The NFC and AFC championship games are Sunday.
Conference Championships: Sunday, Jan. 19 (there’s no games Saturday):
NFC: Seattle Seahawks playing at home vs the 49ers, 6:30 p.m. (FOX).
AFC: New England Patriots vs the Broncos in Denver, 3 p.m. (CBS).
Brady faces Manning once more with SB on line
DENVER (AP) — Only one of them can be the greatest.
Peyton Manning could be the one — owner of a record four, working on five, Most Valuable Player awards, current holder of NFL single-season records for passing yardage and touchdowns and architect of a career-reviving second act, the likes of which has rarely been seen in any sport.
Tom Brady could also be that man — leader of five Super Bowl teams and winner of three titles, one-time holder of some of the records Manning holds now and author of an undefeated regular season. He also has that 10-4 record against Manning despite constant turnover on his roster and a lack of a star-studded receiving corps.
Manning and Brady will meet Sunday for the 15th time, and the fourth time in the postseason, when the Broncos (14-3) face the Patriots (13-4) in the AFC title game.
The winner between the top two quarterbacks over an era in which quarterbacks have never been so good will get what could be the last say in the debate over who goes down as the greatest — not so much because of what the win-loss numbers will say but because this could be the last time they meet with the stakes so high.
“I don’t know that there will ever be another rivalry like it, or has been a rivalry like it,” said John Elway, whose own rivalry with Dan Marino was held to only three meetings because of scheduling quirks over their decade-plus careers.
The game will either give Brady a chance to match Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for a fourth title or afford Manning the opportunity to win a second ring, which would put him one behind Brady, and in the same company with his brother, Eli, Roger Staubach and Elway, among others. It would also make Manning the first QB to win championships with two different teams.
While paying ultimate respect to each other — “I feel like he’s been a better player each year than he was the year before,” Manning said — neither quarterback professes to care much about how their own head-to-head showdowns will define their legacy.
Don’t believe it, says Phil Simms, who admits in retirement that the smile was a little wider after he walked off the field with a win over a Staubach or Joe Theismann.
“It’s always personal, no matter what,” Simms said. “It’s part of being a competitor and doing what you do.”
One reason Brady has a .714 win percentage in the head-to-head meetings and also holds a 2-1 advantage in the playoffs is because, more often than not, he’s been surrounded by the more complete team.
He has been anything but a one-man show in New England this season, illustrated best by the fact that the Patriots are in the AFC title game even though Brady threw for 25 touchdowns — less than half of Manning’s record-setting 55.
Without Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez or Wes Welker to throw to, Brady made it work, with a big assist from head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who used to coach the Broncos.
New England’s running game, led by LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen, has averaged 214 yards the last three games. Brady’s 75 passes over the last three games are the fewest of any three-game stretch in his career.
Welker, who played with Brady for six years before coming to Denver this season, says it’s not so much stats or physical attributes that defines these two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks.
“They do a great job of keeping guys accountable, and their leadership skills and everything else,” he said. “They are two guys you want quarterbacking your team. It’s a toss-up between those two.”
Manning has thrown for 92 touchdowns since arriving in Denver at the start of the 2012 season, his neck rebuilt from multiple surgeries, his future uncertain because of his weakened throwing arm.
He’d be the first to admit he’s not the same as he once was, physically. But nobody prepares better.
His record-setting 5,477 yards and all those touchdown throws came with a gifted group of offensive stars surrounding him — Welker, Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and this season’s difference maker, 6-foot-5 tight end Julius Thomas. But Manning had great players around him in Indianapolis, as well, and never put up these sort of numbers.
“Honestly, no one will probably ever break that, not in this day and age,” former Broncos receiver Rod Smith said.
On Sunday, Brady, who missed parts of practice early in the week with the flu, will be going against a depleted secondary that just lost cornerback Chris Harris Jr., which will make Champ Bailey — injured most of the season — a bigger cog for the Denver ‘D.’
And the Patriots will likely invite the Broncos to run— much the way they did in their 34-31 overtime loss in Week 12 — knowing the best chance of beating them is by taking the ball out of Manning’s hands.
This 60 minutes (or more), their first title-game meeting since Manning’s 38-34 comeback win en route to his first Super Bowl in 2007, could mark the last time the top two QBs of their — or any — era meet for these stakes.
Brady is 36 and, though relatively healthy, he has taken a beating over his career. Some say the Patriots, their roster decimated by injuries, defections and the arrest of Hernandez, got this far on smoke and mirrors this season. How much longer can they hold things together at a championship level?
And Manning? He is 37 and his future will largely depend on how his neck looks when doctors examine it during the offseason. The Broncos, meanwhile, are built to win right now, and have made it this far despite a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball.
No guarantees about the future.
“They’re thinking about it during the week,” Simms said. “When they play, they play. But when it’s over, one of them will go, ‘Yep, I got him again.'”
49ers, Seahawks just belong in this game
SEATTLE (AP) — From the first kickoff back in September, the 49ers and Seahawks seemed destined to meet for the NFC title.
Time to get it on.
With the conference’s most physical, relentless defenses, adept at forcing turnovers and making opponents think twice about, well, just about anything, Seattle (now 14-3) won the NFC West by one game over San Francisco (now 14-4). The offenses, while not nearly as imposing, have the right elements for a champion: strong running games, efficient and sometimes dynamic quarterbacks, and staunch lines.
Their coaches have the proper pedigree, as well. Jim Harbaugh has led the 49ers to the NFC championship game in all three seasons in charge, making the Super Bowl last year. Pete Carroll had a 28-23 record in three seasons as Patriots coach, then went to the college ranks and built a powerhouse at Southern California, with two national titles.
That there’s no love lost between Harbaugh and Carroll dating back to when they both were working in college — Harbaugh at Stanford, where he ran up the score on Carroll’s Trojans — adds plenty of spice.
The sum total on both sides should be a worthy conference champion to meet either Denver or New England in two weeks in the New Jersey Meadowlands for the NFL crown.
Even if both teams are playing down the drama they figure to provide before an ear-shattering wall of noise at CenturyLink Field on Sunday.
“I think it’s pretty much, the game’s a bigger stage and gets you to the Super Bowl obviously,” said 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith. “But I think for the most part how we’ve gone into every game in the year’s past is we try to be as regimented as possible in how we do things. We’re not going to get all caught up in ‘This game gets us to the Super Bowl or this and that.’ We all know. There’s nothing that needs to be said or a special meeting or anything.”
“It’s like every game,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson confirmed. “Every game is no different even though it’s a championship game and all of that. We talk about playing 1-0 every week, and the game doesn’t change.
“It comes down to not turning over the football, being in the plus in that situation, having a limited amount of penalties; you’re going to get some penalties, especially in a game like this, but not having too many of them.
“The biggest thing is just staying on schedule.”
The schedule brought these teams together in September and December. Seattle won 29-3 at home in Week 2, then lost 19-17 at San Francisco on Dec. 8.
CenturyLink Field might be the toughest venue in the NFL for visitors, with architecture that not only keeps the noise inside the stadium, but funnels it toward the field itself. Wilson became a starter as a rookie in 2012 and went undefeated. He won his first six home starts this season before a stumble against Arizona, but then Seattle defeated St. Louis to finish off the regular season, and New Orleans in a divisional-round playoff last weekend.
“That’s pretty spectacular and it just shows how amazing our fans are, how much energy the city has for our football team,” Wilson said of the supersonic sound levels the 49ers can expect to deal with when they have the ball. “That’s what we’re looking forward to, and we want to bring something special to this city, and to do it we have to play one play at a time and see what happens at the end of the game.”
Not that the 49ers are likely to be intimidated by the surroundings. They went 6-2 away from home in the regular season, and their two road wins have come at venerable Lambeau Field in frigid conditions, and at Carolina, which had won its last seven home games.
“The last time we went up there we kind of lost it in the fourth quarter,” Smith said, “but we’re not too worried about that. We know what we have to do. We split with them. We happen to be up there and we’re ready to play.”