy stadium with hostile fans in Seahawks colors as he only hears his music telling him that he is the man. It only seems appropriate these two teams have a rubber match with the NFC Championship on the line as they are heads and shoulders the two best teams in the Conference.
One reason for the hatred between the Seahawks and 49ers is that both teams are near mirror images of each other. Both teams have young quarterbacks that can run and pass the ball. Both teams have tough physical defenses that are good at creating turnovers and rushing the quarterback. Both teams have solid receivers, with each team getting a boost from their previous meetings as Michael Crabtree has again become a big part of the NIners offense after missing most of the season with an Arielle’s injury, while Percy Harvin is finally seeing the field for Seattle after a hip injury. Both teams also have receivers that like to chirp as Anquan Boldin drove the Panthers nuts last week with his catches and his mouth, while Golden Tate hopes to wave buh bye to Donte Whitner. Whitner is a tough physical in your face safety who wants to change his name to Hitner because of his hard tackling, he is a match for Richard Sherman the Seahawks corner who is famous for saying, “You Mad Bro?” after beating Tom Brady last season. The similarities continue as both teams have old fashioned bruising running backs that take over the game, with Frank Gore being the key for the 49ers, while the Seahawks look for Marshawn Lynch to be in beat mode early if they want to win. Even their coaches are similar as Pete Carroll of the Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers are both fiery coaches, that are active on the sideline. The two are also familiar foes back in college as they both coaches against each other in the Pac-10 with Carroll and USC and Harbaugh at Stanford.
Both teams have made the playoffs in the last two seasons, and have split the last four meetings, with the home team winning all four meetings. This is a good sign for the Seahawks who have lost just one of their last 17 home games with Russell Wilson at quarterback. However, that home field edge was dented in December, when the Cardinals came in with a tough defense and beat the Seahawks at Century Link Field. The 49ers can do a lot of the same tactics as the Cardinals, and keep the Seahawks from taking over the game. Wilson has not played well as of late, even struggling last week against the Saints in the Divisional Playoff game. If the Seahawks are to win the game, they will need a better effort from Russell Wilson. The 49ers meanwhile are playing their best football of the season, as they ended the season with a six game winning streak, before winning road playoff games in Green Bay and Carolina. Colin Kaepernick who struggled early has looked sharp as the return of Michael Crabtree has added a much needed wrinkle to the Niners’ attack.
However, I look at the two meetings between the teams. In Week 2 the Seahawks dominated the 49ers at home, as Colin Kaepernick seemed unnerved by the crowd noise. In the 49ers Week 14 win at Candlestick Park, the game was close throughout and decided by a late Phil Dawson Field Goal. I expect this game to be more like the second meeting, but the Seahawks seem to play well even in San Francisco against the 49ers, that is why they will win this and head off to the Meadowlands for Super Bowl XLVIII.