Just How It Should Be
They say the NFL is an unpredictable league, but you didn't have to go too far out on a limb in August to see the 49ers and Seahawks, and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, left alone at the top playing for a Super Bowl. That's OK, though—unpredictability is overrated when you have two games this great
SEATTLE — You scramble to find some championship Sunday that’s setting up exactly like this one: two of the greatest quarterbacks ever meeting for the 15th time (Elway and Marino faced off only three times) on one side of history, a burgeoning Steelers-Ravens-type rivalry with two charismatic kid quarterbacks on the verge of stardom on the other.
Maybe the 1972 season, when the Final Four entered championship weekend with only 10 losses, total, when the Dolphins were on the way to the perfect season and had to survive the Steelers on New Year’s Eve, and Washington and Dallas clashed in the NFC. It was less of a quarterback game then, but still, Billy Kilmer and Earl Morrall started that weekend. In 1990, Raiders-Bills and Giants-Niners were buzz-filled games, and the drama was in the totally unexpected: Buffalo beat the Raiders by 48, and Jeff Hostetler beat Joe Montana. In 1998, Atlanta-Minnesota and Jets-Broncos had just nine total losses coming in, but Chandler-Cunningham and Testaverde-Elway just doesn’t have the ring of this weekend’s matches. On the AFC side, the 2006 title game looked similar to this year’s game—Tom Brady at Peyton Manning, with the teams a combined 20 games over .500—but Drew Brees and Rex Grossman in the NFC … not the same as Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.
I’ve looked back to the 1970 merger, and this championship weekend just has a unique feel to me. No dogs allowed. The four power teams that should be here are. This is the kind of doubleheader, as if the NFL needed advice on game-staging, that would justify two prime-time games. How do you pick a favorite game? How would you pick between Spielberg and the Coen Brothers? Between Fenway and Wrigley? Bird and Magic? You decide. I can’t.
New England (13-4) at Denver (14-3), 1 p.m. MT (3 p.m. ET). They met seven weeks ago in Foxboro on a 6-degree wind-chill night in one of the strangest Manning-Brady duels of the 14 to date. First half: Broncos 24, Pats 0. Second half: Pats 31, Broncos 7. Overtime: Pats 3, Broncos 0. The early forecast calls for a nice day, around 50, in Denver Sunday, and so the weather shouldn’t impact Manning’s throwing. We’ll see which New England team shows up: the one that’s consistently relied on Brady’s right arm this century, or the one that’s suddenly a power running team. “One thing about New England, and Bill Belichick,” Champ Bailey said by phone from Denver Sunday night, “they do a great job of putting their guys in position to win, no matter how they play. They never show the same things week to week.” For many, this will be a referendum on Manning’s place in the pantheon. For at least three hours Sunday, I hope America will stop judging what it will think of Manning in 2033 to enjoy a great football game.
San Francisco (14-4) at Seattle (14-3), 3:30 p.m. PT (6:30 p.m. ET). Think how far these two teams have come in 22 months, since Pete Carroll sat on a runway in Denver, hoping to somehow plead his case to get Manning to come play in Seattle (Manning didn’t take the meeting), and Niners coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman flew cross-country to work out Manning (he picked Denver). They’ve developed under-the-draft-radar quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson since. They’ve built tremendous defenses, the kind that made Pittsburgh-Baltimore the most must-see TV games in the league in the final years of the Ray Lewis era. The coaches are major rivals, dating back to USC-Stanford. And the venue. It changes teams. Seattle’s 0-2 in San Francisco in the last two years, and 2-0 at home—by a combined score of 71-16. “The stadium will be a factor in the game for sure,” Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell, who knows both teams well, said from Phoenix last night. “You have to play in it to understand. It’s going to be important for San Francisco to play well early, because you don’t want that crowd to get hold of the game.”
Now for a few notes about how they all got here.