10 Things to Look for on Championship Sunday
In what may be a Championship Sunday in the NFL that shatters ratings, the four best NFL teams--and four of the league's most dynamic, best, and marketable quarterbacks--will take the field with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning has been this generation's quarterback rivalry in the NFL, and a lot will be at stake for both of their respective legacies on Sunday.
Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick may not only represent what the future looks like at the quarterback position, but also the next great NFL quarterback rivalry. Seattle vs. San Francisco and Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll aren't shabby rivalries either. Here are ten things to look for while watching New England play Denver and San Francisco battle Seattle.
AFC: New England at Denver:
1. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning
Brady is 10-4 versus Manning. And though the focus has been on how much Manning needs this game to cement his legacy, the game is nearly as meaningful for Brady, who has lost his last two Super Bowls (thanks in part to David Tyree and Wes Welker, who now plays for Denver) to Manning's brother Eli and is seeking his elusive fourth Super Bowl ring. Though Brady has had Manning's number and is the more clutch quarterback and arguably the better leader, Manning has not lost two games to the same team in a season, though, in seven years. Another Brady failure may lower his "Q" rating a bit more if his wife Gisele goes off and throws a public hissy fit.
2. Tom Brady vs. Jack Del Rio
Brady is 7-0 in his career versus defenses coached by Denver's defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
The Broncos stalwart defensive back was hurt at the end of the first half earlier in the season when Denver blew a 24-0 lead at New England. New England promptly furiously stormed back in the second half against a Denver secondary minus Rodgers-Cromartie. He'll be on the field for the AFC title game and his play may determine whether Denver moves ultimately wins by keeping the New England offense off the field.
4. Bill Belichick v. John Fox
The Patriots have the coaching advantage, as Belichick will go down as one of the greatest coaches in the game's history. He makes adjustments better than any--even when his teams do not record the other team's signals and record (allegedly) their audibles with microphones on shoulder pads. Fox, though, may coach this game like he has nothing to lose--instead of playing not to lose like he did in last years AFC's Divisional Playoffs against the Ravens--after his near-death experience during the season.
Belichick is also the only coach left in the playoffs who has not coached in college.
5. Jamie Collins
If the Broncos lose because of another late Manning mishap in the playoffs, Jamie Collins of the Patriots seems like the prime candidate to be this year's Corey Graham as the person who will make the back-breaking defensive play against a Manning-led team.
NFC: San Francisco at Seattle
1. NFL's Best Rivalry More than About Harbaugh v. Carroll
Jim Harbaugh can make a case that he is on his way to becoming the greatest coach of this generation.
His rivalry with Pete Carroll started as soon as Harbaugh took over a cellar-dwelling Stanford Cardinal football program while Carroll's USC team was on top of the college football world. Harbaugh brought his "win with cruelty and character" mentality to a school where it is nearly impossible to field a contender on the football field because of the country's strictest academic requirements among D-1 schools. In his fifth game as Stanford's head coach, the Cardinal shocked No. 1 USC 24-23 and Harbaugh's legend--and a rivalry--was born. What Harbaugh built at Stanford may be more impressive than the unprecedented three straight NFC title games he has reached in his first three years in the league.
Seattle and San Francisco is a lot more than about the coaches, though, and that is what makes the legitimate rivalry great. Both teams are competitive and the rivalry is not a lopsided one. The two teams are arguably the two best in the NFC. There is bad blood--Seahawks corner Richard Sherman, arguably the NFL's best, still blames his former college coach--that would be Harbaugh--for badmouthing him and lowering his draft stock. The rivalry has been competitive with two teams that are arguably the two best in the NFC. There is plenty of bad blood between the fans--Seattle banned Californians from purchasing tickets on the primary market. But there is also a mutual respect among the combatants. Carroll, for instance, said that though he is not friendly with Harbaugh, he respects him
Carroll, in many ways, could be seen as being to the Patriots what Buck Showalter was to the Yankees. He groomed a lot of the Patriots that ended up becoming a dynasty under Belichick like Showalter did with the Yankees before they became a dynasty under Joe Torre. He has a chance to not go down as the "Buck Showalter of the NFL" by taking this Seahawks team to the Super Bowl.
2. Innovative Offenses vs. Old-school, Smash-mouth Defenses
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick are anything but conventional and their rivalry may be the the next Brady-Manning (both of whom are quarterbacks in the traditional, drop-back sense). Both teams are often dependent on the improvisation skills of their respective quarterbacks on offense.
But it's a different story on defense. Both teams play a smashmouth, old-school style on defense with no gimmicks. They just "out-tough" and "out-hit" the other guy, and that is what makes watching both defenses particularly enjoyable for purists.
3. Michael Crabtree
When the 49ers lost to the Seahawks in week 2, Crabtree was not on the field. He creates more space for tight end Vernon Davis and stretches the Seahawks defense, especially because he arguable has the greatest "catch radius" in the league. His absence was felt by the 49ers in the first meeting as much as Rodgers-Cromartie's was in the second half of Denver's meeting with New England earlier in the year.
4. Pleats or Flat-front?
5. Jim Harbaugh vs. Seattle's 12th Man
In what is becoming the NFL's equivalent to to Friday Night Light's "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose," Harbaugh asks his teams, "Who's got it better than us?" (read about its origins here) His teams then answer, "Nooooobody!"
In essence, Harbaugh is San Francisco's 12th man and gives them perhaps as much of an advantage as Seattle gets from its stadium (the loudest and most seismic in the league) and home fans. Harbaugh will likely never have as much of a disadvantage as he had when he first faced Carroll, when a 41-point underdog Stanford team punched No. 1 USC in the mouth and won at the Coliseum. Throw in Harbaugh's intangibles and the fact that San Francisco seems to be peaking while Seattle has plateaued, and I like San Francisco to win on the road in Seattle. Bruce Irvin may stymie Kaepernick and Sherman and Earl Thomas may make incredible plays in the secondary to thwart San Francisco as Skittles rain all over CenturyLink Field, but one lesson I've learned since observing Coach Harbaugh since his days at San Diego State is to never bet against him.
Prediction: Denver plays San Francisco in the Super Bowl.