Most of the attention is going to be on the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, and rightfully so. You’d have a hard time finding two more popular players than Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Manning is trying to win a Super Bowl with a second team, while Brady is going for No. 4 with the Patriots.
But the NFC Championship Game is just as intriguing with the new era of young quarterbacks squaring off. Colin Kaerpernick is trying to lead the 49ers to consecutive Super Bowls. Russell Wilson is trying to get to his first.
The storylines don’t end there. The AFC game is a head coaching rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII, a game played a decade ago that saw Bill Belichick win his second Super Bowl ring with a 32-29 victory over John Fox’s Carolina Panthers. The NFC game very well could come down to the running games behind Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch.
In the end, these are the matchups most football fans wanted to see, and we’ll know soon enough if they were as good as expected.
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|Tale of the tape||Brady||Manning|
|Drafted||199th, 2000||1st, 1998|
|Set TD record ...||50 in 2007||55 in 2013|
|Career fourth-quarter comebacks||31||40|
|Super Bowl titles||3||1|
|Contract||5 years, $57 million||5 years, $96 million|
|MVP seasons||2007, ’10||2003, ’04, ’08, ’09|
|Endorsement income in 2013||$7 million||$12 million|
|Endorsement deals include ...||UGG||Reebok|
|Saturday Night Live host appearances||1||1|
|Played himself on ...||Family Guy||The Simpsons|
Charean Williams’ previews for Championship Sunday
Patriots at Broncos, 2 p.m. Sunday, KTVT/Ch. 11
Peyton Manning is 37. Tom Brady is 36.
They meet for the 15th time in one of the great quarterback rivalries of all time. Brady holds a 10-4 edge, including a 2-1 mark in the postseason. But it’s been seven years since they last met in the playoffs.
This is a dream matchup for the NFL and CBS.
Denver had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs last season — and at 3-1 had the best odds of winning the Super Bowl — but lost in the divisional round to Baltimore 38-35 in two overtimes after blowing a late lead. The Broncos, again playing the role of favorite, held off the Chargers 24-17 in the divisional round this season to advance to the title game. Denver is 27-7, including 1-1 in the postseason, since signing Manning before the 2012 season. The Broncos have a long Super Bowl drought, with their last appearance coming to end the 1998 season. John Elway retired after that game, winning his second consecutive title.
New England is making what seems like an annual trip to the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots are 7-2 all-time in the AFC title game. Brady has played in seven of those, going 5-2 in his career in AFC Championship Games. No quarterback has won more than five conference championships. Peyton Manning said last week that Bill Belichick will “go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time.” With five Super Bowl appearances, he needs one more to tie Don Shula for the most in history. Chuck Noll is the only coach with four Super Bowl victories.
What’s working for the Patriots
New England has feasted on the right arm of Brady since he became the starter in 2001. But since tight end Rob Gronkowski tore his anterior cruciate ligament against the Browns, the Patriots have become more balanced. In the four games since Gronkowski was lost for the season, the Patriots have 739 rushing yards and 815 passing yards. LeGarrette Blount has 478 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in that four-game stretch, including 166 yards and four touchdowns in the divisional-round victory over the Colts.
Cause for concern
The Patriots, without Gronkowski, don’t have the weapons the Broncos do. It might be tough for them to keep up or catch up if this game becomes a track meet. The Patriots lack an elite receiver. Julian Edelman led the Patriots with 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. Danny Amendola had 54 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots need rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson and possibly veteran Austin Collie to contribute.
What’s working for the Broncos
The Broncos’ hurry-up offense is a thing of beauty. They ran a league-high 1,156 plays in 2013, with the Patriots a close second with 1,138. Two receivers have 1,000 yards and four had double-digit touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker are hard to stop. Julius Thomas is fully recovered from an ankle injury, leading the Broncos with 76 receiving yards last week. Welker returned after missing three games with a concussion and caught six passes for 38 yards and a touchdown. Manning made the most of his underneath throws last week, averaging 6.4 yards per attempt to seven receivers.
Cause for concern
Cornerback Chris Harris, who played more snaps than any other Broncos defender this season, tore his anterior cruciate ligament last week. Denver allowed 17 points on the three full possessions it played without him against the Chargers. Champ Bailey, a 15-year veteran, returns to a starting role after a foot injury limited him this season.
Denver: Michael Huff (Texas); Quentin Jammer (Texas); Manny Ramirez (Texas Tech); Louis Vasquez (Texas Tech); Wes Welker (Texas Tech); *Von Miller (Texas A&M).
New England: Danny Amendola (Texas Tech); Marcus Cannon (TCU); Ja’Gared Davis (SMU); *Josh Boyce (TCU); *Sebastian Vollmer (University of Houston); Ryan Mallett (Texarkana Texas); Aqib Talib (Richardson Berkner).
* Injured reserve
Only twice in the past 20 years have the top seeds in both conferences advanced to the Super Bowl. The last time was the Saints and Colts in 2009. Denver and Seattle will be tough to beat at home, but history says one likely will lose. It’s hard to bet against Belichick and Brady. Patriots 33, Broncos 31. — Charean Williams
49ers at Seahawks, 5 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/Ch. 4
Russell Wilson is 25. Colin Kaepernick is 26.
They meet for the first time in the postseason in what could become the next great quarterback rivalry.
Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012, is 24-8 in his two years as a starter. He is 2-1 in the postseason, losing 30-28 to the Falcons in a divisional round game last year. Kaepernick, a second-round pick in 2011, is 17-6 in his year and a half as a starter. He is 4-1 in the postseason with his only loss coming in the Super Bowl last year.
This is a dream matchup for the NFL and Fox.
The Seahawks have created the best home-field advantage in the NFL. They are 16-1 at home in the two years with Wilson as their starting quarterback. In those 17 games, Wilson has a 110.7 passer rating, and the Seahawks have a plus-26 turnover margin. They outscored those 17 opponents by an average of 29-13. Seattle has been to the Super Bowl only once previously. The Seahawks lost to the Steelers 21-10 in Super Bowl XL to end the 2005 season.
The 49ers are attempting to put together another dynasty, with a third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship Game. They have won five Super Bowls, but the last came to end the 1994 season. San Francisco lost Super Bowl XLVII last year to the Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers’ eight-game winning streak is the NFL’s longest active. They are the NFL’s best road team, with an 8-2 record away from home this season, including two playoff wins. One of their road losses was in Seattle, a 29-3 blowout on Sept. 15.
What’s working for the 49ers
San Francisco’s offense is a different animal with Michael Crabtree. Since his return from an 11-week absence while recovering from a torn right Achilles’ tendon, Crabtree has helped the 49ers average 355 yards of offense while going 7-0. Kaepernick has nine touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 95.5 passer rating since Crabtree’s return. San Francisco has scored 23 points in each of its past three games.
Cause for concern
The Bills had the most rushes this season with 546, followed by the Seahawks (509) and the 49ers (505). The 49ers still are a run-first team, but Frank Gore has not had a lot of success against the Seahawks since Pete Carroll arrived. In the 29-3 loss in Seattle early in the season, Gore had only 16 yards on nine carries. The Seahawks have allowed an average of only 86 rushing yards per game in their past eight games, including last week’s victory over the Saints.
What’s working for the Seahawks
Seattle had the league’s No. 1 defense in scoring (14.4), yards allowed (273.6), passing yards allowed (172) and interceptions (28). The Seahawks have the NFL’s best secondary with cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas both candidates for defensive player of the year. Sherman defensed 57 passes, and quarterbacks had only a 47.3 passer rating against him, according to Pro Football Focus. Both numbers led the league.
Cause for concern
The Seahawks have struggled throwing the ball of late, and it’s doubtful they’ll be better against the 49ers, given that Percy Harvin will miss the game with a concussion. Seattle has scored more than 23 points only once in the past five games. Wilson has been ineffective, with the two lowest passing totals of his career over the past three games. Last week, he went 9 for 18 for 103 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions against New Orleans. The 49ers expect a big dose of Marshawn Lynch, who has averaged 23 rushes for 98 yards his last five games against them.
Seattle: Michael Bennett (Texas A&M); Red Bryant (Texas A&M); Clint Gresham (TCU); Christine Michael (Texas A&M); Earl Thomas (Texas); Luke Willson (Rice); Russell Okung (Houston Fort Bend Bush); Mike Morgan (Dallas Skyline); Jeremy Lane (Tyler).
San Francisco: Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech); Tarell Brown (Texas); Phil Dawson (Texas); Tony Jerod-Eddie (Texas A&M); Colt McCoy (Texas); Vance McDonald (Rice); Darryl Morris (Texas State); Perrish Cox (Waco University); Kendall Hunter (Tyler John Tyler); LeMichael James (Texarkana Liberty-Eylau).
The 49ers have been road warriors the past two years, but they can’t seem to win in Seattle. They were outscored 71-16 in their two trips there the past two seasons, with Kaepernick throwing four interceptions and only one touchdown pass. It is hard to pick against the Seahawks at home, but if the 49ers can manage the crowd noise and not fall behind, they will win. San Francisco might be the most complete team in the playoffs. Seattle 24, San Francisco 23. — Charean Williams