For whatever rooting interests the minority among us might have had to see something different — a Saints upset of Pete Carroll’s preening Seahawks, or Bolo Phil and the Chargers zapping Peyton Manning with another playoff one-and-done — the final outcome is fitting.
Patriots at Broncos. Niners at Seahawks. The NFL’s final four.
Now this is how it’s supposed to be.
The journey through 17 weeks of the regular season and two playoff rounds has delivered us to the brink of the Super Bowl, and it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying set of semi-finals than Sunday’s double-feature of conference championship games.
This would have been tough to fathom even three years ago, when the teams combined to go 13-19 in what was considered the NFL’s worst conference, but Seahawks-Niners has become the NFL’s most fascinating contemporary rivalry.
These teams — tough, talented, and brash beyond belief — hate each other, and that might not be a strong enough noun to describe how Carroll and Jim Harbaugh’s mutual feelings. This is the teams’ third meeting of the season, a rematch of a December 8 bloodbath the Niners won, 19-17, to avenge a 29-3 loss from Week 2. And yet around here, Niners-Seahawks will be little more than the epilogue to the story of the day and a rivalry that is both still thriving and historic.
Patriots-Broncos, with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning matching arms and wits for the 15th time? What could be better than that, especially with the crazy stakes? This isn’t just about a trip to the Super Bowl, but historical perception.
Make no mistake, this game, no matter the outcome, will affect Manning’s legacy so much more than it does Brady’s. You know the dueling accolades: Brady has three Super Bowls and an 18-7 postseason record. While that fourth ring, the one that would put him atop the pedestal alongside his idol Joe Montana, has been elusive and remains a fundamental motivation, the reasonable argument can made that he’s the greatest quarterback of all-time without it.
(Aside: Losing a Super Bowl is a hell of a lot more impressive than going one-and-done, something Montana did four times, including three straight years from 1985-87. And yet a perfect record in the Super Bowl is regarded as a greater achievement than, oh, getting there six times and winning four. It makes no sense.)
For all of his accomplishments and records, for all of his genuine greatness, there is still a glaring gap on Manning’s resume. He has won just a single Super Bowl, helming a champion as many times as Trent Dilfer and Mark Rypien and winning one fewer title than his younger brother Eli. There will be a popular narrative this week — kick if off, Schefter — that the 10-11 career playoff record and the eight postseason one-and-dones aren’t entirely his fault. And you know what? That’s true.
There’s such a narrow margin between heaven and hell in the NFL postseason that good fortune — make that flat-out luck — is practically a requirement to win the Super Bowl. Even Brady knows this. Maybe the Patriots never win in 2001 without Adam Vinatieri and the Tuck Rule. Or maybe Randy Moss is remembered as a Super Bowl hero rather than a guy who never won a title had the defense been able to make a stop in the Arizona desert in 2008.
But Manning has made very little luck for himself. He’s also performed below the high standard expected of him in many of those games, particularly with unjustifiable interceptions in crucial moments. He has joked that he will introduce Ty Law should he ever be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he should. Law and the Patriots got the best of him, time and again, when the advantage seemed to be in Manning’s favor.
The deck is stacked in Manning’s advantage again Sunday. It’s almost as if he got to choose the cards for his own hand. He’s at home. Temperatures are supposed to be in the 50s, with no wind to mess with his effectively wobbly throws. His receivers have talent to envy. He has a terrific tight end, Julius Thomas, who didn’t play in the 34-31 loss to the Patriots in November. The Patriots are without their brilliant tight end, Rob Gronkowski.
The degree of difficulty is so much greater for Brady and the Patriots this week that if they do win this game and advance to the Super Bowl, the argument — that argument — is over. If Brady leads these Patriots past this Broncos team, he stands alone as the premier quarterback of his generation, and anyone who would argue on Manning’s behalf is deluded to the point that they’d probably also claim that weird pink triangle on his forehead is trendy and makes him look dashing.
When the Patriots dynasty was at it’s pinnacle in 2003-04, they still had a useful if utterly ridiculous knack for portraying themselves as the underdogs. The started-at-the-bottom, no-one-believed-in-us-but-us self-motivational tactic seemed to work considering they won 21 straight games over those two seasons. Never mind that everyone believed in them. They showed all of their doubters, even if they didn’t actually exist.
This time around, the Patriots are underdogs, as Brady acknowledged matter-of-factly during his Monday morning interview with WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan (plus Minihane) Show.”
“I know when we played Baltimore no one picked us to win and no one is going to pick us to win this week,” said Brady, who will be playing his his eighth AFC Championship Game in his 12 healthy seasons as the starter. “We’ve had our backs against the wall for a while, really the whole season. We’ve lost players and teams have really counted us out. We’ve got a bunch of underdogs on our team and we’ll be underdogs again. We’ll see how that shakes out at the end of the week.”
While we wait with much anticipation to see how it shakes out — and that of course goes for the Niners-Seahawks nightcap as well — it’s hard not to notice that we’re witnessing a funny twist to that underdog status. The Broncos opened as a 7-point favorite. As I peck this, the number is already down to 4.5.
The Patriots are underdogs. But those who put their money on such things don’t expect them to lose by much, and that’s if they don’t win outright. Sure, the Broncos have all of the game-day and pure talent advantages. The Patriots have Brady, Bill Belichick, the apparent second coming of Jim Brown in LeGarrette Blount, and a resilient nature reminiscent of their 2001 team.
Is that enough? The answer can be found in your wallet: Would you bet against them?