Championship Game Rankings: It doesn't get any better than this
No flukes here. Just the best four teams renewing fierce rivalries -- Brady vs. Manning, Harbaugh vs. Carroll -- with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Well, we got what we wanted.
As a pure football fan, this championship weekend is about all we could ask for. Sure, if you are a fan of one of the 28 other teams that participate in the National Football League, you still might be stinging over the end of your club's season. And, it stands to reason you might have a pretty good hatred going for one of the four teams still playing football. But come on, dig deep into your heart, understand that this great sport of ours is about to go hibernate for about half a year, and recognize this for what it is.
All of these teams deserve to be here. No flukes. All have compelling quarterbacks. As much as parity is the buzzword of football, and plenty of No. 6 seeds have provided wild rides to the Super Bowl, there is something to be said for chalk, or close to it. It didn't take a hot December or a couple of quirky breaks to get the Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos or Patriots into this postseason; they all earned it, over the course of the season, and, frankly, they stayed among the most consistent teams in the NFL for the better part of the entire regular season.
Think about this for a minute -- the longest losing streak any of these teams had was two games. That's it. In fact, between the four of them, there were just two losing streaks, total, of that length -- both by the 49ers and both coming before Thanksgiving. So, these four teams are all "hot" to one degree or another, and all battle tested, and very, very good, and in every way earned their way to this point.
Take it a step further:
• The only teams the Broncos lost to -- Colts, Patriots, Chargers
So of their collective 14 losses, only three came against non-playoff teams (Jets, Dolphins and Cards; Miami and Arizona just missed the postseason). There were no losses to a sub-.500 team among the entire group. And of those 14 defeats, 10 came to teams that reached at least the divisional round of the playoffs. So let's savor what we have here, which is really the best teams, many peaking at precisely the right time, all of whom can and should be equipped to handle performing in the first cold-weather, outdoor Super Bowl. You gotta love all of the above.
New England at Denver
Sunday, Jan. 19, 3 p.m. ET (CBS & CBSSports.com)
Why to watch: I'm going to let you in on a little secret, that, well, really isn't much of a secret at all. But I have a hunch that a year ago, there may have been esteemed executives at my beloved CBS who were hoping to see this matchup in the AFC Championship Game. And if not for a Joe Flacco desperation Hail Mary and then a Baltimore overtime win in Denver, then, well, this would be a rematch game. Instead the Ravens, and not Peyton Manning and the Broncos, went to New England, beat Tom Brady and the Pats and went on to snatch the Lombardi Trophy. And this year, we are all treated to these two old goats -- both of whom could make the case for being The GOAT -- meeting with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. That's about as good as it gets. Manning is going to end Brady's season or Brady is going to end Manning's season. No two ways about it. Manning's playoff futility will either hang over him like a dank, half-emptied bottle of Bud Light leaking onto some stale Papa John's pizza stuck to the cardboard box, or, well he'll be headed for a third trip to the big game with a chance to cement his legacy. Will Brady, the playoff golden boy, add to his ridiculous postseason pedigree? Or will we hear about the no rings since Spygate talk and how Peyton has been to two Super Bowls since Tom won his last one, and all of that stuff? Sunday settles all of that, at least temporarily. In what may have been Bill Belichick's greatest coaching job ever -- which is truly saying something -- it will require his defense curtailing what has been the best passing attack in NFL history to get there. It's almost not fair to have so many subplots tied to one three-hour explosion of football goodness.
What to watch for: Amid all of this star power, I am going to be paying particular attention to a cat they call Pot Roast. Denver run stuffer Terrance Knighton was a beast last week against the Chargers, refreshed coming off a bye, and aided by the fact Chargers feature back Ryan Mathews barely got on the field due to his injury issues. But man will that change this week with the Pats' three-headed rushing monster of Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount headed straight for him. With Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson long ago ruled out of the game, Knighton is going to have to anchor that Broncos defensive line, and Blount's massive frame and determined attitude in particular will be a unique challenge (who would have predicted, say, back in October, that I'd ever be writing that sentence?). ... Denver's loss of top CB Chris Harris is a big deal. Few are as adept at picking on an injury replacement and finding the best matchup as Brady, and whether it's veteran Champ Bailey (who has barely played all season) or a youngster, Brady and Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will work to get a trusted vet like Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman on him. ... Edelman's ability to flip field position on punt returns could prove vital. ... You don't think Wes Welker is a little extra fired up to face the Pats, do you, after his falling out with them over his contract in the offseason? He has had some crucial drops in big games in the past. ... Does Belichick move top corner Aqib Talib around, getting some time with TE Julius Thomas and WR Demaryius Thomas and maybe even WR Eric Decker, or does he leave him on one side of the field? This will be a real test for the Pats' linebackers in coverage regardless. My guess is a steady dose of Cover-2 or quarters and Belichick will happily give up long, churning drives on the ground to RB Knowshon Moreno. Belichick's ability to have the right red-zone calls in place may be the difference in the game, especially if he culls Manning into checking into a ton of run plays between the 20s against a barren box at the line of scrimmage. ... Can Shaun Phillips continue to turn back the clock and spearhead the Broncos' pass rush? If he can, it certainly aids their chances here.
San Francisco at Seattle
Sunday, Jan. 19, 6:30 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why to watch: These teams hate each other. Period. It's a real rivalry and they hit incredibly hard and despite what their coaches were trying to make you believe during the news conferences last week, they can't stand each other, either. So now, with the 49ers and Seahawks meeting for the third time in four months, with everything on the line, it's not too much to expect a classic game. Of course, it might be a classic throwback, with these teams all about power running and punishing defense. We all remember how the 49ers got humiliated early this season in their last trip to the Pacific Northwest. While both of these teams have changed and evolved since then, and San Francisco got some revenge at home late in the season, the 12th man is a very real factor at play here. This is the best home-field advantage in football, if not all of professional sports. Colin Kaepernick's ears will be ringing and it will difficult to have any semblance of normalcy on offense. Given how emotional these two teams are and all the bad blood, one can only wonder if we get the kind of jawing and shoving that flared up repeatedly during warmups last week when the Seahawks hosted the Saints. It stands to reason we could have fireworks well before kickoff. Really, this game is lacking nothing, and for all of those who want to ridicule or deride or minimize the impact of this new breed of quarterbacks, well, come Sunday night, either Kaepernick is going to a second straight Super Bowl or Russell Wilson is going to his first. And, man, no matter how this game goes, the handshake at the end -- if there is a handshake -- between Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll could be worth the price of admission itself.
What to watch for: This is a violent game and there will be no shortage of haymakers here. Setting the early physical tone is a big part of what these clubs do, and I'm sure that will be emphasized again Sunday. The 49ers, in particular, need to find a way to take some of the air out of this manic crowd and keep this game from getting lopsided. What better way to do that than to come out running the ball up the gut and sending a message on defense? It's not exactly the most evolved thing in the world, but let's not pretend it's not part of football. ... 49ers WR Anquan Boldin was pretty much losing his mind at various times last week, and now he goes against the most physical (did I use that word again?) group of defensive backs in the NFL, led by world-class corner and trash-talker Richard Sherman. Yeah, um, we're probably going to have an incident or two. ... The Seahawks' pass rush has been too hit or miss recently; they badly need a big game from Bruce Irvin, which could salvage what has been a tepid second season. ... Seattle's offensive line looked more vulnerable down the stretch, and look for Aldon Smith and Justin Smith to play some inside-outside games and mess around with some stunts to complicate things. San Francisco defensive line coach Jim Tomsula will have a few tricks up his sleeve. ... Which quarterback takes off running more, and which team calls more designed runs? Either one of these teams gets to 120 yards or so rushing, no matter in what fashion, and I figure they win this thing. ... Can the Seahawks get Percy Harvin on the field at all? If he is cleared from his concussion, that, more than anything else, could bring some unpredictability and pop to what has become a stagnant passing game. ... Seattle needs some flash from Golden Tate on special teams and as a downfield receiver. When he is on, there is a totally new dimension to that offense. ... Dare I say the read-option plays some role in deciding this thing? ... Any chance Harbaugh can creep all the way to the opposing sideline during a play this week? He's certainly trending in that direction.
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