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.
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
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.