Soak it in, NFL fans. You may never get a pair of conference championship games like this ever again.
On one side, a pair of not-so-popular head coaches—one brash, one pompous. A pair of young, dual-threat, future-superstar quarterbacks under center. A pair of knock-your-head-off running backs. A pair of physical, elite defenses.
Mirror images of each other making up unarguably the most fierce rivalry in the NFL right now.
On the other, you've got two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. One doesn't have anything to do with the other's success—you don't see Peyton Manning blitzing from the corner or Tom Brady locking up with Demaryius Thomas on the onside—but as the two best QBs for more than a decade, it's only appropriate they again meet for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Put it all together, and you have, as Denver Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho put it, the four best teams playing for a chance at the Lombardi Trophy:
Broncos Patriots Seahawks Niners...the best four teams at the end. That's the way it should be! Y'all get ready for some good football 😏— Duke Ihenacho (@NachoLyfe) January 13, 2014
This is the first time since 1998 that every participant in both conference championships recorded at least 12 wins during the regular season. I believe this man sums it up best.
Yep, call off work, bail on your family, do you whatever you need to do to settle in and not miss any of Sunday's action.
How to Watch
|AFC Championship||New England Patriots||Denver Broncos||Sun, Jan. 19||3 p.m.||CBS|
|NFC Championship||San Francisco 49ers||Seattle Seahawks||Sun, Jan. 19||6:30 p.m.||FOX|
|Super Bowl||TBD||TBD||Sun, Feb. 2||6:30 p.m.||FOX|
Matchup to Watch: Marshawn Lynch vs. 49ers Linebackers
Oh, you thought the 12th Man at Century Link field caused earthquakes? Just wait until Marshawn Lynch meets Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman head on. That might just leave the field in Seattle looking like something that only Hines Ward and Batman could escape.
What will Marshawn Lynch's yards-per-carry average be on Sunday?
Now, Lynch is actually a fairly elusive back. He's about as explosive as they come, capable of making a single devastating cut and hitting the hole in a hurry. But that's not what he wants to do.
Nope, the Skittles-eating, media-avoiding, ambiance-and-decor-lovin' back seeks out contact. And when he finds it, he tends to leave his defender on the ground in his wake or at least falls forward for two or three extra yards.
But Willis and Bowman are the immovable objects to Lynch's unstoppable force. Todd Dybas of The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wa.) summed it up—with help from the San Francisco Chronicle—following the Niners' divisional-round win over the Carolina Panthers:
A line from the SF Chron's game story: "NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis combined for 22 tackles, a sack and an interception." Beasts.— Todd Dybas (@Todd_Dybas) January 13, 2014
Both linebackers are an unfair combination of speed and power. They cover more space on the gridiron than seems possible, and they don't miss many tackles. They welcome open-field showdowns much like Lynch welcomes contact.
As NFL on ESPN and ESPN Stats & Info point out, Lynch has been more productive against the 49ers than any other back over the past several seasons, but in 2013, he hasn't necessarily prevailed in those head-to-head battles:
Individual 100-yard rushers allowed by the 49ers (last 3 seasons): Marshawn Lynch - 3. Everybody else - 2.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 16, 2014
.@Black_Majic12 Marshawn Lynch vs 49ers this year: 0.9 yards after contact per rush against all others: 2.1— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 16, 2014
If you like made-up words like physicality or guys running into each other like trains, you won't find a better matchup than this one.
Player to Watch: Jamie Collins, Linebacker, Patriots
Before you say "huh," just know that I'm trying to keep it fairly under the radar here. Obviously, in both games there are MVP candidates, Defensive Player of the Year candidates and scintillating playmakers all over the field who deserve your attention.
But if you're looking for the X-factoriest of the X-factors, New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins is your man.
Filling in last week for run-stopping stalwart Brandon Spikes, Collins came up massive, finishing with six combined tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and three quarterback hits.
The Boston Globe's Ben Volin gives a look at one of his standout plays:
This was a pretty ridiculous play by Jamie Collins, as well. Break-out game for the second-round pick https://t.co/VlEAlWmmhA— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2014
He may not be as formidable in stopping the run as Spikes is, but the 2013 second-round pick out of Southern Mississippi is a versatile, impressive athlete for his size and is tremendous in coverage. He garnered high praise from fellow LB Dont'a Hightower, via Boston.com and Bleacher Report's Erik Frenz:
He's probably one of the most athletic guys on the team...and it didn't take him long to kind of get a grasp on what was going on and for him to make plays like that everybody else might be surprised, but we see it every day and for him to come out and have the game that he did, I wasn't surprised at all.
Against the Broncos' high-powered passing offense, Collins will likely have the unenviable task of locking up tight end Julius Thomas, one of the mast dangerous pass-catching tight ends in the league.
If he replicates his divisional-round performance, though, Peyton Manning will have to look elsewhere—that is, if he's not under siege by Collins' pass rush.