NFL Conference Championships: 4 Key Things to Watch
The Final Four. The Last Teams Standing. All of the Las Vegas favorites from way back in the beginning of the season have found their way into the ultimate brackets of their respective conferences, breaking the usual NFL tradition of at least one upset making a mark on a championship game. What we have instead, though, are the four best regular season teams in professional football — all apologies to Steve Smith and the Carolina Panthers — lined up to run into each other very quickly and with extreme prejudice. And eventually half of them will play for the Super Bowl.
In the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks host the temporarily homeless San Francisco 49ers, who shut the doors on their venerable Candlestick Park stadium by thrashing the hapless Atlanta Falcons. The Seahawks, as famous for their league-best defense and the volume of their fans collectively described as the 12th Man as their diamonds-in-the-rough roster and banned substances violations, dispatched the New Orleans Saints with aplomb last week. That was achieved by crippling the famous N.O. passing game and leaving Saints QB Drew Brees with just 18 yards at halftime.
Across the country, the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots will grapple for the AFC crown. Both teams have survived the usual player mauling that defines the regular season, with Denver missing key contributors to their defense and New England having exactly zero of their top five receivers from a year ago. And Tim Tebow. Remember Tim Tebow? Either way, you could be forgiven for forgetting all of that, because the two latest quarterbacks involved in this drama tend to overshadow everything else.
The AFC: Manning/Brady Bowl XV
That’s not a typo. This will actually be the 15th meeting of the two famous NFL quarterbacks. The rivalry been going on a long time — check out those figurines; that’s Michael Vick on the Falcons up there. Yes, it’s true, you’re getting old. So, for that matter, are they. Peyton is two months away from turning 38. And while it only feels like a short while ago that Tom Brady took the reigns from Drew Bledsoe, it actually happened all the way back in 2001.
In the interim, Manning was released from the Indianapolis Colts and picked up by the Denver Broncos. Oh, and he underwent four potentially career-ending neck surgeries over a year and a half to relieve a herniated disc. And woke up from those surgeries unable to throw a football.
Brady, while more fortunate in his personal health, signed a new contract at a team-friendly discount in order to give the Pat’s front office more leeway in bringing in additional talent. Manning and Brady are 1-1 in AFC Championship games against each other. Consider this the tiebreak.
THE AFC: Denver’s Passing Matched up against New England’s Rushing
Denver’s offense made history as the most high powered in NFL history, scoring the most touchdowns and throwing for the most yards of any team ever. With Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Julius Thomas each catching ten or more touchdowns during the regular season (another record), the Broncos look to take on a New England defense that is improved against the pass, but not widely credited for its stopping power.
Across the field, New England will be relying heavily on the newest star of Bill Bellichick’s island of misfit toys — LeGarrette Blount. Blount, a “north-south” running back who went undrafted in 2010, has had quite a tumultuous career already. He rushed for 1,000 yards at Oregon for a school-record 17 touchdowns (under current Eagles head coach Chip Kelly), but scouts and NFL teams were scared off after he landed a post-game punch on a Boise State player’s head on live television. Drafted by the Tennessee Titans, he then showed flashes of brilliance in Tampa Bay before being discarded by Doug Martin. Blout was then picked up by New England to serve as their third-string back, where injuries to Shane Vereen and the fumble-friendly hands of Stevan Ridley forced the Pats into suiting him up for his first playoff game ever against the Colts.
Blount responded by setting a team record — rushing for 166 yards and four touchdowns. With the offensive line being the only healthy unit on the entire Patriots team, New England’s offense is unrecognizable from its twin-tight end sets of last year. Now they seem content to pound away with the rushing game. While the passing game is never truly absent with a quarterback like Tom Brady, the AFC Championship game should provide a solid contrast of playing styles.
The NFC: Marshawn Lynch and Possible Earthquakes
Drafted all the way back in 2007 by the Buffalo Bills, Marshawn Lynch stepped into a starting role and produced inconsistently brilliant results. While he became one of only two Bills running backs to make the Pro Bowl in the last twelve years (the other was CJ Spiller), he also battled injuries and weapons charges and saw himself replaced by Fred Jackson during the 2009 season. After starting three lame-duck games for the bills in 2010, Lynch was sent to the Seahawks for the “bag of chips and a sandwich” deal of a fourth- and a fifth-round draft pick.
In Seattle, he began to live up to his nickname “Beastmode.” During the ’10-’11 playoffs, against the same New Orleans Saints the Hawks just beat in the division playoffs, Lynch ripped off a 67-yard touchdown run, breaking nine tackles and hurling Saints cornerback Tracy Porter to the earth with one hand. The resulting crowd noise was so intense that it actually registered on a seismograph.
During their recently concluded game against the Saints, seismologists registered another, smaller bout of Lynch-related seismic activity. Whatever is in those Skittles he devours after every touchdown, it seems to be working, for him and for the Seattle fan-base. With newly reviled rivals San Francisco headed to Century Link this weekend, the Seahawks will once again have volume on their side.
The NFC: Wilson/Kaepernick Bowl IV
Providing a neigh-perfect bookend to the aforementioned Manning/Brady Bowl XV, the Wilson/Kaepernick Bowl IV has made overtures to be just as worth watching. While neither quarterback has played up to his best during the three previous ‘Hawks-Niners meetings, an entire season’s worth of Madden commercials and both teams’ Superbowl aspirations have laid down A Very Serious Football Game.
Watching the 49ers extinguish the spirit of the Carolina Panthers last week tended to be pretty boring. It was akin to watching a cat toy with a mouse, or an older sibling cruelly playing keep-away. Up by a score, the ‘Niners needed to keep the ball out of Carolina’s hands. And so they did. With the Panthers eating up a ton of time on a pair of ultimately fruitless drives, San Francisco’s offense burned as much time as they could. The game was over long before it was over, and there were many closeups on the crushed faces of the Carolina Bench. When everything works right for Kaepernick and his team, they grind you down with equal efficiency on both sides of the ball. They don’t have the best offense left (that’d be Denver) and they don’t have the best D (that’s Seattle), but they’ve got enough of both to stay in the game.
And not to discredit Russell Wilson — a fine quarterback who plays with a chip on his shoulder after being drafted after a punter in the 2012 draft — but Seattle is known for its defense. Helmed by trash-talking cornerback Richard Sherman, the Seahawks defense is relentless. After failing to get much of anything going in the first half, Wilson and Lynch were bailed out by a stalwart effort on the other side of the ball, watching their defense hold the high-octane Saints offense to exactly zero points for the first three quarters of the game.
Regardless, Wilson/Kaepernick IV will be defined as such for as long as the quarterback remains the focal point of the NFL team. With one great quarterback rivalry reaching its finale, we’re lucky enough to catch the first act in what could be the next.