This Sunday, we as football fans have the chance to witness one of the best sets of championship games in quite some time with the 49ers traveling to Seattle and the Patriots to Denver.
The NFL was champing at the bit at the thought of the above two match-ups deciding the AFC and NFC representatives for the Super Bowl at MetLife stadium. And why shouldn’t they? The narratives and story-lines are endless.
You have the NFL’s prodigal son in Peyton Manning with his myriad of audibles, forthcoming interviews and his classy family, which includes his father Archie and his brother Eli. You then have Tom Brady, the “It” boy with his boyish good looks, underdog story, super model wife and a Super Bowl winning pedigree that only Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw could scoff at. Brady can make the manliest of men adore UGG boots, whereas Manning could sell you anything with his country charm and ‘better ingredients, better pizza’ Papa John Commercials. Manning is right off the heels of a record-breaking season in touchdowns and passing yards with a high-powered offense. Brady had one of his most trying seasons to date dealing with losses at running back, wide receiver and tight end.
Yes, Manning and Brady will be going at it for a 15th time. Brady holds a decisive 10-4 advantage over his rival. The last time they met during a playoff game, Manning and his Colts overcame a 21-0 halftime deficit to beat Brady and the Patriots 38-34. Their first meeting this season saw Brady overcome a 24-0 deficit and lead his team to a 34-31 victory.
Say what you will about Manning and how he perceives his legacy, but you know it absolutely gnaws at him that Brady has had his number over the years, regardless of the type of team he had or that the defense may have let him down – which is the argument that Manning backers use to support his poor record against Brady.
Both quarterbacks admittedly bring the best out of each other. It is a match-up of the two best signal callers of our era. A combined six NFL Most Valuable Player awards (Manning will undoubtedly get his fifth after this season)|, three Super Bowl MVP’s and countless Pro-Bowl and first-team All-Pro nominations. The awards and accolades truly are endless. Many believe that Manning must absolutely get another Super Bowl to cement his legacy as one of the great signal callers in the league. Others feel like the one Lombardi Trophy that he raised above his head in 2006 is more than enough. There is no right or wrong answer to how you rate the two with regards to the NFL’s Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks. Fans of Brady will say that Manning is the best regular season quarterback of all time, but has a paltry 10-11 postseason record, whereas Brady is as clutch as they come, stoic under pressure and has ice in his veins when the game comes down to the wire. Manning fans will argue about how he has revolutionized the position, essentially being the first quarterback ever to act as the offensive coordinator of a team with the way he manipulates the defense, essentially changing the way defenses read the quarterback pre-snap. Manning’s numbers trump Brady’s, but Brady does have the edge where it matters most in Lombardi trophies and overall post-season wins.
Take both of them for their strengths and what they have done for us as fans, both from a rivalry and a raw skills standpoint. No two quarterbacks have played the position better and more fundamentally sound over the past decade and it just so happens that they’ve spearheaded the best personal rivalry in all of football. It is impressive considering that unlike rivalries such as Bird and Magic, Ali and Frazier, Ward and Gatti, McEnroe and Bjorg and many others, Brady and Manning never faced each other between the lines. But each time one succumbs to the other and they meet at mid-field, the promise to get better and come back to defeat the victor is always as strong as ever.
When you factor in Bill Belichick into the plot-line, with how he game-plans against Manning, it is what makes this rivalry so great. Not only will Manning have to account for what Brady does and what he nust do to match him touchdown for touchdown, but it will also be imperative that he account’s for the way Belichick has always had his number. The mastermind & architect of the Patriots has consistently been the only coach to confuse Manning prior to the snap and avoid getting enamored with his audibles and orchestration of the offense.
Regardless of the winner, we will witness another great battle between these legendary quarterbacks. With both approaching their late thirties, we may not get many more of these.
On the NFC side of this championship weekend ledger, we are privy to what has become the best rivalry from a team standpoint in the NFL. The 49ers (who are appearing in their third consecutive NFC title game) and Seahawks have a profound hatred for each other. Sorry Bears and Packer fans, my apologies to Steelers and Ravens fans as well: Seahawks and 49ers has the bone-crushing tough-minded football that you see in the latter two rivalries, but it also has the narratives that we as fans adore. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll are as different as ying and yang. The former is a fiery coach, at times you could even call him a whiner, but he wears his emotions on his sleeve and his players love him for that. The latter is a 62 year-old coach who doesn’t look a day older than 40. He doesn’t get too high or too low as his demeanor remains the same: a happy go-lucky coach who also goes to bat for his players.
Their rivalry started back in their days before becoming head coaches of their respective teams when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Carroll at USC. Since then, they show an obvious disdain for each other with no-love lost from their mid-field squabbles of ‘what’s your deal’ and recruiting battles between virtually the same players in grass-roots, football-crazed Northern and Southern California.
Fast forward to the present day, at the professional level, they face off twice a year, in the same division and the battles remain heated and the mid-field scrums stay as intense as ever.
The greatest aspect of the Seahawks and 49ers as it relates to their coaches is that the players take upon the same bravado of their charismatic leaders. Like Harbaugh, the 49er players can be jaw-jackers. Look no further than Anquan Boldin in how he will catch a ball over a defender and let him know about it for the next three plays. You would also think it would be crazy that a defense takes upon the attitude of their head coach, a coach who was a quarterback in his first career for over 10 seasons in the NFL. The Harbaugh you see now is the same that you saw when he was in Chicago, Indianapolis and San Diego. He was a fierce competitor and would run you over if needed and that is how the 49ers defense, led by the two best middle linebackers in the league – Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman – impose their will on their opponents.
Everything about this match-up breeds both contrast and similarities. Just look at the quarterbacks, where Russell Wilson is a talkative guy who is as forthcoming to the media as anyone with his confident demeanor and then you have Kaepernick whose responses to the media are as predetermined and banal as you will see from anyone in the league. Their paths to the NFL are like mirror images. Both players were not considered as first-rounders, with Kaepernick being selected as the sixth quarterback taken in the 2011 draft (36th overall) and Wilson also being the sixth signal caller picked in the 2012 draft, but going 75th overall. They’ve been labeled as runners first and passers second due to their scrambling acumen.
Regardless of how they are labeled as quarterbacks, they are clear winners in whichever manner they get it done. Both signal callers are leaders and are relied upon to make big plays and big decisions when it matters most – on third downs and in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick has been scrutinized all season, even by yours truly. He’s had his issues progressing as a pocket passer, but when the game is on the line, all he has done is continue to deliver by making key throws and plays with his legs when needed. Similar to Wilson, who has looked like Houdini at times with his ability to scramble and create opportunities for his receivers, the perception being viewed by fans who consider him a ‘fraud’ or ‘game-manager’, is that he is still not doing enough to warrant respect.
From brash-mouth secondaries with the likes of Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas on one side, to Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers on the other, along with bulldozing running backs in Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks and the 49ers bring the best out of each other, just like Manning and Brady do. Even their general managers share similar philosophies. John Schneider of the Seahawks and Trent Baalke of the 49ers both put premiums on building through the draft and building a team from the defense and up. Although Baalke has only been the GM since 2011, he’s been with the organization since 2005 as a scout. During that time he’s drafted all the great defensive stalwarts we see today from the 49ers. From Willis to Bowman and Aldon Smith, he has his imprint on the entire team. It is the same with Schneider who came a week after Pete Carroll wad hired in 2011. Seattle would not have the likes of fifth rounder Richard Sherman or late round pick And converted quarterback turned safety, Kim Chancellor if not for Schneider. Add in a great and underrated linebacker corps in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright and you see even at the managerial level, both teams are awfully similar. And of course, both were integral in bringing in the two quarterbacks who face-off in Sunday’s NFC title game.
The final pinch of salt to this masterful football recipe is the presence of the 12th man. The Seahawks feature the best home-field advantage in all of sports right now. A home-field advantage so prominent, it causes opposing offenses to have the most false-start penalties in the league since 2006. One that also prevented anyone with a California zip-code from purchasing tickets for the game in Seattle. Much ado about nothing really, as this is a tactic that the Ravens and Steelers deploy when either team face off against each other. What stands out is the fact that opposing teams fans, especially 49ers fans detest the 12th man.
Potential fisticuffs between fan bases aside, the 12th man is another daunting opponent for opponents. From the psychological standpoint of the home and road team, Century Link Field truly becomes a factor that must be accounted for. Pete Carroll said it best during a press conference on Thursday: “There is no better place to play a Championship game”.
Who are the beneficiaries? Without a doubt, it is the fans as we will be witnessing the two best match-ups we could ask for in a championship Sunday. This is as good as it gets folks. Put aside your hatred for the 49ers or the Seahawks, and for one day forget your biases between Brady and Manning and enjoy this second to last NFL weekend. We get the two best quarterbacks of our era and by far the two best defenses in the last two seasons.Brady-Manning XV, Kaepernick-Wilson IV. Hatred and bias aside, this is the crown-jewel of football match-ups.